Tuesday, May 31, 2011

From Stockholm to Andalucía, a surprise on the TV, man of the week, a cucumber crisis and other things.

The four of us enjoying a tourist horse and carriage ride in Seville on Saturday

Hello again my friends and readers.

There is just so much to write about this week, my trips to Stockholm and then to Seville and Córdoba and of course all the things that have happened in between to me or made an impact on me.  These include the Spanish revolution I wrote about last week. 

Eladio and I went to see it for ourselves at the Puerta del Sol last Sunday night after coming back from Montrondo.  The Puerta del Sol is both the geographical centre of Spain as a country but also of the movement also known as 15M (15th May, the date it started).  I was bowled over at the sight of the peaceful camp type movement my eyes first saw as we came out of the Metro.  Now I knew what it was all about; thousands of mostly young people organized a bit like boy scouts were creating a revolution that hopefully one day will go down as part of Spain’s recent history, something that I will be always be able to say “I was there too. This is a photo of me, the one I like best of the collection I have now posted here on Facebook.
I joined the Spanish revolution on Election Day and was happy to see it for myself at the Puerta del Sol. 
 Now I can say "I was there"

Since our visit the movement has grown, rather than died down after the local elections which were won by a huge majority by the opposition party, the Partido Popular.  In Barcelona this week, the protestors were ousted out violently by the police of the emblematic Plaza de Cataluña to make way for the Barcelona football club fans in anticipation of their team winning the Champions League as this is where their victories are mainly celebrated.  This was much criticized in all corners of the country but thankfully they have been allowed to return after the celebrations took place yesterday.  For yes, Barcelona won their 4th European Cup on Saturday night at Wembley against Manchester.  I am happy for them but will not hide the fact that I would far have preferred Real Madrid to win.  It annoys me to read that they are now considered the best football club in history.  Hang on a bit, I think that it is still Real Madrid who can claim that place with 9 Champions League cups to their credit against their arch enemy, Barcelona’s 4.  I think we ought to wait for Barcelona to have 9 cups before we make a similar comparison. Don’t you?

The day after our visit to the Puerta del Sol I was off to Stockholm to attend a conference on social media with the team of people from the Mother Company, TeliaSonera, who head this area in their respective countries.  Before leaving at lunchtime however, I had an important engagement in Madrid that morning to attend.  The Spanish Secretariat for Telecommunications (the SETSI) were announcing the participants in what is called a “beauty contest” (name for a tender or call for a proposal) for the allocation of frequencies.  In our case it was for 1800 mhz which can be used to build antennas (mobile phone coverage) for GSM, 3G and even 4G.  It is really important for Yoigo to get these frequencies in order to grow in Spain and offer better services to our customers.  When the envelope was opened we learned we were the only company contesting for this spectrum which virtually means we will get it but for the official announcement we shall have to wait until this Friday 3rd June.  It really was a big day for Yoigo and the place was packed with the telecoms journalists and our name was in the papers and on internet on a big scale that day and the next.

The opening of the envelope at the Spanish Secretariat for Telecommunications.  A great day for Yoigo.

Thus I left Madrid for Stockholm with a bounce in my heels so to say.  I had to change planes at Berlin airport and it was a bit of a rush.  Also a new volcano, with the godforsaken name of Grímsvötn had erupted in Iceland and was threatening airline traffic again.  Two days later some UK and German airports, including Berlin, were closed as a consequence.  Luckily I was taking the direct flight back and the only effect the ash cloud had on me was an hour longer to our journey as we had to reroute to avoid it whilst crossing German air space.

I arrived just after 9pm and rushed to get a taxi to take me to my favourite hotel in Stockholm, the Skeppsholmen on the little island of the same name just off the centre.  There waiting for me was my colleague Gustavo from our PR Agency Ketchum. I had guessed the kitchen would close early so had asked him to order my favourite item from the menu, the typical Scandinavian prawn open sandwich.  So after checking in I walked into the dining room to find Gustavo at the table and my dinner already there.  This was it.  Not a very good picture but I can assure you it was delicious.

The open prawn sandwich that was waiting for me for dinner when I arrived at the hotel in Stockholm last week.

The day and a half of discussions with my colleagues, many of whom I was meeting for the first time were quite enriching.  It’s great to meet people who are equally interested in social media.  However whenever I scented a hint of fanaticism, I kept pinching myself and reminding us all, that social media is just another channel for communication.  Ok so it’s a two way dialogue but no need to make so much fuss about.  There is a lot of ridiculous hype around social media that is frankly a bit of an obstacle in understanding how to use it for your company, your customers and your and brand.  Our meetings were held at the lovely Skating Pavilion across the road from our hotel and on the tiny island of Kastellholmen.  I loved the building and its location. 

The skating pavilion on Kastellholmen where we had our social media conference last week in Stockholm

The best thing about the conference was meeting my colleagues and they were from some diverse places.  If I remember rightly there was a representative or two from the following countries: Sweden, Norway, Finland, Lithuania, Estonia, Spain, Nepal, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and last but not least, and this was a new country for me, Tajikistan.  Try locating these last on the map.  I couldn’t do it. 

With some of my social media conference colleagues in Stockholm last week.

Stockholm was at its most beautiful in the late spring.  Everything was green and the advantage of going at the end of May is the long days of light.  There was no time for tourism but just an hour or so for a walk into the town centre to visit shops such as Lindex or KappaAhl.  I did manage to get a pair of tight jeans (size 38 for the record!!) and a typical Scandinavian blue and white striped long sleeved t-shirt that are so in fashion this season.

I remember vividly the conference dinner on Tuesday night.  I had the privilege of sitting next to Vahdat, who is perhaps the most cosmopolitan person I have ever met. He is an émigré of Iran whose family left after the Shah died.  From there if I remember correctly he went to live in Afghanistan.  We spoke about that lovely book, the Kite Flyers and he told me how he related to it so much and how wonderful the Afghan people are.  I could imagine him in the role of one of the appealing little boys in the story. When the Taliban took over they left again, this time to Azerbaijan and afterwards to India.  His parents, both doctors, thought it was time to move to a more peaceful country and wanted to go to Canada but ended up in Sweden where Vahdat landed like an alien aged just 10 or 11.  It was fascinating to talk about immigrant issues in this democratic country which has opened its frontiers always to political refugees.  Now Vahdat is doing a spell in Nepal and again I had a wonderful conversation about that country which I fell in love with when Eladio and I visited it in 2009.  Our conversation took us to Guantanamo and to the fate of immigrants today, something close to my heart as my own Mother’s family suffered from the same fate, but in their case because of the Bolshevik Revolution.  Where you are born is not in your hands but determines the quality of life you will lead when you grow up. 
Too soon the great conference was over and I had to say goodbye to my new friends.  As we are all social media mad, we shall continue to be in touch albeit virtually until next year’s meeting which everyone hopes will be in Spain.  I would far prefer it to be in Nepal or Georgia but I am sure it will end up being in one of the Nordic countries.  In any case I will look forward to it again and to more interesting conversations with my new and exotic friends.

You can see the rest of my photos of my short but interesting trip to Stockholm here on Facebook (where else?).
No sooner was I back then I was off again on Friday, this time with Eladio and the girls. I did have the privilege of one day at home to wind down, sort my work out and generally recharge my batteries fortunately. I can’t remember the last time the 4 of us have been off on our own somewhere.  We were going to Seville and Córdoba and the trip was very promising.  I had been offered two free nights at the Hotel Fontecruz in the heart of the Jewish quarter in Seville, the Barrio de Santa Cruz and we in turn treated the girls to two nights with us.  Our trip there was memorable for the stop at a little village on the way in the province of Badajoz, called Torremejía.  We had left very late after 6pm as Oli had to be at the graduation of her master in TV journalism and the drive would be over 5 hours long so we stopped for dinner.  The only place we could find was a dingy little bar the waiter of which seemed a little reluctant to offer us food.  When I insisted he brought out a hand written note with charming spelling mistakes of the menu at 8 euros each for a three course dinner.  It turned out to be really good and we will remember that dinner for some time I’m sure.

The handwritten menu with spelling mistakes at the bar where we had dinner in Torremejia on our way to Seville on Friday

We arrived in Seville just past midnight and couldn’t believe it was 30ºc at that time of night.  It was impossible to find our hotel and we found ourselves lost and driving round streets where traffic is forbidden.  Finally we found a car park and walked with our luggage to the hotel.  I should add that Seville is notorious, like Naples, for street robberies and it would have been dangerous to leave the car in the street.  We were delighted with our rooms and whilst the rest of the family went straight to bed I went down to the open air swimming pool for a dip to cool off before following them.  I repeated the experience next morning, the following evening and on the morning we left too as the experience of having the pool to myself at a quiet time was something I didn’t want to miss.

Breakfast was superb and we all overate and also enjoyed the papers before heading to a morning of pleasant sightseeing.  I have been to Seville on numerous occasions but was a little overwhelmed and slightly annoyed by the hordes of tourists everywhere.  Seville did not used to be on the tourist map and was wonderful before the Japanese and Americans discovered it I’m afraid.  Thus we had to queue up to get tickets to see the Cathedral, the biggest Catholic Gothic one in the world. We also walked up the Belfry tower which is called the Giralda and dominates the city with its beauty.  We walked up the 35 ramps rather than steps and I found it very easy walking, probably because I have lost so much weight.
The Giralda in Seville

The views from the top are spectacular.  We arrived just as the bells in the belfry struck 12 o’clock and the chimes were so loud we had to cover our ears.
The view from the belfry tower of La Giralda in Seville on Saturday. 

When we came down we promptly decided to take a tour of the city on one of the many horse and carriages that sell the tour to tourists.  It’s not cheap at 80 euros for an hour but well worth the experience.  Our gypsy driver with his thick Sevillian accent drove us through the Barrio Santa Cruz with its narrow white streets and out of the quarter to the Guadalquivir river where we saw the other most dominant monument in the town called the Tower of Gold and of course the famous bull ring, La Maestranza.  From there he took us through the pavilions of the different countries built for the 1929 Universal Exposition. Then we drove into the lovely Maria Luisa park and saw some of the 2000 different bushes and trees it holds as well as the monument to the romantic Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.  Our driver even recited one of his poems and I was delighted as I had once studied Bécquer whilst at Nottingham University where I “majored” in Spanish.  Our next stop was the magnificent Plaza de España, the Spanish pavilion of the same Expo.

Just one section of the magnificent Plaza de España in Seville

Here I had great memories of a huge event Nokia put on in 2003 called Totally Board.  Totally Board meant a variety of board sports including skate boarding and snowboarding and fast downhill skiing with a huge snow ramp as well as loud music which appeals to that same youth. That day in September in Seville thousands of people gathered in an electric and magical atmosphere of old and new culture and of snow under a sun which generated some 40ºc at midday and all in what is probably the most beautiful square to be seen in Spain.
The Plaza de España in Seville when the Nokia Totally Board event took place in 2003 with its huge snow ramp.

Later we walked through more of the old streets of Seville, including the most famous of all, Calle Sierpes.  It was here in 1983, the year we got married, that I brought my parents to visit on a trip from León, through Portugal and Huelva and to the capital of Andalucía.  And it was in this street late at night when we were walking back from the Cathedral that a motorbike passed my Mother and the driver snatched her bag.  Eladio and my Father tried to run after it, Eladio shouting “ladrones” (thieves) but all we could do was go to the police station to report the theft.  There we found a crowd of other tourists in a similar situation and I remember being of great use to the police by serving as an unpaid translator for a night.  My Mother had lost their passports, jewelry, medicine and money.  I remember the next day begging at the British Consulate for replacement passports and after much pressure from us, as we had nothing to identify my parents, they were issued with passports which would be valid just for their journey back.  So being in the Calle Sierpes on Saturday brought back vivid memories of that most unforgettable experience.
The Calle Sierpes in Seville where my parents were robbed in 1983 and which we visited on this trip

For lunch we happened upon what turned out to be one of Seville's best restaurants, Casa Robles.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  The local gazpacho was just superb as was the rest of the meal.
My beautiful girls at Casa Robles in Seville on Saturday
The afternoon was spent with a siesta and in my case with my book by the pool.  I am reading and loving “American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfield, a novel based on the experiences of the wife of the last President of the USA, George Bush.  I can highly recommend it.  It was one of 4 books I picked up last week at Stockholm Arlanda Airport.
Later we wandered out into the streets of the Barrio Santa Cruz and then down to the Cathedral.  Here we decided to have a drink and chose a place I was familiar with from one of my last visits, the EME Cathedral Hotel.  It has a marvelous terrace with great views of the Giralda but was a bit noisy so we decided to have our drink in the hotel terrace right on the street and opposite the Cathedral.  Here we ordered mojitos and a piña colada.  Eladio, being the moderate sort of person he is, had a diet coke and there was nothing we could do to persuade him otherwise!

Having a cocktail on Saturday afternoon in Seville and watching the world go by

Over our lovely cocktails we watched the colourful world of Seville in May go by.  We saw tourists of course but also the beautiful Sevillian women, girls in first holy communion dresses and even small children practicing how to carry religious sculptures on a float as in the typical processions that happen in Seville mainly at Easter.  It is such an important tradition that small children are taught the art early on in their lives.
Sevillian children learning how to carry a float for the famous processions.

Olivia and Eladio soon rushed back to the hotel to see the final of the Champions League between Barcelona and Manchester but Susana and I were not so interested.  We joined them later and had hoped to order a meal in our room to watch the match only to find out that this was not possible. Thus Eladio and Olivia very generously forfeited the match to go out to dinner with us.  We went to the nearby Giraldillo and had a table outside in the Cathedral square, the most privileged one in town.  However the food was nothing great and the meal was very expensive.  So if you go to Seville, do steer clear of this restaurant.

The next morning after a late and lovely breakfast we packed and checked out and walked to the car park to pick up our car.  You can see the full set of photos of our visit here on Facebook.
Our next destination was the nearby city of Córdoba, a city I fell in love with when I first visited it as a student in 1980, over 30 years ago.  I loved and love the old Jewish Quarter with its white streets and beautiful patios.  I remember being pestered mercilessly by young amorous Spanish boys, something that wasn’t going to happen today.  Córdoba used to be the Moorish capital of Spain when the Moors ruled the country until they were fought off by the Spaniards and left in 1492 (the same date that Christopher Columbus discovered America and I can’t help adding here this phrase I learned at school and have never forgotten: “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”). In this same year the Jews were also expelled from Spain but there is plenty of evidence still of both their mark and that of the Moors on this quaint and magical medieval town, at least in the Jewish Quarter.  Like Seville, Córdoba was very hot, probably even more so and seemed to have even more tourists than the latter which again felt overpowering.  We took a walk around the old streets and fought our way past big groups of tourists to the most lovely of streets I have ever seen, the street of flowers, “calle de las flores” from where you can catch a glimpse of the Cathedral Mosque belfry tower. 

The stunning Calle de las Flores (Flower Street) in Córdoba

We would have to wait until after lunch to visit this magnificent monument as it didn’t open until the afternoon.  Meanwhile we had a table reserved at Córdoba’s flagship restaurant, the Caballo Rojo (red horse) where Eladio and I always go when we come here..  The girls were not that impressed and I suspect it’s not quite what it used to be.  In any case we enjoyed the thick gazpacho called “salmorejo” which comes from this part of Spain. Eladio of course had the oxtail, the most recommended dish on the menu and he didn’t complain.

Delicious salmorejo at the Caballo Rojo restaurant in Córdoba on Sunday

From the Caballo Rojo we walked across the street to the beautiful Patio de los Naranjos (orange tree cloister) which surrounds the cathedral cum mosque we had come to visit.

The Cathedral Mosque in Córdoba is spectactular

I have seen it many times but it never ceases to amaze me, from the inside more than from the outside.  Once a beautiful mosque known as the Great Mosque of Córdoba with its characteristic white and red arches, it was turned into a Christian Catholic Cathedral when the Moors left after the Spanish Reconquista but what they built has been left intact.  Thus you get a unique building that combines both religions in its architecture at least. 
Inside the Cathedral Mosque in Córdoba

Sufficiently filled with culture, food and too much heat for our liking, we left the city in the mid afternoon and drove home to Madrid.  You can see the rest of the photos of our quick visit to the beautiful and ancient city of Córdoba here.

It was great to be home and that evening we were in for a pleasant surprise.  Olivia had gone off to the cinema with her beau but had told us to watch a documentary report she and her fellow students had done as a project for the TV master degree and which was being showed on TVE.  We never managed to see it as it was probably rescheduled so I started making our dinner when Susana and her boyfriend Gaby called us urgently to the sitting room where they were watching the TVE1 evening news.  Suddenly I was watching my beautiful daughter Olivia on the screen talking about what the master degree in TV journalism meant to her in a short report about it on the national news.  You may be wondering why this would be on the news and the answer is that Spanish TVE sponsors and organizes the course.  Oli looked spectacular and everyone who saw her thought the same.  We are so proud of her.  Now after a short break (she’s gone off to London today for a 4 day visit with her Erasmus friends, Shino from Japan, Sandeep from India and fellow Spaniard Rafa) she will be working for 3 months as a trainee for the TVE 24h evening news programme with a famous news presenter she admires enormously, Vicente Vallés. I can only hope that they will take her on afterwards but that could be a pipe dream, however good she is, as TVE is not hiring people, rather firing them in these times of crisis.  In any case the experience will be fantastic.  Well done Oli!!!  By the way you can see it here on this link at minute 43 but you may have to buffer the video on your pc first. 

Vicente Vallés,  presenter for the TVE24h news programme who Olivia will be working with this summer

Later that night, inspired by our use of the pool at the hotel in Seville, Eladio, with Gaby’s help, removed the tarpaulin cover on our own swimming pool to get it ready for the summer.  Eladio spent most of yesterday filtering the water and generally repairing its condition.  So who was the first person to use it you may ask?  Not me as it was too cold yesterday but Olivia who enjoyed a nice long swim, despite the cool temperature.  Later the three of us went for our hour long daily walk with Norah, something Norah will have missed in our absence of course.

Right now Suzy and I are working and writing from our summer office right by the pool.  You can see from where in this picture below.  Nice place to work eh?  I certainly think so.
Eladio removed the cover and cleaned the water of our pool yesterday. 
The table you can see is where I work from in the Summer

I’m nearly at the end of this week’s late blogpost but still have some news to share with you.  Yesterday Suzy, Oli and I went to visit Elsa, the Labrador puppy we are getting soon.  You will remember we went to see it at Manolo’s house when it was 5 days old and tiny.  Well yesterday, now at about 17 days old, it had grown to 1.6kg and its eyes are nearly open.  Here she is in Suzy’s arms.  In this link you can see more photos of our visit yesterday.  We shall be going again every week now to watch her progress until we can finally bring her home when she is 2.5 months old.  Can’t wait!

Suzy and our 17 day year old labrador Elsa
On the news front, if last time I wrote the man in the news was the French banker Dominque Strauss Khan, this week it is definitely someone called Ratko Mladic. He was the author of the biggest massacre after the Second World War and was finally arrested after 16 years in hiding.  The massacre happened in Muslim Bosnia in 1995 in a place called Srebrenica.  Here some 8.500 boys and men perished at his hands and those of his henchmen, when he was the Bosnian Serb Army chief.  He has come to symbolize the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing of Croats and Muslims along with the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic.  Reading about Mladic’s crimes, I wholeheartedly agree with the term he is associated with, “The butcher of Srebenica” and am happy he will finally face a trial in answer to his crimes.  Unfortunately many Bosnian Serbs consider him a national hero. Thankfully the rest of the world doesn’t. 
Ratko Mladic, known as the butcher of Srebenica was finally caught last week and will be tried for his horrific crimes.

The other man of the week in the news since my last post was Barack Obama who with his popular wife Michelle went on a state visit to my country, the UK. I loved all the pomp and pageantry in the reception they were given by the Queen of England and just had to include this lovely photograph of the visit.  I think the main item on their agenda was what to do with Libya, or more concretely, the madman Colonel Gaddafi, but the visit also served to strengthen the already close ties between the two nations, as if no one knew these two countries are already  probably the strongest allies in the world on just about all fronts.

Barack and Michelle Obama visited the UK last week

The man of the week in Spain must surely be Alberto Contador for winning the Giro (cycling tour of Italy) on Sunday.  He was awarded the famous pink jersey called the "maglia rosa" and it was his second win in this country, much to the chagrin of the Italians of course.  Believe it or not in the ceremony they played the wrong national anthem of Spain.  This has happened on other sporting occasions around the world and is quite unexplicable and in my mind unacceptable in these days of internet where organisers should be able to get the right music at the touch of a finger.  In any case my hearty congratulations go to Alberto Contador.  I write that with a heavy heart though.  I was once part of the cycling world and am saddened to see the sport tainted with stories of doping, including Contador's own unresolved case which certainly puts a damper on what otherwise would be another magnicent page in the story of Spanish sport.

Alberto Contador, Spain's man of the week who won the Giro on Sunday

The news in Spain, apart from the 15M revolution and national politics, is all about what is now called “the Spanish cucumber crisis”.  10 people in Germany have died because of a bacteria called E.Coli which somehow was introduced into Spanish cucumbers exported to countries like Germany, Austria and Holland. Up until today it wasn’t clear whether the bacteria appeared in the deadly vegetable where it is grown in Spain or where it has been handled in the country it has been exported to.  Meanwhile the crisis has caused untold damage to Spanish agriculture, something the country certainly does not need in the current financial crisis.  I heard earlier that the results from initial tests prove that E.Coli was introduced outside Spain and I certainly look forward to the whole thing blowing over.  But of course I am terribly sorry for the damage it has caused as well as the loss of lives. 
Could hardly believe the story of the so-called "Spanish cucumber crisis" and we don't even eat this type here in Spain.

And with that hope in mind I come to the end of this week’s very packed blog post which I hope you enjoy as soon as I upload the photos, include the links and finally publish it.

Cheers my friends till next week.


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