Saturday, February 25, 2012

The girlies are back, the story behind Dr. Zhivago and other things

My girlies having a whale of a time in Africa.  In this picture with their guide Moses.

Hi everyone.  
It is Saturday and we are all at home but not for long as tomorrow I will be off to Barcelona for the annual telecoms conference, the so called Mobile World Congress.  That is why I am writing this week’s blog on a Saturday.  So let’s look back at how the week has been.

Let me start from last Saturday when I forgot to record that it was Whitney Houston’s funeral in New Jersey.  Whilst that was happening I was watching, along with many other Spanish spectators, the rerun of the marvelous film, The Bodyguard which brought her so much fame.  In fact her co star, Kevin Kostner, was at the funeral and said that he had been her bodyguard.  If you haven’t seen the film I highly recommend it.

Whitney Houston

Sunday was quite a highlight in our week.  We had visitors for lunch, our friends Benito and Loli whom we first met when we “lived in sin”, as it was called in the early 80’s in the Saconia area of Madrid.  We always talk about those days with Benito and Loli and often refer to them as the happiest days of our lives.  We were as poor as church mice, starting off in our careers but were ecstatic with joy at our new found independence and life together.

Benito and Loli came for lunch last Sunday

Of note on Sunday, the Real Madrid basketball team beat Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey.  That was a sort of compensation for Barcelona being a better football team.  They are, indeed, the eternal rivals, as are the two cities.

Sunday was also the night of the Spanish film awards, called “Los Goya”.  The film that got most awards is called “No habrá paz para los malvados” (there will be no peace for the evil) with José Coronado being awarded best actor for his part in the same film.  Pedro Almodovar who was attending for the first time in years, did not do so well for his “La piel que habita” (the skin that lives) which got three minor prizes.  Best foreign film went to The Artist, that funny French black and white and silent film which seems to be winning awards the world over and which I, for one, will not be going to see.  

José Coronado got best actor award at this year's Spanish film awards, Los Goya.

To wrap up Sunday, that was the day I discovered and started using the new social network for photos called Pinterest.  I’m not sure I can take another social network, what with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but time will tell.  A communications colleague, David, commented on Facebook the other day that a communications director he knows had warned that social networks were just a passing phase.  I’m afraid I totally disagree.  They will continue and they will develop and will not disappear.  Meantime, try out Pinterest and see for yourselves.

On Monday I was in Madrid with Eladio.  He wanted to pick up his Father’s 1940s radio which was being repaired and I was returning a handbag, a wonderful birthday gift, from that very exclusive shop, Loewe.  It’s probably the only time I have ever been there for something more substantial than a scarf or a perfume.  The prices are scandalous.  The shop is on Madrid’s  most exclusive street, Calle Serrano, where nobody seemed to notice the crisis or worry about the Government’s recent labour reform.  

After a coffee together, we parted ways as I had a lunch appointment with Víctor.  Víctor and I go way back, having met when I worked at Motorola in the mid 90’s and he was in the PR agency which worked for us, Perception and Image.  When I moved to Nokia I worked with Perception and we coincided again.  Víctor is now leaving the agency, he more or less created, after some 15 years there.  He is a great professional and even better sort of person with two qualities that I admire most: intelligence and a great sense of humour.  No doubt he will continue to be successful at whatever he attempts to do now.  In any case I wish him the best of luck in this new stage of his career.  I must mention we had lunch at a wonderful new place, for me, called Wagaboo, where they offer “fun food” with a mix of Asian and fusion cuisine.

On Tuesday the girls were arriving home at lunchtime but I was to miss it as I had two meetings at work and a business lunch, mostly for preparations for our participation in the Mobile World Congress next week.  I was only able to get home at about 6 and greet the very tired and slightly ill Olivia, as Suzy had left with Gaby to go and choose one of the flats they had been awarded.  It was not until dinner that we were all together.  Olivia was falling asleep over Olga’s excellent tortilla and had to leave us to go to bed as she would have to be up the next day at 6 to go to work.  My advice to both girls was to add an extra settling in day to their holidays in the future.  It was wonderful to see them so brown and hear their adventures and see their photos.  They have had an amazing experience.  You can see their companion Rocío’s photos in this link and judge for yourselves.  Ah and here are Suzy's too,

The girls in Zanzibar with their friends.  From back  left to right: Elena and Oli and from front left to right Suzy and Rocío

Oli happy as a sandboy with African children in Zanzibar

On Wednesday I worked from home.  That afternoon Eladio was giving for the first time a class at the UNED (Spanish open university) via video conference, something he had been preparing for weeks and had kept him awake at night as this was so new to him.  Well, as you can imagine, he passed this personal test with flying colours.  He went on to do another video conference lecture on Thursday evening and came home feeling very confident about the whole process.  I was very proud of him.

That night, Thursday, the girls had a birthday dinner with their cousins in Madrid.  Our niece Paula was turning 24.  Happy birthday dear Paula.  My contribution was a packet of party poppers bought recently online at this great page ( at ridiculously low prices.

The party poppers I ordered from

Meanwhile Eladio and I were watching Doctor Zhivago, one of my favourite films of all times"  It was shown on TVE1 and even though we have the DVD I wanted to watch it once again.  How can I begin to describe why I adore this love story set in the Russian Revolution with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie made in 1965 under the direction of David Lean, the same director as for another legendary film, Bridge over the River Kwai. 
The incredibly beautiful Julie Christie who starred in Dr. Zhivago as the lovely and troubled Lara

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie as Dr. Zhivago and Lara in David Lean's 1965 film 

It is not just any love story.  It is the film adaptation of the book with the same name written by the Russian author Boris Pastarnak.  He won the Nobel literature prize for this book which was banned in the USSR.  Furthermore, as writer “in disgrace” he was not allowed to travel to Stockholm to receive the prize.  
Boris Pastarnak, the author of Dr. Zhivago which earned him the Nobel Literature prize which the Russian authorities forbid him to receive.

This, of course, made his book even more attractive in the Soviet Russia.  At the time my parents were visiting Moscow, hosted by the then head of the USSR Writers Union, a man called Alexei Surkov, a poet himself.  I have found literally no reference to him on internet unfortunately and can now only rely on my Father’s memories of him.  In their visit in the mid sixties, my Mother's first to her homeland, he took my parents to his Dacha outside Moscow.  It was here that he gave my parents a forbidden present, an ancient Russian icon which today graces one of the walls in our dining room.  It had been hidden away and covered in newspaper and the string marks can still be found in this pre revolutionary icon.  It was not allowed to take icons out of Russia and Surkov had told my parents that if they had any problems at customs to say who had given it to them and to give them his telephone number.  Thankfully my parents' luggage was not inspected. Surkov was famous at the time for being the man who stopped Pasternak from travelling to Oslo or Stockholm for the Nobel Prize.  He told my parents that he was Boris Pasternak’s henchman, an apt description. It was to Alexei Surkov that my Mother turned to when she first wanted to publish her Father’s poetry.  Her Father, Prince Andrei Lieven, had written poetry, just like Dr. Zhivago, I can imagine, and which my Mother loved since she read them with him as a young girl. Surkov took one look and pronounced the word: “traditional”.  It was obvious that they would not come under favour with the regime of the time, just as Dr. Zhivago’s poems to “Lara” were also banned, as you will know if you have read the book or seen the film.  The film, amazingly, was made in Spain, in Soria, Madrid and Salamanca.  I can hardly imagine there would be so much snow here as in Siberia.  My Mother loved the film but I always remember her saying there were lots of mistakes in its making and she was referring to the Russian religion and customs, something that annoyed her immensely.  I, of course, having been born in the west, would not notice any of them.  Then of course, there is the wonderful sound track, Lara’s theme which was a huge hit at the time.  My brother used to play it on the piano, something I can never forget.

So you see, it is probably because of all these memories, together with my Russian roots that I relate so much to the story and film, Dr. Zhivago.  

Friday was a lovely sunny day.  Olivia joined us in our afternoon walk with the dogs and in the evening we all went out to dinner.  The dinner was my belated family birthday dinner out, as the girls were not here for my birthday.  We went to the English restaurant, I have written about before here, La Pérfida Albión (The Perfidious Albion) in nearby Pozuelo. Here we girls feasted on fish and chips whilst the men, Eladio and Gaby, preferred the Lancashire hot pot!  

My belated birthday dinner last night with Eladio, the girls and Gaby.  It was great to be together

And that was more or less the week.  Today Saturday will be spent with the family.  Luckily for me the girls want to spend the day with me as they have missed me and I will be going away tomorrow.  So I look forward to a nice family lunch with Olga’s excellent lasaña and to shopping with the girls this afternoon.  It really is great to have them back.

And that’s it, my friends for this week.  More news from me next week.  

All the best Masha

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A romantic break during the week to Almagro and other things

In the main square (plaza mayor) in Almagro on Valentine's Day
Hello again

This week was quiet again without the girls who are still away in Africa.  Today they are in the island of Zanzibar and have sent me a message to say they will be going snorkeling and then diving with dolphins.  They love their hotel called The Blue Oystyer and one day I promise we will go there.  Unfortunately we have not seen any more pictures since their stay in Dar Es Salaam.

The Blue Oyster Hotel in Zanzibar where the girls are staying right now

From this end there is not much to tell, except for our romantic break to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, the absolute highlight of the week and a welcome break in our routine.

On Monday I had a belated birthday lunch with my friends Fátima and Julio.  We went, as always to El Buey in Boadilla where I was able to keep to my Dukan diet thanks to the wonderful steak they have on offer there. 

Tuesday was St. Valentine’s Day but first I had to go to the office for the weekly management team meeting.  Luckily it was short and I was home by just before one o’clock.  We wanted to get off on time to have lunch at our destination, the delightful early 17th century Franciscan Convent in Almagro which is now a Parador.  The Paradors are a Spanish state owned chain of good quality hotels usually located in castles or other historic buildings such as monasteries and they are a favourite with us. 

Eladio and I have never really paid much attention to Valentine’s Day.  When I was young, of course it was celebrated in England but I was hardly ever on the receiving end of a much awaited card on that day.  Over the years we have got into the habit of going out for dinner on that day but we don’t exchange presents as I refuse to succumb to the commercialisation of love.  However I am very happy to celebrate our own marriage and relationship and will be forever grateful for having won the lottery in life by finding the right partner.  We have been together since 1980 and got married in 1983 and I have never looked back.  Over the years and on occasions English girlfriends have asked me: “Are you still with Eladio?” as if I should have got divorced by now like most of them, as if a lifelong marriage is a thing of the past.  So I always laugh and say, “yes, of course”.  This year, instead of dinner out, we decided on a little escapade on our own to a Parador not too far from Madrid.  

Almagro is some 200km from the centre of Spain and is a thriving small medieval and thankfully unspoiled town of some 9.000 inhabitants.  It is in the province of rural Ciudad Real in the Castilla La Mancha area, more famous for being Don Quixote territory. It has a magnificent main square (Plaza Mayor) with an arcade all the way round and is known best for its medieval outdoor playhouse (La corral de las comedias)  the only one of its type left standing in Spain. 
Eladio in the Plaza Mayor in Almagro

We arrived just after 15h and were not disappointed with the Parador as the décor fits in beautifully with the style of the town and our room was very cosy.  Being the middle of the week the place was quite empty and the only other people staying there were retired couples as well as a middle aged German couple of men. 

The Parador in Almagro, a beautifully restored early 17th century Franciscan Convent

Paradors in Spain are very popular with visitors from Europe and the clientele we found there this week is just the sort of clientele that is most attracted to these establishments.  We didn’t mind, although I must admit I was probably the youngest guest there!  Lunch was good, just as we expected and the dining room magnificent.  It was where the monks would have had their lunch and the pulpit for reading during their silent meals is still in place.

The dining room in the Parador in Almagro - spot Eladio!
After a short siesta for Eladio, a look at my emails and a tour of the Parador to take some photos for me, we ventured out whilst it was still light to explore the town.  This would serve as a replacement for our daily walk as we must have been out and about for the next two or three hours.  We visited the Plaza Mayor as well as the medieval play house, "la corral de las comedias" and thought about returning in the summer when plays are held there.
Me in the medieval play house in Almagro, the Corral de las Comedias
We also walked along all the well kept streets with their white washed houses.  I was struck by the commonality of the doors and windows of all the houses.  All windows had the same shutters and railings and the doors were covered with external curtains, as you can see in the picture below.  I was also delighted to see no outdoor advertising and very few brash multinational logos.  They would have spoiled the atmosphere of medieval Almagro which I suspect has not changed much over the last few centuries.
A typical window and door in a house in Almagro
There was also time for some shopping of local produce.  We did not buy the famous lace which is made there and sold on every corner, nor did we buy the wicker work baskets, as we have no need of these objects.  What we did though was buy food at a delightful little store which sold gourmet local produce, cheese, honey, chorizo and biscuits for my Father.

Shopping for local gourmet produce in Almagro
In the evening dinner naturally had to be at the finest restaurant Almagro has to offer.  All the internet sites coincided with my Michelin and Campsa guides (I always travel with these) that the best had to be El Corregidor and they were not wrong.  Again we were very few people and had the place to ourselves but that didn’t worry us as our only aim was to have a nice romantic meal together that night.  The waitress was no great photographer but I least I have one souvenir of that lovely evening at the El Corregidor restaurant in Almagro.
Our St. Valentine's Dinner this year was at El Corregidor restaurant in Almagro
The next day, after a great breakfast, we packed and left the lovely Parador for a day’s outing exploring the area.  As you can see in the photo below, we were using my Christmas and birthday present luggage, a fine collection from my favourite make,  Samsonite.
Me and  my new Christmas and birthday luggage ready to leave the Parador in Almagro
One of the main reasons for going to Almagro was to visit the Las Tablas de Daimiel nature reserve which is mainly a wetland and a sort of oasis for birds and ducks when they migrate.  It measures some 18.000 km2 but we were only to see the main paths.  We had the place to ourselves and enjoyed the four mile walk following the main path visitors take when they visit.  We loved the place.  It’s a bird sanctuary where nature is respected highly, unlike many other places in Spain. However, I’m sure it’s much prettier in the spring rather than in cold February when nature is bare.  Luckily, although it was cold, it was a lovely sunny day and the walk was definitely what doctors used to prescribe as a “bracing walk” when I was a child.
Thumbs up for the Las Tablas de Daimiel nature reserve
After our walk we debated on what to do next and the obvious choice was lunch as it was nearly one o’clock.  We both agreed on another nearby Parador, the one in Manzanares where we had been in October with our friends Adele and Bernard. 
Lunch on Wednesday was at another Parador, this time the one in Manzanares
During lunch we decided on our next and last destination before heading home and that was to be another nature reserve or park called Las Lagunas de Riduera.  I had never heard of the place or area but Eladio had and was keen to go.  

On the way there we were to pass a delightful spot, the Peñarroya reservoir right by a castle of the same name.  We got out of the car and marveled at both the reservoir and castle which we walked all the way around, taking endless photos of both.
The Peñarroya castle and reservoir were a real find on our way to the Lagunas de Riduera
A few kilometers further on we reached the Lagunas de Riduera which turned out to be a bit like the English Lake District, without the mountains.  They are a serious of beautiful small lakes (lagunas) in unspoiled countryside.  We drove past them wishing we had time to walk but realised there was no real path except for the road.  Had this been England, Eladio remarked there would have been an excellent foot path.  So we had to make do with enjoying the scenery from the car, only getting out on one occasion to take a few more photos.

A lake in the Lagunas de Ruidera, Spain's equivalent to the Lake District.  Spot me in the picture!
The visit to the Spanish Lake District marked the end of our romantic middle of the week break to celebrate St. Valentines after which we set off home and were back in the early evening. You can see the rest of the photos here.

Thursday was another quiet day.  In the morning I had a pleasant meeting with Cris and Gloria from my events agency to go over all the preparations for our participation in this year’s Mobile World Congress taking place at the end of the month.  We met, as we nearly always do in nearby Pozuelo at the Zielo shopping centre, although there was no time for any of that that morning, unfortunately.  The afternoon was spent at the office where I attended a meeting that ended after 8 o’clock.  Of course that meant the traffic coming home was heavy as it must be for most people who have to face it daily, unlike me.  The experience served to appreciate even more the privilege of being able to work mostly from home. 

The next day I was up at the crack of dawn at 6 o’clock in the morning as I had to be in the office by 9.30 for another long meeting.  In the end I arrived just after 8 and the meeting didn’t start until 10!  Luckily it was shorter than the last one, so I was able to be home on time for lunch with my men. It was Friday and we had a dinner date with our neighbours and friends, Elena and José Luis.  That night I used a new internet restaurant booking page called The Fork (El Tenedor in Spanish) and found a new restaurant in Boadilla called El Palacio de Boadilla.  The advantage of using the site was that we got 40% discount.  I was a little disappointed with the place which was rather cold and the food was nothing out of this world, so we will not be going back.

The weekend has been quiet too. We didn’t go out yesterday Saturday as of course Olga is not here to hold the fort.  Today, however, we are expecting guests for lunch. Benito and Loli, our friends from years back, since before we were married and, were a penny pinching couple living in Saconia, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Madrid.  Benito, a retired teacher, rang yesterday to congratulate Eladio on it being his saint’s day.  That is something we don’t celebrate and hadn’t even realised it was his name’s day.  The good thing is that it has served to meet our friends again, whom we haven’t seen for quite a long time.

The week ahead will be full of last minute planning for Barcelona, mostly on the content of our press conference there.  But what I am most looking forward to is the return of  the girls who will be coming back on Tuesday.  I wonder now just how much longer Susana will be living with us as I heard from her last week that she and Gaby had been awarded a flat in a subsidized block of flats in Villanueva de la Cañada, a few miles up the road.  Oh, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it, albeit with heavy hearts.

I hope your week will be great,

Until next week Masha

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Birthdays in February, a dickens of a week, my new present, the girls in Africa, news that made an impression on me, the best picture of the year and other things

The girls are having a whale of a time in Tanzania.  Suzy with the red hair on the left and Oli on the right in between the two small children in Dar Es Salaam this week.
Hi everyone,

It is Sunday again and here I am writing my weekly post.  The week has been as good as many others with lots of news that made a special impression on me.  In fact it has been a “dickens of a week” as you will read below. But not so much for Spanish sport or its judicial system as you will also see below.

Today would have been my brother, George’s 57th birthday.  His birthday has always been two days after mine, both being dates forever ingrained in my mind.  He too takes up a large space in my memory and my thoughts today, George, the golden talented boy, whose life was spoiled in part by chemicals. 

Remembering my dear brother George who would have been 57 today, 12th February, just 4 days after my own birthday.

That is a phrase I have taken from my Finnish friend Anne who used it to describe the death of Whitney Houston who was found dead yesterday, aged only 48, in a hotel in Beverley Hills. Her most famous song was “I will always love you”.  Well, I will always love George too. George loved music and used to play the piano and guitar and I am sure would also have loved Whitney Houston.

Tragically Whitney Houston, the American Queen of Song was found dead this morning in a hotel in Beverley Hills aged 48

The week has been marked by anniversaries and I’m not referring to George’s and my humble birthdays.  Monday was no less than the Queen of England’s 60th anniversary on the throne, her diamond jubilee which for some strange reason was not celebrated on Monday but will be done so later on this year.  She was just 25 when her coronation took place and has been the only Queen of England I have ever known.  My Mother used to tell me that she joined the celebrations of that fantastic event which took place in 1953, some 4 years before I was born.  She had in fact ascended the throne upon her Father, King George VI's death on 6th February 1952 but the coronation took place later. I can imagine my young Mother, always a royalist, enjoying the event in her newly adopted London aged only a few years more than Her Majesty.

It was the Queen of England's 60th anniversary of her ascent to the throne on Monday 6th February.

I have only ever seen the Queen close up once and I only vaguely remember it.  I think it was in Bradford in the late 60’s or early 70’s when there was a lot less security than there would be today.  I do seem to remember she was wearing her trademark silk scarf to protect her head from the rain, as women used to do in England when I was a child. 

If Monday was a glorious day in English history it was a sad day for Spanish sport when we learned about Tour de France winner Alberto Contador stripped of his 2010 Tour and Giro title and banned for 2 years from the sport.  The very popular cyclist is considering appealing against the two-year ban he was given by the CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) for testing positive with clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour de France.  Many people in the cycling world think the sanction is excessive.  After all what was found in his blood was a minuscule amount of the substance which the cyclist claims found its way into his body from a piece of steak he ate.  Whatever the cause, I too, find the sentence excessive.  The neighbours of Spain, the French, however do not think likewise.  Ever envious of so much success in Spanish sport, mostly on their territory, be that the Tour of Franch or the French tennis open, the Gallic TV programme Canal+ produced a humorous sketch insinuating Spain’s sporting success is thanks to drugs and included Nadal, Contador, Gasol and even Casillas in the piece. This has caused a rift in relations between the two countries which only diplomacy will be able to quash. 

Alberto Contador at the press conference this week to talk about his sentence which he says he will fight.

If Monday was the Queen’s 60th anniversary, Tuesday was no less important for English history as it marked the bicentenary of the birth of none less than Charles Dickens, probably England’s best known author after Shakespeare.  Ah so Charles Dickens was an Aquarian like my brother and I?  He is of course famous for his many books, including Oliver Twist, the autobiographical David Copperfield, A tale of two cities, Great Expectations and of course A Christmas Carol, but interestingly his name also crept into the English language in a number of expressions which have lived on after his birth.  Thus I have included the phrase “dickens” of a week in this week’s headline.  Other ways of using the word “dickens” can be found in such phrases as “what the dickens”, “scared the dickens out of me or a “dickens of a time” which I am sure the descendants of the Dickens’ family had when over a 160 of them gathered together on Tuesday to celebrate the event, including his last great granddaughter, Katherine Gray aged 90.

On Tuesday 7th February it was the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens

The day the Dickens family celebrated the illustrious author’s bicentenary, was the day the girls left for their African adventure where they of course will also be having a “dickens of a time”.  They have gone to Tanzania and Zanzibar and will be away for the next two weeks.   Rocío, the friend who is accompanying them, planned their trip down to the last detail and sent me their itinerary just before they left.  Thus we know where they are every day and I, at least, am following their adventure vicariously and even thinking that someday soon we may well follow in their footsteps.  In Tanzania, after a few days in the capital, hot and sticky Dar Es Salaam, they took a 10-12 hour bus trip to Arusha, the safari capital of the country from where they have visited the legendary Serengeti national park, a plain of some 15.000km2.  Here to quote Suzy’s text message yesterday, they saw “so many animals, zebras, giraffes, dears, lions, leopards, wild dogs and lots of elephants”.  They will be there again today.

Suzy will be in her element seeing all the animals.  Olivia I am sure will love them too, but what she will enjoy best will be meeting the locals, getting to know their culture and of course photographing children. 

Olivia doing what she likes most when she travels - meeting the locals in Dar Es Salaam.

Tomorrow they will be going to visit the Ngorongo Crater, which according to its website is a “breathtaking natural wonder”.  Here, apart from the volcanic crater, they will be seeing more amazing African wildlife.  I live for their messages and photos and the more I read about the places they are visiting, the more I want to go too.  Tanzania is home also to the equally legendary Mount Kilimanjaro which I think they will only see from afar.  I have read that you do not need any special equipment to climb the nearly 6000 metres and only have to be reasonably fit.  They will  not have time to climb it as it takes 4 days up and 2 days down, nearly a week and have preferred instead to visit the nearby magical island of Zanzibar.  If we ever go, I would really love to reach the summit of that most famous mountain, the highest in Africa but also wouldn’t miss Zanzibar and its alluring white and unspoiled beaches.  Not less I would love to eat at the restaurant they will be going to where Rocío booked a table, months ago, The Rock.  Just look at this beautiful place.  I think it would be worth making the journey to Zanzibar just to go there. Since writing this we got a phone call this afternoon from the girls direct from the Serengeti national park whilst on their jeep observing the animals.  Olivia was worried when she saw a zebra suffering and drowning in sinking sand with vultures flying above.  Their guide Moses, said not to worry as that was just nature.  I would have been equally upset as Olivia.

The Rock restaurant in Zanzibar where the girls have booked a table for next week.  Looks enticing doesn't it?
Lobster is the main item on the menu, my favourite food!  I promise I will go there one day.

On Tuesday too I received my first birthday present and it certainly sweetened the empty feeling left that day by the girls’ departure.  The present was to myself and it was the long overdue purchase of the Amazon “kindle” ebook reader.  I have long pondered over getting one as I was never sure I wanted to abandon the feeling of a real book in my hands.  So when I saw an offer from Amazon for only 99 euros I clicked and bought it.  That was on Monday and it arrived on Tuesday, living up to Amazon’s fantastic delivery service which is now free!  I got it started immediately with no technical issues at all.  At first I was a little disappointed it wasn’t touch screen or in colour but soon realised that the big advantage was its 30 days of battery life which if it were the latter would be much shorter.  The first book I downloaded was Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography, Path to Power which I am now reading avidly.  The second was Maeve Binchey’s newest book which cost just under 2 euros.  Obviously ebooks are cheaper than the real version which is the other advantage of owning the device.  I have now realised that Amazon will soon be shipping the “kindle fire” a touch screen coloured tablet, so maybe that will be next year’s present.

And finally on Wednesday it was my birthday, supposedly the most important day of my year.  I was celebrating 55 years on this earth, a grand old age. It came and went without much pomp as we were alone at home.  There was no cake or chocolate this year as this week I have returned to the strict Dukan fold to rid myself of the 2 kilo excess of Christmas tide.  There was to be no dinner out that day either, just a simple meal at lunch with Eladio and my Father.  There was, thank goodness, a card signed by all the members of the family.  There were too, presents from the two most important men in my life, in the shape of three more elements to add to my new Samsonite luggage collection.  They will come in useful on the many trips I will be making this year.  There are quite a few of them looming on the horizon, starting with a night at the Almagro Parador with Eladio next week to celebrate St. Valentines.  Then there will be a trip to England for another school reunion towards the end of March, yet another trip to Stockholm for the global communications meeting at the end of March, a communications meeting in “wonderful Copenhagen” in June followed by a long weekend in Orleans, near Paris, with our dear friends Adele and Bernard.  Eladio will be joining me on all of those except for Stockholm.  So you see, the new luggage will be put to use very soon.

If Tuesday was supposedly the most important date of my year, it was a disastrous date in the life of the high profile Judge Baltasar Garzón, who is not a prophet in his land, enjoying more support outside Spain than in.  He was sentenced with a suspension of 11 years in his judiciary career which, as he is already aged 56, virtually means the end of his professional life as Spain’s most illustrious judge.  So what were his crimes you may ask if you haven’t read the story?  You can read about it here in The New York Times in an article entitled "a chilling verdict in Spain" and which tells how he was found guilty of “misapplying the country’s wiretap law” in a case where he was investigating corruption involving bribes allegedly paid to local officials of the now-ruling Popular Party.  For most people on Judge Garzón’s side, the case was more about the judge’s enemies finally getting their way, or rather, getting him out of the way.  In his brilliant career he has made many enemies.  To quote others he often forced the law to win cases or felt above the law in his procedures.  Whatever the case I for one, admire this man who is perhaps most famous for trying to bring the ex dictator, Pinochet of Chile to trial.  That is maybe because I once met him and had the opportunity to talk to him and may well be biased.  It was a few years ago on one of my innumerable trips back from Helsinki when I worked for Nokia.  He was sitting next to me in business class, in those days when I still travelled in style.  I wasn’t sure it was him until my friend and fellow passenger Julio who was sitting on the other side of the aisle and on the same row, asked him “what was a Spanish judge doing in Helsinki”.  He answered that he had been talking in the Finnish parliament.  During the nearly five hour trip home we spoke occasionally whilst I could see that he was correcting the text of his biography.  At the time it was entitled “Judge Garzón, a man in danger of losing his life”.  At the time he was investigating the crimes of the Spanish terrorist organization ETA.  Later it went on to be sold under a different title.  But that his life was in danger was much in evidence to me when we said goodbye.  As the plane came to a stop, he was whisked off and taken into a body guarded car at the steps of the plane and driven off to safety whilst the rest of us waited to descend via the normal procedure.  On Tuesday his career came to an end and I for one, was sorry to read that.  We have yet to see the outcome of two more high profile trials he is the subject of.  One is for wanting to investigate mass killings committed during the bloody Spanish Civil War.  Garzon is accused of abuse of power for trying to investigate the disappearance of those murdered in an alleged breach of an amnesty.  This case once again divides Spain, just like in the Civil War and is a sad reflection on Spain’s judicial system.

A very worried looking Judge Garzón

Thursday seems to be the only day without big news that made an impression on me.  I spent a good part of it at work in quite a high powered business meeting.  I was home late for me but on time to get ready for our evening engagement.  We had a date with our friends Ludi and Pedro and Enrique, their notary friend.  Pedro is Pedro Delgado, a charismatic and famous figure in Spain.  He is an ex cyclist, winner of the Tour of France and today a TV commentator.  He had just come back from shooting an advertisement with BMW in his native Segovia.  As you can imagine we spoke about the two main topics of the Spanish news this week and which I have touched upon above.  Pedro told us he thought Contador’s sentence was far too drastic.  As to talking about Garzón’s sentence, not much was to be gleaned from Enrique who was too diplomatic to air his viewpoint.  I am not a political person but am very aware that those who are on Garzón’s side are generally left wing and those who are not are generally right wing.  So if Enrique had given his opinion he would also very likely have given away what side of politics he is on, something he was probably unwilling to do. That said does not mean I am either right wing or left wing although my family were staunch conservatives.  If anything I am probably somewhere in between.  We had dinner at a new place for me, Las Tortillas de Gabino, famous for its “tortillas” (omelettes).  Also one of its chefs learned his trade at Spain’s most illustrious restaurant El Bulli.  We shall definitely be going back there.

Friday was an uneventful day for us and I just worked quietly from home, going for our usual walk in the afternoon and sticking to my diet after not having sinned at the restaurant the night before.  But it was probably the most eventful day in the life of the Spanish photographer Samuel Aranda.  He won the 2012 World press photo of the year, which is like having taken the best picture of the year.  And what a picture it is.  If you haven’t seen it, here it is, a shot taken by the Spaniard of a Yemeni woman holding an injured man in her arms during violent clashes between anti-government demonstrators in Sanaa.  I suppose it wouldn’t have won any prize in the Middle East as the contrast of the women completely clad in black and a semi naked injured man would probably not be seen as anything special. 

The Spanish photographer Samuel Aranda won this years World Press Photo of the Year with this amazing picture taken in Yemen after the uprisings.

In any case I think it is fantastic but never as fantastic as the shot of the Afghan girl taken by Steven McCurrey for the National Geographic in 1984.  That for me remains to be probably the best photo I have ever seen.  According to Wikipedia the photo has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  Yes, it is indeed a work of art.

One of my favourite photos of all times.  Afghan girl (aged just 12) by Steven McCurrey was published in the National Geographic in 1984

The weekend has been very quiet without the girls and we haven’t been out as Olga of course is not here at the weekends. We didn’t go to the cinema either but yesterday, Saturday, I enjoyed immensely Roman Polanski’s 2005 version of Oliver Twist with Ben Kingsely as a superb Fagin.  The story never fails to play its magic on me and it was rather fitting to watch it the week of its author's bicentenary.

Barney Clark played an endearing Oliver Twist in Roman Polanski's film made in 2005

And that brings me to today, Sunday, George’s birthday and the death of the American Queen of song, beautiful Whitney Houston.  What a sad way to end the week.  However next week promises to be great, especially because we will be celebrating St. Valentine’s with a night away in Ciudad Real at the Almagro Parador from where we shall be visiting the famous Tablas de Damiel, a national park far different from the Serengeti.  It is a wetland and nature reserve in a very dry area of Spain and is actually even bigger than its Tanzanian counterpart, measuring over 19.000 km2.  There will be news of course about that visit in next week’s blog post.

Meanwhile I wish you all a great week.


Sunday, February 05, 2012

To Stockholm again, a stressful journey home, the Margaret Thatcher days and remembering Nepal.

Me dressed up very warmly in Stockholm this week

Hello everyone,

This has been an exciting and very tiring week.  I love travelling but the getting up at the crack of dawn and the hassle in air travel these days, especially if the latter doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, really make me tired.  This is probably because of my age.  Well I will, after all, be reaching the grand old figure of 55 this coming week.  

The week started off with a very quiet Monday.  Of note that day I had lunch with my friends Julio and Fátima to celebrate her birthday.  As tradition dictates, we did so at one of our favourite restaurants, El Buey in nearby Boadilla del Monte, a great little place that serves the best steak in the area.

Tuesday was a busier day.  I was up early to have my hair done at Marco Aldany, the hairdresser I go to these days.  Unfortunately Cristina, who does a great job with my hair, wasn’t there so I got a slightly different style this time.  I realised it was not quite what I wanted when Susana, my eldest daughter, observed I looked a little like Margaret Thatcher!  Then I was off to the office for the weekly management team meeting where I am always painfully aware that I am the only woman member but certainly not an “Iron lady” although I sometimes have to appear so in this very male dominated sector that I work in, full of telecommunications engineers.  It’s not a career I would ever have chosen, but it’s the sector I am in for good and for bad.  

On Wednesday I was up again at 6 in the morning to leave for the airport to catch the only direct flight to Stockholm which leaves just after 10.  I coincided with Olivia, my youngest daughter, who gets up at that time everyday to go to the TVE morning programme she works for called La Mañana de la 1.  I thought that if it made me tired just to get up so early only occasionally, how tough it must be for her to do it five days a week and felt sorry for her.

I boarded the plane with the rest of the management team, destination Stockholm, the headquarters of TeliaSonera, the Scandinavian telephone operator who own Yoigo with a 76% share.  We were to take part in the annual management team meeting together with our counterparts from the Nordic and Baltic countries beginning the next morning.  But first we were to have a tight schedule of meetings after our arrival, including a presentation from my former boss in Nokia, Thomas J.  who now works as the head of external relations in TeliaSonera.  Talk about a small world!  We also had a meeting at the world HQ of a Swedish company I admire enormously, Spotify which I was much looking forward to.  

Europe this week has being going through a cold spell so I had packed accordingly and was glad I had taken a thick coat and warm winter head gear as it was well below 10ºc throughout our stay and snowing most of the time.  It also gets dark very early; something I would find very difficult to have to face if I lived here.  Thankfully I live in a country with probably the best climate in Europe.

We arrived in the early afternoon and lunch was a sausage in the street, something I don’t think I have done since my Inter rail days as a teenager when that was all I could afford.  My empty stomach though, was very happy to digest a hot and spicy, Swedish sausage appropriately called “Stockholm”.  Dinner was a much finer affair at one of the city’s best restaurants, Wedholm Fisk where the fish was out of this world.  It is certainly a place to go back to if I could ever afford it.
I nearly froze in the ten minute walk back in wind and snow and was happy to return to my warm room at the Scandic Sergel Plaza hotel in the centre of town.  Warm, was actually the only saving grace, apart from the location of the hotel which is soulless, drab and quite downturn for sophisticated Stockholm.  I remarked to my colleagues, who totally agreed, that the rooms reminded me of prison cells. 

The next day, I was up before seven as I had to attend an 8 o’clock conference call from my room about the financial results which TeliaSonera had published that morning.  The news was good for Yoigo.  We had reached the 3 million customer mark and had not only remained EBITDA positive, but reached the cash flow positive objective for the last quarter of 2011.  Results days are always stressful for me, because we have to get the information ready in Spanish to send out to the press as early as possible, be prepared for all sorts of questions throughout the day, as well as inform the staff in more informal terms.  That meant that breakfast, usually my most important meal of the day, had to be sacrificed.  In any case the breakfast room at the Scandic resembled feeding time at the zoo, with not much on offer and a huge flow of people fighting for the coffee machine and bread table, so I didn’t miss much.  The next day I was rewarded for my work with all the main newspapers reporting positively on Yoigo’s results.  I was especially pleased with the coverage in one of our top newspapers, El Mundo where we were included in one of the main “ups” of the day in the “vox populi” section of page 2 as you can see here, if you can read Spanish, a most prestigious position to be in and something no advertising money could ever buy.

We got some excellent coverage in the Spanish press about Yoigo's 2011 financial results.

The conference started at 10 o’clock and was held in the cultural heart of Stockholm, bang in the middle of the city.  The building is called Kulturhuset (literally "culture house") and is full of people enjoying the library, eating Swedish cakes or going to the theatre.  

The square where the Culture House in Stockholm is located was covered in snow.

We on the other hand were to go through a day of presentations.  The first, to my surprise, was absolutely fantastic.  We had the privilege of seeing and hearing Sweden’s next export after Abba and Stieg Larsson, talk to us about the future.  The man’s name is Magnus Lindqvist and he is truly inspiring.  He calls himself a trendspotter and futurologist.  He is also a fantastic speaker.  I have just ordered his book from called “Everything we know is wrong”.  I look forward to be being just as entertained as listening to him.  Not for him the trends of today, such as gadgets and fashion items that come and go, but to quote him “the more important deeper slower moving stuff” that you never really see coming.  He makes you stop and think and he certainly made an impression on me.  He is apparently a celebrity speaker, so if you ever get the chance to listen to him, grab it.  Magnus Lindqvist was definitely the best item on the whole agenda of our two day conference in Stockholm.

Magnus Lindqvist is one inspirational speaker and we were privileged to have him as a guest speaker

The rest of the day was like any typical corporate management or sales convention, nothing out of the ordinary.  The best part for me is always mingling with colleagues from other countries and getting to know new people and thankfully there was plenty of that.

The evening ended with a dinner party and awards and I was happy to see my colleague Urban get a prize for the best growth in mobile date.  I went to bed as soon as it had finished though as I had another early wake up the next day as the second day conference was to start just after 8.  I had a terrible night as the television kept switching on automatically.  In the end it seemed that the TV wake-up call had been programmed various times during the night and the only way of stopping it was pulling out all the cables.  

This week’s visit to Stockholm was so busy I hardly had time for shopping.  My only trip to the shops was during lunch on Friday when I crossed the snowy square to Lindex, the Swedish low cost women’s fashion store.  Oli had asked me to bring back a Swedish woolen cardigan.  So I braved the weather and with an eye on my watch, made a dash into this lovely store.  Unfortunately there were no winter clothes left on sale, so I had to make do with a quick choice from the new Spring collection.

Normally when flying out of Stockholm, we, or I, take the only direct flight to Madrid which leaves just before 3 and gets you to Madrid airport just after 7.  However, as we wanted to stay to the end of the conference which was finishing around 3, we had been booked on a flight via Amsterdam, leaving the Swedish capital at 17.15 and arriving in Madrid just before midnight, a long haul.  We were not lucky as the flight to Amsterdam was cancelled because of snow at Schipol airport and that is where our adventure began.  KLM booked us into the SAS flight to Frankfurt leaving at 16.40 from where we would have a two hour wait before taking the last flight to Madrid.  Check in and going through security was nerve wrecking as we were very pressed for time.  At the last minute my colleagues were already on board and I joined the queue after a quick loo stop only to be told the plane was full and overbooked.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, “you mean I cannot get on the plane?”  There was a lot of discussion and mysterious punching into the computer by the SAS hostesses.  I was desperate as I didn’t want to spend another night in Stockholm and most of the following day getting home.  And then came, my salvation.  A Russian gentleman offered me his seat and told me he would get on the next and last flight to Frankfurt as that was his final destination, unlike mine.  I accepted very gratefully and later remarked to my neighbour from the horrible middle seat I was sitting on with my cabin suitcase under my legs because the plane was so full, how generous the man had been.  My German fellow passenger then told me that the kind Russian man would have been compensated with 150 euros for taking the next plane.  So, maybe he wasn’t so generous after all but I can tell you I wouldn’t have stayed for 500, so am still grateful for his gesture. 

The nightmare didn’t quite finish there, as we had another flight to catch in Frankfurt which at one stage we also thought might not be leaving.  But finally it did and again I was squashed into a middle seat, a position in an airplane that I always try to avoid.  We arrived at Barajas after an awful journey home well after midnight and I did not get home till half past one in the morning.  I swear I will only ever get the direct flight back from Stockholm whether that means I have to leave in the middle of a conference or not.  I also swear that I will never ever go to the end of a queue to get on a plane as I have learned the hard way that it might be overbooked and if you are at the end you are more than likely liable to be left behind as I nearly was if it hadn’t been for the help of one Russian gentleman.  Thank you whoever you are.

The only thing that kept me going through both flights was the fascinating book I was reading, “A swim on part in the goldfish bowl”, Carol Thatcher’s biography of her very famous Mother, Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first and only woman prime minister.  I had ordered it eagerly after watching Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, a role she may well win an Oscar for.  
I devoured Carol Thatcher's biography of her Mother whilst flying this week

It’s a great read; written in a very candid manner and makes you laugh on many an occasion.  It also brought closer to me the lady who dominated politics when I was a teenager and student and didn’t particularly identify with at the time.  However, she will most definitely go down in history for her role in British politics, whether you like her or not.  In fact, after reading the book I learned that beneath the iron lady veneer, there is a person with a far bigger heart than I could ever have imagined.  I was also very interested to read about her consort, Dennis Thatcher, a bit of a joke figure in my time.  But as I read more about him, it is quite clear, that without DT as she called him, Margaret Thatcher could never have done the job she did.  I have now ordered Carol Thatcher’s biography of her Father called “Below the Parapet” as the subject is interesting me so much, I have even gone one step further and ordered her mother’s  autobiography, “TheDowning Street Years”.  After all, she governed in amazing times and they were the times I was often too young or too uninterested to appreciate when she was in Government..  So, Margaret Thatcher will continue in my life for the next few weeks and of course, in my memory for ever.  It is very sad that she herself, such a dominating and clever woman, no longer remembers very much, not even that her dearest Dennis is no longer alive.  Carol has to remind her time and again and each time she is told, the Iron Lady, no longer made of iron, has to go through the sorrow of hearing the news.  One of the times, she poignantly asks her daughter, “were we all there (at the funeral) for him?”.  This is indeed not a very nice ending for such a brilliant life.   My Father is reading it now and no doubt he will enjoy it more than me.  He and my Mother were great fans of Margaret Thatcher, but I think even they had had enough when towards the end of her 11 years at Downing Street she said the famous “we shall go on and on and on”. 

Margaret and Dennis Thatcher.  He was 10 years older than her.

Yesterday was Saturday and it was real tonic to spend it at home with the family after such a tiring week.  For the first time in ages, we had lunch together.  We were joined by Juli and Gaby and it was a joyful meal.  There was time to relax, to be with the dogs, go for our walk and there was even time to go out to the cinema.  Eladio and I were waiting for the latest Iciar Bollain (Spanish woman film director) film to come out entitled “Kat(h)mandu, a mirror to the sky” and luck had it that the premiere was this week, so we jumped at the chance of seeing it.

This film will haunt me for a long time.

I didn’t know really what it was about but had seen the trailer and was keen to see a film about a country that is close to our heart. Even though we only spent three days there on our trip to India for our 25th wedding anniversary in December 2008 and January 2009, we fell in love with Nepal and its people.  I wrote three posts on our unforgettable journey there and actually they are among the top read posts in my blog.  I am honoured to say that thousands of people have read them.  If you want to read them here they are (first, second, third).  In the second post I tell of the story of three boys for whom we bought an English Nepalese dictionary in Bhaktapur so I was delighted to see that some parts of the film had been filmed there.  Other famous spots we had seen also come out in the film and watching it yesterday certainly took us all the way back there, reminding us of our wonderful trip of a lifetime.

Our dictionary episode on our visit to Nepal. This is in Bakhtapur in the Kathmandu Valley in Jan 2009.  You can read about it here.

The film is about a young Spanish teacher, Laia who goes out to work as a teacher in Kathmandu.

She is helped by a Nepalese young woman, Sharmila, also a teacher, and together they set up a school in the slum district.  They are faced with insurmountable problems and the cultural obstacles are many.  Some of the characters, in this part real, part fictional film, can only be people off the streets in the Kathmandu Valley and I take my hat off to Iciar Bollain for this masterpiece.  I fell in love with the people in the film and find it hard to forget Sharmila, the teacher bent on having a son to make her family happy, Tsering, the young man from a remote village who agrees to marry Laia in a marriage of convenience, but asks her what will happen if they fall in love, Bimala, the girl so untouchable she has no name and finally clever little Kushila who is sold by her parents and sent to work in a brothel in India and her journey back.  They all tore at my heart strings as did the film.  It is not a film with a happy ending.  The story it tells is taken from real life, some of it happy, a lot of it sad but a real eye opener to the clash of cultures.  How can we, or Laia, understand how a young girl, for instance, is put into a dark room on her own for 10 days when she reaches puberty, so that the light she sees when she leaves it at the end of the 10 days will guide her for the rest of her life?  In short, the film had me crying from the middle to the end and I shall probably never forget it.  It brought back memories of our visit there and has triggered in me the wish to return.  I hope one day we will.  Meanwhile, if you get the chance, I cannot recommend this film more highly.

Laia and Sharmila in the film Kat(h)mandu

Today Sunday has been quiet.  I spent the morning on my computer and cooking lunch, alas not for all of us today, just the “three oldies”.  The rest of the day will be like most Sundays. We shall go for our walk, have a cup of tea, spend time reading and then have a small dinner and go to bed to watch the television.  It may sound boring but after a stressful week, it is a complete tonic for the mind and body.

Next week will be my birthday which will be nice but sadly the girls won’t be here for it.  They will be going on holiday to Africa, imagine!  Yes they are going with Rocío to Tanzania for two weeks and will be joined by another friend Elena for the second week.  It sounds very exciting and hopefully they will be in no danger.  They have strict orders to come back, as my Mother always used to say: “in one piece”.  

I hope you all have a great week,

Cheers until next Sunday, Masha.