Apr. 2nd, 2014 11:53 am

When 1 = 2

mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)
Last fall, I got on an elevator in Texas with my sister to go up to a clinic for her appointment. The elevator buttons offered a choice of “B 1 2 ” so I asked, “Which one?”

She laughed at me, and after a moment I understood why. I was in Texas, but I live in Spain. In the United States (and most of Canada), B 1 2 means “Basement, 1st Floor (Ground Floor), 2nd Floor.” In Spain (and most of Europe) B 1 2 means “Bajo (Lower or Ground or 0 Floor), 1st Floor, 2nd Floor.”

In other words, what is called the 2nd Floor in the United States is the 1st Floor in Spain. I had only one choice going up, and that was 2, because we were already at 1, the ground floor.

This is a detail to bear in mind when translating. For example, in early February, a huge storm hit Spain’s north Atlantic coast, delivering 7-story-high waves – or at least that’s how they were described in Spain. But if I were going to tell someone in the United States about it, I would have to say they were 8 stories high, especially in Texas where everything is bigger. (You can see spectacular photos here.)

There are other details of language and culture to bear in mind, for example:

Billion means 1,000,000,000 or a thousand million in the United States (and some other countries) and 1,000,000,000,000 or a million million in Spain (and some other countries). This often causes problems.

• Some countries, including Spain, use a comma to indicate decimals, so 1,234 might equal 1.234: a quantity a bit smaller than one and one-quarter. Reciprocally, 1.234 in Spain (and some other countries) equals 1,234, or one thousand two hundred thirty-four. There’s a big difference.

• In Spain, morning is the time period that lasts from getting up until the main meal is eaten at about 2 p.m., so it is still “morning” after noon. Also, television prime time (horario central) in Spain starts at 10 p.m.

• The expression fifteen days in Spanish means two weeks, or “fortnight” if you’re British.

• Payment for work, such as minimum wage, is expressed by a monthly rate in Spain (and some other countries), not hourly.

So if you ever compare a translation to the original and numbers look different, they may still be the same. The translator may have had to do a little math. It’s part of the job.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional writing website, http://www.sue.burke.name
mount_oregano: Let me see (I_heart_Spain)

Here’s my report on XXXI Hispacón/Quartumcón, Spain’s 2013 national SF convention, held in December. The report appears in the e-zine Concatenation, a British seasonal review of science fact and science fiction:


And here are the winners of the Ignotus Awards, which are the Spanish version of the Hugos:


— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Keep Calm)
How good are computer-generated translations? They’re getting better, but I decided to throw something complex at them, a sentence from Lope de Aguirre, El Loco del Amazonas [Lope de Aguirre, Madman of the Amazon] by Manuel Lacarta. The book is a biography of a Spanish conquistador. The machines got the common words well enough, but uncommon words, uncommon uses of words, inverted sentence structure, and metaphors were beyond them.


The original:
“Las guerras daban excusa a los peruleros para medros y rápidas ganancias, aunque, también, para perder la cabeza de sobre los hombros o andarse huido en las selvas entre las alimañas si no se acertaba el ganador en esa suerte de como lotería.”

Babylon (http://traductor.babylon.com/):
“Wars gave an excuse for the peruleros for limitless ambition and rapid gains, though, also, to lose the head of on the shoulders or prevaricate fled in the jungles between the vermin was difficult if not the winner in that sort of as lottery.”

Google Translate (http://translate.google.com/):
“The war gave the Peruvians excuse for Medros and quick profits, but also to lose his head over the shoulders or beating fled in the forests between the vermin if not the winner was right in that sort of like lottery.”

Instituto Cervantes (http://traductor.cervantes.es/):
“The wars gave excuse to the peruleros for medros and fast gains, although, also, to lose the head of on the shoulders or walk escaped in the jungles between the alimañas if it did not hit the winner in this luck of as lottery.”

My translation:
“For the conquistadors in Peru, these wars provided a pretext for advancement and quick profit, though they might also result in sudden death or flight, wandering through the jungle amid its predators, for failing to guess the winning side in that lottery of fate.”


This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Machine Translation Without the Translation,” explains how Google Translate works and why it makes mistakes.



If you’re looking for a translator, here’s my LinkedIn profile:
mount_oregano: Let me see (Picasso)

Short stories by six top Spanish-language writers have been translated into English and are now available in Terra Nova: An Anthology of Contemporary Spanish Science Fiction. I’m one of the translators. You can buy it at:

Smashwords, in a variety of electronic formats:

Amazon, in Kindle format:

Amazon, in paperback:

Sportula, the Spanish publisher:

The variety of stories is impressive.


“The Texture of Words,” by Felicidad Martínez: women seek to lead despite being blind and dependent, while men fight constant wars.

“Deirdre,” by Lola Robles: in the future, robotics can create made-to-order lovers.

“Greetings from a Zombie Nation,” by Eric J. Mota: a stagnant society, Cuba, turns its citizens into the living dead.

“Light a Lone Candle,” by Victor Conde: social networks want too much and never let go.

“Bodies,” by Juanfran Jiménez: in a globalized and pseudodemocratic Europe, the rich practice sex tourism by means of mind exchange.

“Memory,” by Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría: personal relationships and sex roles evolve in radical ways on a terraformed Mars.

And an article by the editor:

“Science Fiction from Spain,” by Mariano Villarreal: a close look at the past and present in Spanish science fiction.

It’s been a pleasure to translate these outstanding stories and bring them to the English-speaking public. Get your copy today!

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (I_heart_Spain)
Here in Spain, the word peineta refers to the big comb that is used with a mantilla, a lace headcovering sometimes worn on very formal occasions.

Turn a peineta upside down and it sort of looks like a digitus impudicus, a one-fingered salute. And that’s another meaning of the word “peineta.”

You can see an example of it here, a photo a Spanish politician involved in a corruption investigation greeting the media:

They didn’t teach this word in school, but it’s what you really wanted to learn.

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (Madrid)
Here’s what to expect if you live in Madrid, Spain:


The weather is cold, averaging 32ºF/0ºC at night and 50ºF/20ºC during the day. It may rain or at least drizzle frequently. It snows up in the mountains, and ski slopes fill up with customers. The snowpack provides water for the city as it slowly melts during the next six months, so in this land of frequent droughts, snow is welcome.

January 1: Get up late (see December 31). Chocolate and churros might make a good breakfast. It’s a national holiday, so you don’t have to go to work.
5: The Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men) arrive in an extravagant parade. Tons (literally) of candy are thrown to the children lining the streets, and many spectators bring umbrellas and hold them upside down to catch the candy more efficiently.
6: Epiphany, a national holiday. The Wise Men brought gifts to Baby Jesus, and during the night, they have delivered gifts to all the children (and adults). A good day for an extended family dinner.
7: Back to work.


Not much happens in general. The weather gets slightly warmer. Almond trees bloom, and farmers begin to plant fields.

ARCO, a big-time international art fair, is held in early February.

Depending on how Easter falls, there may be a pre-Lent Carnival in February or March with a parade downtown, children’s activities, music, and a few fashionable parties. Bigger, better celebrations occur elsewhere in the country, especially Cadiz and Santa Cruz de Tenerife. In Madrid, Carnival ends with the Burial of the Sardine on Ash Wednesday. The traditional Lenten sweet is a kind of super-sweet french toast called torrijas. Lent is also an excuse to eat a lot of delicious fish and seafood, especially salt cod.

But it’s not fair to say nothing much happens. Madrid, being a big city and the nation’s capital, always has art exhibitions, theater, movies, music, dance, ferias, museums, sports, and politics to keep you entertained – every month of the year, every year. If you’re not out having fun, it’s your own fault.


March 19: Father’s Day. This is really St. Joseph’s Day, honoring Jesus’ step-father. It may or may not be a holiday. (The total number of public holidays is set by law, and there are national, regional, and municipal holidays. Depending on where each one falls, the specific holidays celebrated with days off can vary each year, and they may be moved to a Monday or Friday. Pay attention to the calendar.)

Easter may fall in March or April. This is a big holiday – in religious terms, bigger than Christmas, because the promise of Christ is fulfilled. Semana Santa (Holy Week) gets less commercial attention because people don’t give gifts, but for businesses and the government, it is untouchable. Schools get the week off, and Good Thursday and Good Friday are national holidays. Many families go on trips.

Those who stay home can go to religious processions to celebrate the Passion – nowhere near as dramatic and famous as those in Seville, but since there are fewer crowds, you can actually see them. The pointy hats and robes worn by the participants, which were copied by the Klu Klux Klan for some reason, can be creepy for Americans.


Spring begins as early as February, but in April the flowers go into overdrive. Visit parks and gardens, such as the Royal Botanical Garden. Although sidewalk cafés operate year-round to accommodate smokers, they thrive on the first warm evening.

April 23: World Book Day. Celebrations include reading the entire novel of Don Quixote de la Mancha out loud. I’ve participated a couple of times.

The Madrid Marathon takes place in late April, with live music to accompany the athletes in the streets.


May 1: Fiesta de Trabajo (Labor Day). A national holiday.
2: Dos de Mayo, a local holiday celebrating the uprising on May 2, 1808, against Napoleon’s troops, which drove them out of the city. (The troops returned on May 3 and slaughtered the rebels.)
15: San Isidro Day, honoring the city’s patron saint, is celebrated with picnics at Ermita de San Isidro Park, concerts, and more, depending on the local budget (not too generous lately, for obvious reasons). The festivities include a month of bullfighting, in theory the most important bullfights of the world, although lately the promoters have been falling flat and big-name matadors have not been invited.

The first Sunday is Mother’s Day. The traditional gift is a bouquet of red and white carnations.

The national football (soccer) season ends around late May, although often with more of a whimper than a bang. Leagues are won by the team that has accumulated the most points. This year in the top division, Barcelona is so far ahead that everyone already knew in January it would win.

In late May or early June, the Feria del Libro (Book Fair) opens in Retiro Park for two weeks: 10% discounts on all purchases, big crowds, and top authors signing books.


Summer festivals begin. The school year ends in about the third week of June. If you haven’t gone hiking in the mountains yet, now is a good time.

International soccer competitions may be held during the summer and can arouse ecstatic enthusiasm.

While Madrid always welcomes a lot of tourists (honest, they’re welcome), the onslaught really starts.


¡Joder, qué calor! (Bleep, it’s hot!) The hottest month of the year, and temperatures can easily rise above 100F/40C – but it’s a dry heat. It may not rain all month.

More festivals are held in and around Madrid and there’s a lot of late night hanging out at sidewalk cafés.


7 to 15: The street festivals of San Cayetano, San Lorenzo, and La Paloma fill up the oldest parts of the city with colorful traditions. Due to the heat, the celebrations really start late at night. August 15 is a national holiday, the Assumption.

San Sebastian de los Reyes, a suburb, holds a runnings of the bulls considered second only to Pamplona. Subway line 1 takes you right to them. I’ve watched a couple of times, but I’ve never run because I’m not that crazy.

Some people have the month of August off from work, or at least a couple of weeks, so they go on vacation. Many families visit the pueblo (rural home town of their ancestors). The city gets kind of empty, which can be nice, although tourists take up some of the slack.

Professional football (soccer) begins again around late August.


Kids go back to school in about the second week of September.


The fall rains have triggered mushrooms up in the mountains, and those in the know go pick them. Hunting season also begins. October is a big vacation month in Japan, so there are noticeably more Japanese tourists.

12: Día de Hispanidad, or Columbus Day, a national holiday, is celebrated with a grand military parade downtown presided over by the King.


The weather gets noticeably cooler.

November 1: All Saints’ Day, a national holiday. You should go to the cemetery and lay flowers on the graves of family members.


A month filled with holidays. The Christmas Fair opens in Plaza Mayor. Some small towns near Madrid organize special holiday events, such as a town-wide live recreation of Bethlehem, camels included. (Baby Jesus, portrayed by a local infant, may only make brief appearances due to cold weather.) Shopping areas are busy busy busy.

December 6: Constitution Day, a national holiday.
8: Immaculate Conception, a national holiday. Sometimes the two are combined to “bridge” over the 7th, and the three days together are commonly called the Immaculate Constitution. It can be a good time to get out of town.
22: El Gordo, the big Christmas lottery, is drawn in the morning. Holiday celebrations begin in earnest.
25: Christmas, a national holiday. Ideally on Christmas Eve, you have dinner with your extended family and then go to midnight Mass. The tradition of Santa Claus has not taken hold in Spain. The traditional decoration is nativity scenes, which can include artistic recreations of the entire city of Bethlehem. The Royal Palace Belen (Bethlehem) is among the most spectacular, but many others are worth visiting.
31: Noche Vieja (New Year’s Eve). Another chance to spend an evening with your family – families mean everything in Spain. To ensure good luck in the coming year, you should wear red underwear and eat 12 grapes with each chime of the clock at midnight; a big crowd gathers downtown beneath the official clock. Family celebrations last into the wee hours, although younger members may slip out after midnight to attend massive dance parties that go on until 6 a.m.

Earlier in the evening, the 10K San Silvestre Vallecano race crosses the city. It attracts international running stars, and the “popular” race includes families and costumed runners – more then 30,000 athletes and joggers in all, cheered on by crowds on the curbs.

Happy New Year!

— Sue Burke
mount_oregano: Let me see (Picasso)

My review of HispaCon XXX/Imaginacon II has just been published in Concatenation, a European SF magazine. It was a big weekend in a small town with lots of fun. Read more here:


You can also see the winners of the awards presented at the convention here:


— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Guadarrama1)

The real celebration of Christmas in Spain starts on Saturday, December 22, with the drawing of the El Gordo lottery. Lottery tickets cost €200 (about US$260), and are sold in one-tenth shares. Like many people, I bought my décimo share through work so that my coworkers and I can share the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. If I believed in lotteries more, I could also buy tickets through places like my newspaper kiosk or my supermarket and share their luck, or buy tickets directly from a lottery shop.

Luck is what matters. Spaniards believe in luck.

Here in Madrid, the number 17912 sold out fast because on 17 September 2012, the politician who headed Madrid Province resigned. Love her or hate her (few people are neutral), her resignation made for a big day. Moreover, her first name is Esperanza or “Hope.”

At work, we sent the receptionist to the lottery shop around the corner to buy a number at random, which she did: 29168. Is 29 January 68 lucky? Nothing significant seems to have happened on that date in any year ending in 68. I don’t know if this is good or bad.

The El Gordo jackpot is huge, €2,500,000,000 (over US$3 billion), but it gets split into 15,304 prizes ranging from €400,000 (about US$.5 million) for a first-prize décimo to 20€. I’ve never won anything yet, and I’d be happy to merely get my money back. My chances of winning something are 15.3%, so I’m not very hopeful.

It will take three and a half hours on Saturday morning to draw the winners and announce the prizes. The lottery began in 1812, and the winning numbers and prizes are sung by students of San Idelfonso School of Madrid. Yes, sung. You can watch a segment of the 2011 drawing here:

I think this year’s television advertisement is a creepy. There’s no real dialogue, so you can understand it (to the extent that it is understandable) without knowing Spanish:

If you want to buy lottery tickets and you don’t live in Spain, they are for sale over the Internet. Most but not all of the vendors are legitimate. I can vouch for La Bruixa d’Or (the Golden Witch) in Sort, a town in Catalonia. In Spain, witches are lucky and the name of the town, Sort, means “luck” in Catalan:

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (I_heart_Spain)

I’ve attended science fiction conventions in the US and in Spain, including this year’s Worldcon in Chicago at the end of summer and Hispacon in Urnieta in mid-October. In some ways, conventions in both countries are alike, which isn’t surprising. Although Spain has its own literary trajectory, many of the traditions and habits of American and British fandom have been imported into Spanish fandom, such as genre categories, awards, and the whole idea of conventions themselves.

In fact, Spanish fans (and fans in most of the rest of the world) will know all about Isaac Asimov or China Miéville, although US fans are unlikely to know about Domingo Santos or Javier Negrete — translations flow mostly one way, sadly.

At a Spanish convention, much like a US or British convention, you will find an active interest in books, magazines, television, movies, and Internet publications, activities, and entertainment. Costumes, including steampunk garb, are becoming more popular. Role playing games caught on a while ago. More and more often, convention attendees wear tee-shirts with genre slogans and art, but Hawaiian shirts have yet to make a splash.

Spanish authors and fans mix with the same equality as in the US or Britain, and for the same reason: authors are fans. You’ll find panels and workshops of authors and fans expounding on topics more or less related to the genre and happy to interact with the audience to the enrichment of all.

But you’ll find a few cultural differences that are very Spanish.


Actually, this is a general Spanish thing. Friends greet and say goodbye with air kisses on both cheeks: men and women, women and women. Since Spaniards are in general good-looking, this is fun in itself. But imagine the squee of kissing your favorite author!

Book presentations

New books are presented to fans and likely readers in sessions at conventions (and at bookstores and events at other times of the year), although not quite the same way. In the US, the author might make a few remarks and then read from the new book. In Spain, a panel of people possibly including the author will expound on the book, and the book will be shown off with all its glorious cover art, but it won’t be read aloud. I don’t know why. It’s just not done — not frowned upon when done in other countries, but not done in Spain.


Unlike than in the US or Britain, awards are often presented for unpublished works. This is an old tradition especially common outside the genre, and, really, the award acts as publicity for the soon-to-be-published work. At a Hispacon, the big awards, like the Ignotus (which is the Spanish equivalent of the Hugo) are for published works, but you might encounter an award or two for something not yet in print. This is why.

Alcohol I

Somehow, every convention manages to have a bar on premises or at least nearby. A Spanish bar serves everything from liquor to coffee along with snacks, so you can be in the bar at any time from morning to night. You’ll probably be there sooner or later, even if you’re a tea-totaler.

Alcohol II

Spain has a wine-based cuisine. No dinner is complete without wine. So at a gala awards dinner, expect to get all the wine you can drink. In addition, or as a consequence, expect the dinner to be loud and jovial.

Alcohol III

Don’t expect room parties at the hotel. This just isn’t the custom. Spaniards rarely invite non-family members to their homes for entertainment, so to the extent that a hotel room is a home away from home, it’s not the place for entertaining people. Instead, friends meet in bars for a night out, both in daily life and at conventions. Since Spanish bars are so plentiful and varied, the lack of room parties creates no problem at conventions. You can go to bed early at a Worldcon or a Hispacon, but you don’t have to. Why would you even want to?

So a Hispacon will be different from a Worldcon, but just as at a Worldcon, you can have all the fun you can handle, learn about new books, discuss shows and films, make friends, and meet (and maybe kiss) your favorite authors. Best and most important of all, you can spend a weekend engaged in fierce public love of literature. Fans are like that the world over.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Let me see..)

I teach English to Spanish teenagers, which is an education for them and me.

Earlier this month, a student came to class wearing a tee-shirt that a friend had brought as a gift from New York — seen here, and available for purchase here:

My student knew what m***** f***** meant, since bad words are among the first vocabulary items any kid seeks out, but he had a question, and not the one I expected: “What does duck mean? I’m sure it isn’t pato.” (Pato = the bird called “duck.”)

So I explained, and he learned how to say get down and hide in one convenient English word. And, finally, he appreciated the joke on the shirt. Meanwhile I pondered the possibility of pistol-packing foul-mouthed New York waterfowl.

Education marches on.

— Sue Burke

P.S. Stay strong, New York! The world's thoughts are with you.

mount_oregano: Let me see (I_heart_Spain)

The other day I found a flyer in our doorway for a new T.G.I.Friday’s restaurant here in Madrid, located downtown on calle Virgen del los Peligros (Virgin of the Dangers Street, which is another story).

Yes, T.G.I.Friday’s, the “American Restaurant & Bar,” as it bills itself. The flyer also boasted of “nuevos dinner menus,” specifically “Traditional o Special American dinner experience.” (The flyer was an exotic mix of Spanish and English, I suppose to prove its authenticity.)

For the Traditional American dinner experience, only 9.95€, you could chose among chicken fingers with mustard and honey sauce or BBQ sauce, a bacon cheeseburger, Cobb salad, or beef sandwich.

The Special American dinner experience, 11.95€, offered a choice of great Southwest beef burrito, fire-grilled BBQ chicken tacos, Jack Daniel’s chicken, or Burger y Olé.

Burger y Olé? I wondered what that was too, so I went to the website, http://www.tgifridays.es, looked it up and snatched a photo. Grilled beef patty, manchego cheese, carmelized onion, and Spanish ham, with tomato, lettuce, pickles, and ali-oli sauce, which is garlic mayonnaise.

A Special American experience?

I’m not planning to rush out to try it, and I’m also not sure that any of those dishes would be the dinner that I would most want to represent my country. (What would be? And would it have the word “olé” in it?) I am sure that living overseas delivers endless entertainment, sometimes right to my doorstep.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Madrid)

[This is an encore post from 2009.]

Every Spanish town or city has its patron Virgin, and in a big city like Madrid, even neighborhoods have their own. Ours is Our Lady of Atocha. On the first Sunday of October — that is, today — she is taken out of the Royal Basilica of Atocha and carried in procession through the streets while neighbors applaud and cheer.

Tradition says that the statue was made by the disciples of Saint Peter while the Virgin was still alive. It's actually late Byzantine, although the veneration goes back centuries earlier. Saint Ildefonso, Archbishop of Toledo, wrote in 665 or 666 A.D. that an image of the Virgin was being worshiped in a small chapel near the banks of the Manzanares River.

Every local Virgin has her legends and miracles, and this is just one of Atocha's:

In the year 720, the mayor of Madrid, the knight Gracián Ramírez, often went to the chapel near the Manzanares to pray, but he went in secret because the area had fallen under the control of the invading Moors. One day the statue was missing, and as he searched for it, he pledged that if he found it, he would build a new chapel at that spot. He found it in a field of esparto grass, which is known as "atocha" in this part of Spain — thus, it seems, her name.

He gathered some men and construction began (at more or less the site of the current basilica), but as it neared completion, the Moors suspected that he was building a fort and amassed to attack. They badly outnumbered the Christians, and despite his prayers, Gracián feared defeat. To prevent his wife and two daughters from falling into the hands of the Moors, he brought them to the altar, drew his sword, and chopped off their heads. He left their corpses in the chapel and went out to fight to his death.

But at that moment, great flashes of lightning and deafening thunder blinded the Moors and terrified them. They trampled each other as they tried to run away, giving the Christians an easy victory. After the battle, they hurried back to the chapel to give their thanks. But when they arrived, Garcián discovered his wife and daughters on their knees praying before the altar — alive and well, but with a red line around their neck where he had severed their heads to remind him of his lack of faith.

(Astute readers will see a few historical problems with this story. Well, yes, such as the fact that the town of Madrid did not exist, and it so it had no mayor. It's a traditional story, and "tradition" in Spain means that you should take it for its dramatic, folkloric, or didactic value, not as fact.)

Over the years, the chapel became a church, and more miracles occurred. Eventually, the kings of Spain became regular worshipers, and Our Lady of Atocha became the patroness of the royal house. The church was rebuilt several times and eventually designated as a basilica. It was damaged during the French occupation in 1808 and burned down during the Civil War in 1936. The current building was inaugurated on Christmas Day, 1951.

But over the centuries, the statue, with its gentle, happy eyes, was always protected and saved.

Our Lady of Atocha is made of dark wood, 60 centimeters high from head to foot, seated on a throne with a crown on her head. She holds an apple in her right hand. The Christ Child sits on her lap, holding a book and raising two fingers in benediction.

The queens of Spain donate their wedding dresses to the Virgin, and when she goes out on procession, she wears splendid clothing made from them — as you can see in the photo.

She's one of the "black Madonnas" that became popular in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. Why were they black? No one is quite sure, but recent investigations have shown that they didn't turn dark through age. They were deliberately dark.

Today, she will be carried out of the church on a float decorated with flowers and candles. If it's like previous processions, as she emerges, the police band will play the Spanish national anthem, a royal march. Hundreds of people will greet her with applause and shouts of "Viva la Virgen!"

I hope to be there. I'm not Catholic, but Atocha is my neighborhood, and she's been here a lot longer than anyone.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Carmencita)

In Madrid, the August fiestas are underway: earlier this week, San Cayetano; then San Lorenzo; and from August 12 to 15, the big one, La Virgen de la Paloma. These are the traditional fiestas held in the oldest neighborhoods of the city. The official tourist website describes them here in English:

Last night, it was 95ºF at 10 p.m., and the San Lorenzo fiesta was gearing up with music, food, and drink in the Lavapiés neighborhood. My photos:

Plaza de Lavapiés.

Argumosa Street. The dragon advertises a stand selling grilled meats and fried foods.

The band Ynterceptor.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (YedikuleCastle)

These days, we all tend to write a lot like Ernest Hemingway — which is not a bad thing: his style mimics spoken speech and shows more than it tells. It’s often called transparent.

I like that style, and I like Hemingway. Sometimes I drink in the same bars he did in Madrid hoping it will make me a better writer. But I don’t like the way his style seems to have become the only acceptable writing style in English today.

Other styles exist. I want to show a more embellished style that you can sometimes find in Spanish. What follows are extracts I have translated from the first story in Perlas para un collar [Pearls for a Necklace]. The book is a collection of thirty stories about Christian, Moorish, and Jewish women in medieval Spain. Half were written by historical novelist Ángeles de Irisarri and half by co-author Toti Martínez de Lezea — both highly considered Spanish writers. The story about Adosinda is by Irisarri.

Is this writing less vivid or less evocative than a transparent style? Or are the sentences too long, the style too “telly” and to “writerly”? Could this be published in English?


[The story is set in Pravia, a town in Asturias, in northern Spain, in the year 790. The Moors invaded Spain in 711.]

When Adosinda returned to her hometown, Pravia, with her clothes in rags, dead-tired, drenched to the bones, and dragging her feet, she was surprised because the town’s inhabitants looked out of the windows of their houses and many of them, mostly women, came out to the street and converged to embrace her, their faces thanking her for this unexpected good news, and to offer her a swallow of wine, but above all to ask how she had escaped from the Saracens. This despite the pouring rain.

The girl was not surprised by the rain, since downpours were customary and proper to that region, but she was amazed that there were men, women, and children, all of them still with their heads on their shoulders, and that Pravia had not been burned down but instead remained as she had left it, or better said, as she had been made to leave it.

[She collapsed into a bed in the home of a widow. While she slept, the people of the town entered its dim, fortress-like church to profane the tomb of King Mauregato, dead for a few months. Earlier that year, he had ordered ten maidens from Pravia and a total of one hundred from his kingdom of Asturias to be given to the Moors, as he did every year so they would not attack. Since the Moorish invasion, his subjects had had good kings and bad kings, but none so bad as Mauregato.

Adosinda awoke the next day, asked about her mother, and learned she had died of a broken heart. She wept, then asked to go to her grave, and townswomen accompanied her to the church.]

The honorable women of Pravia were surprised, as they walked, by Adosinda’s festive ease as she gathered flowers, the most beautiful flowers along the roadside that, because it had stopped raining and the sun had come out, shone more lovely than ever, or so it seemed to the women, as did the bouquet she gathered, and, accompanied by the widow who took her by the arm as if she were her mentor, she knelt before the tomb of her good mother, withdrew into herself, prayed with fervor, then deposited the bouquet of flowers, and arose. But next, instead of leaving the church, she walked to the sepulcher of King Mauregato and did it again. She knelt and prayed and even laid a little flower or sprig or weed on the tombstone, whatever it was that she had kept in her hand, shocking all the women present and everyone who was absent when they found out what the girl had done.

[The women insisted that she tell what happened to her, since none of the other maidens had returned. Adosinda recounted, in spare words, how they had been roped together, marched away, and eventually raped by the soldiers. Days later, after more marching, when the captain tried to rape her again, he was repulsed by her menstrual blood. She was tied to a tree and left behind.

Eventually she freed herself and wandered, lost, praying to the two Saint James of the church of Pravia, until she arrived at the town, but during those months alone, she had found time to forgive everyone, including the king.

Two weeks later, after Adosinda had moved into the empty home of her mother, the priest called the townspeople together to say that a miracle had occurred.]

And everyone, including the girl, heard from the mouth of the sacristan that, Lord in Heaven, on the tomb of Adosinda’s mother, the bouquet she had left had not only not wilted, but in addition, beautiful violets had grown over the tomb and covered it completely, even though this was not the season for such flowers, since September was halfway through.... And one more thing, on Mauregato’s: nettles, which also covered it.

[She became known for the miracle, and soon people from all around flocked to see her.]

During her flight from the Moors and the trip back home, she had completely discarded the idea of marrying a good young man, having many children, forming a family, and being happy within what can be happiness in this world, both for what she had suffered, having been violently used, and because she realized that no man would want her as a wife after what had happened, so when people came to her to ask her to pray for their families, whether ancestors or successors — since many expectant women came to her — and because they gave her gifts and even considered her blessed by the two Saint James and soon called her “Saint,” that turn of events suited her, given that she had to make her living somehow, and this required no effort, for, after she had been taken from Pravia, she had done no other thing than to pray to the Baptist and the Evangelist to save her from the Saracens, which they had done.


— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Postage stamp)

Beautiful: My husband and I spent yesterday hiking in Peñalara Park in the peaks of the Guadarrama Mountains near Madrid.

You can get there in a two-hour ride by commuter train, changing trains in the mountain town of Cercedilla to a narrow-guage line that snakes up the sides of the mountains to the park. More than 150,000 people visit each year — even a few foreign tourists who discover that Madrid exists beyond the Prado Museum and tapas bars.

A few more photos here:

The park’s website, in Spanish:

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (Weather vane)

The San Fermín fiesta has begun in Pamplona, Spain, and its most famous activity, the running of the bulls — encierro in Spanish. Every day at 8 a.m starting today and continuing to July 14, bulls will run through downtown from pens to the bullring, and thousands of people will run with them.

Today’s run featured bulls from the Dolores Aguirre ranch. It took them 2 minutes 53 seconds to cover the distance, and for the most part the bulls were “noble” and took little notice of the crowds. However, one man, age 73, was gored in the leg shortly after the bulls left the pen, and at the end, a bull’s horn caught a man’s collar and kerchief (red kerchiefs are traditional at the fiesta) and he was dragged down the street into the bullring. He suffered only a few bruises.

You can see it here:

Note that there are six bulls accompanied by six steers, which are tan-colored, larger, and wear bells. The steers know the route and make sure the bulls don’t get lost or frightened.

The goal of a runner (as opposed to los valientes, the “valiant” participants who stand off to the side and avoid the bulls as much as possible) is to run directly in front of the horns. The massive number of runners on weekends makes this more difficult, and several runners were injured in falls as a result of the crowds.

Of course, the fiesta includes a lot more activities. The official poster (above) depicts one of the “big heads,” specifically a character that roams through the streets and chases people, especially children, to their delight. The fiesta also offers music, dancing, religious processions for Saint Fermín, and fireworks.

You can follow the Sanfermines at the website of Radio Television Española, which has covered the fiesta since 1982. A staff of 70 people and 30 cameras are hard at work. Scroll all the way down on the page and you can watch the encierro from different cameras along the route:

Why run with the bulls? Though he was speaking about something else, Robert A. Heinlein explained it concisely: “Nothing gives you more zest than running for your life.”

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (SpainAtNight)

An explanation: Last weekend my husband and I went for a brief vacation in San Sebastián/Donostia. That’s a town in Spain in Basque Country on the northern Atlantic Coast near the boarder with France.

While there, we visited the San Telmo Museum, housed in a former Dominican monastery. It contained art and historical and cultural items from Roman times to the present. The section on Basque culture included this display of a recreation of headdresses, which was described this way:

“Basque headdresses, cotton and silk, hand sown. 20th century reproductions. The fabric headdresses worn by married women and widows indicated their marital state, locality, and economic status. But it was their supposed phallic symbolism that caused ecclesiastical authorities to ban them in the early 17th century.”

Married women wore the headdresses with the supposed phallic symbols and widows wore the plain ones.

As a writer, I had this reaction: We need to make our fiction as strange as reality. And make our reality as strange as it used to be.

Meanwhile, you can see a few photos of beautiful beaches and breathtaking scenery from the rest of the long weekend in San Sebastián/Donostia as a Facebook album here:

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (NightFallsOnEurope)

My friend and fellow writer Suzanne Allés Blom died June 23rd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, due to cancer. There were several friends present, who had been reading aloud a favorite book and discussing a topic of interest to her, politics, and her passage was peaceful.

In 2000, shortly after I moved to Spain, Sue came to visit, and she helped me write an article for the November 2000 issue of In Madrid, an English-language newspaper.

Photo: Suzanne in Plaza Mayor

Madrid on Wheels
story and photos by Sue Burke

My friend Suzanne thought the guards were going to carry her out of the Museo del Ejército. They headed toward the door, but then they turned, and, to her horror, cheerfully carried her in her wheelchair up the grand staircase to the second floor.

It’s a military pride thing, I guess. She had an obvious interest in historic weapons, and they weren’t going to let her roll away without seeing everything, even if her wheelchair didn’t fit in the museum’s elevator. They didn’t accidentally drop her, either. It’s a long fall down a flight of stairs.

Suzanne Allés Blom, a American friend, visited this summer. As soon as she mentioned a visit in an e-mail, I began studying Madrid for handicapped access. It didn’t look good: stairs everywhere. Two steep steps to get into my apartment building – maybe she could hoist herself up using crutches and a handrail, like the old ladies in my building. Someone would have to open the heavy door for her, though. She couldn’t come and go on her own.

She’d have to use crutches in the elevator, too. The door didn’t come close to the recommended width of 70 cm to let in a wheelchair. I could only pray to Santa Ascención, patron of lifts, that it wouldn’t break down for two full weeks, or she’d have to live in the lobby.

And what was there to do in Madrid on wheels for two full weeks? She cruised the web, I searched the bookstores and tourist offices. She found nothing. I found exactly one book, the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness guide to Madrid. It listed wheelchair accessible sites, but added ominously, “Phone to check details. . . . On the whole, Spain is not wheelchair friendly.”

A staff member of the Confederación Coordinadora Estatal de Minusválidos Fisicos de España sat down with me and offered advice: the three big art museums are fine, the Palacio Real has an elevator, and the zoo and Parque de El Retiro are pleasant. He also recommended Atocha train station, with its impressive indoor garden and accessible restaurants and shops. I hadn’t thought of that, but it made sense, since I can roll heavy suitcases through it without trouble.

I mentioned that I don’t have a car. “That’s a real problem,” he said.

Only 40 subway stations have lifts, none in the center of the city. One out of three buses are “piso bajo” and in theory can accommodate wheelchairs, but have you ever seen someone in a wheelchair using them? Eurotaxis are taxis specially equipped to handle wheelchairs, but only 28 serve Madrid, so you have to call and wait, and perhaps pay a bit more.

But even if I drove, Madrid has only a few thousand handicapped parking spots and a half-million handicapped residents. City officials say that other drivers respect the spots, and disability activists say no.

This news did not surprise Suzanne. She travels a lot, and she’s philosophic. Every place she’s visited is a lot like home: inconvenient and sometimes impossible. She planned to bring her manual wheelchair. Self-propelled models are less tiring and better for hills, but they’re too heavy to pick up and won’t fit in the trunk of a car. They can’t be tipped easily to climb a curb or step.

Of course, taxis in Madrid are small compared to American cars. The manual wheelchair might not fit in a taxi trunk. Another worry: wheelchairs are handled like luggage by airlines, and sometimes they get mangled. She duct-taped the fragile parts together and packed a suitcase.

Would she like Madrid? I like Madrid. I like showing it off. I wanted her to have a good time, maybe a better time than at home. Spain had to be different somehow.

I was ready and waiting at Barajas Airport. And waiting. . . . Other than delays, Barajas was fine, with level floors and wide doorways and an eager although inexperienced attendant assigned to see her through the crowds safely. (Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, where she changed planes, was disorganized and ill-equipped, but that’s a problem for the French, who were also rude.)

We caught a cab. Her wheelchair, which had arrived intact, barely fit in the trunk. We arrived at my apartment building. She hoisted herself up the two front steps. The elevator worked. We planned our assault on the city.

She’s a novelist, and she needed to do a little research on 16th century weapons used in the conquest of the Incas. The Museo Naval was inaccessible. The Museo del Ejército was accessible, more or less, and offered an outstanding display of falconete cannons. The Museo de America couldn’t be better. But how to get there?

“We’ll just go to the corner and hail a taxi,” I said.

“Is it that easy?” she asked.

When she got a look at traffic and saw all the taxis, her eyes got wide. True, sometimes the trunks were too small, and taxis aren’t cheap – we tipped generously, since we weren’t fast and easy passengers. The reactions of the drivers fascinated her. Some were glad to be of service. Others muttered things.

In fact, people in general fascinate Suzanne, and El Retiro was a splendid place for people-watching, especially the wide Paseo Salón de Estanque. She learned how to tip buskers and liked it. She liked the terazza cafés even more. And if some paths were blocked stairways, well, that’s life. She’s used to it.

She showed me how to handle a small bump like an imperfectly installed cut in a curb. She got rolling fast and, at the right moment, braked just enough to make the front wheels jump a couple of centimeters.

Where there were no curb cuts, she needed a boost. Boosting takes practice, though. Wheelchairs can tip. Some have seat belts.

Plaza Mayor was better than I had hoped. The pavement was rough (did you know that some wheelchairs have shock absorbers?), but level. She could roll right up to the cafés. Many shops had only a small step at the entrance, and she could buy souvenirs for the folks back home. There were plenty of people to watch.

She enjoyed roaming around Madrid de los Asturias and admiring the old architecture, even though the sidewalks were narrow and often blocked by trees, posts, trash bins, steps, construction, hills, and parked cars. When we had to resort to rolling down the middle of street, drivers waited for us. That surprised her.

The Palacio Real charged less for handicapped visitors, and we got to see more: a series of long corridors and metal ramps that took us to a fairy-tale elevator, with etched glass windows and red velvet curtains. It was just barely big enough for a wheelchair, but regal.

The Palacio’s beautiful new Real Armería, however, had two steps in front and more inside. I asked a guard if there was a handicapped entrance.

“No. But she has a right to see it. You should complain.”

I was more impressed by the can-do military might of the Museo de Ejército.

The Museo de Archeológico Nacional was accessible in the usual fashion – down a long side path and through a maintenance door. We were admiring neolithic baskets when we realized no one had remembered to charge us admission. Of course, the Altamira cave replica was impossible.

The big art museums – Prado, Reina Sofía, Thyssen – were fine. The whole world can see “Guernica.” Atocha’s garden pool had big turtles and tiny tropical fish. Sidewalks along the Art Walk were level, so we could admire Cibeles and Neptune, and stop for a granizada at a café.

We had to hunt for accessible bathrooms, and I forgot something important. Many bathroom lights here have timers. She can take care of herself, but she moves slowly, too slow. “I know where everything is, so it was okay,” she said when she came out, laughing, but I don’t think she was truly amused.

Finally, after two weeks of art, parks, history and general beauty, what would she want to do to say goodbye to Madrid? She wanted to spend an evening at Plaza Mayor. As we headed up Calle de Postas, I saw why. In the plaza, she was independent, with space to roll, lots to see, people to watch, stores she could enter, and her choice of cafés.

It was a cool, busy summer night. Strolling musicians entertained us. Waiters in white jackets brought us overpriced wine. She looked around, smiling.

“You know,” she said, “Madrid looks so Spanish. It’s not like Germany, where all the buildings are modern and generic.”

“But modern is more accessible.”


I couldn’t argue with that. She’s the one who was inconvenienced.

“I don’t have to call ahead to get access, either,” she said. “Here, they’ll do things for you right away.”

“They value spontaneity here,” I said.

“And people on the street don’t treat me the same. They look at me more, especially little kids. In the United States, everyone pretends they don’t notice you. In Madrid, they walk a lot closer to my wheelchair and stand right next to it. They don’t avoid me. It’s like they know, but they don’t care.”

“Spain is indifferent,” I said.

“Yeah. I like it.”

That’s what I wanted to hear.

mount_oregano: Let me see (Default)

Why do I call myself Mount Oregano?

"The mountain isn't all oregano," they say here in Spain: No todo el monte es orégano.

That means that nothing is entirely easy. A patch of oregano is soft and aromatic, but a hike in the hills will have prickly and stinky moments. Not everything can be oregano.

It's an old saying. You can find it mentioned in Don Quixote de La Mancha in Chapter 36.

And while I try to behave well, I can have my rough moments.

I took the photo in Peñalara National Park in the mountains near Madrid. It was a beautiful hike, but the trail on the mountainside was not for people with poor balance — a potential for some very prickly moments.

— Sue Burke

mount_oregano: Let me see (I_heart_Spain)

While I was doing the weekly grocery shopping here in Madrid, I could have gotten a soccer ball with a purchase of gazpacho, but I already had gazpacho in the refrigerator, so I let that deal go by. But I did buy some olives, and they came with a stick of facepaint in the color of Spain's flag, red and yellow and red.

Why all this? Because play has begun in the 2012 European Football (Soccer) Championship. Spain is the returning champion team (and the World Cup reigning champion). A trip to the grocery store reveals the excitement.

Me? I'll be cheering for Spain. Loudly. But not as nearly loud as a lot of my neighbors. And I need to find some kids upon whom to inflict some facepaint.


-- Sue Burke


September 2017

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