Dispatch 3, The Short, Unhappy Life of Toro the Opel

Well, since leaving Madrid, I just take the opportunity when I happen upon an Internet cafe, because, well, you never know when I’ll find another.

Excuse the awful typos in yesterday’s post. That keyboard was weirder than most, not just oddly placed letters, but sticky keys and I was trying to type too fast.

Anyhoo, so I might as well tell you the sad saga of my rental car, a cute little Opel Corsa–a very new car but without air conditioning or a radio. The former doesn’t really matter, since it’s been fairly cool and overcast or raining since I left Madrid. The latter might be both a blessing and a curse. No radio means fewer distractions, and it’s probably a really good thing that I pay as much attention to the driving, as I’m going largely without benefit of a map and still not that good at the whole driving thing. On the other hand, no radio leaves me a lot of time to think. And I mean a lot. Which is probably dangerous. When I picked up Toro, he had a mere 6000 kilometers on the odometer. I’ve managed to add another 1200 to that. Poor thing.

But there is a reason I’ve named him so. You see, in bullfighting, the poor bull is the object of a tragedy. He’s tested, to see how brave he is, then basically pnished into being controlled before being killed. When he rushed the horses with the picadors atop them, he’s stabbed by a 4cm blade at the end of a long stick. Then, when that’s finally over, the bandilleros get their turn. They each take 2 banderillas, long frou-frou looking affairs with a pic at the end. They run at hte bull and stick him in the back near the neck. Three times this happens, and then out comes the matador with the muleta (the red cape thing the bull rushes) where he is finally slain with the steel. If he’s lucky.More often that not, the matador either can’t get the blade in and has to do it several times, or he gets it in but it doesn’t kill the bull, who then is rushed by the banderillos with pink capes who try to disorient himuntil he collapses, and then, if necessary, one of them finishes him off with a stab to the artery in his neck.

Now imagine my poor car going through this. He’s been stalled more times than I can remember at this point. I’ve learned first hand why people who drive stick shifts seem to prefer rolling stops to actual ones, and I think I now get what it means to strip the gears. I’ve had a couple (ok more than a couple) of times where at 100km an hour I could’t get the damn thing into a gear, on a hill, going round a sharp curve. And he’s made some really painful sounds along the way, but he keeps coming back for more.

And after yesterday, I’m feeling pretty lucky about that. You see, I literally added insult to injury. After sending Jay my post, I went outside but it was really cold, so I decided to get my sweater from the car, which,believe it or not, I had successfully parallel parked in downtown Pamplona. Except.

You guessed it. No car. Not there.

Now, I’ll digress for a moment and say that I find it interesting how easy it’s been to meet people on this trip. Really from the first plane ride, in all the airports, and generally along the way, it’s been remarkably easy to strike up conversations with people. I wonder if t’s reading too much into the situations, or being too much a romantic to think that people who put themselves on journeys are inevitably nervous and excited by the whole thing, and so want or need to share something of it with others who they perceive as going through something similar.

And it is nerve wracking and exciting. I mean, as amazing a time as I’ve been having, I’ve had to repeat to myself more than a few times the oldadage about whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And I guess I’m beginning to believe that it’s true, because if ever there was a time when I would have expected me to fall apart, it would be standing in the rain in Pamplona, no map, unable to speak the language, with my car missing.

Actually, the police were very nice. I flagged down the first car I saw, and tried to explain to them “la coche, no esta aqui” which seemed to get the point across. They followed me to where it had been, pointed to the orange sticker on the ground indicating that it had been towed, and then proceeded to explain that the little weird machine at the end of the block was where I needed to pay for parking nad then put the ticket in the dashboard. Oops.

So they gave me a ride to where the car had been taken, and it cost me 100 euros to get it back. I harbored some vain hope that the police would explain that I was just a dumb American and shouldn’t have to pay the whole fine, but they just asked me if I watched how we got there so I could ge back to downtown. Oops again.

Well, hey, it was something to make me stronger, I suppose, and, well, I got to ride in a police car. They were nice enough to let me ride shotgun, er, in the front seat, so I wouldn’t feel like a criminal. And I’ve no doubt they least had a good story to share over donuts and amazing Spanish coffee (which is probably even good in offices and precinct houses here) later on.

So I collected my car, drove back to downtown Pamplona, in rush hour no less, and parked again, this time paying for my parking spot, apparently the right way, and heading to the Cafe Iruna for a drink.

Yep. Hey, I told you there would be misadventures to share.

But today I am in San Sebastian, which is really pretty. And on the ocean. And I had an exceptional lunch. I’ve finished the weirdly obsessive Hemingway pilgrimage for this trip and am embarking on the eating portion of the trip. So today, one of the top traditional Basque restaurants in town. Yummers! Really. I mean, the thing is that as much as I love cooking and eating, I’m rarely truly impressed. I always go into a restaurant and want to be wowed. I want to say Great God in Heaven, I had no idea it could be this good. And that rarely happens. I thought that the other day with the foie and pina colada dish. I can only remember one or two experiences of that in the last year in Seattle (For those interested, it was Brasa’s rioja vinegar quail over chocolate polenta–yeah,chocolate polenta–and the golden beet salad at Harvest Vine).

Well, I wanted to shout that from the rafters today at Bodegan Alejandro. The place is cute,vaguely rustic, and very homey, with brownand green tile halfway up the wall, and then yellow painted walls above that, square, heavy wooden tables with no table cloths. Really good bread. A bottle of sidra, the local specialty (served in a wine bottle like French cidre) was 4 euros. Yeah! And it was good. Tart and fermenty tasting, but really nice. And the food. Amuese geule was a cream of leak soup, served in a little egg cup. Tasty. Did I mention the bread was good. So was the appetizer. White asparagus broiled with queso Roncal and served with a poached egg. Yeah. Good.

The entree, though. Yeah. Wait, I need a minute. You guessed it. More salt cod. I love that stuff. Anyway, this was called something like kokotxa. It´s basically what happens whenyou realize that shrimp scampi could be made heavenly by substituting salt cod for the shrimp and then adding a lot more butter and wine so it’s all in a soup kind of thing wiht tuny potatoes. And really good bread to sop it up.

I wouldnt have had dessert because I’m not big on wasting calories on sweets, and trust me, I need to think about this with the eating regimen that’s ahead of me for the next few days, but it was included in the price of the meal (oh, yeah, the whole thing, all three course, is $25). So I asked the waiter to just tell me which was the best one. He said the pain perdu. Oh yeah. It was good. It was Great God in Heaven, who knew dessert could be this good good. Imagine if you will, a cross between bread pudding made with really good bread and a creme brulee and you’ve got this dessert. Oh, and thenfor good measure, top it with some lemon gelato.

Yeah, I’ve got to keep walking. I could walk to Italy at this point and would still not work off all those calories. But they were so worth it.

And did I mention the other thing I discovered in Madrid which might well cause my downfall one of these days–fried sardines. You know, that’s what’s wrong with America. No fried sardines. You know, even bad fried sardines, ones that have been sitting around all day and are reheated in the microwave when you order them, are really good. Why don’t we eat them like crazy in the states? How am I going to return to a sardine-less existence?

Ok. Gotta run. Places to go. Things to see. Well, really just lunch to work off.

Love to you all.