Aug 5, 2013

Soul food, or the lack thereof

Because of getting stranded in London (see the post London cabby), my trip to Madrid last month was not off to the best start. It consisted of rushing up and down 8 escalators, through 2 airport terminals, 2 shuttle stops, immigration, customs, a 15-minute taxi ride, conference registration, and another 10-minute walk through the expo center in 90 degrees weather to get to the conference room where I was scheduled to present, exactly 74 minutes after my flight touched down on Spanish soil. I had about 10 minutes left to catch my breath, as well as attempt to fight back the outbreak of sweat from the previous 64 minutes.

Although not my best presentation on record, given the circumstances it went reasonably well, and with this out of the way I could start off fresh. I had been in Madrid once before, in 1992 while on Interrail through Spain and Portugal with two cousins. At the time it was a blistering 110 degrees, and our college budget allowed for a one night campsite stay only. This time around, I had two nights in a comfortable hotel with air-conditioning, and decided to try to experience some of the city's soul, rather than continue rushing as I had done through the airport. And what better way than to wander around and taste the local soul food, tapas.

I spent the first evening with a philosophically inclined Canadian radiologist, whom I met at a similar conference two years ago. His inclination makes for an entertaining evening, with soulful discussions about cultural differences between Canada, Europe and the U.S., the art of living and working, and the meaning of life (as Douglas Adams readers know, the meaning of life is "42", and I happen to be 42 years old). The restaurant, Ten Con Ten, served delicious dishes, but more Italian with a twist than Spanish tapas.

The second night was spent with a co-worker at a tapas bar on famous Playa Mayor. Its fame has turned the square into a tourist trap, and its tapas into something deep-fried and unrecognizable. 

With one morning left in the Spanish capital, I had one more opportunity to savor some of its soul food. Someone in Illinois had recommended the tapas bar Vi Cool, by heavily laureated two-michelin star Sergi Arola of El Bulli fame. GABROEN had recently seen the documentary about that culinary liquid nitrogen lab north of Barcelona, dubbed the best restaurant in the world. It showed the six months process that the El Bulli crew followed to create the menus for the other six months of the year. Although genius, the technical precision and military discipline seemed to come at a double hefty price: first, the sum of money one had to cough up to dine there, and second, the crazy culinary creations were devoid of soul. So when considering a soulful final lunch spot, I did not have high hopes of finding a memorable one in Vi Cool. I ended up there nevertheless, and am happy to report there was no liquid nitrogen or dry ice involved with its tapas menu. It was a modern twist on classical dishes, it was fun, and it was actually pretty good.

Spain is drowning in a deep recession, its touristy tapas are drowning in deep-fried grease, but Vi Cool and Ten Con Ten are symbols of Madrilean resilience and creativity, of modern twists to a classical city, perhaps of a new soul emerging. I sincerely hope they find their way out of the mess they're in.

Aug 3, 2013

London cabby

Several years ago I saw a documentary about taxi drivers in London, in which they were explaining that it takes about 2 years of memorizing all of the city's street names and a hefty exam to obtain a license. I wish I thought of that when getting stranded at City Airport in the city's Eastern Docklands last month, due to another strike by those lovely contrôleurs trafic aérien francais. I received multiple messages to check the status of my flight with the airport and airline before heading out; like most flights that had to fly over France, my British Airways flight to Madrid was delayed from 6:30 to 10:15pm. Rather than waiting in an overly crowded terminal, I decided to have a comfortable dinner at the nearby mod design hotel I had stayed the night before.

I got to the airport at about 8 pm, still a good 2 hours before the new departure time, so no line at the BA check-in desk. The attendant however looked at me stunned, with big eyes, and uttered I should go and talk to her manager. Not a hopeful sign. Completely unaware of any wrong-doing on my part I walked over to the manager on the other side of the pretty tiny terminal building. She asked me, in upper lip stiff British, and in a classic example of customer service, why I had dared not to show up at the original check-in time 3 hours earlier, just like the other 93 passengers who she had just stuffed in a bus off to an airport I had never even heard of.
The manager and I exchanged more words, not all as polite as what the Brits are known for. To cut a long story short, there was no way for me to get to Madrid that evening, and I was scheduled to present at a conference the next morning at 11:15am. My best bet to get there in time was a flight the next morning at 6:15am out of Heathrow Airport, at the exact opposite side of town. I had 3 options to get there: 90 mins by public transport, or 70 mins by either a metered taxi or flat-rate limo. That was the point in time I should have thought of the taxi license requirements, but anyone should know how to get to Heathrow, right? So instead, in an effort to be a good steward of my boss' travel budget, I opted for the flat rate limo. He took me straight through the rainy city, along the banks of the Thames and all the major sights. I am thinking to myself: This is much better than being passenger # 94 on a bus to nowhere for a diverted aircraft that may not show up at all. But my story did not end here...........

While driving by the Tower, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, I was trying to get a Heathrow hotel room. However, thanks to those lovely contrôleurs trafic aérien francais, all nearby hotels were fully booked by fellow stranded passengers. My best bet was a hotel 9 miles west, and the limo driver smelled money - his flat rate was to Heathrow only, so he would have to charge me for the additional 9 miles. Being stranded, this time in the back of a limo, I had little choice but to let my efforts to be financially conscious go by the wayside. So on we go, passing Heathrow airport for the last 9-mile stretch. The limo driver had programmed the hotel's address in his GPS, but after about 15 minutes racing on the interstate I started to wander whether this guy was deliberately taking a detour to lay claim to still more of my cash.

So I looked up where we were using my iPhone's GPS, which was on 9% battery power remaining, and started interrogating this guy. He assured me he knew where he was going, but still 20 minutes later we were close to getting stuck on a tiny road in England's countryside, and he admitted he was utterly lost. It was still raining and now also dark, so he tossed his GPS and we navigated on my iPhone, now with only 5% battery power left. This limo driver was not only lost, but not geographically gifted nor a good listener. I am not known for a short-fused personality, but this was a combustible mix even for me. I had to revert to switching my phone on and off to save power, and I got us to the right street just before it completely died. It had taken 2 hours and 40 minutes to get here, and I had 4 hours left before my 4:15am wake up call for the next taxi, to take me to my early morning Heathrow flight.  Once again this was not a licensed cabby, but this time the 9-mile stretch took us 15 minutes in stead of 90.........