Category Archives: Digressions

12 Years in Chamberí


Back in late spring 2008 just as I was reaching my apartment in the Madrid neighborhood of Chamberí, I noticed a strange looking vehicle driving down my street. As it got closer I saw that it was the Google Maps car. I stopped and stared it down, hoping to be immortalized on Google Maps street view. And sure enough, a few months later, there I was. At least until very recently. Google has recently refreshed its Madrid street view and I am no longer standing at the door.


Coincidentally, just as my virtual tenure on Google Maps has come to an end, so have my 12 years in Chamberí. Tomorrow we move to a new address.

It all started back in June 2000. I had been working in Washington, DC at a small boutique law firm specializing in environmental law. I enjoyed the work and city, but quite out of the blue – and against my will – I was becoming one of the few experts on the regulation of nutrient pollution in man-made water bodies (for those who care, Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act). However that may sound – exciting or excruciating – I was in my late 20s and didn’t want to be typecast so early in my career. In other words, the time was ripe to make a change. I chose to move to Madrid where I had close friends and a plan: do an MBA at Instituto de Empresa right when European business schools were taking a giant leap in competitiveness vis-à-vis their American counterparts.

So, in the Spring of 2000, I co-published an article entitled “Politics, Pollution and TMDLs: New Directions in Point and Nonpoint Source Liability for Watershed Restoration” in a now long-defunct trade magazine that no one ever read, and by summer I had quit my job , moved to Spain and the rest was history.

While looking for an apartment in Madrid, I moved in with an old friend and his then girlfriend in Chamberí. It took me two months – during which his girlfriend didn’t know which one of us to strangle – until I finally found a nice apartment in the very pijo Salamanca neighborhood.

But after one year in Salamanca and just as my MBA was coming to its end, my landlord – taking advantage of the end of Peseta – was in a rush to sell off the apartment, and I was left homeless. I had no idea whether I was going to stay in Madrid or move back to DC, but I needed some time. My friend who I had stayed with in Chamberí had just broken up with his girlfriend and – against what you would imagine – encouraged me to move in with her and help out with the rent until I could figure my next move. To make a long story short, she ended up taking a job in Barcelona, and I took over the management of the MBA program I had just graduated from along with her apartment.

That was 12 years ago.

In the meantime, I became a fixture in my neighborhood. I have my vegetable market, butcher, cheese guy and fish monger. I do the vast majority of my shopping locally. And when I walk down the street, everyone says hello and knows my name. It helps that my son was born at the hospital down the street, and all of the old ladies want to play with my curly-haired little boy.

While living in this house, I married, changed jobs three or four times. I have gotten good news and I have gotten bad news, and as mentioned, our son was born. I have watched as the local kids were born and grew up, and I have seen my neighbors grow old and pass away. I once even saw a neighbor begging for money in the metro.

And isn’t that what is so special about living in a city? In the U.S., we don’t really have cities. By cities I mean a place where people of all ages and classes live in the same buildings, walk the same streets and buy their groceries in the same stores. In Chamberí, I have had all of these: the old ladies, babies, teenagers, immigrants in the cheaper interior apartments and the bourgeoisie with their balconies. And of course, outside you see beggars and drunks. You are exposed to all faces of humanity.

But now after 12 years, it’s time to move on. We’re moving within walking distance to where my son will start school in September. And we are very excited to move to a bigger, more comfortable space. Nonetheless, while it is technically still within the city (and definitely a far cry from the American suburban life), we will lose my querida Chamberí barrio lifestyle.

Twelve years. That may be the longest time I have ever lived at one address. Almost as long as the house where I grew up. I don’t feel anything close the attachment I feel for my childhood home, but I will definitely cherish its place in my life.

Goodbye to 12 years in Chamberí.

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Filed under Digressions, Living la vida española, Parenthood

Is Football the Gayest Sport in America?


It was fifteen years ago when I was in my mid-to-late twenties that one of my best friends came out to me. It was the first time – and not the last – that a close friend of mine told me he was gay. And to be honest, I felt quite honored (I later learned that although he had already told all of our female friends months earlier, I was the first male friend he had been so candid with). Even back in the Washington, DC of the late 90s, coming out was not an easy thing to do, so I responded to my friend’s trust by making a conscious effort to prove to myself that I was above petty homophobia.

Eventually it became normal for me to meet up with him for drinks at one of his gay hang-outs, where I learned that a man (even one’s with an exaggerated sense of his own self-worth) can survive perfectly well in the close vicinity of gay men without being harassed, molested, or otherwise turning into a sissy. But on my first outing (no pun intended), I had agreed to go to dinner with my friend, the guy he was now crazy about, and another gay friend.

Once again, this was the late 90s in the nation’s capital and while we were not living in completely intolerant times, the idea of sitting for dinner in public at a table with all gay guys was something I had to prep myself for.  You see, as open as I thought I was (or even still think I am), I still had to get over the initial discomfort, fear, or whatever you want to call that stigma men get when their masculinity may be put into question.

And so before going to the dinner, I played out in my mind what the evening would be like; basically, me with three well dressed, savvy guys talking about interior decorating, fashion, and movie stars. Believe it or not, that sounded kind of fun.

As these things always go, the evening was not what I had expected. I showed up to meet two Republican lobbyists, sporting flannel shirts and baseball caps who spent the whole evening talking about college football. I hate college football and I despise the wearing of baseball caps indoors. It turned out that I was the gayest of the group, and the suspicions I have always had about college football were correct …

So when I read the story this week about the openly gay NFL prospect, I immediately recalled that night and couldn’t quite understand the scandal. Isn’t it obvious that football is the gayest sport in America?

Ultimately, straight men need to face the fact that there is something inherently homoerotic in spectator sports and the amount of time we – segregating ourselves from the women, hunched amongst our brethren – dedicate to worshiping the male anatomy in its communal, athletic splendor. And football is the worst of all. Unlike soccer (European football), where physical size does not determine success, professional football by definition is a sport limited only to supermen. Basketball would be just as bad if it weren’t for the fact that football requires ten times the number of male specimen to play, a wide assortment of equipment and accessories, and involves much more bending and huddling.

The apologists could argue that it is no coincidence that the most homophobic institutions are the ones where there is a perceived need for male togetherness free of sexual tension: the military, large sports teams, the Catholic clergy, and even congress.  But if we can acknowledge that there are in fact gay men in the priesthood, the military or in congress — all high testosterone, male-centric institutions — then why is a gay football player so newsworthy or disturbing? Now, I don’t mean to be making any generalizations here. It’s just in my own limited personal experience, the only time I have ever had a dinner conversation about college football it was with gay Republican lobbyists. That doesn’t mean that all Republican lobbyists are gay.

It just means that football might be.


Filed under Digressions, Football/Soccer

When Santa Claus was White and the Bad Guys Were Too

In American pop culture tradition – in every movie or TV show you’ll ever see – the villains never come with the standard vanilla Mid-Atlantic English. On the rare occasion that the bad guy is American, he usually either speaks in an ethnic or urban tough guy vernacular or if the story is “politically correct” – meaning that there is something inherently white about the bad guy’s badness – then he’ll speak with a Southern drawl (of the strictly redneck variety).

But the vast majority of the time, the evildoer is a foreigner, with his scary foreign accent. Back when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, it was quite common for the bad guys to speak with a Russian accent; though I do recall that one of the Lethal Weapon movies had South African bad guys. And remember Die Hard? Those bad guys, of course, were also foreigners, of the seedy European variety (often with mischievous British accents).

You see, the worst of the worst used to be the Germans. Back before the only threats to the world came from Islam and we had Homeland, 24, and a Fifth Amendment that didn’t apply to certain groups, Germans were the scrooges of the earth and always made for the perfect bad guys (cut to the Nazi faces melting scene in the Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Over the past few weeks, my (almost) three year old and I have been watching Santa Claus is Coming to Town, that 1970 Christmas special that I used to love when I was a kid. Guess who the bad guy was? The Burgermeister Meisterburger. A ruthless autocrat wearing lederhosen, shouting in a German accent, and outlawing toys.

As some of you may recall, the Germans – a white, Christian people from Europe – sought to dominate the world, impose their superior culture, and eliminate the undesirable races through genocide. Seventy years later, we have thankfully accepted that societies evolve and times change, and we no longer equate all things German with a mortal threat to our pristine society. There is no anti-German movement in the U.S. passing laws to protect the public from being contaminated by Germanic culture, values, or beer.  Instead we have new accents and skins tones to type cast.

But it is ironic when you think about it: there is so much talk these days about how our imaginary Santa Claus must continue to be white. What’s so good about being white? I am old enough to remember when the real life Hitler and his followers were oh, so milky white.

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Filed under Digressions, We The People

Christmas Time is Here

Christmas Time

If you could own only three Christmas albums:

and maybe an honorable mention to Jimmy Smith’s Christmas Cookin’ if Christmas Eve is moving in that kind of direction.

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American Tribalism

Tribal Politics

Via Glenn Greenwald, the above graphic illustrates just how tribal American politics can be.

As mentioned before, we love pointing to the Iraqis and rationalizing our invasion of their country by saying, “We didn’t destroy their country, they did because they are tribal and barbarian.” But take a look at the American civil war in the 1860s, the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, the Pan-European civil war that was World Wars I and II, and you see that it doesn’t take much to turn neighbor against neighbor in horrible bloodshed, even in the most Christian of lands.

When I look at today’s tribalism in America – where the president is incessantly accused of being a socialist crpyto-Muslim who wants to sentence grandma to a death panel and end America as we know it, despite repeatedly proving himself as a status-quo worshiping, pro-business, pro-defense industry, pro-Israel politics-as-usual All American politician – I often wonder what it would take for the U.S. to fall into the type of murderous political chaos that has afflicted places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or anywhere else that has been blessed with liberation.

Deep down inside and even on the surface, we ain’t so different.

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Filed under Digressions, Obama 44, We The People

Living La Vida Española

plaza-de-olavideWhen I first started the original Grave Error back in 2006, my intention was to write silly little digressions relating to my every day life. I think I was fairly successful in that department, but over time, my posts got more and more political, especially as a result of the 2008 U.S. Presidential Elections. Since then I have probably spent much too much time writing about U.S. politics and foreign policy, especially for an American living in Spain. For the reader, it could have been more interesting to hear more about European politics from the American perspective.

That’s not to say that I haven’t written about life in Spain. I have, but for whatever reason, what has moved me the most over the past few years have been issues relating to my own government and society’s remarkable hypocrisy with respect to civil liberties, the economy, guns, and foreign policy. And of course, I am fully aware that my writing on these topics not only bores my family and friends, it simply doesn’t have much of an audience for those, once again, interested in reading what an American ex-pat has to say.

Now with Spain really falling apart with no end in sight, I am going to make an effort to switch gears and write more about the country I have lived in for the past 13 years. I will still write occasionally about what irks me in American political discourse, as well, as on literature, music and fútbol.

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Filed under Digressions, Living la vida española

Reasons to Love Santa

Cenk Uygur wrote this “Why I Love Santa” article a few years back, but I just found it today. I also love Santa Claus and Christmas and love them from a very, very secular viewpoint. I love the childhood wonderment and innocence, the underlying “white lie” we uphold just because we recognize the value in childhood wonderment and innocence, and because it is a time when “we” go out of our way to do something special for our children but give all the credit to some fictional other. And that’s pretty special.

But mainly I love Christmas because I must have had wonderful Christmas’ when I was a child, and every year at Christmas time, I play all of the music and do all of the decorating to get back that feeling of being surrounding by my parents and grandparents:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on your troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on your troubles will be miles away

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us, once more

Through the years we all will be together,
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Many times over the past few days, my wife has caught me distant, looking out into the empty space. And when she asked me what was wrong, I’d say, “Oh, nothing, just thinking”. But in my mind I was digging up the images of spying on the tree first thing Christmas morning or driving over the George Washington Bridge from one set of grandparents to the other.

Christmas is the recycling of nostalgia. And while the George Washington Bridge is no longer on my horizon and my parents have just spent their first Christmas alone without their kids in forty-two years, I have taken over the role of Santa Claus and will hopefully fuel a lifetime of nostalgia for Christmas in my son, even if some boozer from up north gets all the credit.

Anyways, enough about me. Here is Cenk’s wonderful piece: Continue reading

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Filed under Digressions, Parenthood

Gossip Girl R.I.P.


If you thought of me before as just another pseudo-intellectual, a poser, a pretender, a wanna-be. Well, it may be worse:

I admit that I have seen each and every Gossip Girl episode in its six season run, including the series finale that was televised on Monday night. I even admit that I feel a little sad that it is over.

My wife found Gossip Girl annoying, not because of its teenybopper-ness, but because after each episode I would go into an in depth (and annoying) criticism of each and every detail of the storyline: its formulaic repetitiveness, the bad acting, the dubious law applied to important plot turns, etc. My biggest pet peeves of the show were the following:

  • Serena’s constant pouting and poutiness. Please, spare me.
  • Nate being just so dumb, Rufus being just so dumb, Ivy/Lola being just so dumb, but mainly Nate being just so dumb
  • This is what a job/working entails: For Nate, putting on a tie and staring at the computer with a severe expression; for Chuck:  looking out the window with a scotch glass in his hand;  and for Blair: yelling a lot.
  • The Bass family may be real estate moguls, but Chuck only owns one hotel. So how is he soooo rich? The numbers don’t add up.
  • College lasted one season. Did they then graduate? Or was campus life just a losing storyline?
  • With the notable exception of a very well developed and executed Chuck Bass, no one had a personality.
  • Season 5 turns on an absurd premise: Blair can’t divorce Louis because of a clause in their per-marital agreement on her dowry which in real life would be completely unenforceable in New York courts, so why waste our time?

As my wife said at each roll of my eyes and each heavy sigh, “if you can’t stand it, then stop watching it”.

It’s not like I find the actors attractive enough to keep me tuned in.  My “I read Playboy for the articles” excuse was that I enjoyed the many aerial views of Central Park and the different New York City bridges, or maybe it should have been that I like to complain.

But the fact of the matter is that I kept watching and was entertained for the past five years, and that is what is important. That alone requires me to give a sincere “thank you” to the Gossip Girl cast and crew.

Thanks, XOXO

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What was El Corte Ingles Thinking?

On the subject of racism, a few weeks ago at El Corte Ingles — not only Spain’s biggest and most important department store chain but also one of its most influential companies — I came across the above items on sale.

What was El Corte Ingles thinking? Spaniards need to decorate their homes with slavery nostalgia?

One a similar note, last year while walking down the street I snuck a shot of this idiot’s jean jacket vest. Forget for a second how stupid he looks, but Elvis and the Confederate Flag? Does this guy have any idea what the Confederate Flag symbolizes (and a Southerner can tell me otherwise all he wants; I’ll buy it when Germans can legitimately use the swastika as a symbol of national pride). And how does Elvis and nostalgia for the old slave-dependent glory days of the South go hand in hand on denim?

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Filed under Digressions, Living la vida española

My Racist Tea Pot

Ever since last New Years Eve when my uncle-in-law, Brahim, prepared his special Moroccan tea, desert style (plenty of sugar, but no mint), I have been hooked. As a matter of fact, I much prefer this to the type of tea, which is actually much easier to prepare, than the more well know one with mint. All you need is gunpowder tea (a type of green tea imported by Moroccans from China), loads of sugar and a good dentist.

Another nice thing about Moroccan tea is that you get to serve it with fanfare from an elegant teapot into colorful glass cups. One of the problems, though, with a Moroccan tea set is that the pot can get too hot pour. Thus, the typical solution is to buy a cloth sleeve to go over the handle which you can readily find in the medina. Beware, this has its own pitfall.

Now one of my basic rules of blogging and tweeting is that I try as best as I can to stick to only criticizing my own country and society (of which I include Spain where I pay my taxes and have lived for more than a decade). Thus, please don’t take what I will say now as a critique but rather as a simply observation:

In Moroccan culture, the archetypical depiction of being served tea is that it is being served by a black (Moroccan) man. I can’t say much about racism or the racial breakdown of the present Moroccan population. Moroccans tend to be Arab, Berber (hailing from one of three different Berber groups), sub-Saharan African, or any mixture of all of these.  My understanding is that black Moroccans’ ancestors would have come to Morocco as slaves and served either the royalty or very wealthy families; though I imagine that many of the black people in Morocco today have roots in more contemporary immigration. Needless to say, slavery was officially banned in Moroccan with the arrival of the French in 1916, though I have no idea when it ended in practical terms.

In any event, black Moroccans were then associated with the Royal Palace where they lived and served. One of the ways this has translated into popular culture is that on television and in upscale restaurants, you’ll always see that the man serving the tea (in ceremonial cap and fez) is black. Not only that, almost every tea pot holder you find — including the one I use — will be fashioned as a black man pouring your tea. In my country, that would be just so wrong.

I love my Moroccan tea, which I limit to weekends; though as an American I do feel a little ashamed of myself each time I pour a glass.

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Filed under Digressions, Married to a Moroccan