Monday, July 26, 2010


Today is a day my aunt Marga (or Marge) has been anticipating for years. Today she's 90 years old.

Along with her sister with whom she shared the birthday - though not the birth year, they are two of the relatives that influenced me most.

When I was a child I wanted to be like her, organized, decided, relentless, generous, elegant, cultivated and intelligent. I wanted a house like hers, with a fireplace and a green patio and that incredibly homey smell, although I thought her husband was a tad aloof and intimidating and I'm not at all fond of dogs. I always found captivating the alluring mystery of a loving adult who at the same time, refused to discuss certain matters with me without being condescending.

Her husband died in 1989, and the couple had only one son who's had many relationships with women but never wanted to have children, so she doesn't have any grandchildren. My sister and I filled that void and looking back I can say that it was a great honor. I find it amazing that she knows exactly who I am, and in spite of the 60 year gap she now treats me like an adult and speaks about things she never wanted to say before. In return I treat her like an adult too, which is not how people usually react with an elderly person.

Next December it's going to be 10 years since my grandmother, her best friend, passed away. Ever since, or maybe it started before but I couldn't detect it, her health has declined. It's something in her brain that wrecks her balance and mobility and her ability of speech. She keeps a routine, dresses up every day, wears make up and worries about her hair looking good. She also makes decisions on what to buy at the groceries' store (even if she forgets the names of about half the products she wants to order), plays chess against the computer (she can't go to her chess club anymore), and reads the newspaper.

Sometimes she remembers one particular thing of her past, sometimes it's another. She was one of the first female graduate architects and when she was a teenager, she volunteered with the Spanish Republican army committee in Montevideo; she once owned a car and she has always been fiercely independent, so her anecdotes are extremely interesting. She might forget names of people, of places (like Uruguay!), or nouns, or verbs, and sometimes it's a whole verb tense so she may speak only in present, so it's hard to jump on a wagon of her train of thought. It's worth the effort, though.

Nevermind what comes and goes, she always makes a point of being "almost ninety", or "one year three months shy of ninety". Being ninety years old has been a goal in itself, and I'm curious of what she's going to do next. Knowing her like I do, I'm sure she'll dive in it with all the purpose and energy in the world. And I'll be with her.

That's what granddaughters are for.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Let's take off the masks

A few days ago this message arrived to my inbox, from a friend who lives in Minneapolis. He said it was from the, but a google search didn't bring any hits from sites uk. My search found a comment in the New York Times Goal Blog from RPG (Switzerland), which the author claimed to have found on The Guardian, but again, there's no more information than just that.

Let's take a look at it:

It's because most football fans are thundering hypocrites, full of their own self-righteousness and unable to see beyond the end of their own noses. So Germany's goalkeeper and players pretend Lampard's shot didn't cross the line, when the entire stadium knew otherwise. Ghana kick, play act, wave imaginary cards and dive for a free kick that should never have been awarded. Holland dive shamefully (in the form of Robben and Van Persie), and go around trying to maim Uruguayan opponents (in the form of the near psychotic Van Bommel). But they're not cheats: honestly, they're not. They're choirboys, playing Pele's beautiful game.
The only "cheats", apparently, are a team which was one of the most fouled against in the tournament; whose magnificently combative midfielders Perez and Arevalo tackled almost perfectly throughout the tournament; whose defensive organisation was amazing; but who had a player who did something in the last minute of the quarter-final that many, many players have done throughout history. It's so good to know that all those condemning Suarez have now renounced England's win in 1966 - because Jack Charlton dived full length to punch away a Portugese shot in the semi-final, and wasn't even booked, never mind sent off.
Except they haven't - because they're hypocrites. Stinking, lousy hypocrites, whose real reason for wanting to see the back of Uruguay is, I fear, in all too many cases, because they're South American. South American players are greased up, scheming, evil Machiavellian crooks, don't you know? The Dutch are beautiful; African sides incapable of anything cynical.
It's all such utter, pathetic nonsense. Suarez was punished; that should be the end of it. And beyond that, the ignorance displayed on these pages towards a nation of 3.5m whose achievements are miraculous, whose spirit is indomitable, who over-achieved magnificently at this World Cup, went down fighting despite being over-matched tonight and shorn of FOUR key players (and a fifth, Forlan, who played while injured throughout), and who chronic under-achievers like England should be LEARNING from, is simply breathtaking.
After the miracle of 1950, Jules Rimet explained what had happened with the words: "In football, playing well is not sufficient. You also need to feel it profoundly, as does Uruguay".
You have to FEEL it. That is the spirit with which Uruguay play; that is the spirit which England all too often lack. A nation of 3.5m people, with two world titles, two Olympic titles, 14 Copa America, and who have now reached more World Cup semi-finals than Argentina, who have 12 times as many people to choose from? Uruguay should be being saluted on these pages: I think they've been fantastic. But this is nasty, insular little England, with nasty, insular little posters like sicklemoon - so look what they get instead.
Well done to Holland. Even with the officials generally embarrassing themselves, you were the better side, have a fantastic record, and good luck in the final. And to Uruguay: farewell, ignore the nonsense as I know you will, and may you go one better in Brazil in four years time. Let's face it: in Brazil of all places, history beckons.

I'm impressed. It's good to read nice things about one's country and countrymen, and this writer is right on spot here, meaning that s/he seems to have been reading our minds. We know our football and we're aware we're the smallest country to have achieved a feat or two in this game... leaving aside anything older than 50 years, we still have a pretty decent record on continental cups (which is not bad considering our border neighbors have won a few World Cups each), as well as clubs tournaments. We've been a recognized greenhouse of world class players for decades now, which has made the rather poor World Cup performances of the past 40 years all the more heartbreaking. Is Uruguay a well kept secret in the football world?

Or maybe what I've said is just an ego trip. Growing up hearing it over and again it's a part of our national subconscious it's hard to utter and understand otherwise. The original writer seems to know that, maybe it's a Uruguayan with perfect British English?

I thought the officiating, especially in the games against Ghana and Netherlands, systematically handicapped Uruguay, but probably every fan felt the officiating hurt their team, so I don't think I can make a point with it. But isn't the reader saying the same thing when s/he says "the most fouled against team" and to Holland "in spite of the officials generally embarrassing themselves" as in "they gave you a helping hand"? I'd like to have this mask off and know, who wrote this?

The unabashed hatred from the ever influential English press, which I suspect roots from the denied Lampard goal (the referee trio was from Uruguay, right?) more than anything else, took me by surprise. Isn't the unwritten rule of this game to do as much as the referee allows you to, and do anything it takes to win? So, would they be this harsh had it been an English player securing England's qualifying for the semis instead of a team from a tiny country? Or are we just witnessing a rule of the press: get attention no matter how?

Maybe is it that abusing a country with a population sized a decimal fraction of population (centesimal if you're from the US) is really easy? If that's true, then we'll have to rely on masked defendors, just as the purported commentator.

Questions and more questions. If you have an answer, please feel free to speak your mind in the comments section.

Language note: I know I should be saying soccer instead of football, but I'd really like to use that word for this game.
Pronounciation note: If you're an English speaker and you'd like to know how to properly pronounce Uruguay, it's not "you are gay" as Homer Simpson once suggested, but rather "oo-roog-WHY"

Third time's the charm... sometimes

2010 should be remembered as the third times' year in professional sports.

This is Marian Hossa.

He's a Slovak hockey player who plays in the NHL, the North American top hockey league, and routinely competes with the Slovak national team in international tournaments. At the end of the 2007-2008 season he was traded from the Atlanta Thrashers to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins qualified for the playoffs and won all three series in the Eastern Conference, to play the final series against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Red Wings won in 6 games, hoisting the Cup in Pittsburgh.

That summer, the Penguins offered Hossa a 5 year contract but he declined, preferring a one year contract with none but the Detroit Red Wings with whom, he said, he thought he had a better chance to win the Cup. And it wasn't a big deal with anyone, come to think of it he had been with the Penguins only for the playoffs.

Season 2008-2010 found the Red Wings strong once again, qualifying for the playoffs and beating the Chicago Blackhawks in 5 games in the Western Conference final and getting to play the Stanley Cup finals with the Eastern Conference champions... once again, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This time, the Penguins won. It took them 7 games, playing the final game in Detroit.

Journalists and fans alike had a field day with him, and seriously, how often do you find someone in his position?

That summer, his contract with the Red Wings over, he signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, a team full of young and talented players. The Blackhawks qualified for the playoffs and fortunaly he didn't cross paths with any of his former teams this time.

Maybe that helped the Chicago Blackhawks win their first Championship in 49 years and thus ending the longest winning drought in the NHL. As they say, third time's the charm. Interestingly enough, there weren't any apologetic articles from the journalists that 12 months before had poked fun at this player... Anyways, he holds a record for playing at the Stanley Cup playoffs for four years in a row in four different teams, and playing the finals three years in a row, obviously, with three different teams. A field day for sports statistics lovers, no doubt, now that nobody (as far as I know) has given him a fraction of the attention he got when Detroit lost in 2009. I really don't think he cares, though.

The second third time I'd like to mention today, is this one.

The Dutch royal family is the Orange-Nassau and the country's official color. While it's nowhere in their national flag, their national teams sport the hue in their outfits, and they've so been recognized for a long time.

The Netherlands football team's performance in the FIFA World Cups in 1974 and 1978 was stellar, displaying a style of playing never seen before that proved immensely influential in the following years. The "total football" approach gained them the nickname "orange clockwork", which they' ve held ever since even if their international performance in the roughly thirty years after it wasn't, as a whole, that visible and impressive.

In 1974 the Orange played its first World Cup final game against host and champion of 1954, West Germany.

That day, West Germany won its second Cup.

The Orange kept with the good work, reaching the finals again four years later again against host, and already defeated once in the finals, Argentina. So, none had ever won the Cup but both had played one final (though Dutch players were still active while the original Argentinian players were senior citizens).

Maybe it's because a final played by the host under a dictatorial regime is, let's say, more stressful for everybody like players, referees and fans (like Italy in 1934), or maybe because at least one Dutch star refused to play in a country under said regime. Simply put, Argentinians scored more that particular day.

And the Dutch went home empty handed again. Funny they didn't think of hosting a Cup themselves, don't you think?

The Orange's appearances at the following seven World Cups had ups and downs, but it wasn't until South Africa 2010 that they managed to reach the final stage again. This time the hosts had been eliminated in the first round and the contender was newcomer Spain, who had never been this far in the tournament. In the semis former champions Germany and Uruguay got to play for the third place, and the Dutch squad, undefeated for two years, faced current Euro Champion Spain.

I saw the game and definitely the Dutch playing style has a focus on effectiveness. Sometimes tougher than ice hockey players the Orange squad got to the finals undefeated from the start of the tournament, allowing more than one goal (two to be exact) just once in the semis against Uruguay. The Spanish style, instead, reminds a little more of the "total football" of Netherlands of yore, with short passes and absolutely breaking the opponent's game. It's also very effective. And boring if you're not an absolute fan of the game.

The game ended tied with no goals and went to extra time. Just five minutes before it was over, Spain scored. So third time... wasn't the charm for the orange clad people. Many thought they deserved to win because they were seasoned veterans in the final playing games, while Spain would benefit of the experience anyway. Sports, however, are not about deserving but winning.

For the sports statistics fans, Netherlands is the team having played more finals without winning any, but it's still not the team having lost more finals overall. That's Germany at four out of seven played, while Brazil, also with seven appearances, won five of them. Uruguay is the team with the longest winning drought, 60 years, and England is the next one at 44 years. The other members of the list are Argentina at 24, Germany at 20, France at 12, Brazil at 8 and Italy at 4 (seriously, how many of those can be called droughts?)

Having a third example would be fantastic, but unfortunately I don't know of any. If you can help, please let me know of that in the comments.

picture one, picture two, picture three, picture four

picture five, picture six, picture seven, picture eight

Language note: this blog is written in American English so I should use the word "soccer" instead of "football". I choose to disregard the consistency on this particular point, but I promise to keep at bay any other disgressions.

Monday, July 12, 2010


For some years we've been living in the same building, and I've been getting to know her bit by bit. At the main door, on the street, at the grocery's store, at the hairdresser's, even at the beach, we see each other and we say "hello".

But it's when I don't see her that I get to know her better. At first, I would only see her and she had the allure of a woman of a certain age: slim, elegant and smoking a cigarette with that "je ne sais quoi". But one day something broke off in her life and I started hearing her too. When she's sad she listen to the same song loudly for hours, and I can't escape her song and her sadness unless I leave my home.

One coworker who lives across our homes told me that me she never draws the curtains of her rooms, and she makes some sort of reality show out of her everyday life. The hairdresser, that she is an English translator and she lost her job during the 2002 recession and stayed unemployed for a long time. The store's delivery guy, that her dog died of lung cancer and she was inconsolable, and the cashier woman that she buys whiskey often. The doorman, that it was her brother who bought her the appartment. Like an unwelcome visitor interrumpting my life, the bits of her miserable existence join in a puzzle to which I reluctantly add a new piece every now and then, even if I've never asked anyone anything about her.

But this puzzle is made in the first person too when I hear her domestic fights with someone else. I don't know, I don't want to know whether it's always the same person, but often I hear noises of things falling, of glass rolling and breaking (bottles, I suppose), or big objects falling to the ground (I hope it's not her). One night, long ago, bottles went flying out of her windows and ended their trip on the garage roof, while she cried, madly, give it back to me, it's mine! Her voice, broken, hoarse, ashy and alcoholic had no link to the worldly woman I cross on the street, always perfectly styled and walking, nonchalantly, on tower high heels.

Last night at her balcony, she smoked and tried to phone somebody. Why did you leave? Come, come right now. I'm not feeling well, I'm not joking. She spoke non stop and then she stayed silently, crying her soul out, and then started again. Please don't hang on me, come now, come. I'm going to kill myself if you don't.

And I replied softly, You already did.

For some years I've been living on top of a swamp of liquor and despair named Graciela.

This text was originally published in French, under the title "Voisinage" on October 21st, 2007.

Il fait quelques années que nous habitons le même bâtiment, et que je la connais progressivement. À l'entrée de l'édifice, dans la rue, au supermarché, chez la coiffeuse, même à la plage, je la vois et nous nous disons bonjour.

Mais c'est quand je ne la vois pas que je connais plus d'elle. Avant, je la voyais et elle avait l'air d'une femme mûre mais trés interessante: mince, élegante, fumant un cigarette avec ce je ne sais quoi. Mais un jour, quelque chose s'est déclanché chez elle, et j'ai commencé à l'écouter. Quand elle est triste, elle écoute la même chanson encore et encore, au volume trés haut, et moi, je ne peux pas échapper sa chanson et sa tristesse qu'en quittant ma maison.

Une copine de travail qui habite en face, me racconte qu'elle ne ferme jamais les fenêtres ou les rideaux, et qu'elle fais une sorte de big brother tous les jours de sa vie. La coiffeusse, qu'elle était traductrice d'anglais, mais qu'elle avait perdu son travail pendant la crise de l'an 2002 et elle reste chomeuse. Le jeune homme du supermarché qui fait les livraisons, qu'à la mort de son chien de cancer de poumon elle avait beaucoup souffert, et la femme à la caisse, qu'elle achéte de whisky trés fréquemment. Le conciérge, que son frére lui a achété son appartement. Comme une visitante qu'interrompe dans ma vie, les morceaux de sa existence malheureuse font un puzzle auquel j'ajoute une nouvelle piéce de temps en temps, bien que je n'aie jamais démandé personne sur aucune des ces donnés.

Mais ce puzzle se fait aussie en premiére personne quand je l'écoute se disputant avec quelq'un. Je ne sais pas, je ne veux pas savoir, s'il s'agît toujours de la même personne ou pas, mais parfois il y a des bruits des choses qui tombent, des choses en verre (des bouteilles, j'imagine), ou des corps (j'espére que ce ne sera pas elle). Une nuit, quelque temps avant, des bouteilles sortaient par las fenêtres et finissaient leur periple sur le toit du garage, et elle criait, affolée, rendre-me le, c'est à moi. Sa voix, grave, cassée, alcoolique et cendré, n'avait rien a voir avec la femme mondaine que je vois dans la rue, toujours bien coiffée et marchant, naturellement, sur des stilettos.

Hier soir, elle fumait au balcon et essaiyait de téléphoner quelqu'un. Pourquoi tu t'en est allé? Viens, viens maintenant. Je ne me sens pas bien, ce n'est aucune plaisanterie. Elle parlait sans cesse et ensuite elle restait silencieuse, pleurant en chaud larmes, et elle recommençait N'accroche pas, s'il te plaît, viens maintenant, viens. Sinon, je vais me tuer. Et moi, j'ai répondu en faible voix, Tu l'as déjà fait.

Il fait quelques années que j'habite au dessus d'un marais de frustration et d'alcool qui s'appelle Graciela.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Not that I really mind...

Every time I iron I'm faced with profound questions that arise from the steps I take to perform the task.

The first one is, exactly, why do irons have such short cords? Where is the obscure relationship between electricity outlets placement as a whole and the realm of optimal ironing surfaces? Maybe the missing link is between irons and extension cords manufacturers. Or perhaps it's a design safety suggestion: with a short cord there's no way you can misplace it, like stuffing it in a drawer while it's in use or something equally reckless.

The second question is... why do irons lack power switches? Do they use so much power that a switch is useless? Or is this another design caveat? I guess I've always lived in substandard houses where I had to do everything from kneel to shuffle furniture around in order to be able to iron a shirt, but the switch thing really bums me... am I the only one to notice plugs are one of the most fragile parts of appliances?

Those questions, I guess, could be answered by a irons and small home appliances designer, but the next one is only up to me: will one day ironing stop meaning "erasing old creases to create new ones" and will start meaning "ironing"? Not that I really mind it, but some days I'd rather not be this rumpled.

Photo from here.