Saturday, September 15, 2007

A (Grey) Bear in Madrid

There are bears in Madrid and not just in the zoo!

Imagine how thrilled I was to find that I'm not the only bear here - although I may be the only grey-coloured bear and I'm certainly the only former international fashion model and current freelance Good Will Ambassador bear.

You can see me (left) next to the city's iconic statue, "El Oso y El Madroño". This is Madrid's most popular meeting place for people, possibly because of its location at the junction of Puerta del Sol and Calle Carmen - kilometer zero, the very heart of the city - but more likely because people just want to see the bear. Who wouldn't? There are always crowds of people having their picture taken with El Oso and sometimes they can be a bit of a pain because they block your access to the sidewalk but I know how it is. The day that I had my picture taken with 'el oso' it was pandemonium. Sometimes I forget how famous I am in Europe. Just like David Hasselhoff.

But the bear, you ask. Why a bear? And why is it leaning against a tree? Well it's not just any tree, it's a strawberry tree - or a Madroño tree - although the strawberries aren't real strawberries but they are red like strawberries. The bear is real though. The bear and tree are actually on Madrid's coat of arms so almost everywhere you look in the city, there's a bear! You can see Madrid's bear decorating the entrances to restaurants and pubs - even on manhole covers, although I guess those would be bearhole covers. I wanted to have my picture taken with one of those but my bipedal attendants were concerned that I'd get dirty. There are sacrifices I have to make to maintain my image.

Madrid's bear is actually a she-bear, which would make her an osa not an oso. If you look closely at her, you can see that she's a girl- or at least not a boy-bear. This symbol of the city goes back to the 13th century when there were lots of bears in the area. The strawberry tree represented an agreement made between the Church and State over disputed land claims: the Church got the p
asture lands and the State (or Madrid) got the trees. In the actual coat of arms, the bear also has 7 stars which represent the stars of the constellation ursa minor (little bear).

Interestingly, the painting The Garden of Earthly Delights by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch which is here in Madrid was catalogued as "the picture with the strawberry-tree fruits" in the inv
entories of the Spanish Crown. Later it was renamed. I like the first name much better. Although I have to admit that the painting is a little bizarre - not the sort of thing that bears normally like, what with the scenes of animals torturing people - but as a former international fashion model and now freelance Good Will Ambassador, I've been exposed to a lot of cultural things. I understand various allegorical themes.

Is it any wonder that I feel so at home here in
Madrid or that busloads o
f Japanese tourists often chase me down the street with their cameras? I thought it was because they recognized me as a former international fashion model and now freelance Good Will Ambassador but maybe it’s because they think I’m Madrid’s El Oso. Although anyone can see that I’m grey and not brown.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Holy Toledo!

I don't know where that expression comes from exactly but it seems like no one else does either. Maybe it refers to Toledo, Ohio - I don't think so though - or Toledo, Spain - I do think so but that's only because I was just there and I've never been to Ohio. I was in Toledo this past weekend so I have a feel for these things now.

Toledo is in Castilla La Mancha. The walled old city sits on a mountaintop - which as a bear was no problem for me to climb - and is surround
ed on three sides by the Tagus river. This is Don Quixote country. You can see me (left) nestled in the arm of Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote. I rather feel sorry for him because everyone wanted their photo taken with him, and as a former international fashion model and now a freelance Good Will Ambassador, I know what it's like to be pestered by photographers and autograph hounds. Fortunately this wasn't really Cervantes but an inanimate object.

Toledo - a Unesco World Heritage city - has more churches, convents, mosques, synagogues, statues, and other monuments per winding cobblestoned street than almost any other city in the world. It was once called the Cuidad de las Tres Culturas, referring to the time (La Convivencia) when Christianity, Judaism, and Islam lived side by side in peace. I think that time only lasted for
about 3 weeks. It's a shame that they didn't have Good Will Ambassadors - freelance or otherwise - back then, what with the Spanish Inquisition, and the explusion of the Jews and Muslims. They would have been very busy.

I think that the Catholic monuments have fared better over the centuries than their Jewish & Muslim counterparts. I guess Queen Isabel saw to that. But now they're restoring Toledo's mosque (at over 1000 years old, it's the city's oldest building) and have converted 2 synagogues into a museum and a cultural centre. You can see me (right) sitting on the rooftop of our hotel, the Santa Isabel. In the background is the Cathedral which was built between 1226 & 1498. It's not as big as Seville's Cathedral but I think this one is nicer. Except there's a tomb there of Cardinal Mendoza, one of the founders of the Spanish Inquisition. I didn't expect to see that but I'm told that no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. I don't think Cardinal Mendoza could have been a very nice man so I didn't say anything nice on his behalf. Admittedly that's not an appropriate way for a freelance Good Will Ambassador to act but I didn't say anything
really bad either.

One of my favourite places was the Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes - especially t
he cloister where you can see me (left). There are orange trees behind me! When I was having my photo taken, there was some excitement among the other tourists so I couldn't stay too long. My celebrity can be a burden sometimes but I accept it willingly. Outside the monastery are huge iron chains which, at one time had been used to chain up Christian prisoners, but during the Reconquista were used to hang Jewish dissidents. It's hard not to feel sad at things like this. I know they're only chains but ...

... but I enjoyed Toledo. I drank cerveza & sangria and ate lots of patatas bravas. I even saw a Sephardic Jewish group perform. I saw lots of paintings by El Greco (el Greco lived in Toledo) including the amazing The Burial of the Count of Orgaz which is in a church. But I didn't buy a sword. Toledo is famous for its swords. They've been forging these weapons for over 2000 years! When Hannibal was defeated by Toledan swords he decided to use them himself and outfitted his own soldeirs with them. But I'd seen enough gruesome sites for one weekend and I decided to buy as a souvenir a pot of honey made by bees in the mountains around Toledo. As a freelance Good Will Ambassador, I think it's important to choose non-violent souvenirs, and as a bear, what better choice than honey?