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Letters from Spain

Letter 17

The Solomonts with SecState Clinton (photo: US Embassy)

The Solomonts with SecState Clinton (photo: US Embassy)

After completing an Hola, one of my joys is waking up the morning after they go out, and reading your responses. Thank you. It’s great to hear from so many of you and I find with each Hola, wonderful responses and more interesting questions. I will try my best to answer them, and I think my next Hola will be all about answering questions.

We’ve just finished what felt like the busiest month since we arrived in Spain. It was filled with travel, an Independence Day celebration, a special HPV (high profile visitor), summer heat, hellos and goodbyes and some vacation time.

Towards the end of June, Alan returned from a second visit to Afghanistan. This time Admiral James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), invited him. Admiral Stavridis holds a PhD from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and like Alan, he is a great lover of Ernest Hemingway. Like both of us, he is also a great lover of Spanish wine from the Rioja region. He is truly a renaissance man, and as the senior military commander of both US and NATO troops in Europe he often invites US Ambassadors serving Europe to accompany him on trips to Afghanistan. The purpose of this visit was to observe the transition of responsibility to the Afghan people through the training and preparation of an Afghan army and police force. Despite all the challenges we face in Afghanistan, Alan returned optimistic that the President’s strategy is working due to the valiant effort of Americans, Spaniards and other coalition members working in partnership with the Afghans.

Alan returned the day before the Embassy’s July 4th celebration, which was held this year on Thursday June 30th. I don’t think I ever felt as much excitement about July 4th as I did this year. In the US, most of us regard this holiday as a long weekend, a time to start vacation or maybe, a good day for a barbecue. In the diplomatic world, virtually every country holds a big National Day Celebration. We get invited to many, and it’s hard to attend every one, but for us, July 4th Independence Day is really special.

In past years, the July 4th celebrations have been held at the Ambassador’s residence. You may remember reading about it in last year’s Hola around that time. This year, Alan wanted to do something different to catch people’s attention and amplify our message. First he had the brilliant idea to use Palacio de Cibeles as the venue. This is the name of the communications or “correo” building in the Plaza de Cibeles, a beautiful plaza that connects two main boulevards, the Paseo de Recoletos and Paseo del Prado. Cibeles was the Roman Goddess of Nature and the Palacio de Cibeles is a magnificent, early 20th century building. It opened its doors in 1919, and it was the original home of the Madrid’s Postal Service. In 2007, it became Madrid’s City Hall, and Madrid’s Mayor, or Alcalde, Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, oversaw its renovation. This exquisite building, now an iconic landmark, was the setting for our Independence Day celebration.

Led by a volunteer committee, planning for the event took lots of effort by many people at the Embassy. It’s hard to explain what a big deal this event is, but with over 2000 people in attendance, trust me, it is. It is also the only time that State Department regulations allow the Embassy to raise private funds. Alan was in rare form, and he found enough generosity in the American business community to put on a great celebration. It was much more than a party. July 4th provides an opportunity to showcase American values and the spirit of democracy.  The Embassy held an essay contest for high school students in Madrid, on “what does democracy mean to me.” A 14-year-old boy from one of the bi-lingual schools won the contest and he got to read his essay in front of the crowd. The hall was decorated spectacularly, featuring American flags, a blue carpet with white stars, and a specially constructed stage with a gigantic screen. We showed a brilliant video made for the evening, with Bruce Springsteen singing “The Rising” along with scenes and faces of America and ending with a climatic fireworks display. The program also included the presentation of the colors, the national anthems of Spain and the US, and remarks by the Mayor and the Ambassador. When helium filled balloons were released and floated three stories up to the Hall’s glass ceiling, the celebration began. We served food from regions across the US, including lobster rolls, chili, southwestern fajitas, barbecue and good old hot dogs and hamburgers. The food was great, and we had a Spanish rock n roll band playing all sorts of American and Spanish tunes.  We mingled and socialized a lot, and once the music began, we danced the night away.

There was one other element to this year’s July 4th celebration. On the weekend of July 4th, one of Spain’s most important newspapers, El País, chose to devote its Sunday magazine, El Semanal, to the current relationship between Spain and the US. It was a home run, featuring interviews with Americans living in Spain, Spaniards living in the US and a great interview with the US Ambassador. It really captured the strength of friendship and partnership that exists today between our countries and it was a perfect capstone to a special Independence Day salute.

The next day should have been a day of recovery, but there was no rest for the weary.  Immediately following the July 4th celebration, a very important HPV (high profile visitor) arrived in Spain: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was an exciting visit and kudos to the Embassy staff. At the same time as they were planning our July 4th celebration. supporting visits of three cabinet secretaries (discussed in Hola 16) and dealing with the usual busyness of Embassy life, attention was turned to working with HRC’s advance team to plan a very compact, very busy and very well organized visit to Madrid. The Secretary met with President Zapatero, Foreign Minister Jimenez, King Juan Carlos and opposition leader Rajoy. After six hours of back to back meetings and despite a grueling travel schedule, Secretary Clinton made time to meet with the Embassy staff to thank them for the work they do. It was a whirlwind visit that was extremely exciting and productive. Once again, we witnessed how Spain regards our country, and Secretary Clinton’s visit emphasized what an important and valued friend Spain is to the US.  

The Secretary of State departed at 4 pm on Saturday afternoon, and we had a couple of hours of down time before the fun continued. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus was in Madrid to inspect a golf course he designed and he graciously accepted an invitation to join us with a group of American business leaders and Spanish golfers for a Sunday brunch at our residence. “Jack” could not have been a more gracious guest. He said hello and posed for pictures with everyone. He talked a lot about how difficult a game golf is, and he was very amusing when he explained that he no longer plays regularly. People used to approach him all the time to say they wished they could play like him. The way he plays now he said, everyone can!

After a week or so of a more normal work schedule, we headed up north to the Costa Brava, a rugged mountainous coast in the northeast of Spain, for a return visit to El Bulli. In Hola 16, I described an event we hosted for American author Lisa Abend who wrote a book entitled “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices”. The book tells the stories of the stagiares who work at El Bulli for the “sorcerer”, chef phenomenal Ferran Adria.  At the event for Lisa, Ferran graciously invited us back for one last meal at his restaurant before it closed on July 31st. El Bulli is located near the town of Rosas, in a gentle cove on the Mediterranean. Ferran was waiting for us in his sleek, state of the art, well organized and busy kitchen and he greeted us warmly with besos (kisses) and un abrazo fuerte (strong hug). After picture taking, we were escorted to our table, and the fun began. We were served a mere thirty-six courses, including some favorites from last year’s visit, such as a warm sloe gin fizz and mimetic peanuts (chocolate peanuts that truly melt in your mouth). Newer dishes included pressed paper with dried flowers, wasabi ice crystals and razor shell clam with sushi. Each serving was memorable and each contained an element of surprise. It reminded me of a favorite song—“the sky was yellow and the sun was blue”. In this new gastronomy nothing is what it appears to be; yet it all makes sense. El Bulli is closing its restaurant doors, but Ferran Adria is starting a foundation for research and innovation in food and cooking. I’m sure we’ll feel the influence of his creativity for many years to come.

After our eating extravaganza, we stayed nearby in an area of Spain know as Empordà. It is near to the town of Figueres, birthplace of Salvador Dali, and home to the Dali Theater-Museum. The artist spent the last fifteen years of his life in Figueres, personally overseeing the creation of his museum, set quite appropriately in an old theater.  The museum is Dali's stage, and it is filled with his amazing creativity, wit and genius. We also wandered around the scenic countryside, and found a lovely little town, Le Bisbal, where we bought pottery. We stayed at a charming, renovated farmhouse that has been turned into a fabulous small hotel. Like so many other areas, we did not have enough time to fully enjoy being there, so we've put this one on our growing list of places to return to.

One of the toughest parts of the past month was saying goodbye to Embassy colleagues and friends. Arnold Chacon’s tour as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Spain ended in June. Arnold has been an incredible partner to Alan, and he and his wife, Alida, have become good friends.  Saying goodbye was not easy. The good news is that President Obama has chosen Arnold to be the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala. We are delighted for him and Alida, and our country will continue to benefit from their service. The new DCM in Spain is Luis Moreno, who is an equally distinguished American diplomat.  Luis joins us after serving the last year in Baghdad, and before that, he was DCM in Tel Aviv.  Luis and his wife Gloria, their daughter Denise, and their dog Ollie are beginning to settle in, and we look forward to working closely with them. This is the season when Foreign Service officers rotate in and out of posts. Although we will welcome many fine new members of the team, we will miss the talents and friendship of others who’ve contributed to the success of Embassy Madrid.  Earlier this summer, our good friend Amy Dove, Alan’s incredibly capable Staff Assistant, left for her new post in Mexico. This is part of Foreign Service life, but I don’t like it, and saying goodbye is plain old hard.

I’ll close this Hola with one last update. Our family just returned from a vacation in Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea.  For the very first time, we traveled by cruise ship from Stockholm, to Tallinn Estonia, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Copenhagen. Each city was wonderful, and each provided different histories, different culture and new experiences for all of us. A bit to our surprise we loved traveling by boat. It provided a perfect mix of touring and relaxing, and none of us put on the entire 7 pounds we were told we’d gain on a cruise. Leaving Spain was good for us as well.  We enjoyed the luxury of normalcy; traveling on our own, without security, drivers and the special treatment that accompanies the position we hold.

We’re back in Spain with our batteries recharged. There is a lot happening here with looming elections and a European debt crisis, but Spaniards take it easy in August, and we hope to as well. We won’t have that luxury come September, which promises to be enormously busy and full.

Hasta luego- until next month.


PS—If interested, you can find past Holas in Spanish and English on the US Embassy Madrid website.