far too much writing, far too many photos

I’ve been sitting here watching a fútbol (soccer) show, a rundown on the Spanish league (La Liga) games of the past week. Fun. And then I remember that the women here talk about Spanish guys and their addiction to fútbol (”¡Es como una religión!” — “It’s like a religion!”) pretty much exactly the way women in the States talk about American guys and football.

I enjoy fútbol, and I enjoy watching a high level of play. The Spaniards are good at the sport, and the level of play in La Liga is pretty high. But then there’s The Champions League (La Liga de Campeones), an international European league — the top teams from several different European countries competing in a season that begins in September, climaxing with playoffs in May or June. An unbelievably high level of play, the kind of extremely accomplished, hard-fought soccer we in the States only get a chance to see when the Olympics roll around. Here you get to see that kind of thing eight, nine months out of the year.

And tonight another seasons of the Simpsons (Los Simpson) starts — probably the season that ran in the States last year. What the hell — I was living here then. The big news is that the Spanish actor who has up to now dubbed Homer’s voice is not doing it any more. (Gasp!!) Someone else has stepped into that voiceover-person’s unfunny, overemotive shoes. The person who does Marge’s voice is not bad, but whoever got hired to do Homey has, er, well, quite honestly, sucked.

Dan Castellaneta, please learn to do Homer in Spanish. Please. I’ll be your best friend.

I’ll tell you what: I’m starting to enjoy this new neighborhood of mine. There is so much going on here — life, energy, so many different types of people. The Texas guy who was in my Spanish class at the beginning of the week had trappings of hipness — phat clothing, shades, an earring, a wicked contemporary haircut, major ‘tude, his 20-something speech liberally sprinkled with “dude.” While one of the first things he mentioned in class (in English, natch) was having been down in this barrio, Chueca, where he saw two guys holding hands and kissing. And was, of course, righteously grossed. And I’m thinking, get a grip, Lone Star DUDE. No one’s asking you to watch something you don’t APPROVE of. If you don’t like what you see in one direction, stop staring at it and look around — there’s a whole rainbow of people passing by in other directions.

I will admit something, though. I was up in the Madrid’s toniest barrio a couple of days ago — Salamanca, several blocks away from my old neighborhood. Not an area known for a high concentration of gays, as Chueca is. And there were so many more women out on the street. Lovely, interesting-looking women. I’m enjoying Chueca, but I would love to see more females here. Not that there aren’t lots around — there are, just not in the same concentration you’d see in most other barrios. Not like they’re half the population.

I like women. I think they’re easily the more interesting of the two genders, and innately way more attractive than guys. I like guys, too — some of my best friends are guys. But it’s not the same.

However, I digress.

I was up in Salamanca to see an exhibit of painting, photography and etching produced by a group of artists in The Netherlands between 1925 and 1945, a mess of people I’d never heard of before (apart from M.C. Escher) — a great exhibit, turned out. The outing: a field trip sponsored by the language school, one of the two or three they field most weeks, trips of culture, history, sightseeing, all accompanied by a staff member. Rocío was the staff person for that jaunt.

I’m waiting outside the venue for the exhibit with another student — Kelly, a smart, sweet 20ish woman from Indiana, spending a semester of college in Madrid, living with a Spanish family, taking Spanish classes. It’s just the two of us for a while, standing talking, upscale denizens of Salamanca passing by, going about their business. Kelly and I are swapping thoughts about how living here feels, and as we talk I note an old man approaching. Old, slow, with a cane, shuffling along. Inching along, really. Covering ground, but at his own speed, which was not record-breaking. (Though what do I know? Might have been for him.) He gets closer, I see his clothing’s a bit rumpled, he’s looking a bit worn — not in a homeless, down and out way, just in the manner of someone advanced in years and losing some of their knack for self-presentation. But what the hell — he’s got on a sport coat and a necktie, he’s out in the fresh air, he’s above-ground, upright, ambulatory. He’s doing fine. As he passes us, something catches my eye. I look more closely, I notice that although he does indeed look moderately well-cared for, someone on his pit crew needs to ratchet up the level of care because his pants sported a sizeable dried urine stain around the crotch. Like an odd, faded blossom of op art.

An interesting moment. He continued on his way, Rocío showed up, we went into the foundation to check out the exhibit.

This foundation/exhibition thing is a feature of local life that I’ve never encountered in the States. Foundations of all sorts abound here — some, divisions of large commercial corporations; others sponsored by foreign governments; still others seem to be part of organizations or corporations vaguely of the nonprofit stripe — whose interface with the public is by way of providing venues for exhibits of art or music performance. Entirely free, bringing world-class work through. That’s in addition to the numerous museums and galleries that festoon Madrid. And the great part is that people actually turn out to see the exhibits. I’ve gone to a bunch of them now — during the week large groups of different kinds move through, accompanied by guides giving lengthy talks. In the evenings and on weekends, I’ve been to exhibits absolutely packed with normal people out for some culture — families, couples, young people, old folks. Groups that look like three generations of the same families, all out listening to music or checking out art, talking about it all, arm in arm.

Hard not to love that.

[Written on 27 Sept.]

The weather here these last few days has been spectacular. Yesterday, for example: nearly luminescent, air filled with hazy, golden sunshine, temperature cool early on, warm in the afternoon. A radiant late-September day. Today turned a bit overcast, which feels just fine to me. Changeable skies are part of the autumn package. And so the days spin by, the new season edges in.

I’ve been back in school, classes commencing at 9:30, with a half-hour break from 11:30 to noon, then continuing on until 1:30. That’s the theoretical schedule, anyway. This being Spain the reality’s a bit more relaxed, or, in Anglo-Saxon anal-speak, a bit more slack. Classes gradually get going sometime in the neighborhood of 9:40, 9:45. The break happens somewhere around 11:30 — maybe earlier, maybe later. Classes start up again after twelve sometime — 12:10, 12:15. The two instructors I’ve had this week are reasonably conscientious, so while the classes often get creakingly underway ten or fifteen minutes late, they tend to run over, providing more or less full-length sessions. More or less.

A woman named Rocío has the first session mid 50s, extremely entertaining, with a warm manner that sometimes slides into something harder, more controlling. I’ve known a couple of students who had problems with that, but it so far hasn’t bothered me. She has a way of acknowledging her eccentric episodes, so good humored that I find it endearing. There is something schoolmarmish about her, offset (and then some) by a sunny goofiness, a genuine sweetness.

After the break: Pablo. An authentically interesting character — one of the higher-ups in the Spanish Department at this language school (part of a concern with schools in many countries, including several cities in Spain). When I showed up for my first day, Pablo did the assessment interviews for the newcomers: a bit of chat, some written testing. The impression I and two other students had: he couldn’t have given a shit less, unless you were an attractive woman. During the succeeding months, in the course of further dealings with him, he became much friendlier, much more congenial, to where I find I genuinely like the guy. A sharp, interesting individual, and an excellent teacher. A bit tougher in manner, at times, than Rocio — though that seems to have mellowed with time — but also funny, smart, with a goofy laugh. Rumpled looking, a heavy smoker, with longish curly dark hair and skin slightly more olive-toned than the northern European skin shades.

His outfit today: a pair of what might loosely be called loafers — the newest or best-kept part of his ensemble. Khaki pants, generously creased and wrinkled, in need of a rest. An office shirt — clean, vaguely aquamarine, unbuttoned, untucked, with a t-shirt underneath sporting a photo of the Manhattan skyline, the World Trade Center prominently included, the legend NEW YORK above and below the photo. His way, maybe, of showing solidarity. Hair a bit wilder than normal, almost exuberantly so, long curls and frizzes pointing asymmetrically in every direction. Eyes a bit red, as they often are. Unshaven. And his teeth — well, Pablo’s teeth are an important part of the picture. Not ugly, but not matinee idol fare, either. A bit out of whack, a bit anarchic, so that when he smiles or laughs his aspect becomes radically distinct from his more serious moments. With mouth closed, eyes fixed on something, he begins to look a bit dangerous. In laughter, something altogether different shines through.

His classes this week started off with rigorous sessions of torture concerning complicated verb-tenses, something that blessedly segued into lessons on Spain’s recent history, the period called The Transition, from the end of the Franco years through the beginning of the current constitutional monarchy/democracy. A spread of years extending from the 60’s into the early 80’s, the principal action taking place in the 70’s, a time of intense change that must have been amazing to live through, climaxing in the attempted coup in ‘81.

It’s a intriguing part of the picture here, the bizarre patchwork of Spain’s 20th century history — periods of big instability, punctuated by brief attempts at stability that never seemed to take. The nightmarish, deeply divisive civil war from 1936 to 1939, resulting in the brutally repressive regime that lasted until Franco’s death in 1975. During the final few years of his rule, as life in the States and western Europe underwent tremendous change, different elements in Spanish society began pushing against what was essentially across-the-board repression, and Franco’s death sparked a passage of incredible tension and transformation.

It’s fascinating to listen to Spaniards talk about all this. Apart from this week’s nicely balanced overview from Pablo, everyone else I’ve ever heard refer to the war, Franco and the complicated dynamics within the society during all that has expressed their thoughts vehemently. An epoch so recent that it’s still alive in many ways (not least of which is the current political landscape), and the intensity of emotion that spills out when people discuss it is striking and poignant. (On the other hand, numerous Spanish 20- and 30-somethings have told me they’ve had it with the continuing obsession with the war and Franco.)

During all this intrinsically dramatic stuff, there’s the perpetually-changing spectacle of the students in the class — a constant parade of personalities and cultural collisions different from anything I’ve ever experienced.

To begin this last week, class consisted of a 20-something guy of Indian descent named Ravi — not from India, as far as I could tell; English seemed to be his first language. There are generally opportunities to pick up details like that, but Ravi never hung about in available ways outside of class, never offered anything about himself in class. He mostly gravitated to another 20-something, a Texan named Cody — he of the pretentiousness comment. A difficult guy to warm up to, not serious about classwork. Not that he was around long enough for his personality to become an issue: he lasted two days then disappeared.

There were two young women of Japanese stock, one from Japan, here studying Flamenco, and one from Brazil — both intelligent and interesting. Then there was a Russian woman from St. Petersburg, a language teacher, intelligent and pretty. Midway through the week, an outgoing French guy in his late 20s named Javier showed up. And yesterday a 20-something woman who’s apparently lived all over the world completed the group.

A group, apart from myself and the Russian woman, of 20-somethings who bonded with each other more and more on that basis as the week went on, a connecting that I — an older writer, American, with a propensity for jeans and pointy black boots — clearly was not part of. Too much of an anomaly, I think.

I’ve taken classes at this school during much of the last 14 months, the various groups that have been the most fun have had a real spread, age-wise, something that ensured everyone gets included in one way or another. But if one group doesn’t work terrifically well, individuals will leave, other individuals take their place, giving birth to a whole different chemistry. Of the seven people in class today, four will be gone on Monday. Other folks will become part of the mix. And there’s simply no way of telling whether it’s going to be a great time or just a group I’ll be parked in while working on my Spanish.

People come and go, it’s part of life. Must be strange to work in a situation where an accelerated, intensified version of that is part of the basis of one’s experience — faces constantly coming and going, different personalities streaming through. You get to know them a little, they disappear, other faces materialize. It’s so much the norm that every time I show up for a few more weeks of classes, the teachers all seem genuinely surprised to see me again.

Being different: it’s good.

Two things seen around the neighborhood (keeping in mind this neighborhood is Chueca, the Greenwich Village of Madrid):

The sign over the entrance to a wine bar:

Vinos y Licores

Stop Madrid

I’m really not sure what they’re getting at with that.

On another street, immediately next door to a haircutter/beauty shop with a garish, extravagantly-overdone front window is a beer joint. The name over the door:

Bar Primp

Coincidence? Ironic commentary? Low humor? You be the judge.

**************************************************

During the walk back home after Spanish class today, I followed an impulse to investigate a bar/restaurant I noticed down a side street. A menú del día sign announcing the available courses stood out on the sidewalk, flanked by some modest potted palms. Something about the place feltgood and I walked inside.

It was a small establishment — a front room with a small bar and 4 or 5 stools, and a small room back from that with four tables, 2 two-tops, 2 fout-tops. And stairs going down to a kitchen, restrooms (’servicios’ or ‘aseos’). A man and woman stood at the bar talking when I walked in, along with the owner, a 40-something guy with bushy, longish hair and a slightly moon-like face, wearing an apron. I was the first arrival for lunch — I grabbed a seat in the dining room and he disappeared downstairs to grab his daughter, who was waiting tables.

The place had Spanish tiles all around the walls and, in the small dining room, many old, framed photoraphs. Old as in early 1900s, late 1800s. Photos of people, photos of Madrid. Flamenco played on a stereo. The place felt great.

The owner reappeared and slipped behind the bar to tend to customers. His daughter, a slender, intent, wild-haired, bleached-blonde with a great face, appeared and took my order.

The woman standing by the bar when I entered had two children with her, a little boy, maybe 3, and a sweet-faced little girl, a bit younger. The day outside was absolutely beautiful in a mild autumnal way, the entrance to the street was completely open letting in light and air and permitting people (and kids) to wander in and out. Other people walked in, one with a cocker spaniel who roamed around, sniffing everything and keeping a wary eye cocked at the kids. The kids’ mother went downstairs to the aseos, and when the little girl realized Mom had disappeared she looked outside, didn’t see her, came back inside, and people in the bar began taking care of her. They let her know where her mother was, assured her everything was fine, and kept her occupied friendly, interested talk. The place felt comfortable, safe, and had a sense of something I can only describe as community.

Three young 20-somethings entered as I began hoovering up a delicious (and generous) first course of fresh, thick gazpacho. They sat down to my left as I ate, got glasses of wine, and talked, happily as far as I could tell. The owner’s daughter reappeared with a plate of tapas and offered them (gratis) to everyone in the bar who was working on some kind of drink. A few minutes later she did the same thing with another, different plate of tapas.

The little girl had decided to go downstairs and hunt up her mother. They both reappeared and the scene in the bar grew a bit louder and busier.

The daughter of the owner brought my second course, a perfectly done plate of a half a roast chicken and pureed potatos, garnished with tomatoes and green pepper.

I watched and listened to everything, feeling very good in the middle of it all as I finished up my meal and dessert (natillas — a kind of custard/pudding, its flavor a combo of vanilla and coconut, topped with cinnamon). When I paid the owner, the simple friendliness he radiated, the flamenco playing on the stereo, the overall feel of the place sent me out the door smiling into the radiant late September weather.

I don’t know, it might be boring to read a dispatch like this. But the fact is, there are times when a day or a part of a day or a visit to a place feels perfect, charmed, with everything in balance, everything falling gently into place. This was one of those.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — I love Madrid.

A beautiful September Monday in Madrid — morning starting off cool, air soft, mist hanging in the sunlight, the streets damp from a nighttime shower. I began four weeks of intensive Spanish classes, it felt just right to be reintroducing that kind of stimulation and practice to my existence here.

The group: an intelligent, pretty Russian woman, a 20-something Indian guy named Ravi, two Asian women — one Japanese, one Chinese — and a 20-something American guy. Seemed like a nice group. The American guy returned from the class break talking English, mentioned that he thought it was pretentious to speak Spanish outside of class. (Huh? Then why, I asked myself, are we in Madrid studying Spanish?) To each their own.

The day remained cool, clouds and sun producing dramatic light. Days like remind me all over again why September through December is my favorite time of the year. (’Cause it’s beautiful. With great sleeping weather. ‘Cause it leads up to the holidays. ‘Cause the air feels crisp, fresh. The light changes, the skies get more dramatic. The leaves turn. Halloween rolls back around. And after the months of summer it feels like the year is starting all over again.)

It’s the kind of day, though, that’s reminded me a little of certain days in March — mild, with a blustery edge, same kind of equinox-time light. In particular, it’s reminded me of a day this past March, when I took a walk down in this direction from my old neighborhood. Heading this way along la Calle de Hortaleza.

Out on Hortaleza, right around the corner from this street, is an old, old church. The kind of edifice that appears ancient and decrepit because it is ancient and decrepit. La Iglesia Real de Las Escuelas Pías de San Antón (The Royal Church of the Pious/Devout Schools of Saint Anthony). The church had set aside that day last March for a blessing of the animals, open to anyone who wanted to bring, well, an animal. For a blessing. A line two or three people (and animals) wide extended from the building’s front entrance, around the corner and off down the side street, most of the humans in attendance there with dogs. Except for one old man standing off to the other side of the front entrance. A diminutive, skinny, stooped old man in rumpled old black clothes, holding a cord that ended in a loop around the neck of the single largest pig I have ever seen. Bigger than the man — wider, nearly as tall, probably several times heavier. An enormous, monstrous pig. The two of them there together. Not appearing patient or sanguine, exactly. Reconciled, more like, to being there for a while, in each other’s company.

Not the kind of image you get to see every day.

I’ve been adjusting to the cycle of nighttime noise here in my new barrio, a surprisingly easy process to this point. Being several floors up probably helps.

Last night (Sunday) at 11:45, just as I was going to sleep, the security alarm of a street-level tienda next door to this building went off. And continued on and on, with no sign of stopping its ear-bursting keen. kept going. After 10 minutes, I pulled out earplugs and stuffed them into the appropriate orifices, where they did their job. Sometime during the next hour the racket finally let up.

Yesterday morning, around 6:45, someone down in the street began playing a rap song at high volume. After a few minutes I got up to take a look-see, found people still hanging about after a night of carousing. Across the street from the tienda whose security alarm went off stands a funky peluquería (hair cutter/hair dresser). As I watched, the shop’s door opened, three people stumbled out. A fourth remained in the shop, closing and locking the door after them. The three escapees shambled down the street, heading God knows where.

Things quieted down, I returned to bed.

***********

A quick note:

A couple of weeks back I saw an American independent film called You Can Count On Me. Good film, a production that struck gold at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The story ends, the credits start rolling. The first name in the credits — the very first name, pretty much appearing by itself immediately after the story — was Jill Footlick. Jill FOOTLICK. I don’t know — could be Jill’s a fine person and an excellent producer, but talk about breaking a mood.

Right. Well, because of problems with blogger.com (apparently something to do with the program re: archive generation), over a month’s worth of archived posts of mine are, at times, not showing up on this webpage. In addition, over the last few days people have at times had trouble accessing this page, sometimes arriving at a screen of simple Zen-like white, other times actually not being able to access the page at all.

A bit inconvenient, but it will pass. Life goes on.

********

Line from a Van Morrison song heard in a movie theater before the screening of ‘Amores Perros’ here in Madrid: “Don’t you love the sound of the last laugh going down?”

********

Took myself to see Amores Perros (Dog Loves) this afternoon, a Mexican film nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Man, I’ll tell you what: this is a serious movie. Well-written, well-conceived and directed, well-acted. Intense, and for those who don’t care for violent films: beware, it is fairly hard-core. When there isn’t any actual violence, there’s the feeling of the potential for it, or the moving toward it. It reminded me of Pulp Fiction, without the comic book feel. A film that cuts right to the nihilism. Some might disagree about the use of that word, but that’s how it felt to me.

The film consists of three intertwined stories, the protagonists of which share two things: a sudden, brutal car crash, and love for a dog or dogs.

And another similarity to Pulp Fiction: great soundtrack.

I noticed the filmmakers took pains to reassure the viewers that no animals were hurt in any way in the making of the film, announcing it both before and after the story. That’s because if they didn’t, you’d swear you’d witnessed a fair amount of carnage. Lots of dog fighting in the first story, a tale that seems to take up about half the film.

A great movie, but let the viewer beware.

In part, I went to see this bugger as a distraction from what’s happening in the world right now, and momma, it accomplished that. I think the next entertainment I take myself to will be something gentler, less homicidal.

Last night the weather forecast mentioned the possibility of showers in Madrid today. There’s been heavy weather in Spain’s northwest and southeast, with storms causing flooding in Valencia today. I made sure to bring an umbrella (a paraguas — literally, for waters) when I left to go to the film. When I left the theater afterwards, I’d just missed what was apparently a cloudburst, deep water still running along the curbs. Yet another confirmation that the seasons are changing. And while there are plenty of people out in Chueca, it being Friday night, the area here around la Plaza de Chueca is quiet and sparsely attended right now. For the moment, the weather has driven the revelers to other locales.

An interesting phenomenon in Madrid — Friday and Saturday nights, during the cold season and inclement weather, young folks gather in the Metro stations to hang out and drink. Makes sense, I guess. Halfway between here and my old piso is a plaza running along a downhill slope — just off the traffic circle Alonzo Martinez –- called la Plaza de Santa Barbara. During the warm season, this is a gathering place for hundreds and hundreds of young folk. Lots of drinking, laughter, romance, general carrying-on.

And speaking of romance, something else I enjoy about Madrid: the amount of affection shown in public. Couples are openly affectionate, openly romantic, both younger folk and middle-aged folk, married and unmarried. I often see older couples walking hand in hand or arm in arm, and it’s especially common to see that between generations, especially among women. Mothers and daughters of every age bracket, sometimes three generations walking along like that. That feels particularly good because the elderly folks are generally far less demonstrative and open than the younger folks, something that makes perfect sense considering that Spaniards past a certain age lived through the civil war and decades of dictatorship, a genuine nightmare that left many of their generation with the kind of imprint that the Great Depression did to many in the States.

It’s lovely to see so much evidence of affection. Here in Chueca, gay territory, it’s common to see same-sex couples holding hands or with arms around other, and in Madrid in general, women show each other plenty of physical affection.

In general, the impression I’ve gotten here is that the Spaniards are better trained in social relationships than we are in the States. It seems to be a tighter society, people seem to have more extensive, more durable social networks than I think most people in the States do — part of the socialization that happens during younger years. I don’t know if that holds in romantic relationships, though the family unit is extremely important, part of the core around which life here is built. People in the States make a fairly big show of talking about ‘family values.’ Here they seem to do a better job of incorporating it into the basic mode of living. But. That may be changing now that the centuries of Church domination and decades of Franco-era repression are in the past. Women show less willingness to accept the default family roles that Spanish society used to decree. The divorce rate is climbing. It’ll be interesting to see how all that plays out over time.

One interesting way the States seem to be ahead in terms of displays of affection: hetero American men have, over the last 20 years or so, begun to hug each other quite a bit, though that may be more common in some regions, less common in others. Here I’ve rarely seen that, though every now and then I do see the two-cheek kiss. Mostly between gay men, I suspect.

When I first arrived in Madrid, the two-cheek kiss took me by surprise, immediately winning me over. Being introduced to a woman who then kisses you twice, on either side of the face, is just so nice. Sweet, tactile, a bit sexy. Happens all the time here, and never fails to make me smile, even if it’s the two-cheek air kiss that sometimes attempts to pass as the real item.

One last thing I enjoy about the Spaniards: their obvious love of children. Walking home after Amores Perros, I found myself behind a 30-something woman strolling hand-in-hand with her son, maybe 4 years old, completely absorbed in the passing scenery: stores, people, sounds, activity. At one point, she bent over, gave him a kiss on the cheek. He immediately wiped it off, they continued on, him alternately skipping and trotting, her appearing completely unruffled by the kiss removal. They were both happy, she clearly loved him. Fun to watch, fun to be around.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It’s Friday night, 9:30. I’ve been eating on and off since I got back from the movie, around 7:15, my stomach still somewhat on American time. I was just in the kitchen, which is right next to — extremely right next to when it comes to sounds and smells — the kitchen in the neighboring apartment. Dinner’s happening there right now, as in just getting ready to eat, which reminds me all over again how the different the Spanish eating schedule is. 9:30 or 10:00 is normal dinnertime. Friday night, many restaurants don’t begin serving dinner until 8:30, others until 9:00, still others until 9:30. People go out to eat late, after that they go out for drinks. And when you finally arrive home at 1 a.m., 2 a.m. or later, the streets in some areas are literally many times busier with people than they are at one or two in the afternoon.

Life’s different here.

Three nights ago, Monday: the season’s first sweater weather. Genuinely chilly — the kind of air that blows in open windows and makes you notice it. The real thing, suggesting the slow turn of seasons. Tuesday turned out to be brisk, with an unforgiving breeze. Since then it’s warmed a bit, but the mornings have been genuinely overcast. Not a big deal somewhere like London, Dublin, northern Vermont. Here, after literally months of blue skies/no rain, it’s a sign of change on the way. The interesting part to me was the kind of overcast — like the morning overcast you get living near a beach, only here without a beach in sight. Clouds thick and low, moving noticeably across the sky, hints of diluted sunshine swirling through them now and then. The kind of overcast that gives way over the course of a morning to sunshine. A kind of overcast that feels comforting to me.

When I went down the street to the plaza earlier today for the papers, I noticed another for-sale sign had appeared on a balcón. That makes three now, all on the same side of the plaza. All, in fact, in the same building. It’s a handsome building, really, in an old architectural style that can be seen all around Madrid. With what might be called French windows — a set of doors with windows from top to bottom and curtains inside, opening out onto a balcón. With just enough room to step outside, watch the scenery, get some air. Enough room to put out a few plants, hang some clothes to dry, but not enough for a table and chairs. One could open the doors, drag a chair to the opening, stretch their legs out into the Madrid air, but that’s about it. Still, it’s nice. The building I’m in has them, too, on the floors below mine. For some reason, this one, the top floor, doesn’t. This floor has normal, smaller windows overlooking a ledge. Sometimes I lean out and watch the scene below, local life passing by in all its colors.

Two mornings ago: got myself up and out at a unreasonably reasonable hour for a trip to the post office. On the way, I followed an impulse to head down a side street I’d never explored before. At the end of that street I found myself facing an old building bearing a sign that read “El Museo Romántico.” A building I’d actually passed months ago, more than once — for whatever reason not registering then. This time, though, it caught my eye, maybe because it’s been given a face lift. The sign appears new, a large banner hangs off to one side announcing a current exhibit (’Love and Death in the Romantic Age’), a collection of art and articles that currently takes up all the open rooms on the second floor of the museum.

Two mornings ago, I had no time to check the place out. Yesterday, I went back and snooped around. This place, it turns out, is a small, understated treasure.

This is what the Time Out Guide to Madrid says about this museum:
“Location: c/ San Mateo 13, Chueca (www.mec.es)
Metro Tribunal [Note: the Metro station Alonso Martinez is actually closer]/bus 3, 37, 40, 149.
Open: 9am-3 pm Tue. Sat., 10am-2 pm Sun, public holidays. Closed Aug.
Admission: 400 ptas, 200 ptas students, free under-18s, over 65s, & for all Sun.
[Note: admission was free (gratuíta) to all yesterday, Wed.]

“This rather weather-beaten museum has been undergoing slow restoration in recent years, but it now seems that the green light has been given for thorough structural repairs to go ahead from some time in 2001. This may mean that the upper floor will be closed, during which time a selection of the exhibits will be moved temporarily downstairs. The museum is (until now) a slightly grimy but charming reflection of the Romantic era in 19th century Spain — its previous neglect and creaking floor adding to its nostalgic feel. The period is evoked through furniture, paintings, ornaments, early pianos and memorabilia associated with various writers, most especially the journalist Larra. The Romántico is another museum set up by a private collector, the Marqués de Vega-Inclán, an antiquarian who was responsible for the first conservation of many of Spain’s historic monuments and also inspired the creation of the Parador hotel chain [low-priced hotels around the country in beautiful, old buildings, run by the government]. A whole — rather unexciting — section is dedicated to him on the ground floor downstairs. The house itself, from 1770, is of great interest.”

There’s no way of determine the last time that a representative of Time Out went to the museum — they might want to consider a return trip to update their blurb. From their description I was expecting something slightly sad and melancholy. Instead, it was like walking into a gracious old home from 19th century Madrid which someone has thoughtfully filled with artwork and memorabilia, someone with an ability to walk the line between affectionate appreciation and camp. The open rooms on the first floor are all currently devoted to the Marqués, housing plenty of artwork, with many portraits of family, friends, arty-types — the Marqués was a devoteé of the arts, apparently studying for many years in the hope of being able to produce great art himself, though never quite making it (a fact endearingly acknowledged midway through the rooms dedicated to his life). There is beautiful old furniture, kept in top condition, and tourism memorabilia from the years of his involvement in conservation and so on — exhibit cases of photos, old guidebooks. Great stuff.

There are also two lovely old garden/fountain areas. The fountain in the nicer of the two was working, with birds in attendance, but that room was closed to public access. The other looked less welcoming, though the open area above it was covered with bower greenery, a nice touch.

All the currently-open rooms on the second floor (and there are rooms not open to the public) are now devoted to the exhibit on Love and Death in the Romantic Age — a genuine hoot.

They were a madcap bunch, the Romantics, with a Gothic outlook and a melodramatic, less-then three-dimensional sense of life. Big into the madonna/whore image of women (the good wife/perfect mother or THE SEDUCTRESS!); big into titillating, illicit romance; big into death — noble death in battle; noble death of nobles; noble arty-type death, slow and tragic, as in tuberculosis or suicide. The contents of the exhibit — artwork of various types, mostly with objects of different kinds thrown in here and there — are nicely broken down, room by room, into one concept or another, all adding up to a picture of the Romantic view of life. The rooms having to do with death are both genuinely interesting, at times producing amazed laughter, and also truly morbid — portraits of dead infants come to mind, apparently a common phenomenon with infant mortality as high as it was.

The whole place took an hour to go through. On the off-chance someone reading this actually finds their way to the museum, be advised that the exhibit on Life/Death etc. only runs through this month. Also, though the museum has versions of its pamphlet (containing a basic description, floor maps and the basic info. re: hours, location, all that) in Spanish and English, you’ll need to know at least some Spanish for the explanations within the various rooms/exhibits.

I know I say this a lot, but I love Madrid. There are quirky finds like this museum tucked away all over the city. Probably true in any world-class city, that, but Madrid is not any other world-class city. It’s Madrid.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A few hours ago, I came across someone in the act of pasting more posters to the wall across the street — turns out it’s pretty much a free-for-all there, some posters disappearing under new ones only a day or two after their first appearance. The universe of advertising: aggressive, with little respect for what came before.

The new posters are all theatre-related, including one marginally erotic specimen of a bare-footed woman in student clothing sprawled out in a chair on an empty stage before an empty theatre — an ad for acting courses based on The Method.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A large gathering took place earlier this evening in La Plaza de la Puerta del Sol in the heart of Madrid — ‘for peace and against terrorism’ — carried by Channel 1, one of the two government stations. The gist of the event was mourning for those killed in the attacks on 9/11, along with a call for careful reprisal, to seek justice in accord with international law. It included a minute of silence — total enough to be a bit startling given where it took place (except for Channel 1’s commentator, who couldn’t seem to quiet herself down).

Spain is a country that has suffered through many, many terrorist attacks over the last 20 years — bombings and assassinations. Their response comes from the heart.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Today’s headlines from two Spanish newspapers:

From El Mundo:
“U.S. Prepares the War Sending Another 100 Planes to the Persian Gulf”
“Afghan Refugees — The Khyber Pass: Flight Without Escape”
“‘U.S. Asks Our Support — We Must Defend The Just Cause’ — The President of Pakistan Prepares His People to Aid Washington While Popular Discontent Grows”
“The Taliban Announce Today If They Hand Over Bin Laden”
“The World Leaders Alert Bush Against the Effects of An Attack”
“The European Commision Approves Two Initiatives Against Terrorism”
“Gorbachov Believes A War Will Worsen the Situation”

From El País:
“U.S. Deploys 100 Warplanes In the Persian Gulf”
“Boeing Aggravates the Crisis in the Aero Sector With the Elimination of 30,000 Employees”
“U.S. Launches Operation Infinite Justice”
“Pakistan Cedes Its Air Space to U.S. At The Risk of Islamic Rebellion”
“Iran Asks for ‘Severe Punishment’ for the Instigator of the Attacks”
“Sudan Affirms That U.S. Has An Antiterrorist Group In Its Territory”
“Israeli Military Intelligence Accuses Iraq of Sponsoring the Attacks Against the U.S.”
“The European Union Wants to Extend A Bridge to the Arab Countries In Their Extraordinary Summit”

Sunday night around eleven: went out to get some air and pick up a sandwich. A beautiful September evening — cool enough to be refreshing, not so cool that one needed a jacket. People filled the plaza, out enjoying themselves. A jazz duo — trumpet and guitar, both accomplished musicians — played off to one side, their music at a volume respectful of the local residents. When I went by, they were into a version of Fly Me To The Moon, it feeling strange to hear music here that I associate strongly with the States.

And speaking of the residents, I noticed another for-sale sign has appeared on one of the balcones above the plaza. Same building as the earlier one, higher up. On a balcón to the left of that, someone had hung a handwritten sign that read “BONGOS NO!”

Yes, bongos. Not just a surreal nonsequitur, that — there have been nights recently when some misguided, overenthusiastic party nitwits have taken up posts in the plaza, hammering away on laptop percussion instruments until the wee hours.

I picked up a bocadillo de pollo — a chicken sandwich on a baguette — at a good, small bocadillería around the block from the plaza, on the way back stopped at a bar down the street from my place to try something I’d tasted a couple of times some months back, vermouth and soda. A couple of sips might have been fine. An entire tumblerful or even half of one turned out to be less than wonderful. Man, talk about sickly sweet. (But that’s just me. Someone else might find it nice and tangy.)

I’ve been doing that lately, trying out things I might have liked years in the past. In each case I’ve gotten to remember all over again why I stopped doing them in the first place.

For instance, during my recent visit to London I stayed in a group house in Clapham North, in the bedroom of a friend who’d traveled to Australia for a month. An interesting neighborhood — completely working class, originally, both sides of the street consisting of the same house over and over again, all attached, stretching off into the distance. The current version of the neighborhood had become multi-ethnic, with a heavy concentration of caribbean.

The five-minute walk to the Underground took me along a stretch of street with shops here and there, a restaurant, a bakery, a pub — including, right around the corner from my squat for the trip, a small produce shop. I’d pass by in the morning on the way into central London, they’d be opening for business, putting out crates of fruit or unloading produce from a truck. All black folks, Caribbean, some with dreadlocks. Never looking at me.

I stopped there one morning to pick up fruit for my host household, found myself some bananas, went inside to pay up. Three or four people hung about in the shop, all black, including a tall, handsome woman behind the counter and a skinny teenage girl sitting in front of the counter. Conversation stopped on my entry, no one met my eye. When I lay the bananas on the counter, the teenager produced an unpleasant snort of laughter that accompanied an unfriendly-looking smirk. The woman behind the counter also seemed less than cordial, charged me a fairly high sum for the bananas. I chalked it up to experience, decided to make my next purchase at a shop up the street, went on with my day.

Shortly before the end of my stay, during a conversation about the neighborhood with one of my housemates, I mentioned that produce shop visit.

“The Green Leaf Café?” she said, laughing.

“The what?” I responded.

“That’s the Green Leaf Café. They sell marijuana there.”

“They what?”

“Sell marijuana. The produce shop is a front.”

And it suddenly all made sense: the atmosphere inside (they weren’t acquainted with me — for all they knew I could have been with the Old Bill), their hours (open ’til late, late, late at night — every single time I’d return to the house at the end of an evening out in central London they’d be open, regardless of the hour), the general vibe. In that part of London, it turned out, possession of marijuana had been decriminalized, so it may be that their type of operation had become a low priority for the police, or palms were being greased. Or maybe they maintained a low enough profile that the issue never came up.

I mentioned all this to another friend (an American expat living in London), marvelling at my ignorance — turned out this person had been looking to score some pot, but had no connections, had no idea how to cultivate any. She wanted to come out immediately and make a purchase. The person in the household who’d clued me in offered to accompany us, that was all my friend needed to hear. Thirty minutes later, I found myself in front of the Café, friend and housemate chatting together like old friends, like partners in crime.

We entered the shop, started toward the hallway that led to the room where the dope was sold. The man behind the counter stopped us. “What would you like?” he asked. We started to tell him, he cut us off, saying again, “What would you like?” It finally dawned that there was protocol to be followed: the customer first had to buy something out front. We picked up a couple of bottles of water and rolling papers, paid up, were then allowed to wander out back.

It looked exactly like something from a movie. (Life imitating art? Art imitating life?) A narrow, dirty hallway with a grubby, well-worn wooden floor. A bare lightbulb hung from a cord at a turn in the hallway, the corridor leading from there to a small, crudely furnished room. A heavyset black woman in her late 20’s sat at a small table, a bunch of teeny plastic packets of pot lay on display before her. Two types of dope: normal and heavy-duty. My friend picked up a packet of high-test for 10 pounds — steep pricing I thought, considering the packet’s near-microscopic size. During the transaction, a dreadlocked guy who’d been hanging out in the front room came down the hall into the room, his vibe intensifying a strange sensation of us/them, black/white, or whatever it was. Three honkies buying drugs from some black folks. My heart actually went out to the young woman sitting at the table — she did not look happy to be in that squalid, dimly-lit space peddling weed.

We left. My friend talked with my housemate about whether or not she’d gotten beat on the price/quantity ratio. They seemed to think it may have been a bad deal, then conferred with yet another housemate who turned out to be a shitfaced, having been sitting in his room smoking dope likely purchased at the same shop. I volunteered to go back with my friend, we thanked the others, returned to the shop. Complied with protocol, buying more rolling papers in the front room. After which my friend copped a packet of normal dope, to compare with the batch of high-test she’d already picked up.

My friend is not a pothead. She claimed she wanted the stuff to help her unwind before bed, I believe her. But now that she had some in her hot little hands, she wanted to try it out. Rather than sample it where I was staying, which would mean her driving home stoned, I offered to return with her to her place and take the tube back to Clapham North afterwards. She took me up on it, we hopped in her car, headed north to Central London.

Several lifetimes ago, many years back, I smoked a lot of dope. Engaged in other acivities, too, both positive and negative, but I think the smoking was one of the pasttimes most emblematic of those somewhat lost years. I’m happy to say I stopped a long time ago. ‘Cause frankly, smoking did lousy things for me. Over the last year or two, I’d begun wondering about all that, curious whether the activity might be different for an older, more relaxed me. Curious, but not enough to pursue it. I thought maybe I’d investigate if the opportunity ever arose with a friend, a situation that might lend a sense of security to that kind of exploration.

I suddenly found myself in exactly that situation. Sitting in a friend’s London home, rolling a joint — a kind of action my fingers hadn’t seen in eons. My friend decided to sample the normal stuff, that’s what got rolled. She sparked the bone — a thin one, nothing extravagant — and between the two of us we did about half of it.

Turned out to be potent, the normal stuff, so potent that my friend found she wouldn’t need to smoke more than a little bit at a time, less than a quarter of a J. And me — I found myself reliving scenes I’d experienced years earlier: forgetting what I was saying in the middle of a sentence, losing track of my thoughts, feeling insecure about myself and how I was expressing my thoughts. Not paralyzed, not demolished, but heavily abstracted, and not enjoying it much. Reconfirming my memories of it, in fact.

Here’s the truth — I don’t enjoy getting drunk or stoned. I prefer clarity, or at least what passes for clarity in my case. It’s that simple. I’m happier in my normal state — that might make those familiar with my normal state a bit nervous, but there it is. Do I like the taste of a good beer with a meal now and then? Yeah, I do, but since I’m a cheap date — and I truly am; one doesn’t have to pump much alcohol into my system to get me in the back seat with my pants down, metaphorically speaking — I generally stick to one beer. And then I’m happy. Which is all that counts.

It’s good to have questions, and it’s good to have questions answered. It’s good to find out what one does and doesn’t enjoy. Yada yada yada.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I noticed when I returned to my piso Sunday night that the wall across from the door to the building had been completely reclaimed by posters. In one or two cases, posters hung since Friday have now had other posters hung over them. This crop is almost entirely about music. Some examples:

Jose Mercé — Cuerpo y Alma [body and soul] — disco doble — ya a la venta [double disc - now on sale]

Au d’Asti en concierto, presenta nuevo disco, entrada gratuíta [entry free]

Stereophonics — “Just Enough Education To Perform” — su nuevo álbum, ya a venta en cd — incluye su single “Have A Nice Day”

Teatro Lope De Vega, c/ Gran Vía 57 (Metro: Santo Domingo); Presentación en concierto de Diego “El Cigala”, Esperanza Fernández, Niño Josele y Javier Limón, y artistas invitados, 1 de Octubre – 21:30 h.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It’s a beautiful September evening. As I stood outside copying down the previous poster text, the street was alive with people. Some of those who passed by:

A 30-something woman with two kids — she came out of the papelería (stationery store/copy shop) next door with something that looked like a candy bar still in its wrapper, exclaiming about it as if it were hard, way harder than she wanted it to be. A pretty woman, whose manner made me smile. She saw that, smiled at me, then she and her little ones walked off.

I looked back at the wall, saw two guys together in front of the posters, studying the current display, talking to each other in sign language.

A group of three people then passed — one normal-looking Spanish guy, tall, one with a pony-tail, and a stout woman of medium height in a tight-fitting sweater, short-shorts, open-toed sandals, hair dyed very red, sporting a cannula (a plastic tube, usually for oxygen, that passes between the mouth and the nose, with two extensions for the nostrils) — I didn’t see where the cannula went, didn’t see an oxygen tank, though it could have been in her bag.

Madrid. What a place.

Yesterday morning, Saturday: awoke around 4 a.m. to the sound of people still hanging out at the plaza down the street. Curious, I got up, opened a window, leaned out, took a gander down at the street — clusters of people stood around the end of the plaza I can see from here, talking, laughing. Other folks passed in both directions along the street in front of this building. Including two separate individuals with luggage — large duffels slung over their shoulders, large bags being carried by hand. A block to the other side of the plaza, people were gathered around the door to the Black & White, a club.

The night air felt cool on my skin, a light breeze blew. On impulse, I turned on the TV. All local channels were broadcasting, including a news program on one of the main stations.

Went back to bed. A few minutes later, around 4:10, a musician began playing — loudly — for the stragglers in the plaza, continuing for five or ten minutes. After which everything quieted down for the night.

My landlords have lived in or around Madrid for many years. When I first looked at this piso, they told me that ten short years ago this barrio was a working-class neighborhood. A enclave of families. Apparently, the changes that have surged through the area have taken a lot of them by surprise. During the last decade, younger folks moved in, folks of a more artsy, bohemian bent. Gays began moving in, in numbers large enough to impact the feel and look of the area. And why not? It’s safe, it’s packed with bars, restaurants, little shops of all kinds, from the pedestrian and practical to the expensively trendy.

La Plaza de Chueca sits in the heart of the barrio, surrounded on all three sides by cafés, small markets and tiendas, bars — a street runs along the north edge of the plaza, on the other side sits a tapas bar, more small stores. All of that at street level. Above are apartments with balcones facing out onto the plaza. By day, people of all ages and social stripes pass through. Many come and go from the Metro station, others sit on concrete benches that line one side of the plaza, reading newspapers, talking, a few drinking. Kids run through the space or kick soccer balls around, folks with bags of groceries walk through. By late to mid-afternoon during the warm season, the bars have started dragging out chairs and tables, setting them up in long rows. As the sun moves to the west and late-afternoon shadows extend across the space, people begin planting themselves at the tables, singly, in pairs, in small groups. From there the crowd slowly accumulates, the ambient noise becomes a continual murmur, ebbing and flowing until the evening hours when more and more people are drawn to the barrio’s nighttime scene.

This last spring, during Gay Pride (Orgullo Gay) weekend — a major happening in Chueca — a bandstand was set up at the street end of the plaza one evening, a concert got underway. Huge crowds gathered, bands played at ear-busting volume all through the night. And for families that have lived here for many years, the more traditional kinds of families, the neighborhood’s metamorphosis into a kind of party central finally became intolerable. Many went to the Madrid city council and complained, enough that some of the tables and chairs were removed from the plaza. Banners appeared on many of the balcones that ring the plaza, all reading “VIVIMOS AQUI — CONTROLA EL RUIDO” (WE LIVE HERE — CONTROL THE NOISE). I haven’t been a neighborhood resident long enough to be able to say how much effect this has had on the evening noise level. Come midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., the plaza is still crowded with people hanging out More banners have appeared just recently, and a for-sale sign (”se vende piso”) materialized on one of the balcones just above the plaza’s ground level.

Yesterday morning around 9 a.m., when I finally got up and glanced outside, I saw that during the night more posters had appeared on the wall across from this building, enough to leave it more or less half-covered. When I returned home from seeing a film yesterday afternoon, that had increased to two-thirds of the surface area.

In my travels through the area over the last couple of days, I’ve noticed vacant walls stenciled with the legend “PROHIBIDO FIJAR CARTELES — RESPONSIBLE EMPRESA ANUNCIADO” (loosely, POST NO BILLS — THE ANNOUNCED BUSINESS IS RESPONSIBLE). Those walls seem to remain untouched by posters.

This morning I awoke around four. During a quick trip to the bog, I could hear the continuing sounds of Saturday night revelry. When I woke again at six, they were still at it, but it faded soon after. By 8:30, the city cleaning crews were out, a group of three cleaners sweeping and hosing down the plaza and the nearby street. They tend to talk loudly back and forth, these crews, so that while they’re doing the neighborhood a service by hoovering up the detritus of the weekend’s bacchanalia, they make it hard for people kept awake all night to sleep in. But then the Spaniards seem to take amused pride in their reputation for noise.

The wall across from my building is now almost completely covered with posters. As the countless teeny dogs owned by the neighborhood residents are taken on their walks, they lift their legs and spray the lowermost ads, same as with the previous crop. And life in Chueca continues.

********

A great book: Love and Longing In Bombay — Vikram Chandra

Three great films:
You Can Count On Me — [U.S. -- Written and directed by
Kenneth Lonergan, with Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo and
Matthew Broderick; Winner, Best Film, Best Original
Screenplay, Sundance Festival 2000]
The Filth and The Fury — [U.K. -- Documentary re: The Sex
Pistols by Julien Temple (includes a seriously great live
version of God Save The Queen)]
Under the Sand — [France -- Written and directed by
Francois Ozon, with Charlotte Rampling]

****************

Went to lunch today at a neighborhood restaurant/cafetería, did the menú del día: two courses, with a drink (a beer, a bottle of wine or a bottle of water, with or w/out carbonation), bread, and dessert or coffee. Here in Chueca, most of the joints that serve this charge around 1,000 pesetas for the meal -– maybe $5.50, American — the quality of the food generally pretty good, sometimes extremely good. Some establishments with upscale aspirations use cloth napkins and tablecloths, attempting to provide more ambience than the run of the mill joint. Charging more, of course. And what the hell — the food’s good, the atmosphere’s nice. And after all, we’re not talking about a huge amount of money here — maybe 1200 or 1400 ptas, occasionally 1500 or 1600. Seven or eight bucks for a nice lunch, complete.

I adore it when someone prepares a meal for me, and most of the local joints are great studies in the culture and the local folk — it’s a combo that gets me eating out a lot.

Less places do the menú del día thing on weekends, especially Sundays when most businesses are closed. Meaning the few open joints are generally busy. When I entered the place today — la Cafetería Vivares — there were no free tables but also no one waiting ahead of me. The bar and a few tables were in the front room. I started to make my way through there toward the rear dining room when the camarero asked me to hold off until a table became free. Standing right by a free stool at the bar, I noticed a couple of other individuals at the bar eating, asked if I could dine there, got a “Pues, sí, sí, claro,” in return. I parked my butt, ordered, settled down to watch the scene.

The guy behind the bar gave me a caña — a small beer — and a snack of two small fish, breaded. But when I say two small fish, I mean the entire fish. A couple of inches long — head, eyes, tail, maybe the innards, too. Don’t know, didn’t check that out. Just ignored ‘em.

Fútbol has recommenced here as of yesterday after several days of cancelled games due to mourning for the fallen in New York and D.C., and concerns re: security in the wake of all that. A TV mounted up near the ceiling near the door began showing a recap, most attention turned there, especially when the results of the Real Madrid game came on, a shameful defeat for Madrid (Betis, 3 – Real Madrid, 1).

The mix of people in the room cut across the spectrum, missing only persons of truly advanced years. Couples, attractively-dressed women, gays (all men in their 30’s, in similar garb). Behind the bar worked the bartender, a mid-30’s Spaniard, and a good-natured 20-something woman — South American, though from where exactly I couldn’t say. Her features looked to be a mix of European and Indian, she had an attractive, toothy smile and dimples. A woman who looked to be her sister worked in the rear dining room, appearing periodically to pick up plates of food, at which time two strikingly similar-looking women faced each other across the bar. At a couple of points, my eyes met hers, we exchanged smiles.

My first course arrived, cream of carrot soup — surprisingly good. I inhaled it, set immediately to work on the second course the nanosecond it appeared, a breast of chicken. More people had entered the restaurant, the number of those waiting for tables mounted. The television showed a report on La Vuelta 2001, the Spanish version of the Tour de France. Yesterday was the 8th stage, today is the 9th. At the end they ride through Madrid, something I experienced last year, out one afternoon with a local woman. We passed through la Plaza de España, saw that traffic had been blocked off from Gran Vía. We stood talking, within minutes cyclists came flying down the avenue — a six-lane street that cuts through the center of Madrid, flanked on both sides by stores, restaurants, theaters, grand buildings. They made the turn at the near corner of the plaza, flew past, moving toward Principe Pio and out of sight.

On the walk home from lunch, I passed a business I’ve noticed before, stopped to peer in the window for a minute. A droguería/pinturería — a drugstore/paint store. Vending drugs, paint and painting supplies. Housepaint, as far as I can see, not fine arts supplies. What gave birth to this unholy combo? Who knows? Who cares? It’s brilliant!

An e-mail received from a buddy in Dublin this morning:

>Hi guys,
>
>I needed to relate this experience with my friends, all of whom I
>care deeply about, and all of whom I know will be dealing with
>this terrible event in their own heartfelt ways.
>
>Without being bigheaded, if you think it may help to pass this on
>to others, especially in the U.S., where I have heard that coverage
>of non-U.S. events has been limited, please feel free.
>
>Yesterday (Friday) was declared a National Day Of Mourning
>here by the Irish government, in addition to the three minutes
>of silence held across Europe. Every business, school, pub,
>cinema – everywhere – closed all day. Even gas stations closed.
>It was weird driving around with everywhere shut down like
>that. Hundreds of masses and memorial services from all
>denominations were held all over the country, and many
>thousands attended in deep grief.
>
>Last night, at about 10.10 p.m., I drove to the American
>Embassy in Dublin. Since Wednesday morning, many thousands
>of people have been showing up there to pay their respects and to
>sign the Books Of Condolence to the American people, and
>particularly to those who have lost their lives and loved ones in
>this tragedy. By the way, other Books are being signed all over
>Ireland, and probably the world.
>
>I had watched the evening news earlier at a friend’s house, and
>saw that the queue to sign the Books at the Embassy was over
>two and a half hours long, at about 6 p.m. on Friday evening.
>And that was in addition to the long queues at other venues in
>Dublin. As of this morning, over 40,000 people have left very
>personal messages in the Books. There are so many people
>going there that the Embassy has placed 10 Books at a time
>under a temporary gazebo, to help reduce the waiting time.
>
>As you queue up around the block (and even at this hour it
>took me over 30 minutes), and the nearer you get to the signing
>area, bouquets of flowers, teddy bears, clothing and other
>personal items are piled up along the walls and railings of the
>Embassy. Literally thousands of them. It is like a river of
>flowers. And every single one of them has a very personal
>message attached from the people who left it there, often
>from whole families and groups of friends together. As we
>queued up, we read some of these messages, with tears
>appearing in many eyes, mine included. They are from
>people right across the spectrum, from desolate and angry
>Americans, and many Americans who want forgiveness, too,
>from pensioners to young children, sports teams, and groups
>of other nationalities, too. There were very many messages
>and tributes that just yanked at the heart strings, but I wish
>to relate these two to you, as they were the ones that
>affected me most.
>
>The first was from an unidentified commercial airline pilot.
>They had left a huge bouquet of flowers, and in the middle
>of it he/she had placed a list of the names of all the flight
>crews of the crashed planes, with the simple message
>underneath: You will never be forgotten. Taped to the
>note was his/her captain’s shoulder stripes.
>
>The second had me in floods of tears, and they are
>returning now as I write this. It was a simple bunch of
>handpicked garden flowers taped to an old well-worn,
>and obviously well-loved, teddy bear. Attached to the
>hands of the teddy was a note written in pencil, in shaky
>writing. To the best of my recollection it said, “To all
>the little children whose Mummys and Daddys have
>died in New York, they are now with the angels, and we
>are praying for you every day.” It was signed by Sinead,
>age 4, and Laura, age 6.
>
>I cannot describe the level of emotion being felt here,
>either by the nation as a whole or by myself. The mixed
>feelings are there too, ranging from a huge desire for
>revenge and retribution, and on the other hand feeling there
>must be another way to deal with this. And of course,
>just a simple inability to comprehend the whole tragedy.
>A numbness, in fact.
>
>Last night, on the way home from the Embassy, I found
>myself hoping and praying that the people who have been
>entrusted to act in this situation will appreciate the support
>that is coming from the whole world, even from the likes of
>China, Pakistan, Russia and the Middle East. The most
>enduring image for me from this whole tragedy is not from
>New York, or in fact anywhere in the U.S. It is a TV image
>of a frail-looking Yasser Arafat on a stretcher donating
>blood!!
>
>I have many other views about what should happen from here,
>most of them conflicting, and am very grateful not to have to
>decide what to do. That must be an awful place to be right
>now. Suffice it to say, the ordinary people of Dublin, Ireland,
>Europe and the world, are praying and grieving for the people
>of New York, Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh, and the entire
>U.S., like never before.
>
>Love and peace to all,
>
>Dermot

Sleep has not come easily these last days. Both Wednesday and Thursday morning found me awake in the wee hours, unable to fall back to sleep due to repeated showings in the little screening room up in my head of images from the World Trade Center nightmare that fools in the local television news coverage had been thoughtful enough to show over and over and over and over and over. This is part of the reason I rarely watch TV news: they have an ever more excessive tendency to batter the viewer with horrible shit and bizarre, ridiculous punditry. [Note to the television media: meditate upon the phrase 'less is more.' Really. Speaking for this viewer, you'd get more of my time if you would cut the sensationalist horseshit.]

Last night: fitful, restless sleep. Once I finally gave up, rousted myself and got the morning underway, I became aware of strange sounds from down in the street, gradually realized it must be the City of Madrid crew, here once again to strip the posters from the wall across from this building.

The process: a city truck appears, the narrow street gets blocked off to other traffic, a complement of workers scrapes the wall as clean as they can manage before clearing off the rest with high-pressure sprayed water. By late morning, the wall was somewhat clean. Mostly clean. No complete posters remained. (Posters, pre-stripping: a picture of the Mariah Carey Rolling Stone Spanish edition cover — one of the cover stories: ‘Lo Más Salvaje Del Otoño’ (The Wildest of the Autumn); Sauna Men (featuring a photo of a taut, muscular male upper torso); New Order, nuevo disco a la venta (new disc on sale); Telefónica presenta Julio Iglesias en Concierto, Giro 2001 (Telefónica presents blahblahblah in concert, Tour 2001).

And as the day progressed I became aware that the flow of normal life seemed to hold a sense of unreality. Or a sense of deeper reality. Post-9/11 stuff.

I picked up a couple of newspapers and the new Guía del Ocio (Leisure Guide — listings for the arts, restaurants, etc.). There are four main daily newspapers here in Madrid — two off to the right side of the political spectrum (ABC and La Razón — literally, The Reason), a center-right paper, El Mundo (The World), and a left-wing paper, El País (The Country). I stick to El Mundo and El País.

At home, I went through them with my dictionary at hand. Some days are better than others that way — today featured abundant heavy vocabulary, the dictionary saw plenty of action. I found myself wading through articles on weighty subjects with a pretty fair sense of detachment. Columns of words and sentences to be read and comprehended — an academic exercise, more or less. Maybe not an unhealthy thing, considering the text content. But strange.

Worked on writing after that, headed out to a film later in the day. And as I walked the several blocks to the Metro station at Tribunal, I seemed to be seeing the world around me differently. Or experiencing it differently. Or if not differently, more deeply. Or more something — the right words don’t seem to be volunteering themselves here.

Here’s how it all seemed: Everyone was precious. Every individual carrying on their own little life, with their own little concerns, had a luminous quality, a depth and worth that shone out in its quiet way everywhere I looked. And somewhere in that, our essential oneness showed itself clearly. (It may be that it always does, that today I simply saw it more readily, with a touch more clarity, than normal.) I can’t describe it any better than that, will not attempt to.

Spent some time at la Plaza de España, one of the city’s several crossroads — this one over on the west side, a bit to the north of the Palace. (A fine place to watch people.) Then went to a film.

When I returned home around 6:30, someone was already at work with a bucket and brush hanging new posters on the wall across the street.

Life — it just rolls right on.

A note sent to a friend in Ireland today:

“Dermot, forgive my lack of reply to your note of two days ago. I’ve been working on dealing with this event in my own way and have needed time.”

Below is a note I received late last night from an old friend who lives on 23rd Street in Manhattan. DO NOT READ IT if an eyewitness account will bring you down:

>Dearest ****:
>
>Tuesday as I walked to work at 8:45 AM I heard the sound
>of a jet plane. It was right above me, a huge passenger jet
>going down University Place. Can you imagine? A
>commercial jet so close above your head that the sound
>was all-encompassing. I thought at first it was a
>commercial pilot in trouble and saw my life pass before my
>eyes. I thought the pilot would crash into Dean and
>DeLuca, so I prayed and prepared to die. What else can
>one do? But I soon realized that the plane was not out of
>control as it raised itself in altitude. I can’t explain it except
>that I just knew at that moment what was going to happen.
>I started to sob uncontrollably, yelling Oh my God all those
>people. But nothing had actually happened yet and so I
>looked like a crazy person. But within seconds the insanity
>was not me, but what we saw straight ahead of us. I and
>others watched as it flew into the first World Trade Center
>building.
>
>The camaraderie in New York has been amazing. Blood
>donations, food, supplies, volunteers, etc. I almost fainted
>carrying a case of Gatorade to Chelsea Piers today. That’s
>the place which has become a triage center and makeshift
>morgue.
>
>This is a city in mourning. Send prayers.
>
>Love,
>Maxinne

So send prayers and keep asking others to send prayers — not only for N.Y., but for everyone involved, on whichever side. And pray for the Palestinians and Israelis, who have lived in a state of war for months and months now, and for people living with war, poverty, sickness and deprivation all over the world.

Lots of love –

The day after the events in New York City.

A rough night, though not as rough as some other folks had it. This morning I attempted to carry on as I would on a more or less normal day. Went to El Corte Inglés (the major department store chain here) down in La Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, did the first major grocery shop for the new flat.

A grocery purchase worth 15 mil pesetas or more (15 thousand pesetas, about $85 American) gets free delivery — if the total from your purchases reaches the magic number as you’re being checked out, they take care of everything from there. Literally — nothing gets bagged, they ask for your address, let you know about when the groceries will show up, tell you nicely to go away.

Went to a nearby internet joint before returning home. Somewhere along the way, I managed to shake off the cloud from last night’s events.

I will not get into my spiritual beliefs here, but I will say two things that became clearer to me this morning:

(a) I do no one any good if I’m not feeling clear and connected to what I will call my Source. Trust me on this one — I spent many years in my own personal darkness and I contribute far more to the world if I’m happy, with a clear heart.

(b) Among their other goals, the perpetrators of terrorist acts want to intimidate through fear and disruption. If I let them do that to me, then they’ve succeeded. Fuck that.

A day in which one can smile easily at others, find things to appreciate about one’s existence, and savor the sheer pleasure of being alive is a day in which life and the spirit have prevailed.

That’s all I’ll say about that.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I’ve been thinking about the Spaniards lately.

They’re an interesting bunch. I’ve been told many times that they don’t care for rules very much, that among their character traits is a strong streak of independence and contrariness. When I first arrived, I read a book entitled Spain Is Different (by Helen Wattley-Ames, Intercultural Press) in which the author went on about this aspect of the Spanish personality, mentioning a phrase ‘Vivo yo!’ Literally, ‘I live.’ I am. I’m here.

The sentiment implied by those two words appeared to me to be something along the lines of ‘me first’ or maybe, more bluntly, ’screw you.’ I’m not sure what to make of that. Yes, I’ve seen behavior that could be considered examples of it — the way they drive and park leaps to mind (think New York/Boston/Los Angeles, with no guns and slightly more abandon). On the other hand, I’ve also read and been told that, at least in the business environment, they don’t like to stand out. When ideas are solicited, for example, they’re reluctant to speak up. Too dangerous, too exposed. Too risky. Could be both these things co-exist very nicely within the Spanish character, I can’t say — it’s not up to me to make any serious character analysis. I will only describe some things I’ve observed.

Directly across the narrow street from my new flat is a small vacant lot delineated by a wall. A wall usually covered with posters. Periodically, city crews show up, the posters get stripped off, the wall is given a new coat of gray paint. Several small signs are then pasted on the newly-pristine wall which read “Prohibido fijar carteles” — literally, “It is prohibited to affix posters.” Post no bills. Within 24 hours, the wall is once again completely covered with a whole other crop of posters. I noticed that two or three times in my travels through the neighborhood prior to living here.

Another thing: Spaniards walking on a sidewalk or across a street or up or down stairs in the metro seem to have way of taking up as much lateral space as possible, making it difficult or nearly impossible to pass. It could be that’s the intent, to keep people from passing, to claim temporary domain over the space they’re occupying. Or maybe it’s not a conscious thing at all. Maybe it’s just a cultural tic, not reflecting their more generous character. (In general, my experience has been when I ask them to let me by, they usually bleat an apparently sincere, “Ay, perdón!” and move immediately out of the way.)

I’ve mentioned their driving and parking — with parking at as much of a premium as it is here, they cope by inserting their vehicles virtually anywhere. Literally. On corners, across or even up wheelchair ramps, angled into a tight space with the front end sticking out into traffic. It’s not actually a complete free-for-all, it just sometimes has the feel of one.

I have only been in a car driven by a Spaniard once. Well, twice — to a restaurant and then back. The driver was Jaime, Jr., the son of my friend Leslie’s husband, Jaime, Sr., who was in the back seat for the ride. Jaime, Jr. had a BMW, which he drove at high velocity through red lights, tailgating other cars, ending the trip with an illegal sprint down a one-way street. During that last bit, as we barrelled the wrong way down the narrow thoroughfare, Jaime, Sr., sitting behind me, said (in Spanish), “My friend, this is an example I don’t want you to follow.” A joke, and there was a part of me — the part that wasn’t praying I’d survive, trying desperately to get my seatbelt on a little tighter — that appreciated the humor.

They’re a wacky bunch.

****************

May we as a planet find the way to appreciate the beauty in our great variety and allow others to live as they want without threat. May we realize that we have far more similarities than differences, and that every minute of this life is precious.

In the new flat. Finally.

Spent last night in the old place in that wonderful bed. Slept lightly, woke frequently. Watched the glowing windows of flats off across the courtyard — people here stay up REAL damn late — and as the first gray light of the day slipped down between the buildings, I gave thanks for the things I’ve enjoyed and appreciated about the space that served as home for this last year. Of which there were plenty, from the list I’ve already cited to things like the second bedroom, which enabled me to offer a squat to friends or folks I met at school who needed a place to stay.

Got to my feet around eight, packed the last stuff, cleaned the place up (even defrosted the freezer — don’t know what the hell came over me there as it didn’t need much attention). Brought my monster wheeled duffel to the new place, lugged it up the five flights to the flat. Went back for the TV, got the meter readings for the water/gas, said adios to the portero, Alberto. Grabbed a taxi back to the new place, lugged the TV upstairs, went out, got the paper, searched for a cup of espresso.

I find a place whose doors are open, producing plenty of noise. I walk in, find ten, maybe twelve males along with one harassed-looking woman behind the bar trying to keep up with chaos. To my left are tables, three or four of which are taken, all the occupied chairs situated well away from the tables so that it’s impossible to get through to the empty expanse of bar off to that side. I try to edge through, no one moves despite my polite requests of ‘perdón.’ It becomes clear that they’re determined to ignore me, I finally give up. Three men occupy the little bit of bar space I can reach, the only vacant square-inchage is directly ahead. I start to move in that direction, the person at the bar in front of me turns around, I see it’s a male/female — this is Chueca, after all, Madrid’s version of Greenwich Village. Tight pants, shirt open all the way down the front with a form-fitting something underneath. Heavily made-up, blonde, wearing a hairnet. In about three-tenths of a second I see the guy, he turns around, his eyes settle on me. Something about his energy doesn’t feel good, I obey an impulse to veer off to the right, find a microscopic space for myself at the end of the bar. The guy to my left looks over at me a tad suspiciously, maybe because of my sudden appearance. I say, ‘Hola,’ he responds with a less-than-enthusiastic, ‘Hola,’ before turning his attention back to his café.

There’s sudden yelling and pounding — one table, occupied by four 60ish men embroiled in a card game, is undergoing an outburst of controversy about something. The shouting continues, two players smiting the table with thick, emphatic hands. Everyone’s gesturing strongly, though no one seems to be looking at any of the others — they’re too busy emoting. That subsides, I get a chance to order some decaf. Turns out they don’t make it by machine (de máquina) at this place, they only have instant. I order a cup of high-test instead, start looking over the paper. A sudden commotion starts up over to my left. The she-male has caused some kind of a ruckus, all activity’s stopping to check it out as s/he and the woman behind the bar go back and forth. Apparently s/he has no money to pay her/his tab, s/he finally leaves, no one tries to stop him/her.

My espresso arrives shortly thereafter, I get a bit of time to become one with the present moment. I find myself suspecting that I won’t be returning to that particular bar for a tranquil cup of café with any real frequency.

I’m now back in the new piso. Looking around at the post-move mess, girding up to take a swing at creating a living space out of it all. Even though I arranged this move so that it happened gradually and easily, finding myself where I am at the end of it all has me feeling a touch disoriented. That’ll pass, I know. I think this is the first time in this life of mine that I’ve done a move entirely by myself — everything, all the details, the whole wazoo, including dragging all my possessions up five flights of stairs. In a furren country, no less.

The bells of a small local church just finished ringing. It’s a beautiful Sept. Sunday morning.

On to the day.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On the walk back to the old apartment last night, another difference between the two barrios made itself apparent. The residents of the old neighborhood tend to have money — more money, I suspect, than the average resident of these narrow streets. Way more money. Over the course of this last year, I’ve noticed that for many Madrileños having money means they also have a house, flat or cabin outside the city — in the mountains, on the coast, in a pueblo somewhere. So that they often get out of Madrid on the weekends. Which meant that, come Friday night, my old neighborhood emptied out, leaving people-free sidewalks and long, lonely lengths of street, devoid of parked vehicles. An area that got extremely quiet on the weekends — at times almost comatose.

This neighborhood, on the other hand — a sizeable portion of whose population is young, active and ready for action — attracts people on the weekends, so that come Friday and Saturday it gets mighty active in these parts. Plenty of people, lots of noise.

A serious contrast.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

From an e-mail sent to friends last summer, 25 days after arriving in Madrid:

Two strange sightings and a strange hearing you should know about:

1) Seen on the subway a couple of weekends ago: a diminutive middle-aged male, probably in his 50s, exceptional-looking in no way apart from his lack of exceptional looks. The only physical aspect that stood out in any small way: thick eyebrows, giving him a slightly more intent air than he already had. He sat holding a cassette player. Not a boombox — one of those little, low-fi players that have been around for many years, the kind that often get used in classrooms. When I entered the car, I heard music — faint enough that it sounded like it might have been coming out of the car’s PA system. Marching band music. And gradually realized it was this guy, sitting there holding his little cassette player up in front of his chest, his expression strangely concentrated, almost determined.

Marching band music. Judging by their expressions, the people around me in the train were not completely at ease with the event.

2) The gym I go to plays a local commercial radio station, one that trades mostly in Hispanic or euro pop, spiked with the occasional English language song. Twice now, I’ve been in the middle of a workout when they’ve played an English-language number whose refrain goes something like:
“The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire;
we don’t need any water, let the motherfucker burn.
Burn, motherfucker, burn.”
[Fire Water Burn -- The BloodHouse Gang.]

3) Walking through a long, narrow north-south street in the city center today, la Calle de Hortaleza, I passed a store with a couple of life-sized mannequins in the window. By itself, not strange. Someone, however, had put a life-sized Krusty the Klown head on one of them, along with a t-shirt featuring Otto the school bus driver, and South Park gym shorts whose crotch had clearly been stuffed with something substantial.

An interesting image, standing out from the general old-world look of the neighborhood the way loudly cackling potheads might stand out in a refined Viennese café.

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