far too much writing, far too many photos

On the walk back to the old apt. 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 the area around La Plaza Chueca. 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 or flat or cabin outside the city – in the mountains, on the coast, in a pueblo somewhere. And they often get out of Madrid on the weekends. Which meant my old neighborhood emptied out come Friday night – not completely, but enough that most of the cars were gone, leaving long, lonely lengths of street with empty of parked vehicles. So the area, and my block in particular, was very quiet on the weekends. Very, very quiet. 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 farkin’ active around here. Lots of people, lots of noise.

Two seriously contrasting neighborhoods.


That’s right. Two days ago. Some parts of the process went smoothly, others less so.

Highlights? Well, the trip consists of a ride on the Metro to the station Principe Pío, where one grabs a bus to Alcorcón. There one transfers to another bus, the #1, which eventually winds its way through the shopping fantasyland that’s home to the Ikea megastore.

I made it to Alcorcón, got off the bus to wait for the #1. And waited. And waited. Then I waited some more. Ninety minutes later I came to my senses, flagged down a taxi.

During that hour and a half, many people passed by — on foot, waiting for buses or in cars. Including a small, European-make car containing four clowns. In full make-up. All staring straight ahead, motionless, expressions disturbingly serious. There one moment, gone the next.

I finally get to Ikea, as I’m making my way across the parking lot to the entrance, I notice a large sign that didn’t register my first time through: ‘Garantía de devolución.’ Signifying, I imagine, either a guarantee re: sales returns or a guarantee that your purchases will devolve — your choice. (Q: Are we not men? A: We are Devo.)

I find a person to help me order furniture. I pay for it, find a cart, find the furniture (boxed up in its component parts, as it must be thrown together at home), go through the check-out line, go through the line to arrange delivery. Then I buy a few items I can carry, and make the return trip to Madrid with them. That night the furniture shows up.

My new neighborhood has narrow streets with high population density — parking is tight. On my block in particular there is no parking at all, no room to pull over, and iron posts sunk into in the narrow sidewalk on both sides of the street to prevent any car from jumping the curb. Somehow the Ikea delivery guys found parking, loaded everything onto a cart, got it to my door and helped me wrestle it up four flights of stairs. (Another interesting feature of the new space: it’s a fifth-floor walk-up.) When I handed them a thousand peseta bill — maybe $5.50 American — they looked surprised. It’s a weird fact of life here that the Spaniards, generous in many ways, don’t tip much. I’m told that Spanish manual laborers make better wages than their American counterparts, but we’re still not talking an extravagant living. If they exert themselves as these guys did — efficiently, with great attitudes — they deserve something more.

But I babble.

I assembled the furniture (feeling suitably manly), the apartment continues to become a living space. Most of my stuff from the other flat is now here, with one significant omission — the CD player/boombox. That arrives later today and should make a serious difference.

The difference between my old neighborhood and this one is dramatic, becoming apparent as soon as one crosses la Calle de Génova, the main drag that separates the two barrios. The old barrio (the southeast point of a district called Chamberí) was a neighborhood for people with money. The British Embassy lay a short three block walk from my building. The tree-lined streets were kept relatively clean (relatively — the Madrileños toss a fair amount of garbage around), and apart from a nice sense of bustle during business hours, it was pretty quiet. Once across la Calle de Génova, however, the trees disappear, the sidewalks narrow, there are more stores, most looking and feeling a bit less refined. As one continues moving deeper into Chueca, there’s more evidence of nighttime drinking, the sidewalks are stained from years of harder life than those in my old barrio. The street noise becomes more insistent and continual. And as you approach la Plaza de Chueca, it becomes clear that you’re not in Kansas any more.

Street life is much more the way of life here, especially around the plaza. As I sit in my piso, four floors up, there’s a near constant murmur of noise from down below, punctuated by outbursts of one kind or another — someone yelling or breaking into a bizarre fragment of song, cars passing (or drivers leaning on their horns because someone’s blocking the way), motorcycles or motorscooters, dogs barking. Now and then someone in another flat somewhere cranks up their stereo, something that never happened in the old barrio.

There are times when it feels strangely like living near the ocean, near a popular beach. And there’s something oddly restful about that.

I have yet to sleep here, though. Last night in the old flat was one of those perfect autumn evenings — nicely cool, with a fresh, understated breeze. Quiet. Conditions that promote deep sleep for me. Tomorrow night will be my first night here in the new place I suspect it may be a whole different experience.

Re: the walk here from the old neighborhood — after crossing la Calle de Génova and heading down the side street in this direction, I pass a small tienda that sells women’s wear. This week its display window has sported a hand-scrawled sign reading:

(Literally: attention, they lowered the panties — undoubtedly meaning a drop in prices.)

One other thing — twice now I’ve seen a car parked around the corner from here with identical Simpsons t-shirts pulled down over the two front seats, as if the seats were wearing ‘em. The shirts read “Like father like son,” showing Bart and Homer giving the peace sign — Bart to us, Homer with his hand behind Bart’s head, giving him horns.

The Simpsons — they’re everywhere.

Q: What did a Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor?

A: Make me one with everything.

(Thanks to Sam for both Buddhist jokes — this one and the one of 1 Sept.)

I am well into taking over the new piso — I brilliantly made a point of arranging this move so that I overlapped time in both flats, allowing me to undertake the process in leisurely fashion, one monster-wheeled-duffel-load at a time. And the new place appears to be gradually morphing into a home. The hitch so far has been the phone company, Telefónica. (A little, teensy hitch, considering how smoothly the process has gone in general.)

A year ago, moving into the old place, trying to get the utilities into order — the landlord gave me no info. or assistance, a vacuum that produced serious trouble when I tried to ascertain which electric company I had to deal with (for reasons never made clear, there’s more than one possibility). The attitude of the company underlings I pleaded with from various pay phones turned out to be less than service-oriented. For a while they passed me back and forth, from company to company; when I finally determined the correct one and tried to get the account for the piso transferred to my name, they repeatedly put me off. Until finally, on a Thursday afternoon, I was told I would have to call back the following Monday, that for some reason they couldn’t ‘help’ me any more that week.

Monday morning: went to class. On returning to the flat early that afternoon, I discovered the power had been shut off — essentially reducing me to an outraged, swearing mass of stressed-out protoplasm. Curtis, a friend staying with me for a couple of weeks, returned shortly after to find me thus and kindly took over, getting on the horn, talking with power company people in very passable Spanish until something got worked out. The power either came back on that night or the next morning, I don’t remember which — I only remember how miraculous simple refrigeration seemed, how grateful I felt when the flick of a wall switch actually produced light.

So this year, knowing I wanted to move when the lease on that flat was up, I began the search process at the beginning of July, as I also began another few weeks of intensive Spanish classes. At the language school, I came across a small ad for a piso on the lounge bulletin board, called and spoke with a friendly British woman. She and her American husband let me take my time deciding on the flat, allowing me to see the place more than once, spending an hour or so with me both times chatting, until I signed on. With that arranged, I called Telefónica at the end of July to arrange the transfer of my phone from the old place to the new place on the last day of August. They told me a technician would call me the day before and set up the time for the work. Estupendo.

In the following weeks, I realized that I’d rather have made the switch closer to the time that I’ll be moving into the new place full-time. And guess what? Came August 30th, no phone call from Telefónica. They’d completely forgotten about me.

To shorten a lengthy, boring story, it’s now late Tuesday afternoon. I’m sitting in the piso, waiting for the installation person. Much closer to the time when I preferred the line be switched over. How about that, huh?

Yesterday, the landlord of the old piso showed up in the morning so we could go over the place together. During the previous autumn and winter, he’d made mistakes in dealing with me that indicated his concern was getting the rent, not taking care of things in the flat. Over the last 2-3 months, his manner with me has changed immensely, becoming softer, more human and attentive, and though no problems in the flat were taken care of, I appreciated his change in tone. Yesterday, there was some confusion over the exact amount of the security deposit I gave him last Sept. — he never provided a receipt for that, just a copy of the lease agreement — and through what could have been an explosive process, he behaved with gentlemanly equanimity. It’s interesting how the change in his manner happened after I did some serious work on adjusting my attitude toward him. Appreciating the good things a person does instead of their errors can have surprising effects. Or one might prefer to chalk it all up to chance. Either way, I’m pleased with the changes.

The new flat feels very Spanish — the walls and moulding are stucco and white, white, white; an expansive spread of built-in shelves across one wall of the sala de estar (living room) is lined with white tile. Spanish sunlight, a distinctive type of illumination, spreads in through the windows; the rapid Castellano of passersby in the street below comes and goes with the light breeze.

Me: obnoxiously content.

The installation technician for Telefónica called a few minutes ago to assure me he would be here soon. My life continues trickling from one phase to another, like water down a gentle slope.

This last Saturday found me following a well-worn trail, one taken by countless hordes of Spanish consumers: the inexpensive furniture pilgrimage out to one of Madrid’s ‘burbs, Alcorcón. The pilgrimage to Ikea. A trip on the metro, followed by rides on two different buses. All to get me to an enormous store 30-40 minutes outside of the city for a couple of hours’ worth of trawling for chairs, lamps, etc. Shuffling along with hordes of Spaniards through two enormous floors of household STUFF, finally emerging out in the late summer sunlight (along with hordes of Spaniards), blinking in semi-stunned fashion, arms full of STUFF, feeling like I’d just spent two hours in a blender.

The weird part: grueling though it was, I’d do it again. And may, this coming week.

I’d never set foot in an Ikea store before this, though the company and I had a brief, gratifying mail-order flirtation a couple of years back, stateside. One that began when I encountered a chair at a yard sale, an extremely comfortable bentwood, slingback-style item. I parked myself in it, found it to be seductively comfortable, so much so that I found myself handing over $20, wrestling the chair into my car, dragging it up two flights of narrow stairs into my apartment. Where with time it became clear that this chair had been a steal, one of the most inspired uses of a $20 bill I’d ever made.

A few months later, an Ikea catalogue mysteriously showed up in the mail. I flipped idly through it, unenthused, until I found myself staring at my yard-sale chair. My wonderful $20 yard-sale find, sitting in someone else’s living room. Whereupon I immediately ordered another. One that had never become intimate with another human’s hind quarters prior to mine. And when it arrived — white, inviting, radiantly clean and new — I pulled it out of the packaging, put it together, sat myself carefully down in it. And found me totally seduced, to the point that I hardly ever used the yard-sale chair again, probably breaking its bentwood heart. (I got a matching footstool with the new one — an excellent move that greatly enhanced my lounging hours.)

There are many things about my new piso that feel great. Some of the furnishings, however, were not designed with human comfort in mind. Especially furnishings meant for hosting the human butt. Hence I traveled to Ikea with an eye toward finding some slightly butt-friendlier items. And what did I find? That same bentwood, slingback chair. As comfortable as ever, and less than half the price than its catalogue counterpart in the States. Less than half the price. Waiting patiently for me, thousands of miles from northern Vermont, where its brethern (or sistern) are currently lounging about. Naturally, I and my butt were thrilled at this discovery and spent a fair amount of time reacquainting ourselves with this piece of designing genius.

It’s an odd phenomenon, Ikea. My best friend once talked about going to a store somewhere in southern New York/northern New Jersey. He told me he found it depressing, that everything looked cheap, shabby. And I saw some of that during this recent Ikea field trip. But I also saw a furniture that I would happily buy and use, especially if I were part of a couple outfitting a new home. In a case like that, I suspect I’d lobby my sweetie re: buying a bunch of it.

The crowd at the store in Alcorcón seemed to consist almost exclusively of Spanish couples and families, the exception being me, the token single male. (Sniffle.) Couplehood and families seem so important to Spaniards, something that nearly always strikes me as endearing. I think they may do it better here than it’s done in the States, but then maybe it’s just that they haven’t traveled as far as the States has re: women moving out into the workforce and experiencing their own freedom, with some of the repercussions that’s had on the social structure. That’s underway here, but is still a relatively recent development. It’ll be interesting to see how they do with it, what kind of effect it will have. Three or four months back, the cover story for the Sunday magazine of the lefty newspaper El País was entitled “Who Needs A Husband?”, featuring profiles of a number of successful Spanish careerwomen who’d chosen to remain single. This may not seem like a major deal to someone from the States, or at least to someone from the northeast U.S. or the west coast, but it’s a serious change in the societal paradigm here.

They’re beautiful, by the way, Spanish females. Interesting, lovely, all that. I saw a woman a few days back whose walk — whose simple act of walking — was so graceful, so relaxed and lovely, that for a moment it literally stopped me in my tracks.

But I digress. When Ikea spat me out into the intense late-afternoon sunlight, my hands and arms were full of STUFF I had to wrestle in and out of buses and the metro. A small price to pay for getting it all into the new space where it all looks absolutely bitchen.

As I was in Ikea on Saturday afternoon, when the place was heaving with Spaniards out to spend bunches of cash, there was no opportunity to latch onto a salesperson and flog them with my still-limited Spanish to the point that we could arrange for the purchase and delivery of actual furniture, STUFF I can’t haul onto buses. We’ll see if I get back out there this week to attempt that.

In the meantime, the moving life continues. Later this morning, the landlord of my current place will show up, we’ll go through the piso together prior to me getting out of here. A process that will, if all goes well, be boring and uneventful.

We’ll see.

Books to read:

Down Under by Bill Bryson

Close Range — Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (you heard me)

CDs to listen to:

Mi cante y un poema — Estrella Morente

Carne Tremula (soundtrack to the film by Pedro Almodóvar)

The Donnas Turn 21

Paseo de los Castañas — Tomatito

Satch Plays Fats — A tribute to Fats Waller by Louis Armstrong

Alive on Arrival — Steve Forbert

Trace — Son Volt

Dookie — Green Day

This Friday was the last day of August. I’ve been running around getting new things for the flat I’m in the process of moving into.

July and August are sale months in Madrid. As far as I know, stores can’t have sales any time they feel like it here. They’re limited to January and July/August. One Spaniard explained it to me this way: if stores were allowed to cut prices whenever they felt like it, the big ones could undercut the small ones, putting them at a severe and costly disadvantage.

I don’t know how much credence to give that explanation – grocery stores seem to have various items on sale all the time, just like in the States. But maybe their situation is different for some reason, I don’t know.

Regardless, this weekend is the end of the summer sales. If I’m looking to find items, including furniture, for the new place at a discount, today’s the last day for it.

This new flat is a kind of a funky joint, not the elegant type of space I huddled in this last year. And what I’m discovering is that while the piso has real possibilities as far as transforming it into something fun and nice to be in, the furnishings are 2 or 3 notches below the quality of the furnishings in the flat I’m leaving. Both flats are furnished, which made my life very easy last year, newly arrived as I was and wanting a ready-made home to move into. A lot of the look of the place was not what I would have chosen on my own, but some of the furniture was very comfortable, in particular a pair of small armchairs in front of the living room windows, and the bed in the master bedroom. Especially the bed. Mama, that is one comfortable mattress. So comfortable that at times during the year I spent large portions of my waking hours in that bed, reading, studying, daydreaming. Especially in the autumn and winter months, when the afternoon sunlight turned the room into a warm, shimmering, dreamy place to be. The new place has a lot going for it, but the beds and the living room furniture are nowhere near the kind of comfortable I’ve gotten used to.

Am I spoiled, materialistic, overly concerned with a certain level of comfort? Maybe. Don’t care.

[More to come]

Q: Why don’t Buddhists vacuum in the corners?

A: They have no attachments.

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