far too much writing, far too many photos

Five o’clock, Madrid time. Tuesday afternoon, the second week of October in the year 2001 A.D. (unless you’re using the Jewish, Chinese or Mayan calendars; I use a Simpsons calendar, myself, and am, for a change, superficially in step with the rest of what passes for Western Civilization).

I’m ensconced comfortably in my living room, in the barrio of Chueca, in the center of the Spanish capital, trying to figure out what exactly it is I want to write here. Not that there’s nothing going on, nothing to say. On the freakin’ contrary. On the macro level, the events taking shape on our planetary asylum have the potential to send us and our multitude of neighbors — our extended family, whether we see them that way or not — skidding off in various existence-altering directions, trying wildly to regain control of the assorted handbaskets we’ve crammed ourselves into.

Maybe I’ll start on the micro level, relatively speaking. Another beautiful autumn day — the air nicely gilded with sunlight, clouds passing by now and then to provide dramatic flair. Temperature comfortably cool and moderate, with a genuinely nippy night on deck, or so the Spanish weatherpeople say. Life in the center of the Iberian peninsula goes its way, the daylight hours streaming by, no different from most other days, at least on the surface.

I stumbled to class this morning, a bit foggier than normal. Over the course of the different periods during these last 13 months that I’ve inflicted language classes on myself — five days a week, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. with a half-hour break (all stated times approximate, the Spanish sense of time being what it is) — I’ve learned that I really need to pump a cup of coffee into my system on the way to class if I want to bear a vague resemblance to your normal higher-functioning human being.

The streets between my building and the school are narrow, streets of old Madrid, winding nicely up and down hills. Lovely streets, at least to this transplanted yanqui. I recently began walking a route to and from school that (going from here toward school) begins small, narrow, very local (la Calle de Pelayo), makes its way down an incline where it crosses a busy street — la Calle de Fernando VI — at which point it widens a bit and continues on, now up an incline for two or three blocks, terminating at la Calle de Génova, the traffic-heavy four-lane that delineates the northern end of Chueca. From there I walk east a block or two, then traverse Génova at a crosswalk that sends me past the offices of el Partido Popular, the political party currently in power here, and directly up la Calle Zurbano to the school. On the way back, when I turn from Génova onto Pelayo, I see a vista across a shallow valley to where Pelayo narrows and winds out of view, the sky stretched out above a low skyline (with the exception of one white structure thrusting itself up into the air — the Telefónica building). A terrific view, still fresh to me, one I enjoy seeing as I walk home.

There’s a startling abundance of spots to grab a coffee on the trip to or from school, places of all kinds, from down and dirty local joints to more presentable, more comfortable watering holes, to places that aspire to near-elegance. I’ve been told that Madrid has, per capita, more bars and restaurants than any city in the world. I have no way of testing the truth of that, but it’s possible. There are an ungodly number of places to eat and drink here. Apart from New York City, I’ve never seen anything like it.

This morning, in an attempt to dissipate my personal fog, I stopped in at a coffee joint near the school for a quick café cortado. Give myself a few minutes to wake up, with liquid assistance, in a place where I get to the watch the locals stream in and out, doing the same.

I was never a coffee drinker in the States. At most, I would do the occasional decaf since I have a tendency to get disgracefully wired in no time flat. Plus, I’m sorry, for me the coffee in the States just doesn’t qualify as the real item after sampling the product here. The taste of the brew they squeeze out of the local espresso machines — generally doesn’t matter whether it’s high-test, decaf or cappucino — is light years ahead of what passes in the lower 48, even taking into account the ‘premium’ coffees of recent years.

But again, that’s just me. I have a friend from the Boston area who went to Italy this last spring and complained afterward that he couldn’t find a large cup of coffee anywhere. At first I found that supremely weird, but after some reflection this finally occurred to me: What do I know? He has his likes and dislikes, like every other member of the human race. If a tall cup of coffee that feels warm in the hand and lasts a good, long time brings him pleasure, what the hell.

But I blabber.

From the café, I found my way to school, up four flights of narrow stairs and into the teeny classroom in which we’ve been planted for this week.

The current group of students is a spicy brew, mostly females — a tall, elegant woman from Ukraine, whose features appear very Russian to my ignorant eyes; a nice woman from Britain; an interesting woman from Morocco — married to an American, speaks Arabic, French, English and pretty fair Spanish, dresses and sounds like a woman from France. Smart, pretty, with a body that verges on voluptuous, and with a strange, almost arrogant air — her face bears a strong resemblance to an old friend of mine from University who lives in northern Vermont, especially when she smiles; the Moroccan’s face is fuller, more sensual, expressing a very different person from my friend, but the resemblance is distinct and at some moments disorienting

There’s a 40ish woman from Cape Cod in the group — tall, friendly, slim, a bit gangly, newly arrived in Madrid and teaching English. There’s a bright, outgoing Canadian woman, 28 years old, who’s lived in Mexico for two years and has a Mexican sweetheart. And today an Italian guy named Martin appeared, a goofy, slightly disheveled type who speaks four languages, seems slightly absent-minded, has lived in London for the last seven years, is vacationing in Spain for a couple of months.

A motley group, with interesting dynamics, especially considering the backdrop of events unfurling themselves in the world around us.

The profesora for the morning class this week: a teeny Spanish woman in her late 20s named Elena. Five feet tall, if that. Extremely slender — not anorexic, just a small person — with a major head of nearly-out-of-control, dark-brown hair. A person with a distinct personality, a nice smile, a great laugh, and a tendency to dress hyper-casually. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Yesterday’s class was punctuated now and then by the usual chorus of car horns native to that end of la Calle de Zurbano. The building across the street from the school is lovely and old — all the windows floor-to-ceiling jobs, often open during the midday hours of these autumn days, with full-length white curtains inside, that give out onto balcones. At one point, a white and brown Springer Spaniel appeared on a balcón directly across from our classroom, apparently out to investigate the obnoxious traffic noise. It slipped restlessly in and out fo view for a while, all of us in class making full use of the distraction. Then an attractive woman in a bathrobe briefly appeared on the same balcón, looking down at the street for a moment before disappearing back inside.

Shortly thereafter came the sound of a military plane flying overhead, low and fast, the sound of its passing harsh, insistent, difficult to ignore. And for a moment, we all looked toward the window, visibly scared, suddenly reminded of events happening on a more macro level in the world right now.

Earlier today, I spoke with a Polish woman named Catalina. A bright, good-natured person, married, in her late 20’s, makes her living housecleaning. She worked a job in the barrio of Salamanca yesterday — the ritzy district to the northeast of Chueca — where for a stretch of about two hours military planes flew over, low and loud, at high velocity. A kind of sound not normally featured in the city’s daytime soundtrack. The people here don’t normally refer to the unfolding war-related events, despite the news media’s saturation with stories relating to them. When it does get brought up, it’s mentioned briefly and the U.S. is not generally cast in a good light. Despite Spain’s center-right president José María Aznar’s expression of unconditional support for the U.S. government and the path it has undertaken, the sentiment of the 40 or so million inhabitants of this country is, at least in my limited experience, deeply mixed. Not unlike mine.

I sincerely pray that we, as a race, find our way through this passage in a manner that leaves us all better off, treating each other with respect and consideration, remembering that life is precious, and that we take it for granted at our peril.

And to anyone who may read this, please take a moment during your day to let someone you care about know that they matter to you. Treat the people around you kindly, and treat yourself the same way.

Life is a gift. Savor it.

Man, THAT was a long, strange few days. Everyone seems to be feeling the weirdness that’s walking the world right now ’cause vibes of all kinds shot off in all directions all week long.

In particular, the vibe in this week’s classes got a little complicated, especially the classes taught by Rocío, an instructor I’ve previously spoken well of. The details aren’t important; suffice it to say she was on a tear and it wasn’t pretty. She’s on vacation for the next two weeks, so the end of today’s session saw general celebration all the way around.

Classes with Pablo remained absorbing in that he’s a good instructor, and is also a complex, distinctive enough individual that observing him is interesting all by itself. His classes, the session after the morning break, are 30 minutes shorter than the morning session, so he moves at a faster pace, pushing us harder, possibly trying to fit two hours’ worth of material into 90 minutes.

There were only three of us in class for most of the week — myself; Megu, the 20-something Japanese woman who’s headed to Sevilla to study Flamenco dance until June; and the 30ish French guy, Javier. Both good souls, both interesting people.

Apparently, Megu is not an isolated instance of a Japanese woman studying Flamenco — she says she encounters many others in her classes. Though there are a surprising number of Asians hanging about Madrid, Japan is not, in general, a country one hears a whole lot about here, so this bit about Japanese women and Flamenco came as news to me. I’ve been told the Japanese do well with Castellano because the Japanese vowel sounds are identical to those in Spanish. That at least is what Pablo once said in class — for all I know, he could be lying through his slightly goofy teeth (keeping in mind that I’m not one to talk when it comes to teeth that, as a group, are a bit off their axis). All I know is that I’ve enjoyed the Japanese students I’ve met here. They’re intelligent, with active minds and lively senses of humor. Megu herself is a sweet, smart, pretty individual, and I’m glad to have had a couple of weeks in her company.

Likewise with Javier. I’ve enjoyed the French folks I’ve met here. To a person, they’ve had a great sense of humor, and, they speak, it goes without saying, an outrageously beautiful language. I won’t even get into the subject of French women.

Likewise, by the way, re: the Italians I’ve met here. And the Canadians. (For that matter, I think I’ve enjoyed virtually every single Canadian I’ve ever come across. Don’t know what that means, but there it is.)

But I babble.

The landlord came by for the rent Tuesday night, at which time he also put some shelving up in the hallway closet here.

Yet another interesting character, my landlord — an American married to an English woman (both English teachers, both living here for nearly 30 years). Gray, tousled hair, glasses, a great smile and laugh which can disappear with disconcerting suddenness, then reappear just as abruptly. Probably in his late 50’s, in good physical shape — verging on, though not quite, burly. Old enough to have two kids, both 20-somethings. When I first called about this piso, I spoke to his wife via her mobile phone, an intelligent, friendly woman who talked a lot. When I arranged to come see the place for the first time, it was he who was to meet me. I arrived, rang the buzzer — nothing. Did it again. More nothing. Waited across the street for five or ten minutes, people passing by, neighborhood life going on all around. But no one matching the description his wife had given me entered the building. I called the Mrs., she couldn’t tell me anything — far as she knew, he was up in the flat. For the hell of it, I tried the buzzer again. More nothing. Finally, after twenty/twenty-five minutes, just as I was getting ready to leave, I heard someone calling from the small, tinny speaker above the apartment buzzer buttons, a crackling, disembodied, trebley voice repeating, “Hello? Anyone out there? Hello?” I answered, he let me in. When I arrived upstairs, he told me that immediately before I first hit the buzzer, a huge, spraying water leak had erupted in the kitchen. He’d found himself wrestling with that when the buzzer sounded. Between trying to locate the flat’s water shut-off and cleaning up a small inland ocean in the kitchen, he didn’t even try to answer my summons.

Once inside, I looked around the place, getting good feelings, but felt the need to make a slow, deliberate decision, even if that meant the flat went to someone else. The landlord was not only fine with that, he took a bunch of time with me, didn’t press me to hurry, and gave me no heat whatsoever about wanting to take time with a decision. Promising.

When I called back, it was to ask if I could see the piso again. They were working around the space and let me come up, spend at least an hour, feeling the place out and bothering them with questions of all sorts (them showing huge reserves of patience). And then they let me leave AGAIN without coming to a decision — the kind of behavior that should make one eligible for sainthood. Next time I called, I took the place.

During that process, the wife offered to put some shelves in a large hallway closet (more accurately, she made the offer that her husband would put the shelves in), something that sounded better and better as I transferred my life here, began dealing with the reality of storage space. They regretted making that offer, I think. But damned if the guy didn’t say he’d act on it when we spoke at the beginning of this last week. Tuesday night, he showed up with his son, a phys. ed. instructor at the same school in which the father teaches English. Next thing I know everything’s out of the closet, they’re in there whaling away with an electric drill, a process that seemed to shake the entire piso. After a couple of hours of molar-loosening racket — them managing to drill through the living room wall only one time — I had some sturdy shelving, which eliminated a couple of piles of dreck that had been lurking in different corners of the bedroom.

The downstairs neighbor met them on their way out with a stream of unhappy Spanish, spewed at such velocity that I could only pick out the occasional few words. Venting, maybe, about the unexpected festival of construction noise.

And that was the week: classes and new shelves. Life seems so simple when boiled down to its cardinal events like that, doesn’t it?


A t-shirt seen near here today: a picture of Moe’s bar with the caption TWO BEERS OR NOT TWO BEERS.


Two mornings ago, I woke up to find that the wall across the narrow street from my building had been stripped of posters once again by the City of Madrid. By the time I returned from class that day, the repostering had commenced. By yesterday morning, the wall had nearly been covered over again. (”En concierto: O’FUNK’ILLO, Sabado, 6 Octubre”; “En concierto: BARON ROJO (Red Baron)”; etc.) Today, post-classes, the second generation of ads were well underway, someone with a bucket of paste and a roll of posters smearing some up over some of the first generation of ads.

And the cycle of life in Madrid just rolls on.

T-shirt seen on the street here today:

And according to my Simpsons calendar, today is the birthday of:
Mahatma Gandhi, born 1869
and Groucho Marx, born 1890

Talk about a double-bill.


I’ve been having some trouble marshalling the focus and concentration to write recently. No one’s fault but my own. My first mistake was reading the news — the second was letting it get inside my head.

Even now, right here, writing this simple, silly bugger of a journal entry, it’s taking nearly everything I’ve got to keep going. In fact, right after the last sentence in the previous paragraph — “My first mistake blahblahblah” — I had to get up, distract myself with other things for a while.

There are those who might say, well then, just stop writing, twit. And many times I might agree. This time, though, I want to write. Really and honestly, cross my heart and hope to croak. So I’m staying with it, but letting myself do it in my own time. ‘Cause if I force myself to sit my butt down and hammer the alleged prose out, I’ll hate it. And if I’m hating it, there’s no point in doing it.

Some might not agree with that. My response would be to make rude noises in their general direction.

So. The news.

Yesterday morning: went out and got the Sunday paper — El País, the lefty daily. The headline: The Americans Ask For Military Action At Any Price — 90% of Americans Support the War and 67% Accept That Innocent People Will Die.

In more detail, according to a poll (for what it’s worth) conducted by The Washington Post, “9 out of every 10 Americans are in favor of a military action of grand proportions. And of those supporting the war, they would support it even if there were to be innocent victims.” In other words, they would support the slaughter of civilians who have endured 20 years of misery inflicted on them by the Soviet Army and the various Afghan fundamentalist fighting groups (trained and supported by the U.S. government, including Osama bin Laden) that first drove out the Soviets then carried on a long, protracted civil war, resulting in the current rule of the Taliban, in all its well-documented pomp and squalor. I’ve read that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million crippled, orphaned children in that dirt-poor corner of the planet, along with a couple million widows. There are land mines strewn all over the countryside, an arid, barren landscape that produces little in the way of crops, apart from poppies.

The idea that 70% of the Americans responding to this poll would have no problem inflicting terror and suffering on these people boggles and saddens my feeble mind, especially considering that they know the people in questioni bear no responsibility for the recent attacks on U.S. soil.

Ah, well. I’ll get over it.

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