far too much writing, far too many photos

Something interesting’s been happening in classes this week. There are now only three other students in the group: another American, the German 20-something, Jan, and Hiroko, the Japanese woman. Jan and Hiroko sit next to each other down at one end of our small classroom’s table. Both bright, both interesting people, both apparently a bit shy — both appearing to have a lot more going on inside than gets expressed in the classroom setting.

During the past couple of days, Hiroko has cast discreet, lingering glances at Jan, studying his face for a moment or two when his attention was on his notes or as he looked up a word in his dictionary. With a small smile on her face, and a soft, sometimes amused expression.

Before long, they began helping each other out with answers as we went through homework aloud, working on the dreaded, ubiquitous subjunctive verb form. If she found herself stumped or flailing a bit for an answer, he’d mutter it to her. At one point, he apparently lost his place in what we were doing, got called on, I heard a soft, repeated sound, it turned out to be Hiroko tapping her finger on the correct section of his homework. All this actually happened in a low-profile way, with a light comic air and a wry touch. Fun to watch.

Doesn’t feel like anything extracurricular is happening. Hiroko seems happily ensconced in a four-month-old marriage. And Jan, well, he has so far played his cards close to his chest when it comes to his life, at least in the classroom setting, so I know little about him. It’s just a nice connection between two people who found themselves sitting next to each other in Spanish classes for a couple of weeks. And it’s nice to be around.

I was out with other folks from the school last night — Philip, Richard, Richard’s sweetheart, Carmen, and Veronique, a bright, attractive young French woman. They came here to Chueca, a barrio known for nightlife, and we went joint-hopping, beginning with a tapas bar near here, then moving to Angel Sierra, another nearby joint with different atmosphere, far more drinking. (I’m not much of a drinker, and don’t want to be. What’s that old Woody Allen line? Something like, “I got very drunk last night and when I woke up I was trying to give the Statue of Liberty a hickey.” That would be me. I’m what’s referred to as a cheap date, and really don’t enjoy sucking down gallons of liquor. But a beer and some tapas suits me fine, especially if the company is good, which it was last night.)

We moved on to a third establishment, owned by the Spanish actor Javier Bardem (or by someone in his family) — more upscale, like a large, happening living room with a bar planted in it. And somewhere along the way, Richard became very affectionate toward Carmen, very demonstrative, which she clearly enjoyed, and it was a pleasure to be around all that, to see them happy, pleased to be together.

This love thing — it really is the foundation. And simply being around it sometimes leaves me feeling mighty tender toward people and life. Doesn’t have to be grand, right-out-there love. Small, sweet, affectionate regard has its place. They both leave me feeling like a big softy.

Being one of the parties in love is nice, too. But that’s another story.

La Calle de Hortaleza is one of the two main north-south drags that slice through this barrio, Chueca. A narrow old street, lined with shops of all kinds, a street that’s been looking kind of tired from years and years of heavy use. When I returned to Madrid from the States on January 2, I discovered that during my absence Hortaleza had begun receiving a facelift. More than a facelift: the city government has undertaken to completely re-do the calle, virtually end to end — tearing street and sidewalks, laying new surfaces down, planting young trees.

The street runs from the traffic circle at Alonso Martinez, a point in Chueca’s northern line, all the way to Gran Vía, Chueca’s southern line, and the work has thrown through traffic completely out of whack. Compounding that, the work has proceeded along at a leisurely pace, beginning at one end, heading slowly toward the other. Meaning that from week to week, one can never be exactly sure which portions of the street/sidewalks will be getting ripped apart and put back together. So that motorists who don’t know any better discover themselves hopelessly boxed in, in a warren of narrow, one-way streets, in long lines with other hapless, increasingly desperate motorists trying to make the simple trip from point A to point B but forced to do so by way of points F, K, L, Ñ, S, V and Y. Producing plenty of horn concertos, depending on how badly traffic gets snarled up.

The upside: a lot of la Calle de Hortaleza has been unexpectedly turned into a pedestrian way, drastically changing the character of that part of the neighborhood. Where high concentrations of cars, trucks and buses once passed, people now walk — slowly, in relaxed fashion, or more quickly, in transit. Singly, in couples, in families or groups, arm in arm, hand in hand, or occupied with bags of goods bought in the January sales. During the daytime hours workers do their thing, pedestrians moving around them. Come 5 or 6 p.m., the workers melt away, the street is taken over by regular folk, by the sound and motion of their passage.

This last Monday around 6 p.m.: I strode down Hortaleza on the way to meet a friend down near Gran Vía. It remains light here until around 7 p.m. this time of year, between shadows cast by the buildings and store lights coming on the street had a nice feeling of twilight, with people walking in and out of tiendas or heading home from work. Couples strolled along talking, kids laughed and conversed loudly. At some point, the sound of distinctive footsteps caught my idle attention. Coming from a guy on the sidewalk to my left, nearly parallel to me, moving at nearly the same speed. I glanced at his feet, discovered he was wearing a pair of what were essentially Beatle boots — beautiful buggers, done in suede, looking new. Boots that made my little heart jump.

I can’t explain exactly why, but I’ve wanted a pair of boots like that for years. Years and years and years. Ever since I remember seeing them in photos of the Beatles when I was teeny. Ever since I saw a version of them on Bob Dylan’s feet on the cover of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, again when I was teeny. Too teeny for footwear that grown-up, especially in a family that didn’t have $$$$ to toss around on frivolous clothing. So I resigned myself to never owning a pair of those beautiful buggers, gradually forgot about them. Until sometime back in the ’80s when something brought them to mind — maybe a photo of an alternative band in which someone sported a pair. And I began wanting them all over again. A wanting that took me into shoe stores, footwear joints of all kinds around the Boston area. I searched on and off for years, without success. Until this week, there on la Calle de Hortaleza.

If you’ve read many earlier entries in this journal, you may be aware that I often sport black, pointy boots. Not your usual footwear in this part of the world. Nice boots, with a great look — compared to the genuine item, though, to my personal holy grail, merely very pleasing substitutes.

I was debating stopping the guy to ask him where he’d found this pair when he stepped into a store and disappeared. I was late to meet my friend, after a moment’s hesitation I kept going. Chueca, especially my part of Chueca, is packed with footwear stores, in fact with clothing shops of all kinds. Loads of ‘em. So I decided the time had come to recommence the footwear hunt I wrote about here a couple of months back, this time with a narrower focus. And during the course of the week, I began haunting shoestore windows, trawling for Beatle boots.

I returned from an intercambio earlier this evening shortly after six — on emerging from the Metro I discovered that the barrio was alive with people shopping for shoes. A block or two from here is an area that is positively infested with shops dealing in footwear and handbags — they were all open, highly unusual for a Saturday evening. (Most shops close for the weekend at 2 p.m. on Saturday — maybe because of the sales month, with people out and slavering to buy, stores remained open, raking in euros long past their normal Saturday hours.) I went in and out of ten or fifteen shops, I passed slowly by many more tienda windows, glancing over the contents with laserlike intent. With no result to this point, though passing time in the company of many happy people, in the company of many lovely, stylish Spanish women.

There have been a stray two or three moments when I kicked myself with my current pointy footwear for not going back and dragging the info out of the guy about where his boots came from. But that gets me nowhere, and it’s actually difficult to kick oneself where one should actually kick oneself, so I haven’t wasted much time in that fashion. I’ll just keep looking.

One of these days I’ll strike gold, my feet and I will be very pleased.

Another beautiful day in Madrid. Blue skies with thin high clouds gradually moving in, the sunlight strong though diffuse. Temperature in the low 50’s, misty air clearing up mid-afternoon. An autumn day, basically, only in late January, with no leaves blowing around the gutters. This must be why they don’t have really have autumn in the fall here -– someone got the bright idea of pushing it ahead three or four months. So if you play your cards right, you can spend September through November enjoying autumn in New England, go wherever you feel like going for the holidays, come here immediately after New Year’s for autumn #2, then head south of the equator in March or so — to Chile, say, or New Zealand — and soak up the autumn there. With the right budget, one could easily line up a three-autumn year. Once the southern hemisphere version is past peak and slouching toward winter, head up to Vermont (you may want to hold off until after Memorial Day to up your odds of missing black fly season, and trust me, you want to miss black fly season) where you can relax and enjoy the most beautiful summer on earth, and then begin the entire hoo-ha again in September.

I’m stopping.

As I said, a spectacular day. Went to classes, had several hours of Spanish-language fun, though today’s lessons didn’t delve into the choicer, more colorful, more foulmouthed parts of the language. Went out to lunch with Philip, had a pretty decent paella first course, a godawful roast lamb second course. Whooo-eee! As wretched and sullen a plate of food as I’ve ever seen, that second course. These things happen. But the company was good, and when we stepped back outside, the afternoon remained beautiful.

Went to the gym. When I got back above-ground at the Metro station at Alonso Martinez, the clear air and late-afternoon sunlight were so bracing that I decided to check out La Plaza de Chueca before coming home.

It’s a great little plaza -– a fair-sized space surrounded by beautiful old buildings, with tiendas/restaurants/clubs/tapas joints/bars/sandwich joints ranged around the ground level. Above all that: floors of apartments, all windows of the floor-to-ceiling variety, some with shutters, all fronted by small balcones set off by iron grillwork. A long apron of alternating swaths of brick and something –- not concrete, something kinder to the eye -– stretches from the Metro entrance across to La Calle de Gravina, the east-west cross-street that provides the plaza’s northern border. Six concrete benches are set at intervals along the east side of the apron, along with young trees, which also line the west side of the apron. It’s a place through which a lot of neighborhood life swirls, where people stop to buy a paper or chat or have a drink, maybe pick up a bag of produce. Kids kick a soccer ball around now and then, deliveries are made to the tiendas and restaurants. On a day like today, a beautiful Friday, a lunchtime crowd collects across la Calle de Gravina in front of Angel Sierra, an old-style bar/tapas joint, drinks in hand, the murmur of conversation pleasant and soft-edged.

The time was approaching 5:30 when I parked myself on a vacant bench. People passed through, heading in various directions, lots of interesting types — younger folk of various hipster stripes, more normal looking family-type folk with bags or groceries. Lots of women. And of course, this being Chueca, lots of guys. One male walked by, moving at a brisk pace, wearing a fairly pedestrian cool weather coat and black, thick-soled, buckle shoes. The left one squeaked loudly with every step. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a shoe squeak like that on brick and concrete -– constant, insistent, like it had something to say and nothing was going to shut it up. I could hear that bugger long after the guy had disappeared down the pedestrian walkway off the southeast corner of the Plaza.

When I sat down, I noticed some previous occupant had slung a loogie immediately in front of my spot, placed so that I had to watch where I put my gym bag, not wanting to pick up loogie cooties to take home with me. And at some point as I sat there enjoying the scene, I realized that several previous occupants had had a spitting fest, leaving several still-moist loogies spread about on the ground around the bench. Guys, probably. ‘Cause it must be said that some guys spit like it’s a vocation, like it’s in their job description and nothing is going to keep them from their carrying out their appointed task. (I have to believe they don’t do it at home ’cause the idea of that would challenge my generally positive view of humankind too joltingly.) Some baseball players spit like their lives depend on it, like it’s vital to their very existence. I remember checking out a televised Red Sox game once, watching in astonishment at the display one pitcher provided. I am not exaggerating when I say he literally expelled a loogie every three or four seconds, like clockwork. It got to where it was difficult to believe the guy could do that and maintain his fluid level. It’s entirely possible he had an auxiliary saliva reservoir hidden under his uniform somewhere, with a hose running up to one side of his mouth powered by a teeny pump set at four second intervals. The camera people would have had to conspire with him to pull off the illusion, shooting only from the side that would not reveal the loogie pump, and I’ve become so jaundiced re: the television industry that I’m prepared to believe they might put together that kind of diabolical spectacle.

I sat for a while enjoying the late-afternoon/early-evening plaza, until I noticed a guy coming toward me from the general direction of Angel Sierra, walking rapidly, a cigarette in one hand, looking a bit off in some way: drink, drugs, something deeper –- don’t know. He stopped directly in front of me, bent partway over to hold his cigarette a few inches in front of my face, a strange, nontrustworthy smile on his face, offering me a hit and saying something I couldn’t make out. “No,” I said. Whereupon he promptly sat down next to me -– immediately to my left, pressing right up against me. Just as immediately, with no thought whatsoever, I hoisted my gym bag, got up and walked away, across the plaza toward la Calle de Gravina and home. As I rose, he said something, “Espera….” maybe (”Wait….”), but I’d set my course and was off. Clearly, it was time to come back to my own space and do some writing, to unlock the thick, heavy old door to this piso and step into the sunlight that floods the kitchen and that end of the hallway in the late afternoon. Home. (For now.)

That’s life. Sometimes you have to know when to move on, trusting that better things await.

There are times when I take a moment to step back, glance at my life, remind myself all over again that I am living some of my dreams, and I can only shake my head in wonder at my good fortune.

This morning between classes, I found myself in a café hanging out with: a guy from Germany, a young woman from France, a woman from Hungary and another guy — much more traveled than I — from the States. All of us speaking less than perfect Spanish, but working at it, having a pretty good time, and undoubtedly providing some hair-raising moments for nearby Spaniards as we bent their language to our collective will.

After class, Philip, Pedro and myself went to a small Cuban restaurant that Philip and I stumbled across on Tuesday. A nice little joint — actually, a bit too nice to be a joint — run by friendly folks, serving good chow. Throughout the meal they played a selection of what sounded like Cuban pop, running the gamut from highly tuneful to nearly hideous, with the added bonus of the CD player getting hung up now and then so that a bitchen morsel of hispanic pop — horns, caffeinated percussion, highly enthusiastic vocals — morphed into a drug-addled bit of gnawingly repetitious techno. We’d say something to the management, they’d smite the CD player, the music resumed.

Pedro: one of the funniest, brightest people I’ve come across in a while, and can talk like no one’s business. He doesn’t simply blab, his conversation qualifies as performance, one that happily includes whomever is nearby and wants to take part. Philip: also enjoyable, exceedingly German in tone and manner. The two of them together provide fine, madcap entertainment. The waitress -– a young, heavyset 20ish woman -– kept trying to do her job (enumerate menu options, take order, etc.), finding the attempt to impose order on our chaos to be nearly impossible, working against ongoing commentary, nonsequitors, sudden side-conversations, snorting laughter. I could only feel for her. Not that we treated her disrespectfully — we were just unstoppable in our ability to entertain ourselves.

In past entries, I’ve mentioned the all-purpose Spanish swear word ‘joder.’ Pedro frequently peppers his talk with a variation of that: ‘jolín’ (hoe-leen -– the H being pronounced with a strong, rough sound at the back of the throat). The children’s version of joder. (Picture Spanish children — beautiful, happy, high-spirited kids — calling out ‘¡Jolin!’ or the shorter, simpler version, ‘¡Jo!’ — like American 6 or 7-year-olds constantly yelling, “Oh, shoot!”)

Other bits of profanity learned recently: Spaniards refer to the toilet as the throne (el trono), just as many Americans do (to sit on the throne = sentarse en el trono). That all by itself deserves a silly smile. But the company that manufactures most Spanish toilets is named Roca, resulting in a popular euphemism for going to the toilet: ‘visitar a Señor Roca’ — to visit Mr. Roca.

Let’s see, what else? Peepee is pipi, poop is popo. Snot is moco, but you probably already knew that. Ah, here’s one: the word ‘puta’ (meaning whore, a noun with a nasty edge to it) is used as a short, snappy, all-purpose word of emphasis, so that if you, for instance, want to describe a brain-busting verb form being inflicted on you far too frequently by language teachers, you can say, “El subjuntivo,” or you can let the listener know what you really think by saying, “El puto subjuntivo” (changing ‘puta’ to ‘puto’ to conform with the masculine subject ’subjuntivo).

The expression ‘Es una mierda’ means ‘It sucks.’ If you want to crank that up just a touch, you could say, ‘¡Es una puta mierda!’ On the other hand, the word ‘puta’ is used in a very common phrase -– ‘¡De puta madre!’ -– which essentially translates out to ‘Fucking great!’ So if someone asks you about that film you saw last night (’¿Qué tal la pelicula anoche?’) and you loved it, you might answer, ‘¡De puta madre!’

More about adding zip to your Spanish in future entries. Right now I must pretend I’m a student and do some homework.

The local weather people were finally right — today started off dark and wet, rain coming down like it meant business. In this morning’s classes, we talked about street language — meaning foul language -– and Andres, our instructor, used the rain to illustrate a common Spanish expression. “Una persona podría decir, ‘¡Que día precioso!’”, he said. “Y otra persona podria decir, ‘¡Anda! ¡Es una mierda!’” (One person might say, ‘What a beautiful day!’ and another might say, “Get out, it sucks!”) The fact is that the weather here is generally so moderate and user-friendly that cold, rainy conditions produce a whole lot of complaining. Last winter was far wetter than normal, with stretches of time between October and February when the city felt and looked like London –- chilly, damp, gray. On the other hand, the abundant rainfall filled up the reservoirs.

This year the water supply is down sharply. It may not be a problem -– much of Spain is dry and accustomed to being so. But for someone like me — coming from the northeast U.S., where normal rainfall is reliably abundant — it’s a striking contrast.

Went to the gym in the afternoon, during my two hours inside the clouds began breaking up. By the time I emerged from the Metro at Alonso Martinez on my way home, the sun shone strongly, the sky looked like the kind I’ve often seen in England after rainstorms –- low-slung clouds moving rapidly across, alternating strong, diffuse sunlight with ragged patches of gray. Dramatic. Nice.

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

Noticed recently:

1) A street-level tienda next to the building that houses my current language school, a kind of combo eating joint/carnecería (butcher’s shop) called El Paraiso del Jamón –- The Ham Paradise.

The Ham Paradise.

The front window: a comprehensive display of ham and pork products, surrounding a small display of bocadillos -– sandwiches on baguettes. Inside, the decor mostly consists of rows of pigs’ haunches hung neatly from the ceiling. When I say a pig’s haunch, I mean an entire leg, intact, from the little pig’s foot right up to the hip bone, heavily waxed to guarantee long, long preservation. For all I know, they may have the shelf-life of twinkies, which is to say decades and decades -– centuries, maybe.

Hmmm. I’ll have to quiz a Spaniard or two about that.

This is what I see just before I enter go inside to classes just before 9 a.m.: the Ham Paradise. So far I haven’t been able to get up the nerve to go in there for food/drink. Might be perfectly respectable fare, but so far I haven’t been able to actually make that leap of faith.

2) At the gym: a guy who -– well, how to describe him? He’s not bulky — he’s actually quite slender for his height (a few inches taller than myself). But he works out in dramatic fashion, making excessive loud, masculine noise, acting very intense. He has a dark Spanish look and it would all be a moderately impressive display if it weren’t for the fact that the guy smells like a roomful of unwashed bears after a long, hard winter. The word pungent hardly comes close, and it seems to extend out from him for a good four or five meters in every direction, like a cloud of toxic gas.

Don’t know if he’s aromatic outside of the gym. I saw him leave today in a business suit, looking entirely presentable, but wasn’t close enough to get a whiff of his post-workout bouquet.

We’re an weird bunch, we humans.

Tuesday in Madrid, mid-January, looking and feeling like November in New England. Cool, crisp air. Clouds and a brilliant lowering sun combine to provide autumnal late-afternoon light. One of my favorite kind of days. A friend who lives near Norfolk, England, wrote me that two days ago they endured the kind of stormy weather that features wind-driven rain moving nearly parallel to the ground. According to the Weather Underground, recent temperatures in northern Vermont have ranged between the teens and the lower 30’s Fahrenheit, snow falling and accumulating now and then. Here, well, the temperature is in the lower 50’s, the conditions gentle, though local weather people keep claiming that rain may be moving in. We’ll see.

For those who might be considering a move to Madrid, I think I’ve come up with formula that will, if not guarantee long-term success in changing countries, at least guarantee entertainment along the way. To wit:

1) Fly to Madrid. Bring luggage and $$$$$.

2) Find a flop, short-term or long-term.

3) Enroll in a language school. Take classes.

4) Get to know some of your fellow students. Go out to dinner with them.

5) Prepare to spew laughter-propelled liquids from your nostrils once or twice during the course of the evening.

I’ve arrived at this formula after months of painstaking research that culminated this last Saturday night in a dinner featuring myself and an international cast — Pedro (from Portugal), his sweetie, Sarah (from Barcelona), Philip (from Germany), Richard (from the States) and his sweetie, Carmen (from the south of Spain). A long, sloppy evening of excellent food and several bottles of sparkling hard cider at Casa Mingo. I enjoy watching groups of people interact, any group of people. It’s a whole other experience when they’re all from different cultures, in this case all having experience of some length with cultures different from their own.

Pedro held entertainingly forth on whatever came to mind, Sarah contributed as well, a bit more quietly. (They’re both engineers, intelligent and simpático.) On the other side of Pedro sat multilingual Carmen, across from her sweetie, Richard, who, when he wasn’t pouring sidra so that half of it wound up in Philip’s lap, blabbered happily about whatever came to mind, getting a bit red in the face as he waxed more and more enthusiastic, punctuating a rant or description with the all-purpose Spanish swear word ‘joder’ (the J sounds like an H roughly and forcefully pronounced at the back of the throat), stretching it out a bit and inserting insistent pauses so it comes out like “¡JOOO….. DER!” Philip took everything with robust high spirits, deep voice and German accent audible no matter how intense the racket produced by everyone else. I shovelled down roast chicken and the best chorizo I’ve ever eaten (cooked in cider, I’m told, so that the fat leaches out), to the point that Pedro and Philip counseled me to pause and breathe, Richard chiming in more emphatically. (”¡RESPIRA! ¡¡¡RES-PI-RA!!!”) The two women observed the four males with patience and forbearance.

Casa Mingo: a restaurant I believe was originally (and may still be) run by a family from Asturias, one of Spain’s northwest provinces, a region known for natural beauty, apples and cider, the kind that’s about 4.5% alcohol. (For some reason, the alcohol in sidra doesn’t make a dent in me so I’m able to guzzle it with impunity.) It’s a sizeable, rustic-looking joint, walls lined with bottles of sidra on one end, large kegs on the others. The seating consists of brown tables and chairs that are moved about to adapt to the number of diners, encouraging big communal feeding frenzies. Chickens cook in banks of roasting ovens and if you arrive for dinner after 9:30 p.m., expect to wait for a table — they don’t take reservations. It’s enormously popular and often fills to noisy overflowing capacity with natives and tourists.

One interesting thing — many write-ups I’ve seen about Casa Mingo in on-line Madrid travel/dining guides seems to contain at least one notable inaccuracy. The example I used as a link earlier in this entry mentions on one hand that the food is inexpensive, yet manages to calculate that the average diner should expect to pay in the neighborhood of $2000. (Those freakin’, slippery decimal points!) At the end of a night of fairly professional gorging, including at least three bottles of sidra, our tab came to 60 euros –- 10 euros apiece, around $9.00.

Post-dinner, we made our way back to the Metro station at Principe Pio, Pedro and Philip bellowing national anthems, where we grabbed a train. The plan, I thought, was to return to Chueca and go somewhere for a bit of liquid refreshment before calling it a night. Clearly, I’d missed out on some critical part of the decision-making process because at la Plaza de España, the other five suddenly got off the train. They’re leaving, I start to follow Philip out then backtrack, not sure what’s going on, the doors of the train suddenly close and the train pulls out, my last sight of them is Philip doubled over with laughter. I’m laughing pretty hard myself until I turn around and find everyone in the coach watching me, silent, expressionless. That gets me laughing even harder, though I manage to stifle it in time to disembark at the next station.

You can’t plan that kind of entertainment.

I am grieved to report that one of my favorite t-shirts –- featuring a large graphic of a panel from a fake soap-opera-type comic strip in the style of, say, Apt. 3G — has begun developing teeny age holes in the fabric up on the shoulders.

All things must pass. (Sniffle.)

After two weeks of this latest bout of intensive Spanish classes, it’s become clear that my Spanish has come some distance during the last 18 months, far enough now that when I hang out with other furriners, I sound like I have some idea of what I’m doing. I sound like I’m actually beginning to speak Spanish.

There frequently seems to be an inverse relationship between how loudly a furriner speaks Castellano and their ability with the language — the higher the volume, the more numerous the errors. Kind of counter-intuitive, but there it is. This has all gotten to the point where I’m finding myself wanting to spend less time with folks who speak middling, error-riddled Spanish and more time with folks who are fluent. (Until I’m with fluent folks and find myself feeling like a total clod, producing middling, error-riddled Spanish.) It’s a strange position to be in, as a year ago I often found myself on the downside of that equation, mangling the language on a regular basis.

Before coming to Madrid, I spent a month or two working my way through two on-tape Spanish courses, a three-tape beginner’s set by Berlitz (not so great), then a 12-tape beginner’s set by Barron’s (better). Coupled with the hilarious vestigial ability from two years of Spanish in 7th and 8th grades, where I paid little attention and learned just this side of zip, I was somehow able to put across an image of someone whose Spanish was rusty but not pathetic. Whereas it actually was pathetic. Once here, I showed up at the school where I spent much of the next eight or nine months, stumbled my way through a brief assessment conversation/test — managing somehow to convince the person who assessed me that I could handle classes at the low-advanced level. And of course turning out to be immediate roadkill in that class, completely out of my depth. After several days of suffering, I pleaded for lower-level instruction, got placed in a middle-intermediate group, where I generally filled the role of He With The Weakest Spanish. Working my adorable butt off, my Castellano gradually improved until I seemed to settle in at low-advanced — still above than my actual level. And there I slaved and toiled, generally remaining in the position of scrambling to keep up.

There were reasons for this. I kept returning to the States periodically, torpedoing continuity. I spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the computer writing in English and snooping around cyberspace, a mostly English-speaking universe. So while I took classes and read Spanish-language newspapers and books (always armed with a dictionary), I got plenty of input in Spanish but precious little opportunity to speak the language outside of class. And it showed.

A phenomenon with language students here is something called intercambio: interchange. Someone like me gets together with a Spaniard studying English, we talk about whatever we feel like, half the time in English, half the time in Spanish. A pretty swell idea, really -– whoever came up with it given an award. Or a friendly pat on the butt. Something.

I’ve gone through a bunch of intercambios in my time here, most of them brief, often just one-time deals. Except for one with a guy named Jaime who spent a year of high school as an exchange student near Columbus, Ohio. On arrival stateside, he spoke little English and has told me that keeping the television on for the language input was a major learning aide — Who’s The Boss in particular. Kind of scary, that. But he suggested I use the TV more than I’d been using it. And damned if it didn’t help. It not only helped, it became an easy way of gauging the state of my language comprehension.

So my Spanish has improved, and I’m trying to capitalize on that. I’ve got two intercambios today, one with Jaime and a first-time one with a woman named Pilar, a Spanish teacher. Hope I don’t shame myself. After that I’ll be heading out to dinner with a motley assortment of fellow students (a American, a German, and the Portuguese guy from my current class, Pedro) and two of their S.O.’s, both Spanish women. Could be a free-for-all, languagewise. Good clean fun.

Later.

An aspect of life in Madrid I may not have mentioned before: the astonishing number of haircutting shops (peluquerías). They’re everywhere, like a bona fide infestation. Reminds me of the explosion of nail shops that occurred in some places stateside during the last decade.

I mention this because I need a cut and am trying to figure out what to do about it. During my year-plus here, my hair’s been worked on three separate times, each one fairly disastrous. The first two cutters listened to how I wanted the job done then did what they wanted, which meant trying to give me the appearance of a man of business, an executive. Or something. There’s a look that some business males here have, kind of a big, suavely-coiffed thing. It’s not me. It’s not even an alternate me, it’s not even my evil twin. We all hate it. My last cut, maybe ten, eleven months ago: an out and out catastrophe that left me looking like a walking mushroom cloud. Since then I’ve mostly done trims myself, mostly with decent results. Mostly. Now and then, on the other hand… well, let’s not go there.

So I’m debating, I’m deliberating. Do I go to one of the barrio’s many cutting shops, maybe one of the wilder, more edgily-stylish ones, see what happens? Or do I grab the scissors and do it myself?

Whichever way it goes, it has to happen soon. I’m gaining weight fast, and it’s all on top of my head.

A nice thing about having to get up for 9 a.m. classes: Madrid mornings are beautiful at this time of the year, this gets me out into them.

As I mentioned in an earlier entry, because of the bizarre job some bureaucrats did while drawing up the European time zones — a job perhaps undertaken while working their way through someone’s liquor cabinet — Madrid is an hour ahead of London, despite being further west. Meaning the sun comes up an hour later here than it otherwise would, producing mornings that get up to speed slowly — great for me since I tend to sleep better when it gets light later.

I leave the house around 8:35, stumble down into the Metro. When I re-emerge near the school -– at the station named Opera, on Madrid’s green line, in the barrio clustered around the Royal Palace (el Palacio Real), an area with winding narrow streets lined with lovely old buildings, including El Teatro Real, the royal opera house –- the light is growing, it’s clearly not pre-dawn any more, but the sun is still not visible. The air is soft, often feels a bit damp. And as the sun lifts itself slowly up into the morning sky, the air takes on a misty look. There are people out on the way to wherever they’re going, but the sidewalks are far from mobbed. Cafés, cafeterías, restaurantes are open, peddling coffee, sweet rolls, croissants. The atmosphere is relatively sedate.

Of course, I don’t have to drive in to the city. That may be absolute torture.

Lucky me.

This past Sunday: me leaving the gym, standing just outside the door zipping up my jacket. A woman walks by, 20-something, pretty, South American or Central American by the dark shade of her skin and her features. She’s followed by a man, same physical type, same age range. She turns to him as she goes by, indicating something ahead, smiling, he follows her around the corner out of sight. Then a boy passes, clearly their child, around 10, 11 years old. As he moves past, he gives me a tentative smile. I smile and say, “¿Qué tal?” He smiles a little wider, still tentative, says, “Bien!” “Qué bien!” I say, then he’s past and out of my vision.

The kids here are beautiful and fun to watch. The Spaniards love their children and it shows, both in the look the kids have — that of little beings who know they’re valued — and in the parents’ comportment. I see adults with kids, proud to be out with them if they’re little ones in strollers, walking hand and hand with them if they’re older, smiling, talking to them. There’s plenty of visibly rebellious behavior from the teenagers, lots of carrying on loudly, rambunctiously, lots of drinking and getting shitfaced. And with all that they appear to me to be good kids.

And I think that may be an accurate reflection of the Spanish people as a whole: good folks who at times tend toward loud, occasionally dramatic behavior. There’s a Portuguese guy in my current intensive Spanish class, a fella named Pedro who’s got a Spanish sweetheart and is here with her, looking for work. Bright, extremely funny, with a sunny personality. He talks a lot, gesturing and making faces the entire time, has the attitude of someone who enjoys his life and incites laughter from others. Fun to be with. We were talking about the difference between the Portuguese and the Spaniards — there’s a lot he clearly loves about Portugal and its people, but in comparing them to the Spaniards, he drew a portrait of a national type that tends to be a bit formal, a bit less open, a bit less prone to communicate easily. While the Spaniards are right out there with themselves. Like Pedro. He enjoys living in Madrid, prefers life in Madrid. No accident, think I. He fits right in. He and the teachers we’ve had this week –- two Madrileñas in their late 20’s –- get along like a house afire, cracking each other up, talking fast enough that they lose me at times. But they have so much fun I can’t help but enjoy the whole scene.

They’re fascinating, these classes -– collections of people from all over the globe thrown together for a week or more, presided over by teachers generally in their 20’s and 30’s, often younger than the folks they’re instructing. At times the only thing the individuals have in common is the language they’re learning, which can be a serious limitation. Or not, depending on their level of ability. Sometimes the chemistry falls right into place or finds a comfortable dynamic as the group spends time working in the same room. Sometimes the chemistry never really gels and sparks fly. It’s rarely boring.

In my class this week: Pedro; a Japanese woman named Hiroko, married and living here with husband and children because her spouse’s job brought them here; Jan, a young German guy, 21 or 22 years old; and Ryan, an American from L.A., college age, though he seems younger. An interesting group, with less chemistry than last week’s (a completely different batch of souls at a slightly lower level with the language). Pedro and our female instructors are the main source of the week’s entertainment.

Hiroko: interesting, pleasingly gentle, gradually becoming more of a presence in the mix after a quiet, apparently shy start. Jan: hard to read -– not very outgoing, at times seemingly impatient with the rest of us, yet now and then displaying a nice smile and laugh when something particularly silly has happened between Pedro and an instructor. Ryan, the American, is the hardest one to get a bead on. His likes are clear -– partying, drinking, dancing, smoking dope. He may be the weakest member of the class when it comes to the language, he’s far from outgoing most of the time. But I think he reminds me of a version of me at that age. It’s interesting to watch him with that in mind — I think there’s a tender person in there who deserves space and slack.

Then there are the moments outside of class, capable of revealing all kinds of things. There are folks who clearly want to find and stay with people of a similar type — age, nationality, social type, ability with the language. There are those who note another student’s apparent level with the language and respond dismissively, even harshly, if the other student doesn’t measure up — sometimes producing a kind of social jockeying that can be strange to witness or experience. And there are folks who simply want to have a nice time in a beautiful city with folks from all over the world.

We’re complex, we humans -– we bring so much to the blend, things both conscious and unconscious. It’s fascinating to observe, to enjoy the whirling display of it all, letting the moments that feel less than great pass by to be replaced by other, more interesting ones.

Bugger. There’s so much going on in my life, it’s all wonderful, I want to inflict the details on you, yet so far can’t seem to produce anything worth reading. Embarrassing. Part of the problem: I am currently carrying on a huge amount of correspondence with a select few individuals in the U.K. and the States. The upside of which is that I’m writing, I have a life, I have folks I love being connected with, folks who bring big fun to my little existence. A mighty fine problem, as problems go. Combine that with intensive Spanish classes, though, it means I need to focus a bit more than I ordinarily might if I’m to produce anything here.

So in the interests of focusing for a moment, let me say this: I hope the people in my life feel how much I enjoy them, how much I get out of knowing them, whether the contact is frequent or occasional, in person or via e-mail, phone calls, snail mail. I am a wealthy individual because of what they bring to my existence, and I do not take them for granted.

Right. All done. Cancel the earnestness alert.

Last night I dreamed that Mark and Joel R. were after me.

The real Mark and Joel: brothers I knew in high school, Mark older than Joel by one year. Good guys, not people I tend to think of as dangerous. I don’t remember exactly how the dream me pissed them off, but whatever I did, it was effective. They turned out to be my own personal Terminators, pursuing with relentless energy, finally burning down a house the dream version of me owned. That woke the 3-D version of me up. Unfortunately, I slipped back into a state of half-sleep where the dream continued and the R. boys followed me here to Madrid to finish the job. I managed to come to before the situation became irreversibly dire, and read for a little while to clear the whole thing out of my system.

Dreams. Terminators. Go figure.

This afternoon: went to the gym -– not so unusual, me being the specimen of, er, manliness that I am. Afterward, as I followed Elvis’ example and left the building, I stopped to zip up my jacket then sauntered down the block to the Metro.

Rush hour was getting underway, lots of folks were about. And just ahead a woman with a stroller began backing into the entryway of a building to open the door before pulling the stroller in behind her. I think what caught my attention was the size of the stroller, larger than your garden-variety model, and as I approached I saw that the body in it was likewise larger than your garden-variety toddler. Turned out it wasn’t a toddler at all — it was a little guy of indeterminate age, the kind of person who might be called retarded by those who don’t know what other label to slap on him. Could have been anywhere between 8 and 18 years of age, affected by any number of maladies or ‘limitations,’ his body curled up, maybe not capable of a great deal of movement, and interestingly, he bore a distinct resemblance to Stephen Hawking. I gave him a smile as I went by, he in turn gave me a smile of such magnitude that I couldn’t help but smile even more in return. He smiled at me like it came from every part of his body, as if every cell in that little being were smiling at me. And for a wonderful moment we regarded each other like that, and then I was past, continuing toward the Metro entrance, still smiling.

A simple encounter, sending me down the street feeling all kinds of things. Happiness, mostly. But also the occasional sensation of rising tears. I am, of course, far too, er, something to allow that to come out into the open on a crowded rush-hour Metro trip. But it was interesting to suddenly, unexpectedly find myself feeling it all.

This life of ours — one never really knows what’s waiting up around the next corner.

Written yesterday, 9 Jan., but unposted until today due to Blogger publishing problems:

I’ve been busy these last few hours cracking myself up. It’s true — some days I am easily the most hilarious person I come into contact with. (And I will not explain or justify that assessment. You’ll either just have to take my word for it or piss off.)

So it felt like the perfect day to see a film like Ghost World, a product the publicity calls ‘una comedia ácida’ — a marketing phrase a touch too glib for my taste. (Isn’t that a great word? Glib. GLIB. Glibglibglibglibglib. How did those four letters get fastened together in that order? And aren’t they a dynamite example of a word that somehow sounds like what it’s supposed to mean?)

It’s about a lot of things, really, Ghost World, alienation and, well, glibness being two of them. Or maybe the glibness is simply a caustic outgrowth of the alienation. Regardless, the film goes after a number of things. Painful at times. At times funny. I found myself laughing loudly quite a bit, then realized I was the only person in the theater doing so (not that there were more than five or six misguided souls there for the 3:55 Wednesday afternoon showing), which for some perverse reason made it all funnier.

Not sure whether the story’s end worked or not, but it was interesting and — I grovel with apologies here for the use of this word — honorable. Everyone else in the theater left during the credits, which meant they missed an outtake tacked on at the very end in which Steve Buscemi (still the reigning king of indie cinema) rewrites a bit of his nerdy character’s history.

That’s the risk in bolting before a movie’s actually finished — you never know what you’ll miss. For instance, a relative of Bob Balaban — one of the supporting players in Ghost World and a face you’ve seen if you’ve done any serious moviegoing during the last 20 or 30 years — is listed in the credits as something like the Second Assistant Assistant Director. Really. Also, the film features a bunch of interesting artwork by the daughter of R. Crumb, Sophie Crumb.

Great soundtrack, by the way.

The theater complex posted a lackey in our little viewing space at the film’s end to try and ensure that everyone exited the door to the street instead of back into the theater (where some miscreants might attempt to sneak into other movies). I had to use the bog, so the guy had no choice but to let me back into the theater or I would have relieved myself on his shoes. After I’d accomplished my mission I passed through the lobby, where I picked up the handout re: the film.

And here’s the thing: the combination of everything — the day, the film, the outtake, relieving my bladder, the people waiting in the lobby, the woman there who returned my smile, the gentle light of the softly falling Madrid evening — left me in a great mood, and I emerged into the post-movie world smiling, where I took a leisurely walk back to my humble Chueca dive, smiling most of the time.

It’s interesting to note people’s reactions when they pass someone who appears happy. Some seem curious, many take no notice, others begin to smile. Most folks walking on their own here do not seem to smile. In fact, back in the States, a Spaniard I know who spent one of his high school years as an exchange student near Columbus, Ohio heard a story — maybe on NPR, but don’t hold me to that — re: Spaniards who had lived in the States. He told me that one of the Spaniards interviewed in the story mentioned that they felt under great pressure to appear happy, to smile, when in fact they didn’t feel like smiling a lot of the time. Not that they were unhappy, they simply didn’t want to have to smile. So there’s a cultural difference at work there, and it may be that a putz like myself flouncing smilingly down a Madrid street stands out in that way.

The other thing: I love watching people, and coming out of a film like that — which spent a great deal of time observing how the inner workings of its characters showed themselves — people-watching was the perfect thing to do. There were some low-hanging clouds in the western sky, brilliant with the last light of the day, and the people passing by seemed similarly radiant with the complexity of their inner worlds.

It’s good, this life. Really.

Right. Enough of this. I must go be a student and study.

Later.

A reminder that entries to this journal generally go through rewrites, becoming shorter, longer or simply better written (case in point: yesterday’s entry). Meaning that they may change in the days following the original posting. Just so you know.

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