far too much writing, far too many photos

I’ve been negligent, I know, but I’ve had good excuses.

Main excuse: the fast trip to Granada, which turned out to be strange, fascinating, a bit wild. A fine city to seek out if you’re looking to eat well. And endearingly, unbelievably inexpensive. True to its reputation, when you go to tapas joints and order liquid refreshment, the drinks come with free food — sandwiches, platters of tapas or calamari. It’s hard to imagine how the businesses survive, though the night we went they were all packed, and maybe that explains it.

And La Alhambra? Spectacular. One of the most impressive, most affecting places I’ve ever been, even overrun with Easter Week tourists.

Got back to Madrid yesterday, have been organizing and packing ever since for the return to the States. Which happens, er, tomorrow. I imagine I’ll be settled in by Wednesday, but am not sure if an ISP will be plugged in at that time. Will be back online as soon as that part of life is once again in place.

Spring continues here, as sunny, warm and user-friendly as one could reasonably want. I can only hope that spring’s arrival in Vermont will not be too sluggish this year.

So. Back midweek. Be well.

[Author's note, 11/22/05 -- That is one skimpy-ass description of the trip to Granada. Understandable, I guess, given how much was going on at the time. But also, on the other hand, symptomatic of the way I'd begun holding back on information, and therefore pretty lame.

A motley group made the drive south, spread out between two vehicles, one rented, one not. A 20-something intercambio turned friend named Marta and her sweetie, a tall, intelligent, slightly strange 20-something male (French? Swiss? something) and his quiet, much stranger brother, along with a gay, slightly older friend of Marta's from Santander in the north of Spain (owner of one of the expedition's vehicles), and Sam, the Belgian friend mentioned in recent entries.

A goofy blend of humans, with strange chemistry. Once again, me the oldest in the bunch, receiving weird, not very friendly vibes from Marta's gay friend, a dance teacher and owner of one of the cars. Why? Who knows. At one point, I lay in the cramped back seat of his vehicle, eyes closed, listening to conversation between him and Sam. A short time later, I asked about something he'd mentioned in that conversation, he had no idea what I was talking about, his tone suggesting I was out of my fucking mind. Why? Who knows. And doesn't matter -- everyone else was fine. Least I think everyone else was fine -- the brother of Marta's sweetie hardly said a word the entire time, no telling what was going on there.

The ride south: fairly smooth, fairly rapid, especially given the heavy traffic, Madrid emptying out as people bolted for Holy Week vacation/observances. Accommodations being scarce in that part of the world during these holidays, a multi-bed room had been found outside the city, in a nondescript hotel tucked away in suburban streets. We checked in, retired to the room, assigned beds. The TV got cranked, most programming either news or coverage of Easter week religious processions in various locations around Andalucía -- somber, heavily attended, large, elaborate floats lurching slowly along packed streets (borne by teams of the faithful in metaphoric re-enactment of the carrying of the cross), brass bands playing solemn numbers in accompaniment. Outfits worn by many in the processions looking to be exact duplicates of apparel worn by those mavens of fashion, the Ku Klux Klan -- something that gives pause to many Americans on first view until you realize these processions have been around far longer than the Klan, that the American weirdos probably appropriated the outfits. One difference: the Spanish version often comes in eye-catching colors -- purples, deep blues -- while the American cracker version generally came, predictably, in white, white and more white.

Post-settling-in, we headed into Granada. One of the group -- Marta or her dance-teacher friend -- knew local folk, we hooked up with them, went to a local joint for something to drink/eat. A popular local joint, crowded enough that we had to thread our way through, settling at a table in a side room. The drill: order liquid refreshment -- doesn't matter what it is -- free food comes in accompaniment. Everyone ordered something to drink, when they showed up, two big baskets of fried calamari followed quickly. Calamari: not my thing, but I appreciated the management's good will. The crowd grew during our time there, we squeezed our way back through, went to a different place, more of a restaurant than a joint. Packed with families and friends out for a meal. Same routine: we ordered drinks, they materialized along with two platters of sandwiches. Good sandwiches. I found myself thinking I could get used to living like that.

Returned to the hotel at some point, minus Marta's dance-teacher friend, who spent the night with friends in Malaga, an hour away. Next morning, we all rendezvoused in Granada for the local version of breakfast -- juice, espresso, toast with various spreads (olive oil, tomato, like that). Left the cars parked in that section of town, grabbed taxis, the driver of the cab I found myself in an exuberant, effusive type who filled us in on some local restaurants, describing the meal he had at one as 'de puta madre!' (essentially, 'fucking great!'), the first time I'd heard that expression used in real life. The event of the day: a field trip to La Alhambra, Granada's big tourist draw, once a palace of sultans and center of culture. A huge, beautiful complex atop a bluff -- extensive gardens off to one side, buildings off to the other.

The taxi ride let us off nearby, we made the hike uphill, found ourselves in gardens once owned by sultans -- lovely, meticulously cared-for. An intimate gathering, just us and countless Easter week tourists, the place so striking, the view from just about any spot so stunning, that the number of people about simply didn't matter.

Late in the day, we managed to weasel our way into the tour of one of the two palaces, it turning out to be the kind of place for which words like 'bewitching' get trotted out. (Including being dragged through the strangely incongruous Washington Irving room, me with no idea that a writer so classically of the Hudson Valley had passed time in this part of the world, much less helped spark La Alhambra's restoration through his writings about it.)

Daylight waned, we wandered down into the city, walked narrow winding streets, found our way up a neighboring hill to an overlook with a spectacular nighttime view of La Alhambra. Plenty of fellow-gawkers about, both tourists and natives, the stereo from one carload of local teenagers blaring flamenco and hip-hop tunes. Found a restaurant with Arabic food, ate well. And on the way back to the car, stumbled across three separate Easter processions moving slowly through a central business district, their paths criss-crossing. Stopped to investigate, the experience completely different from watching small, flat televised images. A window into a kind of Catholicism that growing up in that religion had never shown me. (Not that it called to me, mind you, but it allowed a glimpse of the emotion at its core.)

The floats -- large, elaborate, enormously heavy -- were carried by teams of bearers flanked by a small support team, all led by a person with a staff -- a coxswain, essentially. Folks wearing the KKKesque outfits preceded and followed the floats, a band brought up the rear, playing somber, emotional numbers, a kind of music that felt to me like a distant cousin to New Orleans jazz. (Same instrumentation, same overflow of emotion.) The processions moved along at a slow, steady pace, the speed and gait dictated by what the float-bearers could manage. Every 100 or 150 feet, it all came to a half, poles taking the weight of the float while the bearers caught their breath, the music falling silent, the only sound that of people in the crowd talking quietly. After two or three minutes, the coxswain marshalled the float-bearers, coordinating their resumption of the float's weight with a three-count, the crowd calling out encouragement, applauding when the float was again borne aloft and the bearers resumed their slow movement forward. I don't know how it comes across here, but it's an emotional event, packed with feeling and input of all kinds.

We spent close to an hour there, watching two of the three processions, Sam taking a mountain of photos. And at some point we drifted back to the car, returned to the hotel, retired to our respective beds, me sleeping hardly at all. Sam had agreed to return to Madrid with me the next morning -- me with work to do, feeling the pressure of the looming return Stateside -- we got up and out early, driving north along nearly-empty highways. We made it to back to the capital around midday, the barrio quiet, parking spaces everywhere (not the usual state of affairs). Pretty much as soon as I set foot back in the piso, I found myself swept up in time's surging movement forward -- packing, traveling, finding myself suddenly back in cold, later winter Vermont. All of it feeling slightly unreal, though undeniably happening.

And life moved on.]

Semana Santa is undeway — Holy Week — apparently a substantially bigger deal here than it is in the States. Centuries of Catholic history may have something to do with that. There are doings around the country in observance of the season, but Sevilla seems to be the major focal point and is famous for the religious processions that take place in these days leading up to Easter. A major ritual — heavy, a bit dark, with a long history. Like Spanish Catholicism.

People are traveling this week. Groups of young Americans and Germans are all over the city center, and many Spaniards take off for other points in the country –- to the coast, to Andalucia, places like that. Tomorrow, in fact, I’ll be among the multitudes heading south to Andalucia as part of a group of five people spread out between two cars, aiming to reach Granada by mid to late afternoon. A brief trip -– down tomorrow, back here Saturday -– the major goal being to check out La Alhambra, something I’ve heard a lot about and want to see while I’m still in country. I’ve also been told that Granada is a fine small city, am looking forward to a taste of it.

I’ve heard a lot about Andalucia in general, now that I think about it, and much of the scuttlebutt piques my interest. People around Madrid sometimes speak less than kindly about Andalucians, same way they do about Barcelona, regional competition and rivalry being as much a phenomenon here as it can be in the States. Andalucians have a reputation for friendliness, but are, according to local legend, untrustworthy, not prone to opening up for friendship of any depth. I’ve also heard they’re generous when it comes to food. More than one person has mentioned that if you buy two or three drinks at a typical Andalucian restaurant/bar/taberna, the complimentary food that comes with the drinks can be close to the equivalent of a meal, or at least the equivalent of three generous helpings of tapas here in Madrid.

Time to see for myself.

I have no idea whether or not I’ll be posting anything here before I get back on Saturday — if I come across a good internet café, I may not be able to help myself. We’ll see.

Be well.

[Continued from entry of March 21.]

With Curtis having done el Camino de Santiago so many times, he’s fairly knowledgeable about it — extremely, even excessively knowledgeable compared with someone like me.

As we stood in Sunday morning sunshine, Curtis talking about el Camino, two people hiking the trail toiled up the grade in our direction. Across the small road, off in the other direction, the land spilled down and away. Nesting birds appeared from hillside bushes, making short, swift flights to nearby points, producing sharp bursts of song. Though the sun shone strong and warm, a cool breeze blew — Curtis had encouraged me to leave my jacket in the car, I found myself glad I had it on and pulled it tightly around me as I peered off across the countryside.

Back in the car, we drove further west of Pamplona. Several miles along, Javier hung a left and sped down another two-lane, flanked by fields and the occasional spread of vineyard, until we approached a turnoff for a small church that sat amid acres of fields, la iglesia de Santa Maria de Eunate. Javier turned in, guiding the car to a small parking area, pulling in by a pair of porta-potties, them looking a bit out of context there in the middle of nowhere but logical considering the number of visitors the place received.

The church: a lovely stone structure, small in diameter with a high domed roof that gives it a sense of great space. Built in the second half of the twelfth century, appearing at once austere and complex in structure. The small windows had no glass, no surprise given where and when the church was constructed — instead, they’re covered with slabs of marble cut thinly enough that they allow light to pass through. The church is surrounded by a portico, nearby sits another building constructed of stone, a refuge for hikers making the pilgrimage, where they can find a shower, get some sleep.

On our arrival, the only other people about were three young women who seemed to carefully avoid us. As we walked back to the car, other vehicles pulled in, discharging people, changing the atmosphere drastically with noise and motion. I was glad we were on the way out.

Javier drove back out to the original two-lane, heading further west to the town of Puente la Reina (Queen Bridge), a pueblo with at least three churches — all Catholic, natch. I was taken into two, both several centuries old –- one austere, the other extravagantly elaborate –- both on a long street that ran from the east end of town to the river at the town’s west side and the bridge that gives the town its name. Built in, I think, the 15th century. Old, beautiful, nice to walk across, providing nice views of the old town on one side, green hills and flowering almond trees on the other.

The morning sunlight had strengthened, the temperature edged upward to jacket-divesting levels as the day tilted toward noon. We walked back toward the car along a different street -– wider, relatively busy -– passing the third church as we left the river behind, I mulled over how it felt to be among so much Catholicism, past and present.

I grew up in a Catholic family, going to mass every Sunday, attending religious instruction for nine years. (Nine long, long years.) And though the religion was part of my life’s routine back then, I never felt at home in it, was never a Catholic. I mean no offense to any Catholics in saying that, it’s just the simple truth. In fact, there is no religion that calls to me. I walk my own spiritual path, and I respect the ways other people walk theirs.

There were many things about growing up that way that I genuinely did not enjoy, and it’s been interesting spending much of the last two years in a country with such a strong Catholic tradition, with centuries of dark, turbulent Catholic history. I love Spain, and have had no trouble with that aspect of the country -– it’s simply what it is, part of the nation’s rich, complex character.

From there we traveled west to a stretch of el Camino that ran along the course of an old Roman road, cobbled and crossing an original Roman bridge, out in the middle of countryside, in a ravine off the two-lane where trees were showing green and birds called. As I moved ahead of Curtis and Javier, two hikers passed — young women, both sporting huge packs, one of which had two or three pieces of washed clothing spread across it to dry in the sun as they walked. Curtis began chatting with them, when I returned from enjoying the near-total quiet off across the bridge it turned out they were college-age American women — one from Tennessee, one from Illinois — doing the pilgrimage and experiencing the contrast between what they’d imagined when they dreamed about it and the rigorous, sometimes disheartening reality of traversing mountainous, rural terrain with a full pack. Curtis gave them gentle encouragement, some tips on stops they’d be making in the coming days, and they headed off.

Next stop: the town of Estella, the day’s final stop. A medieval pueblo, with old, narrow streets, large plazas, and a pretty, shallow river that wends through the heart of the town. Javier parked the car, we made our way up a long series of stairs to yet another church perched in the, by then, early afternoon sunlight. We passed through to the cloister, a sizeable area of flowers, grass, flowers and a tree or two, sheltered by walls, surrounded and bisected by walkways. Quiet, with lots of old stonework. I would have been happy to remain there a while, as lack of sleep was becoming more and more a factor in my day. Curtis had also been up late — later than me, I think, having far more fun — also looked to be at less than optimum. Javier was fine, and when I got too quiet he made a point of chatting me up, explaining things or asking about my experience in Spain. Between that and the fact that he had volunteered to do the driving for the day, he went far beyond what would be expected of someone who had never met me before. An extremely considerate person with a generous, gentlemanly nature.

A mass had begun while we were outside, we couldn’t pass back through the church and so took a different stairway down to the street — old, narrow, with vistas of sky and neighborhoods. We found our way to the center of the town, crowds of chatting, well-dressed locals milling in and out of restaurants/tabernas. We made our way into one, found a space at the bar, got something to drink, then went somewhere else to eat, a place off another narrow, quiet street. A long meal, punctuated by stretches of silence between which Curtis and Javier conversed, Javier now and then addressing some conversation in my direction, which I did my best to engage with. Afterward, we found our way through more narrow streets toward an old medieval footbridge we’d spotted earlier. The street that led us there — old and, of course, narrow — only permitted resident traffic, and at the end of a block that fed out onto a larger busier street, passage was blocked by a thick, squat metal column, maybe two feet high, planted in the pavement directly in the middle of the street. A car approached from the outside road, stopping by a box at the roadside where the driver produced a card and swiped it through a slot. A pause, then the column slowly sank into the pavement so the car could pass, after which it reappeared, regaining full height. Freudian traffic control.

We made our way across the bridge, trees and large sprawling expanses of bushes on either side of the river a bright, vibrant green in the early spring sun. Willow trees rose three or four stories into the air, trailing long branches thick with new leaves. Javier and Curtis had yet another ancient church or two in their sights, we made our way toward them though not into them (for which I gave silent thanks), settling down instead on some stone structures by the river to flop and get some sun. It was late afternoon by then, the town had the feel of a place slowly dealing with the coming reality of returning to the workweek. Couples were out, two groups of people came together not far from us, talking, then headed off in the opposite direction from which we’d come and disappeared. We eventually pulled ourselves together and returned to the car, walking along a stretch of el Camino which included an old, well-kept building that functioned as the town’s sanctuary for pilgrims.

As we neared the car, the snug street opened out into a small plaza that fronted a park and two old buildings, one of which apparently housed the local equivalent of a circuit court. Paint had been hurled against the door and the facade of the building, leaving splashes of red, yellow and green, the colors of the crest of Euskadi, the Basque Country. As we stepped out into the plaza, I glanced into the windows of the other building we passed, into a room filled with old, old furniture, including what appeared to be an ancient canopy bed, draped with mosquito netting.

At that moment, we became aware of a car coming in reverse along the narrow street that faced us, coming fast, the gearbox whining loudly, insistently, the rear end jerking back and forth as it approached, tires squealing. It skidded into the plaza where the driver hit the brakes, spraying gravel before changing gears then gunning his way through a loud, aggressive three-point turn, almost hitting me at one point, the afternoon air suddenly thick with the odor of testosterone. The driver: a truculent, macho 20-something whose behavior had Curtis hooting and commenting unflatteringly in English. My last image of Estella.

An hour and a half later I found myself at a window seat on an Iberia airliner after saying good-byes to Curtis and Javier, thanking them for setting aside their day to entertain me, assuring them I’d enjoyed it despite my state of burn-out. My last view of Pamplona, from a plane angling up away from the ground: a line of wind power generators ranged along a ridge of hills to the north of the airport, extending off toward the Pyrenees and the border with France.


Sixteen days later, a Tuesday afternoon gradually sliding toward evening. Sensational weather continues –- the air has cooled some from yesterday, though the sun remains every bit as brilliant. Next Monday, my nearly two years in Madrid will give way to a return to the States. I’ve begun packing and sifting through accumulated dreck, a process which will be a bit compressed because of the fast trip to Granada coming up on Thursday through Saturday.

The days roll on, everything passes.

Went and picked up the Camper footwear for Sam this morning (see yesterday’s journal entry). Did not have to try on women’s shoes, got no strange looks.

On to the rest of the day.

The summer-like weather continues here in Madrid. Spectacular. I’m picking up color just walking around doing errands.

Among those errands is trying to track down a pair of shoes for Sam, a Belgian friend currently living in London who’s going to be here next weekend. We’ll be driving down to Granada with three other people for two days. In advance of that, the following e-mail arrived:

“Can you do me a big favour?
I want to do a girl a favour who I really fancy.
But I’m not sure whether it will work without your help.
Basically (don’t be disappointed), I promised her to bring some Camper shoes in Spain next weekend as they are 50% cheaper.
I’m a bit worried about holidays and shops being shut so I was wondering whether you would be able to wander in a shop and buy them.
Would that be a problem?
Let me know. DON’T worry if you can’t do it.”

After giving me particulars re: model number and size, he wrote:

“You may find a bit embarrassing to buy woman shoes. The key thing is not to try them on yourself!”

Bwaaaahahaha! What a guy.

Camper shoes are very in here right now, and can only be bought, as far as I know, in Camper shops. A short time ago I joined the late afternoon crowds filling the pedestrian ways between Sol and Gran Vía, stopping into two different Camper tiendas, both near Callao, a major crossroads and shopping area off Gran Vía. I was easily the oldest person in both shops and judging by looks received from two or three of my co-shoppers, I was considered an alien life form, possibly a dangerous one. It could just have been my pointy boots, but somehow I think it was the whole package. Or it could have been sour grapes at being confronted with the reality of a butt far cuter than theirs.

Both shops had the shoes Sam’s looking for, but not in the specified colors. I’ve sent him a note and await instructions.

Truthfully, it’s not as if spending time walking around the city center is a hardship. Madrid is beautiful, and this is one of the times of the year when it’s at its finest, despite the sudden Easter vacation appearance of hordes of young American and German tourists. They will come and go, and Madrid will remain, packed with personality and grace.

Madrid, 3:45 a.m. — early Sunday morning or late Saturday night, your choice. A time of the day called la madrugada here: the wee hours. Plenty of people are out, carrying on in normal Saturday night fashion. The sounds of laughter and conversation — punctuated by calls or exclamations, occasionally by bits of song — come and go from the street several floors down, a nice backdrop to sleep (that last bit a statement I would have considered heresy a couple of years back).

I’m gradually preparing to return to the States, a process that has me feeling thoughtful, at times sad. This last evening, a young Polish couple came and bought a small TV/VCR and a DVD I needed to unload. In their mid to late 20’s, they were sweet, friendly, well-mannered, clearly excited to be picking up the items inexpensively and in good condition. I showed them that the units worked well, we boxed them up, they carried them downstairs, calling out good-byes as they went.

The process of slowly gearing up for the return to the States has been underway for a couple of weeks, but something about handing over those items tonight, their disappearance leaving a sudden gap here in the living room, felt like the first concrete step away from Madrid and had an impact I hadn’t expected, leaving me quiet, pensive. It’s not the items — they were rarely used, it was time for them to go. It’s the larger shift signified by that small act, a shift suggesting major changes in direction for this little life of mine.

I received an e-mail from a friend this evening, a smart, interesting Canadian woman who’s been working on a farm in Central America for the past couple of months. Her life there is also shifting as she prepares to leave the farm and travel with someone she met. And though she’s looking forward to the coming travels, her letter was permeated with melancholy.

We’re constantly moving on, whether we feel it in any given moment or not, leaving things, people, events behind as others enter our experience. I like change, and I know good things await. I’m just feeling… something about it all.

It will pass.

As the time when I’ll be heading back to the States draws closer, I’m becoming aware of the possible contrast in weather that may be awaiting between here, Madrid (where spring has been spoiling me), and where I’ll be heading (northern Vermont — beautiful, but cold, messy). On impulse, I went to the Weather Underground webpage to gauge the current state of northern Vermont weather and the forecast for the coming week. ¡Madre mía!

Back to the ice age.

So spring — after creeping slowly in our direction for the past six or seven weeks, backing off now and then for short bouts of rain and cooler temperatures — has sprang. Or sprung. For real, starting two, three days ago. The first day, most Madrileños stuck with winter coats and jackets, not yet trusting the weather’s upturn. Yesterday, lighter clothing began appearing, today there’s a feeling of full-blown surrender to the change of seasons.

More perfect spring weather would be hard to find, and people are out enjoying it around the clock. Tables and chairs began appearing outside restaurants and cafés two days back. Yesterday, the first spread of them appeared in the plaza down the street, occupied by people talking, eating, drinks in hand. From midday until late in the afternoon, during the hours when the plaza is bathed in sunlight, people of all ages were sprawled everywhere hoovering up refreshments and fine weather. The sense of simple pleasure in the arrival of the season is in the air.

The city is at its loveliest at times like this (apart from the low-hanging haze of vehicle exhaust in La Plaza de La Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s centralmost crossroads), and peoplewatching is at its best. Individuals in businesswear walk purposefully along; older folks move more slowly, singly or in pairs, arm in arm; younger folks are everywhere, pierced and done up in modish clothing, footwear and do’s. Folks with European complexions; more classically Spanish-looking people — black hair, dark eyebrows, distinctive facial bone structure and features; darker-skinned folks from Central and South America. Asians, Africans, occasionally people from Arab countries. Residents, dyed-in-the-wool or more recently arrived; tourists, walking with tour books, blinking up into the Iberian light.

I’ve been out doing errands, and the air, sunlight and temperature are positively seductive. Luckily, I have the kind of day and weekend ahead that will allow me to do whatever I get the impulse to do.

I will try and wrap up that unbelievably drawn-out account of that weekend in Pamplona. Today. Or tomorrow. Honest.

[Continued from entry of 20 March]

Sunday’s activities had been scheduled to start early. I was up, showered, shaved and packed by the time Curtis called. When I stepped out of the hostal, bags in hand and overjoyed to be free of the place that had deprived me of two nights’ sleep, I found a beautiful Navarra morning waiting — cool, sunny, skies clear. Curtis and his friend Javier found me, we retired to a bar for coffee and something to eat, found our way to Javier’s little car and took off.

I was fatigued enough from lack of shuteye that I could only produce the most basic Spanish, though I understood 98% of whatever conversation was underway. Beyond that I didn’t have sufficient energy to do more than sit in the back seat and watch Pamplona pass by as the car headed west out of the city. The western reaches brought a sudden expanse of newly constructed apartment buildings and housing developments, then land being prepared for further development, then rolling fields spreading away to hills and ridges lined with huge wind generators. There were times when the Navarran landscape reminded me of Ireland, other times that Vermont or Scotland came to mind, but the sight of the wind generators gave the land a unique look, a combination of elements I’d never seen anywhere else. They stood in long, sinuous lines, riding the spines of the hills, stretching off into the distance for what looked like miles. As the road wound up in elevation and spun around a curve, Javier took a small side road that brought us up along a number of the generators. Javier parked, we got out.

The land stretched down and away on either of the ridge. To one side, fields of various shades of green, clusters of houses, and off in the distance large, looming peaks –- the Pyrenees; to the other side, more verdant, gently undulating country, stretching itself out beneath morning sunlight until it reached another ridge of hills, more wind generators.

We walked up the road where Curtis began acquainting me with part of the reason he was about to drag me around the countryside: el Camino de Santiago –- the way of Santiago, otherwise known as the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela, a hike he’s done not once, not twice, but three times. A long hike. A long, long, long hike, through rugged, mountainous terrain.

The camino intersected the road we were on, coming up the ridge on the side toward Pamplona, crossing over and heading away to the west. At the point of intersection stood a metal sculpture of many people walking, beginning in medieval dress, ending in contemporary dress (that’s what Curtis claimed anyway; they all looked the same to me — silhouettes of walking pilgrims). Above them were stars, referring to the camino itself, sometimes called the Milky Way. Nearby stood a large stone monument commemorating the camino. And as we stood there checking it out, I began hearing the sound from the nearest wind power generator — not a whooshing exactly; stranger than that, more otherworldly. Javier said a friend of his had come up there with a dog, and when they approached the wind generator, the dog began running back and forth, back and forth, as if the sound of enormous vanes turning were driving it a bit crazy.

[Continued -- and completed -- in entry of 26 March]

[Continued from entry of 13 March]

Saturday night, my second in Pamplona, I stepped out with Curtis and a couple of his friends before begging off early (early here being 11:30), hoping to recoup some of the sleep I’d lost to the early-hours light show the night before. Drifting through narrow streets back in the direction of the hostal, I passed what looked like a cross between a pharmacy and a natural foods tienda where I spied one of the greatest ads I’ve ever seen: a poster of modest dimensions, maybe 18″ by 14″, consisting of a photo depicting — and I swear this is genuine — an attractive woman in a black bra, close up, meaning from her breasts to the crown of her head. She stared down at her boobs in eye-popping, mouth-open astonishment, hands cupped over them.

The line of text across the top of the poster read “Super Eficaz, Super Rápido, Super Práctico” (”Super Effective, Super Fast, Super Practical”). Below that in insistent, oversized letters read the product name “RASSO DRINK” and below that “Concentrado Liquido A Base De Extractos Vegetales” (”Liquid Concentrate From Vegetable Extracts”).

Below that read the words “Super Top Efecto Push Up.” In other words, Super Top Push-Up Effect.

“Super Top Efecto Push Up.” Advertising copy just doesn’t get much more basic than that.

From the woman came the astonished cry: “¡No Creo Lo Que Veo Pero… Con RASSO DRINK Sí!!!” (”I Can’t Believe What I’m Seeing But… With RASSO DRINK, Yes!!!” With all them exclamation points, this woman is clearly undergoing a life-altering experience.) “…Y,” the poster goes on, “Los Resultados Se Ven!” (”…And One Can See The Results!”)

I stared happily at this jewel of marketing comedy, completely besotted with the idea that some unknown entrepreneur would throw something like that together for my entertainment. And it must have been for entertainment. It had to be. I had trouble wrapping my teeny brain around the idea that someone might seriously expect this shpiel to produce results. Though, on the other hand, what do I know? There might be individuals who would be drawn to this primal sales pitch like moths to backyard bug-snappers.

That encounter sent me happily back to my simple, spartan room where I watched a bit of fútbol and began to float nicely off to sleep around 12:30. That’s when the bar downstairs turned up their music system — techno, possibly at 150 bpm. In general, I like techno, but (and I invite you to picture Jack Nicholson delivering the following line:) NOT AT 12:30 A.M. WHEN I’M TRYING TO GET SOME GODDAMN SLEEP.

My room was located on the third floor, and though the bar was at street level, two flights down, the music literally sounded as if it were right beneath the floor of my space, as if someone had clamped monstrous speakers to the ceiling of the room directly below mine and cranked up a high-powered stereo. Not much a traveler can do about a bar playing loud music apart from (a) plastic explosives or (b) waiting it out. I hadn’t brought any explosives this trip, so went for option (b). Turned on the TV, read, put in earplugs (fat lot of good THAT did), pulled ‘em out again, read some more, watched parts of some seriously trashy movies. At 3:30 the music finally stopped, I finally got some shuteye.

[Continued in entry of 21 March]

Duct tape has been scored. (See journal entry of March 9). Not called cinta aislante, as a Spanish friend thought it might be (isolating tape — narrower, it turns out, than duct tape, available in several possible colors, none of which are duct-tape silver) — the clerk who sold it to me called it called it cinta americana: American tape. Thank god we’re known for something besides heavy-handed foreign policy and films big into explosives/car chases.

So there you have it. Found it just in time, too — an important seam was coming undone on my monster wheeled duffel. This means it will survive the coming Atlantic crossings.

Back in Madrid. Last night’s return flight from London featured one of the most unnerving takeoffs I’ve ever experienced — high winds shaking the plane back and forth, up and down — landing in Madrid two hours later through a layer of clouds. When I dragged my sorry butt out of bed this morning the sky remained cloudy. Around midday the overcast began to break up, by the time I went to out to lunch brilliant sunshine had taken over. Spring’s back. Though the temperature coasted up to around 70, nearly everyone continued wearing jackets and coats, as if they couldn’t trust or believe it just yet.

It’s a holiday here -– Father’s Day (el Día del Papa), but also something beyond that, I think, a day honoring one of the many saints who get fêted in these parts. Folks were out in the streets partying last night. I wondered about it, ignorant re: the holiday, but figured what the hell, there is sometimes no logic to the numbers of people out for nighttime revelry here.

It rained virtually all weekend in London. It’s good to be back in this city’s sunshine.

I found about the holiday when I went to the post office this morning, discovering it closed up and dark. Likewise the nearby Centro Comercial. Virtually everything remained closed today except for some restaurants doing big business because of the lack of places to go. The movie theaters opened later in the afternoon and I decided to check out the film that got Ben Kingsley his latest Oscar nomination, Sexy Beast. Whoooo-eee, that is one intense mother! Well worth seeing, but fasten your seatbelts — pretty much from the moment Ben Kingsley’s character is first mentioned, things get heavy and don’t let up.

Right. Enough of this. I’m just checking in. Will get back to the weekend up in Pamplona tomorrow.

Be well.

Well, my ISP has not wanted to let me spend much time online this week, and especially didn’t want to let me into Blogger. Then I went away for the weekend (am in London visiting a friend, sitting in a flat in a half-finished building off Warwick Road in West Kensington). Will be back in Madrid tomorow evening.

News from the U.K.:

The headline from Friday’s edition of the Evening Standard —

The headline from Saturday’s edition of The Daily Mail –

An entry from the Fast and Loose column of Time Out, a London arts and entertainment weekly:
“Young, coloured and gay.” — What the next Pope should be, according to a new alternative prayer anthology for gay Christians.

[Continued from entry of 12 March.]

The dessert course appeared as soon as Curtis ditched the joint. Two courses: a big basket of walnuts and a plate holding alternating slices of cheese and something Marco and Jim thought might be conserve or preserve of quince, which grows wild in the mountains locally. The walnuts: not the large, perfect specimens one sees in a supermarket — Marco thought they might have been grown at this farm. As we dug into them (the management thoughtfully provided a nutcracker, Jim and I immediately struggled over it), I discovered that the more I ate, the more delicious they became. We quickly hoovered them up, leaving the table strewn with mounds of broken shells.

Between the four of us, we’d gone through a pile of food. The bill amounted to 100 euros, about $90 U.S., dirt cheap considering all the entertainment that came with the package. Coffee didn’t seem to be available, however -– astonishing, that, considering the way Spaniards normally toss down espresso. We decided to find another site for after-dinner caffeine, Jim saying it needed to be a place that also had cigars (called “puros” here).

We paid up, had a few last words with the proprietor –- a genuinely hilarious individual. When we stepped outside the day had become, if anything, grayer, damper, the air more cool and tangy.

Jim pulled the Fiat into the parking lot of a restaurant by the highway, we wandered inside to the small bar area where coffee and Jim’s cigar awaited. As we stood around, sipping espresso, Marco noticed a wooden display case positioned atop a refrigerator that sat by the wall to one side of the bar. Containing arty postcards, all shots of local, rustic scenes, including a particular one that caught his eye, a picture of a hefty guy lifting a large, heavy, square object, apparently as part of a traditional competition, the way Scots fairs have the log throwing thingy. He reached to pick that card out, and with his touch the display shelf fell behind the refrigerator, producing jarringly loud clatter. All action in the bar stopped, all eyes turned to Marco. Curtis and I quietly disassociated ourselves from anything but innocent, unobtrusive coffee sipping. Marco and Jim got the display shelf back up on top of the refrigerator, collected the postcards, put them all back in the display. Except for the one card Marco wanted -– there had only been one of its kind -– which had slipped under the refrigerator, out of reach.

Back in Pamplona, Marco and Jim dropped me and Curtis off where they’d picked us up, way the hell across town from where I was staying, though not far from Curtis’ place. Great for him, as he wanted to take a nap. I wanted to hit an internet joint I’d found the night before, so grabbed a taxi.

A local quirk: for some reason, you can’t hail a taxi on the street in Pamplona. You have to go to a taxi stand, which means you have to know where they’re located, information a furriner like myself might not have. Curtis pointed out a stand, in a driveway in front of a hospital. Without that help, I might have been up the proverbial creek.

I spent a good long time at the internet joint, during which a loud, insistent political demonstration started up, began making its slow way through the local streets. Curtis and I had come across another one the night before, that one looking like a large squad of cheerleaders, done cheerfully up in clown wigs, doing moves to something they chanted I couldn’t understand. The kids were high school age, so the cheerleader thing seemed like a possibility. Curtis disagreed, looking a bit intense, we let it go at that.

The Saturday night demonstration: larger, very different, consisting of two long columns of kids –- again, high-school age -– done up in traditional folk outfits of some kind including, for many of them, two long bells tied around them so that the bells hung out from their backs, like long, rigid, brass breasts. The kids moved in a slow, trotting cadence that rang the bells loudly in a pronounced rhythm, punctuated by chanting I couldn’t make out and horns that other kids blew. This was all done by teenagers –- no grown-ups were involved. In fact, the grown-ups I saw seemed to purposely keep their distance, mostly looking anything but amused. There was something oddly, subtly aggressive about the demonstration, and I made my way quickly by, glad to be past it and off into other, quieter streets.

The point of these demonstrations, I was later told, was support of ETA, and in particular the pushing of a particular cause: the return of imprisoned members of ETA to Navarra, so that they could serve out their sentences there. It’s apparently being promoted as a humanitarian idea — i.e., so families could visit more easily — that would also be a blow against the Spanish government’s “repression” of ETA “freedom fighters.” (Why the quotation marks? Because the whole thing has the distinct feel of what I can only describe as extremely partisan propaganda.) The members of ETA who are in prison are generally there for assassinations or bombings, or for activities in support of same, and the atmosphere that I encountered in Pamplona around all this felt intensely charged and unsafe. Apparently, it’s not considered wise there to express one’s sentiments if one does not support ETA as it can result in violence and intimidation. Or so I’m told.

Pro-ETA graffiti/posters/handbills were ubiquitous in the old part of the city, some bars had pro-ETA literature and posters prominently displayed. In talking with Curtis about all this, he clearly seemed to tap into deep emotions of anger and frustration. The same is true of most Spaniards I’ve heard talk about it. I can only listen and watch, thinking of the long years of IRA/UDA violence in northern Ireland (my father’s side of the family all having come from the south of that green island) and the pointlessness of it all.

I don’t know what I expected to find in Pamplona, but it wasn’t such a sharp sense of danger and paranoia. The juxtaposition of that over a beautiful, lively city, abundant with blossom-covered cherry and almond trees, felt strange, a little unreal.

[Continued in entry of 20 March]

[Continued from entry of 11 March.]

Soon as we sat down, a sizeable loaf of hard-crusted bread materialized, along with a large knife. Marco took to carving the bugger up and strewing slices around, us gnawing on them as we tried out the cider. Before long the first course appeared, a large platter of tortilla de bacalao. On the chance you don’t already know this, a Spanish tortilla has no relation to a Mexican one except that they’re round and get eaten. Spanish tortilla: essentially a kind of omelet, usually in a form that suggests a quiche/omelet hybrid. Thick and round, made with eggs, with potatoes and/or green or red pepper, often with other ingredients –- ham, shrimp, greens, sausage. They’re delicious, and have been a near staple of my diet here. Bacalao is salt cod, which is what this tortilla contained. Though I’m not generally a fan of fish (pescado), bacalao is usually mild enough that I can deal, which proved to be the case here. (Bacalao: also the Spanish word for techno, as in music of the 210 beats per minutes variety. Why? Got me.)

We were given no plates apart from the platter with the tortilla, leaving us no option but to use forks to cut pieces off rapidly-shrinking mother tortilla and ferry them directly to mouths. Between the four of us, the tortilla dematerialized in no time flat.

Next course: a chuletón. A chuleta is a chop, often a pork chop (chuleta de cerdo). A chuletón is a massive version of a chop or, speaking technically, a huge freakin’ slab of meat. In this case a gigantic slab of beef, done dark on the outside, which gave the appearance of having been well-cooked. (Brief pause for snorts of laughter.) On cutting into it, we found ourselves staring at meat of such a deep, shocking red that Curtis wondered aloud if they’d actually cooked the bugger or if they’d just slapped some black paint on it. It was, apart from the seared exterior, some of the rawest flesh I’ve ever eaten. And, I’ll admit it, pretty good. The four of us quickly demolished the first one. Jim called for a second, it appeared. I’d about reached my limit for consumption of raw flesh, but as this one turned out to be bit more well-done, I had a little. When that one disappeared, Jim called for a third. Even the proprietor seemed impressed with that. That final slab essentially went to Jim and Curtis.

During all this, more diners arrived, the calls to cider continued. A couple of times, those calls led the growing crowd down into a sub-basement where two more casks lurked. At one point, the proprietor led everyone outside and around the corner of the building to a storage room, redolent of hay and crisp country air, housing two large metal tanks off at one end, each containing a batch of cider. After the afternoon’s initial cider round, Curtis, Jim and Marco collectively decided they preferred wine, they spent the rest of the event working their way through a couple of pitchers worth. I stuck to cider, being immune to the alcohol and enjoying the semi-chaotic ritual of it all.

The crowd sharing the basement with us: an interesting, motley group. Entirely Spaniards, I think, apart from our table, including families with children — the children sitting together at a table coloring with crayons — and at least two infants, who received a lot of attention. There were a fair number of 20-somethings, including one anarchist at the table behind me who got some marijuana circulating. We didn’t realize this until we saw the proprietor standing by one of the casks near our table finishing off a joint (un porro). We got talking with the 20-something, he immediately laid half of a porro on us, which Curtis and I stared at as if someone had just handed us a live grenade. I prefer to stay more or less lucid, so took a fast, cosmetic, token hit and tossed it to Curtis, who appeared completely perplexed. We tried to give it back to the 20-something, he insisted it remain in circulation, Curtis finally handed it off in another direction.

[Continued in entry of 13 March.]

[Continued from entry of 9 March.]

I got driven out of Pamplona both days of my visit (in motor vehicles, not by crowds with torches and pitchforks). Something that struck me both times: the suddenness with which the city’s reach ended. One minute expanses of apartment buildings, gas stations, industrial structures — the next: country. Not something I’ve seen many times in the States, where the tendency often seems to be to ugly up as much landscape as possible, spreading new construction across huge swaths of beautiful land.

This particular day: cool, overcast. As we drove further up into what I call mountains and what Curtis swore were not actually mountains when compared with the peaks deeper into the range (he referred to the area we were in as pre-Pyrenees), the clouds thickened and lowered, the landscape became more vertical, more dramatic.

Somewhere during the course of a discussion between Curtis and I re: the dubbed version of the Austin Powers films (according to him, the first film’s dubbing used different actors for Austin Powers and Dr. Evil, missing the point and squandering comic opportunities; the second one employed a popular Spanish comedian for those voices, as well as for Fat Bastard; something else — the Spanish version of the name Fat Bastard: Gordo Cabrón, essentially translating out to, er, Fat Bastard), Marco pulled off the highway, started up a small country road, turning off that onto a smaller country road that meandered up and down hills, bringing us eventually into a small settlement of buildings where it wound through and continued on its way. We didn’t go with it. Marco pulled up next to one of the buildings, parked, we got out into silence and fresh, cool air.

I wouldn’t have guessed there was anything approximating a restaurant nearby, but Marco and Jim seemed to know what they were doing. We walked a bit, came around the corner of a barn, headed toward what looked like a barn door. As we approached, I could see a sign indicating commercial possibilities, and on entering, we found ourselves in a good-sized basement space — low ceilings, rough, hard floor, ten or so long, wooden tables flanked by benches. Ranged across one end of the room were three or four huge wooden casks, on the opposite side were two more. All bore a one-word legend in the local language, apparently the type of cider or the type of apple that produced the cider.

The name of this rough-hewn restaurant-style concern: Martitxonea Sagardotegia. The owners: Inaxio Begiristain, Ainhoa Garaikoetxea. Walking around Pamplona amid stores, posters, graffiti written in that language -– combined with many centuries of history –- produced a vivid sensation of being in a foreign country. Factor into that the strange, intense political atmosphere, and I found myself in a milieu I’d never experienced before. More on that later.

Two tables were occupied. We planted ourselves at one in front of the smaller bank of cider casks, the owner checked us out, talking a bit with Jim and Marco about the menu, etc. I waited to see what I was in for. During the drive, conversation in the car had been compartmentalized -– front seat, Jim and Marco; back seat, Curtis and myself. Seated, waiting for food, etc., four-way interaction slowly commenced — three Americans and a tall, long-faced, long-haired, bespectacled, bestubbled Italian — in Castellano.

Within minutes, the proprietor appeared by one of the nearby casks, holding a narrow rod, maybe a foot long. He called out something to the room, people from other tables immediately flew in his direction holding glasses. Where a normal cask might have a tap, this one had a smear of putty. The proprietor plunged the end of the rod deeply into it, on pulling it out a stream of cider (sidra) emerged, looking for the all the world as if the cask were taking a whiz. The first person in line immediately positioned their glass down near the floor to collect cider while the next person waited, their glass beneath the first person’s — when the first glass became more or less half full, its owner pulled it away, cider streamed into the second person’s. And so it went, most participants collecting a fourth to a half of a glassful, then returning to their table. As I learned, substantial quantities of cider were consumed during the afternoon — taking a quarter to a half of a glass at a time was a matter of pacing oneself. Not just because the quantities of consumed food and drink added up, but because it was hard cider. For some reason — don’t ask me why; I can’t explain it, only appreciate it — the alcohol in the cider doesn’t affect me, so that I’m able to consume it with impunity. I get the impression that it may not affect anyone very strongly, the atmosphere being nothing like the drinking scenes I’ve witnessed in the States or on weekend nights around Madrid, but I could be wrong. It might simply be that the people handle themselves better.

Positioning one’s glass so that the stream of cider is as lengthy as possible seemed to be important -– I vaguely remember someone telling me about aeration and its importance to the cider’s flavor during my first visit to a sidrería here in Madrid (a very different experience, though also fun). That might be true. Or it might have more to do with ritual than anything else. Don’t know.

[Continued in entry of 12 March.]

Proudly powered by WordPress. Theme developed with WordPress Theme Generator.
Copyright © runswithscissors. All rights reserved.