far too much writing, far too many photos

There is something about spending an afternoon with a group of men that is simply unlike an afternoon spent with a group of women. I state the obvious, I know, but it deserves stating.

This morning: found myself awake around 5 or 6 a.m., never really managing to slip back to sleep. Something about people coming and going at all hours in the hostal. Not that we’re talking screaming, drunken laughter or sounds of breaking glass — just other human beings coming and going during the long Navarran night. The lights in the hostal’s hallways apparently work with motion detectors, so that when someone comes up the stairway or out of the elevator, the lights flicker on, going off a short while later. The single window in my little room looks out on a light shaft. Windows from the stairwell look out on the same light shaft. Any time a body ascended the stairs or stumbled from the elevator the lights came on, then went off. On and off. On and off. Fun.

So I found myself awake, but remained horizontal until 9 a.m. Got up, did the basic preening, headed out. The narrow streets of Pamplona were nice to wander at that hour, with atmosphere to burn and few folks about.

Satisfied my internet jones, Curtis appeared, retrieved me, we went for food/coffee. I was never really a coffee person in my life in the States. Now it’s close to being indispensible. Of course, I’m talking Spanish coffee, not the American version. And though I’ve only been here slightly over 24 hours, it’s already clear that the food in Navarra, or at least around Pamplona, is superb. Tantalizing. Robust. Delicious.

We found an open joint, had the day’s first caffeine infusion and the day’s first tapas. Wandered about a bit, trying to find a hardware store (una ferretería), me in serious need of duct tape and so far seeing no trace of it anywhere. Curtis has asked people about it, they all claim to know what he’s talking about, but no one knows what it’s called here, no one seems to know where to locate some. Swell.

Stopped in at another coffee/tapas joint, an old, elegant place fronting one of the city’s many plazas. More good coffee, more excellent food. On impulse, we went into el Museo de Navarra. A beautiful place, as it turned out — spacious, airy, with a collection that spans materials from 2500 years before Christ to contemporary art — crystallizing a feeling I’ve had that this area feels an awful lot like places in Ireland.

We cut the museum visit short to continue the duct tape hunt. Found two ferreterías, both of which closed at 1:30. We, of course, arrived about 1:36. Much swearing in Spanish and English.

Gave up on the duct tape thing, walked halfway across the city to rendezvous with two friends of Curtis’ for the day’s main event, a jaunt out into the mountains for a meal at a sidrería.

I found myself in Fiat’s version of an SUV, being driven by Marco, an Italian living in Pamplona. Jim — a large, funny, florid-complexioned American married to a Spanish woman from Burgos — rode shotgun, deep into conversation with Marco as we headed up into the mountains beneath gray skies. Curtis and I sat in back, him pointing out passing sights, mostly old, old, old churches.

[Continued in entry of 11 March.]

I’m sitting in an internet joint in Pamplona, the capital of Navarra. A lovely city, as it turns out.

The airport: a tiny outpost a few kilometers outside the municipality, in the middle of a long, sweeping plateau around which are ranged an impressive array of mountains. They tossed us off the plane onto the sunlit tarmac, late-afternoon temperature around 60. A brisk breeze ruffled clothes, distant peaks sported crowns of clouds, showing the white of snow. Inside the terminal, Spaniards talked into cell-phones, baggage slowly appeared, two members of the Guardia Civil kept an eye on us travelers.

I grabbed a taxi, and as we approached the city, Pamplona revealed itself to be a long, modestly-sized urban sprawl skirting foothills. Pretty, and prettier the deeper into it the drive went, until we reached the city’s beautiful old section, where I’m staying.

Checked in at the hostal, went back out into the evening light, took a stroll to get a sense of the neighborhood. Old, narrow streets, shops on the ground floor, pisos above, most with the requisite floor-to-ceiling french-style doors fronted by full-length shutters and a balcón. Some residents had caged canaries out on their balcones, singing their hearts out in the evening air.

There are more footwear stores here than any city has a right to have. My barrio in Madrid is the same — how they all survive I can’t say. Also, like Madrid, there are many, many places to get tapas, wine, beer and more serious, more substantial food. Numerous bakeries (pastelerías). And a condom shop — La Condonería (er, ‘The Condom Shop’).

There are also harsh handbills taped up all over the place protesting the recent detaining by Spanish police of a number of people connected with ETA, the terrorist/separatist group based in el País Vasco — the Basque Country — that has an unfortunate habit of leaving bombs in places they shouldn’t. “Dejad en paz,” say the handbills, “a la joventud de Euskal Herría, fascistas!” (”Leave the Basque Country youth in peace, fascists!”)

My friend Curtis, clearly far more resourceful than I’d ever pegged him as being (and I swear I mean that in only the most positive, most appreciative way), just tracked me down, found me hiding here. We will now adjourn for an evening of tapas and related activities.

Maybe more later in the weekend. Be well.

I’m into another bout of intensive Spanish classes, two weeks’ worth this time.

Here’s a truth: throw a bunch of people from different points on the map together in a room, it can prove real interesting. This group consists of five Germans: Jan (from my January classes), a 22 or so year old German guy and three German women — Stephanie, Sandra, and one who started with our group today whose name I don’t remember right this nanosecond, all around 23 or 24, all bright — a smart, multilingual, late-forty-something Italian woman named Livia, and a Japanese 20-something woman named Aya. Jan wasn’t in class today — just me and a room full of intelligent, attractive women. Not what I would call a hardship.

The group edged its way into a discussion about immigration — something Germany has had difficult, complex dealings with in recent years — producing a long, intense exchange between the three German women and Livia (married to a German), Stephanie and Sandra pretty much going head to head at one point. Spain also has complicated immigration problems, from Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, and I noticed that our instructor, Raquel, mostly just listened, as did Aya and myself.

It got me thinking about the long, slow changes that have resulted from massive immigration to the States. It’s been interesting to observe the same kind of process underway here in Spain from the perspective of a furriner in the country’s capital. Spain has both an extremely strong, well-developed streak of progressiveness, which a lot of the well-educated population takes pride in, and a strong conservative element. The two engage in a near-constant dialogue -– at times a loud, heated, uncivil dialogue -– with various representatives taking up various causes at different times. A few months back a huge controversy mushroomed over groups of illegal South American immigrants who had taken refuge in churches in Barcelona. When it became clear that the government had every intention of shipping them back across the Atlantic, they began hunger strikes, and the two sides pushed their causes via the media which, being the media, was happy to funnel all the noise and drama to the public at large. The situation ultimately limped to a close, the government apparently getting the better of the situation.

It’s odd being here in one of the European countries which shaped and influenced so many of the cultures on the other side of the Atlantic. The States are essentially a culture of immigrants and offspring of immigrants (some might include the indigenous peoples in North America in that description), a strikingly different perspective from over here, the land mass that was the launching point for the conquistadores.

Me, I tend to think we’re all immigrants, showing up in this life from what I’ll call points unknown, stumbling our way through our years, often conveniently forgetting that we’re actually all family. All of us.

But that’s a rant for another entry.

Tomorrow I head up to Pamplona for the weekend, my first excursion north. A friend who teaches in the University up there apparently has a lot of activity and good eating planned for me. Don’t know whether I’ll get to a computer to inflict any of the proceedings on you. Will find out when I get there.


I started two more weeks of intensive Spanish classes yesterday. Same school as in January, right outside the oldest part of the city, Madrid de los Austrias, right near the opera house, la Plaza de Oriente and the royal palace.

I catch the subway right here in la Plaza de Chueca, go three stops to the south, get out at the station called Opera (called that, oddly enough, because it’s right out in front of the local opera joint, El Teatro Real). To get to the surface from the line I take in the morning you have to struggle up four flights of stairs (stairs — not an escalator in sight). Then one blessed flight down. Then a final ascending flight of stairs that brings you up and out to the street. And it’s in that last climb upward that I’ve re-encountered something I loved about the commute to the school back in January.

The national lottery here is run by an outfit called ONCE, which is not the English word ‘once.’ Here, ‘once’ is the Spanish word for 11 (pronounced ‘own-thaye’). It’s also an acronym for the Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles (National Organization of Blind Spaniards). ONCE has stations all over the city, some of which are little booths, some of which are just places where people stand selling lottery tickets. And because it’s an organization for the blind, many of the vendors are blind folk.

A high number of the blind pass through la Plaza de Chueca, feeling their way along with telescoping canes. Way, way more than in your normal neighborhood. I sat at an outdoor café just off the plaza one time with a Spanish woman, both of us becoming aware that there was a nearly continual stream of blind folks going by -– singly, in twos, in threes. Neither of us knew what to make of it. In our ignorance, we theorized that there might be a school for the blind nearby. I later found out that ONCE has an office a block or two off the far side of the plaza, the traffic being people en route to or returning from business there.

Every morning as I mount the final flight of stairs up out of the Opera subway station, I hear the call of a blind fella who stands off to one side at the top, leaning against the railing there, selling lottery tickets. He usually stands behind a small table, usually has an umbrella set up for when it rains or for days of oppressive heat and sunlight. He calls out various sales lines, delivered as long, drawn out chants, most of which are variations on, “Vamos, señores, el premio para hoy….” (”Let’s go, ladies and gentleman, the jackpot for today….”), after which he’ll name the figure of the day’s expected winnings. He usually extends the word “hoy” (which is pronounced “oy”), letting it go on and on and on, so his rap actually goes something like, “Vamos, señores, el premio para hooooooyyyyyyyyyyy….”

I can’t explain exactly why, but something about coming up out of the ground into the center of Madrid in the mornings, being met with that -– it sounds so exotic and musical, vaguely Arabic -– tugs on something down inside me. Like many things in this city do.

A month from now I’ll be back in the States. There are things about being back that I will enjoy very much — people I’ll be closer to, the green mountains of Vermont — but I am going to miss Madrid in ways I can’t even begin to describe to you.

That’s a few weeks away, though. In the meantime, I get to enjoy being here.

On the way back from dinner Friday night [see journal entry of March 2], we took an alternate route from the one that passes through the plaza and found ourselves walking up a street lined with caravans that indicated filming of some sort in progress. They might have been shooting in an interior location ’cause we saw no personnel, no equipment, no people milling around. Just the caravans, seven or eight of them.

It’s not unusual to see filming going on around Madrid, most of it apparently connected with television -– they materialize at a location, set up lights, shoot something, pack everything up and bolt -– though the industry here has a reasonably high profile and seems to be in decent health. What I’ve found to be a nice surprise is the generally high caliber of the acting. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking TV, films or stage, the work is usually okay and seems to indicate pretty good training.

Most Americans and Brits I’ve met here seem to make a point of mentioning how awful Spanish television is, and yes, there’s a lot of wasted air time. I’ve heard it said that the quality has slid drastically downhill from what it was ten, fifteen years ago. I can’t say. All I can testify to is that the pickings are fairly slim when it comes to indigenous programming. I would also say, however, that regardless of the overall quality of the show, the acting is generally pretty good, and that’s some consolation to me. In fact, when it comes to films, most of what I’ve seen from Spain and other hispanic countries — Mexico and Argentina, in particular — has been good, really good. And not simply the acting — the whole production, all the way down the line. Examples which would make good rentals if you can track them down in a local video joint: “Visionarios” (”Visionaries” -– Spain), “Silencio Roto” (”Broken Silence” -– Spain), “Juana La Loca” (”Juana the Mad” — Spain — the female lead in this one, Pilar López de Ayala, gives a tremendous performance), “Amores Perros” (”Dog Loves” –- Mexico), “Sin Dejar Huello” (”Without A Trace” –- Mexico), “Nueve Reinas” (”Nine Queens” -– Argentina), “El Hijo de La Novia” (”The Son of The Bride” -– Argentina). Great movies, all of them, though keep in mind that if you’re looking for a light comedy the one that comes closest is El Hijo de La Novia. For a great story with a abundant twists and turns, good, high-quality escapist fare, you might want to go for Nueve Reinas. The rest are all worth a viewing, but are not what you might call light entertainment.

There’s also “Calle 54″ (”54th Street” -– Spain), a labor of love consisting of filmed performances by the cream of what would generally be called Latin Jazz -– a label that encompasses all sorts of styles. You can’t go wrong with that one, though you’ll have more fun if you have your TV/VCR/DVD plugged into a good sound system when you watch it.

And then there are the films of Pedro Almodóvar –- “Carne Tremula” (”Trembling Flesh”), “Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios” (”Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), “Todo Sobre Mi Madre” (”All About My Mother”), and many more -– which occupy a whole other universe. He’s a wacky, wacky guy, easily worth checking out if you’ve never seen his stuff, but don’t expect American-style filmmaking.

What got me off onto all that? Oh, yeah -– the caravans in the street.

Post-good-night to my friends, as I unlocked the door to my building, six or seven cops passed by, dressed to the teeth in riot gear, complete with clubs and visored helmets. Heading in the direction of the plaza. I’ve never seen anything like that here, it got me wondering what the hell was up. I was curious, but not curious enough to trail after them. Instead, I went upstairs and, thankfully, the following hours brought no street noise out of the ordinary Friday night partying. No sounds of unrest, no screams, no breaking glass, no yelling, no sirens, no indications of violent conflict. And there have been no police around since then.

As they used to say in catechism class, it’s a mystery.

Since that evening, the springlike weather that had blessed the city with beautiful days and light spirits has turned cool, gray and rainy. This is not bad -– most of Spain has had little in the way of precipitation this last autumn and winter. The water reserves are at half of what they were last year at this time, and in Cataluña, northeast of here -– the autonymous community that includes the province and city of Barcelona -– they’ve had almost no rain at all. Over the last few weeks, the authorities have grown openly nervous about the situation. So it’s good, this weather, it’s just a serious change. Snow has been falling in the north of the country, there are weather alerts in some provinces. Kind of like March in New England.

It’ll pass. Spring is less than three weeks off, the temperatures will resume their slow rise, before you know it everyone will be heading east to the coast and north to the mountains to escape the heat.

Went out last night looking to scare up a meal, ran into a couple of friends, we wound up getting some chow together.

It was Friday night in Chueca, the streets busy with people — all sorts of people, from teenagers and 20-somethings with hair dyed bright colors, to 50- and 60-somethings done up more soberly. We made our way down my street toward the neighborhood plaza, passing folks walking silently, past groups talking and laughing loudly, past a 50-something couple — him dressed in a suit — their arms around each other’s waist as they strolled, talking companionably.

The plaza: crowded with people, as it is most Friday nights. Last night, however, the energy seemed different — we could feel it as soon as we rounded the corner and passed through the crowd. Stranger than normal (and that’s saying something), different from the usual good-time atmosphere.

We walked along, folks swirling past in all directions, people disappearing down the stairs to the Metro, others emerging from same to step out into the Plaza. And then a group of four of five policemen appeared from the pedestrian passageway we were moving toward, passing us. Not a normal part of the mix, the enforcers -– the plaza is not a dangerous place, there’s normally no police presence to speak of. The activity may get loud, some of the partygoers may be strange folk, but it’s never violent, never a place of robberies or worrisome confrontations, at least in my experience. It’s never been a place where I’ve felt danger, ever.

I looked up at the ‘CONTROLA EL RUIDO’banners hanging from the buildings around the plaza [see journal entry of February 26], wondering if the vibe had to do with that. Maybe the neighbors were so fed up with the noise, with all the nighttime activity, that they were pressuring the city government to do something about it. Maybe the City was responding with a show of police force in an attempt to ratchet down the weekend merrymaking.

Whatever the situation, the vibe was definitely a bit skewed.

And then I saw a 20-something couple, standing with their arms around each other in a sustained embrace, their eyes closed. They were that way when I first noticed them, they remained that way as we passed and headed out the other side of the plaza. A long, long hug, both he and she oblivious to the scene taking place around them. Just holding each other with fierce tenderness, nothing else intruding.

I see something like that, it puts everything in perspective. In that moment, that young couple reminded me of the only thing of any real importance — everything else suddenly seemed peripheral, insubstantial.

My two friends also noticed them. We shared a smile about it, continued on our way. Found somewhere to eat, had a nice meal. The evening rolled on.

During my first evening here in the summer of 2000, Leslie –- sister of my best friend’s wife, married to a Spanish attorney, now living in this part of the world for something like 19 years -– took me out for tapas. Not a carousing binge. She didn’t have that kind of time, I was jet-lagged. More of a brief intro to Madrid’s nightlife.

Going out like that in Madrid is a joy. The city is positively heaving with eating and drinking establishments, and the people go out and enjoy them. It’s part of the way of life, and it’s a pretty good way of life.

So we’re in Leslie’s car, flying down wide boulevards at genuinely high velocity (another part of the way of life here: driving fast and wild). We insinuate our way into a happening section of the city center through a maze of narrow one-way streets, Leslie even manages to scare up a parking spot –- the fact that it was July 31st, half the population away on vacation, probably helped. We walk a couple of blocks, she leads me to a little joint, an old, well-established place, small but loaded with atmosphere, the display cases on the bar packed with tapas of all kinds. We’re ordering, I’m checking everything out. I notice garbage all over the floor. And I mean garbage. All over the floor. Wadded-up napkins, food remnants, cigarette butts. Leslie returns from the bar with a couple of plates of stuff, I ask about the refuse display. Her eyes widen, she laughs, realizing I’m new to all this, explains that it’s the custom here. In bars, taverns, tapas joints, people toss their trash on the floor. It tends to accumulate in mounds near the foot of the bar and off to the sides, periodically it gets swept up or at least arranged into more compact mounds. It’s just what they do. It’s not only what they do, people apparently often judge the desirability of a tapas joint by the amount of refuse strewn around the floor, the theory being that more trash indicates a busier place (the implication: busy = good). Or so I’ve been told.

I adjusted to this surprisingly quickly, same way I adjusted to cigarette smoke in bars and restaurants. But things are changing. Since the turn of this year, many places have installed small trash containers (cubos de basura), either on the floor inside the foot rail at the bottom of the bar or screwed to the surface of the bar itself. Enough people have been using them that I see far less trash strewn around than I used to. Maybe it’s an organized attempt to project a more sophisticated image to the international community. A more urbane picture, something more befitting a global power.

I’ve become accustomed enough to the cleaner state of these joints that flagrant examples of old-style trash-dropping conduct now stand out. Example: me, in a neighborhood joint a few weeks back. La Cafetería Vic-Mar, a local version of what would be called a greasy-spoon in the States. Not refined or genteel. But fun, clientele a bit wilder, more colorful than your normal joint. And the place does good, thick soups.

I’m sitting there one afternoon wading through lunch, a rumpled, loud 60-something couple is seated at a table about eight feet away from me, finishing up their meal. He’s working on a cigarette, his wife is finishing up her food — when the butt gets down to the last puff, the guy doesn’t just drop it to the floor, he flicks it several feet away in a lazy arc that lands near the cafetería’s entrance, tossing off a couple of sparks when it touches down and bounces to a stop. It had been a while since I’d seen something like that in a public eating place here, so it caught my attention. No one else seemed to notice. A few minutes later, that couple finished up and bolted, their table remained vacant. Within minutes, a younger type sitting at the bar finished up a cigarette, flicking it off in a grand arc like the older guy had done. Or trying to flick it off in a grand arc, not quite making it. Instead of winging its way to open floor, the butt jerked two or three feet through air to land on the chair the previous butt-flicker had occupied, bouncing, tossing off sparks then coming to rest. The chairs in this place are decent hand-caned jobs, smoke began rising from the chair almost immediately as the cane started to smolder. The butt-flicker’s eyes widened, he threw himself at the unintended combustion as discretely as he could manage, wiping the butt off the seat to the floor where it slowly went out.

No one seemed to notice, no one said anything.

The Spaniards aren’t always as easygoing as this. Observe a busy intersection at rush hour, you’ll see what I mean. But when it comes to tapas bars and the like, it’s much more tranquil. The food, the drinks, the conversation are too important to sweat the small stuff.

I like that. I’ll miss it.

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