far too much writing, far too many photos

And once more I find myself back in the green mountains. I would have ventured online yesterday evening, except that four or so days and nights of too much activity and too little sleep left me in enough of a stupor that I could barely feed myself, much less deal with computer fun.

Northern Vermont, by the way, is looking spectacularly beautiful right now. As it should be, this being midsummer and all. Warm temperatures, cicadas droning in trees, lush greenery all around.

But enough of that. I still have to pull myself together.

In the meantime, should anyone find themselves experiencing the urge to buy a chaise lounge designed and built to resemble a massive pierced tongue, go to http://zitro-furniture.com/catalogue/tongue.html.

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Since returning to U.S. soil (what a strange expression), I have found myself crashing in a way I have not often experienced in this little life o’ mine. The insufficient sleep I mentioned earlier? Really, genuinely insufficient. The combination of that and a transatlantic shift has had serious punch.

A strange thing happened while I was away — the crickets disappeared. Before Madrid: loads of crickets making loads of cricket noise. Post-Madrid — silence. As I theorized to a friend, perhaps they were grieving while I was gone and have been experiencing ’sympathetic crashing’ since my reappearance. Hope they wake up soon. The silence is eerie and not characteristic of high summer here.

Must drag myself to bed.

To close: a curiously mystical Homer Simpson quote posted elsewhere by a friend within the last day or two: “What is the mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.”

Mañana.

Today: long, hot, busy, me in the throes of prep. for tomorrow’s return to the States. Thank god Madrid summers are humidity-free or it would be brutal. As it is, the mornings are nice, the afternoons heat up, the evenings are long and comfortably warm, and the temperature drops to slightly cooler levels as the night wears on. Stick to the shady side of the street during the afternoon hours, it’s doable.

I’ve got packing to be done so can’t take much time here. One strange thing, though: I’ve found myself feeling unsure where I belong. It’s a weird, unsettling place to be. When I left in April to return to the States, I told people they could locate me in Vermont during the warm season and beyond that I had no idea. That remains more or less the case. I’ll probably be there until sometime in October, when the northern world begins turning unstoppably toward winter — that’s all I know. Back here then? Maybe. Time will tell.

I’ll be in transit tomorrow, will spend tomorrow night with friends in the Boston area. By Tuesday evening, I should be back in those green hills, out in quiet, rolling countryside.

As I sit here in Chueca — people outside gathering in the plaza to sit and talk over tapas and drinks, bats flying in great looping circles outside my window as darkness gently descends — Vermont seems inconceivably far away.

Be well.

About the legend above the lottery/betting shop doorway (”Lotería Primitiva”): one of my landlords confirms that in this case ‘primitiva’ translates to ‘original,’ referring to the original/numbers game. “Lotería Primitiva” — how can you not love that?

And as long as I’m flogging distinctive signs — from el Paraíso del Jamón (”the Ham Paradise” — it’s paradise! and it’s full of ham!): “Chorizo, jamón y cenicera: la mejor penicilina.” Translation: ‘Chorizo, ham and, er, whatever the hell cenicera is: the best penicillin.’

El Paraíso del Jamón is a modest little joint on la Calle de Arenal near el Teatro Real in Madrid. Two counters — one where customers stand and toss down café, beer, tapas, bocadillos, all dispensed by white shirted/white aproned gnomes; the other where meats and cheeses can be bought. The food and café are good and inexpensive, and the atmosphere leans toward the wonderfully, earnestly tacky. As in most shops of this kind, pigs’ legs — all waxed up to keep ‘em fresh, complete with little cloven foot — hang above the bar, lined up in perfect formation. The espresso is as good as what you’ll drink in most of the nicer places along the street in the direction of El Teatro Real, la Plaza de Oriente and el Palacio Real, and the atmosphere, while not refined or genteel, is fun. At least for a weirdo like myself.

Madrid: entertainment and good food/drink everywhere you look.

Something odd’s been going on in class (something besides Alicia’s sustained campaign to drive us around the collective bend with the subjunctive verb form). During my first day with this group, Tuesday of last week, one individual apparently decided they didn’t care for me and have given me that message in subtle ways ever since. It’s most apparent first thing in the morning –- this person usually arrives late, they enter, hellos are exchanged, they ignore my hello and ignore me until sometime later in the morning. Even then, they generally acknowledge me as little as possible. It’s subtle, so that I’m sure no one else has noticed it, subtle enough that the individual could deny it if confronted.

There’s no obvious reason for it -– could be ’cause I’m an American, could be ’cause I’m in an older age bracket, with graying hair. It could be for hundreds and hundreds of reasons I’ll never know about which have nothing to do with me, at least on the surface. And whatever’s going on, it has nothing to do with any consciously provocative or intentionally offensive behavior on my part -– there’s been none of that. There have, in fact, been a few moments when something I’ve said or done has made this person laugh in a nice way, but those moments have been few –- they prefer to keep me off their radar screen.

And what the hell — they don’t have to like me. Sometimes people don’t. Hard to imagine, I know (kaff, kaff), but there it is. That’s life. It may simply be what’s called chemistry, the galaxy of intangibles that come into play between two individuals. It may result from reactions a person has to something about me, how I look, express myself, eat, dress, walk, laugh, tell a joke, sneeze or tap dance. It may be that I actually did screw up in some way or mishandle something in relation to a given individual, with a strong, unfortunate impact. Or it may be a result of things that rise from the emotional or psychological universes carried within another individual, having no connection with me at all, so that I’ll never get the barest hint of what may actually be at work.

This classmate of mine is not a bad person, not by any stretch. They’re impish and bright and energetic, with some very sweet qualities. They provoke a lot of laughter, and other people in the class enjoy them. I enjoy them, too, at times. They may have issues they’re carrying around (and who doesn’t?), but I’ll never know, and it’s none of my business anyway. Tomorrow’s my last day in class for this time around and I will probably never see this individual again. Which is okay.

I write about all this ’cause I found myself on the receiving end of whatever this thing is in a fairly strong way today. Not my idea of a great time. Luckily, what I do with it is up to me, and I chose not to carry it through my afternoon hours. After school, I went to the gym and let my body work this and whatever else it wanted to out of its system.

Another beautiful July day -– sun rising late, as it does here; morning air cool; sky blue and cloudless. Warm enough in full sunlight to get one sweating, but comfortable in the shade. No humidity, a bit of a breeze. Ideal, at least to my way of thinking. A good day to park oneself at a sidewalk table for lunch or liquid refreshment.

My gym is in the barrio of Salamanca, it’s a hike of several blocks from the Metro to the gym. Along the last stretch, restaurants and taverns set up tables/chairs along the sidewalk at lunchtime. I left the gym just shy of 5 o’clock today, late enough that any one of these places could have legitimately refused to feed me, lunch usually winding up around four. There were still diners at tables in front of the joint nearest the gym, I planted myself at an empty one, and the waiter — middle-aged, grizzled, a roll of stomach hanging over his belt, bifocals perched on the end of his nose — graciously took my order.

Something else to love about Madrid: the quality of the food is generally high enough that the chow in an establishment like this –- a beer joint (una cervezería) -– is pretty good. Haute cuisine, no. But the roast chicken they served me today was tasty, and tender enough that the meat slid off the bones with just the slightest encouragement from my fork.

A balding 30-something -– maybe what would be called a pijo here, the Madrileño version of a yuppie -– planted himself at the table next to me, ordering a café. It arrived, he pulled out his teléfono móvil to call a couple of people, engaging in the phone version of back-slapping, loud-laughing business conversations. As he talked, I noticed cellphones popping up all over the place, most notably in the hands of a man and a woman standing in the doorway to the lottery shop (”Loterías y Apuestas del Estado” -– Lotteries and State Bets) next door to the cervezería. Both people talking intently, the woman holding a still virginal lottery card. Maybe consulting with someone about what numbers to play. Maybe checking on local Gamblers Anonymous meetings. Immediately over the door to the shop I saw something I’d never noticed before -– in official letters, clearly meant to be there, were the words “Lotería Primitiva.” According to my Spanish-English dictionary, the word ‘primitivo/primitiva’ means both ‘primitive’ and ‘original.’ ‘Original lottery’ would make way more sense than ‘primitive lottery,’ wouldn’t it? I’ll find out — this is too good to let go by.

The 30-something finished his café, paid up, took off. A paunchy male 50-something in a necktie, white shirt and suspenders immediately threw himself into the chair, ordering café. To the other side of him sat a pretty blonde woman, he struck up a conversation. She turned out to be American, from San Francisco, here studying Spanish for college credits. The 50-something drew her out, she turned out to be a prime example of something strangely common: an American speaking Spanish as if they were speaking stateside English, only with the words spelled differently. With no Spanish accent at all, as if they genuinely can’t hear the difference in the sound, in the way it’s spoken. The verbal equivalent of tone deafness, maybe. And surprisingly common.

But I blabber.

Off to homework. Later.

Marco, the Venezuelan, didn’t show for class today. (Was it something we said?) Neither did two of the regulars, leaving me with Pietro, Nory and our profesora, Alicia, for a relaxed morning in which Alicia shoveled lots more subjunctive dreck in our direction. For the most part, I don’t do too badly with that stuff, but there were two or three moments as we plowed through various exercises in which I felt like I was paddling as fast as I could but still not seeing something way obvious.

Another long, active day, packed with thrills and wholesome entertainment. The highlight? A school trip. Mighty interesting.

The group that went: 15 or 16 characters, mostly Americans. Mostly young Americans (lots of whom don’t seem to want to speak Spanish, which raises the question of why they’re there studying it, though that’s probably none of my business — could be they’re on vacation and might not want to spend it as obsessively as, er, I am). Also a couple of nuns, one Japanese. Also Ángel, one — along with his two brothers, Ramón and Chiqui (don’t hold me to the spelling of Chiqui, I could easily be blinkered) — of the school’s owners, herding us along, doing all the talking in slow, carefully enunciated, carefully thought-out Spanish. Also another Spanish 40ish male I’ve never seen before who devoted a lot of attention to the more nubile teenage American females in the group.

Ángel — a genuinely nice person, as his brothers seem to be — had a presentation put together for the whole do, commencing just before we descended into the Metro when he tried to take a moment and provide context for what we were going to be seeing. Pretty interesting context, too. The contrast between the Madrid of 2+ centuries ago and the current sprawling world-class version would be hard to make more dramatic than it already is.

Our destination: la Panteón de Goya (Goya’s Pantheon), a small church/museum with an interesting, quirky history/background, featuring sprawling expanses of frescos done by, er, Goya, not to mention his body moldering under a big slab of stone. Interesting though the place may be, I could easily bore the bejesus out of you if I tried to lay it all out here. Suffice it to say that Ángel supplied piles of information that helped me get more out of the place than I otherwise would have.

One teensy bit of quirkiness:

As with many churches, la Panteón is laid out in the shape of a cross. On the opposing walls that delineate the two ends of the crucifix’s crosspiece, there are two vertical paintings by Goya, the only sections of wall to sport such images (all the rest are up above). Both paintings focus on figures representing saints, who in turn represent figures from the Spanish royalty of that time. The figure of a San Carlos Borromeo in one of the paintings, who represented the then-Spanish-king Carlos IV, is essentially — and I am not making this up — the spitting image of Data, from the Starship Enterprise, albeit with the hair style and burnoose outfit of a monk. But I mean the spitting image, from the nose and eyes to the white, white skin, etc. Raises some interesting questions about time travel and the Prime Directive.

Took myself to a film from there, then home. I’d considered heading out to a play this evening, but let’s get real. Plus, tomorrow in class, Alicia is going to beat the living daylights out of us with a general review of the thousands and thousands of uses and exceptions of the subjunctive verb form, meaning we’ll be doing far too many exercises and feeling a bit dim if we don’t know the answers. So I must go pretend to study for a while.

Later.

Sometimes I find myself experiencing a state of mind that’s difficult to describe — a kind of happiness which may actually be illegal in certain localities within the contiguous United States.

Take this evening, for example. I’d had a pretty good day, all things considered: up before 7:30 to get ready for class, a bit bleary after another late night. Class from 9 to 1. Came home, dumped off my stuff, went back out, had a satisfying lunch. (This being the warm season, gazpacho is available as the first course in most restaurants that offer a ‘menú del día’ midday meal. Meaning gazpacho-lovers like myself currently have many opportunities for gastronomic joy.) Did the gym thing. Came home, decided to take a walk, maybe get some tapas, before getting some work done. The summer evenings here are mighty seductive -– long, langorous hours of daylight, warm temperatures, narrow streets busy with people out enjoying the waning day or shopping before heading home for the night.

Evening sunlight filled the east-west streets — orange and gold, soft, expansive. I left my building, taking a moment to enjoy the current display of posters on the wall across the street, then turned the corner on la Calle de Pelayo and walked an easy block to a local tapas joint. A space at the bar awaited, I slipped into it, ordering a few items -– a caña (a small glass of beer), a perrito (a variation on a hot dog, made with salchichón, a spicy Spanish sausage, wrapped and baked in pastry dough), a crepe vegetal, a couple more items, including a delicate sweet that seemed to have been both fried and baked. I ate, the place began to fill up, people-watching opportunities abounded, especially female people-watching. The food came to 3.40 euros, I happily tossed money at the folks behind the bar and wandered out to find an ATM machine, which magically handed me more euros.

From there, I took a route that would bring me through la Plaza de Chueca, the neighborhood focal point for entertainment and evening activity. The light, the air, the temperature all remained ideal, there were people to observe and shop windows to check out along the way (this being the summer sale season, shop windows are currently a major point of attention for just about everyone). By the time I turned into the wide cobblestone walkway that leads into the plaza, I’d slipped into a state I’d be hard-pressed to do justice to with the clumsy clusters of letters we call words. It was pretty fine, though, not filtered through worries or concerns or distracted thoughts.

The thought that I might run into someone I knew drifted idly through my mind right about then, a few seconds later I heard my name being called, by a person who turned out to be the woman who ran a TEFL certification course I began then bailed on in September of 2000 not far from here. A nice woman with nice eyes. We talked a couple of minutes, she introduced me to the fellow sitting with her, in the course of the conversation I found myself saying that I thought I was happier here than I’ve ever been anywhere. I’m not sure why that makes me pause and think, but it does. Maybe ’cause it’s quite a statement and I found myself inflicting it on two people I hardly know.

That happened shortly before 9 o’clock. It’s now 10:15, a bit of daylight lingers in the western sky. The sound of people out enjoying the evening swells and ebbs like the sound of surf.

Class this morning turned out to be a genuine scene. To begin with, another person got tossed into the mix, a slightly heavyset Venezuelan –- one who’s apparently been in Canada instead of Venezuela and needs to work on his Spanish grammar. That brought the group up to six of us. And then there’s the fact that Alicia, our instructor for the morning session, seems to be getting far too much enjoyment out of inflicting an endless array of subjective verb forms, uses and exceptions on us. Far, far too much enjoyment. To the point that I’ve begun to suspect that the whole subjunctive verb hooha may be an elaborate scam, that the subjunctive verb form may not exist, that the Spaniards use normal, user-friendly verbs when they talk to each other and only trot out this murderous, brain-busting grammatical concept for foreign students who don’t know any better and will pay for classes in which they study a fictional, ever-expanding verb form, forking out bales of cash and so keeping the ever-growing number of Spanish teachers — a predatory bunch if I’ve ever seen one — employed and, it must be said, hugely entertained at our expense.

The daily subjunctive verb form torture got underway. Between our suffering and the endless laughing blabber of the group’s two Italians, the morning session grew more and more free-form, more chaotically expressive, and in the middle of it all sat Marco, the Venezuelan -– stolid, expressionless, barely moving except for his eyes -– like an impassive, olive-skinned Buddha, drinking cherry Coke and wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into.

Education. One big laugh riot.

It’s late. I must point myself toward the bedroom.

A classically spectacular July day –- brilliant sunlight, clear blue skies, temperature in the high 70s with a slight, delicious breeze. The kind of day it would be impossible to put a price tag on.

This morning’s class began with the group from last week intact -– me along with the three women students and Alicia, the instructor. [See entry for 16 July.] Until about halfway through the morning when Pietro, a 30ish Italian guy, got tossed into the mix. We are supposedly the school’s highest-level class, but this guy’s Spanish is markedly more advanced, to the point that he almost immediately began dominating the scene. Any time a new personality gets added to a closed group, the chemistry changes, but this threw the existing dynamic completely off its axis.

Pietro: tall, thin, slightly mannered, nicely dressed in the international student style with modish glasses and hair so short his head is practically, though not quite, shaven. He likes to talk, began doing so pretty much as soon as his butt landed in a chair. None of this is to imply that he’s anything other than a good person, ’cause I think he is. (A good person.) It’s just that his Spanish is so much sturdier than ours and his personality aggressive enough that his energy pretty much elbowed its way into the center of things and took over.

It’s interesting to watch how energy/chemistry shifts in small groups, to watch individual personalities and what they bring to the mix, how the energy swirls and eddies in response to different factors: interactions, changes in mood, the quality of individual performance. It’s interesting to watch the personality looking out through each pair of eyes, with all the intelligence and belief systems packed in there. And it’s interesting to watch an individual observe and respond to whatever’s going on, a process that can be so liquid and so finely detailed that I’m sometimes not sure how we get through our days without being astonished over and over again at the complexity of all the beings — all those self-contained universes, crammed with potential and surprises and depths we can only guess at -– that share this world with us.

During the morning class sessions, Alicia has been flaying us alive with the subjunctive verb forms (or as Jack Nicholson might put it, the GOD-DAMN subjective verb forms) with their infinite variety of uses and exceptions. We had a new instructor for the after-break session, an intelligent woman named Belén. Alicia apparently informed Belén that she’d been torturing us for quite some time now with the subjunctive, letting her know which particular use she’d flogged us with this morning. Belén bore all that in mind as we (mostly Pietro) talked during the second session, mentioning at the end of class that everyone (except Pietro) seemed to have a fear of the subjunctive since no one (except Pietro) used it at all, in any way, at any point. Why does all this seem so entertaining to me? Should I be worried about that?

The name ‘Belén,’ it turns out, is Spanish for Bethlehem. She mentioned that to introduce the idea of Spain’s ingrained religious leanings, using the results of a UNESCO poll to illustrate the way Spanish Catholicism has been morphing. For instance, according to these figures, 60.8% of the Spaniards polled support legalizing euthanasia, with only 12.7% against, though a whopping 23.1% abstained from taking a stand. (3.3% refused to answer at all.)

49.5% supported legalizing marriage for gays, 20.8% came out against it, a mighty substantial 26.5% abstained. (Again, 3.3% refused to answer at all.)

45.9% supported eliminating celibacy for Catholic priests, 11.7% were against, and once more, an extremely substantial 38.6% abstained from taking a stand. (3.8% refused to answer at all.)

46.9% supported allowing the ordination of female priests. Only 10.8% came out against this idea. 39% abstained from answering. (3.3% refused to answer at all.)

When it came to expressing their religious preference, 6.3% professed to be ‘fervent Catholics,’ 27.6 professed to be ‘lukewarm Catholics,’ 38.5% identified themselves as ‘baptized Catholic and not practicing,’ which left 27.6% for the categories, ‘indifferent,’ ‘non-believer,’ ‘Atheist,’ ‘Don’t know,’ and ‘Bugger off.’

Belén’s point: during the time of Franco, Catholicism was the one and only permitted religion. The only possible way to get married? In the Church. Catholic education? A mandatory part of the school curriculum. Since the Generalisimo ‘went to the other neighborhood,’ as the Spanish euphemism for dying goes (fue al otro barrio), and liberty has taken root and flourished, there has been some movement in other directions.

I draw no conclusions -– who knows how many people were polled to provide these statistics and how accurate the numbers actually are? I also think, like everything, the Catholic Church has its place in the big picture, and will wax and wane, will have its cycles and its lifetime.

Spain’s an interesting place, though. In 25 years, it’s evolved from an isolated backwater to a sophisticated, high-profile 21st century nation, holding the current presidency of the EU. A lot of ground to cover in a quarter of a century.

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

I have not been getting the kind of shuteye my body would love to be getting during my time here. Not that I’m sleeping poorly. I’m actually sleeping pretty well. I’m just getting to bed real damn late.

This is not my fault. First of all, the Madrid sun goes down late enough that the sky remains light until after ten — exactly the way it should be with summer in full swing and the weather perfect. Second, there’s so much going on, so many people about, so many things to see, so many tiendas and cafés and restaurants beckoning every time one steps outside that it just doesn’t make any sense to get to bed before midnight. It’s almost as if my body simply doesn’t realize that the night has worn on and I have to be up at a reasonably early hour to get showered, shaved, dressed, fed and out the door for to spend the morning suffering in class. It feels good being up, with all the energy in the air and the sound of all that life going on out in the street. It feels good until I’m sitting in class the next morning wishing I were asleep.

Not that I’m complaining. These are great problems to have.

What I woke up to this morning: the cries of swifts flying between the buildings along this narrow street and the tolling of church bells.

They seem to be the local version of swallows, the swifts -– materializing with the warm weather, flying both at tremendous heights and down at street level, between the city’s buildings, calling back and forth, a sound like soft keening. Swallows confirmed the arrival of summer during my years in the Boston/Cambridge area, their displays of aerial acrobatics filling the skies until they vanished at the end of August. The swifts bring nearly identical elements to summer here –- same style of soaring flight, same seemingly inexhaustible energy throughout the day until they disappear at dusk. Same sudden arrival in the spring, same abrupt departure at the end of the season. The only real difference is their call, not at all like the twittering of the swallows. And their size, swifts appearing a bit larger.

The bells come from a church a couple of blocks from here, pealing in a pattern of two claps, pause, two claps, pause, two claps — a long string of repetitions, twelve or fifteen of them, in the same steady rhythm, finally slowing then going silent.

After that, quiet settles in, punctuated now and then by the voices of old folks clustered around the benches in the plaza down the street, the raucous passing of people who have apparently been out all night partying, the barking of dogs having close encounters. All, for the most part, tranquil, relaxed.

An hour ago, I went out for the paper, then walked a couple of blocks to a neighborhood joint for a morning coffee. A crowded, noisy morning scene, normally, there being few local caffeine pushers open Sunday a.m. One of the nice aspects of life in July/August Madrid is the relative quiet, many folks having fled town. As July progresses, traffic becomes lighter, the crowds thin out, and from late July to late August the city has an entirely different feel than during the rest of the year. Sleepy, or as sleepy as a city this size gets.

A sparse handful of people sat over their cafés when I pulled up a stool at the bar. The TV over the entranceway played channel 1, Televisión Española, showing coverage of motorcycle racing. My espresso came, I sipped at it, looking over the letters-to-the-editor section of the El País Sunday Magazine. A young woman materialized to my right — short, slender, pretty in a worn way, a bit agitated. Her eyes fastened on a sweet roll, one of several piled on a tray above the counter display. She apparently decided she wanted it, moving over to my left, between me and another café-sipper, pulling out what change she had, poring over it. Hovering there until the man to my left took off, immediately claiming that stool, ordering café con leche and the sweet roll she’d fixated on. She hunched over her change, methodically ordering and reordering it, piling it on the counter in small stacks, moving them around, reorganizing them. Her café con leche arrived, the sweet roll appearing on a small plate next to it. Her fingers began to pull the roll apart, inserting small bits into her mouth until it had disappeared. From there she sat, sipping from her cup, talking quietly to herself. A man on the stool her left watched. In the background, the whine of competition motorcycles came and went, the commentators talking about the race.

I paid for my café and headed out into the morning air, the streets quiet, the city slowly waking up.

Yesterday: me, eating lunch at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant –- a perfectly decent-looking joint with perfectly decent food that doesn’t seem to do much business. Possibly as a result of that, the wait staff comes across as depressed, apathetic or resentful, depending on the day. (I’ve never eaten there at night. Could be a whole other situation when evening rolls around — customers streaming in and out, employees feeling the joy of being alive.) So I’m there yesterday, me and a young, depressed waitress. She brings food, I ask for chopsticks -– no small feat when you can’t remember the word and the wait person stares at you, doing nothing to help (”Sabes,” you say stupidly, “las cosas de madeira — largas, estrechas,” making increasingly desperate hand gestures you hope will eventually get the idea across) until she finally says, “¿Palillos?” “¡Sí!” says I, “¡Palillos! ¡Ellos! ¡Por favor!”

I’m finally shovelling down my ensalada China and a pretty respectable plate of pollo con almendras (chicken w/ almonds), at some point during the meal I notice the muzak playing softly above me. “Strangers In Paradise” — a far-too-ubiquitous muzak classic. I’m trying to remember if the piece was featured in Forbidden Planet or if my teeny little brain is blending different B-films together, when I notice “Strangers” has mercifully come to an end, after which a toxically sweet orchestral version of “Hey Jude” begins oozing out of the unseen loudspeakers — strategically hidden, maybe to lessen the likelihood of diners leaping up on the tables and ripping the buggers out of the acoustic ceiling tiles. I assumed it would only be a matter of minutes before “The Shadow of Your Smile” started up, and yes, by god, in no time at all there it was. After which something that I swear sounded like the Talking Heads song “Heaven” (from the CD ‘Fear of Music‘) commenced, which just about sent me running out into the Madrid heat, screaming with horror. I remember wondering if “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would be coming along, an unsettling enough thought that I didn’t linger over lunch to find out.

This last Wednesday, I passed a couple of hours over a long, leisurely meal at a cheap (and good) lunch joint with two friends, Curtis, down from Pamplona for a few days, and David, married to a Spanish woman and living in one of Madrid’s ‘burbs to the southeast of the city center. Both Americans, both living here for a while — David for a couple of years, Curtis a year or two longer than that. Curtis is essentially bilingual, David speaks strong Castellano. Making this a good opportunity, one might think, for me to get some conversational Spanish practice in. Which did not exactly turn out to be the case. I made the occasional foray into opening a line of talk in Spanish, but no one seemed to want to take the bait. David’s wife, Maria, showed up 30 or 40 minutes into the festivities, I tried some Spanish on her, getting nowhere –- she’s bilingual, the English continued unabated. I’m sitting there thinking Who do I have to sleep with to get conversation in Spanish around here?

The following day Curtis joined me at a sidewalk café and, bless his heart, indulged me for a while. A pretty good while, until we reached my limits. Probably gets tiring for an individual fluent in the language to deal with someone putting their conversational skills together, unless it’s an intercambio situation and they’re working on their English with you. (Which effectively wipes out the possibilities for native English speakers.)

My Spanish isn’t bad. Really. Considering that I don’t live with a Spanish-speaker, that most of my writing and e-mail is in English, and my stays here have been interrupted by substantial blocks of time back in the States, my Spanish is pretty good. I watch TV and get most of it. I read the papers and do fine. I get along pretty well with day-to-day exchanges. But I’d love to get lots better.

We’ll see.

Random entries from The Surrealist Compliment Generator, generated today:

“If I were to combine your blood, toes, and hair, it might not be you, but it would be enough for my basic desires.”

“May you always be as vivid as your hallucinations.”

“Never pet your dog when it is on fire.”

“You wear your breasts to their full extent, like a man with an uncontrollable bulge in his apartment.”

“May bathtubs overflow upon your gardenias.”

“Cry for the stiffness of the earlobe. The turtles are fallen and the rain stands still. How long must I suffer with your undergarments?”

Two nights ago, between 10:30 and 11, during one of the evening’s phone calls, I became aware of strange sounds out in the street. Complicated, percussive, densely rhythmic. Noise that went on for a while before I noticed it with full awareness. Odd, propulsive sounds, reminiscent of flamenco’s combination of hand clapping and staccato footwork, but not exactly that. Going on for a couple of minutes, followed by applause, starting up again for a minute or two, then more applause. Close by, not down the block in la Plaza de Chueca. When I got off the phone, I threw open a window, leaned out to see what was up. What I found: tap dancers. Eight in all -– six males, two females. All dressed in identical black pants and black short-sleeved shirts, holding black bowler hats. A squad of tap dancers just finishing a routine in the middle of the intersection of la Calle de Gravina and la Calle de Pelayo to applause from some bystanders. After which they headed up Gravina toward la Calle de Hortaleza and out of sight. Dancers out on tap patrol.

Last night they struck again, shortly before midnight. Same m.o. — couple of minutes of tap, applause, more tap, more applause -– only in the plaza this time, further away. I wondered what the residents of the apartment buildings that ring the plaza felt about the late-night tap demo. The banners that have been draped from the balcones for the last year are still there, the only difference being a slight intensification of the rhetoric on the largest of them, implicating the city government in the continuing noise assault that rises from the crowds in the plaza most nights of the week. [See journal entry for September 16, 2001, and numerous subsequent entries.] Most of the banners are small, one balcón affairs, reading “Zona Contaminada … Por Ruido –- www.espaciovecinal.org.” The big mother that spans three or four balcones — hanging one floor up, looming stridently along one side of the plaza — reads “PELIGRO: ZONE CONTAMINADA POR RUIDOS -– ‘AYUNTAMIENTO RESPONSABLE’ -– A.VV. Chueca.” [DANGER: ZONE CONTAMINATED BY NOISE -– 'MUNICIPALITY RESPONSIBLE'..."]) I haven’t investigated the behind-the-scenes details of this sitch and have no idea whether the tenants are getting anywhere with their ongoing protest. The banners have been part of the scenery long enough that they’ve become, well, part of the scenery, fading slightly into the overall details of life in the plaza.

Meanwhile, when I left to go to class this morning, I found that the wall across the street from my building has already been completely reclaimed by the poster-pasters (”PRODIGY -– Baby’s Got A Temper -– New Single A La Venta el 1 de Julio”; “Teatro Negro de Praga -– Aspectos de Alicia –- Adaptación de Alicia En El País De Las Maravillas –- Martes 30 de Julio Hasta Viernes 2 de Agosto A Las 23.00 h.” [Black Theater of Prague -– Aspects of Alice -– Adaptation of Alice In Wonderland –- Tuesday, July 30 until Friday, August 2 at 11:00 p.m.]). I don’t know how many of the poster people there are roaming around the area, but in one 24-hour span, a 4-block of a poster advertising a concert by Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings appeared, then disappeared under more posters, then appeared again in a new 4-poster block, then disappeared once more under a new crop of adverts. Like an intense, concentrated demonstration of the cycle of life, Darwin-style. Strange, colorful, entertaining, the teeniest bit unnerving.

There’s a lot happening here in this little life of mine. These last 3+ days have blown by at high velocity. I find myself wanting to spew substantially more about it all than I’ve had the time for and will have to settle for laying out as much of it as I can manage over the weekend when language classes don’t occupy big chunks of the days.

Later.

Not long after posting yesterday’s entry, I went out to round up some chow, found a city cleaning crew scraping away at one end of the wall opposite this building, pulling off layers of posters in long curling lengths which piled up like oversized wood shavings. Today the wall got stripped down to its unadorned, butt-ugly gray core. Completely denuded, all bits of paper gone, as if the city workers meant business. This has happened in the past -– within hours, the joyful re-postering was well underway. The ‘post no bills’ stencils have vanished, I noticed. Don’t know what that means, though it suggests that the city may have thrown in the towel in its attempt to break the cycle of cleaning/re-postering.

Between homework, local/international phone calls, and skittish, abbreviated sleep, last night turned out to be a tumultuous stretch of time. In the middle of which I fielded a call from a woman wanting to look at the piso, referred to me by my sainted, now-vacationing landlords, to whom I gave notice last month, me thinking I was shifting my life entirely back to the States.

I didn’t know what to expect on this return trip to Madrid, had no idea how being here would feel. The lease on this piso originally ended mid-month, the landlords graciously allowed me to extend it a couple of weeks so that I could come back and say good-bye to the city. I didn’t anticipate how great the streets would feel under my feet or how much emotion re-entry would provoke. And as I spoke with the prospective new tenant yesterday evening, alarm bells began sounding in my teeny brain until they overrode just about everything else. I thought about that, among other matters, during the night, elbowing my way through a growing thicket of questions and overstimulated feelings, until I got to class this morning and put it all on a back burner to simmer. When I left school, as groggy and near-useless as when I’d arrived a bit before 9 a.m., I’d come to some clarity. Namely, that if I let my life here end right now the emotional price tag would be far greater than if I re-upped in my current state of uncertainty about the coming months.

Here’s the thing: when I returned to the States in April, I did so expecting to be exploring a romantic relationship, expecting to settle back into a sizeable network of friendships. Neither of which went exactly as, er, whatever the hell the word I want here is. In fact, these last months have largely been a time of relationships not meshing, some lurching apart, others drifting more gently in different directions. There have been some nice reconnections and a handful of new faces, but way more of the other. I’m not at all sure I want to remain in northern Vermont — outrageously beautiful, but so far not offering me many compelling possibilities –- and I haven’t been feeling called anywhere else. Until my return here.

I have no real idea what I’ll wind up doing with myself in the coming months — attempt to finish up work on a novel, spend time with various friends making the trip north for a hit of August and September in Vermont. Could be I’ll find myself drawn in any number of now-unseen directions. Or not. Don’t know. But the rent here is doable and I’m not going to cut the cord yet. I may find myself back here come late autumn, settling in for a while. Time will tell.

On arriving at my apartment building yesterday, I noticed that the wall across the street stood covered with the usual colorful, motley assortment of posters (”Hubo un tiempo en el que lo mejor de este país fue su música — 1978-1990, La Edad de Oro del Pop Español — 5 CD’s a precio especial — La recopilación definitiva con lo mejor del pop de toda una epoca — Ya A La Venta” Translation: There was a time in which the best of this country was its music — 1978-1990, The Golden Age of Spanish Pop — 5 CD’s at a special price — The definitive compilation with the best pop of an entire epoch — Now On Sale; “Desde Brasil y Holanda — ZUCO 103 In Concert — Jueves 25 de Julio, Sala Arena”; Red Hot Chili Peppers — By The Way — Nuevo Disco, Ya A La Venta”), indicating that the poster-pasters seem to have to have prevailed in their Darwinian struggle with the city cleaning crews. At least for now. [See journal entry for April 27, not to mention far too numerous entries from last autumn and winter.]

The “post no bills -– posting businesses responsible” notices that the city stenciled on the wall a few months back have been smothered under posters. Which is fine with me. I’ll take the cheery anarchy of the adverts over butt-ugly naked wall any day.

I functioned pretty well yesterday, considering I’d gotten next to no sleep on the flights over, managing to unpack, go out for lunch, take myself to a movie (Spiderman -– I had to come to Madrid to see an American summer film), and watch an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (in Spanish) before falling out before 10 p.m. I was awake at 7 a.m. and out the door by 8:30 to grab a cup of espresso before starting intensive Spanish classes, which I’ll be taking this week and next — classes that came as a slight shock to the system, though a necessary one. My Spanish had slipped during the 2-1/2 months away, the jolting and prodding of the classroom will do me good. The group consists of three women -– Roberta from Italy, Saskia from Germany, Nori from Japan -– all bright and more or less at my level Spanish-wise. Roberta is the most advanced, and she seemed to leap to a judgment that my Spanish didn’t measure up, though it is clearly no worse than Saskia’s or Nori’s. Big deal. The others are very nice, as are the teachers. The profesora for the day’s first session, Alicia, is a slave driver and pushes relentlessly, focusing on grammar and the like. The instructor for the second session, Montse — short, young, smart, pretty, a little bit chunky — focuses on vocabulary, often bringing in newspaper or magazine articles which feature a challenging array of terms to plow through. Today’s piece: “El 23% de los chicos de 14 a 18 años cree justificado que las mujeres cobren menos — un estudio revela que uno de cada cuatro adolescentes tiene opinions discriminatorias” (”23% of boys from 14 to 18 years old believe it’s justified that women earn less — a study reveals that one out of every four adolescents have discriminatory opinions”). It’s interesting to be the only male in the room for a discussion like that.

I have a pile of homework and notes from previous classes to review to get myself a bit more up to speed.

This life — one big process.

The weather in Madrid today: warm, breezy, sunny, no humidity at all. (Sigh of obnoxious contentment.)

Well. After two and a half long months back in the States, spent almost entirely up in northern Vermont, I hopped a plane out of Boston yesterday and returned to Madrid, pulling in today around midday.

The following was written this morning, far too early, during a layover in Heathrow Airport:

“There is nothing quite like staggering off an overnight flight into the dawn of Heathrow. Feels like a small miracle that I can put one pointed boot in front of the other in those circumstances, like an accomplishment that I manage to remain upright, at least vaguely functional.

“I’m sitting at the end seat of a four-seat module in a long, busy shopping/restaurant concourse in Terminal 1. The person two seats to my left — a 40-something Asian male with a slight paunch and tired, drooping jeans — leaned over to dig into his carry-on bag a few minutes ago, apparently to find a container of cologne, which he used to pollute the environs with a single hyper-potent burst. I’m located beneath an air-circulation vent of near gale force intensity — it so far hasn’t made a dent in the mustard gas.

“After they herded us off the plane, making us walk through a kilometer or two of featureless hallways to the security checkpoint, I stood in line surrounded by the odors of bodies that had spent the night packed together in a large metal projectile, mingled with the bouquet of some less than subtle floral soap someone had recently spread on themselves. You’d think all that stimulus would clear away my wee-hours fog -– no dice so far.

“Meanwhile, the cavalcade of people flows by as I sit here, an impressive, tireless display of both diversity and similarity. The spectrum of physical types is unbelievably broad, not so much in skin color as in height, weight, bone structure, posture and carriage. The display of clothing, on the other hand, seems interestingly limited, maybe because everyone’s in travel mode and that mode has become more and more popular and homogenized. At least here in this little corner of western civ. The only real splash of color seems to come from Indian families, specifically from the combo sari/pajama-style outfits worn by the mamajis.

“Something I’ve been realizing is how good it feels to hear accents other than the American variety. French, Swedish, Indian, German, Japanese, and of course British accents have swirled around me since I planted my adorable butt in this seat, each with their own music. And I find myself hearing the music in the British accents with fresh ears. I don’t seem to pick that up as much when I hear them in films or television programs, but here on their island, with each speaker’s life and intelligence imbuing the spoken words with extra dimensions of depth and complexity, they grab my attention in a striking, seductive way.”

That’s as far as I got with that. (Probably a good thing.)

There is something about traveling that seems to stimulate me like nothing else. Not that that’s an earthshaking revelation or that I’m unique in that way. On the contrary -– this could be why travel writing has become so popular over the last 20 years. That flood of new input provides important nourishment, I think, enables us to shrug off the muted colors and sounds of routine life to see with fresh eyes. I think some of the most vivid memories I have from this lifetime have to do with things experienced during bouts of traveling, and again, I’m probably not unique re: that.

One thing about my return to Madrid actually has been feeling like a small revelation. Pre-return, I had no idea what to expect, how it was going to feel. And what I have mostly felt is relief at being back, as if a deep thirst of some kind were being satisfied after a long dry spell. I don’t know yet if that has any big meaning or what it may lead to, but it’s been strong, clear, impossible to ignore.

Hmmmm.

It’s beautiful here, BTW. Sunny, temperature in the 70s, streets busy with people going about the summer version of life in Madrid.

Hope life’s feeling fine wherever you are.

It’s a staggeringly beautiful day here — temperature only in the 60’s though feeling warmer, with a breeze strong enough to keep away flying bloodsuckers. A good day for being outside, which I’m going to be momentarily (taking advantage of rainless weather and get some lawn mowed). Clouds and sun play tag, casting huge shadows that move slowly across the hills and fields. Dramatic stuff, showing Vermont at its best.

I’m heading to Madrid this coming Sunday and am in the middle of trip prep., which explains why entries here have been a bit sporadic. The lease on the flat I’ve had there these last couple of years runs out in the coming weeks. I’ve decided to take advantage of that, spend a week or two winding up my life in that part of the world. Saying good-bye, a word that brings me no pleasure in this case.

Anyway, there’s pre-trip stuff to do and no one to do it for me. Which leaves me to do it. So I must. And I will.

Later. Be well.

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