far too much writing, far too many photos

New Year’s Eve 2002, Madrid

Similar to the way Christmas Eve Day slowly found its feet a week ago, New Year’s Eve day began quietly, with few people on the street, few in the Metro. Today’s classes were happily chaotic, most of the first two-hour session spent in comical, near-anarchic conversation, no one showing much desire to attempt anything resembling standard scholastic behavior. Post-break, we simply tossed in the towel and headed out to a neighborhood sidrería, where our small collection of souls (me; Patricia, our Madrileña Spanish instructor; Roger, from Holland; Wolfgang, from Germany; Concetta, from Italy; Eugenio, from Russia) worked its way through two bottles of mildly alcoholic sidra and an entire tortilla española, on our feet the whole time, the group shifting from one configuration to another as sidra and conversation flowed. (It’s a fascinating phenomenon, getting people from all over the map together like this, everyone communicating via a language that’s not their native tongue. After a few days in each other’s company, what rises to the surface is our overwhelming commonality and our desire to enjoy our time together.)

Later in the day, after watching a film in the video centre at the language school (Torrente 2, a Spanish take-off on everything vaguely James-Bondish that revels in trashiness, tackiness and its own relentless brand of low humor), I found myself out on the street with Wolfgang, heading in the direction of la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, ground zero for Madrid’s New Year’s Eve doings. The sidewalks were crowded to the point where walking in the street was easier, facilitated by the fact that the police were gradually pinching off all traffic flowing through Sol, leaving few cars to contend with. By the time midnight slouches in, Sol and the surrounding streets and plazas will be crammed with many, many thousands and thousands of partying Spaniards — eating, drinking, carrying loudly on. The carrying on has, in the past, included fighting and hurling empty bottles through the air. This year, 3,000 police are being posted around Sol, screening out any glass containers and, presumably, any people carrying on in ways that might hurt someone else.

When the big clock atop the Municipal building in the plaza tolls midnight, most everyone will begin the ritual that eases in the new year and, according to tradition, guarantees luck in the coming 365 days: eating a grape with every toll of the bell, 12 grapes in all. Not so easy if everyone around you is yelling, spewing chewed grapes as they laugh or trying to make you laugh. There is actually a Spanish company that sells small tins of one dozen peeled, pitted grapes, a product whose ads have been in heavy rotation on local TV during the last couple of weeks.

Some snapshots of the scene in and around Sol between 6 and 7 p.m. tonight:

– The network of pedestrian avenues that criss-cross the real estate between Gran Vía and Sol were near capacity with human traffic, people of all ages out strolling together, heading home or in and out of shops/eating establishments. The red w/ white trim Santa stocking hats of a week ago have given way to a far more abundant new crop, identical except that the red has become green. Many folks carried shopping bags — Zara, El Corte Inglés — or toted handbags, shoulder bags, knapsacks. Elderly couples walked slowly together, often arm in arm. Groups of young folks threaded their way through the currents of people, moving quickly, with more nervous energy. Parents walked hand in hand with children. The air fairly crackled the sound of many people in motion, with many voices carrying on excited conversations. Smiles and sparkling eyes far outnumbered neutral or displeased expressions.

– Lit sparklers could be seen scattered around, vendors selling them at “3 paquetes por un euro.”

– The ubiquitous black market venders were out in force, peddling everything from counterfeit CDs to scarves, watches, shawls, wallets, gloves, laying their goods out on sheets or small blankets, standing over them as strollers slowed or stopped to appraise. At the slightest hint of approaching police, the goods were instantly bundled up in one smooth movement, the venders moving quickly away in a spreading wave, immediately reappearing and spreading the stuff out when the patrol car or motorcycle had rollowed by. And I mean immediately, reappearing in a wave of unfolding sheets as if they’d literally materialized out of thin air in the wake of the vehicle’s passing.

– In Sol itself, several individuals wore costumes of Pokemon characters, waving to kids, posing for photos. The star-spangled Mickey Mouse continued his holiday residency, calling out “Feliz Año!” (”Happy New Year!”) to startled passing folks.

– Wigs were everywhere, being worn by all sorts of people, in bright colors — silver, red, lavender, or a combination of hues — the strands of “hair” made of something like acetate, appearing softly metallic.

– At 6 o’clock, a long, slow process of shop-closings began. People continually filed in and out of the open shops, sometimes despite security shutters that had been pulled halfway down in a wishful effort to move everyone out and shut down for the night.

– Between FNAC and el Corte Inglés, the two giant stores at the Callao end of the main pedestrian thoroughfare that stretches between Sol and Callao/Gran Vía, a line of eight South American musicians, all in their late teens to late 20s, played Peruvian music, collecting a large crowd, the musicians stepping back and forth together in time to the gentle, steady beat, like an uncomplicated southern-hemisphere Motown kind of thing. Music sounding both serious/sad and joyful, produced by a drum, two pipes, a guitar, a mandolin-style instrument, a double-bass, a violin. Two of the musicians wore green Santa-style hats. In the crowd watching, a 40ish guy with black pants and a nice leather coat sported a Shirley Temple/Goldilocks style blond wig.

– Pedestrian traffic thinned out along Gran Vía, especially on the Chueca side, making for easier walking. After I crossed the avenue, headed toward home, a group of eight or so young women all dressed up for New Year’s Eve swept by me, moving toward a crosswalk and the area I’d just come from, the scent of perfume lingering in the evening air after they’d passed.

– A 60ish woman passed, wearing a shawl and thick-heeled black shoes, singing happily to herself, just loudly enough that anyone walking by could hear.

– A minute later, an attractive lesbian couple moved by me, both with multiple piercings, walking arm in arm at a steady, focused clip, one with bottle-blond hair cut short, the other with longer brown hair dyed lavender in patches.

– As I moved further into Chueca and the time approached 7 p.m., the closing of shops accelerated until virtually nothing was open except bars and cafeterías. Fireworks began going off up ahead, the heavy-duty variety that’s become the normal course in this barrio since several days shy of Navidad. The first one: polite. The second: louder, sharper. The third: like a hand grenade had been tossed into the street a block ahead.

– Two gay 20-somethings brushed by me, talking and laughing together, their arms touching as they walked, the tang of marijuana drifting in their wake. Someone’s New Year Eve partying was well underway.

This morning: rain, gray skies. And a Monday a.m. to boot. Forgot and left the heat on last night. I tend to sleep less well when the space is warm, which meant I slept less well ‘cause, er, the space was warm. Slept fitfully, finally dragged myself out of bed at some point during the early hours, turned the heat off, dragged myself back to bed. Slept fitfully, finally dragged myself out of bed to check e-mail sometime after 7 a.m. Bleary. The days begin especially slowly here during the winter, daylight seeping gradually in after 8 a.m. Normally something I enjoy ‘cause it means I sleep longer and deeper. On a morning like this morning, it means my bleariness feels a bit blearier. At least until I get the first espresso into my system. Then I at least have a semblance of an illusion of clearheadedness. That tends to get me through until the 11 o’clock break between Spanish classes when I have another espresso and a bocadillo (sandwich on a baguette) of tortilla española, providing a much more substantial illusion of clearheadness.

Classes: this morning we had the only male instructor at the school, a sharp, extremely entertaining 30ish guy named Andres. He and I tend to bring out the best in each other, or at least we think we do, meaning a great deal of loud humor and out of control cackling (Andres has a tendency to double over when he laughs, adding lots of visual entertainment to the mix), a fair amount of chaos compared to the normal kind of classroom atmosphere. The rest of the class either has to get into it or suffer through it. Thankfully, they tend to get into it, as they did this morning. Good clean fun. (Today, in addition to the usual flogging re: the infinite uses of the subjunctive verb form, we learned that the Spanish term for a brown-nose is ‘lameculos’ (pronounced ‘lah-may-COO-lohs’) – lame from the verb lamer (to suck), and culo, meaning, er, butt, keister, behind, rear-end, posterior). Not a very nice thing to call someone, lameculos.)

The laughter woke me up, for which I was grateful, and after classes I took myself to the gym, something I haven’t been doing with the regularity I have in other times. The day remained gray, the falling moisture let up somewhere along the way. Post-gym, I got off the Metro at Alonso Martínez, one station from here, leaving me a nice walk down narrow streets to get home, something I often do post-gym. As I emerged from the station into the late-afternoon air, the clouds in the western sky gave way and the sun literally burst through, the day suddenly alight with brilliant sunshine, patches of blue sky and tattered, fast-moving clouds trading off overhead. Like the best of November in the northeastern U.S., the air cool and fresh, the sky dramatically beautiful.

You never know when life will take an abrupt turn. Gray days can suddenly shine in unpredictable ways.

Hope this finds you well, wherever you are.

After the lovely, quiet pause of Navidad, Madrid has reverted back to its busier, raunchier self, the streets of the city center packed with people, traffic back to its more normal, unruly incarnation.

Thursday morning, the number of people making the trip to work — notably silent, I observed, perhaps not overjoyed with the sudden end to Christmas recess — increased substantially from earlier in the week. By Friday, the volume of commuters had reached near-normal levels.

In school, with the decreased number of students, I found myself the only student in my class for the first couple of hours. Just me and the instructor, Montse. Which meant that on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday I had two intense hours of conversation/instruction, which seemed to kick-start my language skills in some way, so that by Thursday and Friday, when the school had me join another class for the post-break conversation class, I felt comfortable enough with the language that I was carrying on loudly, unstoppably, delivering whatever quips came to mind at any given moment. To the point where I might have become a living stereotype of the loudmouthed American, except that I was actually speaking the language well and getting laughs in the process from both students and la profesora. Which just made me all the more smug and insufferable, though that didn’t seem to be bothering anyone. One of the many benefits of a sparkling personality. (Kaff, kaff.)

Christmas shopping continues here as many, if not most, Spaniards look to January 6 as the real gift-exchange day. Or so I’m told. Several of the instructors at the language school have sworn that up until the last few years, the 25th itself was not really an important day here, Christmas-wise, that the 24th and the 6th of January were the actual dates of import. They say the same — sometimes less than happily — about Santa Claus, that the man in red is a recent import who’s suddenly gaining ground as Spain is more a country with strong, growing connections of all kinds with the rest of the world, post-Franco-era isolation.

So shopping is once more in high gear, most stores supplying the incentive of post-Navidad discounts, the city assisting by closing down city center streets for post-Christmas block parties, complete with music, food vendors, banners snapping cheerfully in the breeze, and people in various costumes (mostly big, cute, huggable animals). The activity will continue until the evening of Jan.5th, the city will shut down again for the 6th — el día de los Reyes Magos, the three Kings who come bearing gifts. On Jan. 7, the month-long sales period — las rebajas — commences. Weeks and weeks of consumer partying, starting in mid-December and coasting all the way through January.

When I descended into the Metro Thursday morning here in Chueca, the first thing that caught my eye upon reaching the inbound platform was a brand new ad, a sizeable bugger, maybe 8′ by 8′, which consisted of four drawings of a girl and boy, as done by a kindergartener: (1) working together with toy tools on a little toy house; (2) one ironing, one with a mop; (3) riding a tandem bike together; and (4) with a baby in a carriage. Between those images, lines of text read, “Los Juguetes Son Para Quién Quiere Jugar Con Ellos — Campaña De Promoción De Juegetes No Sexistas — La Igualdad Tambien Se Aprende Jugando” (Games Are For Whoever Wants To Play Them — Campaign to Promote Non-Sexist Games — Equality Can Also Be Learned Playing.” Around the edges of the ad run the two words “Compartir, Eligir” (Share, Choose). Sponsored by a department or division of the City of Madrid.

Hmmmm, thought I, staring bleary-eyed at this overwized, hard to ignore, consciousness-raising thingie. Mighty progressive, a kind of progressiveness the center-right national government would be unlikely to take on, though the local, more liberal city administration appears game.

Meanwhile, over at the Plaza de España station on the Metro Line 10 — an expansive, modern-looking, sparklingly-clean counterpart to the older, more dog-eared line that runs through the station here at la Plaza de Chueca — the large TV screens that have provided a visual focus for both passenger platforms have suddenly been augmented by a huge two-sided plasma screen video monitor placed between the tracks. All playing la Canal Metro Madrid — Channel Metro Madrid. Weather, sports, news headlines, etc. The same channel that plays in the trains on that line — Madrid presenting its modern, high-tech face to the human traffic flowing to and from the airport.

Excerpt #5 from a novel in progress (© 2002, 2006 by runswithscissors):

When we finally left the room, the clock radio read 1:46. I searched myself for the directions on the way out, found them in a pants pocket before pulling the door shut behind me. Colin walked toward the elevator, the light from the vending machines casting a television-like glow. As I followed, I searched further in pocket. My hand encountered the rabbit’s foot and closed around it, fur soft against my skin, until the elevator arrived.

If anything, the day outside had become more raw, the November sky more solidly gray.

“I’m freezing,” Colin said.

“We just got out here.”

“It’s windy.”

I’d been thinking about walking the few blocks to Edith Ohls’ place, but decided making Colin more miserable wouldn’t be worth whatever small gain I’d get from a hike in bracing air. We were quickly into the car with the engine on, me fiddling with the heater controls.

About two minutes later, we turned from West College Street onto Cedar, heading toward Edith Ohls’ residence. As we reached the intersection before her block, I slowed and surveyed the sitch. A few cars sat parked along that length of the avenue — on impulse, I stopped and backed up to park by a long, car-free length of curb on the previous block. We got out and made our way ahead, following the house numbers until we found ourselves in front of 78, a neat, nicely-kept black and white affair near the end of the street. Less than half a block in from the terminating cross-street, which gave off onto green land — grass, trees, and a stone tower of some sort, a big one. I checked it out, trying to figure what it was for, what it might be doing there. Connected with the town’s water maybe, filtration or pumping? Or some eccentric, monied anglophile’s medieval fantasy? Life is swimming with mysteries.

We made our way to the front stoop of no. 78 where I let Colin press the doorbell, resulting in a faint bing-bong. Fifteen or twenty seconds later, the door opened inward, revealing a slim elderly woman of medium height, in neat brown slacks, a tan blouse and bowling shoes. Faded blue eyes regarded us through wire-framed glasses.

“Mrs. Ohls?” I said, my breath turning to mist as I spoke.

“Yes,” she said, opening the storm door. “Please call me Edith. You must be Dennis and….”

“Colin,” I supplied.

“Colin.” She studied him, smiling. “You look cold. Why don’t you come in.” We entered, Mrs. Ohls backing away to allow us passage.

We found ourselves in a narrow foyer, a small, nicely appointed dining room off to the left, what looked like a living room to our right, stairs ahead leading up to a second floor landing. Dark wood flooring showed around old oriental-type rugs. Food odors emanated from somewhere, along with a faint stink of long-dead cigars and unidentifiable aromas I associate with old age.

“Can I take your coat?” Mrs. Ohls said to Colin. He slipped it off, she hung it on a wall rack to the rear of the foyer where it joined a couple of larger coats.

As she did that, standing with one heel slightly raised from the rug, I noticed her bowling shoes were two-tones, the outside half of each one red, the inside green. The rear end of each bore a big white 6. Then I noticed a couple of group photos up on the wall, framed. Taken in a bowling alley, looked like. Hmm.

“So,” I said, pulling my coat off, “you’re sure we’re not intruding?”

“Oh, not at all, no. It’s nice to have company right now, especially younger folk.”

“She means you,” I said to Colin, hanging my coat up.

“I meant both of you,” she said.

Colin looked from her to me to her. “Dad’s not younger folk,” he said. What a guy.

“It probably doesn’t seem that way to you. He’s still a young man, though.” Colin glanced at me doubtfully. I tried to appear youthful and vigorous. Didn’t look like he was buying it.

I stole a glance into the dining room where bay windows let in gray light. Three place settings had been laid out on a dark wood dining table. To the rear of the space a door led to another room, the kitchen apparently. I heard someone moving around back there, noises of food prep. My nostrils picked up the rich aroma of soup.

Mrs. Ohls noticed me noticing and addressed Colin, who looked a little lost and uncomfortable. “Are you hungry?” A tentative nod from him. “Why don’t you make yourselves comfortable in here,” she said, leading us into the living room. “I’ll see if the food is ready.”

I bleated a polite thank-you, she wafted off, leaving us to check the place out. And the living room itself was fine, nice, comfy. Kind of New-Englandy, with tall double-hung windows looking out on gray afternoon and bare trees, more hardwood floor peeking around an oriental-style rug that showed its age gracefully. And mementos. The space fairly frothed over with mementos, put just about everywhere a place could be found for them — framed photos on the walls, on the many shelves, on side tables. Citations interspersed among the photos on the walls. And trophies. Bowling trophies, a bunch of them, some modest, some extravagant, some small, some tall, all topped by a little metal guy caught in mid-bowl. And a bowling clock, also featuring a man in mid-bowl, in plastic bas-reliefed full-body profile, his arm swinging back and forth as the pendulum.

Colin stood by a small table, looking through the various photos arranged there. I joined him. In each picture, a younger Edith Ohls smiled at the camera in the company of an older man — pleasant-looking, an inch or two taller than her, torso not slim, not heavy, thinning white hair, bushy white eyebrows, the skin on his face beginning to sag and pouch — and other supporting characters. One or two at weddings, one or two at bowling fiestas of some sort, always in the company of the older guy.

Colin looked around as if not understanding how this room had materialized around him. I rested a hand on one of his small shoulders, he glanced back at me before looking quickly away to stare at the environs.

As I stood there by my boy, my free hand delved into my pocket, finding the rabbit’s foot. “Hey,” I said, pulling it from my pocket, keys and all, “see this?” Colin looked around. “This is something else Edith sent me.” I held it out to him, he looked at it.

“What is it?”

“It’s a rabbit’s foot.”

He stared at it, then at me. “What’s it for?”

“Some people think they bring good luck.” A squint up at me from Himself at that, with no comment. He extended a finger to touch the charm, then stroked it a single cautious time.

“It’s blue.”

“They used to dye them colors like this, I think.”

“How come?”

A shrug from me. “Good question. A silly marketing thing, probably. Maybe someone thought the natural color wouldn’t be eye-catching enough.”

“What are those keys for?”

“Another good question.”

Edith Ohls appeared to our rear, opening a door that led to the kitchen, the glow of fluorescent lighting visible behind her.

“I recognize that rabbit’s foot,” she said.

“We were just wondering what the keys went to.” She stepped closer, I handed her the ring.

“These,” she said, indicating the two standard-shaped keys, “might have been the door keys to Philip’s last apartment. This one,” she continued, separating out the flat key, “well…. I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it went with a safe deposit box.”

I stared at the flat, squared-off piece. “A safe deposit box?”

“Could be,” she said, handing the ring back. “Looks like that kind of key.”

“But where? L.A. somewhere?”

She appraised me with a small, kind smile. “It’s possible. I couldn’t say for sure.”

“I know. Sorry, I’m just wondering aloud.”

“I’d be doing the same if I were in your position.” She noticed my boy looking adrift. “How are you doing?” she asked him. “Are you still hungry?” An affirmative nod in response. “Well then, we can eat if you’d like,” she said, moving toward the door from which she’d come.

Colin immediately sailed off after her. I followed, ending up in a large, clean room several times the size of my kitchen, walls sporting numerous further photos from a long, happy marriage. A pretty blonde woman near my age put a cover into place on a tureen containing what I assumed to be our lunch.

“I hope you like split pea soup,” she said to Colin. He looked at her, uncertain how to answer yet another stranger.

“This is my niece,” Edith Ohls said to me, “Emily. She’s been helping me out these last few weeks.” We exchanged hellos. Nice smile. Nice wedding band. “This is Dennis,” Edith continued, “and that’s Colin.”

“You’ve come a long way for lunch,” Emily said. “From New York?”

“A long way,” I agreed, skipping the details. Colin fidgeted. Edith moved into the dining room, turning on the overhead light and closing the curtains, sheer white jobbies that let in gray light while providing some privacy. Emily hefted the tureen and followed, going to the table to deposit her load where it looked like a white ceramic centerpiece. Colin and I trailed after.

“Are you sure you don’t want to join us?” Edith asked her niece.

“Nope, thanks. I’ve got things to do. I’ll stop by again this evening.” She moved into the hallway to pull her coat from the rack. “Nice to meet you,” she said to Colin, giving him a friendly smile. He said a quiet “‘Bye” in response. “Nice to meet you, too,” she said to me.

“Likewise,” I said.

She zipped up, calling a last “‘Bye,” and exited via the front door. Edith moved to the side of the table opposite Colin and me, gesturing to the place settings in front of us. “Why don’t you sit,” she said. I put a hand on Colin’s back, gently moving him toward the seat across from Edith. When he’d pulled the chair out and arranged himself in it, I sat next to him, picking up a napkin, spreading it over my lap. Colin saw that and picked up his, pushing one corner of it inside his collar.

Once we were settled, Edith asked for Colin’s bowl, he picked it up and extended it toward her. She took it, and while she ladled soup I glanced around. A wicker basket next to the tureen held warm rolls, wrapped in a large white linen napkin. A butter dish waited nearby.

Three or four photos were arrayed around the room, nicely framed and hung, these featuring Edith and the now familiar male, along with two children. Dishes and crystal could be seen through the doors of a china cabinet, along with a scattering of ceramic figures. No trophies anywhere. An austere space compared to the other two rooms.

I realized Edith was waiting for me to hand over my bowl, which I did. When she’d filled it and then her own, she took a roll from the basket and broke it open. Its odor got my saliva oozing and I grabbed a roll of my own, making myself pull it open and spread butter on it slowly, like a sane, well-mannered human, before cramming it into my mouth. Colin followed my example.

“How is everything?” Edith asked. I made happy noises and gestures around a mouthful of split-pea bliss. She watched Colin for a moment, wearing a half-smile, her eyes soft, then dipped her spoon into the soup and brought it to her mouth. After a quiet moment, she said to the munchkin, “How do you like traveling with your father?”

Colin looked up at her, then cut a quick glance over at me before looking down at his soup. “Okay,” he said.

“Must have been a long drive.”

“Pretty long,” he said, dipping his spoon in and out of his soup, one leg swinging nervously.

“Is this your first time in Ohio?”


“It’s his first time outside of Massachusetts,” I added.

“Is that right?” she said. “And how do you like it so far?”

“I don’t know.”

I interceded, trying to take the onus for supplying information off Colin. “This trip was pretty much thrust upon him. He didn’t come along because he wanted to.”

Edith studied me for a moment. “I see,” she said. Then, to Colin, “That’s no fun, is it?”


Edith said a sympathetic, “Mm,” then asked, “What would you rather be doing?”

Colin paused to look at his soup before answering, his spoon sliding back and forth along the rim of his bowl. “I’d rather be home.”

Edith gazed at him for a moment. “It’s nice to be able to go home, isn’t it?” she said. Colin nodded, dipping his spoon into soup. “When you think of home, what do you think of?”

Colin looked down at his bowl for a moment, making a soft popping sound with his lips, finally saying, “Watching TV with Dad.”

“Do you do that a lot?”

A shrug. “Sometimes.”

“Does he let you use the remote?”

He looked up at her, surprised, then nodded. “Does your father ever read to you?” Another nod. “What books do you like?”

He pondered for a moment, moving his spoon around in the soup like a motorboat, then said, “I like the Zebra family. And I like ‘Elmo Goes to France.’” Elmo, the Canadian moose.

“I like that one, too. Elmo finds Knobby and takes him home, right?”

“Uh-huh.” He appraised her with more interest, starting to forget his shyness. Knobby: a long-lost nephew of Elmo’s. Elmo discovers Knobby’s being kept in a French zoo and springs him, they return to Elmo’s home in the extreme northern suburbs of Montreal. Happiness reigns.

“I think my grandson has all the Elmo books. Maybe his family will stop by while you’re in Oberlin and you can meet him.”

Colin looked as if he’d like that and said, “Okay.” He let his spoon fill with soup then lifted it to his mouth where it disappeared between his lips.

“I noticed,” Edith said to Colin, “you were looking at some of the photographs in the living room.”

“Uh-huh.” His napkin had started to come out of his collar, I reached over as unobtrusively as I could manage and tucked it in. Colin leaned back and allowed me to fuss, his feet swinging in time to some rhythm he had going inside that little head.

“I have an awful lot of photos, don’t I?” A big nod in the affirmative from Himself.

“I showed Colin the photo you sent me,” I said.

“The shot of your father and mother?”

“That’s the one.”

“So you saw the photograph of your grandparents?” she said to Colin, more of a statement than a question. He nodded once more, putting a little bit of roll into his mouth. “You see the man with me in that picture?” She pointed to a photo hung on the wall to our left, by the door to the foyer. “That man and your grandfather were best friends.” Colin studied the picture of Edith and Bernie Ohls intently. “Do you know any of your grandparents?” Edith asked. Colin shook his head no, his eyes moving to meet hers.

“They all died before he was born,” I supplied. Not exactly true, but close enough.

“You know what it means that the man in the photo your father showed you was your grandfather, don’t you?”

“Uh-huh,” said Colin. “He was my dad’s daddy.”

“That’s right. And my husband was best friends with your dad’s father.”

Colin was doing pretty well with all this, but I’m not sure he got the full import of the connection Edith was trying to get across.

“Bernie must have been a bit older than you,” I said to Edith.

“Yes, he was. He was the same age as Philip.” Far as I could tell, that meant he was around 87 when he checked out. “And 12 years older than me.”

“How come he was so much older?” Colin asked. Going by his expression, a 12-year span like that might as well have been the gap between the Pleistocene Era and the Age of Enlightenment.

“Well, I don’t know. I met him when I was 19. We liked each other.” She shrugged. “It just happened that way.” No comment from Colin.

“In the little I’ve seen of my father’s memoirs,” I said, “he and Bernie didn’t come off as buddies.”

“They weren’t back then. It’s something that developed as they got older.”

“What was my father like?” I found myself feeling oddly nervous at what she might come out with in response to that question.

“Oh,” she said softly, deliberating briefly, eyes staring down at her soup, “he was a very interesting person. Touching, exasperating. Sad. Such a sad, lost man.”

“Lost?” I asked, startled.

“That’s how he always seemed to me. I’m sorry, is hearing that unpleasant?”

“No,” I said uncertainly, “just strange.”

“Do you want me to go on?”

I found her steady gaze on me, the faded blue eyes slightly magnified by her glasses. “If you want to.”

She slipped a spoonful of soup into her mouth and looked toward the room’s side window for a moment before speaking. “I didn’t meet your father,” she said, “until he and Bernie had known each other for a number of years. They dealt with each other now and then in the course of their work, but tended not to travel in the same circles apart from that.

“Bernie and I were eating dinner in a restaurant the first time I met Philip. He’d had a meal by himself and stopped by our table on his way out. I didn’t see him approach, so that he seemed to materialize next to us. He said something like, ‘Hey, Bernie, how’s life?’ He had a nice voice. Resonant. I remember looking up at him and thinking What an attractive man, at the same time getting the distinct feeling that he could be trouble.”


She smiled. “Not that he was looking for trouble or seemed threatening in any way. When Bernie introduced me, Philip removed his hat and took my hand to shake it. Very well-mannered, almost chivalrous. And yet….” A pause here as she gazed at a photo that hung on the wall behind Colin, her eyebrows knit with thought. “There was an air about him. You could sense that this was not a simple person. Quite the opposite. He had an active mind — insistently active. Which was an asset for his work. But if he didn’t have something to aim it at, to distract him — a case, a book, a game of chess — he’d start picking away at the state of his life.”

She paused to smile at Colin, who was dipping part of a roll in his soup. When the talk stopped, he looked up guiltily, then back down at his food, uncertain whether he’d committed an offense or not. I put a hand on the back of his neck and squeezed gently. He looked over at me, I smiled at him.

“Do you see much of my father in him?” I asked Edith.

“There’s a little of Philip in his eyes, I think. And maybe his mouth.”

Colin returned her gaze, putting a bit of roll in that mouth and chewing. I studied his profile, not sure I saw any resemblance to the old man there. Looking back at Edith, I said, “How come he never communicated with me?” I tried to make it sound casual, not freighted with feeling. It came out flat, stiff.

“I don’t know. I think he kept track of where you were, and there were times when he considered contacting you. He would agonize for a while, do nothing and stop talking about it.” She paused and for a moment we were quiet. Sad, restless thoughts squirmed around in my head. “Do you like the soup?” Edith finally asked Colin, whose bowl lay nearly empty.

“Mm-hm,” he replied, nodding, then remembered to tack on a “thank you.”

“Would you like more?”

“Yes, please.” No hesitation there. Edith took his bowl and ladled it two-thirds full with soup. Colin took it carefully back, set it down, picked up what was left of his roll and tore a tiny piece from it, put that in his mouth.

“You know,” Edith said softly — I glanced over and found her addressing me — “your father took your mother’s death very hard.” I didn’t know what to say to that and remained silent. Colin looked from her to me, then back again. “I believe he loved her very much.” Her eyes remained on me.

“So why did he leave?”

She nodded. “That’s the question, isn’t it?” I said nothing. She seemed to deliberate before she spoke again. “I think I’m not going to apologize for your father. He was a good man.” Her eyes looked into mine, their slight magnification making them appear owlishly penetrating. “Sometime after Philip returned from Europe, he ran into Bernie. They went out for a drink. Afterwards, Bernie realized with some surprise that he’d had a good time. He also seemed a little concerned about Philip. They got together another time, then another time after that. I think it was after that that Philip joined Bernie and me for dinner for the first time. Just him, no date.”

With that I realized that Edith might have known my father with other women, a thought that I think I’d shied away from before then. At that moment, a little calico cat walked into the room from the kitchen, moving lightly past Colin to pause by the end of the table where she aimed a high, lilting meow at Edith.

“Hello there,” Edith said, looking down at her. Colin had already slithered out of his seat and crouched by the intruder, patting its lower back, which elevated in response.

“Colin,” I said, “don’t overdo it. Go easy on the kitty.” No sign that he’d heard me, though he did seem to be attempting contact with more finesse than his usual mauling. And the calico seemed to appreciate the attention.

“What’s her name?” Colin asked, hand still patting away.

“That’s Minka,” Edith answered. “She’s the queen of this chicken coop.”

Colin peered up at her, trying to figure how literally she meant that, then returned his attention to the cat. “Hi, Minka,” he said softly.

“I think she likes you,” Edith observed. Colin stood up, wiping his hands together, which resulted in some cat hair flying. Minka aimed another meow at Edith, this one more plaintive. “I know,” Edith said, “we’re eating and you’re not. It’s not fair, is it?” Minka walked a few slow steps in a half-circle, tail up in the air, looking back at Edith, then around the room as if she’d heard something none of us humans had.

Colin slowly resumed his seat, Minka parked her rear on the rug and began licking the fur way up on her inner thighs. Way up there in the nether region. Just what I like to see when I’m trying to eat.

“How come cats wash themselves so much?” Colin asked.

“Well,” said Edith, “imagine that you were covered with hair like she is. So much hair that you couldn’t see your skin anywhere on your body. Do you think that might get uncomfortable?”

“I don’t know,” Colin answered, thinking hard.

“Do you have to wash your hair every day?”

“Uh-huh,” Colin said. I thought I heard an editorial tone of complaint there at the unreasonable demands imposed by certain parental units.

“Think how often you’d have to wash if you had hair everywhere.” No answer from Colin. He looked back at Minka, who remained intently focused on groinal hygiene.

“Do you have any pets?” Edith asked Colin.

“Uh-uh,” he said, shaking his head.

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah,” said my boy, additional editorial tone in his voice. “Dad can’t have any in his apartment.”

“Building regulations,” I assured Edith.

“You live there by yourself?” Edith asked.

“On the days Colin’s not with me, yes.”

“You’re divorced?”

“Oh, yes.”

“I see.” Edith noticed Colin’s bowl was empty. “Would you like more soup?” she asked him.

“Yes, please.” A quick flicker of the eyes in my direction to see if that was okay.

“Have as much as you want, bub.” You take advantage when your progeny actually wants to eat something healthy. Outside a car drifted by, slowing for the stop sign at the end of the block. It’s been a while since I lived anywhere that looked out on passing traffic — there was something nice about sitting at this table with my boy and this elderly woman who provided connection with a part of my life long unknown. The occasional vehicle moving past outside, the November afternoon drifting slowly by. Life going on all around.

Edith finished pouring more soup in Colin’s bowl, he carefully took it from her and set it on his place mat. He picked up his spoon, then his attention returned to Minka, still deeply into a disturbing display of self-care. At that moment alternately licking and biting at one patch of groin fur. Very attractive.

I tried to get my attention off of unwholesome visuals, turning back to my meal. Another car drifted by, slowing down. This one stopped before moving completely out of view, began backing up. Through the sheer curtains I could make out two figures in the car, looking to be scrutinizing Edith’s house, the one in the passenger’s seat appearing large and male. My inner early warning system began sounding off. They backed up more, apparently trying to find a spot to park. I reached out and grabbed Colin by the arm.

“I think we have to go,” I said.

“So soon?” said Edith, surprised.

“You’re about to have visitors,” I told her. She stared at me, not understanding, then turned to the window.

“That’s no reason for you to leave,” she said.

“In this case,” I said, grabbing my coat and Colin’s from their perch in the hallway, “it is.” I hurried back into the room to herd Colin out to the kitchen. “Come on, buddy,” I said, trying to make it sound more like a request than the urgent instruction it actually was.

[See entries of 5/24/02, 6/15/02, 8/13/02 and 8/22/02 for further excerpts, or use the links in this page's right-hand column.]

Man, there’s been a lot going on in recent days, with no time to plant my posterior in a chair and write any of it down to inflict on unsuspecting cybervisitors. (’Til now.)

Christmas day: left just before 1 p.m., took Line 10 of the Metro to Principe Pio. Line 10 — clean, modern, looking practically brand-spanking new. Within the last few months, the city picked up a new fleet of spacious, streamlined, high-tech trains, complete with numerous plasma-screen television monitors in each car broadcasting weather, news headlines, scenes from Madrid, blahblahblah. Plus, each coach is open on both ends so that you can see all the way to either end of the train, which I find to be big fun for some reason. Simple thrills for simple minds.

Across from me sat three eastern European males, one slender 40-something guy in between two 20-somethings, all with a very particular eastern European kind of aspect. I sat down across from one of the 20-somethings, he gave me a look of some sort, studying me. Then the other 20-something did the same. The older one, also, but not as lingering or direct. Then the first 20-something made a show of doing something with a fist over his mouth — yawning? clearing his throat? who knows — which he used to make a comment of some sort, apparently about me. All I could do was smile and get out a book to read. (As an attorney I once knew used to say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t talking about you.)

At Principe Pio, I caught a bus and made the 30-minute ride out to Villaviciosa, the reasonably well-heeled suburban enclave in which my landlords (John: American; Pat: English) have taken refuge for years and years and years in a lovely brick house they themselves built on a very green third of an acre lot. They’re an extremely entertaining bunch, my landlords’ clan — generous, voluble, right out there with who they are. The kids — Bobby and Anna, both 20-somethings — are smart, bilingual, enjoyable to be around, with striking similiarities and differences. Anna, in particular, speaks Spanish that is fast, fluid and beautifully musical. Also present: Bobby’s Spanish sweetheart, Sandra. A spicy blend of personalities, and a fine spread of food, from pre-meal nosh to a fine, classic turkey-and-stuffing main course with some less traditional side dishes, to a large, delicious English Christmas pudding with brandy sauce. Plus party favors and moments of hilarity. What a deal!

Brief aside: Between a slowly-sipped pre-dinner beer, a couple of glasses of mineral water (not to mention a glass or two of bubbly cider) with the meal, and a couple of cups of tea afterward, my bladder decided it had a bunch of work to do. Resulting in increasingly frequent trips to the loo as the afternoon wore on, to the point where it may have become worrisome to my hosts. NOTE TO MY HOSTS: I am not bulemic. I was not making room for successive courses of Christmas chow. I was simply obeying my increasingly-distressed plumbing and dumping the ballast. Honest. End of aside.

After dinner: a pause for chat/tea, then an hour-long walk. After which I made the bus trip back to the city, now busy with Christmas night revelry — young folks everywhere, readying for some serious partying; the occasional explosion from heavy-duty fireworks ringing out — stumbling in the door to my piso at 9 p.m. Not a bad day.

[continued in next entry]

Unsolicited Recommendations

Four blogs — all interesting, all long on wit, all written by women (some updated more than others), all worth taking a look at:


Mimi Smartypants

Que Sera Sera

Mighty Girl

Four CDs — all seriously kickass in very different ways:

Bob Dylan Live 1975

Calle 54 (soundtrack to the film)

Monsoon Wedding (soundtrack to the film)

Concert By The Sea — Errol Garner

Addendum: Re: Que Sera Sera (see the above blogs) — the ongoing exchange of comments re: The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers/Orlando Bloom warrants wading through. Sample: “I’ve been assured it was an epic film, but all I really paid attention to was the hot archer of the dark, intense eyes. I want to have his little immortal elfin children.”

Christmas morning 2002, Madrid — some moments:

– Fireworks went off sporadically during the night. Shortly after 7 a.m., some capullo set off a couple of loud buggers, the explosions clear and sharp in the morning silence. On impulse, I got up, opened a window, leaned out to see the state of the neighborhood this holiday a.m. Everything was closed/shuttered, though a few individuals walked the quiet streets, in particular one hefty woman sporting a sweater, jeans, flip-flops, no socks, no coat. Weaving a bit as she made her way along, as if she had passed a long night celebrating in heavy-duty fashion.

– Around 10 a.m., I found myself beset by the desire for a decent cup of espresso and left to track one down. The local streets remained dead silent, the few other pedestrians quiet and keeping to themselves except for one lone street cleaner busy sweeping up trash from last night’s revels. As I headed out to la Calle de Hortaleza, moving toward Gran Vía, activity began picking up. Ahead of me, on the opposite side of the narrow street, a guy in a Santa hat (bright red, white trim, pompom) walked along talking loudly into his cellphone.

– Most of the folks strolling along Gran Vía were alone, some clearly out for a head-clearing paseo, others not looking terribly content or relaxed. Little automotive traffic passed by, though buses provided color and motion. To this point, no businesses of any kind were open, not even the newspaper stand across from the end of la Calle de Hortaleza, usually a bastion of activity.

– An eccentric-looking 60-something gent jogged by in sweatshirt/shorts/Walkman headset, his gait bow-legged, his steps a bit exaggerated as if he were treading on hot cinders. Down the block, a diminutive older gentleman the jogger had passed turned to stare after the runner, mouth slightly agape in amazement at the vision that had just pranced by.

– A few blocks down Gran Vía in the direction of Callao, the pink neon of the big sign for the Zahara Café (or is it the Café Zahara? it’s impossible to tell from the sign’s layout) shone brightly through the gray morning light. Across the street, the Cafetería Nebraska also appeared to be open, customers clustered around the counter inside. Neither of them places I’d ever set foot in. I chose the Zahara, which turned out to be a cavernous Planet-Hollywoodesque joint with many, many tables and a long U-shaped counter. Christmas morning supplicants lined the long U, sipping infusions of caffeine, some also working on buttered toast with knives and forks as is the local custom. Two women moved around behind the counter, clearly not happy to be where they were this Navidad a.m.

– I found a stool, ordered a café cortado and churros. A 30-something guy sat to my left, smoking, appearing a bit bleary and unsettled. When my stuff arrived, I asked him to pass me a napkin dispenser. He did so, clearly startled at the smile on my face and by the fact that I seemed to be enjoying myself. At one point, as I slowly hoovered down the churros and café, he sneezed. I said the traditional Spanish “Jesús” (the locals’ version of ‘bless you,’ pronounced Hay-SOOS), again startling him, though he produced a tentative smile and a “gracias” in response.

– As I ate, a gent with a weathered late-50ish face appeared to the other side of the customer to my right. He mumbled something to one of the women behind the counter, she disappeared, reappearing with a snifter and a bottle of brandy, pouring him a healthy hit that he accepted a bit shakily.

– More strollers were out during the walk home, the pace of the morning clearly picking up. As I mounted the stairs here in the building, I could hear sounds of conversation and activity in different pisos on the various floors, Christmas day in Madrid slowly finding its feet.

Woke up during the early morning hours, tossed and turned, gradually drifted back off to sleep. When my eyes finally re-opened, my teensy bedside travel clock read ten of nine. Classes start at nine. I managed to stumble in the door of the school around 9:15, setting a personal record. Showered, dressed, with all needed books/notebooks, though unshaven. Three out of four ain’t bad.

As happened yesterday, I encountered few people on the Metro during the ride to school, further evidence that Madrid’s rush hour evaporates during the days of Navidad. The atmosphere at school was one of chomping at the bit to get the partying underway. During the late morning break, the teaching staff played music, drank bubbly, scarfed down pastries. They are a cute, smart bunch with endearing tendencies toward rowdiness. The second session of class ended a bit early so that one of the three brothers that preside over the school, Ángel, could pop open two bottles of Spanish sparkling wine and lead a group toast which degenerated rapidly into random hilarity. Los profesores were carrying on, ready to bolt and continue the partying elsewhere. I went into the classroom to pull on my coat/pick up my stuff, when I returned to the common area, most everyone appeared to have flown the coop, as if they’d literally leaped out any available window or door while I had my back turned. José, another of the three brothers, seemed to be collecting the few remaining souls to head out for lunch, I attached myself to that, assuming a big gathering of students/teachers/etc. was in store.

A short walk took us to a restaurant a few blocks from the school, packed with Madrileños happily and loudly tossing down tapas, raising glasses of wine/champagne, chatting, laughing. Our group of six — José, myself, Sergio (a French 20-something), Nikki (a 20-something New Yorker), Concetta (an Italian 30-something) and Wolfgang (a German 30-something) — pushed through all that and were ushered to a rear dining room filled with tables prepared for dining. Many tables, no diners. Except us, cloistered away from all the noise and fun. And as we were seated at a table for six, it started to sink in that the big hooha I’d thought I’d attached myself to was off happening somewhere else.(!!) Our little group consisted mostly of people who had further classes to go to, so were being given a nice, fast lunch by the school, not the raucous blowout I was looking forward to being a part of. And I found myself in attendance at one of the more awkward, unrelaxed dinners I’ve attended here in Madrid — not the shindig I was up for.

I mostly sat, ate, watched the people I was with, something I virtually always enjoy. Post-meal, back outside into the December air, I wished the rest of the group Feliz Navidad and took off, happy to be free and making my way through Christmastime Madrid — people doing last minute shopping, bars and restaurants overflowing with folks spending Christmas Eve afternoon in traditional social fashion.

We’d been warned at school that stores would be closing as the afternoon progressed and that by 8 p.m. the entire city would be shut down, including public transit, movies, restaurants, you name it. Christmas Eve — families congregate for the major Christmas dinner, everything else comes to a halt.

I figured some theaters would have to be open and, calculating correctly, managed to get myself to a late-afternoon movie. When I emerged back into the falling evening shortly before six and headed up Gran Vía, the city was literally in the process of closing up around me. Stores, restaurants, bars — locking up, turning off their lights. Not all of them, but most, enough that it generated a strange sense of tranquil unreality. Automotive traffic was sparse and the sidewalks on either side of Gran Vía — normally crowded to where simple walking at one’s own pace can be difficult to manage — were nearly deserted, making for a long relaxed saunter, watching the natives emerging from closing stores with bags of gifts or walking in groups talking animatedly.

All of this produces in me a strange sensation of contentedness, spiked with an occasional feeling of disconnection as I drift through this lovely city while it carries on in traditional Christmas fashion, me having no particular Christmas Eve destination other than home. Which is a fine destination, considering where that home is.

One strange note in Madrid’s Christmas season — fireworks. They began last Thursday or Friday, here in Chueca. I stood in my kitchen preparing something to eat — out in the street something exploded, loud and intense enough that I literally jumped. A bomb, I thought at first, ETA having been active recently not far from Madrid. Until it occurred to me that no windows were broken, no sounds of shock/terror/fear came from the street, post-explosion. Christmastime fireworks, big ones — not small inoffensive buggers. Ashcans or M-15’s, something of that caliber.

Since then I’ve heard them around the city, huge explosions, usually producing a cloud of smoke, the perps managing to get some distance away before the explosion so that it’s impossible to make out which individual just scared the bejesus out of the neighborhood. As I entered my barrio on the walk home tonight, making my way along la Calle de Hortaleza, someone set off a major explosion a block ahead, a thick cloud of smoke drifting through the air in its wake. People stop and look around, local life pauses for a moment. Then everyone carries on.


My barrio, despite many businesses being closed/shuttered/dark, proved to be lots livelier than the other parts of the city I’d passed through. Some book stores had their doors open. Some taverns and restaurants were packed with people looking for food, company, noise, energy. A surprising number of places remained open for business as I neared my calle, the streets pleasantly alive with folks walking, Christmas lights radiated cheer from store windows or strung across la calle overhead. The three businesses on the corner nearest this building’s front door — two slick cafés and a small, funky neighborhood tavern — bustled with sound/people. I went into one of the cafés — dark, smokey, music playing (music with a good beat) — and planted myself at a corner table where I worked my way through a couple of espressos and did, er, homework. Happy to be where I was, doing what I was doing.

Tomorrow I take a combo subway/bus ride out to one of Madrid’s ‘burbs for Christmas dinner with my landlords, an expansive, highly enjoyable British/American couple who have become friends. Just them, their two 20-something kids and their son’s Spanish sweetheart. And me. I expect some serious entertainment.

Have a lovely holiday, wherever you are, however you spend it. Felizes fiestas to all, and to all a good night.

A beautiful pre-Christmas day, wan sunlight shining through high clouds. When I dragged myself out to classes this morning, the usual morning rush hour Metro ride had given way to a sparsely-attended pre-holiday non-rush-hour kind of event, a handful of drowsy, half-smiling commuters sharing the car with me. Likewise, when I disembarked at la estación Opera for the short slog up la calle de Arenal to the language school, few people were about. Far more like a Sunday morning than a Monday. Two hours later, when I stepped outside during the morning break to grab a café and a bocadillo, the sidewalks were alive with crowds of Madrileños out doing last-minute Christmas shopping. Talk about a transformation. (This is something I used to love about living in Cambridge, MA during the holiday season — the relative tranquility that reigned from Christmas Eve to just before New Year’s Eve, the relaxing of the usual high-speed local lifestyle. Rush-hour became a drastically diminished version of its normally intense self, something I especially enjoyed. Christmas Eve in Cambridge/Boston is particularly low-key, the streets practically deserted, the usual bustle replaced by quiet, Christmas lights shining in the December night. Except down in Boston’s Chinatown, where the restaurants are packed with those not keyed in to the more normal versions of Christmas Eve. In fact, tomorrow night will be my first Christmas Eve in the last five or six years not spent with a handful of friends around a Chinatown table piled high with plates of excellent chow, the room around us ringing with the din of conversation and dinner activity.)

I find myself walking through my days here smiling a great deal of the time, beset by almost inexplicable waves of contentment at being in this city. I say ‘almost’ inexplicable because I can point to scores of things that provoke pleasure in me, many of them seemingly trivial — passing moments of no great import that flit by as the day passes. The faces I see around me, radiating to greater or lesser degrees the life going on within those individuals. The sound of the language, and the snippets of conversation I hear washing by on the street. The architecture, the way the sunlight slants down the buildings to slice across part of a narrow calle, shifting slowly with the sun’s movement as the minutes slip by. Young couples walking hand in hand or standing close together, talking, faces inches apart, moving closer to share a kiss. Families or groups of friends carrying gift-wrapped packages. Lots of talk and chatter, lots of motion, stores lit up, the air filled with a nice energy.

It’s good, all of it. Call me Pollyanna, but there it is.

Went to the gym this afternoon. On the way back, stopped in for the first time at the new corner spot next door. Slick. Real slick. And pretty. The old joint was not pretty. Kind of dumpy, in fact, the walls crowded with anonymous, kitschy artwork or photos, the wall and shelves behind the counter crammed with food, supplies, bottles of liquids and tchotchkes. The windows – wide floor-to-ceiling jobs looking out on the street – were mostly covered with old, sheer curtains. A dive – cramped, crowded, dowdy, dog-eared. The new place’s owners ripped out everything that had been in the space’s previous incarnation, exposing the bricks, buffing up the floor (a nice wood floor I hadn’t noticed in the old joint), leaving the windows uncovered. It’s an austere spot now, tastefully done. Europop – decent Europop – played on the sound system, a wide flat-screen television hung at either end of the space playing what are probably by now clichéd rave-type images of concerts and crowds dancing, waving glowsticks. All in all, okay, with the picture-window views of the world outside a major plus. The downside: the café they served me? Not very good. Not very good and a third again as expensive as anywhere else in the neighborhood. Bugger.

An elderly woman from my building tottered slowly in with a friend, another woman around her age, both of them the local version of the classic little old blue-haired lady (minus the blue). The woman from my building has one of the world’s most radiant smiles — when she spotted me, she waved and unleashed it in my direction. She and her friend sat at a table by one of the windows, ordered cafés. When the espressos arrived, the two women sat and sipped, watching the neighborhood activity outside, Europop playing loudly around them. Content.

Me, too.

From Christopher Key’s blog The Barbaric Yawp:

“Hey, writing is easy. You just open a vein and let it flow onto the page.”


Let me see if I can get this straight:

Saw a great French film earlier (”L’Auberge Espagnole,” called here “Una Casa de Locos”) — at a theater near la Plaza de España here in Madrid – about a French college student who spends a year in the beautiful Spanish city of Barcelona. He shares an apartment with a German guy, an Italian guy, a Danish guy, a British woman, a Belgian lesbian and a Spanish woman. Great soundtrack, with music from all over. Afterwards, I had a dynamite, cheap meal at a teeny Chinese joint next door to a used CD shop where I picked up CDs by two African Americans (Errol Garner, Charlie Parker) and an American band led by a Latino (Santana – “Borboletta“). (The restaurant/CD shop are located in the access hallway to the Plaza de España underground garage, an illogical, out-of-the-way location someone mentioned to me some time ago which turns out to also have a Chinese grocery and a Chinese travel agency.)

After all that, I wandered up Gran Vía as darkness fell and crowds of Spaniards walked together, moving in and out of tiendas, window shopping, sifting in and out of restaurants like the Cafetería Nebraska, theaters and snack joints vending Turkish food and fine, fine Italian ice cream. In the falling evening, the Christmas lights that span the avenue shone cheerfully along its length, honoring a Jewish carpenter born in Bethlehem, Palestine.

Madrid: a city that reminds me every day that we’re all riding this planet of ours together. The city of my heart.

A confession: I love the Christmas season. It’s as simple as that. I’m especially enjoying it here, watching the Spaniards wade gracefully through their version of it. I hear a fair number of complaints re: stress/obligations/materialism run amok, just as I do in the States, but when it comes down to it, what I see around me is a great deal of happiness. That is, of course, only one aspect of each day’s complete picture, but you know what? I don’t care. The picture here is a good one, I’m enjoying taking it in as the days sweep by.

In some ways, the pace of life has picked up as the gift-buying season has progressed and folks devote more active attention to plans for Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), Navidad (Christmas day) and the season as a whole. On the other hand, over the last 2-3 days, college students have headed for home, followed by a more general exodus as people stream off to parts unknown to pass the coming days. Last night in particular seemed to signal the genuine onset of the two-week Christmas vacation. During the day, traffic out of Madrid maintained a steady pace as businesses closed, people took off and the city’s rhythm gradually slowed with the outflow of people.

This means major partying for many of those who remain, and the last two nights in this barrio have featured dusk to dawn revels, groups of partyers drifting from one restaurant/bar/café to another — talking loudly, laughing, singing, with outbursts of shouting, even howling. For some reason, 3-4 a.m. is an especially active time, maybe the hour when certain places close down and other late night spots just get going, triggering slow, jubilant waves of migration for the all-night crowd.

Chueca, my barrio, has always been a dynamic mixture of funky, commercial, touristy and extremely chic. This little corner of it — mighty funky when I moved in, with outposts of high chic — is undergoing a drastic gentrification, a process that has crept closer and closer to this building. La Calle de Pelayo, the street at right angles to this one, just 50 feet from our front door, was a mix of funky residential, neighborhood tiendas/bars and a scattering of more upscale shops (and, lately, art galleries). An epidemic of rehabbing older residential buildings got underway a year ago, gathering steam during my last few months back in the States. The cafetería on the corner of our street and Pelayo, a neighborhood joint that attracted an outrageously colorful, mixed clientele, cutting across the entire spectrum — also featuring great coffee, good morning nosh food (churros, croissants, sweet rolls, breads) — closed earlier this year, undergoing a months-long major transformation once the previous owner had been nudged out. Yesterday evening it opened its doors as an attractive, slick-looking bar/nightspot.

Across the street, the vacant lot’s days are numbered. Last week — 8, 9, 10 days ago — the re-postering in the wake of the city crew’s scouring the wall clean began sluggishly and never fully re-established itself, the first such occasion in my time here. That Friday, I arrived back home from the morning’s Spanish classes to find someone had tossed up a six-foot tall wire enclosure along the curb, preventing access to both the sidewalk and wall. The new enclosure went around the corner to the wall’s end, where someone was constructing a brick and plaster barrier across the sidewalk, from the wire enclosure to the wall itself, to prevent passage. I asked the lone worker what was up, he answered that construction would begin on a brand new building sometime between now and the beginning of January, a piece of news whose disclosure felt something like an arrow through my heart. The street between our building and the lot on which the new building will grow is narrow, the construction will be extremely close by. Months of that is not something I look forward to. But it’s the on the way. I will miss that empty lot.

Change — life’s only constant. And in general, I like change. I’ll have to sit tight and see how this new development unfolds.


It’s Saturday morning, the time when the local world gets its shopping done before the tiendas close at 2 p.m. A process that normally gets underway in leisurely fashion, picking up speed around 11 a.m., so that by 11:30, the shops, streets and pedestrian ways are crowded with people. This being the final weekend before Christmas, it was an accelerated version off its usual self. Both yesterday evening and this morning, I made trips to the local centro comercial to pick up most of what I’d need for the coming days. This morning, once done there with that, I headed off toward la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol and el Corte Inglés, the megastore that is Madrid’s retail heavy hitter, stopping briefly at a neighborhood joint for a quick café cortado.

A gray morning, just damp enough to produce some mist in the air, just cool enough that my breath was visible. I stepped into el Cortes Inglés at 11 to find heavier crowds than normal for that hour. Heavy, yet not suffocating, not frenzied. Going about their business, getting done what needed to be done, seeming a bit relaxed about it all (except at the long, busy meats/chesses counter, where the line and the wait were considerable). The displays of Christmas sweets — and the Spaniards enjoy their sweets — were impressive, persuasive and ubiquitous, and I’ve shown genuine restraint in not picking up any. I’ll be getting a cake for the staff at school Monday a.m. — that’ll be my main indulgence.

Outdoors afterwards, Madrid was out in force in all its variety, from elderly couples waking slowly arm in arm to families with young children — one little one ahead of me, maybe four years old, digging in her feet against her parents’ pulling her on, protesting something loudly, the parents trying to cajole her into forward movement — to individual characters, talking to themselves, milling through the crowds, clothes in disarray, carrying multiple bags. And it almost goes without saying that with this swirling, eddying human traffic, cell phones were in abundant use, visible in all directions.

There is something about walking amid all this that brings me a pleasure I can barely express. I love people. I love people-watching. I love Madrid. Toss all that into the same mix, it’s a combo that reminds how good this life of ours generally feels to me, in all its color and variation, in all its joys and dischords, its splendor and squalor.

It’s about 1:30. Time to wind this up and head back out into the day.

Someone at Salon.com, the other location at which this journal is published, pointed out that last night’s post consists of material that’s been around in various places for some time — for instance, here.

This is why I rarely post or forward to friends e-mail/internet ‘humor’ claiming to be from a particular source or event — it’s most often not. The Darwin Awards are a major case in point, as this website about urban legends mulls over.

Me, I’m going to revert to my usual habit of sticking to the occasional posting of material from my e-mail archives which makes no claim to anything except a bit of entertainment.

English Lit.

According to a reliable English source, the following excerpts are from England’s General Certification for Secondary Education (GSCE) English papers of last summer:

Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the centre.

Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left York at 6:36 p.m. travelling at 55 mph, the other from Peterborough at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

The politician was gone but unnoticed, like the full stop after the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can.

John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

The thunder was ominous sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.

The red brick wall was the colour of a brick-red crayon.

Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two other sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

McMurphy fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a paper bag filled with vegetable soup.

Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.

The door had been forced, as forced as the dialogue during the interview portion of Family Fortunes.

His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a tumble dryer.

She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from doors and would fly up whenever you banged the door open again.

The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

Even in his last years, Grandpa had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long it had rusted shut.

Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

The plan was simple, like my brother Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

“Oh, Jason, take me!” she panted, her breasts heaving like a student on 31p-a-pint night.

He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.”

She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

It came down the stairs looking very much like something no one had ever seen before.

The knife was as sharp as the tone used by Glenda Jackson MP in her first several points of parliamentary procedure made to Robin Cook MP, Leader of the House of Commons, in the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the suspension of Keith Vaz MP.

The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a lamppost.

The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free cashpoint.

The dandelion swayed in the gentle breeze like an oscillating electric fan set on medium.

It was a working class tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with their power tools.

He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a dustcart reversing.

She was as easy as the Daily Star crossword.

She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature British beef.

She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.

Her voice had that tense, grating quality, like a first-generation thermal paper fax machine that needed a band tightened.

It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.

As you know, if you’ve read any of this journal’s entries from last month, the arrival of deep winter to northern Vermont at the beginning of November drove me to lighting candles and playing far too much Christmas music. Since arriving in Madrid — two weeks ago today — with its gentler, friendlier weather, I haven’t felt the need to crank up the holiday atmosphere. A few days back, on the 15th, the realization that el día de Navidad was only ten days off and steaming steadily in this direction jolted me back into tossing Christmas tunes onto my little boombox CD player. Not that I have many tunes to choose from — only “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “A Star In The East” made the trip. Which, considering I tend not to go for traditional Christmas music, has been fine. I skip over the one or two authentic traditional tunes sung by authentic kids on “Charlie Brown” (that’s right, I skip over the singing children – so sue me). And “A Star In The East,” a haunting, extremely beautiful recording of medieval Hungarian Christmas music by the Anonymous Four, works just fine for a weirdo like myself.

Whatever other Christmas atmosphere I get comes by way of my normal travels around Christmastime Madrid. Or via field trips, like last Saturday evening’s jaunt to the annual Christmas Fair at la Plaza Mayor. Normally one of the city’s mostly intensely concentrated points of tourism, the plaza is taken over for the month of December by the Fair, changing the atmosphere in drastic fashion.

The city center is currently aglow with holiday lights and the energy of the crowds surging through the area — shopping, eating, walking, in groups of family members, friends, couples. It’s a joy to pass through it all, people-watching, smelling aromas of food from various tiendas, passing street musicians. At least until one gets into the very center of Sol, where the pedestrian traffic becomes intensely congested, a state worsened by the ubiquitous black market street vendors, who lay their wares out on either side of the thoroughfare, though not actually at its edges, so that the overabundant foot traffic is squeezed into a narrow channel running along the center of whatever pedestrian way one is passing through, making the trip slow and arduous. (The key is making one’s way to the margins of the thoroughfare, to pass along the thin strip of space behind the vendors, which sounds easier than it is.)

Last Saturday night, the main streets, sidewalks and side streets between Sol and la Plaza Mayor were swamped with holiday revelers and vendors, much of the traffic swirling in the direction of la Plaza Mayor, so that all one had to do was, er, go with the flow, slow as that flow may be. The centuries-old warren of narrow cobblestone streets that surround the plaza leads toward the various entrance archways, at which point you suddenly find yourself in an enormous expanse of open space, bounded on four sides by stately, relatively austere Baroque architecture — tiendas/restaurants on ground level, offices/pisos above. The contrast between the trip up the winding, constricted streets and the abrupt opening away of the Plaza is quite a sensation, heightened when the winding streets feeding into the plaza are packed with people. And at the same time dampened a bit right now because the Plaza is not the open space it is most of the year. Currently, several rows of booths fill the center of the plaza, while the periphery is lined with Christmas tree stalls and other rough-edged commercial concerns.

Despite the number of booths, they only consist of three of four types — standard decorations, religious decorations, joke articles (”artículos de broma”– masks, wigs, funny glasses, plastic vomit, etc.) and then there are stalls that combine those in different ways. Meaning there’s a whole lot of duplication of wares, loads of stalls selling essentially the same stuff. Which doesn’t seem to matter -– there appears to be plenty of business to go around.

And what, you might ask, is with all the gag items? December 28th is Spain’s version of April Fools Day — el Día de los Santos Inocentes. Originally a day designated in commemoration of the massacre of children ordered by King Herod, somewhere along the line it became a day to play practical jokes and carry on in hilarious ways. How? Why? Good questions. So far I haven’t found any source of information that provides a link. Regardless, somewhere during the passing of the centuries, it became an occasion far more lighthearted than originally intended.

People of all ages clustered around the various stalls, checking out the available goods, groups of young folks and families moving slowly up and down the aisles. Wigs were a hot item on Saturday night, mostly wigs whose individual strands were made of acetate or something similar, colored metallic shades of blue, purple, lavender. Between the time I arrived and the time, the number of wigs Fair-goers sported increased drastically, along with big, floppy Santa hats — red with white trim, decked with tiny blinking chaser lights, all playing a high-pitched, tinny-sounding, computer-music version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Chinese folks stood around selling that kind of stuff — hats, canes, little toys and stuffed animals, all pumping out the same tune. They were everywhere, doing an aggressive sales job, so that by the end of my trip to the plaza, the identical, increasingly annoying rendition of Beethoven’s ditty was everywhere.

Another recurring element: a sign in the stalls selling joke stuff which read “HAY BOMBAS DE AGUA” (essentially, WE HAVE WATER BOMBS). None were flying around the plaza, but I get the growing impression that Dec. 28 may turn out be an interesting day.


A Bitter Christmas

by Jane Siberry

It was the night before Christmas

and all through the house

the children were excited, hoping for snow.

It looked like it might snow,

but no, no, no.

Good. I’m glad.

The next morning

father had set the alarm clock

but it didn’t go off,

so the whole household

slept all the way through Christmas day.

Good, I’m glad.

And then they thought

We’ll still open all

our presents the day after Christmas

so they raced down the stairs,

they flew down the stairs,

they streamed down the stairs into the living room,

and there…




Good, I’m glad.

(From Jane Siberry’s excellent 1997 CD “Child”)

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