far too much writing, far too many photos

Well, I hadn’t planned any adventures when the day began, but this afternoon around a quarter to five I found myself suddenly smitten with the impulse to run out the door and down to the city center where I would try and weasel my way into the first Madrid-area showing of Lord of The Rings Round II. Got to the theater a few minutes after 5. Walked in, picked up a ticket — no wait, price around $5.50. The theater was at 75% capacity when I sauntered in and picked up a second-row-center seat. (If I’d had my druthers I would have chosen the third or fourth rows, but they were jammed and I had the feeling I would have no success trying to persuade someone to vacate.)

Sat myself down, sharing the row with one other person — a college guy (Tulane U., New Orleans) of Indian descent two seats to my right. We co-existed peacefully, watching LOTR fanatics drift in and fill the rest of the theater. Off toward the rear of the space, a group of knuckleheads in jury-rigged hooded capes, wielding aluminum-foil swords and hobby-horses (I am not making that last detail up), chased each other around the theater in loud, flailing bouts of pre-film human-versus-orc warfare.

A couple sat to my left, two American 30-somethings. Nice folks. Other people slowly dropped into nearby vacant seats until they were suddenly filled with humans, mostly college-age. In fact, far as I could tell I may have been the only 40-something in a theater weighted heavily toward the 20-something range. This happens a lot. I suspect my tastes are far younger than those of what some might call my, er, peers.

The lights dimmed, the pre-film publicidad commenced. Ten or so minutes of ads, a heavy percentage of them shilling perfumes/colognes, this being the season to be jolly and wave your credit card around. Man, there are some terrible ads being inflicted on the general public over here. A few entertaining ones and a whole poopload of awful ones.

And finally the film began.

The verdict: it beats the pants off Harry P. #2. (Or would that be considered some particularly perverse form of pederasty?) In my humble, ignorant opinion, anyway. For what it’s worth, please keep in mind this judgment is coming from someone who loves the Harry P. books (and just a bought a copy of H.P. #4 in Spanish).

A genuinely Intense film. Epic in its sweep, in an immensely positive way — you laugh, you cry, etc. — building up to a long, astonishing rendering of the major battle scene that winds up book two of the trilogy. My only real reservation: I wish there were more women in the story, women in strong roles. LOTR Part I had enough major female characters to create more of what felt to me like a balance. I felt the lack in this one. I know this simply reflects the original text, which in turn reflects its time, so what are you gonna do? But there it is.

I like women. In fact, I love women. Life is much more fun, I think, much more satisfying, when they’re a solid 50% of the mix.

Apart from that, this is my choice for the season’s hot film ticket.

Major body count, by the way. The final standings: elves — quite a few dead; humans — many hundreds, maybe thousands dead; orcs and other nasty, misshapen nonhumans — thousands and thousands and thousands dead.

After the film, as I sat and watched some of the longest credits in history, the male of the American couple next to me got up and took off, leaving the woman, who got a call on her cell phone and began speaking excellent Spanish. Reminded me all over again how sexy Spanish can sound when it’s coming from a member of the female persuasion.

Once her call was done, she also took off, leaving me and the credits, which took their sweet time finishing up. When they did, I pulled my coat on and headed toward the little boys room, which is located at the back of this theater. Standing near the door stood the American couple who had been my neighbors for the last three hours, deep in conversation with my friend David, one of the only Americans I know here in Madrid.

Damn, it’s a small world.

**************************

Christmas entertainment, unearthed from my e-mail archives:

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Noo Yawk Style)

‘Twas the night before Christmas,

Da whole house was mellow,

Not a creature was stirrin’,

I had a gun under my pillow.

When up on da roof

I heard somethin’ pound,

I sprung to da window

To scream, “YO! KEEP IT DOWN!”

When what to my

Wanderin’ eyes should appear

But dat hairy elf Nickie

And eight friggin’ reindeer.

Wit’ a bad hackin’ cough

An’ da stencha burped beer,

I knew in a moment,

Yo, da Kringle wuz here!

Wit’ a slap to dere snouts

An’ a yank on dere manes,

He cursed and he shouted

An’ he called dem by name:

“Yo, Tony! Yo, Frankie!

Yo, Sally! Yo, Vito!

Ay, Joey! Ay, Paulie!

Ay, Pepe! Ay, Guido!”

As I drew out my gun

An’ hid by da bed,

Down came his friggin’ boot

On da top of my head.

His eyes were all bloodshot,

His b.o. was scary,

His breath was like sewage,

He had a mole dat wuz hairy.

He spit in my eye

An’ he twisted my head,

He soon let me know

I should consider myself dead.

Den pointin’ a fat finga

Right under my nose,

He let out some gas

An’ up da chimney he rose.

He sprang to his sleigh,

Obscenities screaming,

An’ away dey all flew,

‘Fore he troo dem a beatin’.

An’ I heard him exclaim,

Or better yet grump,

“Merry Christmas to all,

An’ bite me, ya hump!”

Two recently discovered out-of-context quotes:

“…the streets were full of helpless cars drifting atop the river of tiny pigs.”

“tiny pigs! dozens and dozens of tiny pigs! but when I bent down to wash my toes, they were gone.”

These bits of porcine musing can be perused at leisure — in context — at Wockerjabby.

Further out-of-context quotes can be found at, er, Out-of-Context Quotes.

Ghosts of Christmases Past, II

In putting together this dip into Christmases long gone, I found myself thinking about one Christmas Eve in particular, that of my first year of college. The oddest Christmas Eve I’ve ever experienced.

During my years in high school, my parents had a house built on the family land north of Albany, N.Y. [see journal entry of 15 October, 2001], and pretty much the nanosecond I graduated 12th grade, they bolted from Long Island. I had the house on the Island to myself that summer — yes, we are indeed talking large-scale partying — after which I bumbled my way up to University in Binghamton, N.Y.

I met some interesting folks at school that autumn, including Tony and Jackie, a couple from Huntington on Long Island — two lovely people. When classes broke for the holidays, I returned to the Island where I would pass a few days before driving upstate to inflict myself on my parents. On Christmas Eve, I was to pick up Tony, Jackie and Jackie’s cousin, a nice woman whose name I can’t seem to remember, then drive us all into Manhattan. Tony and Jackie would go uptown to a movie, a downtown concert awaited Jackie’s cousin and I. Post-performance, she and I would collect T&J, we’d all head back out to the Island.

And that’s what I did. I found my way out to Huntington, crammed them all into my VW bug, we sped west toward Manhattan. A nice drive — Christmas Eve, the four of us in the bug, Jackie’s cousin and I seeming to enjoy being with each other. Conversation flowed easily, the evening’s beginning unfolded comfortably.

We were 15 minutes or so from crossing the East River, Christmas lights shining around us in the evening darkness. Out of nowhere — literally, with no prior thought on my part — the statement “My car’s going to be broken into tonight” popped itself out of my mouth. Startling me every bit as much as it startled everyone else.

A moment of silence. Jackie gazed at me strangely, saying nothing. No one ventured to ask, tactfully or not, what I’d meant. We all just quietly sidled our way around the moment, conversation slowly resumed, the evening continued on. A short time later, we landed in Manhattan, I dropped T&J off, Jackie’s cousin and I zipped downtown. I hadn’t forgotten about the mystery statement, though. And though I managed to keep it from intruding in any visible way on my time with Jackie’s cousin, I found myself in a growing state of worry and preoccupation. Everything I’d brought with me from college was in the car (me not being smart enough to leave it all in Huntington). A paltry collection of belongings, really — some clothes, a box of records, Christmas gifts for my family — packed tightly into the teensy trunk and the cramped space behind the rear seat. It was what I had, though, and it was out there, draped in the shadows of a minimally-traveled, poorly-lit East Village street.

Post-concert, back out in the night air, I found my pace slowly accelerating — Jackie’s cousin nicely indulgent, not complaining about our increasing speed — until we reached the car, where I could see for myself that the vehicle had gone undisturbed.

Huge relief. Apprehension bled away, my heart slowed to its normal, happier state. We mounted up and returned uptown.

T&J were at a theater on Fifth Avenue, just a stone’s throw from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Christmas Eve was in full swing, the Avenue packed with cars, the sidewalks dense with people. Amazingly, I found a parking space on the Avenue, about two blocks from the movie theater. We locked up the car, trotted to the theater, found T&J, headed back toward the bug. An excursion of five to ten minutes. As we neared the VW, I could see something was wrong and ran the remaining distance to discover that, with all the traffic going by, with the throngs of people out walking, someone had, in that five to ten minutes, forced their way into the vehicle and made off with my stuff. All of it.

I’d had the records stuffed into a packing box from a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which had been jammed behind the rear seat, apparently in clear enough view through the rear window to be inviting. Whoever spotted it had expected to find a piece of electronic equipment. They wound up with albums, luggage, Christmas presents.

It’s an interesting life.

My parents’ insurance company treated me kindly, covering enough of the losses that I could replace the gifts for my family, the part of the whole affair that had hit me the hardest. The rest was just stuff. So that, apart from some emotional tumult, everything more or less worked itself out. Kind of like life itself.

Be well, everyone. May you spend the holidays with folks you love, in ways that feel good to heart and soul.

Last year at this time, I posted a lengthy — some might say, er, long-winded — reminiscence of Christmastimes from earlier in this little life of mine. In the weeks that followed that post, a surprising number of PEMs arrived saying surprisingly nice things about the piece. Because of that, I’ve decided to re-post it this year in reworked form and in two parts, beginning tonight.

**********************

Ghosts of Christmases Past

I grew up in a Roman Catholic family, a middle middle-class clan planted in the middle-middle-class community of North Merrick, near the south shore of Long Island, New York — all of that being a set of conditions which set the tone for many things, including the way Christmas unfolded year after year. (’Planted’ — possibly not the most accurate word. Transplanted might be more like it, my parents having moved there from Jackson Heights, N.Y.C. with my two brothers and me when I reached the six-month-old mark. Oddly enough, the housing development the family bought into was called the flower homes, all the streets bearing names like Verbena Avenue, Larkspur Avenue, Crocus Avenue. Crocus Avenue, by the way: our street. So planted, transplanted — whichever.)

Not a spacious home, our little house. Decidedly unspacious, in my memory — cramped, even. The ground floor: a tiny kitchen into which my parents had rammed a small dinner table; a small dining room, which saw gustatory action only when holiday company happened by; a living room — the largest space in the liveable parts of the house, but again, not what I would call, er, capacious; a teeny bathroom, two small bedrooms. The second floor: two more small bedrooms bookending a closet, along with a microscopic crawlspace. I mention all this to draw a picture of a home notably short on storage capacity, a serious limitation for a family mothered by a professional packrat. The basement, in theory, had a fair amount of cubic footage for storage. In practice, most of it consisted of the laundry area, my father’s shop, and an unfinished play area, part of which had been cordoned off by a decrepit piano and a vaguely Japanese-style standing screen to be utilized for desperately-needed storage. That left the basement’s built-in bar which, sadly, never experienced loud and/or happy people swilling liquids — instead it found itself pressed into use as storage space.

Not an affluent bunch, my clan, during my younger years. On the contrary, obsessive austerity was the family m.o. Clothes were picked up at cut-rate stores and passed down the line once outgrown (eventually winding up on my pudgy bod), and a fair amount of the furniture seemed to have been built by my father, with the notable exception of the living room sofa and armchairs, whose lives my mother extended through repeated patching and re-covering.

Many of the nicest items in the house were given by or inherited from relatives, including a sizeable portion of the Christmas decorations, which I think came by way of my Uncle Sam, the family’s only representative of the Jewish tradition, who married into our gene pool and lived in Brooklyn with my Aunt Florrie in a townhouse that, for many years, functioned as my only exposure to an affluent lifestyle.

Despite the general threadbare living mode, we had a startling abundance of Christmas paraphernalia, including boxes and boxes of old, interesting German ornaments — again, as far as I know, courtesy of Uncle Sam — which contrasted nicely with the mass-produced stuff the family picked up over time. The decorations spent most of the year in the second-floor crawlspace, surviving summers that essentially transformed the storage tunnel into a solar oven, miraculously making it from one Christmas to the next with most casualties occurring once they were actually out of the boxes and on the tree.

The holiday season began slowly in those years, not at the now customary mid-November creep/6 a.m. day-after-Thanksgiving gallop. Halloween passed by. A few leisurely weeks of candy-consumption later Thanksgiving showed up. From there, the procession of days constituted a slow gathering of steam until about two weeks before the 25th, when everyone abruptly seemed to wake up to the alarming fact that Christmas lay 14 short days off. Which unleased pure pandemonium. Enjoyable pandemonium, at least from my perspective. Darkness fell earlier and earlier, until one evening found my father outside stringing up lights in the cold December air. Somewhere around the middle of the month, someone picked up a tree and the living room became centered around something other than TV. The tree wound up in front of the living room window, the better to show off its soon-to-be-excessively-tinseled splendor to the neighborhood. Old, worn boxes materialized around it, producing far too many ornaments. Festive Christmas candles and other assorted tchochkies (or is it chotchkies?) appeared around the living and dining rooms, along with glass bowls of sour balls, ribbon candy and peanut brittle, pandering to the family’s eternal sugar jones. The household record player alternated Christmas carols hooted by Bing Crosby with Christmas carols performed on bells, chimes and the occasional overly-fruity Hammond organ. And the teeny manger scene surfaced, materializing on the top tier of the thigh-high dad-made bookshelf by the front stairway. Minus the baby Jesus, of course. He snuck in during the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning.

The manger scene: another interesting element of our Christmas season. Foreign-made, I think, nicely crafted and painted, nothing cheesy about it, except arguably its music-box component, tucked away underneath which tinkled out “Away In A Manger” whenever someone cranked the bugger up. Which brings up the word ‘manger.’ When did everyone begin substituting the word ‘cresh’ for ‘manger’? Sometime during the last 10 or 15 years a consensus was reached behind my back, manifesting suddenly enough that it felt like a kind of mysterious telepathic programming, as if it were the will of Landru, leaving me out of the loop. Not that it matters. Just seems strange.

As Christmas slouched closer and the air in the house grew tangy with the scent of sacrificial pine tree, homes all over town found themselves abruptly adorned with strings of lights and electric candelabras and glowing plastic figures of Santa and reindeer and candy canes and snowmen and solemn Jewish couples with babies named Jesus. Several blocks up Jerusalem Avenue (I am not making that name up) from our street, in the shadow of the Southern State Parkway overpass, the annual Christmas tree market got underway. I actually tried working there once, maybe during my 9th or 10th year. Man, I hated that. I remember standing out in a heavy snowfall one Saturday morning, dragging trees to buyers’ cars in the hopes they’d tip me well enough to make the suffering worth it — they didn’t, it wasn’t — and I remember looking up into the sky, thick, white flakes swirling down around me, my hands aching with cold, ears hurting, snow collecting in my collar. I asked myself what I was doing there, couldn’t come up with a good enough answer, came to my senses, went home to sit by our tree — benignly lit up, massively overdecorated — where I watched Saturday morning television dreck on our console TV and ate a bowl of sugar frosted chocolate bombs. Much better.

At some point, someone — maybe the local weekly newspaper, Merrick Life — began sponsoring a, er, front door contest, motivating homeowners to do up their front entrances as creatively — elaborate wreaths and light arrangements; large, disturbingly happy Santa faces; outsized simulations of gift wrapping — as they could, tossing a further point of concentrated color and light into the mix. I liked all this, actually. Still do.

And then, of course, the radio pumped an increasing amount of Christmas music into the house, advertising flyers featuring SALES, SALES, SALES slithered through the mail slot, and a growing avalanche of Christmas imagery/music poured into the living room via the idiot box. Until Christmas eve, when one of the local New York City stations — channel 11, maybe — broadcast a yule log burning in a fireplace all evening long, and things quieted down.

In my younger years, no one in the family attended midnight mass. My father was one of the ushers at the 8 a.m. service, we customarily ended up there by default. That meant I would get shunted off to bed sometime before midnight, when the parental work crew finished the last-minute wrapping and staging of gifts. Considering the heap of presents that awaited come Christmas morning, I can only assume they’d been stashed off-premises in the days beforehand. As I’ve already laid out, the house was modest in size, drastically lacking in storage space. There not only weren’t many hidey-holes I didn’t track down in the pre-Christmas days, there just weren’t many effective spots of concealment, certainly none of any real cubic-footage. It was enough to make one believe in overweight pixies in garish outfits using animal slave labor to transport Christmas giftage.

Somewhere between my 10th and 12th years — between the time my mother moved out of the conjugal bedroom into separate quarters and my eldest brother went into the Coast Guard — tradition changed. Midnight mass became part of the mix. Prior to that, I would rise around 4 or 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, my pudgy body agitated from more anticipation than one little nervous system could keep anesthetized with sleep. I would stumble quietly downstairs, crank up the lights on the tree and sit scoping out the display of presents, the world outside and the house around me silent and still. Just me, a pile of gifts, and an overactive brain riffling through thousands of possibilities for what might be lurking under all that wrapping.

Actually unwrapping anything would result in me catching absolute hell when the parental units woke up. Likewise for anything like playing music or charging up the TV, the single difference being that hell would arrive sooner. My only option was the only option: me sitting alone, waiting until the day commenced and we went to church or ate breakfast or whatever the hell we did in any given year before the gift-opening ritual.

I suspect most families have their version of holiday rituals. I sure as hell hope they do. I’d hate to think mine was the only one — trapped in slightly goofy behavior patterns, triggered when the daylight grew short and the yearly leftover-turkey assault started up. Some of the rituals were more general in form and timing, others more specific, more rigid. Case in point: the unwrapping of presents.

In the years when 8 a.m. mass was the rule, the present opening waited until later in the morning, until my parents had fortified themselves with a meal before stumbling, sleep-deprived, into the rest of the day. This, of course, was pure torture for me. In later years, as early mass blessedly became a distant memory, the unwrapping hour grew a bit more flexible, though still forbidden until after a round of morning chow and caffeine. It was during those mornings that I learned the delicate art of hovering — never actually hanging over the person(s) to whom one is beaming psychic commands (UNWRAP PRESENTS! UNWRAP PRESENTS!), but never truly disappearing from sight. Never nagging, but always present. Always somewhere nearby. Waiting.

Inevitably, my relentless mental assault wore them down. Chairs got pushed back from the kitchen table, dishes went into the sink, people moved toward the living room. All members of the family materialized as if beamed in — focused, intent, making little conversation.

The old man presided over the ceremony, taking a seat near ground zero. The rest of us found a chair or patch of rug. Homage was paid to the household’s unofficial 11th Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Throw Out Used Wrapping Paper) with a centrally-placed cardboard carton, The Patriarch then parceled out the first round of stuff. Everyone received a present, everyone opened their present, appropriate noises/comments/silences. Another round followed that. Then another. If, between any round, someone needed to get up — telephone call, potty break, numb butt — the proceedings were briefly put on hold. Briefly. With the person’s return, action recommenced until every gift had been handed out. In my memory, I see the post-gift-ritual living room looking like a bomb had landed on it, like someone had broken open a monstrous piñata, leaving the area littered with debris. Not, I suspect, the actual scene. My mother may have been a packrat, the house may have been bulging with accumulated STUFF, but everything had its place, and that was the general state of things, even in the wake of a gift frenzy.

After that, everyone else in the family took off to whatever responsibilities awaited. For my parents, that usually meant Christmas dinner prep. For my brothers, well, who knows. My oldest brother had eight years on me, so he was out of the mix as soon as he could manage it. Terry, the middle brother, had six years on me — he took the same path. They returned during the holidays from the Coast Guard/college, respectively, sometimes with company — sweethearts or friends far from home. And when my father’s mother was alive — the only grandparent to make it to my epoch — she usually took the train out from Brooklyn, often bringing a bakery cake to contribute to the dinner.

So for a while — two, three hours — I was left to entertain myself. Which generally meant remaining in the living room to survey the wreckage and wring some fun out of it. Which I sometimes found surprisingly hard to do. My parents, bless their hearts, usually managed to shower me with a fair amount of toys, though rarely toys I might have asked for, so I found myself in the odd position of abundance, but usually not the abundance I would have chosen had I been able to choose. Which created the classic picture of material plenty creating little joy. (D’OH!) And when I occasionally managed to entertain myself with something I’d been given, my parents often regretted it as the proceedings had a tendency to become disorderly and raucous. I’m remembering rubber tipped darts flying around the household, I’m remembering plastic balls hurled at stacked-up, soon-to-be-wildly-airborne plastic Yogi Bears — all Christmas presents, all items I’m sure my parents quickly regretted. Interestingly, what seemed to work the best for all concerned were books — fiction, nonfiction, comic books; didn’t matter. I loved reading, my parents probably loved the silence.

I’m not sure why I wasn’t consulted re: potential gifts. The one time I remember trying to ask for something, I did so via a letter to Santa Claus, probably around my seventh year. The family had had two kittens — Puss and Boots — both of whom checked out early, one from sickness, one under the wheels of the family car. I mourned their passings, dealing with it by writing Santa to ask for another kitten. My parents took the completed letter, assuring me they’d funnel it on the appropriate party. Come Christmas morning, I found a stuffed pussycat under the tree. A little pink stuffed kitty. A nice thought, but not what I was looking for, and the first step in my disillusionment re: The Fat Man.

So I killed time between the gift orgy and dinner. Once in a while I’d go bother a neighbor kid, but usually I kept to myself, and the times I wound up with something good to read were the best times.

The holiday dinners — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter — were the high points of the family year, I think. My mother — not normally an inspiring cook, I suspect because she loathed being trapped in the housewife thing, with its repetitive, low-status, mind-numbing duties — threw together excellent feeds, meals I remember to this day with an automatic drool-response. And the combination of the staggering expanse of excellent food and guests brought out the best in the family. Hilarious conversation, exchanges that burst into one-liner fests, abundant laughter, good cheer. Times that stand out in my memory as genuine fun, times when I saw the best aspects of my family. Rich memories, memories that make me smile.

Here in Spain, it is often the custom to linger over a meal, drawing out the time together with conversation and long, relaxed eating/drinking. The time after the meal proper when the diners relax and enjoy being with other is called sobremesa — literally, over table. It reminds me of the way holiday dinners in our home lingered on, through all the various courses, the second and third rounds, the dessert and beyond. Just sitting, enjoying. When I think back on it, that to me best embodied the holidays — time together when we could, however tense and fractious our life in general may have been, create some fun together. Fun — often a rare commodity in our family, or at least that’s how it stands in my memory. Except during the holidays.

[continued in next entry]

A Non-Gentile Night Before Christmas (Boston Style):

EREV CHRISTMAS (Christmas Eve) — by Bruce Marcus

and Lori Factor

‘Twas the night before Christmas and we, being Jews,

My girlfriend and me — we had nothing to do.

The gentiles were home, hanging stockings with care,

Secure in their knowledge that St. Nick would be there.

But for us, once the Hanukkah candles burned down,

There was nothing but boredom all over the town.

The malls and the theaters were all closed up tight,

There weren’t any concerts to go to that night.

A dance would have saved us, some ballroom or swing,

But we searched through the papers — there wasn’t a thing.

Outside the window sat two feet of snow;

With the wind-chill, they said it was fifteen below.

And while I then sat on my tuchus to brood,

My sweetie saved the night, calling out “CHINESE FOOD!”

So we ran to the closet, grabbed hats, mitts and boots

To cover our heads and our hands and our foots.

We pulled on our jackets, all puffy with down,

And ran for the T, bound for old Chinatown.

The train, nearly empty, rolled through the stops,

While visions of wontons danced through our kopfs.

We hopped off at Park Street, the Common was bright

with fresh-fallen snow and the trees strung with lights,

Then crept through “The Zone” with its bums and its thugs

And entrepreneurs selling ladies and drugs.

At last we reached Chinatown and rushed through the gates,

Past bakeries, past markets, past shops and cafes,

In search of a restaurant: “Which one? Let’s decide!”

We chose “Hunan Chozer” and ventured inside.

Around us sat other Jews, their platters piled high

With the finest of foods that their money could buy.

There was roast duck and fried squid (sweet, sour and spiced),

Dried kosher beef and mixed veggies, lo mein and fried rice,

Whole fish and moo shi and “shrimp” chow mee foon,

And General Gau’s chicken and ma po tofu.

When at last we decided and the waiter did call,

We said: “Skip the menu!” and ordered it all.

And when in due time the food was all made,

It came to the table in a sort of parade.

Before us sat dim sum, spare ribs and egg rolls,

And four different soups in four different huge bowls.

The courses kept coming, from spicy to mild,

And higher and higher toward the ceiling were piled.

And while this went on, we became aware

Every diner around us had started to stare.

Their jaws hanging open, they looked on unblinking,

Some dropped their teacups, some drooled without thinking.

So much piled up, one dish after another,

My girlfriend and I couldn’t see one another.

Now we sat there, we two, without proper utensils,

While they handed us something that looked like two pencils.

We poked and we jabbed till our fingers were sore

And half of our dinner wound up on the floor.

We tried — how we tried! — but, and truth to tell,

Ten long minutes later and still hungry as well,

We swallowed our pride, feeling vaguely like dorks,

And called to our waiter to bring us two forks.

We fressed and we feasted, we slurped and we munched,

We noshed and we supped on breakfast and lunch.

We ate till we couldn’t and drank down our teas

And barely had room for our fortune cookies.

But my fortune was perfect, it summed up the mood

Saying, “Even if it was kosher, it was real Chinese food!”

And my sweetie — well, she got a true winner.

Hers said, “Your companion will pay for the dinner.”

Our bellies were full and at last it was time

To travel back home and write some bad rhyme

Of our Chinatown trek (and to privately speak

About trying to refine our chopstick technique).

The MSG spun round and round in our heads,

As we tripped and we laughed and gaily we said,

As we carried our leftovers home through the night,

“Good Yom Tov to all, and to all a good night!”

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

Bruce Marcus is a storyteller in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Lori Factor works at the Community Action Agency in

Somerville, Massachusetts.

‘Erev Christmas’ originally appeared in the Boston Globe on

December 24, 1993.

Science blazes new trails in the quest to improve the quality of life on planet Earth:

Scientists search for perfect pizza

December 14, 2002

COMPUTERISED scanners and “fuzzy logic” software have been harnessed by food scientists to yield the mathematically perfect pizza.

The pizza of the future will have sauce spread evenly and lushly across its base and its mushrooms, ham, sweetcorn and other toppings will be positioned with millimetric accuracy, thanks to the culinary efforts of Sun Da-Wen and Tadhg Brosnan at Ireland’s University College, Dublin.

The breakthrough was derived from digital snapshots of 25 pizzas which were then broken down and transformed into a mathematical formula to define the optimal pizza’s base area, spatial ratio between toppings and circularity.

The study is reported in next Saturday’s New Scientist. It is published in full in a specialist publication, Journal of Food Engineering.

The findings should be useful for ensuring quality control in pizza factories, enabling cameras to instantly pick out a pie with sparse toppings or which is skimpy or patchy on sauce.

Agence France-Presse

**************

See that? Nice people in clean white coats are working day and night to bring us a wonderful existence. Life is good, isn’t it?

Or is it? Dear God, what am I going on about? Maybe things aren’t quite as bright and hopeful as I thought. After all, it’s mid-December — Christmas is galloping relentlessly in our direction. Everyone — that’s right, even you, buster — is feeling the stress of all that holiday cheer. Peanut brittle, greeting cards, eggnog, office parties, people in red suits (who are NOWHERE NEAR FAT ENOUGH to be the genuine Christmas fat man) standing on city corners ringing little teeny bells for hours and hours on end trying to weasel your hard-earned pocket change out of your pockets into that goddam kettle/tripod thingie they’ve got. Stores so packed with crazed gift-shoppers that you have to elbow them out of your way so you can wrap your cold, chapped hands around that perfect gift for, er, Auntie Em. Heck, who am I kidding? Who even gets close enough to the display shelves that they can actually apply the elbow to an inviting nearby rib cage? Who even actually figures out what to buy the deadbeats who people our miserable lives? No one knows what to get anyone, so they wind up with far too many lameass gifts in a desperate attempt to compensate for crippling feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

Relax. Breathe. Take a look at Dave Barry’s 2002 Gift Guide, where you’ll find a farkin’ plethora of brilliant gift ideas.

Then take a moment to put things in perspective. You think you have problems? Right now I’ve got channel 3 from Madrid playing in the background, and as I write this Lex Luther has hoodwinked Superman into opening up a lead-lined chest that contains a huge chunk of kryptonite (the only known substance that can weaken and kill the Man of Steel!) mounted on a huge gold chain, just like vintage ’70s pimp apparel imported directly from the planet Krypton (before its untimely complete and utter destruction). And as if that weren’t bad enough, Lex Luther is wearing a leisure suit with alarmingly wide lapels. And both he and Superman are talking in Spanish!

See what I mean? How bad can your life be? No evil genius is going to force you to wear cheap-looking extraterrestrial pimp gear.

What’s that, Mr./Ms. Whiner? Still not convinced? Right, well, in that case get a load of the following news article. Then get down on your knees and give thanks for your boring, ordinary life with its boring, ordinary sources of holiday stress:

Out-Of-Control Holiday Revelers Deck Shit Out Of Area Halls

AMES, IA — Holiday celebrations took an extreme turn Friday evening as an unruly mob of out-of-control holiday revelers observed the shit out of the Christmas season, violently decking 21 area halls.

According to police reports, at approximately 9 p.m., after consuming large quantities of 60-proof egg nog, the frenzied throng of 40 to 50 revelers broke into the home of resident Milton Krajcek, aggressively decking his halls with wreaths, garlands, ribbons, ceramic nativity scenes, tree ornaments, mistletoe, candy canes, and “shitloads” of boughs of holly.

Once their supplies were exhausted, the crazed merrymakers rode in pickup trucks to a local ShopKo outlet to restock, only to return and continue decking the already overburdened halls.

“I begged them to stop,” Krajcek said, “but they wouldn’t until every last inch of my halls was decked beyond all recognition.”

Not satisfied with forcibly festooning Krajcek’s halls, the slavering, nightmarishly cheerful horde then turned to those of other locals, posing as holiday carolers to lure residents to their doors.

“I heard an ancient yuletide carol coming from the front porch,” said Millicent Slopes, 53, “and was pretty worried because they were really tolling the hell out of it. I decided to acknowledge them so that maybe they would leave, but as soon as I opened the door, they poured into the house and went batshit on the halls. I mean, look at my halls! I can barely squeeze through there, such was the force and vigor of their decking.”

“It was horrible,” said Francine Eppard, whose halls were also brutally decorated. “There was tinsel everywhere.”

Local police officials are still searching for the binge revelers. If caught, they will be charged with breaking-and-entering, reckless and wanton decoration, second-degree festivity, and willful construction of toyland towns around eleven Christmas trees.

“The scum who did this will pay,” police chief Carl Torvaldsen said. “No punishment could be too severe for perpetrators of this kind of shameful, senseless decking.”

The wanted celebrants are described as inebriated suburbanites clad in gay apparel which they allegedly “donned the living fuck out of,” according to Torvaldsen. Added the police chief: “We have reason to believe they may be armed and extremely joyous.”

Until the revelers are captured, Torvaldsen warned homeowners not to open their doors for carolers, strongly advising that nuts and cocoa instead be lowered from an upstairs window or pushed through a mail slot.

Yesterday, on arriving back here after the movie, I saw that the wall across the street remained free of posters – the first and only time that’s been the case for a prolonged period of time in the 16 or 17 months I’ve had this piso. (And when I say “free,” I’m ignoring the splotches of white, the remnants of posters past left in the wake of the city crew’s last cleaning fit, bits of white that pepper the surface of the wall.) A small splash of decoration had materialized, however – a clothes hanger, hooked to a hollow in the wall’s surface, from which, secured at one end by two clothes pins, hung a kitchen towel. Your garden variety kitchen hand towel, nothing fancy or distinctive about it. A bit faded from use, bearing your standard design of homey images and a few words, most of its text composed of blocks of the word “Apples,” two columns wide, six words deep, along with images of tea kettles, herbs, wooden spoons, text and graphics all fitting neatly together. Hanging on the wall, like a teensy, lonely, particularly ineffectual and undistinctive tapestry, covering less than a square foot of surface. Completely dwarfed by the wall’s long expanse.

I stood staring, a silly smile pasted on my face at the thought that not only had someone gotten the idea for this odd bit of installation art but they’d actually taken the time to put the bugger together. A nicely dressed 30-something woman walked by, possibly on her way home from work, not seeing the hand towel until she drew even with it. For the briefest instant, she stopped, eyes fastened first on the towel/clothes hanger, then taking in the mostly gray, posterless wall, then jerking back to the towel — her body moving in classic double-take style — completely, deeply baffled by what she saw, to judge by her expression. The she ignored it, forward motion immediately resuming as her gears re-engaged, high-heeled feed moving on with fast, resolute steps, herself never looking back.

When I stepped out of the building this morning, the clothes hanger/hand towel were gone, the wall bare. On my return from class a short time ago, the first of block of posters had appeared, the normal cycle of local life finally reasserting itself.

Over at McSweeneys, where they manage to both publish loads of good writing and maintain an extremely goofy sense of humor, they continue to publish a series of letters to the President, an ongoing project which will actually at some point be printed out and delivered to the White House. The letters cut across a wide spectrum of style, content, and intent. Two examples follow:

Dear Mr. President,

If you’re backing out of a really busy parking lot, be sure to check your rear-view mirror, or you might end up pinning a fat man against a fence.

Every year at Christmas I worry that our chimney is going to choke to death on Santa.

My mother always said she wanted me to grow up with big healthy fingers. I never run from a button.

Sincerely,

Gretchen Valder

- – - -

Dear Mr. President,

I am the submissions editor at the Texas International Law Journal. I help choose which articles we publish. Recently, authors have been saying to me things like, “Texas International Law Journal? I thought Texans didn’t believe in international law!”

They think it’s funny, but it’s really bad for business.

Sincerely,

Brannon Andrews

The entire current installment, along with a brief explanation of the project, can be found here. Easily worth investigating. In fact, this being the season of giving, you should go to McSweeney’s online store and give them some money, in return for which they’ll send you some seriously quirky material.

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The clouds that kept rain falling on Madrid for a couple of days slowly gave way this morning, finally yielding to skies of deep, dramatic blue and abundant sunlight. A spectacular day. Later in the afternoon I headed over to Princesa once more to take in a film, this time Hable Con Ella, the latest by Pedro Almodóvar, released in Spain earlier this year. I have no idea if it’s made the rounds in the States yet, but should it find its way to a theater near you, make the time to see it. We’re talking about a seriously accomplished piece of work here, and unlike any film you’ll see this year.

Afterward, outside, afternoon had given way to early evening, the daylight slowly fading. I crossed the Princesa courtyard toward the main drag. A line of American fast food dumps stand shoulder to shoulder there between the theater and the street, and as I rounded the corner of the last one, a 20-something guy stood by a trash can — clearly not a hrinker or someone to be wary of, more like someone suddenly down on his luck. A bit unkempt, with a beard, long hair, wearing a tired hooded cold weather coat, strapped into a full-size, tightly-stuffed backpack. He asked for money, saying he hadn’t had anything to eat. I paused and asked him if he would actually use the money for something to eat or drink. He said yes and, pointing into the fast-food joint, said that right at that moment what he wanted most was a hot cup of café con leche. It was clear he meant it, so I went inside and took the three or four minutes it took to get on line, order, pick up and pay, bringing a large, hot cup of joe out to the guy who waited patiently in the Princesa plaza with his backpack. I handed it off, he accepted it like one who’d unexpectedly been given something of value, we exchanged well-wishes, I went on my way. Down the block at la Plaza de España, the sun was long out of sight, the western sky draped in clouds, gray except the ones nearest the horizon, bright red. Off to the south, Grand Vía extended away, lined with tall, elegant white buildings, Christmas decorations arching across the street and shining softly in the falling evening.

Last night, as I lay in bed alternately studying class notes and reading the second Harry Potter novel in Spanish (for me, far better than the movie), a couple of now familiar sounds started up — those of (a) a generator and (b) spraying water, indicating that a city crew had shown up to clear the posters off the wall across the street, despite the heavy rainfall. They appear in a pumping truck, park it on la Calle de Pelayo, toss a few bright orange cones around the vehicle to make it look official – which means local traffic is bollocksed for the duration of the job, as the streets are barely wide enough for one vehicle – get out a spraying unit, hook it up to the truck’s tank, and begin directing pressurized water at the yards of posters. The noise lasted an hour or so, maybe a bit more. When I left for class this morning, the wall stood free of commercial messages. The paint that’s underlain the posters has, over time, with the steady cycle of posters/spraying&scraping, grown a bit faint, so that the wall itself is becoming more visible with each workover. It’s a strange wall – a combo of bricks, plaster and large concrete blocks. Kind of an ad hoc affair as far as building materials, though it’s solid enough.

I confess I’m glad it doesn’t remain in its quasi-virginal state very long, though as of this evening no poster-pasters have been around to start the next leg of the cycle. Probably due to the rain, which commenced again after a few dry hours this morning and a brief, flirtatious appearance by the sun just before midday.

Spanish classes have become an unpredictable, sometimes hilarious affair with the current crop of young woman sitting around the classroom table, specifically the four German women, whose ongoing free-form patter/conversation flows from Spanish to German and back to Spanish again as they feel like it, and they’ve taken to giving the instructor for the class’s second half– a bright, interesting, good-humored 30-something woman named Raquel — as much shit as they can, most of it in the spirit of provoking comedy. Which Raquel, to her credit, generally flows with, often handing out as good as she gets. And as might be anticipated in a room full of young women, there is at times a fair amount of complaining/joking about men, along with the occasional bout of out and out male bashing, especially from the youngest of the lot, a 17-year-old who makes a point of directing some of it at me, the lone representative of the other gender.

For the record, I am not a warrior in the imaginary conflict between the sexes that some folks get into. We’re all in this together, and I’m not going to buy into the scapegoating of males (or get worked up about someone getting off on male-bashing) any more than I’m going to engage in the scapegoating of females. Life’s too short.

Know what I mean?

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To get an eyeful of some recent spectacular entries from the Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive, go here, here and here.

Local newspaper headline from last Thursday: “The long weekend will bring traffic jams and bad weather.” A safe prediction, given that half the city tried to bolt at more or less the same time. Nasty weather never arrived, though, at least in Madrid. Until yesterday. The day dawned overcast, with a damp chill in the air. In class, Patricia (nuestra profesora durante la primara mitad) fretted about whether the weather report had indicated that the clouds would actually start behaving badly at some point. Mid-afternoon they started.

Rain fell into the evening, then into the night. A strange sight, considering that most of the Madrid’s calendar year is rain-free. Looks kind of like London when it rains here, except for all the, er, Spaniards. And all Spanish-language signage everywhere. And some of the architecture. Apart from that, the city looks like surprisingly like London in the rain.

One other difference, now that I think about it: far fewer people use umbrellas here than in London. Here they just seem to carry on with whatever they’re doing, getting wetter and wetter. The younger folks hunch up their shoulders, the older ones simply trudge along. Resigned. I suppose if one lived through any part of the Franco years, stoicism may come easily. (Or resignation.)

Took myself to a movie at a 9-screen theater up the hill from la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, to the first showing of the day. One of the theaters that show foreign films in the original voice, subtitled in Spanish. Watched the latest Woody Allen film, “Hollywood Ending” (called “Un Final Made In Hollywood” here — why they mix Spanish and English like that I couldn’t tell you, but there there it is). Good film — great story, funny, fine acting, an inspired twist at the end. Strong stuff, really (though I will confess it’s been a while since I believed him as the guy who gets the young, beautiful woman — this is why “Sweet and Lowdown” worked so well for me: he gave the male lead to someone else, to a fine actor who could pull it off). Afterward, making my way down the hill in the rain toward Sol, I walked behind a 20-something couple, arms around each other, talking as they went. A small, white-haired, bent-over elderly gentleman approached from the other direction — no umbrella, walking quickly, expression a tad goofy. As he neared the couple, he pulled something from a pocket, began talking into it — no different from the rest of Spain’s cellphone-obsessed population. When he passed, I could see he was talking into a harmonica, not a cellphone. The young woman in front of me also noticed and began cracking up. Walking in the rain with her guy, her lovely laugh rising into the falling evening.

A sweet moment.

GoogObits (”Obituaries and essays augmented by Google seaches. There is a lot to learn from the dead.”) pays tribute in its most recent entry to Mal Waldron, the pianist, composer and arranger who passed away a week ago in Brussels.

An excerpt:

Mr. Waldron’s long career as a pianist and arranger included leading his own bands around the world. For much of the last four decades he played and lived mostly in Europe, but his recordings with companions like Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Steve Lacy kept his ideas in the ears of American fans, especially other musicians.

Listening to Mr. Waldron was a fascinatingly dry, dark pleasure. He belonged to no particular school or style, and his curt piano style reflected that outsider status. He repeated short motifs endlessly, as if meaning to grind them into the keyboard; a stylistic descendant of Thelonious Monk, he pared down Monk’s already quite cropped melodic lines to percussive nubs. He focused his attention toward the lower half of the keyboard, and completely avoided sentimentality.

Toward the end of his life he had a soft, muffled keyboard sound, almost as if he were playing parlor music — but a kind of parlor music infused with bebop harmony and rhythm.

GoogObits continues to be a great read.

**************************************

From the Someone-Has-Too-Much-Time-On-Their-Hands Department:

If a Borg cube were made of pennies….

Yesterday I began catching up on the heap of articles on (a) technology and (b) the arts that the N.Y. Times is kind enough to send my way in installments every farkin’ day. In the process I happened across an article on blogging by Lisa Guernsey – its unfortunate, stereotype-heavy theme: gender differences in blogging. Today, in nosing around the blogs at Salon.com (one of the two places this journal is maintained), I discovered that some members of the Salon blogging community have been on that article like a cheap suit — for instance, Secular Blasphemy and its companion-blog-about-blogging Blasphemous Metablogging, the Reverse Cowgirl’s Blog, and Radio Free Blogistan. Thoughtful and/or entertaining, all, with the comments on their comments also worth a gander.

Ms. Guernsey, it turns out, also maintains a blog at Salon, where she made some good-natured comments about the community’s opinions. Take a look at the comments to that entry, where the community responded yet again with feedback that is by turns bluntly opinionated, evenhanded and extremely funny.

Interesting reading.

*********************

One more beautiful day here, cool with sunlight dipping down into the narrow streets. Walked back from lunch along la Calle de Hortaleza, one of this barrio’s main drags, sticking to the sunny side of the street, which sent me under a balcón where a 20-something guy sat, legs hanging down through the metal grill, feet swinging back and forth a bit in the air. Next to him crouched a pure white cat, head thrust out between the grill, eyes half-closed, cat and human both watching the pedestrian traffic passing below, soaking up the December sunlight.

Later in the afternoon, took myself to see a film at Princesa, the complex of buildings near la Plaza de España that houses, among other things, four different multi-screen movie theaters that feature foreign films in the original language with Spanish subtitles. Got my ticket, grabbed a cheatsheet (a nice part of the filmgoing thing here: the theaters generally supply handouts for each feature that include a story summary, cast list/previous credits rundown, interview with the filmmaker, etc.), found a seat in the right sala. Began reading up on the film (8 Women) as Hollywood Nights by Bob Seger played on the sound system, realized I was in a Spanish theater, waiting on a French film, American music playing loudly in the background.

It’s hard not to love a life that includes moments like that.

One of the things I’ve been enjoying these last few days is seeing what’s changed and what appears to have remained the same since my last period of time here. The wall across the street, for example, is always in a state of change and in that way hasn’t changed much. Except that the postering hasn’t been quite as intense as in the past. Sections of the wall remain uncovered, the fever to keep it completely slathered with posters seems to have abated a bit. That right there is a notable shift.

The wall encloses an empty lot, remarkable in itself considering the population density of this barrio. In the past, the gate located at one end of the lot remained closed and locked. A pallet or two of neatly-piled bricks lay near one wall, a car usually sat parked just within the gate. The lot contains two large sumac trees which provide shade and color in the warm weather, falling leaves in the autumn. The abutting buildings are tan-colored, several stories high, looking down into this plot of undeveloped land. A nice bit of space to have in the middle of the barrio’s urban life. At some point during the last four months, one of the two halves of the gate disappeared, leaving the lot open to any and all who cared to wander in. The pallets of bricks are gone, the walls of the surrounding buildings have been graffiti-ized (though, fortunately, no higher than ground level). Occasionally, a drunk wanders in to take a whiz in a corner. Other vehicles now park in there, though no more than one at a time since they’re usually left at the entrance, blocking the way for any other vehicles. On the other hand, the sumacs remain, a graceful visual accent I appreciate from my location, one that marks the constant flow of the seasons.

Things change, even those that appear to remain the same.

Around the block from the lot, on the next street over, in amid the high-fashion shoe stores and shops dealing in leather coats and bags, a small sandwich shop I patronize has had a change in ownership. To be more accurate, it’s not actually a sandwich shop – they make bocadillos, the local version of subs/heroes, only made on baguetes. The tastiest bocadillos I’ve found in Madrid. Under the old proprietors, a mother/son team, the sandwiches were excellent but the atmosphere in the place leaned toward the, well, depressing. The TV in the front room, where the small bar/counter is, ran constantly, generally playing game shows. Stacks of supplies almost always sat by the wall under the TV. The back room – half again as large as the small front room, with another television but without windows or wall adornments – felt like a clean, boring dungeon fitted out with tables and chairs.

The current owners appear to be a 30-something couple. The menu remains the same, but the walls are now covered with artwork, mostly pencil drawings of horses along with three or four photos of folks, a watercolor of a small mountain village, and two mirrors advertising liquid refreshment over on the wall near the TV, one for Trina (an intensely sweetened orange drink) that includes a clock and one for Bailey’s. A step up, all that, from the previous adonrments, which tended toward the cheerfully tacky, including one truly cheesy small painting of a naked, brown-skinned woman lounging happily and provocatively on a tropical beach.

I picked up two bocadillos when I stopped in three nights back, one chicken, one tortilla with pimiento. Both tasty.

It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday in Madrid, temperature in the 40s F. Many shops closed for the day at 2 p.m., 30 minutes ago, so that the midday activity has downshifted a bit. The streets have become a bit more sedate, the flow of people more relaxed as they window-shop or stand in the plaza (la Plaza de Chueca, just down the block from here) drinking a coffee or a beer, conversing or listening to a band that hit the plaza about ten minutes ago, playing languid, dramatic Mexican numbers.

A good way to pass a long holiday weekend.

Being that today’s a holiday here, there was some partying in the neighborhood streets last night. Good-natured, even polite partying, people roaming happily around, moving from one night spot to another. I stayed in, using the start of the long weekend as an opportunity to begin catching up on sleep, meaning the bedside light went off around 1:30 a.m. Voices of revelers woke me from time to time, the last instance happening around 6:20, after which quiet reigned until the sound of the street-cleaning crews and the first people making their slow way out into the morning light around 9. Turned over, went back to sleep, where I had strange dreams of journeys by plane, of trying unsuccessfully to give information re: flights/airlines to someone seeking it, and of singing Johnny Cash’s classic “Ring of Fire” with a male I don’t know (and a decent rendition it was, except that for some reason we sang the lyrics to “Ring of Fire” to the tune of another Cash classic, “I Walk The Line”). In that last dream, I knew something about the song was off kilter but couldn’t figure out what until we were almost done, at which point I woke up, my teeny brain rattling blearily around in my skull.

Got myself up around 11, did the a.m. shower/shave bit, wandered outside into a beautiful morning — yesterday’s hint of winter having given way to the mild, sunlit deal of Tuesday and Wednesday. The streets remained relatively quiet, 11:30 still a bit early for un día de fiesta in Madrid. Still, a surprising number of shops were open and doing business.

Yesterday in school, we were admonished to remember that everything would be closed today, which is the usual caution re: holidays in these parts. And maybe that’s the case in other barrios. Around here, though, loads of people will be out enjoying themselves later in the day, and many businesses are geared to that — the large supermarkets are closed, but the small neighborhood grocery shops are open. Restaurantes, cafeterías, bakeries (pastelerías), pharmacies (farmacias), some gift shops, even some footwear tiendas are up and running. (This neighborhood, for some reason, is heaving with shoe stores — from the down and dirty to the high-priced/high-style — and with shops dealing in high quality leather items (coats, jackets, bags). If only a fraction of them are open for biz, those shops will number more than the total you’ll find in most districts on any given day.) Even Madrid Rock, a major independent record store, is open today, and I found myself drawn into it like an errant, slightly foggy iron filing to a gaudy magnet with a good beat.

Later: went to a film which entailed a walk through la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, the very center of the city, by then crowded with people out enjoying the day and lines of cars looking for parking. Went intending to see a French film (”Eight Women“), arrived at the theater to find the film was no longer there, decided to see “Changing Lanes.” When the lights went down, I discovered I’d instead been sold a ticket for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” a film I’d somehow managed to avoid during my months in the States. I had to cross the Atlantic to see the bugger (by mistake, no less). When I emerged from the theater just after 5:30, the day was just beginning to turn toward dusk, the sun out of view but still high enough to render the top floor of the taller buildings a quiet, glowing shade of rose. The sidewalks were packed with people — groups of young folks, couples, families walking together — the air nearly vibrating with the sound of a city filled with life. On my way back through Sol, I found myself where I’d first been smitten by this city, at nearly the same time of day. [See journal entry for 5 August, 2001.] Since I got here on Tuesday, the municipality has gotten Christmas lights up and they were ablaze, extending down the major avenues and pedestrian walkways that stretch away from the plaza like spokes on a huge wheel. It’s a shot of energy, Sol, and I remained there for a while, soaking it up.

At some point, I waded through the crowds up into one of the pedestrian avenues where I discovered that someone, during my last few months in Vermont, had snuck a Ben & Jerry’s into one of the storefronts. A Ben & Jerry’s shop, dropped directly into the heart of Madrid, right across from the Hotel Europa, about 200 feet from la Plaza de La Puerta del Sol, where people swirled around the statue of the bear, the symbol of Madrid. A brand new shop, still clean and shiny, with the usual Ben & Jerry’s sign shining brightly above the door and a young Latino couple standing out in front taking a photo of it. I’ve seen plenty of Ben & Jerry’s shops — hell, I have a Christmas postcard from those knuckleheads hanging on my refrigerator in Vermont, from back in the pre-ice-cream days when it was Ben, Jerry & Vinny (no, I’m not kidding) and they were debating starting a bagel business — so I continued on my way, around the corner to an intersection of the next pedestrian way over, where el Corte Inglés buildings comprise three of the four corners and the building housing the main store is now aglow with a huge, eye-catching Christmas light display. So huge, so eye-catching that the river of pedestrians passing through swirled around in the intersection, movement nearly stopped by families with children taking in the display, cameras held aloft and working away.



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Up past el Cortes Inglés, foot traffic had grown so intense that I veered back to the avenue I’d started out on where I passed two musicians — a heavyset, hairy yet balding violinist and a smaller guy sitting at synthesizer — doing a pretty passable version of “Summer” from The Four Seasons, the synth providing a startlingly realistic imitation of an orchestra. I paused to listen, realizing as I did that I was standing just across from the corner of the hotel I stayed at during my first visit to Madrid.

Man, I love it here.

*******************

Addendum, for those who might be interested, some CDs picked up today at Madrid Rock:

José Mercé, “Del Amanecer” (”Of the Sunrise”)

La Cabra Mecanica, “Vestidos de Domingo” (”Sunday Clothes”)

Los Secretos, Grandes Éxitos Vols. I & II

Estopa, a reissue of their second disc “Más Destrangis” (I have no idea what Destrangis means) with additional tracks and a DVD with ten video clips and 7 tracks from their tour earlier this year)

The Dandy Warhols, “Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia”

Remember what I wrote in yesterday’s numerous duplicate entries re: the mellowness here – the lack of people, the relative tranquility? Turns out that tomorrow is Constitution Day (el Día de la Constitutión), a national holiday. Which creates a long weekend. Many Madrileños have apparently undertaken to turn it into a long, long weekend. Hence the decreased number of people on the streets and in the Metro — loads of folks have fled the city in advance of the actual holiday, creating a Madrid that feels more relaxed and leisurely than normal. I like it.

Class today also proved to be a bit more congenial, a bit more laid back. In part because at least two of the four young German women were out most of last night partying and apparently engaging in amative pastimes. They showed for class late, nicely mellow and sleepy.

I add that bit about the amative pastimes because the two women put a number of questions to our instructor for the second leg of the day’s classes — a bright, vivacious woman named María — re: colloquial terms for amorous activity. Which led to the disclosure of a whole poopload of terminology that could come in handy for those in search of something to spice up their conversational Spanish. For instance, a normal term for having sex is hacer amor (to make love). A slang term for the same thing: echar un polvo (as in “Anoche mi novia y yo intentamos echar un polvo en mi coche, pero no hubo espacio suficiente para bajar mis pantalones y en lugar de eso fuimos al cine” – (”Last night my girlfriend and I tried to make love in my car, but there wasn’t enough space to lower my pants so we went to the movies instead.”) Another slang term for the same thing: Echar un kiki.

So. A nice day, one that started out feeling mild with the slightest edge of coolness, but as the day progressed, clouds began trading off with the sun and the temperature edged its way down. By late this afternoon, the day had become distinctly cool, and by early this evening, when I emerged from the day’s first showing of the new Harry Potter thingie (in English with Spanish subtitles), a cold wind had sprung up, the mercury had dropped substantially.

And the Harry Potter film? Hmm. Well, the kids do a good job, as does Kenneth Branagh. (Man, a flying car would be fun. Y un buen lugar para echar un polvo.)

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Notes from the trip from Vermont to Madrid of a few days ago:

Sunday, December 1: Woke up way too early, as often happens on days in which I’ll be traveling, way too early in this case being 3:30 a.m. Read for a bit, then turned over and mimicked sleep for an hour, hoping my body would give up and drift off into unconsciousness. No go, though it was nice to lay there like that for a while, knowing what was coming.

Got up around 6, finished packing, blahblahblah. Snow fell all morning. When I left the house, the temperature outside hovered around 15 F. (Aiiieeee!) Which actually felt invigorating. Kit, the capable and extremely responsible person who’ll be living in the house while I’m gone, drove me in to Montpelier where the bus showed up a couple of minutes after I got there. I was out there in the snow alone, waiting — as soon as the bus driver emerged and took my ticket a crowd of other travelers descended on the bus like December locusts. I copped a seat by a window, next to a college-age woman wearing headphones and doing homework from a Developmental Biology textbook.

Out on I-89, the bus worked its way up the long grade that stretches south from Montpelier, the Green Mountains rising into view to the west as we gained elevation, Vermont gradually presenting a long, sprawling view of its central range, its north-south axis, in a cold, somber show of early winter beauty.

[this piece in progress – more to come]

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