far too much writing, far too many photos

A funny thing happened on the way to not finishing that last entry: I caught a plane Friday morning, flew up to the U.K. for the weekend. To Stoke-on-Trent, to be exact, in England’s midlands. Left a Madrid beginning to cloud over, found myself crammed into the equivalent of a Boeing 727 with a bunch of British football fans, here for a Champions League game between Barcelona and Celtic. Guys in their 30s/40s/50s, torsos thick from years of professional beer drinking, most wearing big, nearly shapeless green/white striped Celtic jerseys. The game took place in Barcelona the night before — why this group flew out from Madrid I can’t say. Could be they came to after post-game partying, discovered they’d wandered some distance during their revels, stumbled to the airport, booked seats on the first available flight. Whatever happened, they turned out to be blessedly quiet during transit.

The fallout of Madrid’s recent events were evident at the airport security checkpoint. I’d never been body-searched before in Spain. This time: an almost defiantly grim, startlingly complete pat-down, followed by a demand to remove my boots, which were immediately tossed through the x-ray machine. Getting out of Madrid felt much tougher than getting into the U.K., where they scanned/stamped my passport, asked a couple of questions, waved me on.

Two lovely women picked me up at Manchester Airport, the first words out of their mouths were a phrase I literally heard countless times during the next three days: “Y’allright?” The phrase Americans call out to someone who’s fallen down a flight of stairs is the way folks around Stoke-on-Trent greet each other. Felt like a sign of an extremely cautious approach to life. Over and over, I saw people say it to each other on the street. Friends said it to each other when one entered another’s house. A phone rings, someone answers, they find out who’s calling then say, “Y’allright?”

They also call each other Duck. (”Y’allright, Duck?”) For some reason, not a single person called me Duck during the course of the weekend, though nearly everyone asked me if I was all right.

V. (ignoring the jerk with the camera):

T. (wishing the jerk with the camera would go away)

Before heading north I’d stopped in at a couple of weather websites, both predicting a pleasant weekend in the Midlands — clouds/sun, mild temperatures. Complete horseshit, of course. (Lying bastards.) Friday’s weather: gray, cold, drizzly. Saturday’s weather: gray, cold, drizzly. Saturday a.m., my hostess — one of the sweetest, most quietly remarkable people I know — commented happily on the morning’s mild temperature. I stepped outside into gray, raw conditions, my breath misting every time I opened my mouth, me grinding my teeth at the persistently high quantity of weather misinformation flying about. (In the case of my hostess, it could simply be a matter of wildly differing conceptions/experiences. She’d get up in the mornings saying how cold she was. An hour later, post-caffeine, she had the back door and various windows open, the temperature in the house sliding far below that of 60 minutes earlier.)

Stoke: a city composed of six towns (Stoke, Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall, Fenton, Longton) with a heavy-duty industrial history (ceramics — Saturday’s edition of the local newspaper featured the headline ‘THE END,’ about the sudden decision to close one of the handful of remaining potteries). Why they adopted the collective name of Stoke-on-Trent, I don’t know. The municipality took its name from member town Stoke. Hanley is considered the city center. Found within the city are other places: Trentham, Blurton, maybe more. Villages? Districts? Don’t know. I inquired about it all, but the answers to my plaintive, pleading questions remained cryptic, elusive. (Everyone asked me if I was all right, though.)

Saturday: spent most of the afternoon with my hostess, wandering around a shopping district in Stoke’s neighbor, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Saw many, many folks flouncing about, enjoying the day, completely unfazed by the weather’s rawness. Saw an amazing number of children/babies, something that held true throughout the weekend. Also saw a degree of affection between adults and kids far in excess of everything people have told me about the English. And in fact, much of what I experienced contradicted stereotypes. Very friendly, Midlands folk, very kind.

Stopped in at a local restaurant, had a pretty tasty plate of fish and chips. Stopped in at a popular tea joint, had a great meal of sandwiches/tea/scones. Went to a restaurant that night with this entry’s two poster women, plus an old friend of mine, winding up in an old Pullman car with excessively comfortable seats, now a wing of a restaurant cranking out extremely good fare. (That ongoing stereotype re: godawful English food? My experience over many visits to the U.K. generally doesn’t support it. Except for one nearly lethal croissantwich choked down during my first visit to London, 1986.)

Late Sunday afternoon, cloud cover began to break up, allowing glimpses of blue sky, sunlight pouring through whenever it had the chance. Monday morning brought more of the same, prompting me to pull out the camera, something that had remained packed away during my stay.

Yesterday morning, Stoke-on-Trent:

The same two lovely women drove me back to Manchester Airport Monday morning. One highlight of the drive: a discussion of Motorway Tourette’s, punctuated by the following:
[Driver of our car, loudly addressing an 18-wheeler ahead of us:] “You’re not supposed to be in this fucking lane! The other bastard’s not going to let you pass — now fuck off!!” [Then to me, casually matter-of-fact, referring to the person in the back seat:] “That’s nothing, she gets Premenstrual Tourette’s.”

Sign seen in lavatory of small Iberia Airlines plane during the return flight to Madrid:
Bolsa de Mareos (literally, Bag of Airsicknesses)

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

Madrid, te quiero.

Yesterday: me, ironing clothes. Not normally my preferred method of passing the time, though in this case feeling therapeutic, even meditative. Which might be a sign I’ve either (a) felt the intensity of the last couple of weeks more than I’d realized or (b) taken to heart far too many old Buddhist-style sayings (’before enlightenment, chop wood — after enlightenment, chop wood’; ‘if you meet the Buddha on the road, get him stewed then roll him for his cash’; etc.). Could be either one, though I suspect in this case it’s the intensity bit.

And there’s been a lot to absorb. If you’ve paid any attention at all to recent news from Spain, you’re aware of the terrorist attacks, the elections, all that. The atmosphere hereabouts has maintained its recent strange tilt toward political acting out, which on one hand produces abundant opportunities for world-class satire and on the other makes turning on the television more of a crapshoot than normal if one isn’t looking for public servants spewing fanciful half-truths and bilious falsehoods.

Since the public relations disaster arising from their apparent manipulation of information during the post-bombing investigation, and their subsequent loss in the national elections, el Partido Popular has engaged in a long, drawn-out, high-profile media offensive to counter the trouncing their image took during those decisive four days. The higher-ups of the party have made the rounds of the various news/interview shows, hammering away at their core message: they never lied, they never misled, they were completely open and honest, they have nothing to apologize for, other unspecified people took advantage of the situation, lying and distorting the facts. José María Aznar, in particular, put on an unnerving display during a lengthy interview on Telecinco, the single free broadcast channel considered to be uninfluenced and unmanipulated by the government. Aggressive, defiantly unpleasant, in the interviewer’s face. Difficult to watch.

The state funeral for the victims of the bombings took place two days ago at the National Cathedral. Big name politicians and royalty from around Spain, Europe and other, more distant points on the map showed up for it. Numerous heavy hitters took advantage of being here to stop in and get acquainted with the incoming President, Zapatero — Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, the President of Portugal (Jorge Sampaio), not to mention with the Prime Minister of Poland (Leszek Miller), a country that’s played a surprisingly visible role in the days following Zapatero’s post-elections reiterations of intent re: the Spanish troops in Iraq. And Colin Powell, who had to wait 40 minutes for Zapatero to finish talking with Chirac.

Pictures of the various meetings were all over the print and television media, many of them shots of Zapatero and [fill in name of foreign leader here] seated, talking, with a third individual sitting between, slightly behind them — unnamed, mostly women, different with each foreign leader, unmentioned in the photo captions. Unobtrusive, listening intently to the conversation or leaning discretely toward the foreign head of state, talking. Interpreters — there but not there, reminding me for some reason of the daemons in Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials novels.

Blair and Powell stopped in to see Aznar at Moncloa Palace, the presidential residence, the Prime Minister of Poland also making a brief appearance. Aznar had shed his dark, disturbing persona of the Telecinco interview, appearing genuinely glad to see each of the three visitors, looking quieter, even a touch sad at some moments.

And at some point within the last couple of days, Aznar received Zapatero at Moncloa Palace, welcoming him with a strong handshake and a smile, his manner toward Zapatero markedly different than during the election campaign when Aznar slung enormous amounts of verbal shit in Zapatero’s direction, Zapatero rarely responding, and never with the kind of extreme, mean-spirited assaults employed by Aznar. (Aznar not only called Zapatero the weakest Socialist candidate he’d ever seen, he actually on one astonishing occasion compared Zapatero — a friendly, mild-mannered guy — with Hitler. An authentically jaw-dropping moment for me, hearing that. Using Aznar’s in-country political comportment as a reference point, him referring to Zapatero as Hitler is similar to Hitler calling Chamberlain a fascist.)

The City of Madrid held a ceremony at noon today in Sol, paying homage both to those affected by the bombings and to all the police, firefighters, ambulence crews and medical personnel who worked in the post-explosion hours and days, along with all the anonymous citizens who gave blood, volunteered at hospitals, and assisted in many other unheralded ways. I met a Spanish friend in Sol two days ago, late on a cold, windy afternoon. The platform on which the observances would take place was being erected in front of el Ayuntamiento (the city offices building), the shrine that had extended along the front of the building had been drastically compacted off to one side of the platform, most of the candles extinguished, in disarray, the breeze trying to put out the remaining few small flames. A printed sheet posted among the many handwritten signs taped to the building stated that the shrine would be moved to the fire station near Atocha Station, taking pains to put it respectfully, with as much sensitivity as could be communicated in an announcement like that.

Many, many people stopped to take in what was left of the memorial site, some remaining several minutes, moving slowly along its remaining length, reading signs, gazing at the remaining bouquets and candles. Others slowed down briefly before moving on.

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

This evening, la Calle de Génova, Madrid (the dark-glassed building to the left: PP headquarters):



Madrid, te quiero.

Subject line from the most recent email received here and deleted without opening:

‘let’s get fucked up tonight on pharm products’

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

Talking someone to death — this evening, la Plaza de Jacinto Benavente, Madrid:



Madrid, te quiero.

Spring has settled convincingly in over Madrid these last few days, bringing sunlight softened by high clouds in tandem with temperatures just warm enough to allow life without coats, jackets, sweatshirts, sweaters. Combined with a long weekend, many locals fleeing the city, what you’ve got is three days that have felt relaxed in the way August in these parts feels relaxed. Less traffic than normal, less people about than on your standard weekend. Nicely low-key. A state that has felt just fine after the upheaval of the previous week or so, and continues today. Trees are greening up, bare branches disappearing beneath rapidly-expanding foliage. Birds are everywhere, making happy noise. In the plaza down the street, bars and restaurants are busy dragging tables/chairs out into the air. People carrying a Sunday paper appear almost instantaneously, sunglasses in place, easing themselves down into a chair, stretching out their legs, soaking up sunlight. (The wet blankets in the weather-predicting biz have been warning that far less friendly temperatures are about to make a return visit to these parts. I make rude noises in their general direction.)

During the course of yesterday afternoon, I became aware of a change in the ambient sound outside, something that joined the mix of voices in conversation down in the street, the sound of the occasional passing car, the chatter of sparrows: the drone of helicopters. At times distant, other times closer. Something that became a component of the city’s background noise in the wake of the bombings, fading away during the course of this last week. As late afternoon leaned toward evening, a chopper occasionally drifted into view, way up in the sky, slowly circling the city center. And at some point memory kicked in, I made the connection between the ‘copters and a demonstration marking the one-year anniversary of the incursion into Iraq.

On impulse, I pulled on a jacket, stuffed my camera into a pocket, headed outside. Making my way through narrow local streets, lots of other people out enjoying the evening, plenty of daylight left.

The center hummed with activity, some folks out in the more traditional Saturday evening manner, others clearly there with a political purpose. Sol overflowed with people, a steady stream arriving from the direction of the procession’s starting point, la Plaza de la Cibeles, the general atmosphere relaxed, like that of the city overall. Signs were carried, banners hoisted, Spanish flags flown — sentiments expressed ranged from continued mourning in the wake of the bombing, to anger at ETA/al-Qa’ida, to the more explicit purpose of the gathering. Speakers orated from a stand off to one side of the plaza, the sound system muddy enough that I could only make out the occasional word. Musicians performed, people sang along. Chants began, rippled across the plaza, faded away. Daylight dimmed, night came on.

After a while, I followed an impulse to make my way through the crowd out along la Calle de la Montera, away from Sol, looking to walk, watch people, enjoy the evening.

I’ve found myself these last few days feeling an overwhelming enjoyment of small, simple things I experience during my days: sunlight slanting in windows; the way passing people — friends, lovers, families — interact with each other; the simple enjoyment of a meal or a cup of espresso. Washing the dishes, hearing the woman in the piso next door in her kitchen, carrying on her life. Music coming from my radio. You get the idea. The kind of stuff that would get crushingly dull if I spent more time elaborating on it.

The last week here in Madrid has featured a massive shift in the political scene, followed by an ongoing flood of blabber and political positioning. As the week unfolded and the fact of the shift sank in, the media provided a steady stream of political pronouncements/maneuvers from out of country, along with strange, bitter in-country mutterings from the just-defeated Partido Popular (apparently unable to simply come out and say Yeah, we could have done better), with which the incoming President has steadfastly refused to engage, continuing to talk instead of plurality, honesty, inclusiveness, while moving steadily forward, putting together the new administration. I find myself watching it all flow by, feeling no pull toward partisanship, experiencing a deepening regard for this country and its people, whatever their philosophy or ideology. And deeply content to be where I am in my life.

Blah blah blah.

Got myself out of bed at a decent hour this morning, dragged myself to the gym, which turned out to be nicely uncrowded, the way Sunday mornings on a holiday weekend sometimes are. Something got me thinking about three males I saw there about four weeks back, college-age or slightly older. Longish hair, fresh-faced, their conversation laced with laughter, with jokes at each others’ expense. Looking like it might be their first time going through the machines. Bearing little resemblance to the more hardened, bulked-up alpha males working around them. Afterwards, I saw them down in the locker-room, using a high-tech weight/height machine that sits in a corner, a device that provides your details aloud, delivered by a female computerized voice, instead of via a printed ticket or electronic readout.

Two of the guys used it, the results provoked laughter. As they passed me on their way out, one said to the other, “Enano.” (Dwarf.) The other replied, “Gordo.” (Fatty.) They disappeared out the door, continuing the exchange as they moved out of earshot:

“¡Enano!”

“¡Gordo!”

“¡Enano!”

“¡Gordo!”

It’s good, this life.

On to the day.

Madrid, te quiero.

Last Friday, the day after the bombings here in Madrid: Esperanza, the woman in the flat across from mine, runs a small youth residencia. On stepping out my door at one point during the day, I saw that a pile of suitcases had been dragged from the flat into the hall. A guy I’d never seen before grabbed four, started down the stairs with them, Esperanza hefted most of the others. One enormous duffel remained, I asked if I could help, she nodded yes. I picked it up, we headed down to the street level. Along the way, I asked if she were heading out of town, she said no, three young French women who’d been staying with her had decided to head back home, from nerves and fear.

They weren’t alone. Friday and Saturday, I noticed a sudden upsurge of people with luggage heading into various Metro stations. Most seemed to speak other languages, travelers who’d decided Madrid might not be the vacation destination they’d had in mind after all.

Yesterday marked a week gone by since 11-M, the news broadcasts were on that anniversary like a cheap suit. In the days since the attack, a staple of both print and television news has been profiles of those who died, and interviews with family and friends of the dead or wounded, with the wounded themselves, with witnesses and rescue personnel. The scene at Atocha Station has steadily grown in the days since last weekend, news crews from all over the map arriving to cover it. The crowds of visiting citizens/travelers have grown steadily, as have the size of the impromptu shrines. Within the last couple of days, politicians began showing up, laying wreaths.

I experience a strange double vision in the middle of it all — out in the street here in the city center, life has largely resumed its normal feel, the arrival of springtime bringing people outdoors in pleased, relaxed fashion. Picking up a paper, though, or turning on the TV is to step into the forced march back into the intense events of a week ago.

Yesterday, a crowd of people stood by one of the in memoriam sites in Atocha, holding signs reading NO! Nothing more than that. I understand what they’re getting at, that they’re saying ¡Nunca más! (Never again!), but I think I’m reaching the point where I’d prefer to see the word ‘yes’ — to the living of life, to the respectful, loving remembrance of those passed on while moving forward. To releasing the political wrangling of the last few days, the positioning to have the upper hand, to have the appearance of greater reason or higher moral ground. To appreciating what we have, which is, frankly, an astonishing number of wonderful things, admirable people, moments of beauty — an amazing degree of abundance (in more than just the material), something we seem to lose track of amid the noise and commotion of western life.

Luckily for us all, I’m not in charge — I don’t get to dictate how others live, think, eat, walk, dress, work, report the news, treat their fellow humans, worship/not worship, pass their free time, drive, spend money, manage personal hygiene or tap dance. I just get to think, feel, and write about that here in my ongoing vanity project.

So. Abundance. On Thursday, March 11, as word of the events here reached England and the U.S., I began receiving email from friends in both those countries. My phone began, er, tootling, familiar voices saying hello in English when I answered. A long wave of friends checking up on me that stretched through the weekend — from individuals I’m in regular contact with to people I haven’t heard from in a long, long time, to my sainted landlords here in Madrid’s outskirts — finally tapering off this last Monday to a steady trickle of one or two notes or calls a day, a trickle that’s continued throughout the week. I can’t tell you how that has anchored me in the middle of the goings-on here, and I am grateful beyond my ability to put it into words for everyone who took a moment to say hello.

Today’s a holiday in Madrid (el Día de San José), the beginning of a long weekend. A week ago, foreigners were taking off. Last night and today, the locals are bolting, jamming the highways on the way to the coast, the mountains, wherever. Spring’s arrival has brought extremely friendly weather — mild, brilliantly sunny, easy on the body. The plaza down the street is nicely busy, the distant murmur of many voices drifts in and out of hearing with the breeze.

Normal life, spring settling in, weather that feels just fine. A lot to be grateful for. Which is exactly how I’m feeling: glad to be alive, carrying on my little existence in the midst of the unpredictable, poignant mixture of events the days bring.

**********

This afternoon, la Plaza de Chueca, Madrid:

Madrid, te quiero.

Sunday night, post-elections: partying could be heard around the neighborhood. Not wild, trash-hurling, bottle-tossing, shrieking crowds of shitfaced revelers — far more low-key. Bits of pleased conversation on the street, punctuated by laughter. Now and then a car would pass through, horn blowing in celebration. Sometimes a pedestrian would join in, letting loose a howl — maybe a version of the classic dog/siren reflex. The horn would fade with distance as the car continued on to another part of the barrio, the howling ceased, quiet descended for a while.

On Monday the newly-elected Spanish president, Zapatero, took the stage — meeting the press, laying out his intentions, lacing his discourse with words like ‘dialogue,’ ‘plurality,’ ‘unity.’ He also reiterated something he promised during the campaign, that Spain would consent to being part of a U.N.-directed transition force in Iraq, but that if the mandate for the occupation were not turned over to the U.N., Spain would withdraw its troops at the end of June, the date the previous government had set to review the situation.

Nothing new in that for folks in this part of the world. Zapatero made his intentions clear throughout the campaign process, consistent with his long-standing opposition to the Iraq incursion. It made the headlines in all the local papers, though — most reporting it simply, accurately, one of the two far-right papers being the lone print outlet to employ a bit of hysterical, sensationalistic distortion (ZAPATERO TO WITHDRAW SPANISH TROOPS IMMEDIATELY!) — everyone aware that of everything Zapatero came out with during the course of his first post-election day, that single statement would likely generate the biggest shockwaves out there in the world beyond Spain’s borders. A close second would be his statement that Spain will become more European in its political alignment, moving closer to Germany and France.

And so began the spewing of opinions in the world media and in various cyber-hangouts, something I normally pay little attention to. In the process of checking in on some blogs/online journals I often visit, however, I followed various links that led to examples of the vociferizing going on in response to the last week’s events here in Spain. And I find myself amazed all over again at our capacity to proffer opinions as if they were the only possible perspective, as if they were, in fact, indisputable truths etched in titanium. We are an endearing bunch, we humans, a source of so much strange, fascinating behavior. Most of us so well-intended, carrying so much good in our hearts, regardless of the form it may take when we spray it outward.

But I blather.

Monday and Tuesday: Zapatero suggests that Bush and Blair might want to engage in some reflection and self-criticism. Bush and Blair call Zapatero to congratulate him on his victory and express their desire to work closely with him. Zapatero attributes his election to a desire for change, not to last Thursday’s bombings. The Wall Street Journal opines that the terrorists have brought down a government of the coalition. The New York Times doesn’t agree. The Daily Telegraph says the Spaniards have dishonored their dead. The Financial Times says Spain has given the world a lesson in Democracy. Mariano Rajoy, the PP’s defeated presidential candidate, claims in a television interview that the PP never lied, never hid information, the war in Iraq didn’t affect the vote, he lost the election because “some groups convinced the voters that it would be better if the PP didn’t govern.” (”Some groups?” asked the interviewer. “I don’t mean anyone specifically,” responded Rajoy. “Persons, people….”) King Mohammed VI of Morocco congratulates Zapatero, calling him an experienced and wise politician. At various locations around cyberspace, right-leaning folks call the Spaniards cowards, others take heart at the elections’ demonstration of democracy in action.

*Morocco: Spain’s neighbor to the south, across the Straits of Gibraltar (and country of origin to some of the alleged authors of last week’s bombings), where Spain still possesses two bits of real estate, the cities of Ceuta and Melilla

Meanwhile, here in Madrid, life goes on. Lovely early-spring weather has taken hold — sunlight pouring down, a cool breeze giving the mild temperatures a slight edge. The political hoo-ha is part of the general vibe, one can hear plenty of conversation about it during the course of the day, but people are out shopping, drinking coffee, picking up groceries, sitting at tables outdoors with something to eat or drink, talking, enjoying the weather.

The shrines to those killed and wounded in the bombings continue to receive a steady stream of visitors and media types. I stopped by Atocha Station two days ago, where in memoriam displays have proliferated, indoors and out. I paused among a quiet crowd by one long grouping of candles, bouquets, handmade signs situated well outside the station, by the large, busy traffic circle. People came and went, traffic passed, the breeze riffled taped-up bits of paper and flower blossoms, making candle flames flicker or go out.

At some point I became aware of one individual, a guy who appeared to be looking through items left at the shrine as if out shopping. Walking along, picking up certain candles, looking them over, putting most back, holding on to a couple. When the only box of matches at the scene found its way into his hands, I watched with more attention. He moved from one spot to another, sometimes stepping into the shrine itself to examine items, looking around from time to time to see if anyone was watching. He held the box of matches in one hand for a while, finally shifting it inconspicuously into a plastic shopping bag he carried, along with a candle or two. After a couple of moments, I moved to his side, mentioned quietly that if he’d finished with the box of matches other people might want to use it. He looked over at me, startled, said, “¡Sí!”, pulling the small box from the bag, putting it back where it came from. Another person picked it up, began lighting candles that had gone out.

The guy resumed moving along the shrine, now examining bouquets. A minute later, a bunch of yellow flowers made the shift to his bag. He’d caught the attention of other people by that time, who watched open-mouthed, beginning to make angry comments. One elderly woman gestured at him, mentioned she’d first noticed him with the matches, expressed outrage, saying, “¡Qué caradura!” (’What cheek!’) By that time, he’d glommed on to the box of matches again, glancing around to see if anyone had cottoned on. At which time he noticed the potential lynch mob of pissed off shrinegoers staring at him. A moment of hurried deliberation, then he put the box of matches down. A minute passed, he browsed without touching anything, then furtively picked up a small candle, examined it, slipped in his bag, bolted.

The outraged conversation continued in the group near me until they began moving off, one by one, heads shaking. I watched the souvenir klepto disappear down the avenue, thinking about this small event. A handful of tiny candles, a bouquet of flowers — they don’t mean much compared to the event that had brought them to this spot. Their new owner didn’t appear to be the happiest or most tranquil of people. Could be he needed those few items, for whatever reasons, more than the shrine did.

Examining the goods:

Inside Atocha Station, shrines are spread out in a number of locations, with many people stopping to gaze soberly, talk quietly with a companion. Two squat 50-something women down at one end of a memorial area on the stations main floor talked together, upset, as I paused 15 or 20 feet away. One suddenly raised her voice in sharp emotion, the words “¡Hijos de putas!” erupting out of her. Her volume immediately quieted, they continued talking together, both clearly feeling some feelings.

This site, like many of the shrines at the station, featured numerous handmade signs, some aiming clear, heartfelt messages at the recently-defeated government.

Up a level from this site was another, spread along a hallway that saw less traffic than the one I’d just stopped at. People stood quietly along its length, two or three like me bearing cameras, taking pictures, something that seemed to bother no one. A moment later, two television cameramen appeared, each with a sizeable camera riding a shoulder — positioning themselves at different places along this lengthy memorial area, seeming to produce a ripple of unease that ran through the people paying their respects. A sound person showed up, bearing a microphone, a headset, a recording device — he approached one or two individuals, both of whom declined to be questioned. All the shrinegoers then scattered, walking quickly away, leaving the television folk behind, expressions contrite.

Both outside and inside the station’s main entry concourse is an enormous, sprawling accumulation of candles, bouquets, signs, and messages written in marker on walls, columns, windows. Its size and location attract large, reverent crowds, including substantial numbers of media folk. When I stepped outside from the concourse, I practically walked into a massive camera emplacement, three technicians standing around it talking in crisp British accents. Other crews had similarly-sized equipment set up, vans with satellite dishes were visible a distance away from the entrance, numerous crews with smaller equipment roamed around, looking for a shot or an audio clip. Attempting to do their job, media folk and shrinegoers coexisting more successfully here than they had several minutes earlier, inside.

There is a strange matter-of-factness about all this, despite the nagging edge of unreality to it all when contemplated. News programs have shown footage of crippled trains being pulled apart, taken away piece by piece, crowds of people watching silently as the visible evidence of the bombings disappears a chunk at a time.

Life moves on, something I’m grateful for. Walking in the barrio of Salamanca earlier today, I saw trees greening up, my first sighting for the season. With the last few days’ milder weather, tables and chairs have appeared outside restaurants and cafés. Even today, mostly overcast and cool, people are sitting outside, ready for spring, acting like its already here.

The days roll on. That’s a good thing.

Madrid, te quiero.

Messages seen today in the center of Madrid, along la Calle de la Montera (referred to by some as ‘la calle de las putas’) — one philosophical (an L. Ron Hubbard quote, as it turns out — read or ignore, as you are so moved), one a long-standing cry of protest, as yet unanswered by the city government:

(a) Ideas, not battles, mark the progress of humanity
(b) Prostitution in the street, no! We’re fed up!

Thanks to e.r. for connecting some philosophical dots.

Madrid, te quiero.

Headlines in this morning’s dailies:

El País: Zapatero derrota a Rajoy en un vuelco electoral sin precedentes (Zapatero defeats Rajoy in an unprecedented electoral upset)
El Mundo: Los españoles castigan al PP y dan el poder al PSOE (The Spaniards punish the PP and give power to the PSOE)

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

At the risk of overkill:

This morning, Atocha Station — the observances continue:

Madrid, te quiero.

Three days after the bombings here in Madrid — time’s passage easing the most sharply painful parts of the drama — I find myself torn about what to report. I am not one for political affiliations or reporting on that strange world. Yet the complexity of Spain’s situation, post-attacks, has become so complex, so volatile, that it’s difficult to resist laying some of it out here (at the risk of boring the pants off most who happen across this page).

Demonstrations in response to the bombings were set for Friday evening, the call to take part coming from across the political spectrum, with politicians of every stripe participating, along with the royal family — the first time they have ever done so — and prominent figures from around Europe. This is the only occasion since my arrival here, midsummer 2000, in which I’ve seen Spain’s political factions acting jointly. The more normal formation has the ruling party, el Partido Popular, on one side (sometimes supported by a teeny party based in the Canary Islands, sometimes not), everyone else on the other. Meaning rancorous displays in Parliament with little result, as the PP has had an absolute parliamentary majority since the elections of 2000, enabling it to withstand all verbal fireworks, then brush aside demands for investigations or changes in course by voting them down.

Today, coincidentally, is election day. [See entry of March 11.] On Thursday, with the news of the bombings and the growing sense of horror as a steady stream of brutal images flowed from every television channel, the two major parties suspended their election campaigns, pleading for unity, calling for all Spaniards to take part in demonstrations set for Friday evening.

Friday morning brought the first sign of disharmony and faltering civility via televised excerpts of an address by Gaspar Llamares, the point man/presidential candidate of la Izquierda Unida (United Left — essentially Spain’s current embodiment of the Communist Party), demanding that the government release all the information it had accumulated in the post-bombing investigation, the clear implication being that it had not done so, for political motives. Llamares has a general tendency to bitch and attack, with time I’ve paid him less and less attention, so changed the channel after getting the general gist of his shpiel.

Shortly after, I came across a bit of José María Aznar’s Friday press conference in which he aggressively responded to questions in that same vein. Aggressive attacks are part of his m.o., usually carried out with a focused, cool, almost dispassionate efficiency. Though he responded with his usual intensity, his manner had a defensive, almost shaky quality I’d never seen before, catching my attention in a way that Llamares’ accusations didn’t. [Brief background: the government originally blamed the terrorist group ETA for the attack, an assumption initially shared by everyone, one that served the PP's election aims. With time, though, evidence began showing major inconsistencies with ETA's normal method of working, along with indications of possible involvement of al-Qa'ida (in addition to which ETA, usually quick to claim responsibility for their work, denied involvement in Thursday's bombings). Should that be the case, the election results may veer off in directions damaging to the PP, who dragged Spain into the invasion of Iraq against the wishes of 90+% of the population. For that reason, the government has been carefully backtracking from its original claims re: ETA, while continuing to insist they believe ETA to be responsible.]

Immediately after that, the Socialist party’s point man/presidential candidate, Zapatero, gave an address in which he took the high road, reiterating calls for unity, reminding the country that the paramount concern should be for those directly affected by the bombings, for family and friends struggling to deal with the disaster, that political positioning had no place in the national mourning period. He expressed gratitude to police, firefighters, medical personnel and to those working to determine who was responsible for the attacks, repeating calls to everyone to take part in that evening’s demonstrations.

Blah blah blah.

So. The language school I study at decided to remain open Friday evening instead of shutting down for the demonstrations like most of the rest of the city. I spoke with a friend during the afternoon, an American woman/classmate — we decided to show up at school, see what happened from there, figuring they might come to their senses, turn the lights off, let us all go do the protest thing. She didn’t show, didn’t call to warn me she wouldn’t show, I turned out to be the only idiot in my group to appear, while outside in heavily-falling rain, 2.3 million people filled the streets. Stores closed, restaurants shut down, everything gave way to the evening’s main event.

Neither I, my instructor, Jesús, nor the only other instructor present — a lovely, intelligent woman named Carolina — could understand why we were there, but we went through the motions. On the way out, I heard the TV in the school office, poked my head in to see what was up. Onscreen, an enormous, sprawling mass of people packed the area around la Plaza de Colón, extending off into the surrounding districts of Madrid, the event in the process of finishing up.

Outside, a river of Spaniards in heavy-weather gear filled the street and sidewalks, streaming away from the center. I made the walk into Sol to see what might be happening, found a swirling mass of folks with flags, placards, candles, many clustered in front of el Ayuntamiento, where an impromptu shrine ran the length of the building — candles, sheets of paper with machine-printed and handwritten messages, banners, flags, flowers. An outpouring of emotion I’d only seen rivaled in the anti-war demonstrations of a year ago. Scribbled messages had been left on whatever had been on hand — pieces of paper, cardboard, newsprint, clothing — many addressed to friends/loved ones dead or disappeared in the bombings, many from other places around Spain and the Hispanic world saying Hoy estamos madrileños.

A shaven-headed 30ish male in wet clothing roamed back and forth along the shrine, single-mindedly working to keep the growing accumulation of stuff reasonably dry, moving items closer to the building, re-taping up soggy messages. A sodden sheet of paper taped to the back of his shirt read NO ESTÁ LLOVIENDO — EL CIELO ESTÁ LLORANDO. (IT’S NOT RAINING — THE SKY IS CRYING.)

Time passed. I remained there for a while, eventually becoming aware of a voice off in the distance. Shouting, moving closer. An older male, yelling without pause, angry, bordering on enraged. People around me, many in family groups, looked at each other uncertainly, not prepared for the possibility of confrontation.

With all the people around I couldn’t see the source of the anger, but I could hear him approaching. Until the tone of his voice changed a bit, its volume indicating he moved no closer. When it became clear his approach had indeed been halted, most returned their attention to the shrine, a 20-something couple near me glancing at each other, shrugging, moving closer together under their umbrella.

Curious, I moved to the edge of the crowd, saw three municipal cops escorting yelling man away from the building to the dividing island in the middle of the street. Yelling man — 60ish, about 5′6″, dressed neatly, with a trimmed gray beard — held a collapsed black umbrella in one hand, a plastic bag from a clothing store in the other, appearing to contain a purchase. One of the officers talked with him — the cop speaking normally, the older man yelling, disturbed about something — the other two flanked the shouter until a patrol car appeared. They herded him gently into the back seat, closed the door, the patrol car moved slowly off.

I made my way gradually home through crowded streets, rain falling without let-up.

Yesterday, Saturday, evidence suggesting al-Qa’ida involvement accumulated in ways increasingly difficult to ignore, including the arrest of five men in connection with the bombings, among them three Moroccans. Political back-and-forth grew louder, angrier, Aznar and Interior Minister Acebes declaring that though all avenues of investigation were being followed, they still believed ETA to be responsible.

Yesterday evening, in the kitchen, I turned on the radio, tuned in Radio 5 (”¡Todo noticias!”), found myself listening to the PP’s presidential candidate, Mariano Rajoy, stridently insisting that protestors gathered near PP headquarters in various cities were antidemocratic, breaking the law, trying to influence the vote through coercion. As he spoke, several thousand people stood in front of the Madrid PP offices not far from here, demanding full disclosure from the government.

On turning off the radio, I heard a racket here in the barrio, glanced outside to find crowds of people roaming the streets, banging on pots, beating drums, chanting, “¡Mentirosos! ¡Mentirosos!” (”Liars! Liars!”) One group disappeared down one street, another appeared along a different street, beating on different noisemakers, chanting different words: “¡PP — di la verdad!” (”PP — tell the truth!”) I worked here at the computer, had long phone conversations, got to bed late — the entire time, protests came and went.

This morning’s El País reported that protesters filled Sol until well after midnight, that demonstrations circulated through the city until 3 a.m.

A remnant of last night’s demonstrations (culpable = guilty)

Sunday evening: election day has come and gone, the polls are closed, the votes are being tallied. According to the media, voter turnout is around 77.2% — 8 percentage points higher overall than in 2000. Strong numbers that promise interesting results.

Headlines from today’s dailies:

El País: Todos los indicios señalan a Al Qaeda (All indications point to Al Qaeda)
El Mundo: Investigadores españoles viajarán a Marruecos tras la pista islámica (Spanish investigators will travel to Morocco after the Islamic trail)
ABC: Un supuesto jefe de Al Qaida en Europa reivindica en un vídeo la masacre de Madrid (Videotape shows alleged chief of Al Qaida in Europe claiming responsibility for the massacre in Madrid)
La Razón: Tres de los cinco detenidos por su presunta implicación en el 11-M tienen antecedentes policiales (Three of five suspects arrested for alleged implication in 11-M have police records)
La Vanguardia: Al Qaeda confirma en un vídeo ser la autora de la masacre
(Al Qaeda claims in a videotape to be the author of the massacre)

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

From an email sent yesterday by a Spanish friend, Luis Alberto — a student of English, writing in English:

“These are sad days for us. I don’t have enough fluency with English to express all my feelings about this tragedy. Perhaps my words and sentences are similar to those that children use, but it’s exactly like I feel myself now, like a little child who doesn’t understand the reason for so much death and destruction. I wish someone would answer why hundreds of people have been killed and their families and friends have been punished.

“I was at the big demonstration yesterday evening. During four hours walking under the intense rain, surrounded by friends and unknown people, I began feeling better. It wasn’t raining — Madrid was crying. And those tears falling on us didn’t stop our shouts. We were more together than ever before, and our dead could be sure they would be remembered forever.”

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

One last note, written at 11:15 p.m. Madrid time.

Four days ago, the ruling party was expected to win another four years in power. The only question at that time was whether they would be able to hold on to their absolute majority in the Spanish parliament.

Then came the bombings, followed by the slow stream of revelations of possible al-Qa’ida involvement and the government’s apparent withholding of information re: all that to preserve their position in today’s elections.

All those elements have combined to light a fire under the electorate, producing a major upset: as of this evening, el Partido Popular has been voted out of power — the Socialists have gained the Presidency and a parliamentary majority.

There will likely be some substantial changes coming. Among other things, the Socialists have promised to pull the Spanish armed forces out of Iraq by this summer if adminstration of the occupation does not shift to the U.N.

Time will tell.

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

Madrid, te quiero.

Madrid, this morning — two days after what the local media is calling 11-M:

In front of el Ayuntamiento, the city government offices:

A corner at the top of a stairway in Atocha Station, the principal bombing site:

Shrine along a concourse, Atocha Station:

Text printed on a sheet of paper placed at the main gathering site in Atocha:
Todos viajamos en el mismo tren
(We’re all traveling in the same train)

Madrid, te quiero.

Sleep did not come easily last night, as you might imagine. With this morning’s first light I gave up, pulled on clothing, headed to the gym for the therapy of simple, mindless, repetitive physical effort, a venting of energy I find helpful during times of stress. The Metro ride was as crowded as on any other morning, though virtually everyone remained silent, some reading newspaper accounts of yesterday’s events (others reading over their shoulders), most seeming to be looking inward, lost in thought.

During my time here, Spain has not been a country given to flagwaving. The flying of the national banner is unusual, and I’m aware of only a handful of places around Madrid where the bands of red and yellow can be seen. As I emerged from the Metro in the barrio of Salamanca and made the hike to the gym, it became apparent that, overnight, banners and flags have begun appearing all over the place, most emblazoned with a black ribbon of mourning — an echo of the way American flags became ubiquitous stateside in the days following 9-11.

Another change: since yesterday morning the drone of low-flying helicopters has become normal, now and then growing suddenly louder as a ‘copter shoots into view above nearby buildings, flies across a street or avenue, disappears beyond other buildings.

I went for a long walk yesterday evening as darkness fell. A sense of more or less normal life had reasserted itself over the city center, streets busy with traffic, sidewalks and pedestrian ways crowded with people, the air nicely cool and fresh. Couples of all ages walked together, many hand in hand; groups of friends clustered together, talking. All this came as a relief after the intense atmosphere of the morning and afternoon — though I suspect that over to the east side of the city, in the area around Atocha Station, things remained intense.

Stepping into a store to pick up one or two items, I waited at the check-out while ‘Mrs. Robinson’ played loudly over the in-house P.A., the guy behind the counter crooning softly along with it. (Coo coo ca-choo, Mrs Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know….) Heavily-accented pronunciation provided a distinct contrast to the original version, the scene feeling like one more slightly unreal moment in a day already overflowing with them.

In la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, the very heart of the city, spontaneous protests against the terrorist group ETA — at that time presumed responsible for the attacks — had gathered during the course of the day, varying in size from large and sprawling to more compact. When I passed through around 7:30, something more than 1000 people remained, mostly college age, gathered together in front of the city government offices — el Ayuntamiento — chanting the words “¡Hijos de puta!” over and over again. Around me, I saw a huge range of emotions being acted out, from passing groups of laughing younger folk — unconcerned at that moment with the greater drama — to folks standing together talking soberly, the cheeks of a few shining with tears. A couple looking to be Central American in origin passed, her expression distraught, him holding her hand, saying, “Cariño, escucha — estamos aquí, estamos bien. ¿Sabes? ¡Estamos bien!”

The lines at the mobile blood donation center were shorter than they’d been earlier, though still considerable. Staff encouraged people to come back during the coming days, reminding everyone that the need for blood would remain high, entreating people to please not forget.

I made my way home through streets comfortingly busy, went to bed late, slept little.

Today has seemed much harder. I’m not sure I can explain why. Less intense in terms of actual events, far more difficult emotionally. Maybe there’s been enough time for it all to sink in, without the filters of cataclysm and shock to diffuse the impact of the simple fact of the happenings, with all their implications. Maybe the ongoing shows of grief have something to do with it — that of individuals who survived the explosions, of their family and friends, of people involved in the rescue work. Or the collective emotion, the grief, anger, dismay, confusion of the pueblo. Maybe now that the noise and smoke from yesterday’s events has cleared away, the uncertainty of what’s to come, the anxiety about unanswered questions has begun to occupy a growing part of the emotional picture. Whatever the reasons, I heard a woman early this afternoon talking about this, working to speak through knotted emotions, and I realized I was experiencing something similar. Not as dramatic, not as disruptive. But not much fun.

Today’s newspapers have, of course, focused extensively on yesterday’s events, some with restraint, some without. This morning’s edition of 20 Minutos, the free mini-paper distributed on the streets during the morning hours, featured lurid, intensely sensational images of chaos and carnage. El Mundo showed more self-control, El País even more. The television outlets continued the more or less continuous coverage begun yesterday, alternating harrowing footage from the actual events with panel discussions, interviews with victims or relatives of victims, and stories re: today’s developments. Essentially wringing every ounce of emotionally cranked-up mileage they could get out of the drama. (Not that I take a cynical view of that. Harrumph.)

Sidenote: Thanks to Paul at Playing with my food…. for posting today’s image by El País political cartoonist Forges, and for caring whether I sleep late or not.
For those seeking other Spain-oriented journals/blogs:
Puerta del Sol
Calles de Madrid y Granada
Caspa.tv

Madrid, te quiero.

Chances are you’re aware of the terrorist attacks that took place here in Madrid early this morning — numerous bombs placed on trains, set off during the a.m. rush hour. I first learned of it shortly after hauling myself out of bed when, on impulse, I cranked up the TV.* At that time, the true scope of the events and their effects had not yet been grasped, though a steady stream of heavy-duty images flowed from every channel: gutted trains, crowds of emergency crews feverishly at work, wounded and dead being carried to staging areas.

I went out to get a paper and an espresso — my downstairs neighbor and the woman who lives across the hall from me stood together in the building’s foyer, talking in amazed, shaken voices about what they’d so far heard. I paused to say good-morning, listened while one of them mentioned hearing a news report that put the death toll at over 100, with many hundreds more wounded, figures that momentarily left us all standing silent, staring at each other with no idea what to say. [Note: the casualty count varies, depending on the source. As of March 13, it stands at between 190 and 200 dead, more than 1500 wounded.]

The newspaper kiosk in the plaza down the street had a radio going, loudly playing news coverage while people stood listening. The cafetería in the plaza, one of my preferred haunts for the morning wake-up routine, had their television on, volume high, images from the horrific events unreeling onscreen, most everyone in the place watching. Activity behind the counter moved more slowly than normal, the overall atmosphere lower-key, more sombre than its usual animated, caffeinated self. Many people sat at tables, taking it in, eyes wide, others milled about the counter, some awaiting drinks or food, some facing the television, quiet, motionless, following the coverage.

The morning papers I glanced through were filled with the sort of stories that have become normal of late — the Spanish national elections happen this Sunday, the campaign has produced a steady stream of commentary, partisan editorials, lengthy elaborations on polls and their ramifications, bloated articles on all aspects of the candidates/the parties, and endless election-related speculation. A lot of hot air, though great practice for someone like me (learning the language, seeking challenging reading).

In addition to the usual high noise level of an election campaign, this one has been marked by an intense, strident stream of invective from the ruling party (el Partido Popular, with outgoing president José María Aznar at the helm) and its candidates, principally aimed — directly or otherwise — at the Socialist party and its candidate for the Spanish presidency. A daily flow of savage verbiage that’s been a bit stunning in its extremity and relentlessness, complemented by the refusal of the PP and its presidential candidate to take part in a face-to-face debate with the Socialist candidate. One result of all this has been the highlighting of a deep division in the Spanish electorate, a growing sense of disunity and rancor.

I’ve looked forward to the elections bringing an end to that constant, blaring white noise, and part of my reaction to this morning’s attacks was a feeling of not being terribly surprised in a certain, sad way — the atmosphere promulgated by the ruling party has come to feel so startlingly, exaggeratedly toxic that the ugliness of a terrorist attack seemed to be a kind of match: a dramatic, brutal acting-out of the type of energy that’s been in the air.

Paging through the papers, the constant news-narration from the television overriding most conversation around me, I found myself wondering what the government and the other political parties would do with the sudden left-hand turn the morning had brought — hoping that the ruling party would not use it as one more blunt instrument to bludgeon opponents with, hoping that no one else on the Spanish political scene would make the mistake of doing anything similar.

At home, I turned on the TV from time to time — coverage of the attacks remained the sole programming on all channels. In the early afternoon hours, all coverage turned to Aznar’s address to the nation, alternately sober and defiant, hearteningly free of divisive rhetoric. I later found out that both the PP and the Socialists have suspended their election campaigns, and throughout the day there has been an increasing call for unity, a message that appears to be coming from across the political spectrum — it may turn out to be nothing more than a few days’ rest, but I’m hoping it’ll prove to be something more. I don’t yet know if the suspension of campaigns means a postponement of the elections themselves — that will become clear soon enough, I’m sure.

There was a period back in the mid-80s when I rode an ambulance, working as an EMT. The me of those years would have wanted to insert himself into the action at one of Madrid’s affected railroad stations or at a local hospital — with nearly 200 dead and well over 1000 wounded, the city’s emergency facilities have been overwhelmed. Schools and other public spaces have been pressed into use as sites for triage and treatment, and extra hands with some rudimentary medical knowledge would probably find a way to be useful with little trouble. The me of these years is grateful to be the distance I am from the three different ground zeros where the bombings took place. It’s enough going outside now and then, turning on the television or radio from time to time — there’s already plenty to absorb watching the impact of the morning’s events on the people of the city. Spontaneous vigils and protests have been underway for hours, and many thousands of people have been trying to give blood. I headed deeper into the city center at one point with that same thought, but the sight of endless lines of individuals waiting to donate changed my mind for me. There will be other opportunities within the next few days, when the crowds have diminished a bit.

*A longer, more involved process than you might imagine, the TV in this flat being an old war-horse that has put in many honorable centuries of service and is now limping toward the day when it will be ushered gently out to pasture.

Madrid, te quiero.

Hoping my already miminal credibility isn’t about to go right out the window….

Got to bed late last night, woke up earlier than I would have preferred. Feeling tired, a bit disoriented at finding myself here, alone in bed. Wanting to turn over, sink immediately back into sleep. And no wonder — all night long my dream self went from one wild adventure to another, climaxing during the early hours in a lengthy, emotional, vivid romance with a lovely English woman I met during my pre-Christmas swing through the U.K. [see entry of December 16, 2003], the dream ultimately giving way to lovemaking: intense, visceral, almost hypnotic. I surfaced from that, opening my eyes to discover myself back in the bedroom of my austere Madrid flat. A strange, jolting transition.

Remained stubbornly under the covers for a while, drifting, finally dragged myself to my feet, got the day underway.

Since finishing up the recent entries re: the jaunt to Casablanca, I have produced no writing. Not a state I’m wild about, that of zero production, but it is sometimes how things go. And there generally seems to be a reason for it, the reason usually being: if I crank out stuff without having anything of substance to say, the product generally blows. Not to put too fine a point on it.

But here I am, producing something I hope will have at least trace elements of substance and no more than a nose-wrinkling whiff of purplish prose.

This morning: once I’d pulled myself together, scraped away the morning’s crop of facial hair, etc., I wandered out to pick up groceries, a morning paper, a cup of espresso, a croissant. Thinking about last night’s nonstop activity, about the long, affecting dreamtime romantic encounter that wound it all up. I’ve been in regular contact with the woman in question, when I got home I sent an email telling her briefly about the dream, on impulse, hoping I wasn’t doing something wildly inappropriate. Wondering, as soon as I’d sent it, if I should send another excusing it, apologizing, saying ‘just ignore me!’ Did none of that. Just waited.

Two, three hours later, an email shows up from England, saying she’d had a dream early this morning in which she found herself in my house in Vermont. In the kitchen, sunlight streaming in while she rolled out pastry dough. Everything in bright, vivid colors. And she heard me say, “Hi, sweetie!”, coming up behind her, kissing her neck. After which she woke up, finding herself in her bed, alone, disoriented.

I read that, with no idea what to think, everything feeling slightly unreal. When I finally looked up, I found the hands on the living room clock had leaped forward, the day slipping by at startling, unruly velocity.

(A question: when did I take up residence in a New-Age Harlequin novel?)

As unlikely as it may sound, this is not the first time I’ve experienced the simultaneous-dream thing. It’s happened twice before, both times during my college years — a messy period of time I consider myself lucky to have survived — both times with women I’d been involved with. One occasion intense, the other poignant, neither leaving me anywhere near as affected as I feel right now, but real damn interesting, both of them. Worth laying out here.

[this piece in progress]

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

A giant of what began as a maverick wing of contemporary theater has cashed in his chips.

Few people who happen across this journal know that I spent most of the years of my so-called adult life working in theater — sometimes making a living at it, often not; often acting, sometimes (more with passing years) writing. Writing and acting in your own stuff is a fine way to get out of the audition grind.

I became aware of Spalding Gray in the early 80s, his work had an immediate impact on me. His focus, his intensity, his sense of humor and vulnerability, the way he developed of expressing his ongoing fascination with and fear of life, turning it into something pointed, remarkable, ground-breaking — a manner of working that turned his limitations and weaknesses into strengths, to the point that he more or less single-handedly transformed a marginal performance form into something now commonplace.

I saw him perform many times in Boston and Cambridge during the 80s and 90s. I watched his films, read his novel, devoured the transcripts of his monologues over and over and over. His influence on my writing could not have been more pervasive, initially impelling me to scribble and perform autobiographical monologues, with time becoming far subtler (fortunately for everyone) — becoming a point of light to which I periodically referred in the ongoing development of what some misguided arty types might call my voice. (So, yes, you should feel free to blame him to whatever degree you feel appropriate.)

Should you ever stumble across a copy of Swimming to Cambodia, his best known monologue, directed by Jonathan Demme (available on video and DVD) or Terrors of Pleasure (an hour-long version available on video (hard to find) and DVD (easier to locate), the full-length version available on audiotape), grab ‘em. Unbelievably funny, complex enough to stand up to repeated viewings.

The latest example of marketing overkill here in the barrio:

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

Saturday afternoon, la Plaza de Chueca, Madrid

One of the strongest impressions I took with me from Casablanca was of civility, of easy shows of affection. Of couples walking together arm in arm, hand in hand, talking and laughing. Of pairs of males — clearly not gay — walking together, arm in arm. A restaurant a few blocks from my lodgings, run by a French woman, became a default haunt for me — tables outside provided good tea and excellent views of the local scene, service inside provided good food. Both my mornings in the city included a wake-up period outside this joint, absorbing the feel of that part of the world, enjoying the constant stream of passersby. The only two drunks I saw during my time in the city staggered past while I sat there, each stopping to harangue people at nearby tables. Both times the restaurant’s doorman intervened when it became clear the drunks didn’t intend to move on right away, both times he handled them the way he handled everyone — effectively, with grace, kindness, tact. An elderly man approached at one point, walking with difficulty, aiming himself at an empty table to my left. The doorman moved quickly to pull out a chair, help the older person to sit down, asking what he could get him. I saw this kind of thing everywhere — usually with less obvious examples, but marked by the same generous regard.

And young couples were everywhere, walking together, talking animatedly. Radiating affection, enjoyment. Without the demonstrations of physical affection I see here in Madrid — arms around each other, kissing — but sweetly enjoyable to watch just the same.

I’m grateful for this stuff, for this kind of lasting impression, because my final few hours in the city featured some jarring moments. One of those being the wildass trip to the airport. My taxi driver: a genial guy who drove with casual ferocity, providing a hair-raising ride that would have been more harrowing still if his car had had the pep and mobility to do the things he wanted it to do. As it was, he took the lines painted on the roads as vague suggestions to be ignored, weaving through traffic at highest possible velocity, inserting our taxi into any space that it would fit, regardless of the risk, no matter how small the opening appeared, working the horn the entire time. Pulling up to traffic stopped at a red light, slipping into the gap between vehicles already occupying legitimate lanes, turning the painted lines into brand new lanes, shooting off the nanosecond the light changed. (Not that he was alone in these maneuvers — just more aggressive than most of his compatriots.)

That last day brought beautiful weather — mild, breezy, the city and surrounding countryside awash in sunlight. The ride to the airport featured hitchhikers along every part of the route, many of them co-ed groups of adults, some families. Mopeds tooled about in every direction. Herds of sheep grazed off to the side of the highway, a shepherd, complete with staff, sometimes visible among the animals.

Kind of amazing I could see that much detail, now that I think about it, considering the speed at which we went by.

I hurled myself out of the cab at the airport with desperate gratitude at being released, heading away from the car and driver so quickly that my shouted thank-yous may have undergone the Doppler Effect.

Airport personnel remained grimly serious about the passport/inspection thing, luggage going through three different x-ray machines, passports getting eyeballed four or five different times from the moment of entering the departure area to the moment of boarding, the final two checks taking place within 60 seconds of each other, at the beginning and end of the movable concourse that extended from the waiting lounge to the plane. As if we might have craftily changed identities during that brief walk.

And then I found myself on a plane, surrounded by Spaniards, a seemingly accelerated sunset and falling of night marking the hour and twenty minute flight back to Madrid, where yet another uniformed person inspected/stamped my passport, and a Metro ride brought me back to a markedly different world from the one I’d just left. Glad I’d gone, glad to be back here. Glad to be planted in one place for a while, with a life to carry on. And already thinking about heading off somewhere else.

Barcelona maybe. We’ll see.

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