far too much writing, far too many photos

The focus of the first half of Y.’s stay: the marathon, an event I’d only been marginally aware of before this year. Still a young affair (27 years old), comparatively modest in size (less than 13,000 runners this time around) compared with big, honking buggers like the marathons in Berlin, New York, Boston. A bit hard to figure how I remained oblivious, considering the starting point is a ten minute walk to the east from here, the 20 kilometer mark three blocks to the west. I am sometimes exceptionally adept at the oblivious thing, however, so there it is.

The fact that thousands of suffering runners would be passing just three blocks from here — thousands upon thousands of ‘em — was intriguing enough. But the idea that I could be a shining point of support for one of those straining, suffering souls — a friendly face in an unfamiliar city, waiting patiently along a long, hard route, holding out the comfort of a soft, fuzzy towel and a container of cool water when they finally slogged painfully by, shouting good-humored, profanity-laced encouragement — this had the potential for big faux-noble fun.

In our wanderings around Madrid, I showed Y. the stretch of road where the runners would gather and the event begin. He returned on his own two different times during Friday/Saturday to get the lay of the land, taking a map, getting a sense of the look and feel of the overall course. Didn’t do much running on those days, feeling that his body was ready, that all he needed now was some serious carb-loading. Which took us out to a park on Madrid’s west side on Saturday afternoon for the pre-race mountain-o’-pasta lunch, the official carb-packing shindig.

There was no mistaking where the meal was to take place — the fat, towering inflated rubber bottles of Coke and Mahou beer gave it away. That and the line of carb-packers-to-be stretching out away from the big tent. Way the hell away from the big tent, through a long dirt parking lot, around a corner and down another road. Resulting in an hour-long wait to get inside, most of the last 30 minutes spent inching across the parking lot, then under the big rubber arch by the monstrous rubber bottles, finally to the giant feeding trough tent’s entranceway, in weather that had taken a turn in the direction of bona fide summer. Providing bitchen, top-notch conditions for just about everything one could want to do short of stand on a hot, dusty, shadeless line for sixty long minutes.

Neighbors provided entertainment, however. In particular, the five-or-so-year-old son of a 30-something Spanish couple directly in front of us. A little guy with energy to burn, wandering constantly about, investigating whatever caught his attention. Which, after some time trying to pull down city-planted saplings (to periodic pleas of “Leave the tree alone, dear” from the ‘rents), became the numerous sticks laying about in scrubby grass or dusty expanses of hard-packed dirt. Sticks he would evaluate, nudge with a foot, pick up, then give to his parents to hold on to. Beginning with small, thin bits of wood, escalating to thicker, ever-longer sticks and other potential weapons (rocks, chunks of broken brick) that his parents felt less and less inclined to accept. Until, taking advantage of a moment when the little guy had wandered some distance away, they dumped everything in the long grass around a tree.

The five-year-old returned with a couple more sticks, handed them over, noticed the others had disappeared, immediately began hunting them down, foisting them on unwilling parents all over again. (With decreasing success.) Then on to even bigger sticks, finally dragging back a weathered three-foot length of 2×6 — old, dusty, literally as big as the kid. Resulting in immediate parental demands to put it back where he’d found it. After which they worked at keeping him distracted: cold liquids, helium balloons (the first quickly took to the skies, its replacement got tied to five-year-old forearm), etc.

By that time we’d reached the rubber arch, a mere 100 feet from the tent entrance. Smells of food, constant loud babble from the in-tent PA system. Security guards asking for entry passes. And then we were inside where people thrust trays and carb-packing implements at us. Other folks tossed fruit, yogurt, containers of cold liquids onto the trays. Still others covered our plates with mounds of ziti in tomato sauce. We stumbled on, other people directed us toward the far end of the long, long tent where we fell into folding chairs at a table, the guy with the microphone blathering loudly from the PA system about this and that. Y. dug into his food, I went to grab us each a plastic cup of beer. When I returned, half of Y.’s meal had disappeared. A few short minutes later, the rest had vanished, he began unpeeling fruit and stuffing it down, followed by yogurt. An awesome display of fueling up.

The ziti turned out to be pretty tasty, really, considering it had been prepared in mountainous quantities.

Next morning: Y. got up and out early. I made it to the starting line about ten minutes shy of commencement. The race’s first length of road was a major north-south artery that runs along the eastern edge of the most central expanse of city center — six or eight lanes flanked by long islands of trees and pedestrian ways, flanked in turn by two more lanes of traffic on either side. Big. Shut off to traffic, overswarmed by runners streaming in from all directions, packing themselves as close as they could get to the starting line (another inflated rubber arch — two of them, in fact — emblazoned with product names).

Made my way along the avenue, the greenery of the island off to the side dotted with male runners taking a pre-race whiz. A strange, almost Fellini-esque sight that I now wish I’d thought to point my camera at. Thousands and thousands of people swirling about — younger folks, older folks, families out together, the whole thing — no one blinking an eye at the scantily-clad males watering the vegetation.

I headed out well beyond the arches, moving several hundred feet along the boulevard where I found a spot along the side of the road Y. said he’d be running along. The sun bore down, strong and warm, already substantially warmer than desirable for this kind of event. A line of official vehicles were positioned ahead of the runners, spread out across the avenue.

Just before 9:30, several emergency medical personnel mounted specially-equipped motorcycles and got going, the first wave of motion along the course, followed more slowly by the other official vehicles. A cloud of white doves were released at the starting line, an explosion off to one side produced a complementary expanding cloud of white streamers, arching up then drifting back down to the road. And the runners took off, quickly passing my observation point, the wide boulevard thick with people of all body types, spanning a startlingly wide age span. Y. passed, we lightly slapped hands as he went by. Ten seconds later, a German guy from my Spanish class passed, we called out holas. A minute later, the last of the runners had jogged by, spectators fanned out across the road, still waving, still shouting encouragement, then slowly dispersing. A couple of cars slowly nosed their way out onto the avenue, horns making polite noises when people didn’t give way quickly enough. And then normalcy re-established itself, the morning moving on.

Madrid, te quiero.

I return to Vermont in mid-June for a warm season of working on house/land. It’s a trip that’s begun feeling imminent, and has had me thinking about expanses of countryside carpeted in green, green grass and wildflowers, spectular north country summer days, all that. During which I received the following email from a friend in Montpelier, capital city (read ‘overgrown small town’) of that same state:

“Just hosted poker at my house — made me miss you! I hope we’ll have some games this summer. I won about $2.65. Yeehaw!

“I have probably found about that much in change as I hike up the hill at [the ski area she works at] to earn delicious corn snow turns on the way back down. It’s fun to treasure-hunt under the lifts and elsewehere. I’ve found lots of spare change — [a friend] found a baggie-full yesterday! — as well as skiboot buckles, tons of miscellaneous hardware, pole baskets, a pot pipe, a Cadillac emblem, etc. We are still hoping for a suitcase full of money, but no luck so far. (We did hear a tale of a friend of a friend who once found a big wad of bills totalling around $800.00. Probably an urban myth.)

“It’s also always fun to see what human treasures show up — spring skiers are a particular bunch and you never know who you’ll run into. Last night I re-connected with someone I hadn’t seen in about 9 years, one of the rare folks who actually knew my ex-husband. We have a lot of other friends and acquaintances in common, too, so we had a fun conversation while we drank beers, ate chips, and watched the sun set from our perch at the top of the mountain. Also, I forget if I told you that I ran into a woman I used to play flute quartets with… about 7 years ago and hadn’t seen since — she’s been living at [the ski area] for 2 years, right across from the patrol room! Been through a divorce and is currently dealing with breast cancer, in the most oh, well, way — ‘Yeah, I’ll be bald next time you see me….’

“Spring is springing, enough so that people give me very quizzical looks if not a completely hard time when I say I’m still skiing. Nobody, not even Vermonters, believes that there’s still snow anywhere. Which is weird, because all they have to do is look at the mountains to see that they’re still white. Anyway, down in the valleys there are daffodils galore and the grass on the statehouse lawn seemed to turn green overnight.”

It will be good to be back in that part of the world for a while.

The view from the front lawn:

[For further postcards from Vermont, see entries of December 5 and December 9, 2003.]

Madrid, te quiero.

Well. Five days later. Told you entries would be spotty.

The friend who’s been staying here, Y., is someone I’ve known online for several years (part of a community that used to be highly active in mighty entertaining ways). A runner, serious enough to have taken part in numerous marathons. A couple of years back, during his third Berlin marathon, I floated the idea of coming to Madrid for the annual 26.2 mile self-torture-fest, offering use of the guest room here at casa runswithscissors. He seemed to like the sound of it, we went back and forth without coming to anything firm, left it as an idea for some future time.

Within these months since the turn of the year the idea came up again, this time gaining momentum, gradually becoming an actual event skidding toward us, becoming more real with each passing week. Until we finally began talking details. The Madrid Marathon is run on a Sunday, I assumed that would mean having a houseguest for a long weekend. A few weeks back, I received a note from Y. saying he’d booked his flights, he’d be here for a week. Anyone in the room with me when I read that would have heard an audible gulp. This is a small place, guest arrangements work well for three or four days. After that it becomes more of a challenge.

I suggested Y. stay here for four nights then spend the rest at a residencia or pensión, an idea he was open to. I began the search for alternative accommodations, striking out all the way around, until I asked my next-door neighbor, Esperanza — a woman who runs a residencia for students — if she might have a bed available for that night, for a friend somewhat older than her normal clientele. She apparently has room for four guests, three of the beds were booked by a group of three young French women, leaving one available. At wildly reasonable rates. I took it, let Y. know everything was set, joy abounded.

Last Thursday night: an hour before I headed out to the airport to greet Y. and drag him back here, my doorbell rang. I opened it to find Esperanza, informing me that the group of three French students had somehow become four French students. Meaning no room at the next-door inn for Y.

So I’ve had a houseguest for most of this last week. Which has been surprisingly fine. The 3-D version of Y has turned out to be a genuinely good guy — smart, with a good sense of humor. A bit shy at times, a bit quiet, with a trace of underlying steel that surfaces at certain fleeting moments.

Y., wandering around Madrid, shaved head and all:

Madrid, te quiero.

A friend from Israel arrived last night. In an attempt to suck up to the person providing him a place to sleep for the next few days, he gave me a box of Dead Sea skin care products. (Should I be concerned about the ‘Dead’ part of that?) I used the after-shave cream this morning — its cool, pleasant texture has enveloped my face in a veil of calmness.

I should probably stop reading the blurbs on product boxes so closely.

Entries may be spotty here for a while.


Excerpt from a note sent by my nephew yesterday:

“do you wanna send me an update? i only go online from work… and there’s too much to read on your website.”

Too much to read?? Harrumph!

Madrid, te quiero.

[continued from entry of 4/20]

Not only did every Metro ride come with musical accompaniment, the overwhelming percentage of the musicians were accordion players. Carting their instruments from coach to coach, finding a place to stand. Calling out a fast, mumbled intro, launching into a number.

There are days here in Madrid when Metro buskers abound, others when transit is more or less tune-free. Solo performers often board a train at one station, do a fragment of a song, make a fast pass through the coach for change, disappear at the next station. Many of the performers in Barcelona continued playing through three or four stations, playing numbers from beginning to end, sometimes doing a medley of three or four pieces.

I hopped a train Saturday morning, found myself in a comfortably crowded coach. At one end of the car stood an accordionist, playing quietly. A cadaverous individual — face gaunt, expression strangely sombre, clothes neat though frayed. Tottering a few slow paces back and forth as his hands worked away at a soiled, tired-looking Hohner, wheezing out the single most funereal tune I’ve ever heard a street musician play. Producing an uncomfortable vibe — dark, tinged with an uncomfortable something hard to identify. Anger maybe, or reproach. Feeling subtly aggressive, whatever it was. As the train pulled into the next station, he made a slow pass through the car, holding out a small container for change. No passengers ponied up, he disappeared quietly out the door. Before the train got underway again another musician appeared, his energy lighter, his expression relaxed, his music sunnier. Everyone in the coach seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, many handing over coins when he finished up.

Later that day, during yet another Metro ride, an accordion player stepped into the car, found a place to stand, called out a short intro, began playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. Pretty decent rendition, though sounding a bit more antic than that piece generally does (coming as it did from an accordion). He turned out to be one of those players who commits to a full performance, producing a smooth medley of four different numbers — two classical, two jazz standards. Appearing happy to be where he was, cranking out tunes with the flair of an accomplished musician.

Saturday evening, my final Metro ride of the day: yet another accordionist finished up yet another rendition of “Those Were The Days,” slipped out of the coach. A man and woman replaced him, lugging a sound system strapped onto a handtruck. Him: nondescript, dressed neatly, taking care of the equipment, handing her a microphone. Her: tall, slim, Eastern European, wearing a red sweatsuit, face not exactly pretty but with bone structure to burn. He cranked up the sound system, the instrumental track for a Celine Dion number got underway. She started to sing, the lyrics translated into an eastern European language. A genuinely lovely voice. I couldn’t get around being trapped in a subway train with a loud rendition of a Celine Dion song, though, and stepped briskly out onto the platform at my station, happy to be free.

A number of the Metro stations I changed trains in required a major hike to get from one line to another, commonly including treks along lengthy, featureless passageways. The public transport version of a sensory-deprivation tank. Management’s solution: small speakers mounted into the walls pumping in muzak, orchestral renditions of pleasantly innocuous tunes. An approach I’ve never encountered anywhere else. Gave me the strange sensation I should be shopping.

Saturday evening, back out on the street — post-Gaudí, post-Metro, post-cybercafés — walking through the narrow, winding vias of the city’s older quarters. Lovely architecture everywhere, both simple and extravagant, the passageways filling up with the Saturday night mix of locals and tourists. Searching for somewhere to get a meal, every restaurant I looked into packed, many with folks waiting outside for a table.

A sign at the doorway to a small local bar caught my attention, advertising bocadillos at decent prices. A couple of barstools sat vacant, I stepped inside, claimed one, ordered a bocadillo and a caña (a sandwich on a baguette, a small glass of beer). The rear half of the bar — a long, narrow space with televisions mounted at either end — seethed with a crowd of college-age males, some sporting soccer jerseys, some with faces painted, a few sporting glittery long-haired wigs. A glance at the nearer television showed a game just getting underway, and I remembered it was the night of the derby, the game between Madrid’s two A-level fútbol teams, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. The fútbol rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona is the most intense in Spain, I hadn’t really expected to find folks in Catalunya paying much attention to a match between two teams from Madrid. Silly me. Fútbol is fútbol (a message I should already have gotten, that phrase being the name of a popular TV show, a Sunday night wrap-up of the week’s Spanish league matches — Fútbol es Fútbol).

As the match’s first half progressed, the joint gradually filled up. A 50-something couple presided behind the bar, the man an earnest, good-humored individual, the woman a grizzled survivor with a thick head of reddish-brown hair and the bosoms of a Valkyrie. A cheerful working class couple pulled up to my right, taking possession of the single available stool there. I shifted to the empty stool on my left so that they each had a perch, instantly making friends of the couple, who talked happily away with accents thick enough that I found it impossible to understand everything they said above the bar’s swelling noise level.

A 14 or 15-year-old — apparently with some connection to the male of the working class couple — appeared at some point, hovering near us, watching the match, until the woman behind the counter spotted Mr. Underage and yelled at him to get the hell out of there, clearly meaning business, the scolding continuing without pause until the kid gave up and slouched outside into the pedestrian way. He disappeared for a while, then reappeared, edging back into the crowd to watch the match, until the woman in charge caught sight of him again, producing an even more intense stream of verbiage, hands making emphatic gestures, mouth opening wide enough as she yelled that I could see all the way back in there to the little fleshy punching bag hanging in the entranceway to her throat. The kid gave up, shoulders slumping, and fled out into the night. I paid up and did the same.

It’s a lovely place, Barcelona, and I can’t explain why it didn’t make a stronger impact on me. Madrid and Sevilla, for instance, hit me upside the head with the 2 by 4 of love within a few hours after arrival. Barcelona — an attractive, sophisticated, complex city, by rights exactly the kind of place that should have had me in transports — provided many things to appreciate, but didn’t seem to reach inside and grab me. Could be a visit of less than 48 hours just wasn’t enough. Could be I was tired — this jaunt being my fourth of the last two months — and am ready to spend some time here in what feels like home without taking off anywhere else for a while. Could be I’m weary of doing trips like this solo.

I’m just not sure. I’ll continue pondering, see what comes of it.


Graffiti — courtyard, Barcelona

Madrid, te quiero.

Chess game, Russian émigres — yesterday afternoon at la Plaza de Santa Barbara, Madrid:

Madrid, te quiero.

Something happened to me during the course of this last weekend, and I have yet to figure out what the hell it was. Don’t know if it actually has to do with the weekend, with all its concentrated input, or if it’s more a result of other things fermenting in this life of mine with the deceptive intensity of the fast 48 hours in Barcelona functioning as a kind of psychic juicer, squeezing out the bad-humored essence of whatever’s been in process. (You’ll pardon, I hope, the pungent, labored allegory.) Whatever the case, it’s felt strange.

(I can identify one component: I’m in the process of changing where and how images for this journal are stored and linked — if you’ve done any nosing around this last autumn and winter’s entries, you’ve noticed that numerous photo posts have not been behaving nicely. There will be more of that for a while as the changeover continues — it’ll pass eventually. In the meantime, it means a bunch of work being shoehorned in among writing, friends visiting, classes and the rest of life’s general brouhaha.)

My friend S., in Barcelona, spent a major chunk of Saturday afternoon with me working to resolve problems I’ve run into with the photo changeover, the two of us perched at a table in an apartment belonging to two friendly, generous women from the States — in Barcelona studying in the same Masters program as S. His second home, apparently, that flat, where he gets to flop after long nights out if driving to his squat off to the north from the city center is not a good idea.

I apparently got fairly intense at one or two points, when he was trying to explain things I wasn’t getting, intense enough that he commented on it. (Oops.) I can do that, get intense now and then. Probably not much fun to experience. (On the other hand, in this case it balanced out some intensity of his from the night before when he corrected me re: the names of two adjoining barrios.)

S. spent quite a bit of time nagging me suggesting I check out el Templo de la Sagrada Familia, the great unfinished Gaudí church. So I went, late Saturday afternoon, where I discovered the word ‘unfinished’ hardly covers the reality of this construction project gone wild. It’s the shell of a church — a spectacular shell, but still — in a permanent state of, er, becoming, surrounded outside by cranes, with nothing inside but columns and a scaffolding matrix of surreal density. And a museum in the basement.

As strange as anything I’ve ever seen.

I paid my 8 euros to get in, wandered about, stared, took pix, pondered the site’s goofy grandeur. Considered paying the additional 2 euros to take the elevator up into the church towers until I saw the folks waiting to go up, a line that snaked out the door, around the building. Wandered some more, took further pix, enjoyed a spectacular sunset. Then caught the Metro, headed back downtown to find a cybercafé.

Today, here in Madrid — clouds and mid-April sun trading off overhead, shadows and pools of light racing along the sidewalks below — I passed through the plaza down the street midafternoon, where a lone musician stood near the newspaper kiosk, pumping away on an accordion, playing to the amplified accompaniment of a small stereo set-up strapped onto a handtruck. Continued on, down into the Metro. Boarded a train where I found an accordion player serenading a captive audience, pumping earnestly away on his instrument. There are plenty of musicians to be found on the streets and in the Metro here, but I don’t often come across this kind of back to back accordion-fest.

Which reminded me of one of the stranger aspects of my brief stay in Barcelona: every single Metro ride featured at least one performance by a street musician. Every one. Sometimes one individual would finish up, get out at a station, another would immediately replace them, often launching into “Those Were The Days.” (If I had a euro for every time I’ve heard a busker play “Those Were The Freakin’ Days,” I’d have enough money to bribe at least one of the bastards to learn something else.)

[continued in entry of 4/22]

Madrid, te quiero.

After an hour of working away at that last entry, I bolted to a different, more sedate cybercafé. Two 30ish hispanic women entered the first one shortly before my exit, bringing the place to near-capacity. After several further minutes of obscenity-packed shouting among the young males, one of the Pakistani owners decided the women didn’t need to be subjected to that, ordering the boys to zip it. Which reduced constant high-spirited swearing to frequent outbursts punctuated by seconds of quiet. (“¡Coño, me muero!” “Bueno, ¡qué te maten, mamón!” Silence. “¡Joder! ¡Cabrón!”) ["Fuck, I'm dead!" "Good, may they kill you, cocksucker!" Silence. "Fuck! You bastard!"]

By the time I stepped back out into the street from the second cyberjoint, darkness had fallen, Saturday night was well underway. Pedestrian traffic on Barcelona’s backstreet version of major thoroughfares had grown from a trickle to a flood, locals mixing with overabundant tourists, everyone out looking for a good time.

I’d spent much of the previous evening with a friend not seen in just over two years, pausing first at a crowded tapas joint before settling into a restaurant for a couple of hours of chow/conversation. A smart, interesting guy I first met in intensive Spanish classes in Madrid 3-1/2 years ago — Belgian, now studying for his master’s in Barcelona.

Got home late, Barcelona’s Friday night street party just cranking up as I turned off the light, slightly before 2. Groups of revelers six floors down woke me up at both 5 and 6 a.m., singing in various languages with loud, ragged enthusiasm.

There is a strange sense of dislocation I experience over here, at once exhilarating and bittersweet — various languages audible everywhere, signage idioms changing depending on the city. Some folks speak to me in Spanish, others go directly to English after assessing me with a fast glance. Some are patient, friendly, others curt, uninterested. There are many ways in which I feel far more at home here than on the far side of the Atlantic, others in which I am clearly foreign, drifting through styles of daily life rooted in many centuries of history and culture. Far from unique, probably experienced by many millions of people. I, however, am not them.

But I blabber.

Saturday morning: pulled myself out of bed at an excessively reasonable hour, intending to get my butt to Güell Park, up in the hills to Barcelona’s north, before the Saturday hordes showed up. That was my intention. My body had other plans, refusing to move quickly, wanting espresso, a croissant, blah blah blah. Factor in Metro ride followed by long uphill slog to the park (a ten minute walk, according to the guidebook I glanced at — HA!!), by the time I walked in the park entrance, busses were unloading large groups of other furriners. By the time I stepped out of the small Gaudí museum (Gaudí’s house in earlier years), the tourism flood gates had been opened — so many people that after a short walk around the grounds, I got out of there.

Don’t know exactly why, but I found myself not happy with being in the middle of great mobs of tourists this weekend, and so generally avoided big lines, big crowds.

[continued in next entry]


Detail, overlook wall at Güell Park, Barcelona

Madrid, te quiero.

I’m planted in what might loosely be described as a cybercafé — a hole in the wall, hidden away on one of many dark, narrow streets in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, east of La Rambla. Run by a couple of Pakistani 30-somethings, the space completely unadorned, no music playing, no café to be found (though an unused, unplugged espresso maker sits atop a small refrigerator near the door). Eight or nine computers have been shoehorned into this teeny space, three occupied by 9 or 10 year old males of various ethnic backgrounds, playing computer games, yelling back and forth in Spanish, their exchanges liberally greased with foul language. Reporting on what’s happening in their games, insulting each other, producing frequent barks and squeals of enthusiasm, disdain, frustration and other emotions likely to burst out of 9-year-olds cranked up on violent entertainment. A fourth, several years older, sits to my left, quieter than the rest, concentrating intensely on his game — a military extravaganza that appears to deal in high body counts.

It’s the first time I’ve sat in front of a computer since Thursday. Instead of passing sedentary hours in a chair typing away, large chunks of yesterday and today were spent wandering many, many kilometers of this large, beautiful city. My little feet are tired, and not suffering quietly — one of the reasons I wandered into this den of cyber-slaughter, to give them a rest.

(The teenager to my left just erupted into a cry of “Ahhh, ¡Ataque! ¡Ataque!”, followed immediately by several seconds of diabolical laughter.)

The train trip between Madrid and Barcelona is a lengthy, butt-numbing motherfucker, not to put too fine a point on it. Something I’ve noticed — the Spaniards seem to have a thing about playing muzacky pop favorites over the inboard sound systems of planes and trains that either are waiting to head out or are just reaching their destination. Yesterday around 7:30 a.m.: I stumble into the train, having just choked down a cup of some caustic substance resembling espresso (leaving my tongue feeling as if it had been peeled) at a train station coffee shop (one of the counter women, a big blonde bruiser, sported a sizeable contusion on her left cheek; another, also impressively massive, had thick black hair trussed up atop her head in a pile that approached Marge Simpson’s ‘do in height, mass and form) — whoever had been left in charge of the train had decided to bring us travelers to full consciousness with a line-up of overemotional pop numbers rendered at top volume. The music blessedly got choked off as the train pulled out of the station, giving way to the clatter of heavy rain against the windows, the morning outside gray, dim.

And that was the story for much of the next several hours. Heavy rain, low, gray skies. Now and then the clouds lifted a bit, allowing glimpses of small houses clustered together amid rough terrain, of dramatic, mountainous outcroppings of rock thrusting upward into dark, misty clouds. All that punctuated by periodic stops through small cities, until the train reached Tarragona, on the coast, and headed north, riding tracks set above the Mediterranean, waves of dark green water rolling toward us, breaking on narrow expanses of shore just below the tracks.

And then Barcelona, packed with tourists, far more than I’d expected. French, American, Brits, with some stray Germans and Italians tossed into the mix, the Germans looking a bit bewildered, as if they’d expected to end up at some other, more tranquil destination. A strange, interesting city, looking and feeling to me in many ways like a mix of Paris and Madrid.

Navigating the Metro system brought me to the lower end of La Rambla, where I discovered I’d booked a room in a joint right on the main drag, a joint that has shown itself to be a find. Not because of its location — La Rambla turns out to be my least favorite part of the city, a zone geared to tourism in fairly raw form — but because they actually gave me an apartment, complete with small kitchen, high enough up to provide views of rooftop Barcelona, of the hills that ring the city, of church domes and towers. With a good 25 or 30 feet of terrace, running around the flat’s two outside walls, complete with a couple of chairs. Not that yesterday’s weather permitted terrace lounging. But today’s has, and during a brief late-afternoon return to the flat, I lounged a bit, a few peaceful minutes that felt just fine.

[continued in next entry]


Convenience store, Barcelona — getting right to the point:

Madrid, te quiero.

Somewhere during the course of yesterday evening I slipped into a foul, foul mood. Not exactly sure when, not exactly sure why. Just kind of edged its way in. Unusual for me, and not my idea of a good time. Woke up this morning in the same dark humor, then heard the sound of the swifts for the first time this year — one of the local signs that spring has truly arrived. Usually an occasion guaranteed to lift whatever mood I’m in. Not today, though. Grumble, grumble.

Yesterday I received a call from the clinic whose E.R. I visited twice this last week. On both occasions, they’d put a deposit of 100 euros on my charge card — they phoned to say the charges had been totaled up, they wanted to give me back 50 euros. (Two E.R. visits, including stitches, removing stitches, and an x-ray: 150 euros. Amazing.)

I had to go over there for the refund, decided to do it this a.m. Stuck my camera into a jacket pocket, stepped out into yet another beautiful morning: sun pouring down, sky blue and cloudless, air holding just the slightest chill.

At the clinic, they slipped me 50 euros in bills, I scribbled my signature on a release form then stepped back outside, feeling absurdly wealthy, a silly smile on my face. Decided to skip the Metro trip home, did it in a long, leisurely stroll instead, taking pix wherever anything caught my eye. Halfway along I realized that somewhere between a nice woman slapping 50 euros in my hand and a long meander on a spring day, the foul mood had evaporated.

Much better.

Along the way home:

This week has not only been a week of regular life reasserting itself after the long, long Spanish Easter season, it’s also the week the new government here takes over, el Partido Popular making way for the new Socialist administration. The transition has been reasonably low-profile, meaning blessedly low-key for most of us outside the wacky world of politics. Within that perverse universe, however, there’s been a fair amount of complicated maneuvering in advance of today’s investiture vote in the Parliament, setting a tone for what’s to come. Today’s parliamentary session featured lots of speeches and the first wrangling of the political season as Rajoy, the PP’s defeated presidential candidate of the recent elections and now point-person, tried to become the noisy, annoying pebble in Zapatero’s shoe. As a Spanish friend of mine, a news anchorperson on one of the local stations, put it: this was just foreplay, the real politics have yet to begin.

The local brilliant nightly fix of political satire, las Noticias del Guiñol, depicted Zapatero as a figure in a white robe, halo affixed to head, frustrating the hell out of Rajoy with a stream of hyper-positive spewings in the face of repeated provocations. (Zapatero, heaving a happy sigh after annoying Rajoy to the point of bolting: “Politics — such an innocent game!”)

Tomorrow morning I get on a train and head to Barcelona for a couple of days. Expect to hear about it.


Received via email today:

“By the way, I had another dream about you last night. You were in a film with Bette Davis and you looked just like Richard Gere. I went up to you and said you were great, and you told me to fuck off. I was so angry I slapped your face. Then [a mutual friend] told me off. Everyone was against me.”

Madrid, te quiero.

Returned to Spanish class yesterday evening after nearly four weeks of desperately-needed time away. Between the events of mid-March Madrid and trying to do a poopload of writing, I ran out of gas, not to mention time and desire to study, so that my performance in the last classes attended back then deteriorated pretty drastically. A waste of my and everyone else’s time.

So here it is, mid-April. Time for another round. I am by far the oldest student in this current group, last night consisting of two females, two males. The other male is a 23 or 24 year old American slacker, here to party — amiably, entertainingly up-front about himself in a way that produced an amused, indulgent attitude from Jesús, our instructor, who then gave us a pile of homework. Time to drag the wading boots out of the closet and get back to work.

Went this morning to get the stitches taken out of my keepsake from last week’s brush with a political conversation gone bad. [See entry of April 7.] Like my last experience at this clinic, no waiting — this time taken to a unnervingly efficient extreme. Once the payment part of the process was out of the way — the only phase taken at a leisurely velocity — the balance of the routine shot by at near light speed. A late-20s physician’s assistant tossed me into the consult room, whipped the stitches out, smeared orange disinfectant over half my face, shoved me back out into the sunshine. The receptionist waved cheerily as I flew out the door.

I spent a few careful minutes outside the clinic entrance wiping away disinfectant from everywhere but the actual area of the stitches, hoping to minimize attention received from local fellow humans. Seemed to do a decent job, attracted little notice on the trip home. Why, you might ask, does that concern me so? Because I’ve come to value street-invisibility as a means of taking photos of certain moments, certain individuals.

Case in point: a 30-something Asian guy who sat next to me on a bench at la Plaza de España last week. Appeared sedate enough as he approached — once seated, though, he put on a display of behavioral tics that didn’t quit until he got to his feet and wandered away. I sat quietly, camera on my knee, while the soul next to me said not a word, speaking instead through a long series of nervous gestures. At one point he pulled out a camera of his own, though it seemed to function as a focal point for angst, not as a way to capture the moment.

And then there are scenes that present themselves after their creators have moved on. This morning: an urban image of a very specific kind, with a strangely out-of-season accent:

Spring continues to settle in over this part of the world, the sunlight already adopting the look of summer. The air still holds a cool edge that direct sunlight washes away — step into the shadows, though, it’s clear that the transition to the warm season hasn’t completely taken hold yet. Regardless, as increasingly intense sunshine reaches into courtyards and passageways between buildings, they’ve begun to produce explosions of color, heightening the city’s contrasts of light and dark.

Madrid, te quiero.

This morning: got up, shuffled into the bathroom, turned on the shower. Cold water. More cold water. Still more cold water. Until it dawned on me: all that cold water = NO HOT WATER!

Stumbled into the kitchen, checked the water heater (el calentador,). Flipped the lever that turns on the apartment’s heat. Result: nothing. (Aiiieeee!!)

Not sure what to do next, I stumbled into the living room where I followed what has become a default impulse: crank up the laptop. Found the following email waiting: “Had a dream about you last night. We got married, it was November 21st. And I had your baby. It was a beautiful little boy. He had black hair. It was a really nice feeling dream. We lived in England in the country, in a lovely cottage. I was trying to kiss you all the time.”

Yowza! Between the heater and the unexpected, mood-elevating mail, there was no need for caffeine this morning. But I pulled on clothes, went out for a jolt anyway. Which jerked my little brain back into full functioning awareness. After which I called landlords and repair person. Then took a post-caffeine glance at the heater, when I realized the pilot had gone out, something that’s never happened before during my 2-3/4 years in this flat.

Re-lit the pilot, got the heater going. Called my sainted landlords, let them know, apologized for bothering them in the first place. Called repair person, canceled their visit. Showered, shaved, restoring me to a near-human state.

On to the day.


Seen recently: a young woman walking her dog, the critter pausing to sniff at something, quickly gobbling that something up. Young woman to dog, as dog chews contentedly: “¿Qué estás comiendo, Spot?” (”What are you eating, Spot?”)

My question: why is a young Spanish woman naming her dog after Data’s cat?

The Easter season began nine days ago in these parts, a massive number of locals bolting the city on the Friday before Palm Sunday, producing long, sprawling highway traffic back-ups and an immediate quieting of activity/noise level in the city. The days since then have grown increasingly quiet, sedate, with business hours so different, so out of whack compared with the ‘normal’ model, that I began losing my sense of the days of the week. To the point that by this last Thursday and Friday I found myself pausing at moments to figure out where, in calendar terms, we actually were.

Most businesses closed Thursday/Friday. Some opened up again for part of Saturday, though no newspapers published. City traffic thinned out, as has the number of people walking the streets, to where Friday and Saturday evenings barely resembled the Madrid I’m accustomed to. In this barrio, normally a weekend focal point of nightlife, streets and plazas normally alive with folks walking, standing in groups, seated at tables eating/drinking were practically deserted. At night, the contrast has felt eerily disorienting. The days, however, have felt relaxed in a way that’s been a relief after the intensity of the last month. (A month ago this morning the city was jolted — a word that hardly describes the actual experience — by the bombings, followed three days later national elections and a drastic alteration of the Spanish political landscape.)

People with luggage and backpacks have been everywhere. The presence of French and American tourists has increased drastically, those languages suddenly far more common than normal. Beefed up security concerns have resulted in a much more visible (though surprisingly unintrusive) police presence, especially in the Metro where city cops have joined the numerous private cops for the first time.

Went down into the Metro last night, passing through a startlingly empty Plaza de Chueca on the way, past a couple of private cops hanging out by the turnstiles, watching the few who passed by attentively. A train pulled in, nearly empty — the polar opposite of the norm for a Saturday night here. I got on board, took a seat. Across from me and a couple of seats along, two Spanish 20-something slackers — one holding a half-empty liter bottle of beer, the other with a nearly full liter bottle of coke/wine (the color is the giveaway) — sat, leaning against each other, both half in the bag, conversing in the Spanish version of slackertalk. A 30ish woman sat across from me, appearing unhappy about her proximity to the slackerdudes. They minded their own business, though, paying attention to no one but each other, so she remained where she was.

I got off at the next stop, the slackers exiting behind me, one responding to something the other said with, “Tio, eso es lo que me hace gracia.” (”Dude, that’s what I think is so funny.”) I headed up to the street, passing a cluster of four or five private cops along with two city cops by the turnstiles. Wondered if the slackers would get hassled by the detex for public drinking, didn’t wait to see. Ascended the stairs to open air and comparatively quiet streets.

Images from the Semana Santa (holy week) religious processions have become ubiquitous on local television channels these last few days, and Madrid has had its share of those processions moving through the city during the evenings. I made no effort to attend any this year after witnessing two last year. Compared with the spectacular processions I saw in Granada in 2002, the local version, well, had little impact.

And what have I done with myself these last few days? Er… surprisingly little. Slept late, read the morning paper (days it’s been published) over long cups of a.m. espresso. Ate quite a bit (though you wouldn’t know it to look at me). Watched people, went to movies. Wandered about with my camera, enjoying the city, watching people. Noted the 10-story ad for Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, covering the front of a building on Gran Vía (except for the street-level cine, where the film plays).

And yesterday, unexpectedly, the sensation of being adrift in time disappeared, replaced by the sure feeling of a Saturday. Due, apparently, to Monday bringing the return of the normal work universe, rendering this a normal weekend instead of two nebulous days in a long string of oddly unstructured calendar entries. No more half the local population off swanning about the coast or the mountains, no more stores or restaurants closing because they feel like taking some time off. Back to earning an honest euro. Which has dragged everything else back to earth, nailing local life back into its more familiar, predictable framework.

Most everyone heads back to the city today, this morning’s paper contained recommended routes for the returning throngs. Parking spaces that appeared in the neighborhood during recent days — normally as difficult to come across as neutrino sightings — will disappear once again as local equilibrium is restored.

Adrift in time no more.

Madrid, te quiero.

A strange, fascinating ride: exploring the Chernobyl ‘dead zone’ on a motorbike.

[UPDATE: Chernobyl ride a fraud?]


This evening along Gran Vía, Madrid:

Madrid, te quiero.

We never really know when life’s ready to take a left-hand turn, do we? My little existence reminded me about that all over again this morning when I found myself too close to a heated political discussion. (Can’t we all just get along? Friends don’t let friends argue about politics. [Insert other easily-adaptable clichés here.])

This a.m., shortly before noon: me, in one of the local cafeterías, finishing up a cup of espresso and a glass of water. Lots of people about, all making conversation. Including three 30-something males positioned between me and the counter, talking loud politics. I finish up, get to my feet, grab now-empty coffee cup and glass, go to leave them at the bar. As I pass the 30-somethings, the hands of the one nearest me — voice already loud in a fit of mid-argument pique — fly out and up in an emphatic gesture, one striking my right hand, driving the water glass into my upper nose where it breaks apart, producing an explosion of blood.

Damn, what a moment — so intense, so unexpected that I burst into astonished laughter. Until I saw many stunned faces staring at me, heard a strange silence, felt substantial quantities of blood running down my face. (Those darned head and face wounds get right down to the business of bleeding profusely.) People gathered around, napkins were proferred.

– All broken bits of glass wound up in the water tumbler, leaving no pesky splinters and shards on floor, clothing, etc.
– No blood wound up on clothes or shoes.

Don’t know how I managed any of that.

Two kind individuals helped me get the bleeding contained, examining the wound as best they could. Deep, they said, but not too extensive. Activity in the cafetería had by then begun to resume some normalcy, people drifting back to food, conversation, etc. Some cast sideways glances at me, clearly discussing the entertainment I’d just provided. At some point, I looked around for the guy who’d triggered this joyous event, discovered he’d bolted in all the hubbub, along with his two argumates. Ah, well. Should I ever see him again, we’ll have an especially meaningful memory to share.

Someone walked me to my building, I came upstairs on my own. Once inside, I eeled my way out of upper-body clothing, cleaned up my face, spent a long time applying direct pressure to the wound with paper towels to stop the bloodflow. The folks in the cafetería were right: deep cuts, not too extensive. Deep enough to warrant stitches. Applied a band-aid to spare the general public the sight of my new facial alteration, consulted a map, headed out to an emergency room.

In my only other E.R. experience here [see entries of February 18 and 19, 2002], I went to a huge hospital in one of Madrid’s southwest neighborhoods. This time around, I found a small clinic a couple of Metro stops north of here. Small, efficient, uncrowded. With no waiting.

No waiting!

I showed up, they took my info., immediately ushered me in to see a 60ish female doctor. (Fast tangent: I recently learned that a slang word for doctor here is ‘matasanos’ — literally, ‘kill healthy ones.’ Like the old Stateside term ’sawbones.’) Formal, this woman, kind of stiff. Took notes while I told my story, instructed me to lay down on her examining table. She poked around the wound, cleaned it up. A P.A. joined her, they applied a local while filling me in on what they were about to do (there is nothing quite like the sensation of a large needle going into the side of one’s nose), then tossed an operating blind over my face, began stitching away with happy abandon.

As they worked, a male stood in the hallway outside the office, talking on a mobile phone. Part of his side of the conversation: “¿Sí? ¿Sí? ¿Sí? ¿Sí? ¡Joder!” (”Yeah? Yeah? Yeah? Yeah? Fuck!!”)

Post-sewing, they covered the stitches with a sizeable white bandage, then sent me downstairs for a fast x-ray (no waiting!), the resulting image materializing immediately. They informed me I was fine, scheduled me to return next week for stitches-removal, sent me back out into the sunlight.

I’d sported a discrete, skin-colored bandage during the trip to the E.R., attracting little attention on the street and in the Metro. The bugger the clinic slapped on me was designed to attract as much attention as possible. Many people stared, all attempted at least a pretense of discretion — all except a young woman who glanced my way, then made a face of horror.

And it was a spectacular spring afternoon — air warm, sunshine pouring down from blue skies, people sitting at tables outside restaurants eating, chatting. Plants on balcones have burst into flower in an abrupt, explosive show of primary colors, while drying laundry has also appeared on many of those same balconies, blossoming in a parallel show of color.

I live a charmed life. An experience like this comes along, passes quickly, I get a good story out of it. I may not tell it all that well, but the story itself is not bad. And it gets me counting my blessings, the many gifts that are strewn throughout my life in ridiculous abundance.

Meanwhile, Easter weekend is underway here. Tonight’s news showed video clips of long traffic jams extending out from Madrid toward the coast. The city is quiet, most commercial concerns will be closed tomorrow and Friday. A good opportunity to catch up on sleep, get some reading done, go to a movie. The weather folks have warned of a drop in temperature overnight, of colder days than we’ve had recently.

As with most everything in this life, that’ll pass. On to the weekend.

Madrid, te quiero.

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