far too much writing, far too many photos

‘The Incredibles’ opened here in Madrid last Friday. This evening, on impulse, I went to check it out. Turned out to be lightly attended — ten, maybe twelve people scattered around a fairly large theater. A small group, audibly enjoying the film — so much so that most stayed to the very end, all the way through the credits until the screen went dark and the house lights came up.

Afterward, I stepped out into the night, set off toward Gran Vía, one of the city center’s main drags. As I approached the corner that gave out onto that avenue, I could see a crowd across the Vía in front of another movie theater. Folks standing about, packed in together under the marquee. Bright lights, police officers, a couple of cop cars parked by the curb, blue rooftop displays flashing. When I hit the avenue, I found a smaller crowd on the near side of the street, staring across at the theater. Above the marquee, three oversized paintings advertised ‘National Treasure,’ the new Nicholas Cage film. I studied them, I glanced back at the crowd. Looked like I’d stumbled across the premiere — something that often means big Hollywood stars, this being the capital.

I walked along, found space on the curb to stand and watch. A 30-something guy to my left said something, I realized he was speaking to me. “¿Está allí?” he asked in Spanish so thickly-accented I could barely make out the words. “Está Nicholas Cage?”

“No sé,” I answered. We both stared as several black luxury cars pulled up in front of the theater. “Pues, supongo que sí,” I said. “¡Mira!”

He said nothing, staring at the scene. Police had stopped all traffic on the avenue, my neighbor suddenly took off, moving through the cars toward the crowd on the other side. A second later, I followed.

I weaseled my way in through the people standing under one end of the long marquee, some distance away from the small walkway where Hollywood folk were alighting and moving slowly into the theater. I heard crowd noise, saw what looked like Jon Voight making his way toward the theater entrance with a couple of women whose faces I couldn’t see. More noise, then someone who looked like Sean Bean. Things settled down, the film folk moved slowly along. I didn’t have a great vantage point, don’t generally get off on the celebrity thing. Figured I’d had my fun for the evening, turned around, moved out of the crowd and toward home.

A tall, black homeless guy sat against the neighboring building, maybe fifteen feet beyond the edge of the crowd. Mid-thirties, dressed in slightly worn cold-weather gear. Alone, knees up by his chest, staring out at the street, no one paying any attention to him. A upturned hat lay on a small cardbox box in front of him, waiting for someone to drop money into it.

I walked past, heard noise from the crowd, turned around and saw that a couple more black luxury cars had just pulled up in front of the theater. Commotion, screaming from women around the cars. Looked like Nicholas Cage might have arrived. The entire crowd surged toward the two vehicles. And amid all the sudden motion and energy, I saw the homeless guy get to his feet, trying to get a glimpse of the arriving stars, his expression suddenly animated. It was a detail that caught me completely by surprise, stopped me in my tracks for a second, one of the most poignant images I’ve seen in a long, long time.

I found myself moving back toward the crowd to see if I could get a glance at the 3-D Nicholas Cage, but couldn’t penetrate a crowd that had grown suddenly bigger, more dense and tightly packed. After a moment, I gave up, turned around and started off home again. The homeless guy had resumed his place on the sidewalk up against the next building, sat staring at the sidewalk. I dug some coins out of my pocket, tossed them into his hat as I went by. The evening noise along Gran Vía gradually swallowed up the commotion and lights in front of the theater until all that was left was normal life: people walking, cars passing on the avenue, chilly night air.

The last night of November, 2004. Madrid.

Madrid, te quiero.

During the last couple of weeks, city crews here have been at work
stringing holiday lights across streets and pedestrian ways,
along with mounting wires for heavier decorations.

A headline from this morning’s El País:
‘Two million Christmas lights already illuminate the streets of the capital’

Seen this evening in Mundo Kebap (Kebab World),
a Turkish food joint a couple of blocks from here:
In the corner by the door,
beneath a wall-mounted loudspeaker blaring Turkish pop tunes,
crammed between a fire extinguisher and a cigarette machine,
behind three up-ended beer kegs,
atop a board laid across a couple more kegs
someone put a big pretend Christmas present
wrapped in blue paper with gold stars.
On top of the present, behind a length of green garland,
stands the single ricketiest ricketyest
shakiest-looking cresh I’ve ever seen.
(Empty, for now.)
Behind the cresh stands an artificial Christmas tree, maybe 18″ tall,
sprinkled with ornaments and wrapped with strings of teeny lights
which blink at a speed so supersonic that watching them
would likely send your garden variety epileptic
into one hellacious grand mal seizure.

It’s one of the strangest little Christmas tableaus I’ve ever seen.
And also, somehow, one of the most hopeful.

Christmas 2004. It’s on the way. Better buckle up.

Madrid, te quiero.

Woke up this morning expecting to meet a Spanish friend around 11:30 for caffeine and conversation. I’d had multiple offers re: social activity today, including an invite from my sainted landlords to join them and a bunch of other inviteds for their annual Thanksgiving feed. Found myself feeling that life had been busy enough recently that I wanted to keep this day simple — took a raincheck on the dinner, opted to do the café/chat thing, maybe go to the gym later. Write, take a stab at Spanish studies. Or go back to bed, post-café. Whatever felt okay.

Got up after nine, showered/shaved. Stumbled out, found a copy of the Sunday paper, stopped in at one of the few local joints open on Sunday mornings. Gobbled down a croissant, inhaled the day’s first infusion of caffeine. Returned home slightly more conscious, stumbling a bit less. Shortly before heading out to meet my friend, the phone rang: himself, after a long night of partying, canceling the rendezvous.

The day outside: gray, cool. As I write this, it’s 12:30 — the streets remain subdued, few people about. As low-key a Sunday as one could ask for in the heart of a major city. Crawling back under the covers for some shuteye (something I rarely do during the day) is suddenly feeling like a fine option. Finer and finer, in fact, with every passing minute.

Back to bed it is then.

Later.

Madrid, te quiero.

[continued from previous entry]

And that display of major dining contrast was my last evening in Merate.

Next morning: a far more restrained breakfast, me wanting to give my bladder a chance to calm down, not make the trip to Milano more exciting than it needed to be. Like the mensch that he is, B. carted me to the train station, stood with me on the platform until the train showed. The weather had turned gray and cold — I, however, having gotten used to the previous days’ golden weather, went out dressed for warmer conditions. By the time the train pulled in, my little body had begun to shake, my nipples standing painfully at attention. I gave silent thanks for heated transport all the way into the big city.

Among the abundant grafitti seen spray-painted on train stations along the way (in English):
EAT THE RICH
(This being northern Italy, I assume the rich would be served with a white sauce instead of red.)

Other English-language signage seen in Merate and Milano, all names of businesses:
HAPPY DOG
TRUSTY GARAGE
PINK FLOYD PUB
(That last was shuttered, dark, locked up, looking like it may served its last beer.)

Milano: Big, crowded, cold, gray. Took far longer than I expected to locate my flop for the night, tucked away on a gated side street so neatly that I walked by, completely oblivious, not spotting it until a slower, more painstaking search, 20 minutes later. The hotel: more of a hostel — basic, small, tight, the room wildly austere. Bit of a shock after the more hotel-like hotel in Merate. A 20-something woman was the sole desk person (a glorified term in this case, the desk more of a cubbyhole), fielding both Spanish and English pretty well, her manner easy, good-humored.

Check in, shlep luggage up to room, head back out into the chilly air to get an eyeful of Milano.

It’s an industrial city, with heavy traffic, dirty air. Not overlain with the kind of beauty that can be found in Rome, Florence, Como. But loaded with life, and peppered with eye-catching examples of the old colliding with the new. For instance: Il Duomo, the spectacular cathedral located in the heart of Milano’s downtown. Huge, impressive, undergoing renovations that have completely covered the piazza end of the structure with scaffolding. As happens here in Spain, the scaffolding has been put to use for oversized advertising, providing a strange, jarring visual — what some might describe as the sacred meeting the profane.

The Church gets down with the youth market, yo!

It’s a company town for the fashion industry the way L.A. is for the film industry, its influence could be seen everywhere, from the local women’s dress sense, to individual examples — both male and female — of out-there street attire, to individuals pushing handcarts stacked with clothing, to enclaves of high-end stores dealing in clothing and furnishings, from the quirky to the slick, many trading in fare both quirky and slick.

Wandering around the area north of Il Duomo brought me to a narrow east-west street — lined on both sides with high-end shops dealing in clothing, accessories, furnishings, jewelry, its length crossing three or four main drags. A few access portals led to courtyards which housed production businesses, either designing their own fare or servicing the industry in some way, the folks walking in and out dressed sleekly, men often sporting ponytails. A steady stream of people walked along in the fading late-afternoon light, staring into display windows, young Asian women comprising a major element, carrying bags of purchases, visible inside some shops trying on items of clothing. Some windows drew steady attention, groups of passersby pausing to stare and comment.

Others showcased items outrageous enough that strollers passed silently by, staring, perhaps murmuring a comment to a companion. Briefly slowing their pace, but only briefly, before moving right along, as if unnerved, intimidated.

Later, back at the hotel, I got a suggestion for a place to eat a short walk away, headed back out in search of the trip’s last dinner. Folks passed carrying bags of groceries, heading home, moving in and out of supermarkets crammed into the street level of otherwise residential buildings. As with many other areas of the city, grafitti covered the first floor walls of most structures. Many of the locals seemed to be immigrants, clusters of young men — Middle Eastern, African — stood outside long-distance telephone shops, talking loudly.

An attractive 20-something Italian woman walked quickly by at one intersection, a group of 20ish Italian male knuckleheads stared with no pretense of subtlety, making loud comments, one or two whistling.

Some bars were open, but not many eateries. The one suggested to me was closed, dark. I continued walking until I found an open joint with a good-looking menu, went inside. The owner appeared to be Middle Eastern, dealt well with me speaking Spanish. I took a seat, ordered, began to eat as other diners entered and the place got busy. Three males sat at the table in front of me — one Italian, two Middle Eastern types — ordering a sizeable platter piled with slabs of sizzling meat and grilled vegetables. One cut into the meat, decided it was too pink, they called the owner over for an extended conference. Several animated minutes later, the diners accepted his shrugging explanation, the meal got underway.

The space had been hung with a variety of art so bad that the more I studied it the happier I became. I hadn’t seen a collection of visual muzak like this since spending far too much time in certain Indian restaurants in Central Square, Cambridge, Mass. One painting in particular caught my attention, a portrait of an extremely sad female clown in front of what looked like a rendition of one of Monet’s paintings of the British Houses of Parliament. She sported a teeny black top hat (adorned with two of the perkiest daisies one could wish for) and a gigantic, floppy bow tie of an indefinable color — mauve? Fuscia? Got me. Whatever it was, the neck ornament alone would be sufficient grounds for depression.

The food: pretty good. The artwork: easily worth the price of admission.

Back at the hotel. Each little floor had two or three little rooms and a little bathroom. An intense little bathroom, in my case, completely done up in its intense little way.

I had my first encounter with the bathroom on my floor during the wee hours. One shouldn’t have to deal with something like that at 4 a.m. Simply being up at that hour is punishment enough.

That last morning in Milano dawned sunny and cold. I got out early to see a couple of things before heading to the airport, the first being the museum of modern art. Which turned out to be undergoing major work, so that only small groups of people were allowed entry, at two assigned times each day. Museum personnal herded us from gallery to gallery, allowed us to see one room at a time, allowing no one to wander. Kind of oppressive. One piece made it worth it: a clay pitcher by Picasso, decorated with a black bull. Beautiful.

Went through the public gardens, groups of schoolkids passing by, on their way into the museum of natural history. Got something to eat. Called it a day.

Among the abundant graffiti seen on the trip to catch the airport bus, written by someone who apparently didn’t get the contradiction:
GUERRA SOCIALE
PACE MUNDIALE
[Social War
World Peace]

After I’d gotten settled on the bus (as comfortable and body-friendly as it had been on the trip into town a few days earlier), I noticed a couple that had shown up, standing just outside the door engaged in a long, lingering good-bye. Him: a slender, silver-haired, mid-40s bookish-looking type. Her: looking 20 years younger than her partner, wearing a stylishly-cut suit, skirt falling to just below her knees. The slightest bit zoftig, in sunglasses and high heels. They talked, kissed, held hands, remaining there until just before the bus pulled out, when she gave him one last, long smooch and he got on board. She waited until he found a seat, waved, turned away, walked off into the afternoon.

The sun was dropping below the horizon as our plane lifted into the air. We followed it toward Spain, touching down in Madrid just as the last light in the western sky had begun to fade.

Back home, Spanish being spoken all around, its music so different from that of the Italian I’d been surrounded by in previous days.

Madrid, te quiero.

[continued from entry of November 23]

Thirteen, fourteen years later, following a sudden impulse to book a cheap mid-February flight to Madrid, I found myself in the heart of a big Spanish city, experiencing something similar to what I experienced in London. Different, but similar. With a huge impact, channeling much of my existence over to the far side of the Atlantic, a part of the planet that’s come to feel increasingly homelike.

Not a development I’d foreseen. But then, that’s life, isn’t it? Packed with surprises. I didn’t expect to be so affected by Como either, nor to find B. so affected. He’s been talking about returning to northern Italy in the spring. “I am likely,” he says, “to study Italian in advance, too, paying particular attention to restaurant dialogue.”

Dude, I am so with you re: the importance of mastering restaurant dialogue.

Case in point: we experienced our one and only restaurant disaster that night in Merate — post-Como love affair — investigating two local joints recommended by hotel staff. The first greeted us with a full front parking lot, no available nearby street spaces. A favorable sign on one hand, popularity suggesting decent chow. On the other hand, if you can’t come up with a parking space, who cares how good the chow is?

After two unsuccessful passes, B. tossed in the towel, we drove to the other place. Plenty of parking there. Inside, despite an abundance of empty tables, they immediately seated us next to another couple, elbow to elbow. The folks after us — clearly locals — were ushered to a table free of neighbors. Bad sign. The place turned out to have no hard-copy menus, which might have been fine if we could communicate. The woman who came to take our order spoke no English, no Spanish, immediately called over the in-house English pro. Who, it turned out, spoke almost no English, and had us pegged as American tourists — not worth exerting for — offering only the most basic menu options (spaghetti, roast beef, veal).

And me? Unhappy. Big time. With a major desire to get up and get the hell out of there, a signal I usually pay attention to. Instead, I stayed put, motivated, I think, by not wanting to come across as an obnoxious, ill-mannered tourist. Silly me.

B. and I. both ordered a plate of spaghetti. While we waited, two males were seated to our other side, were given far more dining options, got served almost immediately, a good-looking plate of risotto and mushrooms appearing in the front of the guy next to me (not an option presented to us, I reminded myself, smoke beginning to billow from my ears). B. and I had ordered bottled water with our tourist food, his still, mine carbonated. They brought him a big honking bottle, brought me a little teeny toy-sized one. I stared at mine, massively displeased, knowing I had no one to blame but myself. B. was willing to bolt, head off to more promising dining — I’d kept us there. And through all of this, B. acted like a bona fide mensch, willing to do whatever I wanted to make things better. The spaghetti showed, we ate, refused more courses, got the bill, paid up, fled. Went back to the place we’d been the night before — the ice-cream comedy joint — making everything better. Whew.

Me: much happier. And grateful to B. for being a class act.

[continued in following entry]

Madrid, te quiero.

This evening in Madrid, the moon rising over la Plaza de España:

A bit later, further up Gran Vía, as the city’s residents headed home beneath the darkening sky, a drum and bagpipe band took up a position in front of one of the larger tourist-oriented restaurants and began playing music that rose sweetly above the noise of rush-hour. About eight males playing the pipes, with two or three women whaling away on the drums — all of them strong, the unit tight and well-rehearsed. They played three numbers of more or less standard bagpipe fare — lovely to hear, a fair number of pedestrians stopping to listen as traffic out on the avenue swept by. Then they stopped, one of them called out something, I couldn’t catch what, and they struck up a slow, majestic number. A lovely piece that swelled as they played, that apparently reached down inside me and touched something. I stood and listened, a few stray tears running down my face. (My father’s side of the family were all from Ireland. Now and then, that part of me rises to the surface.)

Afterward, I spoke to one of the men, he said they were from Asturias, one of Spain’s two northwest provinces — a place with keltic roots, where keltic music is indigenous (something I didn’t know before coming here).

A bagpipe band from the provinces takes a jaunt to the capital where they wind up making my evening.

Life: you never really know what’s coming around the corner.

Madrid, te quiero.

[continued from previous entry]

Of course, a hefty percentage of the global population that’s had any first-, second- or third-hand exposure to Lake Como and the surrounding area feels a similar attraction — hence its popularity and the growing presence of big money and famous faces.

A nice part of the world. A place that would be a good spot to call home.

I was interested to hear B. saying similar things, could see him feeling powerful intangibles at work. Could even hear it in his voice, at times blended with a strange, almost plaintive note of wonder at finding himself registering something of this inexplicably powerful variety. Got me thinking about the whole idea of home, all the different things that word can represent, how the feeling of home has been a curiously elusive quantity during this life of mine.

I have moved about like you wouldn’t believe during my (mumble, mumble) years, and during the ongoing swing of it around the map, I’ve experienced brief pangs of what at times seems like the simple possibility a place might hold something that could come to feel homelike. Or the possibility that a town or a living space or a person or group of people might provide some part of whatever that sensation of home is, even just a small, transitory suggestion of it. I longed for that at times, could clearly feel that the wanting it was one of the elements that drove me from one place, one situation to another.

Late in 1986, I flew to London, my first time overseas. The first time,I think, that anyone in my nuclear family had been overseas. (My parents never crossed the Atlantic, never left the country, apart from a brief incursion or two of my mother’s up to Montreal. They never went west of the Mississippi, a fact I find amazing.) British culture had made an impression on me during my early years, had expanded in later years into something important, something that finally moved me to make my first foray across the water.

When I reached Heathrow, I took a bus into the city, wanting to see everything, soak it all up and let it out through my pen into a notebook as I rode, rather than make the trip in the sensory-deprivation chamber of the Underground. And after a gratifyingly eye-filling ride, the bus let me off on the High Street in Kensington. I stepped out, my foot touched the sidewalk. And I found myself swept with a visceral, overwhelming sensation of coming home, feeling almost like an electric current coursing through my body, my mouth opening in surprise, my hand almost dropping my bag. Not even remotely like anything I’d never experienced.

On hearing this story, different people come up with different possible explanations, all of which have their validity. It’s easy to slap any one of several labels on an experience like this, all of which will sound reasonable to someone. Myself, I’ve never tried to force that moment into a tidy little verbal container — there was too much going on, it was too big. I’ve simply let it be, assuming it will show its meaning (or not) in its own time.

[continued in entry of November 25]

Madrid, te quiero.

We ambled on and off the trail, stopped at overlooks, pushed through high grass, stands of trees, thickets of brush to peer at parts of the hill clearly marked as private property (places B. thought might be fruitful venues for exploration). The air was alight with sunshine, alive with winged critters, falling leaves, bits of milkweed-style fluff. And from here a linear description of the afternoon begins to break down because, in a vaguely Seinfeldian way, nothing much happened. We drifted. We talked. We snooped around. For a while, we sprawled on a high stretch of hillside soaking up sunlight. We sat on a small stucco bench in front of an old, weatherbeaten stucco utility building that hugged the hillside just below the hiking path, the valley stretched out below. A tiny lizard darted briefly into view, hanging on the wall not far from my head in casual, gravity-defying fashion.

You get the picture. A string of unexpectedly pleasing moments, a beautiful afternoon.

Then back to the hotel.

(Pause for near-scatological inquiry: Why is it that hotels insist on gift-wrapping toilet seats with paper ribbons? How exactly is that supposed to assure us of cleanliness? In the last two hotels I’ve passed through, the toilet-seat ribbons were emblazoned with red crosses — what does that mean? Are they suitable for use as dressings on major sucking wounds when not festooning the bog? Something else I’ve noticed: most hotels take the trouble to fold up the ends of toilet paper rolls into a V-shape. What in God’s name is that about? Is there a necktie fetish thing going on I should know about? It can’t be for aesthetic reasons, because listen up: there is NOTHING ARTISTIC about folding the end of the toilet paper roll INTO A V-SHAPE. It produces less surface space to grab onto, and that’s about it. Someone, somewhere, who teaches hotel folk all sorts of secrets-of-the-trade is probably laughing over a triple piña colada right now, telling friends about how they’ve convinced an entire industry that folding up the ends of toilet paper rolls is sophisticated and refined.)

And speaking of the near-scatological, an unexpected side-effect of the big breakfast, with its multiple cups of cappucino & glasses of juice and water, was a growing state of bladder hyperproductivity, a strange cranking up of my little body’s natural functioning that sent me off into the bushes several times during the early to mid-afternoon. Given the setting, not a major disruption of life. Had more pressing impact later on, though. (Foreshadowing! No, I am not above delving into cheap literary devices now and then.)

B. retired to his room to rest up before the evening’s foodfest. Restless, feeling the urge for a slice or two of the local pizza, I hiked to a nearby shopping center, wolfed down some very decent pie. Watched shoppers, listened to the music of the language. Went back outside for some fresh air where I watched the sunset, appreciated Italian women, noticed that an impressively high percentage of them had cellphones in hand, either in use or at ready.

Had a fine dinner that evening at a local joint, me once again providing a shining example of untrammeled gluttony. A high point: B.’s attempt to order ice cream — on the face of it as simple a communication as one could undertake. Leading, in our case, to a scrum of six people — me and B., two members of the wait staff, plus a 30ish Italian couple at an adjoining table who knew a little English, a little Spanish — all going back and forth trying to get across an order for a scoop of gelato. Noise, arm waving, the biggest flurry happening during B.’s attempt to find out the flavor (they only had one).
“Milk,” they said.
“Milk?” said B. “You mean vanilla?”
“Vanilla?” the wait people asked, perplexed.
Vainilla,” I said, ever ready to inflict Spanish on everyone, no matter how unhelpful or pretentious my contribution.
“Ah!” said the husband of the couple next to me. “Vaniglia!”
Vaniglia?” said the wait people. “No, milk!!”
Two minutes of this, me laughing harder and harder, the husband of the neighboring couple laughing with me.

The ice cream finally arrives, one lonely white scoop in a white bowl. Vanilla.

I can’t tell you how happy all that made me.

Next morning: another big breakfast, heavy on the various liquids. B. took me on a hike into Merate center, during which the bladder thing started up again. Kind of the day’s first warning shot across the bow, sending me into a local establishment to use their facilities, which turned out to literally be a hole in the floor, white porcelain inlaid in the tiled surface around it (including porcelain treads for foot placement). And a support handle on either wall for those who’ve really been putting the coffee away and might be feeling a touch shaky.

The day’s main event was to be a drive up to Lake Como, by midday we were en route, B. doing an excellent job of dealing with local highways, signage, etc. The roads heading into the heart of Como feed down from the hills around the town into a natural basin, heading directly to the lake from there, where my generally reliable parking karma lined up a space another car was abandoning. B. pulled in, fed meter, etc. — I disappeared to recycle more of the morning’s cappucino. When I reappeared, we began a saunter along the lake, the beauty of the place slowly sinking in.

We traced a long, leisurely loop, eventually moving into what might be Como’s oldest section, an extensive zone of long, narrow streets, punctuated by plazas, enough people about to suggest how overrun with humans the town must get in season. A beautiful place that gradually took ahold of us, had us walking around with mouths half-open as we soaked it in. A place, it dawned on me, that I would enjoy living in.

Hmmmm.

[continued in next entry]

Madrid, te quiero.

Ten minutes later, an unmarked vehicle pulled up: my taxi. Piloted by a smiling 70ish type who spoke no English and pretended to understand nothing I said in Spanish, even words that are identical in Italian (notably ‘¿Cuánto?’ — ‘How much?’). Pretended in such exaggerated fashion that I found myself practically falling about in the back seat, hoping my enjoyment of the show wouldn’t cause offense. And after a drive of maybe two minutes to the hotel, he charged me 10 euros then tried to grab one of my two small bags and drag it into the lobby in hopes of extorting a tip.

From there, the way became far smoother. The hotel staff — friendly, efficient, with more than enough English/Spanish under their collective belts to get the job done — rang the room of my friend B., he and I arranged to rendezvous a bit later for the first installment of the weekend’s fine eating.

We’d last hung out in 3-D about two years ago. Next thing I know, we’re shaking hands in a hotel lobby in northern Italy. Kind of a rush.

B.: personable, articulate. Tall, thin, slightly rumpled, with a narrow, intelligent face — a distinctive-looking individual. And, on this occasion, tired after a long, overnight flight, in no shape to get behind the wheel of his rented car. The hotel had a restaurant a mile or two off premises, they had someone pick us up, ferry us there. We walked into an elegant, extensive, nearly empty dining room, past a substantial antipasta spread, to a table by a long bank of tall windows. Commenced eating, began talking: the weekend was out of the starting gate.

A killer meal, one that went on for quite a while. Somewhere between the first and second plate, customers began flooding into the place, the ambient noise level soared. When we turned down our hard-working waiter’s inquiries re: a dessert course, he brought a complimentary plate of fruit, then another of excellent cookies. (A great guy, who wound up with an extravagant tip.) When we’d had enough, we got driven back to the hotel, I stumbled to my room, digestive system at capacity.

Next morning: the world outside lay awash in sunlight, with a chill that burned off like mist. I joined B. for a big breakfast, primed my system with a couple of cappucinos. Midday found me in B.’s rented car, being driven out narrow, winding roads to the Montevecchia Regional Park, a beautiful spread of land out in the Lombardy countryside — rolling, terraced hills dotted with vineyards and villages, flanked by mountains that extend off toward larger, snow-covered peaks.

B. had visited the area several weeks earlier with other friends, investigating something with a mystical slant, something that he realized after the fact had piqued his interest in a surprisingly deep way, to the point that he felt compelled to return for further nosing around. Me, I was there for the fun, for the pleasure of hooking up with a friend away from what some might consider the beaten track. Happy to stumble along in his more focused wake, exploring a part of the world I’d not previously set foot in — overjoyed at simply being there, whatever it might bring — and of course shoveling down plates of Italian food and inhaling cups of cappucino whenever the opportunity presented itself.

B. piloted the car up into a small, gravel parking area off the curve of a two-lane, we stepped out into a spectacular November day, bicyclists whizzing by on the road, the sloping land behind us stretching skyward, toward a small group of poplar trees. With each step up that hill — the first of the three hills B. was investigating — the view of the surrounding countryside became more arresting, me feeling so obnoxiously content with my lot that I knew I should keep it mostly to myself (or risk becoming toxically tiresome).

Mountain bikers passed, heading downhill in a way that made me hope they were sporting thickly padded underoos beneath their slick outfits. A smiling 30ish Italian couple went by, saying hello. My camera repeatedly found its way into my hand, far too many photos were taken.

From there a hiking path wound west-northwest, rolling up and down with the land. We moved along it, toward the second hill. Church bells came and went on the breeze, birds sang out now and then. Down in a large, terraced bowl formed by the land to the southwest of the path, someone worked away in a vineyard, the faint sound of a tractor drifted up through mild air.

(As I said, far too many photos. So sue me.)

We walked, we chatted. B. pondered aloud about the hills, what they might mean, where he might find something of any significance. He’d come equipped with two cameras, the first a faithful companion of many years’ use, the second a brand spanking new digital jobby. Faithful C. showed signs it might be reaching the end of its road: a growing problem with the shutter spring that rapidly became debilitating. B. stroked it, fretted over it, wrestled with it, finally reaching the point of resignation and acceptance — laying an old friend to rest, giving the next generation its shot.

Everything changes.

Last rites

[continued in next entry]

Madrid, te quiero.

It’s a strange life, this, skipping around the western world like a stone across a lake. There are those moments — often after a bout of skidding around the Earth’s surface, with resulting insufficient sleep (a potent combo that can produce plenty of feelings) — when I am not sure where the hell I belong, what I want to be doing, who I want to be doing it with. Generally a good time to remind myself how fortunate I am, that my life is swimming with blessings — a simple process I do often, actually. After which I turn my attention to things that need to be done, whatever they may be, and get the carrying-on of life underway. The day moves along, my state of mind moves on with it, before I know it I’m absorbed in my existence, often a bit clearer about myself, about what I want for this extravaganza that passes for my little life.

I’ve done some releasing of tethers during these last few years, moving away from a relatively settled situation in favor of one where I increasingly follow the flow of my impulses. It’s been a conscious choice, one I’ve arranged my resources to support, and it’s produced a fluid existence that’s taken me places I don’t think I could have pictured in earlier years, both internally and externally. The goal is not necessarily to be moving about, more to be paying attention to where I am and the information contained in my ongoing stream of responses — that information is me communicating with me, part of what some might call the inner voice. It speaks clearly, and it doesn’t mislead. And the more I pay attention to it, trusting the counsel of my own feelings, the clearer I become about who I am and the more interesting, the more satisfying my journey on this planet becomes.

I babble, I know — the result, I’m afraid, of a weekend spent with a friend that included abundant philosophical blab. Blab and a heap of extremely decent Italian food, against the backdrop of northwest Italy. Pretty good backdrop, as it turned out.

Flew out of Madrid early Friday afternoon, this end of the trip fast and smooth. The leg from Linate Airport into Milano and north from there to the ‘burb of Merate (40 miles? something like that) took as long as the trip from my front door to Linate. (*#”@%Ç!!!)

Milano: an enormous, sprawling mother of a city. Industrial, high-density. The bus from the airport to the Central Railway Station (the grass along the highways the brilliant, shining green of spring) wound its way through old neighborhoods, along tree-lined avenues and the longest, most extensive display of graffiti I have ever seen, even more than in the New York City I remember from the late 70s/early 80s, and that’s saying something. Without the wild, colorful creativity of the Big Apple’s graffiti explosion — just pedestrian, ho-hum tags along the sidewalk level of every building, giving the impression that come nightfall the streets are overrun by hordes of teenagers armed with cans of spray paint and minimal imagination.

(Pause for an inquiry: Why are European busses so much more comfortable and well cared for than their U.S. counterparts? I ask the question out of genuine curiosity. I have yet to plant my adorable butt in an American bus that comes close to the body-friendliness of its continental cousins — and I use that modifier ‘continental’ to exclude busses my butt has experienced in London, which are wonderful vehicles just by virtue of being in that swinging burg but not necessarily designed for comfort. To speculate on this or compliment my adorable posterior, please click on the ‘fire away!’ link beneath this page’s masthead photo. End of question pitstop.)

The Stazione Centrale is the real item, a huge, majestic transit crossroads, a bit overwhelming in its scale, or at least it was to this poor bastard, trying to thread my way through the beginning of evening rush hour to the right ticket window, then to the right train. The ticket guy dealt with my Spanish with good-natured ease, tossed a ticket my way, told me the platform number, warned me I’d have to change trains in Monza.

Found the train, found a window seat. The coach filled up around me with commuters headed home, the train pulled out as Milan’s early darkness fell.

Stations were not announced — me aware I’d have to change trains, with no idea where Monza was, I kept an eye peeled as each successive station appeared, ready to jump up, drag bags down from luggage rack, push my way through commuting Italians, toss myself out the door. Did that when Monza rolled along, found myself out on a cold platform, Italians pushing past.

Followed the crowd down some stairs, through a concrete hallway, up another flight of stairs and into what passed as a station where an extensive, cryptic train schedule covered much of a wall. Stood there studying it until I thought I might have found the listing I needed, then did it all over again just to be sure. Then again just to make real damn sure. Finally headed back out into the night, pushed my way downstairs, through corridor, up other stairs onto platform. And waited as one train after another passed through, listening to the stationmaster’s announcements, asking people on each likely train if it would be stopping in Merate. The correct train — the one I’d found on the schedule — showed up 30 minutes late. Me and my bags got on, got off four stations later in Merate.

Cars picked up travelers, voices greeted each other in Italian. And then they were all gone, leaving me looking futilely about for a taxi. None appeared, not even at the taxi stand across the narrow two-lane that cut between the station and a small bar/convenience store. After 20 minutes of standing about in the cold, damp dark hoping a ride would materialize, I stepped into the store, asked the counter guy for help. He handed me the local taxi company’s card, showed me to a phone. I dialed, a woman picked up. I addressed her in Spanish, she commenced yelling at me. Thirty seconds later the shouting continued, my hand quietly hung the phone up. The counter guy cocked an inquiring eyebrow at me, I shook my head in the negative. He came over, took the card, dialed. The same woman answered, I could hear her starting up with him — he waded through it, got her to send a cab. Hung up, looked at me, said, “Horrible!” I could only agree.

[continued in next entry]

Madrid, te quiero.

This morning found me wandering around a sprawling northern Italian city, the urban thing a bit of a letdown after a fine weekend spent even further north (views of snow-capped mountains, stellar pitstops in local restaurants). This evening finds me back in my comfy, austere Madrid hideyhole, the space feeling pleasingly homelike. Glad to be back.

There’s a lot to go into. For now, this limited summing-up will have to suffice:
Italian food — good.
Italian television — bad.
Italian women — yowza!

Details to follow.

**********

Billboard — Milano

Madrid, te quiero.

In a couple of hours, I’ll be heading out to the airport to hop a plane to Milan. From there I’ll catch various forms of transportation, all of them taking me deeper into northern Italy, where I’ll rendezvous with a friend who is investigating, well, what some might consider to be mystical stuff. Stuff I’ll get into on my return.

This jaunt, I suspect, with have substantial entertainment value. And will, I hope, feature some great dining. That, at least, is one of my goals: find some restaurants that will feed me well enough that I get sloppy with joyful gratitude.

So. Leaving Madrid behind for a few days. Entries here will likely be spotty, even nonexistent, while I’m gone.

Be well.

Madrid, te quiero.

Spotted during recent travels in the Boston area [see entry of November 5]:

– On a Green Line tram, 10:30 a.m.:

Three 20-somethings — the first a chunky woman in jeans and a black leotard top, doing all the talking for the trio, at a volume tailored to be heard by everyone within 25 feet. She spoke of exasperating interactions with friends, talking exclusively to the second member of the trio, a tall, quiet, gentle-looking, rail-thin male with hair pointing in every direction and a harelip. The third of the three: another tall, thin male, head shaven except for small circles of short hair — some dyed blue, some dyed pink — creating an interesting polka-dot effect. He had the most aggressive-feeling energy of the three, sporting new-looking duds in a vaguely Ziggy Stardust vein with shiny black army boots, and had either recently taken a serious fall or been on the losing end of a fight — dried blood smeared the lower half of his face, some from abrasions, some having streamed from his nose. A jarring visual he made no effort to conceal.

Ziggy sat down while the other two stood, defiantly taking up two seats on the jammed-to-capacity tram, until a diminutive, elderly woman moved in his direction and he got awkwardly to his feet, offering her and her elderly companion the seats. The woman, startled by the vision that confronted her, remained momentarily transfixed by all the dried blood, mouth open, before nodding a thank-you and seating herself.

– On the shuttle bus from the airport subway station to the American Airlines terminal, 5 p.m.:

A 30ish male, all visible skin up to his jawline and out to his hands covered by a continuous mass of brightly-hued tattoos that boiled out from his shirt collar and rolled-up cuffs. Eye-catching, hard to ignore once noticed, and he seemed to be sharply aware of when his densely-drawn body art had drawn attention, meeting the observer’s eyes then looking quickly, uncomfortably away.

We humans: ever fascinating, each one a walking universe with stories deserving to be told.

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

This evening in the city center, Madrid:

Madrid, te quiero.

Today, it turns out, is a holiday here in Madrid (la fiesta de la Virgin de la Almudena, one of Madrid’s two patron saints). I had no clue. Went to bed at an entirely too decent hour, intending to get up at another entirely too decent hour and drag my little bod to the gym. Woke up around 3 a.m., hearing plenty of happy noise from out in the street, the sounds of people up late partying. Not the usual kind of soundtrack for a Monday night, unless no one’s going to work on Tuesday. That was the first clue.

Crawled out from under the covers several hours later, stumbled out in search of a paper and cup of espresso. Found few people about, newspaper kiosks closed, most coffee joints locked up and dark. Finally discovered one place open, did the caffeine thing. Found a paper, confirmed the holiday suspicions. Revised the day’s schedule from there.

And it turned out to be the kind of day that brings people out into the streets — relaxed, mild, sunlight in abundance. Lots of families about, public transport packed, sidewalks crowded with pedestrians, streets filled with traffic.

Within an hour after getting the day underway, two separate individuals I ran into commented to me in extremely earnest fashion that my Spanish seems to have taken a quantum leap forward. And I realized I’d been blabbering away with them in amazingly relaxed fashion, feeling little hesitation, few limitations, conversation flowing easily — far more easily than I’d expected after 4-1/2 months away. Bitchen.

I’m back, and it feels just fine.

[this entry in progress]

Madrid, te quiero.

[continued from previous entry]

A moment of inner debate, my stomach urging me to pay the bill and bolt while a more adventurous part of me counseled taking at least one mouthful. Just one teensy, careful mouthful, after which I could do anything I want — run away, stay put, whatever.

Knife and fork found their way into my hands, I cut into the thick part of one of the tentacles, sawed off a bite, guided it gingerly into mouth. Chewed. And discovered that it wasn’t bad. Had a vaguely chickenish texture, a surprisingly mild, unfishy taste. Tried another bite (scraping off suction cups and loose, boiled skin). Again, not bad, despite the occasional stomach rumbling when I thought too much about what I was dining on. Continued that routine, nice and slowly, until I’d finished off most everything except a mound of suction cups and bits of octopus skin. Feeling like such a grown-up. Don’t think I’ll intentionally order a similar meal anytime soon, but if someone cooks one up and sticks it in front of me, I’ll likely try it. (And probably without hurling. Very important, that.)

Rain moved in as I ate, getting heavier, less user-friendly all the time. Making the prospect of walking around the city less appealing with every passing minute.

Went back to hotel, cleansed mouth of octopus remnants. Then found my way to Santa Apolonia train station to see about reserving a spot on a train to Madrid. Pre-trip internet research on certain reputable English-language websites indicated that two Madrid-bound trains depart from Lisbon every day — one in the morning, one at night. Got to the station, meandered around trying to figure which window would be the right one to bother. Finally wandered into a tiny customer service office tucked away off one of the platforms where I learned that there is actually only one daily train to Madrid, leaving at 10 p.m. every night. I’d planned on staying in Lisbon a couple of days before catching the morning train out. Something about the change in facts in combination with steadily worsening weather conditions gave me the urge to get moving.

Booked that night’s train. (The fare: yet another bargain.) Left the station, followed the impulse to walk, rain or no rain. Headed up into the hills, glad I’d brought an umbrella. Found a café, tossed down a fast cuppa and croissant. Walked some more, then grabbed one of the old trolleys that run between downtown and some old neighborhoods perched on the city slopes. A beautiful old funicular, kept in mint condition. A guy sat behind me carrying on a loud, leisurely conversation in Portuguese with two other males spread around the rear half of the car, blabbering on and on and on. (That may have been when I realized that Portuguese sounds like the mutant offspring of Spanish and Russian. The Portuguese spoken in Lisbon, anyway. At least to my jaundiced ears.) Beautiful women boarded and got off the tram. Now and then church bells rang out from passing sidestreets. The coach wound its slow, steady way down from the hills into the center, the rain continuing, darkness falling.

Returned to my little cubbyhole of a room, dried out. Read, snoozed, watched a bit of European television. Ten o’clock found me and my wheeled body bag on the train, getting ready for a night of sleep as the train eased its way out of the station. My little overnight train cubbyhole was situated against the coach’s loo, which meant periodic bouts of noises I wasn’t looking to get used to. Ear plugs did the job.

And the next morning found me back in Madrid, navigating the bodybag through the tail end of the Metro a.m. rush hour. Since then, I’m re-acclimating. My Spanish seems to have suffered minimally from four and a half months away. I’ve slipped back into the morning routine of picking up a paper, ducking into a local joint for espresso and a croissant before getting the day underway. The narrow local streets are alive with people. The new apartment building across the street — under construction for nearly two years now — might actually be ready for residence by year’s end.

Life goes on here in this city planted the middle of a large peninsula, an ocean away from the city in which I was born, far from the green mountains of a tiny state up by the Canadian border, my stateside home in more recent years.

Life goes on.

Madrid, te quiero.

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