far too much writing, far too many photos

[continued from previous entry]

Northeast Canada slid by, then Maine, the Boston area finally drifting into view, spreading itself out down below, land still mostly brown extending away in all directions, following the Earth’s gentle curve. The plane passed the city, flying low enough to provide a crystal-clear panoramic view of harbor and Boston/Cambridge, making a long, lazy turn over the south shore, coming back in across highways and harbor, touching down just after noon in an urban area awash in sunlight and mild temperatures.

The Southeast Expressway, stretching north to Boston

A heaving mass of humans waited to be processed in customs (heavy on groups of chattering teenagers, sandals and backpacks abounding) with only five or so agents on duty. Result: a long wait. Long enough that by the time I made it to baggage claim, the luggage from our flight had been removed from the carousel and lined up in neat rows to make way for mountains of luggage from other flights.

Outside: springtime, or at least Boston’s April version of springtime. Bright sunshine, mild temperatures leavened by a cold breeze. Nice weather to wait for a bus. Which I did. Waited and waited and waited until mine showed, waves of other travelers appearing, pouring into other buses, heading off to points scattered around New England.

The day before, I’d left a voice message with the local cabbie who’d taken me to the bus station a month earlier, let him know when I’d be arriving, said I’d call during the bus ride from Boston to confirm on-time arrival (or not). All connections fell into place, I left a message on the cabbie’s voicemail during the drive north, had an uneasy feeling a while later that I should try him again, did so, left a second message. Pulled into Montpelier at 6:25 to find a spring evening underway, the temperature up near 70. No taxi in sight.

Despite Montpelier being the state capìtal, its bus station is a simple podunk-style trailer hidden away from the main drags behind buildings, parking lots, railroad track. The bus pulled out, leaving me and an impassive 20-something woman, her hiding a shiner behind oversized sunglasses, teetering on ultra-high-heeled shoes. Between us: a utility pole, a brokendown bench, a pay phone where she stood making calls, talking quietly into the receiver. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. No taxi. At the fifteen-minute mark I dragged out my cellphone, called the cabbie.

Long story short: he hadn’t picked up the afternoon’s voicemail, seemed to be at home when I called, apparently playing hookey. Couldn’t blame him, really, given the day (tailor-made for playing hookey). I set off for my car on foot, festooned with far too much luggage, dragging the body bag. Put out a thumb on State Street for a while, all passing drivers ignored me. Trudged on, stopped at the gym, begged the woman behind the desk to let me leave my stuff there while I went for my car, she graciously acquiesced.

The rest of the hike provided the first experience of full-bore spring since those 48 short hours in Sevilla, three weeks earlier. Kids played in the soft evening air, a boombox on a front porch broadcast a tune, the occasional car passed. Apart from that, quiet reigned. A warm evening in a small New England town, the season’s first true shot of springtime. And me, back from a month away, the bucolic scene around me feeling slightly unreal.

Retrieved car, thanked she who’d generously allowed me to leave it in her driveway for a month, returned to gym, retrieved bags, hit the highway. Pulled into my driveway around eight, songbirds making evening music, the smell of new growth in the air. Though I noticed with massive relief that the new growth did not yet include the ocean of grass around the house, meaning mowing would not commence for a while.

[to be continued. maybe.]

España, te echo de menos.

The events of that last entry happened a week ago. Last Monday morning found me packed into a rental car with D. and G., streaking along winding country two-lanes away from Edinburgh toward the border with England, a day that began with Scottish sunshine, ending with gray skies, midlands rain.

This morning found me here in bed, in my quiet house beneath gray Vermont skies, every window looking out on damp countryside slowly turning green.

Last Tuesday: did a final trip to the cave that passed as the local gym (packed with cardiovascular machines, europop tunes blaring cheerily from the in-house stereo, but still a cave) before dragging G. into Newcastle-under-Lyme center to a tea room. Which may sound poofy and boring, but involved great food and good views of the pedestrian area of Newcastle’s downtown, streets lined with shops (including, as G. noted, a startling number of thrift shops affiliated with nonprofit organizations), busy with people. (The tea was okay.)

Wednesday: Made the 15-minute drive along rain-soaked roads to Monkey Forest, a preserve that’s home to two large colonies of free-roaming Barbary macaques, 160 of them in all. The weather cooperated, precipitation eased up, allowing us a long, lingering, interesting visit, the other humans in attendance as much fun to watch as the residents.

During the previous week and a half, D. and I had spent evenings whipping through the first 13 episodes of Firefly, leaving only the final installment and the big-screen wrap-up, Serenity, for us to tackle. The previous evening we did the last episode, G. sitting through it patiently, though not, I suspect, wildly enamored of the experience. This evening — my last on British soil for now — we cranked up Serenity, G. once again patiently tolerating (the patient thing no small deal, given that our lounging area/screening room was his bedchamber — one of the hazards of sleeping on a living room sofa). Tammy, D.’s friend/ex-sweetheart came over to watch the weekly CSI doubleheader, found herself relegated to the idiot box in D.’s bedroom while the rest of us rode a space-western rollercoaster downstairs. Once David Caruso had finished posing for the evening, she joined us, stretched out on the sofa to snuggle with D., face buried in his chest. Tammy is tall, rangy, smart, attractive — I’m not sure how D. maintained focus on the film with her pressed up against him like that.

Thursday: the trip back stateside. G. had a 9 a.m. flight, mine took off at 10. The rental car had to be returned on the way to Manchester, the agency — located somewhere near the airport — had to be found. All of which would require being out the door real damn early, functioning at a fairly high level. All of which we managed, me maneuvering the car up the M6 through hordes of tractor-trailers, going far too fast. So fast that we made it to the general area of the rental agency with plenty of time to spare. Good thing, ’cause the directions I’d printed up from a map-it style website went vague and wacky as we neared the end of the drive, resulting in 20 or 25 minutes of getting on and off high-speed roads in various directions, nosing around local streets through many charming neighborhoods until I finally followed an impulse, ignored the directions and brought us right to the agency. Sometimes I amaze myself.

Given the hour and the unexpected mayhem, G. and I did fine, fine in this case meaning only the occasional moment of disharmony. And then the pressure was off, life was wonderful once again.

Far too early, en route to Manchester Airport — Cheadle, England:

A lovely, cool morning in one of Manchester’s many fine suburbs. Soon as we were out of the car and I no longer had to perform like a mature, capable human, I reverted to the bumbling, half-conscious state more normal for me at 7:15 a.m. A friendly, talkative agency employee (the only agency employee awake and on the job) chauffered us to the airport, dropped us at our respective terminals. I dragged the body bag up to check-in, encountering long lines and a security scene of such intensity that one would think the destination was an armed camp. (Note to self: restrain impulse to add politically stupid wiseass remarks.)

Heard no other American accents around me, in keeping with my general experience in the midlands. All other passengers seemed to be local folk. Checked in, the body bag so stuffed with, er, stuff that it had to be dispatched from a special portal along the terminal, one with a conveyer belt broad and unhindered enough to allow passage of bulging, gargantuan-sized luggage.

Finally found myself onboard, the two seats next to me occupied by a pair of Irish-sounding gents who seemed to make a conscious effort to ignore me in every possible way. Not that they had to entertain me, or even acknowledge my physical/metaphysical existence. It’s just that something about whatever was going on seemed strangely hostile. Once in the air and out over the Atlantic, I made a trip to the bog at the rear of the plane, discovering a lovely empty window seat along the way, only one other person in that row — a portly gent with a face whose features hinted at years of hard living, in a weathered, Bukowski kind of way. (Now that I think about it, his entire mien had a Bukowski look, strong enough that it sounded stange to hear a midlands accent coming from his mouth.) He had no objection to me claiming the window perch, I grabbed my stuff from the other seat, made the switch.

Much better.

My neighbor remained quiet until I pulled out my laptop (now there’s a phrase ready-made to be employed as a nasty euphemism), his eyes lighting up when he saw it, happily launching into a narrative about being in the middle of replacing a beloved, recently deceased laptop. He pulled out a list of candidate models he’d been compiling, mused aloud over which one he might go with. From there, the narrative shifted to work, turned out he was a plumber on the way to Kentucky for several months of work at a military base. A nice person. Friendly — one more confirmation of my general experience with folks from the midlands.

[this entry in progress]

Madrid, te echo de menos.

[continued from entry of April 18]

Er, did I write that last bit, about hands on throat and all? Think of it as a measure of lack of sleep (blended with a teensy bit of artistic-license type exaggeration). And, of course, a measure of things beyond sleep — the roommate in question had been producing a cavalcade of noises all that day and night. A sweeping spectrum of noises, a kind of display I don’t remember experiencing around him before. Some of them a species of noise my father used to make in his later years, in particular the sounds of sucking food from teeth, post-mealtime. For hours. Not a subtle sound, not especially pleasant, and one with strangely difficult resonance for me. Not only for the paternal echo — this friend is an older guy, I haven’t seen him in a long while, apart from a fast cup of coffee during my layover in Boston on the first leg of this trip a month ago. He’s feeling old, is thinking of himself that way, and so has begun acting like someone of advanced age — certain tendencies becoming accentuated, with others, like the production of a strange soundtrack, brand new, at least for me. A good guy — a smart, interesting, talented guy — and I found myself having difficulty spending extended time around him. Which I’m sure he at times felt.

The only time I felt like I actually saw the person I used to know was at dinner Wednesday night — my last evening in the U.K. for now — during animated conversation between the four of us in attendance. Suddenly, there he was, the person I recognize, his conversation interesting, reflecting self-awareness and intelligence, listening to what was said around him as he spoke, taking it in and adjusting on the fly. Freer, more dynamic. A person I enjoy being around.

And as expected, when I finally managed to rouse him on Saturday night in Edinburgh –- Himself coming to with a jerk, body bouncing up to sitting position, sleepy vocal apparatus producing a mumbled “Wha’?” — he was genuinely sorry. An hour or two later he was again horizontal, again producing sounds like a tenor buzzsaw, rendering earplugs ineffective.

This, sometimes, is the price of sharing a room with male (and, once in a while, female) humans.

Next morning: we skipped the hotel breakfast, drifted through surprisingly active Easter morning streets to a coffee joint to wake up before tossing ourselves into an art museum crawl, the day outside shifting back and forth between beautiful weather and cold spitting showers, the tourist-swamped city beautiful amid all of it.

We drifted through four museums, all of them well-attended, all featuring museum guards sporting pants of a green and black plaid (with Doc Martens and modified goatees, they could easily have been mistaken for members of ’80’s punk/ska bands), using the adjective ‘wee’ with conspicuous frequency.

Art!

Found our way to a pub a few blocks from the hotel late in the afternoon for caffeine, a comfy little place with high ceilings and people scattered about eating, reading Sunday papers, talking. Retired to the hotel to pull ourselves together (again with the snooker on the telly), ventured out later for an extremely so-so dinner of fish & chips at a nearby joint, us the only customers, the proprietor a bit too much of a hovering presence, a radio playing hip-hop at high volume. Packed, hit the hay at an excessively reasonable hour (and yet again with the snooker, right up to lights out).

Next morning: I was up with the sunlight, the others gradually followed suit, we were on the road shortly after eight, retracing our route of three days before, D. at the helm, retracing our route of three days before, taking the winding two-lanes like the reincarnation of Richard Petty.

(Roads that featurned speeding cameras in unbelievable profusion, something that vanished as soon as we crossed the border back in England.) No stops apart from a fast pit stop outside of Durham for caffeine/bladder relief and a brief gas purchase an hour from trip’s end, the weather slowly morphing from blue skies/plentiful sunshine to clouds/rain, the views changing from sprawling landscapes to things stranger, all of it sliding by at high speed.

Six hours, fifteen minutes later, we were out of the car, feet once more planted on the rain-damp sidewalks of Newcastle-under-Lyme, my adorable bod happier than I can describe to be vertical and free of seat/seat belt. D. took off in the direction of a cash machine, G. and I stopped in at a pub known for putting on a good Sunday carvery lunch, walked in the door at 2:30, just as the food was being carted off into the kitchen. I watched excellent-looking edibles vanish, allowing myself a brief moment of gastronomic grief before returning to the car, reclaiming the keys from D., driving us home at saner, more leisurely speeds than we’d been subjected to in the previous hours.

Back home, D. resumed normal life, making a couple of phone calls before leaping into his Porshce, disappearing off to Manchester for various activities. G. retired to an armchair in the living rooom — his current bedroom — with a book. I retired to my bedroom, unpacked, fell into bed.

A Monday afternoon in the British midlands, the last leg of a holiday weekend, rain falling on and off. Two short days remained before my return stateside, something I did my level best not to dwell on.

España, te echo de menos.

At Monkey Forest, a preserve in Trentham, England, home to 160 free-ranging Barbary macaques:

España, te echo de menos.

[continued from previous post]

G. had initially shown signs of wanting to tag along with D., provoking a quiet sigh of relief from me, my sleep-deprived self ready for time alone. He changed his mind, though, trailing after me, forcing a fast, reluctant attitude readjustment on my part, shifting churlish displeasure to something more congenial.

This spending huge amounts of time around the same people thing: not always my idea of paradise. Depends on the people/person, in part. Depends on my fatigue level (a factor, in this case, after the previous day’s marathon migration north followed by a night of roommates’ snorish vocalizing). Depends on how easily I can find getaway space or the illusion thereof. Depends on a bunch of variables, some mysterious or not so easily wrestled with, others logical and quickly remedied. This last month’s stay in D.’s home has turned out to be wonderfully relaxed and balanced, in part because space has been built into it — me with my own room, him working days, having his own life to pursue beyond that. We’ve known each other a long time, have seen each other grow and change, have developed a solid base of mutual acceptance and appreciation. Add to that his kind, patient, easygoing nature and good sense of humor, the result is an excellent host/roommate and all-around human-type being.

The patisserie: closed, maybe out of business, leaving me to make a further readjustment. Wound up trying a small, nearby coffee joint run by two 50ish sisters. Turned out to be a find. Good brew, good food, easy-flowing conversation with the sister behind the counter, whose musical accent got and held my attention.

That set the pattern for the next few hours. Drifting leisurely from one coffee pusher to another, entertaining ourselves with food, drink, blab. When Dermot materialized, G. and I were standing on a high-pedestrian-traffic corner enjoying sunlight and the endless flow of people. (He knew where we were because he’d spied on us via the camera obscura. Sneaky bastard.)

Braveheart impersonator, Edinburgh

Two or three hours later, D. and G. were ready to get more active, more focused, wanting to walk further with more purpose. Not me — I bailed. Went back to hotel, used the gym, returned to room, cranked up laptop, pretended to be productive, enjoying the tranquility. The roommates reappeared, almost immediately fell out, all their walking around taking its toll. The TV came on at some point: soccer standings, excessive amounts of the world snooker championship (that one NOT my choice), the first episode of the brand new season of Dr. Who. (The first half: fun. The second half: er, well, not so much fun. Kind of deadly, I’m afraid.)

We came to a group consensus that we’d seen far too much of a hyper-touristy part of the city, decided to hike away from the center to a more normal area. Twenty minutes later, D. stood in front of a Moroccan restaurant watching a belly dancer do her stuff inside, strongly suggesting that we eat there. I have nothing — believe me, absolutely NOTHING — against bellydancers, but the menu didn’t grab me. Two doors down, the menu in the window of a small Indian joint did. Apparently D. and G. felt the same — we wound up there (D. glancing wistfully in the direction of the Moroccan place before stepping inside) eating the best Indian meal I’ve had the pleasure of cramming down my throat in a long, long time. Years, maybe. Killer food.

A nice walk back to the hotel, nighttime air cool. I retreated to my bed, in dire need of relief from an outrageous amount of horrible post-mealtime noises provided courtesy of one roommate, earplugs eliminating most of it. Three or four hours later, snoring shook me from sleep, the responsible party so deeply out that it took a couple of minutes to wake them, my attempts slowly escalating from whispering their name to jabbing and shaking their shoulder, the knowledge that I was dealing with a good person who would feel terrible as soon as they found out they’d been making my life miserable a buttress against the smouldering urge to shift my hands to their throat.

[to be continued]

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

Edinburgh, Scotland

España, te echo de menos.

As I said, on Friday myself and two friends — friends of long duration, individuals I’ve now known for 17 or so years — tossed some bags into the back of a rental car (me continuing the overpacking thing I’ve got going, the bodybag providing the foundation in the trunk for D. & G.’s more modest baggage). Outside, a beautiful day awaited. Inside, we waited on a load of laundry Dermot had stuffed into the washer. Shortly before the bolting hour, the phone rang: the car rental firm wanting me to exchange my Honda for an identical model, the one I’ve had apparently having been sold out from under me. I drove over for that, Simon — tall, slim, blonde, with a friendly, angular face — the lad who seems to be the high man on the agency totem pole, effected the change, took me for a drive to a filling station for an Easter gift of a nearly-full tank of gas. Zipping through local streets surprisingly empty (everyone apparently either away or at a nearby mall, its parking lot full, lines at its gas station several cars long), the morning awash in sunlight, conversation centered around traveling. Once back at the agency, we shook hands, exchanged good-weekend wishes, I took off. The wait for the wash continued at D.’s lair, he finally decided to skip the hanging about, we threw ourselves into the car, me taking the first driving shift.

On approaching the M6, the local highway north, D. saw that everyone else in this part of Britain had also decided to head north for the weekend, converting the six-lane into a massive parking lot, prompting a fast change of route: local roads to Manchester, then onto a major highway heading east and north of the city, toward Leeds and beyond. I continued with the driving-on-the-left-hand- side-of-the-road thing like I knew what I was doing, we covered plenty of ground, finally pulling off at a rest stop for nosh and liquid refreshment well along the way. (A stop featuring the revelation that the expression ‘to open the lunchbox’ is a euphemism for passing wind, a turn of phrase that has since provided far too many hours of wholesome entertainment.) When we skidded back onto the road twenty or thirty minutes later, heavy traffic had caught up with us, slowing northerly movement way down. Way the hell down, to teeth-grindingly snail-like velocity, finally sending us off onto two-lanes that cut north through green, rolling country, rising and falling with the hedgerowed land like billowing, sunwashed rollercoasters.

Around two, a diner perched on the crest of a hill beckoned, we paused to hoover down heaping plates of the English equivalent of first-class diner fare, D. & G. patiently enduring my excessive joy at food, views, accents of the women working the roadhouse, et freaking cetera.

Back on the road, Dermot now at the wheel, the car suddenly leaping ahead with notably upgraded aggressiveness and speed, as if the spirit of A. J. Foyt had seized the vehicle. We moved north through increasingly beautiful windblown country, trees and bushes all visibly leaning to the east, stone walls and hedges extending along the side of the road, at times cutting away to mark property lines or separate fields. When we left the roadhouse, we’d hoped we might be two hours or less from Edinburgh. HAR! The hours stretched on, the country grew more gorgeous, the sun slid down into the western sky, we still threaded our way north.

At the border, the land rose skyward, giving way at its crest to spectacular vistas of a spectacularly beautiful part of the planet. All afternoon, we’d had views of green terrain that seemed to stretch on and on, giant folds of earth rising and falling off into the distance. The view at the border trumped all that in jaw-dropping fashion. Plus, we assured ourselves, Edinburgh had to be drawing close.

Country gradually gave way to ‘burbs, population density grew more urban, we suddenly found ourselves on a road heading directly into the city center, everything going suspiciously smoothly.

Cobblestone streets, eye-catching buildings everywhere we looked. (Edinburgh has far, far more than its share of ancient, beautiful structures. They line the streets in a way calculated to make other cities appear colorless by comparison — crass, boring, lacking in history and culture.)

We found the hotel, D. managed an admirably zippy mid-traffic U-turn, we parked, grabbed bags, checked in. Seven hours and twenty minutes after starting out. A full day’s workshift.

Settled into the room, got the car into a parking garage, went out for a walk in the suddenly freezing evening, daylight fading. Locals walked about in groups, getting the evening underway, or waited at bus stops, heading home. Tourists strolled about (Asians in abundance, plenty of people speaking Spanish). I found myself underdressed for the kind of cold we were dealing with and running out of energy after far too many hours packed in a car. We’d booked a late dinner at the hotel restaurant — because we’d arrived so late that seats only remained for the last seating — headed back, did a tired, quiet, less than high-energy meal. Returned to the room, went to bed, me taking a while to drift off. Three or so hours later, I woke to find a snoring duet in progress, D. using his built-in nocturnal megaphone to broadcast the thunderous melody, G. providing quieter harmony. Earplugs insulated me from most of it, I tried to drift off again. No luck. G. finally got up, staggered to the loo, I took advantage of that to turn on a bedside lamp, open a book. The snoring quieted down from there, I read until drowsiness returned, killed the light, conked out.

Morning: I found myself awake before the others. Got up, showered, shaved, all that. Outside, a street-work jackhammer serenaded the neighborhood. When D. & G. had gotten up and pulled themselves together, we trooped down to the hotel’s complimentary breakfast — a mob scene, the restaurant staff trying to keep up with the deluge of folks seeking heaping plates of a.m. chow. So-so a.m. chow, turned out, with turgid coffee (”black death,” said G.) and punchless tea. We headed out, a small newsagent across the street provided a copy of a Spanish newspaper, a café beyond that provided real caffeine in the form of real brew. Sunshine poured in the windows. All of that leaving me happier, feeling more like a functioning human.

We returned to the streets to find a beautiful day in progress, the center awash in tourists (that last phrase hardly describing the growing flood of people out ogling Edinburgh). The swelling number of folks out doing tourism reached an intensity that quickly became impressively lacking in fun, effecting a change in our approach to the day from one of big activity, walking around, taking in sights to one of drifting slowly, standing on corners talking and enjoying the surrounding cabaret, pausing frequently to settle in at a café or food-slinging joint to relax, refuel, watch the local world. Or rather, it effected that change after D. decided to do the tourist thing, disappearing into the camera obscura building, G. and I drifting back down the Royal Mile, me heading toward a patisserie we’d noticed on a sidestreet earlier, looking for food, drink, some relative peace.

[continued in next entry]

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

T-shirt seen in the Tass Pub, Edinburgh:
I Have A Deeply Satisfying Finish

España, te echo de menos.

Yesterday — the day of chocolate Easter egg infamy — I arose at far too reasonable an hour, saddled up and drove to Manchester Airport to pick up another friend from the States. An older guy, a great person, who seemed astonished to find himself driving along English highways, sitting in what would be the driver’s seat in the States, but with no steering wheel to hold onto, no pedals to jam to the floor. And me next to him piloting the car with no problem at all. (I remain amazed at that last bit.)

He did all right until around noon, when fatigue from a sleepless night of hurtling over the Atlantic took over. I sent him to bed, putzed around until he came to four hours later. Then made him pull on clothes, dragged him out to the car and drove to Brampton Park, site of a funky little museum, some gardens, an aviary, a café (where I experienced the single most horrific batch of cappucino that I’ve ever attempted to hoover down — a shock, that, given that my last visit to that establishment had resulted in a respectable cup of espresso and a full English breakfast worthy of writing home about. Wherever home might be.)

To cut a long-winded prologue mercifully short, he, I and Dermot are headed up to Edinborough today for a weekend of plundering and looting (metaphorically speaking). I have no idea how internet access will go.

Guess we’ll find out.

Later.

España, te echo de menos.

Chocolate Easter eggs given to my host, Dermot, and myself by a friend/ex-sweetheart of Dermot’s. Guess which one refers to me?
(Hint: I’m not the git.)

España, te echo de menos.

[continued from last entry]

A minute after settling in, a voice on the P.A. announced that due to track work we would be not be taking the normal route, added dryly that we would instead head north via the ’scenic route: Birmingham.’ A longer ride, he said, me feeling more smugly content by the minute about going with the seat upgrade.

Even with the detour, work crews frequently slowed our forward movement to a crawl, by the time we slipped through Birmingham, it was exactly five days later to the hour than the last time I’d been there. Heading in the other direction, then, toward Bristol via the lovely rolling farm country of the Cotswolds for a couple days’ visit with a friend: Nita.

Her section of Bristol: Totterdown, a former working-class area now making the upward swing toward something more gentrified. A tough district not too long ago, apparently, its rough edges now taking a softer, more liveable aspect. A neighborhood of narrow streets riding the slopes of a hill, Nita’s narrow, three-floor home across the street from a mosque.

Totterdown, seen from Victoria Park, Bristol

On the ride in from the train station, a park caught my attention — a sizeable expanse of grass and trees spreading up a hill, daffodils providing color. A couple of blocks from my destination, planted in the middle of an ocean of urban neighborhoods. At Nita’s, I dragged my bags inside, we said hello, she asked what I felt like doing. Minutes later, I had her out the door, we made our way up the park’s green incline, sun and clouds providing spectacular light, Bristol extending out away in various directions, looking just fine to me.

The skies on this green island are spectacular, the constant interplay of clouds and sun producing beautiful light and never-ending, eye-catching celestial tableaus, at least to misfits like myself who experience far too much bliss from simple things like the play of light and dramatic skies. Nita put up with my blabbering about all that with great patience, likewise accepting my tendency to take far too many photos with admirable forbearance.

She’s an interesting person, Nita — sharp, articulate, with an expressive face that radiates life. And bitchen red hair (along with, er, abundant cleavage, given the right outfit). Someone who’s been fun to get to know over the course of various visits to this part of the world. And someone who will watch the Daily Show with me, cackling at least as loudly as I do.

Her daughter, a lovely 20-something now earning money as a model, was away on a photo shoot, bequeathing me her bedroom for my stay, complete with Eminem shrine and window overlooking the mosque. Also looking out on some spectacular sunrises (something I’d rather be asleep for), fine weather having followed me to Bristol. The shades were sheer enough, however, that the swelling of early-morning light over the urban horizon roused me. Real pretty, but I tried to ignore it.

Next morning, we hopped a bus into the city center to pick up a router so that I could establish a household wireless network (a selfless act of self-interest on my part, me a recent convert to the wireless joy thing and willing to go to great lengths for easy internet connection). Scored that quickly, at a good price, then found ourselves an outdoor table at a café, settled in for a couple of hours’ worth of caffeine and far too much conversation, soaking up spring sunlight.

When we finally roused ourselves and got walking, we stumbled across a small chapel tucked away in a courtyard, turning out to be the John Wesley ‘New Room’ Chapel. A beautiful, austere space, a good place to sit and soak up some peaceful vibe. Rooms in the building’s top floor were once used by Wesley, including a bed he slept in, its thin mattress suspended on ropes. (According to the guide/caretaker, the ropes would have to be re-tied periodically to eliminate slack — hence the expression ’sleep tight.’)

The upper level of the main meeting space — The John Wesley
‘New Room’ Chapel, Bristol

When we stepped back out in to the afternoon air, the temperature had slid up to nicely user-friendly levels, the kind of afternoon made for soaking up sunlight. Which I did for a bit, working my way through a Cornish pasty while Nita wandered about, working her way through a cigarette. Two teenage girls tossed themselves into the seat to my right, flicking bread crumbs to gathering pigeons, slowly freaking out as the number of pigeons seemed to grow exponentially, until one of them threw her shoe into the cloud of birds, scattering them. She left the shoe where it was, bare foot swinging in the warm air, it remained there, pigeons all around, when we left.

Returned home, set up the network. I’d done the same thing my first afternoon at Dermot’s lair (three weeks ago now — how the hell did that happen?) using a Belkin router, the process smooth, easy, taking ten stress-free minutes. The set-up of the Netgear router bought for Nita’s place started well, went quickly downhill. Three hours later, I managed to find their customer service number — hidden away in a page at the company’s website — less than five minutes after getting a real human being on the phone to help me iron out the last stubborn problem, the network was up and running. Making me obnoxiously happy.

[this entry in progress]

España, te echo de menos.

I wrote that last entry during a train ride north from London, the last leg of a five-day bout of traveling, me ready to sit still for a while. Coming off a strange, interesting, strangely interesting couple of days in the capital. Feeling a little tired, a little pensive. Got up at far too reasonable an hour, showered/shaved. Pulled on clothes, tossed clothes not pulled on into the body bag, checked out of the hotel. Found myself walking, half-awake, along Kensington streets mostly empty, skies above mostly gray, air mostly cold. Flagged down a cab, the cabbie friendly and smiling until I specified my destination, the Gloucester Road tube station a few blocks away — a long few blocks to someone like me, dragging an overpacked monster wheeled duffel, but too brief for his liking, worth too little money. He took off, leaving me to make the trip on foot, cutting through the Gloucester Road arcade where a café beckoned, promising caffeine, food, five or ten minutes of relative tranquility.

Cappucino is widely available in the U.K. (the U.K. being a civilized country), many places churn out a pretty good version of it. But somewhere along the line, they picked up the idea that it’s supposed to come in vat-sized, kidney-challenging quantities. A request for a cup generally brings the ’small, medium or large?’ response, as it did Sunday morning, an answer that often stops me in my tracks — in part because I just want a cappucino, a simple cappucino, cup size not entering into the equation. And in part because the cup size can vary in big ways from one caffeine pusher to another, something else I seem to forget, especially first thing in the morning when my teeny brain is barely functioning and a friendly countergnome is demanding that I think and make decisions like a high-functioning human type person. Not a reasonable thing to ask of me at the moments when I’m likely to be requesting a jolt of caffeine, generally times when the link between brain and mouth has barely been established for the day.

In this case, the size question stopped me, I tried to gather my paltry collection of wits, heard the word ‘medium’ spill out of my mouth. Medium — seemed like a safe, reasonable answer. Meaning medium — not large, not grande. A word that shouldn’t result in a potentially bladder-bursting quantity of liquid.

I foggily pulled out change, paid up, pulled my bags out the door to claim an outside table (outside meaning the arcade walkway — still indoors, but not indoors-indoors). Watched other customers, watched the occasional passing person. Heard a countergnome call me, went inside to find a cappucino in a cup the size of a soup bowl waiting for me. Stared for an open-mouthed moment, then took it, returned to outside table, set it down. Went back inside, asked for a croissant, returned to my perch, started on my vat of caffeine. The croissant arrived, I began stuffing it into my waiting mouth. Ten minutes later, approaching a more workable version of consciousness, I got to my feet, took off in the direction of the tube stop, body bag in tow.

The tube station turned out to be a scene of near chaos, in contrast to the Sunday-morning tranquility of the neighborhood, as travelers were up early and ready to move. Lines snaked from the entranceways to ticket machines and ticket booths, several languages being loudly spoken. All the machines sported lengthy queues — all except two that only accepted cash. A Spanish father and son stood at one, debating whether to use it or not. I went to the other, fed it cash, took my ticket, began the trip underground. And found myself dragging the body bag long distances, the transfer station, and finally Euston, carrying it along platforms, passageways, up and down stairs, resolving once again to re-examine the overpacking thing.

Arrived at Euston, found a ticket machine, it gave me the paper for the seat I’d reserved a few days earlier. Went to a newsagent trawling for a Spanish paper. No dice. Went to stand with the growing crowd below the big status boards, waiting for the platform to be announced for the 11:05 train heading north. Platforms were announced for other trains, some leaving 30 and 60 minutes later than the 11:05. Nothing appeared, however, for the 11:05, the crowd of waiting people steadily swelling. At 10:55, the platform number appear showed, unleashing an immediate stampede of travelers in that direction. I joined them, stayed to the edge of the mayhem to avoid being pushed, jostled, spindled, folded, mutilated.

Found the coach, climbed on board, found out that Virgin had given me a cramped seat facing the rear of the train instead of facing forward as I’d asked. I slipped down into it, a 30ish Japanese guy materialized next to me, took the neighboring seat — seemed like a good guy, but I found myself feeling closed in, my seat narrow, the space between it and the seat in front of me minimal. A voice on the P.A. announced that first-class upgrades were available for £15. I climbed over my neighbor, found my way along the train to first-class, found a half-full car with a perfect seat and window table waiting for me. Left a book to stake my claim, made the hike back for the rest of my stuff, dragged it all to first class. Took my seat, much happier. Opened the book and relaxed, scenery outside flashing past.

[continued in next entry]

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

Trafalgar Square, London — a controversial, recently-installed statue of
Alison Lapper (disabled, naked, eight months pregnant)

España, te echo de menos.

Apart from some cross-country drives — a few of those, not to mention assorted rides up and down both coasts and far, far too many trips around the northeast — I’ve never done the kind of traveling I’m currently in the middle of, moving around the map, showing up at one place for a day or two or three, staying or meeting up with friends (or friends of friends), then tossing everything back into the body bag and moving on. Strange, exhilarating, at times wearing, packed with fun, sensation, strange encounters, punctuated by interludes of passing land- or cityscapes.

Railway station, Stoke-on-Trent, England

It’s not that I’ve longed for the classic grand tour. I never really have felt the yearning for that of potentially grueling haul. It’s a reaction to six strange months, three in Madrid — a place that usually feels like home — spent coexisting with workcrews busy tearing down the building around me, bit by chainsawed, hammerdrilled bit, followed by three months in the quiet of beautiful wintertime northern Vermont — some might say excessively quiet, the kind of quiet that comes to feel increasingly like sensory deprivation.

The possibility of relief first presented itself when a friend offered a three-week house- and dogsitting gig in one of Spain’s northwestern provinces. Offered then withdrawn as she and her husband ran into trouble nailing down the details of their time away, leaving me feeling something akin to being all dressed up with no place to go. I mentioned all this during a phone call with a friend in the British midlands, he offered a bedroom in his place, I thought about it — at first hesitant to do something that might come to feel like an imposition, then quickly coming to my senses — accepted the offer, made flight arrangements, swapped emails with friends around the U.K., warning them of my impending invasion.

The days melted away, I found myself in a bus heading to Boston, then in an overgrown metal tube stuffed with other humans, moving at high speed over the nighttime Atlantic. Then in green, midlands England, people driving on the wrong side of the road. Passing a few days of acclimation, making the occasional jaunt with my host — northeast to Manchester, to amuse myself while he attended softball practice, then southeast to Litchfield, to attend the Mozart Requiem in the town’s enormous cathedral. Followed by a quick, cheap-flight getaway to Sevilla (chronicled with excessive attention to detail in previous entries).

Since then: a quick pass through Liverpool, briefly back in Newcastle-under-Lyme, a train trip down to Bristol on the southwest coast for two and a half days of conversation and tea consumption (including a fast flounce south to charming, slightly goofy Glastonbury, a hotbed of new-age, capitalistic hippyness, the town’s main drag liberally sprinkled with shops bearing names like Enlightenment and The Psychic Piglet) and, two days ago, to London.

I’ve thought about this sudden geographic-cure-style frenzy, because it seems to me that the g.c. is a clear component of the sudden shooting around the map and merits some pondering. Not that there’s anything wrong with flying around the map. I’m all for the geographic cure as a short-term remedy for restlessness, the blues, the heartbreak of psoriasis, or whatever ails one. Part of what’s going on is a simple thirst for the new, for the resumption of sensory input. Part of it is an ongoing confirmation of something I’ve become aware of these last few years, the undeniable happiness I experience on finding myself on the European side of the Atlantic, a sense of somehow being where I belong. And part of it is something I’ve only become aware of recently, or only begun admitting to myself recently — that there is a part of me constantly on the lookout for a place that will feel definitively like home, and in all the moving about, my radar is constantly working, waiting for the person(s) or place that will signal my arrival at that final place.

Not that, rationally speaking, there will necessarily be a final place. (Please put a cork in any allusions to a final resting place that may be trying to squirt out.) Time will tell. Feels like a logical expectation, though, in light of two experiences that seized hold of me at different times, years apart, in two different European locations.

[continued in next entry]

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

Hotel room view, London

Madrid, te quiero.

[continued from previous entry]

When daylight began to fade, I headed off into the barrio of Santa Cruz, the warren of narrow streets and pedestrian ways to the east of Sevilla’s cathedral, to a place I’d visited a couple of times in the past, a center that hosts flamenco performances every night. By young musicians — advanced students, maybe — giving great, energized performances the two occasions I’d been there before.

The music happens in a courtyard, a curtain of trailing vines covering the wall behind the musicians, a canopy a couple of stories up providing a roof. A small space, allowing three performers and an audience of around a hundred seated in rows of chairs around three sides of the room. I arrived early, found myself sitting front and center, daylight fading as nine o’clock approached. A guitarist and vocalist entered, both performers I’d seen here before. They launched into a long, complicated number, the guitarist working hard with difficult, complex material, the singer extravagantly emotional, getting away with it by committing to it in extravagant fashion.

And when they finished up, a dancer entered, one not of the typical look I’ve seen in the past. Not svelte. A bit chunky, in fact, with heavy features. Took her a few minutes to warm up, her concentration twisting her up features in a strange, unflattering way. And then everything settled into place, her movements found a grace and emotion they hadn’t had, her performance became more intense, more in sync with the musicians and the audience. And from there the evening took off.

The moment the show ended, I was out the door, walking back through the barrio, past the tourist concentration point of el Alcázar Real and la Catedral, across la Avenida de la Constitutión into my hotel’s barrio. A good fifteen-minute hike, me pulling up at the restaurant in which I’d eaten the night before. Which turned out to be empty, no one there but the owner and me.

He threw together a good meal, brought me a small beer or two, I inhaled everything like someone coming off an extended fast, noting the quiet, sad atmosphere of a place lacking business, the owner reading the paper to kill time, taking a few minutes to write out the next day’s menú on a chalkboard.

He didn’t seem particularly inclined to a chatfest, I let him alone, paid up, got out. One last walk through narrow streets, the neighborhood’s numerous watering holes mostly doing better business than the restaurant (except for a wine bar, empty apart from the two employees who stood outside the door, both talking into cellphones), then back to the hotel where the TV went on for a while, Spanish-speaking voices filling the small space of my room until the light went out.

Next day: more of the same. Good espresso. Croissant. Roaming around enjoying scenery, people. Good lunch.

Late afternoon: returned to hotel, packed up, left for the airport for a Ryan Air flight back to the U.K. Found myself second in line, behind a 60ish English couple with several bags piled on a cart. Airline personnel appeared, putzed around getting ready to begin check-in — their point person a tall, blonde English type. He gestured the couple forward, tall, blonde guy didn’t like something about their stuff, the check-in stretched on and on, him finding one objection after another. Until he sent them and their luggage to a customer service window way off on the other side of the terminal. (To pay for excessive luggage, I found out later.)

During all that, Ryan Air personnel repeatedly announced that passengers were allowed only one carry-on bag. Watching the routine happening with the first couple in line, I began taking the announcements seriously, stuffed my bag o’ books into my monster wheeled duffel, leaving me with my laptop bag. Legal, thought I. Blonde guy gestured me forward, I lifted the wheeled duffel onto the conveyer. He stared at a weight indicator, told me it was too heavy. I removed the bag of books, leaving me with the same duffel of possessions I’d come to Sevilla with. No good — he wanted me to remove five more kilograms of stuff. I stared at him, it not computing. He stared back, expressionless, unyielding. We went back and forth a little, me a little stunned, not getting why my bag would have been acceptable on the way down, unacceptable for the return trip. I removed a few items, jamming them into my computer bag. Then more things, a small, unmistakeable smirk appearing on blonde guy’s face during the process. He finally let the bag go through, tossed a boarding pass at me, I turned around to find the couple behind me watching fearfully, wondering what the hell had happened. I told them, they looked from me to the desk, eyes wide. I took off as they approached the desk.

I later spoke to them and to the first couple. This, it turned out, was not the first time they’d witnessed or experienced strange happenings at return-trip check-ins for Ryan Air flights. Couple #1 said this was their third time flying with Ryan Air, they’d been subjected to something unpleasant two out of the three times. By contrast, they’d flown with EasyJet many times, never experienced a problem. Couple #2 were hassled as I was, wound up having to re-distribute stuff between bags.

The good part of the experience: it got me examining my tendency to overpack. This trip, in particular, coming over for a month, I decided to bring everything I wanted. The result: er, too much stuff. Time to re-think the packing thing.

Another good part: I found myself sitting next to couple #1 during the long boarding wait, we began talking and continued talking, becoming one more confirmation of my general experience with Brits: they’re friendly, warm folks I enjoy being around.

[continued in next entry, sort of]

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

Buildings/sky, Sevilla

Madrid, te quiero.

[continued from previous entry]

Along the narrow way, a thin, slightly weather-beaten 50ish male stood to one side singing a Spanish tune, hat in hand to collect whatever coins passersby might be willing to part with. Just beyond him stood the entryway to another bookstore, this one looking like your standard, nondenominational joint. I stepped inside to find myself in a cavernous-feeling room that extended far back into the building, rows of bookstands off to either side, each featuring stacks and stacks of books. A dangerous place. A half-hour and 80 euros later, I left with a bag of books, wondering what the hell had come over me. At the cash register, I heard a voice singing outside, commented on it to the cashier. She said a couple did the singing. Sure enough, when I stepped back outside, the 50ish male had been replaced by a 50ish female, dressed nicely, hat in hand, delivering a song like she knew what she was doing.

Middle-aged German couples abounded, many wearing strangely awkward-looking outfits — someone’s idea of traveling clothes, I think — walking together discussing what they saw or referring to maps. Many young American women were about, strolling in twos and threes, all speaking English. Folks from other places could be seen among the mix of people streaming through the center, along with locals going about their day — delivery people, individuals working in shops or stalls, business folks walking together talking or on cellphones or crowding into cafés for a hit of caffeine.

Clothing stores are strewn around Sevilla’s streets with amazing abandon, shop windows displaying flamenco dresses were visible on virtually every block.

As were tiendas dealing in garb or wares a bit more startling to foreign eyes, in particular the KKK-style outfits for the Semana Santa processions.

No, it’s not a shop catering to coneheads — it’s a business specializing in made-to-order processional outfits, something taken with pride, part of an expression of devout, deeply emotional beliefs and traditions.

So. Much of the day passed in wandering mode, me happy to be where I was. Stopped at a neighborhood restaurant for a good meal, the only furriner there until the end, reading a Spanish paper and speaking Castellano well enough that they didn’t seem to know what to make of me. A nice place, tucked away on the ground floor of a flatiron-shaped building, relaxed and quiet until just after the stroke of two, when neighborhood workers began lunch, pouring in the door, one 60ish woman in the middle of them all, the only other furriner.

A woman sat in an SUV outside the door at the building’s outside corner, every few minutes she’d lean on her horn, piping its delightful song directly into the restaurant where eating would stop, heads turning in her direction, expressions less than sanguine until she’d stop. It turned out someone had double-parked directly behind her vehicle while she was off having a life, she returned to find herself trapped, using the horn in the traditional Spanish means of calling out to those who have reduced your life to a parking space with no exit. A 30-something male from the restaurant realized the situation, went out to confer with her, managing to guide her out of the space. She drove off, he returned inside to sit down quietly and resume eating.

And through all of these hours of life happening around this city, perfect weather. Sunny, temperature in the 70’s. Just what el médico ordered.

[continued in next entry]

Madrid, te quiero.

[continued from previous entry]

I write this sitting on a couch in the sprawling lobby of a hotel in Blackpool, England. Out the window: muddy-looking ocean covered with white caps from a cool breeze. Now and then a trolley slides by — I can only see the top half, it passes with the slow, steady movement of an ocean-going vessel.

Blackpool: an old resort town that, at one time, may ahve been the pinnacle of elegance, with an underbelly of wonderfully cheesy sleeze. An interesting place, the skyline predominated by a tower built in 1894, reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower — a finely-woven meshwork of girders, thrusting gracefully up into the sky, overlooking a miles long expanse of beach and ocean. Also overlooking a heaving mass of arcades, restaurants, chip shops, hotels, the occasional lapdance joint, etc.

Blackpool, a resort town with a suspiciously phallic subtext:

I’m here with a friend attending a convention, the hotel crowded and busy with people — families, groups of friends, folks in big meeting mode. Our search for lodging happened at the last minute, we managed to get a room at the Hotel Metropole (no, the name doesn’t refer to something from an urban stripper’s act), an ancient hotel a couple of miles down the strip. We arrived yesterday evening beneath mostly gray skies, breaks in the clouds providing ethereal sunset light, the streets mostly empty. What we saw on entering the building was an old, old place, big shabby salons peopled mostly by old, old folks. Next morning, skylights providing a wash of sunshine, everything looked more inviting, more habitable. And many of the old folks responded to a hello or good morning with sweet smiles and tones of pleased surprise.

Dermot, coming here for the convention, asked if I’d like to go along, I was on that kind invitation like a cheap suit. His car, in for repairs, turned out to need more attention than he’d been banking on. Luckily, I had a silver rented Honda Jazz parked outside his humble abode waiting to be useful — we packed bags, tossed them in the rear, hit the road just in time to join the Friday rush-hour exodus north. Two hours later: Blackpool. Ocean, amusement park, downtown designed to hoover as much cash as possible from visiting tourists, and hotels/b&b’s everywhere — a positive infestation of lodgings. As Dermot put it, any room within the city limits that could be converted into a sleeping space has been so transformed.

Two days earlier I’d been in Sevilla. One immediate difference between the two places: Sevilla was fully under the sway of springtime. Blackpool still struggled under the weight of the cold season. And something else: in Blackpool, I saw nothing indicating Easter’s advance. Sevilla, on the other hand, was neck deep in preparations for it. Hundreds of thousands of people will soon flood the city, for the entire week of Semana Santa the streets will be choked with crowds and processions. It’s the biggest event of the Sevillan calendar, signs of the looming onslaught were difficult to avoid — shop window displays, posters advertising Semana Santa events, stands selling incense and special incense burners, work crews preparing public spaces for enormous numbers of spectators.

Seating stands going up behind el Ayuntamiento (city hall), Sevilla:

Most streets in the center were nicely alive, the sounds of voices and music blending together in easy, liquid fashion. Cafés, restaurants, stores of all kinds. Looking to pick up some reading in Castellano, I came across a book store with the sixth Harry Potter prominently displayed. The window, I vaguely noticed, also featured a fairly sweeping display of religious material, something that barely registered given the city and the season. On entering the store, however — a sizeable concern of two or three levels — I realized it dealt in essentially nothing but Catholic/Christian material. Books, calendars, tchochkes, craft supplies, posters (images both cheery in the vein of sunshine/rainbows, and darkly heavy in the way Spanish Catholicism can be), candles, etc. And the new translation of the sixth Harry Potter installment — virtually the only visible representative of what might be considered secular, not to say pagan. I grabbed one, paid up, stepped back out into the morning.

[continued in next entry]

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

The South Pier, Blackpool

Madrid, te quiero.

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