far too much writing, far too many photos

Woke up with this morning with an old REM song playing in my head. A cut from a different time — strangely ancient now — but not a bad tune to have cycling away in one’s gray matter.

The first sensation on opening my eyes: disorientation, me unsure of the date, how long I’d been asleep, how long until daylight. The past days have slipped by at quietly supersonic speed, leaving memories of various moments blowing through my thoughts like autumn leaves.

Sunday: pulled myself out of bed at far too reasonable an hour, navigated my way out through local streets to an exhibit of coverage by newspapers, magazines, various writers of the Spanish Civil War (a theme that remains strikingly active in Spanish media). A vivid display of print coverage and film footage of the war’s three convulsive, nightmarish years and, it turned out, depressing enough that I didn’t stay long after realizing exactly how depressing it was. I’ll say this: as iconic as Picasso’s Guernica may be, to my eyes it does nowhere near the job of depicting the actual devastation that a modest-sized photo from this exhibit did. The print does not have the cultural weight of the painting — and there is no experience quite like standing in el Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, where the canvass now hangs, watching/listening to Spaniards taking it in — but the simple, stark strength of its image was unexpectedly gripping. Could be I’ve seen the painting too many times now. Or not. Either way, the photograph has stayed with me, surfacing in my thoughts now and then with disconcerting power.

If a friendly person such as yourself had stopped by my comfy, austere squat later that day to say hi, maybe check up on how I was doing (you never write! you never call!), you would have found me planted in front of the laptop — why does that seem like such a sordid image? — deep into the virtual foolishness of Second Life. Not a pasttime I expected to take control of my existence when I first created an account. I spend a hefty amount of time plugged into that laptop, but it’s generally virtuous: work, email, like that. I’ve been mostly free from the allure of computer and video games since Bedazzled/Bejeweled had its moment. It can be a gift, burnout can, releasing us from the grip of whatever vice has had us in its, er, vice-grips, leaving us to move ahead armed with data about our more addiction-prone aspects that we can use to stay free of empty, time-wasting, high-tech diversions. (Or, alternatively, we can immediately forget about all that distracting personal information.) Yes, Bedazzled had its way with me for a while, and before that Castle Wolfenstein made me its bitch for a few weeks. But I emerged from those binges a stronger person, clearer about how I wanted to squander my time — and it did not include passing many hours at a time sweating away at the home-computing fun ‘n’ games equivalent of a time-eating black hole.

But then this last summer Wired ran an article about Second Life, and their cheerfully glib prose made it sound intriguing. Given, however, that I only have dial-up service at my humble country dump back in Vermont, I was out of luck, until I realized I could sign up via one of Montpelier’s wi-fi cafes. Which I did. And never got to do anything with it because, realistically, how much time could I spend in wi-fi joints avoiding the inevitable return home to low-speed internet? And what I found was that I had a fairly fierce initial learning curve, something the occasional wi-fi café sit-down could put nary a dent in.

So, the initial score:
Vermont ISP’s uninterested in serving their customer base by
developing high-level rural service: 1.
Me: 0.

But then I returned to Madrid, where ISP’s are so anxious to provide high-speed ‘net access that they package it with telephone and cable TV service, all at absurdly reasonable prices. And once I’d succeeded in re-establishing phones, etc. (”etc.”? you don’t want to know), I went for high-speed internet. Which meant once the post-return dust cleared, I could sit down and begin nosing around Second Life.

Which I did. This last weekend. And the hours flew by. And with each passing day I’ve found myself online more and more, swelling numbers of potentially productive hours disappearing into thin virtual air. I’m only writing about it here because the bastards technical wizards in charge of 2L have jerked it offline for several hours of upgrade work. And tomorrow I head up to the U.K. for a few days, which will limit the time I’ll have to plug back into my brand new life in a world that doesn’t actually exist. Which might give me a chance to regain some pretense of equilibrium in my little life.

It might. Or I might find myself cloistered away in my tidy, compact guestroom, laptop cranked at all hours of the day and night, consorting with virtual playmates.

We’ll see.


Nighttime sidestreet, holiday season, Madrid:

España, te quiero.

This morning at la Plaza de Colón, Madrid, sunshine seeping
through cloud cover:

España, te quiero.

Madrid, Saturday evening, rain still coming down
(from the bottom of Gran Vía, looking down la Calle de Alcalá):

España, te quiero.

Madrid, Friday. Skies gray, rain falling.

At 8 a.m. sharp, workers were out on the scaffolding that covers the front of this building (14 months and still going strong). Hammering, yelling. The rain intensified, they quieted down some.

Shower, shave, pull on clothes. Caffeine, morning paper. Had planned to be productive, but the rain, the gray day, the construction noise had me feeling restless. Blew off productivity, pulled on a jacket, went out and walked for a while.

Workday traffic, rainslick sidewalks. Huge-ass billboards covering buildings currently enduring rehab projects.

My feet took me through the city center, veered east, pointed me toward el Museo Thyssen. Art. Spectacular art. Pause for further caffeine in a surprisingly soothing basement café. Then more art.

Two hours later: followed my feet away from the museum, along boulevards, into sidestreets. Stopped in a neighborhood joint for lunch, the only other customer a 50-something standing at the bar’s one-armed bandit, dropping in coin after coin, the machine producing music, voices, goofy sound clips, colorful illumination thingies flashing in time with it all. They turned on the lights in the dining room for me, gave me a good lunch, accepted my money. Probably turned off the lights after I’d gone.

And now? Home, darkness falling outside. Friday evening ahead, the weekend waiting. Time will tell what it holds.

España, te quiero.

Yesterday afternoon around three, a city crew materialized around the corner from here, blocked off the street, began whaling away at the pavement with jackhammers. The sound ricocheted around these narrow streets, intense enough that they might as well have been in front of this building. Fifteen minutes of hellacious racket made it clear that work and study were over for the day — the sanest move would be to throw on a jacket and head somewhere quieter. A glance at the paper reminded me that the latest Scorsese film was playing a multi-screen complex that plays subtitled foreign fare — an hour later, I was in a darkened theater, an intense story getting underway.

I hadn’t been anxious to see The Departed. I’d gotten the sense that it involved a fair amount of fairly nasty violence, though someone had characterized it to me as intense explosions of mayhem that happened quickly and were over quickly. ‘Nasty violence,’ of course, is a relative description — violence in a Scorsese production is mostly a function of the story and its whacked-out personalities. Even so, I’m tired of it. There’s no way I’ll subject myself to the torture-and-slaughter-fests that make big bucks in mainstream theaters these days, much less reward their makers for producing such godawful trash by giving them some of my cash. Same goes for a genre of television shows that have come to prominence these last few years — what might be called police procedurals that incorporate graphic depictions of murderous violence or sexual brutality into the story line. As high as production values may be for a given show or as interesting as certain aspects of the plot may sometimes be, I just can’t kid myself into ignoring how bad it feels to watch the brutality. Not that it’s any of my business whether anyone else chooses to tune that stuff in or not — it’s not. I can only speak for me, and I can only make my own choices. At times, though, it does occur to me that when a culture or country accepts ultraviolence as entertainment, it could be that the moment for some self-scrutiny has arrived. Enjoyment of the brutalizing of others — even fictional others — might possibly be an alarm bell that should be paid attention to.

Martin Scorsese is a master, and given the intensity of The Departed’s storyline, it may be that he showed restraint with the violence that erupts throughout the film. Regardless, despite having a whole lot of appreciation for much of the work that went into the movie, when I walked out of the theater I was not a happy boy. It was a relief to be back outside in cool November air, rush hour underway, simple, normal life all around.

I’d arranged to meet someone later on, a new intercambio — her working on her English, me working to improve my Castellano (a task that now and then feels like a full-time job). Instead of hopping a Metro train to ride three stations north, I walked, letting thoughts and nervous system settle down. Stopped in a joint along the way for a plate of tortilla and a glass of cool liquid, by the time I met up with Carmen in front of the Moncloa Metro stop, I was doing all right. Afterward, post-conversation, I walked for a while, noticing along the way that the movie theater where Casino Royale premiered a couple of nights back had reverted back to the films currently playing, all Bond imagery gone. The movie’s actual run starts tomorrow — they did the theater up for that one evening, maybe the only night they could get the new Bond to pass through this part of the world.

And today? It’s Thursday, the sky over Madrid hangs low and gray, looking like rain may be getting ready to fall. Just another weekday in November. On the other side of the Atlantic, it’s not just another weekday. It’s a day whose morning streets are quiet, except for those traveling last minute to be with friends, family. A good day, one I’ve spent in big gatherings, in more modest groups, and solo.

However you spend it, may it bring pleasure and comfort.


Jean-Luc Picard: busted

España, te quiero.

Monday morning: walking to the gym along the neighborhood’s main drag, the local world a bit subdued, the transition to the new workweek still in progress. In front of a bank stands an intense-looking 30-something male. Quiet, mostly, though every ten or fifteen seconds he speaks. One sentence each time. Statements unrelated to anything I can see, but apparently meaningful to Mr. Intensity, and delivered with plenty of emotion. Not shouted, but spoken VERY, VERY LOUDLY.

Monday evening: standing in a crowded bus, moving through the rush-hour version of the city center. Along Gran Vía, the front of one of the movie theaters just past la Plaza de Callao is all lit up, a substantial crowd of people lined up beneath the marquee (plastered with mammoth images from the new Bond film). People with television cameras are scattered about, accompanied by techies holding flood lights. The film’s local premiere, apparently, the place lit up like a Christmas tree, the crowd apparently waiting for the latest 007 to show (that evening’s news showed a clip of himself, sporting a crisp tuxedo, waving to onlookers from the red carpet that spanned the short distance from the curb to the theater’s entrance). On a Monday night, mind you. Bet London and New York got weekend premieres.

Yesterday morning: gray, cloudy, the overcast showing jagged tears above the eastern horizon, through which brilliant red sky shone. I remained at home through of the day, spending far too much time online snooping around for homework help. Now and then I’d pull on street clothes, head out for some air. Feeling at those moments like I’d stepped from a black and white picture into technicolor — movement, odors, sounds, the full spectrum of shades and hues. Like stepping from 2-D into 3-D.

Yesterday evening: class — an hour and a half of being beaten around the face and neck with the subjunctive verb form, among other items. Then a fast trip home, me bolting as soon as class finished, turning on the TV as soon as I stepped in the door, throwing myself into a chair for what remained of last night’s Champion’s League game, Real Madrid clawing its way back from a 2-0 deficit against a strong Olympique Lyonnais. Final score: 2-2.

Now that’s entertainment.

España, te quiero.

This day dawned gray and overcast, drizzle dampening streets, sidewalks, rooftops. As often happens in this neighborhood, folks were out partying most of the night, me drifting in and out of sleep through a lot of it, coming to with the sensation of having returned from strange, complicated dreams, though with no memory of any. I found myself up at far too reasonable an hour, the day jerking slowly into gear, helped along by a visit to one of the neighborhood caffeine pushers for a shot of wake-up juice and a croissant. Yesterday morning, at that same joint, I stood at the counter reading the rear page of El País, slowly working on a cup of espresso and something to eat, just one of many people doing the same. At some point, I became aware of voices behind me, insistently repeating something — I turned around to find a 60-something couple asking if I was using a nearby stool. I managed a negative headshake, encouraging them to take it, which they did, dragging it to an empty length of counter a short distance away, next to a second empty perch. They settled in, looking like a couple together so many years, decades, centuries that they’d come to look like each others’ counterparts — short, slim, slightly bent over, noses slightly hooked, hair well into the shift to gray, each sporting a winter coat, the weather having plunged overnight from the milder temperatures Madrid had been enjoying since my return a couple of weeks back. They both ordered a cup of café con leche, each lit up a cigarette, sat happily exhaling smoke and talking in voices that cut through the joint’s high noise level as food and caffeine arrived.

This morning was quieter, more sedate, as weekend mornings tend to be. To my right sat a slim 30-something woman, quietly working on café and sweet roll. To my left, an older gentleman finished up, disappeared, three 50ish types came in together and took his place, ordering caffeine and chow, talking among themselves. By the time I stepped out into the cool morning air, the drizzle had become slightly more dense, more people were about. I spent a while going to different markets, picking up bags of food, satisfying two pleasures at the same time. I love going to the markets around here, with all their sounds, colors, movement. And I love a refrigerator amply supplied with food. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it goes back to a childhood when, at the end of the summer, before the old man returned to work in New York City schools and the school year’s first paycheck was still a week or two away, food supplies got skimpy. Bread, eggs, milk, some canned vegetables. Whatever the reason, it feels satisfying to pull open the refrigerator door and find shelves nicely stocked.

And after all that, I followed an impulse, stopping in at a local bar/cafetería for a caña, where I ound a semi-final match from the Shanghai Masters tournament in progress on one of the place’s wall-mounted TV’s — two of the world’s best tennis players going at each other in a game so good that I wound up grabbing a small table, ordering lunch, watching until the end. The game so intense — featuring the current number 1 and number 2 male players in the world, Federer and Nadal — that around me conversation gradually stopped as people found themselves watching. Nadal, the Spaniard, kept drawing even, but couldn’t find the way to pull ahead, until Federer finally shut him down, producing a palpable sense of disappointment in the air around me, leavened with appreciation of the calibre of play we’d just seen. The kind of display of top-flight tennis that could become addictive.

Since then I’ve been holed up here, spending far too much time online. Far, far too much time. I need to get off my adorable butt, throw together a meal, decide what to do with myself for the rest of the evening.


España, te quiero.

[continued from entry of November 14]

Thursday: Holiday. The morning streets lay quiet, the neighborhood took its time waking up. The workers usually outside hammering on the building stayed home like most of the rest of the local world. Result: blessed quiet.

Pulled on clothes, headed out for fresh air and a visit to whichever local caffeine pusher might be open. While out, discovered that along la Calle de Augusto Figueroa, around the block from here — where a year ago work crews blocked off the street, ripped it open, dug an immense hole, and have been down there pretending to be productive ever since — those hard-hatted workers were on the job, filling the air with the music of jackhammers. Reminded me all over again how much better the work situation in my building is compared to twelve months ago.

It’s good, the occasional shot of perspective.

Found myself at a table in the café at El Círculo de Bellas Artes, a beautiful, airy, elegant spot to spend some time waking up. Noted a few laptop users scattered about, something I’d never seen there in the past. Quizzed the waiter about it, he said some people had success connecting, others didn’t, shrugging his shoulders in a casually fatalistic así es la vida way. Got me thinking about finding local connection points, which sent me out snooping around the neighborhood (post-caffeine) with my wi-hi hotspot finder, resulting in the discovery of the free access point already mentioned here.

Somewhere in there, stopped in at an exhibit of wildly bohemian photographic wackiness. Saw a few things I enjoyed, but left feeling like I’d just experienced the most pretentious collection of arty pretentiousness that I’d stumbled cross in a long time. One of the pieces — I have no idea which — involved a clip of music that played over and over, a haunting bit of wordless melody sung by a woman, resonating quietly in the high-ceilinged space. A musical fragment that wormed its way into my teeny brain and stayed there for the most of the rest of the day, provoking goofily schizy reactions every time I noticed it playing up there in my head — enjoyment and annoyance, mostly, the two of them duking it out as the tune tenaciously repeated itself, with no indication that it might throw in the towel any time soon. Hours of wholesome fun.

Friday: Got up, thought about going to gym. Came to my senses, blew it off. Instead, packed up the laptop, made the hike to la Plaza del Rey, plugged into the free wi-hi hotspot. Sat working as city folk walked by, cars zipped along la Calle de Barquillo. I have yet to see anyone else there doing the laptop thing. Just me. No wonder passersby give me the curious glance. Someone else must be taking advantage of the open hotspot given the way its speed veers up and down — just not anyone out in the open air. Sneaky types hidden away in flats and offices.

Hours passed, by lunchtime many, many souls had gravitated to the plaza down the street from here to hang out, chat, toss down beer. I decided I deserved to be taken to the movies — no one else seemed to be lining up to be good to me, so I took myself. Settled on a showing of Children of Men, a film I suspect has gotten little notice in the States. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, he who put together Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (for my money the only successful version of the Harry Potter stories so far transferred to the big screen). And, as it turns out, a film with the vivid power of a dark, voluptuous dream — so intense, so beautifully written, acted, shot and directed that I essentially fell into it somewhere during the first scene and didn’t surface until the closing credits. And even then, I found myself revisiting scenes and images from it all that night and into the next day. Normally, when a film gets ahold of me like that, I go back to see it again. The problem here: it’s not a happy tale. It’s really not a happy tale. And once I’d freed myself from its grip, there was no way I’d be heading back to sit through it a second time. Glad I saw it, though. Has some amazing sequences.

Later, back at home, I discovered that the refrigerator had given up the ghost. The engine/compressor continued working quietly away, doing nothing useful. Grabbed a box, stuffed the food in most peril into it, put it all out on the windowsill to pass the night in the cool November air. Sent the landlords an email giving them the lowdown, they sprang into action almost immediately, heading out to snoop around appliance stores. Once again, when I compare that with the likely response of the landlord I had my first year here (which would be, essentially, a lot of hot air with little to show for it), I count my blessings.

And there we more or less are: my first full work-week back. Not a tidy affair, though packed with adventure.

España, te quiero.

Along la Calle de Hortaleza, Madrid:

España, te quiero.

Last week’s highlights, in review:

Monday: Called Telefónica to remind them in polite (read: groveling) fashion that my telephone line remained out of service and it would be make my existence so much more wonderful if they could find their way to resurrecting it. Then went to gym, the first time in nearly a week.

The gym I go to here is situated along a main drag, three or four blocks away. Nowhere as nice as a gym I used to go to in another district of the city, but much, much closer. The old gym was a big, flashy, hetero exercise palace. And this one? A small two-story hole in the wall crammed with machines, weights, and — being a gay gym — sweaty males.

I have nothing against guys. Some of my best friends are guys. But speaking as a hetero, it would be nice to have some representatives of the other gender in the mix. On the other hand, it’s nice to get to the place via a three-minute walk instead of a Metro ride followed by a half-mile hike.

And that sometimes is life: one big trade-off.

Monday evening: me at home. The phone rings, the first time that’s happened since returning to Madrid four days earlier. I pick up, it’s a Telefónica technician. Yee-ha!, think I, practically skipping about the flat in jubilation, my service has been restored!. Two hours later, I try to make a call and discover the line has reverted to its previous state of sullen, unhelpful deadness. Grumble, grumble.

Tuesday: Made the daily call to Telefónica, begging for them to restore service. Gave up on waiting for the brief times I get to piggyback a local wireless network. Went to an internet joint in Sol, a place I’ve gone to when necessary since arriving in 2000. A large room tucked away in a large, old building that fronts on the immense plaza that is the city’s central point — packed with computers, run by some Argentinians. Argentina-related banners, travel posters and sports posters cover the walls, rock and pop generally plays on the in-house music set-up. All that, plus time online, for one euro an hour. A busy place in past years. This day nearly empty — just me and one or two other people. Spent an hour doing mail, etc., then returned to life in the city center.

Tuesday evening: signed up for evening Spanish classes at a school I’d studied at in the past. My first time in classes in a year or so. And for the first time ever, I found myself in a group below my level with the language. A strange sensation, me being more accustomed to either finding myself with others on more or less the same level or in a class at a level clearly superior to mine — often meaning for me, in the second case, a feeling of struggling and flailing about to keep from being left completely behind.

The profesora: Eva, an adorable Spanish 20-something with good energy. The other students: a Japanese male with black-framed glasses, shortish spiky hair (day job: the Japanese embassy), a slender, 30ish German woman (working at a bank, in Madrid to be with her sweetie), a tall, slim, curly-haired, bearded 30-something French male. The Japanese male seems reserved, doesn’t talk much. The French male talks a fair amount, mostly funnies with Eva. The German seemed nice but remained mostly quiet, except for sudden brief explosions of slightly whacked-out commentary. Will be interesting to see what future classes are like.

In addition to all that excitement, during the course of the day I discovered that the freezer portion of the flat’s refrigerator had stopped freezing things. Couldn’t yet tell if it would pull itself together or if this was the beginning of something ominous.

Wednesday: Called Telefónica, did the daily begging routine, this time letting them know that it was important for my work to have a working phone. They seemed to hear that.

Went back to the gym. Took myself to see the current Woody Allen movie, which has been doing good business here in Madrid. His previous film, Match Point, was a high-quality production all the way down the line. Except for the story line, which lost my interest as it slid into melodrama until I realized I was looking around the theater because I didn’t want to watch what was happening on the screen any more. Once I’d absorbed that, I got up and left — only the fourth or fifth time in my life that I’ve walked out on a film. Scoop felt much more lightweight than Match Point, more thrown together. Sloppier, clumsier. But also at times real damn funny. I found myself laughing out loud a lot. And at times found myself feeling a little annoyed or impatient. Not many films have produced that combination of feelings in me. (The verbal shtick that Woody Allen’s character spews? Funny for a while. Less funny with endless repetition.)

The freezer officially died during the course of the day, and it felt like the rest of the refrigerator had begun warming up. Bad. On the other hand, the phone rang during the evening, first time since Monday evening’s false alarm. Once again, a Telefónica technician, this time telling me the line had been restored for real. And this time it actually had — happy happy joy freakin’ joy!

[continued in entry of November 17]


Browsing at a collectors’ market — la Plaza Mayor, Madrid:

España, te quiero.

Though the papers had devoted a fair amount of print to the city center livestock extravaganza (see previous entry) tentatively scheduled for yesterday — documentation problems related to health regulations threatened to prevent it from happening — I couldn’t find any mention anywhere of what time it would happen. Once I heard that documentation difficulties had been ironed out and the event would go forward, I decided to head into the center Sunday a.m. and see what happened.

And I did. On a beautiful morning, as it turned out, with plenty to see. I’d been to dinner Saturday night with friends, they’d said they were going to a demonstration in la Plaza Mayor at 11 a.m. I was in the neighborhood at that hour, so wandered over, camera in hand, where I found plenty of people about — tourists; locals attending a stamp, coin and tchochkes-collecting market; police; people seated outside cafes enjoying spectacular weather — but no demonstration. Which was okay by me. I ambled, enjoying the scene, taking far too many photos. Every now and then I’d ask someone if they knew when the sheep would be passing through the center, the general response seemed to be bafflement. A cop finally said something about midday, which gave me plenty of time for further wandering before heading toward the main drag on farm animal alert.

Along the way, I came across the local walking-into-the-wind guy, stopped to watch for a moment, found myself drawn into conversation with a passing elderly Spaniard. A man who’d seen a lot in his 70+ years and had plenty to say about it. In the fifteen minutes or so that I stood with him — he mostly talked, I mostly listened — I picked up some of his personal history (how he’d been one of the many thrown into jail during the dictatorship) liberally spiked with Spanish history (how the basement windows in what is now Madrid’s city hall — a center of detainment and torture during the dictatorship, called la Casa de los Gritos, the House of Screams — provided a view of the outside world for detainees crowded into belowground cells) and editorial commentary about anything that came to mind.

When I saw that the time had reached noon, I shook his hand, said I had to get going. He wasn’t ready to disengage just yet and continued talking, offering some history about a nearby building. I heard distant music from the direction of the street, and when the older gentleman wanted to take me to the building to show me something I begged off, apologizing, thanking him, then bolting — arriving at la Calle Mayor just as the beginning of the pre-sheep procession came into view, squeezing into the narrow street from the more wide-open expanse of Sol. I could see a crowd behind the procession’s first wave that stretched through Sol and beyond, heard the sound of many voices, saw flags borne on poles and staffs, waving gracefully above the multitude as their bearers walked.

For the next thirty or forty minutes, groups representing towns from various provinces (though mostly León) went by, some playing music, many carrying enormous flags, most featuring folks in traditional dress. Marchers of all ages passed, most looking happy to be there, as the crowd along both sides of the street steadily increased in number. Human marchers gave suddenly way to a stretch of horseback riders. Behind them came shepherds, and immediately behind them: sheep! A white river of sheep, filling the street. At which point the energy of those watching spiked, faces all along the parade route lit up, hands reached out to touch passing animals, making contact with something normally alien to life in the city, or at least in the capital’s 21st century version of city life, as development sprawls ever outward, swallowing up farms and open land.

A thousand sheep went by, accompanied by dogs, burros, numerous shepherds. And then they were gone, the energy and noise of the strange blending of city and country slowly diminishing, the crowd dispersing, until all that remained of the event was a a hard-working city crew cleaning up a whole lot of sheep-dip.

As soon as the way was clear, traffic returned. The air filled with the normal city soundtrack. Normal life flowed in to fill in the brief post-parade vacuum, crowds filling sidewalks and crosswalks.

Just another Sunday in Madrid, November sunlight slicing softly down between buildings, life everywhere.

España, te quiero.

Pamplona has the annual running of the bulls. Madrid has the annual walk of the sheep.

Images from the city center, today —
La Fiesta de la Trashumancia (el paseo de las ovejas):

España, te quiero.

It’s been a strange stretch, these last nine days. The good part: being back here after nearly a year away. And those simple few words embrace a big bunch of positives, one big honking mound of positives. But I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced the number of things in my immediate existence gone out of commission or going out of commission that I have here this time around. And on top of things already enumerated in recent days’ entries to this journal, the flat’s refrigerator began giving up the ghost early this week.

It’s a basic, modest-sized refrigerator, nothing extravagant in any way, and has always done its job well. Tuesday morning, however, I noticed that the freezer didn’t seem to be freezing things particularly well. By Wednesday it had become an unfreezer, a little cubicle that kept food disturbingly warm and moist, so that all edibles had to be moved down to the refrigerating part of the refrigerator. By day’s end, the temperature in the rest of the refrigerator began rising, continued rising through Thursday. By yesterday morning, it had more or less reached room temperature and certain foods — lovely, delicious foods, recently purchased — began smelling gamey. The motor/compressor continued working away, but produced nothing useful.

I let my landlords know what was up via email, they went out refrigerator hunting yesterday evening. A lot of food spent the night out on what remains of my windowsill — not a proper windowsill anymore after the workers had spent the last few days hammering away on the outside of the building. More like random hillocks of crumbled concrete. But good enough for the night. The food’s now come back into the piso where it’s slowly going bad. And until I hear something about when a new refrigerator might materialize, I can do nothing but eat what’s still edible, toss out vittles gone over to the dark side, and resign myself to frequenting local restaurants in the near future.

I pause to remind myself that this is small potatoes. There’s been no fire, no robbery, no loss of life. No medical emergencies, no earthquake, no flooding. I have a roof over my head, clothes to wear, a computer on which to do the high-tech equivalent of scribbling down thoughts. A beautiful Saturday is underway outside and this evening I’ll be meeting friends for a meal. Lots of good things, so many that the difficulties don’t add up to much when stacked up against the good.

It’s good to remember that now and then.

And with that, on to the day.

España, te quiero.

After days of calling Telefónica on a daily basis and bothering anyone I could get ahold of (in the nicest way possible, of course) (no, really) at their service-outage help line, my landline telephone was brought back from the dead two evenings ago and has remained nicely, er, undead since then. I still have no ‘net access at home, but between internet joints in the city center and wi-fi access points strewn around the neighborhood here, I’m getting by. An aspect of the whole hoo-ha that I appreciated: it gave me a chance to see how Telefónica has changed its way of dealing with people like me. When I first arrived in the summer of 2000, the company was essentially a monopoly and acted like it. Meaning the attitudes I encountered when dealing with company representatives generally fell somewhere between disinterest and piss off.

When I say ‘wi-fi access points strewn around the neighborhood here,’ that mostly means the occasional in-home network left open and accessible. Understandably, there aren’t many of those around, so opportunities to plug into one are few and far between. On the other hand, traipsing through local streets with my hotspot finder led me to an access point a few blocks from here, created by unknown good cyber-samaritans and intended for lost souls like me (wandering the city in search of ‘net connections). Networks around here mostly bear names like WLAN_92 and WLAN_DE. This one is named INTERNET GRATIS AQUÍ CONECTA (FREE INTERNET CONNECT HERE). The hitch: it can only be accessed at the very end of a small park — la Plaza del Rey — tucked away between multi-story buildings and narrow city streets, and when I say the very end, I mean the very freakin’ extreme end, either standing on the sidewalk or sitting at the end of a concrete bench abutting the sidewalk.

Which is where I parked myself yesterday as late afternoon gave way to evening, daylight fading, streetlights coming on. People were out enjoying what had been a beautiful afternoon — couples mostly, of all ages, from laughing teenagers to elderly folks in their 70’s (short, portly, with faces bearing the imprint of long lives that have witnessed amazing changes, from dictatorship to terrorist bombings to membership in the European Union). No one else worked at a computer, though. Conversations paused as they moved by, individuals tried for a curious, discrete look at my laptop screen. But none stopped to talk, all continued on their way.

I spent an hour there, my adorable booty keeping the bench warm — checking mail, posting to this page. Daylight melted away, darkness softly fell (my laptop screen glowing brightly enough to attract an insect or two). When true nighttime began to take hold, I packed up, got to my feet, took my time wandering home.

Another day past, city life continuing beneath the overarching night sky of Spain.

España, te quiero.

It’s a holiday in Madrid — el Día de la Almudena. A local día festivo, taken only in the capital. Falling on a Thursday, giving many an excuse to take un puente, a long weekend. Yesterday morning on my way back from a neighborhood joint for a wake-up shot of espresso, I saw a 20-something woman heading toward the Metro, pulling a wheeled suitcase — the first of a stream of such people seen during the course of the day. Getting out for the weekend.

The holiday also means no construction types climbing around the scaffolding that covers the front of this building. No workers outside my windows pounding away on the wall, yelling back and forth all day. Relative quiet, disturbed now and then only by normal city sounds — voices of folks passing in the street below, car horns. Vehicles trying to turn onto this narrow street at the tiny intersection this building abuts often have to jump the curb across the way to make it, producing crumbling concrete and a growing cavity in the sidewalk that someone covered yesterday with a large metal plate that clanks about every time feet or tires touch it. Producing an impressively loud sound that has, in less than 24 hours, become part of the neighborhood’s soundtrack.

Other than all that: quiet. Peaceful. Or as peaceful as it gets in an inner-city neighborhood given to partying most nights of the week.

This morning: dragged myself out of bed, stumbled around the flat until coherent enough to pull on clothes and head out to pick up a paper, find an open caffeine vendor, toss down a shot of high octane. Post-all-that, beginning to feel vaguely functional, I stepped out into the morning air, let my feet take me down la Calle de Barquillo for a head-clearing walk. A couple of blocks along, I became half-aware of a woman up ahead, a backpack slung over one shoulder, pulling along a sizeable suitcase on wheels. Short, plump, looking a little frazzled, but not in a way extreme enough to call immediate attention. As I approached, she began talking, I gradually realized she was addressing me and slowed to see what was up. She spoke of having unexpectedly become homeless a week and a half ago, of suddenly finding herself on the street, trying to find places to sleep. She seemed amazed to find herself in that kind of situation, frustrated, and having a little trouble trying to pull together the words to express her feelings about it all.

I still had not yet reached full consciousness, realized she seemed to be asking for something, and asked her to repeat what she’d just said. She heard my accent, studied me, asked if I was English. I shook my head no. French?, she asked. No, I said. I found myself pulling out what change I had in my pocket, giving it to her, apologizing that it wasn’t more, that I’d just spent most of what I had on café. Feeling completely unprepared for the situation and inadequate to the kind of help this woman needed.

Here’s the thing: I tend to depend on my instincts with things like this. I tend to trust the hit I get off people and the impulses that arise in response. Two, three months back, a slender 50ish man stopped me along Main Street in Montpelier, skin a light coffee color, accent sounding like he might have originally been from India. Dressed in normal clothes, not looking like someone down on their luck, living in the street. He explained that he found himself without any money, that he needed to get to Burlington — he said ‘back to Burlington,’ suggesting he lived there — and all he needed was the cash to buy a bus ticket. I stood listening, not responding immediately — he paused, taking my lack of response as a negative, then began explaining how embarrassing it felt having to ask for help like that. And I found myself reaching into a pocket, pulling out a five dollar bill, handing it over. His expression shifted to one of surprise, then a tentative half-smile. We shook hands, I went on my way.

I trusted the feeling I got about the guy, have never doubted the impulse to hand over that money. With the woman this morning, I found myself getting no hit at all — nothing positive, nothing negative. Leaving me with no idea what to do apart from handing over the small fistful of coins I had with me — an inadequate response, I think, one I’d understand her finding offensive or embarrassing. She glanced around, looking unsure of what to say, then looked back at me. Are you German?, she asked. I shook my head no, waved good-bye, we headed off in separate directions, me head spinning with thoughts about what had just happened — wondering about going home, grabbing a 20 euro bill, trying to find her again, either give her the money or buy her something to eat.

That train of thought brought me back in this direction, following local streets back here where I grabbed some cash, headed back out. The hour had grown late enough that sidewalks were becoming busy with people, I walked keeping an eye out for a short woman with a backpack, pulling a wheeled suitcase. But nothing doing — she’d vanished. The moment had passed and moved on.

I found myself without a place to stay once, about twenty years back. Circumstances took a strange turn, I found myself suddenly out of one home without another one lined up. I owned a car, so had shelter for the night — the next day a friend took me in, life moved on from there. I didn’t have to fend for days at a time. I can only imagine what that would be like, and appreciate that it didn’t go that way for me, give thanks for the blessings that adorn my current existence. And wish everyone else who wanders this world lives similarly awash in things meaningful to them.


Madrid sidestreet, Thursday morning:

España, te quiero.

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