far too much writing, far too many photos

The next flight took off late. Real late. So late that we didn’t get off the ground until we were supposed to be touching down in Burlington. I’d arranged to have a taxi pick me up in Burlington. By the time we’d touched down there and luggage made the trip from plane to terminal, the driver, bless her heart, had waited 90 minutes and was practically bouncing off the walls. Talking in a way that began to get me worried, repeating strange statements — in particular, one about not taking her photo — with an intense, distracted air, me wondering if she’d maybe been in a delicate emotional state and this long wait had been the drop of water that caused her cup to overflow, provoking a psychotic break that might send us off the road into a ditch, me huddled in the passenger’s seat while she babbled feverishly up until the moment the vehicle wrapped itself around a large tree trunk.

But no. She slipped an Etta James CD into the player, good music filled the taxi, nighttime Vermont slipped by outside, light snow coming down, visible in the illumination from the headlights.

At home: outside — ground thinly frosted with newly-fallen snow; inside — a cold living space. Got the furnace cranking, began settling in, fell into bed between midnight and 1 a.m. The problem: my body, functioning on European time, woke me up at 10 a.m. Madrid time — 4 a.m. Eyes wide open, me knowing sleep was over for that night. Got to my feet, stumbled around doing things that needed doing. Daylight seeped around window shades around 7 a.m., an hour earlier than it does in Madrid.

Drove into town. Caffeine. Gym. Groceries. Then returned home, where my eyes were met by a scene of, well, chaos. Seven weeks of mail scattered about, clothes etc. boiling over from the body bag. The place looking as if everything had exploded. Don’t know how it got that way, don’t know why I didn’t see it before driving into town. And though I tried cutting into it, creating a little order, I seemed to make no headway. So I did what I’ve come to do when faced with the 3-D world not cooperating: cranked up the laptop, escaped into the virtual universe.

That mode of escape is something I’ve engaged in a lot these last weeks. A whole lot. It’s that damned Second Life — so much fun, so interesting, and I now have so many friends in that little virtual world that it’s easy to log in and immerse myself in it, forgetting all about the time until hours and hours have gone up in virtual smoke, leaving me staring at the clock, wondering what the hell happened. Coming back here has taken care of that — can’t really do the Second Life thing with a dial-up connection. Or, well, the version of it that I can do is so limited — can’t move around, can’t even really walk, can only chat or do IM — that it takes most of the fun out of it. Which leaves me with no option but living normal life — nothing to complain about, I know. Packed with mysteries and adventure and things to enjoy. All I need to do is refocus.

(From time to time Second Life makes that refocusing easier — the grid goes wacky, finally goes down, everyone gets tossed back to real life and has to remain there until technical chaos in-world has settled down.)

Anyway. Blah blah blah.

Back in Vermont. For now.

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

Stream, December — northern Vermont

España, te echo de menos.

The third day back in Vermont, me continuing to wake up at ungodly hours of the early a.m., my body still making the slow switch from Madrid time to this time zone.

There is a way in which I hardly know I’m in the States — I pay no attention to the news, most of my time is spent here at the house, on a hilltop surrounded by rural gorgeousness. I’m caught up in my day-to-day, and though that includes trips into Montpelier most days (as low-key a state capital as you can find), it all just seems to slide by in fleeting, light-as-a-feather fashion.

December sunlight and angled shadows give the day a look of impending sunset — all day long, apart from, well, sunrise. Disorienting, and a little depressing, if I pay too much attention to the way the sun begins sneaking toward the horizon in what would be called mid-afternoon in most civilized places, slipping behind trees at 3:30, light giving way to darkness around 4:30.

Madrid, three days ago: me throwing things in my giant wheeled duffel (hereinafter referred to as the body bag), hauling it all five flights of stairs. Catching a cab, making the trip out to the airport. Huge lines of customers for airlines serving central and south america snaked out away from counters and along the concourse. And the counters for USAir? No line. None. Making me happy, and compensating a bit for for the sad edge of down-on-their-luck tackiness that seems to be part of the general ambience when flying with USAir. Nice people, though, both at the counter and in the plane.

Onboard, American voices spoke American English, sounding mighty strange after seven weeks surrounded by Spaniards and Spanish. My seatmate: a sweet 20-something woman returning home to Texas after spending 15 or so weeks working in Salamanca, the old, old university town in the mountains northwest of Madrid. She’d spent the entire night out partying with Spanish friends, they’d driven her directly from the festivities to the bus station, the bus had taken her directly to the airport. Her friendliness wilted some as the need for sleep took over, by the time the plane was in the air she was out cold, head hanging loosely as she slept.

Eight hours. Eight long hours seat-belted into that seat, the bulkhead and window shade to my left bearing small brown spatter stains from some earlier passenger’s coffee (there’s that sad, tacky edge again), the sweet woman next to me mostly asleep, coming to for food, then drifting off again. She returned to consciousness as we neared Philadelphia, December sunlight flooding in through the plane’s oval windows.

To that point, as I’ve written in an earlier entry, I hadn’t yet heard a Christmas carol this season. As soon as we entered the baggage reclaim area: ‘Silver Bells.’ The first in a constant stream of Christmas tunes that could be heard everywhere as I made my way through the unbelievably elaborate airport security maze.

The plane touched down at three. I was free of customs/security at 4:10. The upside: I got chatting with a nice woman who stood next to me in one of the several check-point lines, we wound up eating together, both of us with long layovers, talking for nearly three hours in a large cafeteria area.

[continued in next entry]

España, te echo de menos.

I’ve now been without at-home ‘net access for five days. Five long days. Not from choice, mind you. It’s the result of the latest in a nearly two-month-long series of screw-ups by the Spanish telephone company, Telefónica — an ongoing display of incompetence that has, at times, been breathtaking in its relentlessness.

The good parts of suddenly finding myself with far too much time on my hands: it’s gotten me writing more than I had been. It’s gotten me out walking more than I had been. It’s had me more focused on connecting with friends. It’s had me on the couch, reading, relaxing.

Yesterday evening found me out in chilly December air, making a long, leisurely pass through the city center, one soul amid oceans of people out shopping, sitting at cafes, walking (groups of friends talking and laughing, families with kids in tow, couples of all ages holding hands). My feet took me to la Plaza Mayor, where the annual Christmas market is in full swing and crowds swirled through the large, cobblestoned space, business at the many stalls brisk.

It’s a strange event to those accustomed to holiday-season fairs in the States and the U.K. — there are only three or four kinds of stalls, each type selling essentially the same merchandise, and those three or fours stalls are repeated over and over as one walks through the market, the only real difference being the stall size and the faces behind the counter. What makes it fun is those who come to buy and hang out. Spirits are high, people are clearly enjoying themselves.

With December 28 (el Día de los Santos Inocentes) being the Spanish version of April Fool’s Day, stalls selling gag items, masks and wacky wigs are flooded with shoppers — one visible result being people all over that part of the city wearing funny hair. I saw a family of four all sporting the same style wig, an orange/red vertical number that had them looking like bumpkins whose heads were on fire. At that moment, I hadn’t yet gotten out cameras — by the time I’d dragged one from its bag and armed myself, the flaming-heads clan had marched off.

More popular headgear: cloth antlers featuring small red lights, peddled by individuals spread around the plaza (the vast majority of them asian), also hawking light sticks, light swords and other lit thingies. Vendors stood at folding tables piled high with potato chips, buyers coming away with chip-filled cones of paper. A musical group made its way around the plaza, attracting a crowd wherever it planted itself to strike up a tune. And off around the plaza’s edges, the lit windows of stores, bars, cafeterias revealed businesses heaving with customers.

A nice place to be for a while — overflowing with life, movement, energy — before heading back out into crowded streets, holiday lights overhead, cars reduced to slow, cautious speeds so as not to flatten pedestrians spilling over from the sidewalks. And then home, still empty of ‘net access and the ability to extend out into the world via computer, but home nevertheless. For now.

Tomorrow I catch a flight back to the States, where tomorrow night I will find myself once again in Vermont (winter weather permitting) after seven weeks away. Back to a very different world — farms, small towns, rolling countryside, green mountains, all likely frosted with snow. Back online sometime after that.

Be well.

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

Yesterday, dusk — the Christmas market at la Plaza Mayor, Madrid
(a row of stalls below, the western length of the plaza building above)

España, te quiero.

A Saturday morning in December, Madrid.

I think this is the first time I have ever found myself so deeply into the holiday season without having heard a single Christmas carol. Not one. If I’d been stateside these last few weeks, I’d have been beaten around the face and neck with Christmas music like everyone else is. It’s impossible to escape unless you remain locked up at home with the radio and TV stashed away in a closet. Here it’s not so pervasive. And I haven’t been out trawling through stores for Christmas gifts, I tend not to listen to commercial radio, I haven’t had the TV on much. The result: a slow gathering of the Christmas season with a minimum of noise.

However, this morning: woke up with ‘Oh, Christmas Tree’ playing in my head. The Vince Guaraldi version. A tune I like, so I let it cycle away for a while, content.

Last night I went to bed at eleven — an early hour, especially for a Friday evening. Drifted in and out of sleep during the early hours, the murmur of voices down in the street providing soft background for times of wakefulness. Had the best stretch of sleep I’ve experienced in a while, a couple of weeks at least.

This last week, the annual local outbreak of holiday fireworks got underway, neighborhood knuckleheads setting off the Spanish equivalents of cherrybombs and ashcans. Who knows why they choose this season to make a lot of noise (their version of holiday music?), but it’s been that way as long as I’ve been around Madrid. Last night I heard them now and them during times spent drifting in and out of sleep, concussive explosions off in the distance. Far enough away to be background noise, occasional reminders that the Christmas season is here in full flower.

And now, hours later, the streets are clear and quiet, winter sunlight slowly extending along sidewalks and pavement. I sometimes find that after a night of good sleep I feel a bit blearier than I would after a night of not-so-good sleep. A trip to a local caffeine pusher for a cup of high-test and a croissant might be in order, me slowly waking up as the local world comes to life, and the streets gradually fill with Spaniards moving in and out of shops, filling cafes and watering holes, the air alive with the sounds of city life.

(Those who show up at local joints on Saturday mornings are a different crowd from the weekend mob — not workers making the slog to full consciousness or taking a morning break, but a mixture of regular folk coming to and souls who have been out all night partying, clubbing, hanging about, looking and sounding morning-after ragged. Good people watching, but different from the Monday-through-Friday experience.)

Anyway.

Madrid, on a Saturday morning in December.

España, te quiero.

[continued from previous entry]

Sunday: another road trip, me finding myself packed into a car with Dermot, his sweetie and her two teenage daughters (both bright, pretty, radiating energy). The women were going to spend the afternoon shopping, Dermot got off the highway into backed-up traffic, let them, he and I drove to a convention center where I would be tagging along while he nosed around a model train show. (Turns out he’d hatched plans to throw together a railroad set in his garage. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a friend in real life who suffered from that particular malady.)

During my early years, we had three train sets, identical Lionel set-ups that I presided over after my brothers outgrew them. My primary interest: getting them going at top velocity on the straightaways so they’d skip the tracks and fly off the table at the curves. Built like tanks, they endured years of that kind of loving treatment. Their fascination for me evaporated when puberty hit, they disappeared soon after. Since that time, the idea of model railroading has remained far from my scope of interest.

The show had been packed into a sizeable hall, filled with a sizable crowd (98 to 99% male). Long tables arrayed with track and trains, people standing around them — geeks, mostly. And not just any geeks — model railroading geeks. Hundreds and hundreds of them, maybe thousands, all intent on satisfying their model railroading jones. Good, clean fun, and excellent people-watching, as it turned out.

Dermot made a purchase or two, and we bolted, making the drive to the city center to hook up with his sweetie and her daughter. Who were so deeply embroiled in shopping that we, the males, were sent off to kill time.

More excellent people-watching, a good meal. Darkness fell, we remained in the mall — a huge place called The Bullring — until the stores closed. A ride back north, the M6 changing suddenly from highway to parking lot, Dermot escaping onto local roads.

Home. Dinner. Packing. Bed.

Next morning, me up early and out by 6 a.m. Back in Madrid around noon local time. On the way in, the pilot said that the weather was similar to that in Manchester. The reality? Manchester: overcast, very chilly. Madrid: sunlight, temperature maybe 15 degrees higher. Damn those lying aviators!

Back in Madrid, back somewhere that feels like home. Glad to have spent a few days with a friend, glad to be here once again.

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

La Calle Arenal, Madrid, done up for the holidays:

España, te quiero.

[continued from previous entry]

A large part of the lake had landed on a long carpet runner that extended to the doorway that gave off from the dining room to the driveway. I didn’t even attempt to clean that up, just grabbed it, tossed it outside, concentrating on the dining room carpet. At some point, weary from poop sponging, I picked up a phone, called Dermot at work, let him know how things were going on the home front. He said he’d be back shortly, I returned to the task at hand, doing what I could until he appeared, grabbed a container of bleach from under the kitchen sink and took over.

Oh, the excitement.

Saf was on probation with me for the next 24 hours or so.

Next day: a field trip to Liverpool. Just Dermot and myself, him piloting the car northwest, English countryside sliding past, dramatic skies above. An hour along, the highway gained elevation, and there were the city’s outskirts all around, old brick urban homes as far as the eye could see. The way into the center passed through neighborhoods of various kinds, including some still enduring hard, hard times, many buildings boarded up, streets nearly empty of life apart from cars passing quickly through. And then we were into the center, a whole different scene. Big, lovely old buildings, Saturday afternoon traffic, crowds of pedestrians moving along sidewalks alight with early winter sunlight.

Lots of walking, soaking up midland accents, watching swirling rivers of people out shopping, walking. And in the middle of it all, a small Christmas market in Queen Square– a few rows of stalls doing good business (vending tchotchkes, crafts, some clothing, and food, food, food — baked goods, foreign fare, sausages), a ferris wheel looming over it all.

A quick visit to the waterfront — the area inundated by teenagers, conversation and laughter in the air — brief stops in shops and museums, a long immersion in stores and a mall or two, all crowded with locals. And once early darkness fell, a return to the Christmas market so Himself could get a crepe for the road. And back to Newcastle for dinner and a sit-down in front of the telly.

[continued in next entry]

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

Model railroad aficionado — Birmingham, 12/3/06:

España, te quiero.

From a trip to the U.K., begun a week ago today:

The pretty 30-something Spanish woman behind the British Airways desk at Barajas airport in Madrid seemed to take a shine to me from the first thing I said to her in Castellano. Smiling, staring into my eyes, commenting on how well I spoke, giving me a window seat with no neighbor. As I walked toward the gate, it occurred to me I should have asked her if she’s like to do something after my return the following week. Ah, well. Silly me.

The flight: fast, easy, sunlight pouring in the windows. Pouring sunlight faded as we neared Manchester, cloud cover taking over. When the pilot spoke over the P.A. shortly before landing, he said, “The weather in Manchester is… (pause) …breezy.” Breezy. That’s nice. Everyone likes a friendly breeze. I stepped out of the plane, gale force winds nearly knocked me off my feet.

Rented a car, made the drive through gathering rush hour traffic, darkness falling as I started out, all sunlight gone by 4:30.

Stayed with my mate Dermot in his home in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where I spent a month last March/April. At that time he lived there solo. Since then his sweetie moved in with her two dogs, and a third dog has been temporarily given shelter. A crowded home now, but filled with life. My knock at the door provoked canine chaos. Within five minutes of entering, everything I’d worn and brought with me sported dog hair.

The first evening there: went to a local cinema for the opening night of Stranger Than Fiction (liked it, far more than I thought I would), the theater strangely close to empty. Outside, afterward, eight people stood about in the crisp night air, four with cellphones pressed to their ears.

Next day: Dermot and Tammy went off to their respective jobs, I spent a decadent morning in bed, the dogs camped patiently outside my door.

And I hung out in Second Life. My truculent little laptop had refused to connect to the household LAN — a network I’d set up in March with my host — so Dermot’s sweetie loaned me a dog-eared laptop she had hanging around, which worked just fine. Life in my 2L haunts was its usual hilarious self, friends lurking about, new faces coming and going. Its usual goofy, hyper-social self, except for the storm of technical problems that had erupted in the wake of the grid-wide program upgrade performed by 2L’s lords/owners the previous evening. Problems growing more disruptive by the hour, swelling in number and effect to the point that discontent and panic were visibly apparent, in-world. Like everyone else, I endured various glitches that seemed to be growing in frequency and nastiness, but I figured what the hell, I wasn’t a paying customer, I was one of many hundreds of thousands of users enjoying 2L’s amazing little world on Linden Labs’ dime — who was I to bitch and moan?

I thought that until one point where I was going through inventory my little character — the evolving personality that functioned as my alter ego in 2L, as my interface with the 2L world — had accumulated. Clothing, objects, animations, blah blah blah. And in trying on something, my avatar’s face and hair changed — the face completely, the hair substantially. Without warning, inexplicably, and not for the better. I looked for a way to reinstate original face/hair, couldn’t find one. I didn’t have a back-up file (hey, I’d only been into this with any seriousness for a week or so, it simply hadn’t occurred to me that I might experience a disaster of any kind) and the undo undidn’t function, wouldn’t even make itself available to click on. I scrambled through available help materials, through the information database, found no relevant info. I fired off an email to 2L’s live help — by that time probably swamped by a growing mountain of pleading, cursing calls for assistance — got a brief, unhelpful reply thirty minutes later. Totally unhelpful, the kind of unhelpful that could breed violent revolution, or at least head-shaking disgust.

Finally, all other options exhausted, I began the slow work of reconstructing my avatar’s face and hair — and anyone who has used the ‘appearance’ tool in 2L knows how complex that task can be. I had no record of the hundred or so different settings I had to play with, so experimented, adusted, prayed.

An hour later: me in the kitchen, taking a break, sipping a cup of tea, having made some slow, limited progress in crisis resolution. One of the dogs — Saf — wanders into the dining room, stands looking at me, expressionless. I hear a strange sound, a strange, alarming sound. Which turns out to be the sound of a dog releasing a sputtering stream of liquid poop onto the dining room rug. My body leaps into response-to-second-crisis mode — meaning, in this case, hair standing on end, mouth opening, me shouting the word NOOOOOOO! at top volume. Saf continues downloading, an expanding, foul-smelling brown lake slowly soaks into the rug. Finally, after 20 seconds of that, she’s done, stands staring at me as if she has no idea why I’m bouncing off the walls, searching desperately for paper towels, vocalizing at the top of my lungs.

I find no paper towels, but find a roll of toilet paper, begin pulling off handfuls, soaking up poop, tossing it all into garbage. I find a new, spongy cleaning cloth, begin a joyful process of soaking up poop with it, running into kitchen to rinse, running back to dining room, etc. Saf knows I’m suffering because of her, slinks quietly off to a corner, sits quietly observing the fun. The other two dogs appear, stand watching, knowing I’m in distress and looking sweetly concerned.

[continued in next entry]

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

Last Sunday — downtown Birmingham, seen from the passenger’s seat:

España, te quiero.

Back from several days of inflicting myself on friends in England’s midlands. Am tired, covered with dog hair, but pleased (at having been there, at being back in Madrid).

Further details will follow.

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

72 hours ago: at the Christmas market in Liverpool

España, te quiero.

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