far too much writing, far too many photos

A golden late February morning in the barrio:

España, te quiero.

Well, I will admit right off the bat that if someone cooks for me I am what might be called easy. Meaning, basically, that I am close to being putty in their hands. Adorable putty, but still: putty.

I’m a cheap date is what I’m saying. If someone starts plying me with good beer, it doesn’t take much to get me messily shitfaced and into the back seat with my pants down around my ankles. (One of the several reasons I do not really drink, apart from having a good beer with a meal. That along with a healthy loathing of hangovers and a face that breaks out when I begin pouring more than one or two beers into it.) Same thing with a decent meal. (And please note the word ‘decent.’ I do have some standards, as flexible as those standards may get when someone goes to the trouble of preparing me a plate of good-looking chow and sets it in front of me.) If a member of the opposite gender — that lovely, eternally fascinating gender that does not consist of males — wants to get to me, spending time with me over good meals is one effective way to make inroads. Prepare the food yourself and the odds of bending my will to yours are increased by factor of (pauses to calculate, lips moving pathetically from the effort to wade through higher math) many hundreds.

All of which is to say that I just came back from lunch in a neighborhood joint, a meal that underlined one of the reasons I love this city, this country: it’s so easy to eat well here.

I’m not talking about a high-level bistro. Just a barrio eatery, the kind of place that pushes coffee and sweet rolls in the morning (plus harder stuff to the occasional a.m. boozehound), breaks out the white paper tablecloths for the lunch crowd, then sells espresso and beer into the evening hours. Nothing special, nothing even close to fancy. But an hour and a half ago, I stumbled in looking for a meal and they responded by throwing a couple of plates of excellent food in my direction, leaving me in an altered state, babbling grateful nonsense to the patient, plump 50-something waitress.

The kind of food that makes it easy to page through the paper, all the bad news rolling ineffectually past, the sports and arts sections bringing simple, superficial pleasure. That makes it easy to sit and eavesdrop now and then on the 50-something couple next to me, with benign enjoyment. That leaves me even happier than I would normally be to see how half the place began paying attention to a game show on the telly, the help calling out possible answers.

Simple pleasures. Not that more sophisticated pleasures aren’t a ball, I just get huge mileage from the simple ones.

Like I said: a pushover. A cheap date. And then some.

España, te quiero.

A recent moment:

Me on a Saturday morning, propped up at the counter of a local morning joint, working on espresso and croissant, blearily scanning the morning paper. A pretty good local joint, a place I go to many mornings, with interesting faces.

The time: shortly after 10, not many people around, the place quiet, tranquil, a radio playing quietly in the background. I stood at the end of the bar, alone, deeply submerged in the slow process of coming to. At some point, out of the corner of my eye I saw a newspaper appear on the counter next to me, a copy of El Mundo, slapped down, the upper half of the front page visible at the extreme edge of my field of vision. Very close, considering how few people there were in the place at that time, how much free space was available. But I paid it no mind, continued reading, feeding myself bits of croissant, sipping at my cup.

A moment later I felt an arm reaching around me, almost as if someone were making a clumsy attempt at getting far too familiar. I looked around, realized that someone was trying to return the house copy of the paper to the spot against the wall where it customarily lives, reacted with a sincere, “Ay, lo siento!”, my body reacting in two different ways: (1) trying to get out of the way so unknown customer could drop the paper by the wall and (2) reaching for the paper to take it and relieve unknown customer of the difficulty he’d been having working around my adorable bod. Don’t know how I appeared, possibly like someone mid-electroshock therapy, jerking up off their gurney in startling fashion.

Unknown customer told me not to worry, managed to toss the paper where it should get tossed, moved away from me, smiling. And I immediately recognized the profile of Javier Bardem, one of Spain’s most widely-known actors. He moved down the bar, stopped to talk with the counterman, giving me a moment to take a good look at him. Dressed in loose street clothes and a nondescript, comfortable-looking jacket, wearing a baseball-style cap, the brim pulled down to hide that distinctive face. Had the look of a likeable guy. Didn’t glance around much, maybe to minimize the possibility of eye contact. He and someone in his family have a late-night joint a few blocks away, I’ve heard other people mention seeing him walking local streets. Could be he has a flat, actually lives in the neighborhood when he’s not off on business. Don’t know. He looked at home, though. Finished chatting, headed to the door, stepped outside and disappeared. Just another human walking along a quiet street in the Spanish capital.

I looked back down at my paper, took another sip of coffee, resumed the long swim back to consciousness.

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

Morning sky, mid-February, Madrid

España, te quiero.

Got to bed last night at an excessively reasonable hour (before midnight). Found myself awake in the wee hours, feeling restless, too warm. Drifted in and out shallow sleep until daylight. When I finally dragged my adorable bod out from the under the covers, my system worked sluggishly, half-conscious at best.

A short time later I stood in one of the local morning joints, working on espresso and a croissant. An in-house radio played in the background, the opening bars of ‘Walk of Life’ by Dire Straits started up, someone immediately began whistling along. I found myself thinking of a time several years ago when I stood at a cashier’s station in a Madrid store, ‘Mrs. Robinson’ playing quietly on the p.a. system. Someone nearby sang softly along in heavily-accented English, the strangeness of hearing that song, those lyrics in that context making me smile. Coo coo ca-joob.

Lately, for some reason, many of my most vivid moments happen during my long a.m. wake-up process, when I’m minimally conscious. Could be the morning fog keeps the wheels from spinning as wildly as they do during much of the day, so that I get to absorb images, sounds, smells without so much mental static. On the other hand, it means that I’m often lost in the fog, blearily dog-paddling toward what might laughingly be called high-functioning, managing to focus on nothing more than what’s right in front of me. Café con leche, croissant, newspaper, morning tv weather report.

The morning paper: filled, as always, with blasts of bad news, ads, and hot air in the form of opinions. Lately the news has focused on several nasty ongoing stories, including the growing furor over CIA flights through European airports for the purpose of illegal kidnappings, the growing furor over the revelation that the previous Spanish government (that of the right-wing el Partido Popular, the PP) sent numerous police agents to interrogate prisoners in Guantanamo, ongoing revelations of massive, widespread corruption in local governments headed by the PP, and the major trial that just started here in Madrid of the alleged perpetrators of the bombings that left 191 dead three years ago. All of those stories are, in one way or another, part of the ongoing brawl between Spain’s two biggest political parties, the PP — tossed out of power after the bombings — and the Socialist Party, currently in power. It’s strange to see the ongoing display of ill will and ugly behavior, and it gets me thinking wistfully about a world where political parties do not act like thugs, chronic liars, and/or bad-humored children.

I try not to delve too deeply into all that because it really does nothing for my mental health. I’m far happier if I skim the front half of the paper and devote most of my reading time to the sports and arts sections. And enjoy the morning waking-up ritual.

Early in the week, I stood in the same joint at the same bar, mentally fogged in, in exactly the same way. The TV was on that morning, news programs blabbering about the previous day’s weather — sunny, balmy, the mercury floating up into the mid-70’s along Spain’s southern coast. The same images cycled by as news voices commented in amazed tones — people at beaches, one intrepid older woman out in the waves, a bank clock reading 24°C. As I walked out in neighborhood streets a short time ago, low dark clouds drifted overhead, a warm wind raced through the streets, driving scraps of paper before it, whipping up grit and dust. Distant thunder mumbled. And the streets boiled with people out heading home from work, going in and out of shops, gearing up for Friday evening.

We’re living in interesting times, this planet of ours swirling with life and strange happenings. It’s good to be in the middle of it all, alive and stumbling forward, even if at times less than fully conscious.

España, te quiero.

After a morning of gray skies and drizzling rain, I stepped out of a café to find the overcast broken apart, revealing expanses of sky deeply, unbelievably blue, washed freshly clean. Hundreds of small puddles along sidewalks, cobblestone walks and street reflected it upward, producing a sensation of being in a world of painted a dark, shining azure, the color alive and changing as every step changed my perspective in relation to it all.

At the gym this morning: the usual wacky collection of males pumping themselves up, the music — this being a facility with a heavily gay clientele — the normal wash of disco-flavored technopop. I like techno, but the more it slides toward disco, the more I feel something strangely like despair if I pay too much attention to it. For some reason, they’ve been playing a mix these last weeks that includes the song ‘Tainted Love,’ so that every single time I drag my sorry, half-awake hinder in the door to do the exercise thing, it’s just a matter of time before that ‘80’s fave gets wheezing and honking yet again. It’s a good song, but I’ve heard it so many hundreds of times over the years that I would be very grateful if someone would lay it to rest for a while. It would be such a charitable act.

On the other hand, I woke up this morning to find the song ‘Karma Chameleon’ cycling through my head over and over. Talk about producing a feeling of despair. The gym’s blast of disco and ‘80’s synth-pop washed it away, for which I’m sincerely grateful.

It’s a strange, inexplicable phenomenon, that of finding a song or part of a song trapped in my head. One day last week, gym management decided to devote my entire visit to ‘80’s tunes, which sent me out into the street with ‘Let’s Dance’ playing in my teeny brain on an endless loop. Until another tune — don’t remember which, don’t want to remember — took over two or three hours later, monopolizing my gray matter until a visit to the movies that evening, when the song over the film’s closing credits took hold. A decent tune I’d never heard before. Didn’t mind hearing that one until I fell asleep.

España, te quiero.

Friday afternoon, la Plaza de Chueca, Madrid

España, te quiero.

And then there was the time during my brief, misguided residence in L.A. that I had a date with a nice woman one balmy evening. Someone I’d met through another woman I knew. A nice person who seemed to think the same of me, the upshot being we decided to spend an evening together, dinner followed by dancing.

There are those times when, despite attraction and good intentions, things just don’t seem to fall into place. This — don’t ask me why — turned out to be one of those, pretty much from the first moment.

We’d arranged that I would pick her up somewhere and we’d directly to a restaurant from there. She hadn’t planned well, turned out — we had to go back to her place so I could wait around while she pulled clothes together, talked on the phone. At some point I managed to pull her out the door, drove her to dinner. We sat, talked, ate. Nice woman — cute, bright, good personality. And things didn’t quite mesh with us, despite both of us obviously wanting them to. It was just one of those cases, didn’t matter how we tried to find subjects that would provide the key, didn’t matter how good our intentions were. And somewhere during all that, she decided that she hadn’t brought the right shoes for dancing, so we had to return to her place once more after dinner so she could run in and get the right footwear.

The club we’d decided to go to: a gay disco I’d been to one time with a coed group of friends. Good atmosphere, fun music. The lobby had sofas, a pool table off to the side. And on the walls, above head level, slide machines projected images of L.A. We had a good time, no one seemed to mind a pack of heteros visiting for the night. Seemed like a great place overall.

My date and I finally arrive at the club, after an evening that had come to feel strangely eternal, and we do the coatroom thing. This evening, who knows why, the vibe was not so welcoming. The coatroom guys dealt with me all right, but decided they weren’t wild about having a female — or maybe just this female — on premises this time around, and gave her a hard time. I got that it didn’t seem to be going smoothly, but didn’t realize how cranky they’d been with her until she stumbled away from the window, looking confused, a little dismayed. She filled me in, me looking back at the coatroom, neither of us sure what to do about it. And then we looked up. Around the room, where a week or two earlier I’d seen a cheery slideshow of L.A., were images of guys in leather outfits, BDSM style. We stared up at all that for a minute. I look at her, she looks at me, her expression not happy. And she says, “WHAT KIND OF DATE ARE YOU?”

It was downhill from there, but I didn’t care. That moment, with that one classic line, made the whole evening worthwhile.

España, te quiero.

From this last Sunday’s El País, the columnist Andreu Buenafuente’s imagining of what the dialogue in the series CSI: Spain might be like:

“The deceased has three stab wounds in his back and all his valuables have disappeared. It’s clear that we’re dealing with a suicide. Shall we go to the bar?”

España, te echo de menos.

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