far too much writing, far too many photos

Yesterday morning: found myself awake in the early hours, body keyed up for a day to be spent traveling. Had to be at Barajas Airport to catch an 8:45 plane to London, which meant, of course, arriving much earlier than takeoff time. Much, much earlier. Or at least that’s what I thought, me still working on the stateside concept of pre-flight arrival time. (3 hours before takeoff.) Figured I’d need to be awake by five and out before six. That, to my bod, meant waking up at 3 from anticipation, keyed up and ready to go.

I got the hint, didn’t even try to fight it. Got out of bed, cranked up laptop, stumbled around doing a surprisingly decent imitation of a conscious human adult. Was out the door around 5:30, found a taxi almost immediately, made it to the airport in no time flat. Wandered quiet hallways past sad slumped figures covered with coats (attempting to get shuteye before the next leg of their journey). Slowly realized I was there long before any airline employees were, realized the silliness of using the stateside expectation of when airline employees would get things up and running. (This is Spain, after all. The gym I use opens at 8:30 a.m. — wWhen I mention to Spaniards that gyms stateside open at 5 or 6 a.m., they just start laughing.) Found myself enjoying the quiet, the lack of frenzied travelers, the big open spaces free of noise, motion, commerce.

Found myself in a big metal tube filled with other humans just as the morning sun pulled itself into view, plane lifting off soon after, brown Spanish countryside spreading out below as . Was easy to tell when we approached England: clouds filled the sky, sunlight dimmed. The plane flew between two layers of them, one below looking for all the world like barren, snowy landscape, the one above looking like, er, wintry clouds, sun fading in and out.

Landed at Heathrow, wandered through empty hallways, found myself the only traveler at the non-E.U. immigration point. The young official who stamped my passport lay a couple of perfunctory questions on me, waved me politely through — the fastest, easiest entry into the U.K. I’ve ever experienced. Found my baggage already waiting for me at luggage reclaim (a shocking happening for one accustomed to the more leisurely work of Spanish luggage personnel), wandered through empty customs passages, made my way in no time flat to the Underground, virtually the only person in view most of the time. Began wondering if I’d somehow wandered into an alternate reality, one where the great London area had emptied out, leaving behind a quiet world, deserted and strangely tranquil.

That fantasy vanished as the train approached London, ambient noise gradually increasing with each new group of passengers at each successive stop. One 20-something had headphones on with speed metal cranked, volume so high I could hear it clearly from ten feet away. I wondered how he could function, then noticed the glassy glaze of his eyes, the slack expression of someone completely trashed. Other folks talked on cellphones, life slowly accelerated. By the time I changed trains at Leicester Square, the local world had grown fast and loud.

A short time later, I was in Euston Station, part of a crowd watching the big board. A nervous crowd, I realized, dealing with notices warning of possible delays and cancellations due to line damage north of London, the result of intense weather. A big screen showed clips of bridges collapsing in Cumbria, where relentless rain had caused flooding and mayhem. A train to Manchester — the line I’d be taking — got canceled. Then a second train, along that same corridor. I heard phone conversations around me, dismayed voices notifying friends, family of changed travel plans.

I left my big wheeled duffel at left-luggage, went out for food.

When planning this trip a few weeks back, on an impulse I made first-class reservations for the train ride to Stoke-on-Trent and back. Done in advance, the price was not much more expensive than coach and the difference in the experience is massive. One advantage to this that I discovered up returning from trawling for chow: Virgin Trains has a first-class lounge at Euston, where one can relax and where a wonderful woman covers phones, provides information, solves problems. She advised I keep an eye on the train status screen, seemed to think there might be more cancellations. She was right — five minutes later, my train got canceled. I went right back out to talk with her, a line formed behind me, more agitated people appearing as more cancellations happened. She got working on the phones, within five to ten minutes, it looked like one train might a possibility, a train leaving in a matter of minutes. She advised me to get down there and speak to on-board personnel, I flew immediately out the door.

Down on the station’s main floor, the crowd in front of the big board had swelled to twice its earlier size, visible panic sweeping through the assembled travelers as a rash of cancellations appeared, one after another. I passed rapidly through, heading to left luggage, the roar from the crowd increasing in volume and intensity. When I’d checked my bag in, there had been a line, it had taken a little while. The place was empty when I ran in to reclaim that bag, I was in and out in no time. I made it to the ramp leading down to the boarding platforms just as a general announcement was made about the train I was aiming for, letting all the stranded travelers know that one train would be heading north in a matter of minutes. A tremendous roar went up, a river of people swept into view. I found myself surrounded by running, shouting humans, a flood of frantic individuals pouring by, streaming toward their chance of getting the hell out of there.

I veered off from all that, spoke to a conductor who stood talking with other train personnel, told him of my status, that I’d been informed I might find a seat on this train. He quietly opened the door of the nearest car, gestured me inside. I found myself in an empty first-class car, took the perfect seat, was stowing my luggage just as the car doors flew open and agitated people rushed in, throwing themselves into seats, the noise and energy levels going from zero to overload. Outside, people ran by the windows, the scene chaotic and wild.

Things slowly settled down, the onboard crew — intially taken by surprise by the flood of desperate travelers — slowly took control, the train finally pulled out. The station disappeared behind, urban London gave way to greener, less populated climes. The crew slowly began making their way through the car, patiently weeding out travelers with tickets from those without, kindly dealing with those who had tickets for coach, me watching it all and marveling at the strange impulse that had me make first-class reservations instead of coach, saving me a whole lot of aggravation and heartache.

Outside, the sky darkened as we headed north, driving rain came and went. For the first time ever, I used wifi on a moving train, thinking that 21st century life had its positive points. I let friends know about the wild scene I’d just lived, train personnel plied me with food and liquids. Green English landscape slipped by outside. The train pulled into the my destination a few minutes before my canceled ride would have gotten there. I dragged my bags out, found my way through the station to the street, breathed cool, moist air, listening to the music of the local accent as people passed in and out of the station’s entryway.

My friend D. showed up a few minutes later, headlights blinking at me as he pulled to the curb. A minute later, I was inside, my bags in the rear, the streets of Stoke moving by.

Welcome to the Midlands.

España, te amo

Yesterday morning: got myself up and out in time to do grocery shopping before swarming crowds of caffeinated consumers descended on local shops. Realized I’d finished with enough time to hop a bus and make the trip to a museum for its 10 o’clock opening, thought ia an excellent idea. Flew out of the flat, caught a bus, switched to a second bus, reached the museum just shy of 10. Discovered that so many people had made the same cunning plan that a line stretched from the museum entrance down the block. Decided to try it again another day, aimed myself toward la Calle de Alcalá, started walking. Found myself in front of el Círculo de Bellas Artes, saw that their sidewalk café had not yet been shut down for the cold season, tossed myself into a seat at a likely table. Ordered, pulled out morning paper, began sipping espresso.

El Círculo de Bellas Artes is across from where Gran Vía joins la Calle de Alcalá — plenty of passing vehicles, lots of pedestrian traffic. The seats are far enough removed from the street that automative noise and motion is not overwhelming, it’s a fine place to pass some time.

Three or four pages into the paper, still swimming slowly toward full consciousness. Immersed enough in reading, eating, drinking that traffic hooha seemed far, far away. Until the sounds of a siren, of engines going at high rpm, of screeching tires caught my attention, combined with the motion of a small red car leaping into my peripheral view. I looked up just as a police van in pursuit of the car streaked into view, overtook the smaller vehicle, collided with it — on purpose or because car driver lost control, couldn’t tell. The car did a screeching 180 and came to a halt (driver’s door now visible), the police van pulled up maybe 15 feet along. The doors of the van flew open and a cop leaped out of either one, the near cop pulling out a gun, running at the vehicle, yelling at the driver to freeze, show his hands. The cop stopped a few feet away, pistol aimed at the driver, the second cop arrived at the passenger side door. The driver didn’t respond to the shouted instructions, seemed to be hunched over, doing something. The cops pulled at the doors, found they were locked. The near cop shattered the driver’s side window with his arm, backed off again, gun aimed directly at driver, yelling at him, while the other cop peered into the vehicle, face showing tense concern about… anything that might be a threat — weapons, a bomb. The driver finally turned to face the near cop, I saw he had the look of the western stereotype of a fundamentalist Muslim — hair cut short, a full beard, clothes of a loose, middle-eastern cut. He called out something, finally held his hands out the window so all could see he was unarmed. The near cop jerked the driver’s door open, the cop on the far side of the car finally managed to get the passenger’s door open. They forced the driver out the passenger’s side and to the ground, cuffing him.

By this time, sirens were approaching from various directions, other police vans appeared, two or three motorcycle cops skidded up. Traffic had come to a dead stop in all directions, some agentes began to get it moving again, directing vehicles around the scene. Two or three cops cleaned up broken glass and other debris from the pavement. The rest clustered around the individual on the ground. He was spirited into a van that took off, the tense energy of the scene began to dissipate as the scene was cleaned up and normal city life slowly, slowly reasserted.

It’s impossible to know what produced this happening, impossible to make assumptions of any kind about it. A family of four sat at the table next to me, two 30-something parents with two small daughters. Both girls appeared nervous, shaky in the wake of the event, and I can understand why. It happened so suddenly, with so much intensity and clear potential for ugly, ugly turns. I watched, overwhelmed with it all, completely forgetting to pull out camera until the most intense parts of it had come and gone, until I realized I was barely breathing, straightened up, drew in air.

A strange, intense, not at all typical Saturday morning in Madrid.

España, te amo

City crews here have been methodically working their way through the city in the weeks since my return, and I’m not referring to the traditional ripping apart and reassembling of streets, sidewalks, plazas, etc. I’m talking people in cherry-pickers, hanging big light displays — the first tangible sign that Christmas is sneaking stealthily up, looming closer with every passing November day. At some point during the month’s final calendar entries, the Mayor and a bunch of other mucky-mucks will get together one evening, blather out speeches, someone will press a switch, the entire city will suddenly be radiant with Christmas cheer.

I know some folks complain about Christmas and all the wackiness associated with it. But I’m not one of them. As unfashionable as those hardbitten, cynical types may consider it, I love Christmastime. The feel, the look. The lights, the decorations (in some cases, the tackier, the better). I just like it, always have. And I love Madrid at that time of the year. They don’t have the seasonal kickoff of Thanksgiving/Black Friday in this part of the world — they just crank up the lights and everyone starts shopping, running off to holiday fairs, going out to bars and restaurants with friends, family and groups from work. Just being around it makes me happy, simpleton that I am. Walking around the city at night in the middle of it all makes me smile, avenues, neighborhood streets and pedestrian ways hung with glowing displays.

Part of the tradition hereabouts: the city’s largest department store chain– with enormous stores dotted around the local landscape — tosses up humongo creations of Christmas lights on its flagship store, at the very heart of Madrid’s city center. Big, oversized, sometimes garish displays, the biggest, most complex of all being a huge installation that covers one side of the several-storey high building. An installation with moving parts and characters that sing, telling a story — the sidestreet that side of the building fronts on overflows with crowds at performance times, parents bringing kids to watch, tourists gawking.

I passed the scene of this annual yuletide crime the other evening as work crews labored away, installing this year’s mammoth, slightly surreal edition. Off to one side, the head of a dragon (I’d be willing to bet a bunch of shiny new euros that it turning out to be a singing dragon) waited to be lifted up into place.

I had to stop, I had to gawp. I had to drag out camera and act like clueless tourist. I did not have the discipline to resist.

Christmas. It’s on the way.

España, te amo

This last weekend being the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, news outlets here were awash in stories and images about it — remembrances, coverage of anniversary celebrations, all that. Me, I went out for a long walk on Sunday, found myself drifting along el Paseo de la Castellana during the afternoon, pulling up alongside the German Embassy. It occupies a fair-sized chunk of real estate, the embassy does, with a substantial wall running along its perimeter. I might not have realized that I was outside that particular embassy except for their way of observing the anniversary of that major turning point 20 years back: hanging large replicas of murals originally painted on the original wall’s West Berlin side. Big, brazen, insistent works of political commentary — impossible to miss.

Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Hoeneker show just how close their friendship was:

I spent a while checking them out, wondering what it must have been like to encounter the real thing, remembering television coverage of the massive explosion of joy when the wall was brought down. And then I moved on.

Cool autumn air, November sunlight, the long three-day weekend, unexpected sights. A good day.

España, te amo

Two days ago, had the impulse to go to the movies for the first time since returning to Madrid. (And before that, now that I think about it.). For the most part, since settling into the new flat I’ve spent far too much time holed up in front of the computer. Getting work done (this is a good thing) — a pretty fair amount of work. But spending long days indoors. Haven’t had the vaguest interest in running off to a movie. Until Friday.

Decided to take advantage of that impulse while it was hanging around giving me the elbow, grabbed the weekly arts mag that comes with the newspaper at the end of the week, flipped through it. Discovered a film that I’d read about stateside, liked what I read, had the feeling it would be a good bet.

The single biggest disadvantage of the new flat: the nearest Metro stop is a 10-minute hike. The next nearest, 10 to 15 minutes. There’s a bus stop down the street though, buses from three or four different routes pass by — I decided to try one, see how that went. Chose a route that skirts the city center, skidding through peripheral neighborhoods, plazas and traffic circles before veering back in to touch base not far from Princesa, an area that’s a hotbed of movie theaters that traffic in foreign films in the original language, subtitled in Spanish (instead of dubbed). Caught that bus. Ten minutes along they made us change to a different bus. Two minutes after that, all of us on the second bus, they did it again (producing a whole lot of complaining and ugly language by unhappy passengers fleeing toward the third bus). They didn’t make us change buses again after that, but by then rush hour had begun choking city streets, slowing forward movement to a crawl (producing unhappy muttering among increasingly desperate passengers). The bus eventually reached a stop out in the middle of an urban version of nowhere, a huge percentage of the passengers bailed, nearly sprinting out the doors. I stayed. ‘Cause I harbored the hope that I’d make it to the movie on time.

Finally made it to Princesa, minutes before starting time. I skipped through the plaza, stopping to take some pix of the bigass, gravity-defying sculpture that gives the plaza its nickname (la plaza de los cubos).

Gravity defied….

Made it to the cinema, slithered into my seat a minute before the lights went down. Found myself enjoying a strange movie: a tale about some genuine space oddities — directed, strangely enough, by David Bowie’s kid. (Note to Sam Rockwell: dude, good acting work. Seriously.)

Afterward: wandered out into cool evening air, streets nicely alive with couples and groups of friends talking, clustering in front of other cinemas, wandering in or out of restaurants, taverns. I aimed myself toward la Plaza de España, drifted slowly down the street, came to a halt in front of a kebap joint. One of the countless kebap places that have popped up around this city in recent years. A 20-something couple sat at the counter inside, the woman turned around and glanced out at me. I stepped inside, found a TV playing in the corner to my left, up near the ceiling. A South American soap, called culebrones, a word that means big snake or serpent. Called that, I’m told, with this in mind: the classic image of a snake with its tail end in its mouth, creating a circle, a shape that has no end or beginning. Because South American soaps go on FOREVER and EVER, with no hope of an end for those who are driven to helpless tears by their bizarrely dramatic story lines and overripe acting.

Looked like a nice little joint, apart from the hideous entertainment. The woman sat on a stool at the counter, eyes fixed on the TV, the male next to her fiddled with an iPod, earbuds stuffed into ears. I asked for food, drink, the woman got up to toss it together. Plump, rubenesque, wearing tight clothes. She got to work, I looked around discovered two or three framed thingies on the walls, touristy paeans to Syria. Leading me to conclude the owners were Syrians. Food arrived, I sat at a table and dug in. The soap went on and on. The door opened, two middle-eastern males entered, speaking a middle-eastern tongue. Syrians, could be. Friends of the couple, judging by the conversation that burst into happy life. They all blathered away, the door opened again, a 30ish guy with a camera and a big daypack entered. Stared up at the TV, looked at the knot of chatting Syrians, finally found the menu, checked it out. The woman asked if she could help, he answered in English, his tone of voice assuming everyone would understand him. She spoke no English, seemed confused that he expected she would. Fortunately, one of her friends spoke some English, stepped in to help. I worked on a pretty good pouch filled with bits o’ chicken, watched South American actors overdo it shamelessly.

When I finished, I paid up, stepped out into the local version of fresh air. Found my way to the plaza, discovered that booths had been installed, a craft fair was underway. Wandered through, not looking to buy, mostly interested in checking out the humans in attendance, a nice mixture of tourists, locals and South/Central Americans working the booths.

Continued on through the plaza, to the big intersection at the corner where Princesa turns into Gran Vía and heads up the hill toward Callao and a whole lot of real expensive stores. Daylight slowly faded, crowds moved along the sidewalks.

Friday evening, Madrid. A nice time of the week, a city that feels like home.

España, te amo

Last night: coming out of the Metro close to 9:30. The avenue — a broad, four-lane city thoroughfare — more tranquil than during the daylight hours. Dark. Except for the twirling blue lights of a police van. Three Madrid cops carrying out a traffic stop — one standing by the driver’s window of a car that had been pulled over, dealing with the detained individual; the second standing by the side of the van; and the third pacing around, arms cradling a submachine gun. A big black, submachine gun. Reminded me of someone’s description of visiting Madrid during Franco’s last years — they said there were cops with machine guns on every corner. Not the kind of display that screams ‘welcome to Madrid’ to me.

I debated pulling out camera and taking a couple of pix as unobtrusively as possible. Then decided that might not turn out to be the smartest move I’d ever made, turned and headed away from there.

Three or four blocks along, at the big traffic roundabout that channels traffic in five different directions, the trailer that houses the folks who make and sell churros three or four days a week was open for business, all lit up, handsome piles of golden churros strewn across the conter, along with one platter of big, chocolate-covered ones. Couldn’t help myself, had to stop and pick up half a dozen, eyeing the chocolate numbers lustfully but limiting the purchase to the lovely, less-orgasmic ones. Crossed lanes of traffic with green walk lights, headlights gleaming along the long stretches of city roads that extended off in different directions.

An evening at the end of a long day. In a whole different kind of barrio from the last one I called home.

España, te amo

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