far too much writing, far too many photos

Two weeks ago: woke up real damn early, as sometimes happens on days that will involve big traveling (my bod keyed up in anticipation). The first leg of the trip involved a ten-minute hike through dark, early-a.m. local streets to the Metro, dragging baggage. Before leaving, stepped out onto my teeny-tiny balcony to see what the weather was doing, receiving the day’s first surprise: snow, wind, genuine cold. Not your standard-issue conditions for this city.

Pulled self together, made the hike. (Accumulated a fair amount of snow en route.) Did the ride to the airport (three train changes), checked in, discovered that Aer Lingus would only provide the boarding pass for the trip’s first leg. Stumbled from there to the line for the security area, took my place, watched the show put on by fellow travelers — the person in front of me: a 40ish male with a sizeable mole right on the very tip of his nose — marveling at how few actually seemed to know what would be required of them by the hard-working security folks, meaning one surprise after another when those ahead of me in line reached their turn to go through (jackets/scarves/sweaters hurriedly pulled off, panicked hands emptying pockets, shoes dragged off, water bottles jettisoned, etc.)

Some time later, found myself on an Aer Lingus plane heading to Dublin. Had a window spot, leaving me content. As we made the descent to the landing strip, cloud cover over the city opened up, sunlight streamed through, the land below shone soft and green.

I’d forgotten how small and friendly that airport is, had forgotten how sweet the local accents are — characteristics that made the not-very-tidy process of getting a boarding pass for the next leg of the trip easier to take. Once I had that in hand, we were channeled through a security checkpoint, which turned out to be the customs check for our entry into the U.S. — the first time I’ve experienced that actually happening outside the states. (It meant when we landed in Boston, they channeled us through the passport control area behind the booths, our passports already checked and stamped — the immense hall on the other side of the booths stood empty and quiet, agents hung around the booths chatting, watching us file through to baggage reclaim. Strange.) The Irish personnel were friendly and relaxed, to the point that the security check had an entirely different feel from what I’ve grown used to — kinder, less intense, though no less thorough. Had me thinking about spending some time in the city. Still has me thinking about it.

Turned out I’d been given a seat in the middle of the plane, I tried not to grumble too audibly about it. Once we’d reached cruising altitude, I found an unclaimed window seat in the back, moved there, felt much happier. Then discovered that each seat not only had its very own video screen, Aer Lingus had the best selection of films and television I’d ever come across in a translatlantic flight. Spent the rest of the afternoon wading through District 13 and episodes of The Wire as the north Atlantic slid by below, extreme northeast Canada white with snow. We landed in Boston — breezy, milder than Madrid — 30 minutes early, meaning there was a good chance I’d be out of the terminal, in my rental car and with friends in Cambridge before rush hour. (The rental car: not my usual routine, but a much better option than suffering through the long, not wildly comfortable Greyhound ride north and back, and only a teeny bit more expensive, given that it was only for 96 hours. A bottom line for me these days: if spending a few more shekels means more convenience and less discomfort, I am all over that. I’ve put in my time in this mortal go-round when it comes to suffering — to the best of my ability now, I make different choices.)

In the big baggage claim hall, a long line of blue-uniformed males stood ranged along the exit side of the space — customs personnel waiting to grab travelers for searches and Q & A. One crooked a finger at me when I’d aimed myself toward the exit, I followed him to his post, he started with questions. Had me open my big wheeled duffel (the body bag), we both stared down into it, marveling at neatly it was packed (easy to do when one is traveling light). He asked more questions, then wandered over to a computer terminal with my passport and customs statement, typed away for a while, me not enjoying the idea that the government was prying into my fairly innocuous existence and building a file about me and what I’m doing with what passes for my life. But the guy I was dealing with seemed okay, he did his job without being a dick, and in a few minutes it was over, I was out into the Boston version of fresh air, figuring out what had to be done to get to the rental place.

[to be continued. soon. (no, really.)]

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La Calle de Narvaez, Madrid:

España, te amo.

Stayed up far too late last night. Far, far too late. Saw no sign of oversized dude in red suit, no trace of airborne reindeer. Every now and then explosions rattled windows (I have no idea where that custom comes from, am grateful local mischief-makers only started with the fireworks two or three days before Christmas instead of weeks before as in my last barrio of residence), the ‘hood finally going quiet when the celebrants crept off into the early morning darkness, leaving what remained of the night silent, calm, peaceful.

Woke up at nine a.m. to the sound of neighbors in full Christmas morning frenzy — rushing about, yelling back and forth. When I stumbled out to the street, wan morning sunlight fell through thin yuletide cloud cover, quiet reigned. Passed people walking — couples talking softly, individuals appearing slightly dazed, god owners walking four-legged companions. Saw more businesses open than I’d expected — nowhere near the number of a regular weekday, but enough to suggest normal life.

Stumbled into one of my principal morning wake-up joints, found it alive with people eating, talking, getting caffeinated. The big difference between this morning and a standard a.m.: most of the customers were police (blue uniforms) and city cleaning crews (green outfits, w/ bands of reflective lime green) — normal neighborhood foolks were scarce. I hadn’t realized so many sanitation types would be about, gave silent thanks for their continuing work — without them, the city would gradually disappear beneath piles of litter, dog poop and fallen leaves. Whatever they get paid, it’s not enough.

Stepped back out into fresh, strangely mild December air, marginally more awake. Walked down the avenue, enjoying the quiet, dragging out camera now and then, pointed it at things that caught my eye.

Back home, cranked up laptop (why does that sound strangely obscene?), found Christmas emails waiting. Gave thanks for the internet, for a comfy squat, for friends scattered around the map, for clothes to wear, food to eat, for a day of peace and relaxation stretching out ahead.

Feliz Navidad a todos.

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Christmas Eve along la Calle de Princesa, Madrid:

España, te amo.

Here, in a nutshell, is what I think (not that you asked):

I think we’re meant to love, without holding back — open our hearts and let it rip. Not demand things of our partner, just appreciate the hell out of them and savor the days, months, years we’re fortunate enough to have in their company. Because there is no guarantee of how long that span of time will be, and whether it turns out to be brief or blessedly long the point of the game is to love and appreciate. Anything less would be a sad pissing away of a miracle.

You may not agree, and that’s okay –- you get to do it the way you want to (no matter how blinkered). But if I get another shot at all this, I’m going to do my damndest to make that last paragraph my groundrules.

We’ll see if I get another shot.

In the meantime, life goes on.

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This morning, Madrid — not an everyday scene in a city where snow rarely falls:

España, te amo.

Got back late yesterday afternoon from a fast — and I do mean fast — trip stateside. Some things came up that needed serious attention, hasty arrangements were made, I flew out of Madrid last Monday a.m. Had to book the return trip via Munich, which meant going through the German version of a security check on the way to the connecting flight back to Madrid. A slight, serious-expressioned, middle-aged blonde security worker saw my camera bag, instructed me to open it, turn it on, show her a photo. I did all that. Not sure what she thought she might encounter, but the image that came up for her was this:

I got the impression she may have expected something dramatic. Cute kitty pix, sadly, do not rate high on the drama scale. She stared, expression neutral, showing zero emotion. A moment passed, as if she needed a bit of time to process the contrast between potentially sensational find and sadly banal reality. She finally said, “Okay,” voice betraying the teeniest hint of what sounded like disappointment, then waved me on.

Kitty pix — bringing down security people everywhere.

España, te amo.

A few days back, friends stateside let me know they’d gotten a whole lot of snow dumped on them, the first major accumulation of the season. Two days later — yesterday morning — cold weather arrived here, the very first truly blast of what passes for frigid air here. I wasn’t prepared, stepped out the building’s front door in my usual a.m. state of near-sleepwalking, found myself suddenly freezing, my body leaping into a state of immediate shock. Looked around, saw people dressed in winter gear, looked at my inadequate fleece zip-up autumn jacket thingie. Pulled the collar up, hunched shoulders, made tracks for a local bakery/café. Where, it turned out, the woman behind the counter was complaining loudly about the near-arctic conditions, seeming to be having some difficulty in unwrapping her hands from the warm cups of coffee she was supposed to hand over to a stream of slightly stunned looking customers.

An accordion player hangs out at a corner between here and that bakery/café. Hails from somewhere in Central or South America. Keeps business hours, essentially, puts in a full day during the week, half a day on Saturdays. Works hard, and is good. Lately, he´s introduced certain Christmas tunes to his playlist, leaning heavily on a goofy rendition Jingle Bells (tossing in loud, strange ‘HO HO HOOOOO!’s at unexpected moments). This has meant that every time I´ve gone by, I´ve come away with that melody heaving around on an endless loop in my teeny brain, and for some reason it has been seriously removal-resistant. On the other hand, a week ago I came across a musician in the Metro busy cranking out a terrifying rendition of ‘Love Is In The Air’ (which may explain the howling of dogs I heard aboveground not far from that Metro station). Compared with that, ‘Jingle Bells’ is positively benign.

(The accordionist was out there this morning — Sunday, after a full workweek — in seriously raw conditions, sporting a Santa hat and trying not to look like he was experiencing progressive frostbite. I hope he’s making a decent pile of cash out of all the time he’s putting in.)

Yesterday a.m.’s change in weather sent me home to pull thermal underthings from drawers, dragging them on before the next foray into the world outside. First time this season, at least here. Had to bring some along some — fortunately left stashed away in a storage compartment here when I left my previous flat in April 2008 — for the visit to the U.K. a couple of weeks back, since the cold and damp there would have overpowered the autumn-weight duds I brought when I fled Vermont in early October. Having thermals along was a huge blessing, given cold winds, cold rain, and the season’s first encounter with snow-covered landscapes.

Staffordshire, looking north into Derbyshire:

And why, you may ask, did I only take autumn-weight duds when fleeing Vermont? (1) I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing, where I would end up, how long I’d gone. And (2) I decided to err on the side of traveling light, since I’ve gotten weary of dragging overstuffed baggage around. Given that I wound up re-establishing myself in Madrid instead of wandering off somewhere more northerly, somewhere darker, colder, damper, that hasn’t been a decision I’ve regretted. Until now. As it turns out, something’s come up and I have to make a fast trip back stateside. Will hop a plane out tomorrow, then will hop a flight back here at the end of the week. And when I return I’ll come armed with more winter-appropriate clothing.

The upside of the sudden, though brief, return: will get to see some friends, will get to take care of some things that need to be taken care of. This is good. Will also get to slog through Vermont snow, slop and freezing cold temperatures. Am not quite as psyched about that, but Christmas lights and holiday hooha will compensate some.

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Names of genuine businesses and shops seen in the U.K. during the recent trip north:

Curl Up & Dye
Bargain Booze
Everything’s Rosy
Balls Brothers
All Wrapped Up
Booze Butler
Jones & Snufflebottom Ltd.

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Madrid — waiting for a Sunday afternoon bus:

España, te amo.

When I arrived in the U.K. — two weeks ago now — the Christmas season was just getting to its feet. Lights were up, daylight hours were growing real damn short, and one could feel the very beginnings of the yuletide atmosphere that would be cranking some serious rpm’s before long. Pubs were finishing up with the annual holiday facelift — and mostly looking pretty good, I have to say. In short, although Christmas was still weeks away, its looming presence was making itself felt.

Decorations had not yet been hung at my friends’/hosts’ home, but a fair-sized pile of already-purchased presents sat to one side of the dining room, waiting to be wrapped, tagged, all that.

I am pretty much out of the present-purchasing routine, so don’t really experience that part of the holiday cycle any more. Have little family (and what there is withdrew from the gift-exchange biz a few years back), currently have no partner, my closest friends are scattered around the map and with the unpredictability re: where I’ll be at any give time we’ve all fallen out of the habit of inflicting seasonal gift-type thingies on each other. Which, I have to say, is mostly just fine. On the rare occasion when I get one, I appreciate it like you would not believe. Which I suspect is the way it’s actually supposed to be.

Anyway. The afternoon I arrived in the Midlands, rain fell, wind blew, the air felt strangely mild. During the night, clouds and rain went away, the temperature dropped. I slept like, well, not the dead exactly — more like the comatose — and when I stumbled down to the kitchen around 9 a.m. the following morning, sunlight slanted in through the windows, flowers in baskets outside shivered in the cold breeze. And for most of my stay, it felt like early winter. Which of course it was.

Three mornings in a row dawned like that, with the sun climbing slowly above neighborhood rooftops, golden light slanting into that comfy kitchen. (I reminded D. on numerous occasions he had me to thank for bringing Spanish sunshine along, he graciously acknowledged my wonderfulness.)

The morning I hopped a train south for London — five days after touching down in Stoke-on-Trent — rain fell (the Midlands getting all weepy about me pissing off). London was better. And when I say better, I mean the rain didn’t come down every single minute of every single day. Though I did carry an umbrella at all times ’cause there was no telling when the local world would start with the rampant moisture falling in all directions at a moment’s notice.

London was well along into a shameless display of Christmassy spirit — shop windows all done up, streets hung with lights, holiday markets vending holiday hooha, burkha-wearing women adorned with cheery reindeer antlers. (Sorry about that last bit — though there were in fact burkha-wearing women strewn about in a strange show of London’s ongoing melting-pot-style evolution, none that I saw had been draped with yuletide ornamentation of any kind.) All of which I enjoyed in a shameless display of craven Christmassy cravenness. Even went out to a panto at the Lyric Hammersmith — very silly and easily the most professional panto I’ve seen to date, with Patrick Stewart supplying the voice for the giant in the tale. Not that I’ve seen many pantos. Just that one and another here in Madrid some years back thrown together by a group of British expats who mostly used the mounting of stage productions as a good-humored excuse for drinking.

Christmas archways, London:

And when I returned to Madrid, I found the Christmas season had elbowed its way in during my time out of country. Municipal mucky-mucks had thrown the big ceremonial switch in a big ceremonial, er, ceremony, igniting Christmas lights everydamnwhere. Where once vaguely jazzy muzak had provided the soundtrack in the barrio’s supermercado, vaguely jazzy renditions of Christmas carols now played. Tickets for the national Christmas lottery were on sale, lines stretching out the door of state betting shops, in some cases stretching down the block, around the corner and off into the distance –- the lotería de navidad is always an impressively huge deal here, but some of the lines I’ve seen during the last week beat any display of lotería fervor that I’ve ever seen.

And in a more basic show of the shift of season, while I was away all tables/chairs disappeared from outside cafés and restaurants, a clear indication that the cold season had taken hold. A change that at first left me feeling a bit sad, bereft, but one has to accept and move on. The trailer that houses the local maker of churros and porras remains in place at the big roundabout down the street, the occasional purchase of highly addictive chocolate-covered churros is an acceptable way of drowning one’s melancholy.

España, te amo.

Back in Madrid after 8 nights in the U.K. A few thoughts and observations in the wake of the journey back:

Sitting in a café off Oxford Street yesterday morning. A place run by extremely nice Italian folks. At the table next to mine, two suits sat working on coffee, a morning scene I´m used to from here in Madrid. One major difference: instead of chatting over coffee as they do here, these two were bent over their cellphones, reading and sending messages, surfacing now and then to glance at the telly (an Italian channel showing music videos and the occasional brief newsbreak) or making comments about attractive women passing outside.

Headlines seen during this last stay in England:
“Christmas Comes Every Day For Tragic Teenager”
“He’s Not Out Of The Woods Yet”
(That last one referred to guess which professional golfer, currently the subject of a whole lot of gleeful gossip by virtually every newspaper — tabloid and otherwise — I saw in and out of London during the last few days.)

I’m not sure streets and sidewalks ever completely dried out during my eight days on that big island, even during lovely spells of sunshine. When I disappeared into the Undergound in Marble Arch yesterday at the start of the journey out to Heathrow, wan sunshine fell. When I arrived at the airport, that had changed to rain, heavy enough to delay takeoff by 15 or 20 minutes.

The security routine travelers are funneled through in Heathrow is organized and intense, with a boarding pass checkpoint at the beginning and at the end. When one totters out from all that, overwhelmed and a bit off balance, they get released directly into a bright, orderly, extensive shopping area instead of hallways leading to gates and stores. Designed to maximize the possibility of hoovering money from the pockets of travelers before they board a plane and get out of there. Diabolical.

Stepping into an Iberia Airlines plane to find the inboard music cranked and playing loudly, a woman singing ‘Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?’

During the flight to England eight days back, the plane featured rows spread comfortably apart, leaving plenty of leg and body room for us paying customers (making me wonder if they only packed the seats closely together on flights to and from the States). Yesterday’s flight made up for that, the rows so tightly arranged that I could barely make it into my window seat. A tall, business-suited Englishman sat ahead of me, me dreading the moment that he tilted his seat back, wiping out the teeny bit of space left to me. Happily, he never did that, for which I gave silent, repeated thanks. (Seriously — thank you, unknown businessdude. Your consideration was deeply appreciated.)

The lights from homes and streetlamps that shone softly through the rain when we took off looked like enormous displays of Christmas lights, stretching off into the darkness. The flow of headlights along curved main roads moved between all that, looking far more quiet and gentle from the air than their reality on the ground, I’m sure.

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Life underground, London:

España, te amo

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