far too much writing, far too many photos

Finished up a month of intensive Spanish classes today. There hasn’t been much time to write these last few days and I have a bunch of things to inflict on y’all.

– 10/17/01

The latest Woody Allen film opened here last weekend. Big deal, you may say, a sentiment many Americans have come to share post Mia Farrow/Soon Yi brouhaha. Over here he’s well-regarded — they not only enjoy his work, they seem to consider him a genuine thinker, an intellectual in the European sense of the word.

Yesterday, the center-right daily paper, El Mundo, featured an interview with him in the mid-week cultural magazine. An interesting enough piece, but one passage in particular that caught my attention.

“What’s certain,” said Mr. Allen, “is that I adore women…. Women are more responsible, even superior in many senses. Books and films that explore the feminine mind and psychology have always attracted me. Women have changed my life. It was only when I began to go out with women that were more cultured and intelligent and with more initiative than me that I felt the necessity to raise myself to their level and began to devour books, museums and concerts.”

That struck a chord with me. Through much of my adult life, beginning in University, many of my closest friends have been women. It’s only in the last few years that that’s leveled off some to where it’s now about 50/50, men and women. Three women in particular who entered my life in my 20’s — interestingly, two named Maria, one named Mary — impacted me in ways I can only begin to describe, becoming examples, goads and inspirations, with huge long-term effects on my existence.

By the way, the film (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion — or, as it’s called here, La Maldición del Escorpión de Jade), is fun. It goes on a bit too long, with some slack spots in the second half, but a lot of it is a kick, with passages of dialogue between Allen and Helen Hunt that had me chortling. (Helen Hunt: lovely, intelligent, extremely talented. What’s not to like?)

But. When I left the theater, I found that something to do with the end of the story had me feeling introspective and sad. When I find myself in that kind of state, I start listening to my feelings ‘cause they communicate pretty clearly, and if I pay attention and act accordingly, life gets better and better. And what I found right then was that it would have been a mistake to go home where I’d be alone, stewing in my juice. (It’s a fine juice, tangy and nicely spiced, but the times one should stew in it should be carefully chosen.) The impulse to take a long walk through Madrid’s busy streets took hold, I obeyed. It was coming up on 6:30 — stores were open for the evening hours, people were out heading home from work, buying things, drifting in and out of restaurants. All sorts of people, of all ages, in all modes of dress.

I’d decided to head in to La Plaza de La Puerta del Sol, and so caught the Metro. When I re-emerged into the open air, I was in the heart of the city. At rush hour. People everywhere, moving in all directions. Life, energy. I found a spot out of the lanes of human traffic and spent some time just taking it all in. It’s trite, I admit it, but there is something authentically magical about this city for me. And after a therapeutic period appreciating it, I got the impulse to duck into El Corte Inglés and pick up a small bag of groceries.

El Corte Inglés is the major department store here. It’s big. Really big. And it’s everywhere. In La Plaza de La Puerta del Sol, El Corte Inglés has three separate buildings – one with several floors of music, stereo/video, ‘puters, TV/radio, etc.; one bookstore/map store; and one huge building with several floors of everything else. Supermarket, clothing, clothing, clothing, more clothing, jewelry, household goods, appliances large and small, a travel agency, a restaurant, a café. Pretty much the whole enchilada except for porn and assault weapons.

Down in the basement of the third building, the largest one, are the various supermarket-type stores — a gourmet food shop, a health-food shop, a shop where you can satisfy all your cleaning/detergent/paper goods needs, a stationery store, a greeting card area, and of course the main event, the supermarket. Down a side street is an entrance that accesses the basement level directly, and I made off in that direction.

The streets that ring Sol extend away from it like spokes in a wheel, and the streets to the north form a warren of pedestrian ways lined with restaurants, cafeterias, bars/tabernas and tiendas of all sorts, extending a half mile or so to Gran Via, the major thoroughfare that delineates the end of this district and forms the southern border of Chueca, the barrio I live in. The two smaller Corte Inglés stores flank one of the pedestrian ways that exit Sol to the north, and across the first intersection of pedestrian vias is the third building, the big kahuna. I started up the street between the first two stores and hung a left at that first intersection. The north-south street was packed with a river-like stream of people, all parting to pass around a lone vender who’d planted himself in the middle of the intersection. Every few seconds he’d call out something I couldn’t decipher, and as I passed it appeared that he was selling a version of the hard, slightly sweet, waffle-textured pastry that’s used in ice cream cones. In two forms — one a long, slim roll, the other a flat sheet curled over two or three times, 2″-3″ wide, both close to two feet in length.

That first side street extends off to the left at a slight downward incline, angling away to the right about 100 feet in. On the left at the bend is a tapas bar, an old local joint, often packed, often with a line trailing out into the street. Not fancy. The exterior is dark brown and black, which sets off the weathered gilt letters of the legends painted above the doors — “Restaurante Casa Labra — Vermouts y Cervezas — Casa Fundada en 1860.” You enter through the doors to the right, pick up your tapas at the old, low-tech register immediately inside — there are only three kinds of tapas at this joint (croquetas [potato croquets], a chunk of tuna and a slice of tomato jammed together on a toothpick, and some type of fish deep-fried in batter and loaded with bones – the first two are fine, the battered fish makes me gag) – manned by an old, somewhat surly, low-tech buzzard who takes your order and your money and tosses your tapas onto a tiny plate. All the employees wear black pants and white jackets, cut somewhere between restaurant and food-service style. A couple of younger ones hang out around the small tapas counter with the older guy, and when he’s buggered off somewhere they take over. They have the surliness down, though I suspect if you’re an attractive woman or at least speak flawless Spanish you get different treatment.

There’s a bar to the rear of this maybe 20′ by 25′ foot room where you pick up small glasses of beer, wine, or vermouth. (I tried to get water one time with no luck.) No chairs, no tables, just a 6 or 8 inch wide shelf at head level that extends around the room, and if you can’t find a few square centimeters of counter space, you try to grab a bit of shelf for your glasses and empty plates. A couple of waiters ferry drinks around, yelling out orders to the man behind the bar, and a uniformed security guy stands at the exit door. (Why, I’m not sure — you pay when you get your tapas thrown at you. Maybe it’s to keep people from sneaking in the exit door.) The air is filled with the smells of food, drink and the sound of conversation; the clientele cut across the spectrum, from construction characters to elegant shoppers; and I rarely hear anything but Spanish spoken there. Tourists pass through, but they’re vastly outnumbered by the locals.

There’s actually a small dining room to the rear, but I’ve never ventured back there. The front room is adventure enough, and this establishment has never felt like a place to linger too long. Go in, get the chow, scarf it down, head off to the next port of call.

According to the Time Out Guide to Madrid, this joint was the birthplace of the Spanish Socialist Party in 1879. The Guide also says it’s known for great croquetas – a Spanish woman I went out with for a while last year arched her eyebrows at that. According to her, the croquetas at this place are mass-produced and taste it. I couldn’t say. No fish bones is all I ask.

Beyond La Casa Labra is a pharmacy, La Farmacía Gayoso – the pharmacies here are a phenomenon unto themselves, something I’ll get into another time – then a Burger King (American junk food dives are everywhere here and younger folk seem to be attracted to ‘em like iron filings to a magnet), which is across from the entrance to the basement level of El Cortes Inglés. Beyond that is a place called El Palacio del Jamon (the Ham Palace!). Ham is wildly popular here, with certain kinds considered delicacies. Or so I’ve been told. It’s entirely normal to walk into a bar or sandwich shop and find a pig’s haunch on a cutting device off to one side with other haunches hanging up behind the bar. They wax ‘em pretty heavily, making them a dark, weird grey/brown, so you’d almost think it was something else entirely except for the little pig’s foot at the end. Butcher’s shops have them arrayed in rows, hanging above the counter or in near-squadrons along the back. It’s a strange sight.

I made my way down the street toward El Corte Inglés, and as I reached the entrance I paused to look around, checking out the marquee above the entrance to the Palacio del Jaimon (Gran Exposición y Gustación…. Raciones – Tapas – Bocadillos…. Quesos Mantegos – Exquisitos Pates….). Out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement in my direction and glanced over to find an old guy – 70-something, slightly stooped, hawklike face, eyes focused intently, almost fiercely on my startled self – making his slow way toward me. I took a fast look around to see if maybe someone else looked like they belonged to him — no dice — then glanced back to find him coming on, eyes still fastened on me. It felt so odd and unexpected, and his demeanor looked so intense and unfriendly, that it seemed a little spooky. I mean, I did not know the guy, and yet he continued inching his way closer and closer as I stood trying to figure it all out. I decided that right then I did not want to deal, turned and disappeared down the stairs into the store, thinking no more about it.

I only wanted to pick up a couple of items, and was standing at the register getting them bagged when the old guy materialized right there, eyes still fixed on me. He said something I couldn’t make out, I shook my head slightly, saying, “Lo siento – que?” He said something more, speaking fast enough that I couldn’t make out more than one word that sounded like a name. The woman behind me and the cashier answered him – apparently he was looking for a pharmacy, and not the one just up the block. The poor guy had wanted directions, picked up on my, er, natural aura of authority and wisdom (yeah, that’s it), followed me inside the store and tracked me down, only to find out I was a furriner who couldn’t make out his rapidly spoken Spanish. They went back and forth until he turned away appearing a bit disappointed and disappeared in the direction of the stairs outside. I looked at the two women, neither of whom looked at me or at each other. It was as if nothing had happened. I grabbed my bag o’ groceries and made my way back outside, seeing no trace of the old guy.

I walked back around to the front corner of the store, and found a space against the wall of the Corte Inglés music/stereo/etc. building where I could lurk and watch this little corner of the universe for a while. A steady, heavy flow of people passed in and out of the main Corte Inglés building, in complement to the volume of bodies moving by on the north-south pedestrian vía, people slowing and eddying all around the intersection to talk, look around, head off in a different direction or continue along their original trajectory. The vender of the ice cream cone pastry did a steady enough business in the middle of it all, and I was struck by the number of people who passed holding hands or walking arm in arm. After a while I got the impulse to make my way across the intersection and continue up the side street in the opposite direction.

I passed clothing shops (Gran Vals – Moda Boutique; Georgie Conde) and found at the next intersection a sprawling cluster of restaurants/cafeterias, people seated all around at tables set up outdoors to take advantage of the mild weather. To the right, the Hotel Europa/Europa Cafeteria-Restaurante. To the left, the Cafeteria Blanca Paloma (White Dove), and across from that the Restaurante/Cafeteria Armenia. Beyond that intersection, as the side street I was on continued up a hill were more stores, more bars and not too far along on the right, the Sidrería La Farola (comidas y tapas!). The thought of a bocadillo (sandwich on a baguette) and un vaso de sidra (a glass of cider) had provoked a near loss of salivary control, so I threaded my way through the streaming throngs to check the place out. Not crowded and the menu looked all right.

On entering, I found one customer at the bar eating, and another dropping money into a one-armed bandit (una máquina tragaperras). I grabbed a seat at the far end of the counter, a guy looking like a shorter, squatter version of Lurch from the Addams Family stepped over to take my order. I said, “Sidra, por favor.” A blank look from him in return. “Sidra?” I repeated, “y un bocadillo de tortilla.” You probably know that the tortillas here aren’t the soft, flat bread that they are in Mexico. Here a tortilla is a thick version of an omelet, only much thicker, much more dense. The guy continued giving me a flat, barely polite stare. “No,” he said. “No?” I said. “Frances, no.” There were two types of tortilla on the menu, Tortilla Frances and Tortilla de patatas (potatoes). “Bueno,” I said, ” entonces, tortilla de patatas?” Grudging movement from him to get things underway, starting with drawing me a glass of sidra.

It sometimes happens here that either the person I’m dealing with can’t understand my Spanish or they don’t want to make the effort to cut me some slack. I asked a British woman from class about that, she said that same thing happens to her. Her Spanish is pretty good – clear and intelligible. I can only attribute this difficulty to the fact that we’re in the Spanish version of New York City. Some people are great, others are a bit more brusque. Así es la vida. The fact is that for a city this size, the people are generally very kind.

As if to confirm that, a person who seemed to be in charge appeared from the rear and, seeing me with a glass of sidra and nothing else, told Lurch to give me some finger food. It’s pretty common here that if you order a glass of beer, wine or cider, they’ll give you a small plate of olives or some tapas. In this case, they slapped two fish on a dish and slid it in front of me. Two fish, about three inches long, gutted, done up in batter tempura-style, but complete with head and tail. Very popular here, but not my kind of refreshment. I sipped at my sidra, appreciating the thought behind giving me something to nibble on, regardless of the type of nosh it turned out to be, and when the bocadillo arrived I laid into it. Turned out to be pretty good – fresh, tasty, not dry.

This sidra, by the way, is hard cider, about 5% alcohol. A traditional drink from the northwest provinces of Spain, Galicia and Asturias. The nice thing about it is that for whatever reason the alcohol doesn’t affect me at all, so I drink it with impunity. And I do drink it now and then ’cause I like it.

As I ate, I became aware of two women who had entered and taken seats to my right. With time I became further aware that one of them, a blonde about my height who stood talking with some energy about something that had her upset, was French. I don’t know about you, but a French accent automatically makes a woman more attractive to me, and if she’s actually speaking in French you can double what I just said.. After a while she switched to Spanish, I ate and listened, extremely content.

When I left, dusk was well underway and the human traffic had tapered off some. I retraced my steps back to the nearest intersection of pedestrian vías and hung a right, heading north toward Gran Vía. Stopping briefly to watch some people in front of a tienda (Padilla Perfumerías, directly across the way from Optica America), I became aware of a street person making his way toward Sol, a guy in a heavy overcoat and a stocking cap, carrying on an angry monologue in French. (What’s with all the unhappy Gallic types all of a sudden?) Everyone gave him a wide berth, he continued on his way.

I walked north toward Gran Vía and Chueca, passing the hotel I stayed at the first time I came to Madrid, a trio of slim, pretty young Spanish women whisking by me, all dressed in denim, with flared pants or bells, sneakers or platforms shoes. I then took a turn I don’t usually take which brought me by a women’s clothing store called Miss Sixty – in English, just like that. It’s possible that the name is a reference to a vaguely late-1960’s look that some of the displayed clothing had. I have to believe that’s what’s at work there, because if there isn’t a 1960s thing, then I can only conclude that the clothes are being designed by someone who is heavily into dangerous narcotics.

It’s entirely possible that I may be guilty of overstatement here, and after all, it’s not as if I follow the fashion world. I may simply be out of step. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

There were four outfits in the window. The first two were positioned together, both being black evening outfits – the first one a nice knee-length evening dress. A perfectly attractive design – simple, minimal. The second was a pantsuit, and though from the front it looked simple, almost conservative, the blouse was backless, so the view from the rear was entirely different.

A few feet away from those first two outfits stood a mannequin wearing a waist-length winter fur coat. And not simply a fur coat, he hastened to add, but a fur coat dyed an alarming, unnatural blue. Which was then given the look of a down jacket by using strips of rhinestones to simulate the stitching a puffy coat might have. Wacky stuff.

Finally, all by itself over to the far side of the display window, stood a headless mannequin wearing a very stylishly-cut winter coat – mid-thigh length, nice heavy material, warm-looking without sacrificing a modish look — it would have fit very well in the parade of fashion happening in late-60’s Carnaby Street — except for the fact that it was entirely done in bright, high-contrast zebra stripes. The single loudest example of a black and white outfit I’ve ever seen. It could be that the window lighting was largely to blame, but that coat appeared every bit as eye-catchingly bright as the fluorescent orange or dayglo lime coats worn by firefighters and police officers. Man, oh man.

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I make too much of it all. It just looked to me right then like one seriously goofy collection of clothing.

I managed to tear myself away from Miss Sixty and continued on, coming across a store just a few doorways up that dealt solely in fans. Not window fans – the handheld type that women here use during the summer months. I don’t know the word for them – I’m going to have to bother some Spanish person to find out. But at their best, they are genuinely elegant, made of fine material and emblazoned with paintings or decorations ranging from genuinely lovely to something that aspires to be lovely but skates off in other unfortunate directions. Traditional scenes, religious images, designs more abstract in nature. I’ve been told that some men also use fans here during the hot season, smaller, less ostentatious models, and I think I may actually have seen one may using one. There were a few smaller fans in the window, but whether they’re intended for men or children, I couldn’t say. The prices generally seemed to start around $11 to $16 or $17, and then slid swiftly up from there, reaching occasionally startling sums for the largest, highest-quality, most tastefully-done fans.

Interesting stuff – I may have to inflict one or two fans on unsuspecting friends this Christmas.

Nighttime had begun settling in as I crossed Gran Vía, moving in the direction of home. I turned down la Calle Fuencarral, one of the Chueca’s two north-south main drags (well, la Calle Hortaleza is north-south; Fuencarrel kind of veers vaguely south from a west-northwest point on the compass to terminate at Gran Vía one block away from the end of Hortaleza – not that you asked), intending to pick up a chicken sandwich at Doner-Kebap. Which brought me by the Telefonica building (Telefonica being the phone company here), which houses the Fundación* Telefonica, which currently has a sprawling exhibit of contemporary art from Central and South America. The time was 7:40. The exposicion closes at 8 p.m. That gave me 20 minutes to skip through the bugger, plenty of time.

I’ve mentioned the whole Fundación phenomenon before, so I won’t get it into a big explanation here. Key words: art + free!

I went inside, left my bag with the woman at the desk, made the guard happy by walking through the metal detector without setting off any alarms, looked around for 20 minutes. Two works worthy of mention:

a series of large back-lit photos collectively entitled “Project Habitation: Recyclables.” Every photo featured a person in the kind of anti-contagion/chemical warfare suit that’s becoming bizarrely familiar nowadays thanks to those thoughtful folks in the news media, only in this case the suit is made of product wrappers and bags, all taped or stitched together. Funny and weird at the same time; and

a piece called “Clonation and vice-versa,” consisting of a pyramid of pvc tubing, based on the model of the pyramids found in Mexico, which is festooned by rubber babies, both light-skinned and dark-skinned. All the babies are connected by air-hosing, which is attached to a series of hairdryers which are mounted on the floor around the pyramid. When I walked in, all was quiet, the babies were limp, hanging all over the pyramid like it was a jungle gym. Then one of the hairdryers started up, which slowly begins inflating some of the babies. Another dryer starts up, then another, then another, until they’re all pumping away, at which point all the babies reach maximum inflation, looking briefly and weirdly lifelike. Then the hairdyers shut off and the babies slowly lose air until they’re once again limp and empty. I don’t know it comes across with this description, but in person it was both comical and eerie.

Art. Where would we be without it?

Outside, clouds had been gathering all evening, and I re-emerged on la Calle Fuencarral to find that they’d opened up, resulting in some serious rainfall. I can’t remember the last time I got caught w/out an umbrella like that. Luckily, there were a lot of folks in the same situation and we formed a long line of people snaking their way along the sidewalk hugging the side of the buildings, which keeps you surprisingly dry unless the wind doesn’t cooperate.

I was moderately soaked when I made it home, but a change of clothes and a warm chicken sandwich from Doner-Kebap took care of that. And even with the rain, I could hear faint sounds of Chueca’s nightlife carrying on, people down in the street making their way from one restaurant/bar to another.

Life. It’s a pretty amazing experience.

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