far too much writing, far too many photos

Called one of my intercambios to see if he wanted to get together this weekend. He did, which I appreciate. Nicer than that, though, was me getting through the conversation in error-free Spanish. Not that we’re talking about a lengthy conversation, but still. In recent months — me reaching a point in learning Castellano where I began realizing exactly how much I don’t know (far, far more than I do know) — I began feeling intimidated by the depth and complexity of the language thing. If I’m talking with someone and I start screwing up the genders or missing the right words to get across what I want to say, nerves sometimes take over. Not a great time. So that the occasions when it goes well produce a feeling of achievement, of real satisfaction.

Simple pleasures.

Went out to meet a friend for lunch, riding the Metro down to Lavapiés (”washes-feet,” maybe referring to the old story about Jesus washing someone’s feet), a barrio south of Sol and la Plaza Mayor. An interesting place, busy, with narrow streets that wind up and down hills, a district of high-density population, includes many arty types, many immigrants. The plaza right around the metro stop is usually an active spot, today was no exception. I met my friend Paco, we scurried around the corner to an Arabian restaurant called La Alhambra (named after, er, La Alhambra). A medium-sized joint, just one large room and a bunch of tables with a bar off to one side, usually busy, usually filled with Arabs.

My first time eating at La Alhambra, I was with G. & S., two women friends visiting from the States. Two Jewish women friends. We stumbled across the place, went inside to check it out, encountering a room filled with men and cigarette smoke. Conversation around us came to a standstill as we found our way to a table, gradually resumed once we were seated. No women present, apart from G. & S. Just Arabic males. The waiter looked to be in his early 20s, and it might be that our simple presence spooked him. He made like he couldn’t deal with my Spanish, quickly backing away and consulting an older, thirtyish guy at a nearby table, who got up and came over to us with a menu. I started ordering, he realized there was no problem, turned and yelled at the young guy, “Hablan español, tonto!” (”They speak Spanish, dummy!”) before finishing with our order.

A genuine scene. In one corner played a large TV, a major focus of attention. The room reverberated with loud conversation — reminding me all over again that the word ‘dinner’ begins with ‘din’ — men sitting down, standing up, moving between tables, gathered in groups over by the bar. After we’d started eating, another group of non-Arabic types came in, bringing another couple of women to thin out the mix of cigarette smoke and testosterone just a bit.

The food: just fine. Good salads, I had an outstanding plate of lamb and vegetables over couscous, and the after-dinner tea with mint leaves went down nicely. I think G. & S. may have been a bit less taken with the chow than me, but I could be wrong. An older waiter took over serving us, when I gave the thumbs up re: the lamb/couscous, he seemed pleased.

I’ve been back there a couple of times, but not since the happenings of this last September. For some reason, I got a strong urge to go today, and when we entered I wasn’t sure what the reception would be like.

In fact, no one paid us any mind at all. We walked in the door, the place was at least as loud as the last time I was there (meaning: loud). We found a table, the younger waiter came over, seemed to remember my face, we got on just fine. After ordering, I checked out the scene.

Once again, not a woman in the joint, almost all tables occupied. Loud conversation. The TV played a local news show going on about tensions between Morocco and Spain. Almost everyone watched, discussing it the entire time. Morocco is just across the Straits of Gibraltar from the Iberian peninsula, it may be that most, if not all, of the men in the room were Moroccans. None had an Afghani kind of look. A story about the sitch in Afghanistan started, attracting, sure enough, way less interest. Attention turned from the TV to food, conversation, whatever. And no one seemed to notice Paco and me. Shortly after that a family group entered, bringing two women into the mix. Within minutes, three more coed groups entered, including a threesome with what appeared to be a young Arabic woman in a sweater and jeans.

I wish I had photos of the faces in this place to flog you with — amazing faces. Casual dress, for the most part, with a few younger characters dressed in ways that would have fit right in some neighborhood pizza dives in the States. At one point a table near me finished up and left. An older guy got up to assist the waiter clear it off — face deeply lined, teeth missing, stubble, graying moustache, receding hair. Moving slowly, deliberately, clothes slightly soiled, though not in a way suggesting homelessness. He brought dishes over to the bar, returned to the table at that same deliberate pace, hands held out in front, as if already focused on more dishes. At another table, an extremely thin 50ish guy glanced at me curiously a couple of times, then resumed reading a newspaper, lips moving as he read.

Again, an excellent meal, I let the waiter know it. He seemed enjoy having me there this time. And when Paco and I stepped out into the street, I felt satisfied.

Paco took off to meet some other folks, I caught the Metro to go see a movie.

The train passed through Sol, where a large group of people got on, many with the look of South American Indians — round faces, dark eyes and skin, thicker features, hair black in a way that’s almost shiny. I was standing in a corner, a 30-something mother with a stroller got on, took the corner opposite me, positioning the stroller so that her baby, a little girl, faced me. Sound asleep, staying that way through all the motion of her mother getting them onto the train and settled in. The mother leaned down and fussed over her, her fingers — thick and rough, maybe from hard work — handled the little girl lovingly. The child remained dead to the world through it all.

She wore a spotlessly clean pink dress, with an outer layer of lace reminiscent of large, immaculate doilies, sheer and in perfect condition. A beautiful little girl, with the broad face of a dusky-skinned, South American angel, her hair abundant and fine. After the mother finished fussing, I watched the little one for a bit. Her fingers moved slightly in her sleep, her head rocked with the movement of the train.

Today’s a holiday — All Saints Day (El Día de Todos los Santos) — the city nicely busy, with an entirely different feel from workday busyness. Happier, more leisurely. Lots of families about. I had time to kill, when I emerged into the daylight at la Plaza de España, I grabbed a bench by the side of the promenade that runs between the two immense fountains and enjoyed the scene. Sunshine, people from all over passing through. Families, couples, kids. Someone went by with two dogs, a smaller one on a leash, and a golden retriever mix, young and so happy to be alive it could barely contain itself. Lithe, full of energy, its feet hardly touching the ground.

The movie: a Spanish film called Visionarios (Visionaries), about an event that took place in the north of Spain, in el País Vasco, just before the Spanish Civil War — a sighting of the Virgin Mary by a group of people that was, depending on whose side you hear, a fraud or a cover-up by the government. Pretty good story.

And here’s a quirky feature of some Spanish multiplexes: they don’t allow moviegoers to exit through the theater, post-film. Everyone has to go out the emergency exit into dark, unadorned corridors that feature restrooms and generally spit the customers out behind the building or onto a side street. Theater employees tend to lurk at the rear of the theater when the movie finishes up, turning away those who try to get out in that direction. Don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before.

I stumbled out of the theater to find darkness coming on, a few brightly lit clouds hovering over the western horizon. The number of people in the plaza had doubled, a crowd had gathered on a plot of grass around a group of people drumming and dancing.

When I arrived back here, a poster party was just winding up across the street, a mess of large, ugly concert announcements pasted over the last generation of ads. Bet they’ll be covered over by tomorrow afternoon, their brief lifetime lasting less than 24 hours. We’ll see.

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