far too much writing, far too many photos


Sunday, March 31, 2002

I've been negligent, I know, but I've had good excuses.

Main excuse: the fast trip to Granada, which turned out to be strange, fascinating, a bit wild. A fine city to seek out if you're looking to eat well. And endearingly, unbelievably inexpensive. True to its reputation, when you go to tapas joints and order liquid refreshment, the drinks come with free food -- sandwiches, platters of tapas or calamari. It's hard to imagine how the businesses survive, though the night we went they were all packed, and maybe that explains it.

And La Alhambra? Spectacular. One of the most impressive, most affecting places I've ever been, even overrun with Easter Week tourists.

Got back to Madrid yesterday, have been organizing and packing ever since for the return to the States. Which happens, er, tomorrow. I imagine I'll be settled in by Wednesday, but am not sure if an ISP will be plugged in at that time. Will be back online as soon as that part of life is once again in place.

Spring continues here, as sunny, warm and user-friendly as one could reasonably want. I can only hope that spring's arrival in Vermont will not be too sluggish this year.

So. Back midweek. Be well.

[Author's note, 11/22/05 -- That is one skimpy-ass description of the trip to Granada. Understandable, I guess, given how much was going on at the time. But also, on the other hand, symptomatic of the way I'd begun holding back on information, and therefore pretty lame.

A motley group made the drive south, spread out between two vehicles, one rented, one not. A 20-something intercambio turned friend named Marta and her sweetie, a tall, intelligent, slightly strange 20-something male (French? Swiss? something) and his quiet, much stranger brother, along with a gay, slightly older friend of Marta's from Santander in the north of Spain (owner of one of the expedition's vehicles), and Sam, the Belgian friend mentioned in recent entries.

A goofy blend of humans, with strange chemistry. Once again, me the oldest in the bunch, receiving weird, not very friendly vibes from Marta's gay friend, a dance teacher and owner of one of the cars. Why? Who knows. At one point, I lay in the cramped back seat of his vehicle, eyes closed, listening to conversation between him and Sam. A short time later, I asked about something he'd mentioned in that conversation, he had no idea what I was talking about, his tone suggesting I was out of my fucking mind. Why? Who knows. And doesn't matter -- everyone else was fine. Least I think everyone else was fine -- the brother of Marta's sweetie hardly said a word the entire time, no telling what was going on there.

The ride south: fairly smooth, fairly rapid, especially given the heavy traffic, Madrid emptying out as people bolted for Holy Week vacation/observances. Accommodations being scarce in that part of the world during these holidays, a multi-bed room had been found outside the city, in a nondescript hotel tucked away in suburban streets. We checked in, retired to the room, assigned beds. The TV got cranked, most programming either news or coverage of Easter week religious processions in various locations around Andalucía -- somber, heavily attended, large, elaborate floats lurching slowly along packed streets (borne by teams of the faithful in metaphoric re-enactment of the carrying of the cross), brass bands playing solemn numbers in accompaniment. Outfits worn by many in the processions looking to be exact duplicates of apparel worn by those mavens of fashion, the Ku Klux Klan -- something that gives pause to many Americans on first view until you realize these processions have been around far longer than the Klan, that the American weirdos probably appropriated the outfits. One difference: the Spanish version often comes in eye-catching colors -- purples, deep blues -- while the American cracker version generally came, predictably, in white, white and more white.

Post-settling-in, we headed into Granada. One of the group -- Marta or her dance-teacher friend -- knew local folk, we hooked up with them, went to a local joint for something to drink/eat. A popular local joint, crowded enough that we had to thread our way through, settling at a table in a side room. The drill: order liquid refreshment -- doesn't matter what it is -- free food comes in accompaniment. Everyone ordered something to drink, when they showed up, two big baskets of fried calamari followed quickly. Calamari: not my thing, but I appreciated the management's good will. The crowd grew during our time there, we squeezed our way back through, went to a different place, more of a restaurant than a joint. Packed with families and friends out for a meal. Same routine: we ordered drinks, they materialized along with two platters of sandwiches. Good sandwiches. I found myself thinking I could get used to living like that.

Returned to the hotel at some point, minus Marta's dance-teacher friend, who spent the night with friends in Malaga, an hour away. Next morning, we all rendezvoused in Granada for the local version of breakfast -- juice, espresso, toast with various spreads (olive oil, tomato, like that). Left the cars parked in that section of town, grabbed taxis, the driver of the cab I found myself in an exuberant, effusive type who filled us in on some local restaurants, describing the meal he had at one as 'de puta madre!' (essentially, 'fucking great!'), the first time I'd heard that expression used in real life. The event of the day: a field trip to La Alhambra, Granada's big tourist draw, once a palace of sultans and center of culture. A huge, beautiful complex atop a bluff -- extensive gardens off to one side, buildings off to the other.

The taxi ride let us off nearby, we made the hike uphill, found ourselves in gardens once owned by sultans -- lovely, meticulously cared-for. An intimate gathering, just us and countless Easter week tourists, the place so striking, the view from just about any spot so stunning, that the number of people about simply didn't matter.

Late in the day, we managed to weasel our way into the tour of one of the two palaces, it turning out to be the kind of place for which words like 'bewitching' get trotted out. (Including being dragged through the strangely incongruous Washington Irving room, me with no idea that a writer so classically of the Hudson Valley had passed time in this part of the world, much less helped spark La Alhambra's restoration through his writings about it.)

Daylight waned, we wandered down into the city, walked narrow winding streets, found our way up a neighboring hill to an overlook with a spectacular nighttime view of La Alhambra. Plenty of fellow-gawkers about, both tourists and natives, the stereo from one carload of local teenagers blaring flamenco and hip-hop tunes. Found a restaurant with Arabic food, ate well. And on the way back to the car, stumbled across three separate Easter processions moving slowly through a central business district, their paths criss-crossing. Stopped to investigate, the experience completely different from watching small, flat televised images. A window into a kind of Catholicism that growing up in that religion had never shown me. (Not that it called to me, mind you, but it allowed a glimpse of the emotion at its core.)

The floats -- large, elaborate, enormously heavy -- were carried by teams of bearers flanked by a small support team, all led by a person with a staff -- a coxswain, essentially. Folks wearing the KKKesque outfits preceded and followed the floats, a band brought up the rear, playing somber, emotional numbers, a kind of music that felt to me like a distant cousin to New Orleans jazz. (Same instrumentation, same overflow of emotion.) The processions moved along at a slow, steady pace, the speed and gait dictated by what the float-bearers could manage. Every 100 or 150 feet, it all came to a half, poles taking the weight of the float while the bearers caught their breath, the music falling silent, the only sound that of people in the crowd talking quietly. After two or three minutes, the coxswain marshalled the float-bearers, coordinating their resumption of the float's weight with a three-count, the crowd calling out encouragement, applauding when the float was again borne aloft and the bearers resumed their slow movement forward. I don't know how it comes across here, but it's an emotional event, packed with feeling and input of all kinds.

We spent close to an hour there, watching two of the three processions, Sam taking a mountain of photos. And at some point we drifted back to the car, returned to the hotel, retired to our respective beds, me sleeping hardly at all. Sam had agreed to return to Madrid with me the next morning -- me with work to do, feeling the pressure of the looming return Stateside -- we got up and out early, driving north along nearly-empty highways. We made it to back to the capital around midday, the barrio quiet, parking spaces everywhere (not the usual state of affairs). Pretty much as soon as I set foot back in the piso, I found myself swept up in time's surging movement forward -- packing, traveling, finding myself suddenly back in cold, later winter Vermont. All of it feeling slightly unreal, though undeniably happening.

And life moved on.]

rws 1:23 PM [+]

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Semana Santa is undeway -- Holy Week -- apparently a substantially bigger deal here than it is in the States. Centuries of Catholic history may have something to do with that. There are doings around the country in observance of the season, but Sevilla seems to be the major focal point and is famous for the religious processions that take place in these days leading up to Easter. A major ritual -- heavy, a bit dark, with a long history. Like Spanish Catholicism.

People are traveling this week. Groups of young Americans and Germans are all over the city center, and many Spaniards take off for other points in the country –- to the coast, to Andalucia, places like that. Tomorrow, in fact, I'll be among the multitudes heading south to Andalucia as part of a group of five people spread out between two cars, aiming to reach Granada by mid to late afternoon. A brief trip -– down tomorrow, back here Saturday -– the major goal being to check out La Alhambra, something I've heard a lot about and want to see while I'm still in country. I've also been told that Granada is a fine small city, am looking forward to a taste of it.

I've heard a lot about Andalucia in general, now that I think about it, and much of the scuttlebutt piques my interest. People around Madrid sometimes speak less than kindly about Andalucians, same way they do about Barcelona, regional competition and rivalry being as much a phenomenon here as it can be in the States. Andalucians have a reputation for friendliness, but are, according to local legend, untrustworthy, not prone to opening up for friendship of any depth. I've also heard they're generous when it comes to food. More than one person has mentioned that if you buy two or three drinks at a typical Andalucian restaurant/bar/taberna, the complimentary food that comes with the drinks can be close to the equivalent of a meal, or at least the equivalent of three generous helpings of tapas here in Madrid.

Time to see for myself.

I have no idea whether or not I'll be posting anything here before I get back on Saturday -- if I come across a good internet café, I may not be able to help myself. We'll see.

Be well.

rws 12:16 PM [+]

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

[Continued from entry of March 21.]

With Curtis having done el Camino de Santiago so many times, he's fairly knowledgeable about it -- extremely, even excessively knowledgeable compared with someone like me.

As we stood in Sunday morning sunshine, Curtis talking about el Camino, two people hiking the trail toiled up the grade in our direction. Across the small road, off in the other direction, the land spilled down and away. Nesting birds appeared from hillside bushes, making short, swift flights to nearby points, producing sharp bursts of song. Though the sun shone strong and warm, a cool breeze blew -- Curtis had encouraged me to leave my jacket in the car, I found myself glad I had it on and pulled it tightly around me as I peered off across the countryside.

Back in the car, we drove further west of Pamplona. Several miles along, Javier hung a left and sped down another two-lane, flanked by fields and the occasional spread of vineyard, until we approached a turnoff for a small church that sat amid acres of fields, la iglesia de Santa Maria de Eunate. Javier turned in, guiding the car to a small parking area, pulling in by a pair of porta-potties, them looking a bit out of context there in the middle of nowhere but logical considering the number of visitors the place received.

The church: a lovely stone structure, small in diameter with a high domed roof that gives it a sense of great space. Built in the second half of the twelfth century, appearing at once austere and complex in structure. The small windows had no glass, no surprise given where and when the church was constructed -- instead, they're covered with slabs of marble cut thinly enough that they allow light to pass through. The church is surrounded by a portico, nearby sits another building constructed of stone, a refuge for hikers making the pilgrimage, where they can find a shower, get some sleep.

On our arrival, the only other people about were three young women who seemed to carefully avoid us. As we walked back to the car, other vehicles pulled in, discharging people, changing the atmosphere drastically with noise and motion. I was glad we were on the way out.

Javier drove back out to the original two-lane, heading further west to the town of Puente la Reina (Queen Bridge), a pueblo with at least three churches -- all Catholic, natch. I was taken into two, both several centuries old –- one austere, the other extravagantly elaborate –- both on a long street that ran from the east end of town to the river at the town's west side and the bridge that gives the town its name. Built in, I think, the 15th century. Old, beautiful, nice to walk across, providing nice views of the old town on one side, green hills and flowering almond trees on the other.

The morning sunlight had strengthened, the temperature edged upward to jacket-divesting levels as the day tilted toward noon. We walked back toward the car along a different street -– wider, relatively busy -– passing the third church as we left the river behind, I mulled over how it felt to be among so much Catholicism, past and present.

I grew up in a Catholic family, going to mass every Sunday, attending religious instruction for nine years. (Nine long, long years.) And though the religion was part of my life's routine back then, I never felt at home in it, was never a Catholic. I mean no offense to any Catholics in saying that, it's just the simple truth. In fact, there is no religion that calls to me. I walk my own spiritual path, and I respect the ways other people walk theirs.

There were many things about growing up that way that I genuinely did not enjoy, and it's been interesting spending much of the last two years in a country with such a strong Catholic tradition, with centuries of dark, turbulent Catholic history. I love Spain, and have had no trouble with that aspect of the country -– it's simply what it is, part of the nation's rich, complex character.

From there we traveled west to a stretch of el Camino that ran along the course of an old Roman road, cobbled and crossing an original Roman bridge, out in the middle of countryside, in a ravine off the two-lane where trees were showing green and birds called. As I moved ahead of Curtis and Javier, two hikers passed -- young women, both sporting huge packs, one of which had two or three pieces of washed clothing spread across it to dry in the sun as they walked. Curtis began chatting with them, when I returned from enjoying the near-total quiet off across the bridge it turned out they were college-age American women -- one from Tennessee, one from Illinois -- doing the pilgrimage and experiencing the contrast between what they'd imagined when they dreamed about it and the rigorous, sometimes disheartening reality of traversing mountainous, rural terrain with a full pack. Curtis gave them gentle encouragement, some tips on stops they'd be making in the coming days, and they headed off.

Next stop: the town of Estella, the day's final stop. A medieval pueblo, with old, narrow streets, large plazas, and a pretty, shallow river that wends through the heart of the town. Javier parked the car, we made our way up a long series of stairs to yet another church perched in the, by then, early afternoon sunlight. We passed through to the cloister, a sizeable area of flowers, grass, flowers and a tree or two, sheltered by walls, surrounded and bisected by walkways. Quiet, with lots of old stonework. I would have been happy to remain there a while, as lack of sleep was becoming more and more a factor in my day. Curtis had also been up late -- later than me, I think, having far more fun -- also looked to be at less than optimum. Javier was fine, and when I got too quiet he made a point of chatting me up, explaining things or asking about my experience in Spain. Between that and the fact that he had volunteered to do the driving for the day, he went far beyond what would be expected of someone who had never met me before. An extremely considerate person with a generous, gentlemanly nature.

A mass had begun while we were outside, we couldn't pass back through the church and so took a different stairway down to the street -- old, narrow, with vistas of sky and neighborhoods. We found our way to the center of the town, crowds of chatting, well-dressed locals milling in and out of restaurants/tabernas. We made our way into one, found a space at the bar, got something to drink, then went somewhere else to eat, a place off another narrow, quiet street. A long meal, punctuated by stretches of silence between which Curtis and Javier conversed, Javier now and then addressing some conversation in my direction, which I did my best to engage with. Afterward, we found our way through more narrow streets toward an old medieval footbridge we'd spotted earlier. The street that led us there -- old and, of course, narrow -- only permitted resident traffic, and at the end of a block that fed out onto a larger busier street, passage was blocked by a thick, squat metal column, maybe two feet high, planted in the pavement directly in the middle of the street. A car approached from the outside road, stopping by a box at the roadside where the driver produced a card and swiped it through a slot. A pause, then the column slowly sank into the pavement so the car could pass, after which it reappeared, regaining full height. Freudian traffic control.

We made our way across the bridge, trees and large sprawling expanses of bushes on either side of the river a bright, vibrant green in the early spring sun. Willow trees rose three or four stories into the air, trailing long branches thick with new leaves. Javier and Curtis had yet another ancient church or two in their sights, we made our way toward them though not into them (for which I gave silent thanks), settling down instead on some stone structures by the river to flop and get some sun. It was late afternoon by then, the town had the feel of a place slowly dealing with the coming reality of returning to the workweek. Couples were out, two groups of people came together not far from us, talking, then headed off in the opposite direction from which we'd come and disappeared. We eventually pulled ourselves together and returned to the car, walking along a stretch of el Camino which included an old, well-kept building that functioned as the town's sanctuary for pilgrims.

As we neared the car, the snug street opened out into a small plaza that fronted a park and two old buildings, one of which apparently housed the local equivalent of a circuit court. Paint had been hurled against the door and the facade of the building, leaving splashes of red, yellow and green, the colors of the crest of Euskadi, the Basque Country. As we stepped out into the plaza, I glanced into the windows of the other building we passed, into a room filled with old, old furniture, including what appeared to be an ancient canopy bed, draped with mosquito netting.

At that moment, we became aware of a car coming in reverse along the narrow street that faced us, coming fast, the gearbox whining loudly, insistently, the rear end jerking back and forth as it approached, tires squealing. It skidded into the plaza where the driver hit the brakes, spraying gravel before changing gears then gunning his way through a loud, aggressive three-point turn, almost hitting me at one point, the afternoon air suddenly thick with the odor of testosterone. The driver: a truculent, macho 20-something whose behavior had Curtis hooting and commenting unflatteringly in English. My last image of Estella.

An hour and a half later I found myself at a window seat on an Iberia airliner after saying good-byes to Curtis and Javier, thanking them for setting aside their day to entertain me, assuring them I'd enjoyed it despite my state of burn-out. My last view of Pamplona, from a plane angling up away from the ground: a line of wind power generators ranged along a ridge of hills to the north of the airport, extending off toward the Pyrenees and the border with France.


Sixteen days later, a Tuesday afternoon gradually sliding toward evening. Sensational weather continues –- the air has cooled some from yesterday, though the sun remains every bit as brilliant. Next Monday, my nearly two years in Madrid will give way to a return to the States. I've begun packing and sifting through accumulated dreck, a process which will be a bit compressed because of the fast trip to Granada coming up on Thursday through Saturday.

The days roll on, everything passes.

Went and picked up the Camper footwear for Sam this morning (see yesterday's journal entry). Did not have to try on women's shoes, got no strange looks.

On to the rest of the day.

rws 1:22 PM [+]

Monday, March 25, 2002

The summer-like weather continues here in Madrid. Spectacular. I'm picking up color just walking around doing errands.

Among those errands is trying to track down a pair of shoes for Sam, a Belgian friend currently living in London who's going to be here next weekend. We'll be driving down to Granada with three other people for two days. In advance of that, the following e-mail arrived:

"Can you do me a big favour?
I want to do a girl a favour who I really fancy.
But I'm not sure whether it will work without your help.
Basically (don't be disappointed), I promised her to bring some Camper shoes in Spain next weekend as they are 50% cheaper.
I'm a bit worried about holidays and shops being shut so I was wondering whether you would be able to wander in a shop and buy them.
Would that be a problem?
Let me know. DON'T worry if you can't do it."

After giving me particulars re: model number and size, he wrote:

"You may find a bit embarrassing to buy woman shoes. The key thing is not to try them on yourself!"

Bwaaaahahaha! What a guy.

Camper shoes are very in here right now, and can only be bought, as far as I know, in Camper shops. A short time ago I joined the late afternoon crowds filling the pedestrian ways between Sol and Gran Vía, stopping into two different Camper tiendas, both near Callao, a major crossroads and shopping area off Gran Vía. I was easily the oldest person in both shops and judging by looks received from two or three of my co-shoppers, I was considered an alien life form, possibly a dangerous one. It could just have been my pointy boots, but somehow I think it was the whole package. Or it could have been sour grapes at being confronted with the reality of a butt far cuter than theirs.

Both shops had the shoes Sam's looking for, but not in the specified colors. I've sent him a note and await instructions.

Truthfully, it's not as if spending time walking around the city center is a hardship. Madrid is beautiful, and this is one of the times of the year when it's at its finest, despite the sudden Easter vacation appearance of hordes of young American and German tourists. They will come and go, and Madrid will remain, packed with personality and grace.

rws 12:30 PM [+]

Saturday, March 23, 2002

Madrid, 3:45 a.m. -- early Sunday morning or late Saturday night, your choice. A time of the day called la madrugada here: the wee hours. Plenty of people are out, carrying on in normal Saturday night fashion. The sounds of laughter and conversation -- punctuated by calls or exclamations, occasionally by bits of song -- come and go from the street several floors down, a nice backdrop to sleep (that last bit a statement I would have considered heresy a couple of years back).

I'm gradually preparing to return to the States, a process that has me feeling thoughtful, at times sad. This last evening, a young Polish couple came and bought a small TV/VCR and a DVD I needed to unload. In their mid to late 20's, they were sweet, friendly, well-mannered, clearly excited to be picking up the items inexpensively and in good condition. I showed them that the units worked well, we boxed them up, they carried them downstairs, calling out good-byes as they went.

The process of slowly gearing up for the return to the States has been underway for a couple of weeks, but something about handing over those items tonight, their disappearance leaving a sudden gap here in the living room, felt like the first concrete step away from Madrid and had an impact I hadn't expected, leaving me quiet, pensive. It's not the items -- they were rarely used, it was time for them to go. It's the larger shift signified by that small act, a shift suggesting major changes in direction for this little life of mine.

I received an e-mail from a friend this evening, a smart, interesting Canadian woman who's been working on a farm in Central America for the past couple of months. Her life there is also shifting as she prepares to leave the farm and travel with someone she met. And though she's looking forward to the coming travels, her letter was permeated with melancholy.

We're constantly moving on, whether we feel it in any given moment or not, leaving things, people, events behind as others enter our experience. I like change, and I know good things await. I'm just feeling... something about it all.

It will pass.

rws 11:40 PM [+]

Friday, March 22, 2002

As the time when I'll be heading back to the States draws closer, I'm becoming aware of the possible contrast in weather that may be awaiting between here, Madrid (where spring has been spoiling me), and where I'll be heading (northern Vermont -- beautiful, but cold, messy). On impulse, I went to the Weather Underground webpage to gauge the current state of northern Vermont weather and the forecast for the coming week. ¡Madre mía!

Back to the ice age.

rws 11:04 PM [+]

So spring -- after creeping slowly in our direction for the past six or seven weeks, backing off now and then for short bouts of rain and cooler temperatures -- has sprang. Or sprung. For real, starting two, three days ago. The first day, most Madrileños stuck with winter coats and jackets, not yet trusting the weather's upturn. Yesterday, lighter clothing began appearing, today there's a feeling of full-blown surrender to the change of seasons.

More perfect spring weather would be hard to find, and people are out enjoying it around the clock. Tables and chairs began appearing outside restaurants and cafés two days back. Yesterday, the first spread of them appeared in the plaza down the street, occupied by people talking, eating, drinks in hand. From midday until late in the afternoon, during the hours when the plaza is bathed in sunlight, people of all ages were sprawled everywhere hoovering up refreshments and fine weather. The sense of simple pleasure in the arrival of the season is in the air.

The city is at its loveliest at times like this (apart from the low-hanging haze of vehicle exhaust in La Plaza de La Puerta del Sol, Madrid's centralmost crossroads), and peoplewatching is at its best. Individuals in businesswear walk purposefully along; older folks move more slowly, singly or in pairs, arm in arm; younger folks are everywhere, pierced and done up in modish clothing, footwear and do's. Folks with European complexions; more classically Spanish-looking people -- black hair, dark eyebrows, distinctive facial bone structure and features; darker-skinned folks from Central and South America. Asians, Africans, occasionally people from Arab countries. Residents, dyed-in-the-wool or more recently arrived; tourists, walking with tour books, blinking up into the Iberian light.

I've been out doing errands, and the air, sunlight and temperature are positively seductive. Luckily, I have the kind of day and weekend ahead that will allow me to do whatever I get the impulse to do.

I will try and wrap up that unbelievably drawn-out account of that weekend in Pamplona. Today. Or tomorrow. Honest.

rws 6:40 AM [+]

Thursday, March 21, 2002

[Continued from entry of 20 March]

Sunday's activities had been scheduled to start early. I was up, showered, shaved and packed by the time Curtis called. When I stepped out of the hostal, bags in hand and overjoyed to be free of the place that had deprived me of two nights' sleep, I found a beautiful Navarra morning waiting -- cool, sunny, skies clear. Curtis and his friend Javier found me, we retired to a bar for coffee and something to eat, found our way to Javier's little car and took off.

I was fatigued enough from lack of shuteye that I could only produce the most basic Spanish, though I understood 98% of whatever conversation was underway. Beyond that I didn't have sufficient energy to do more than sit in the back seat and watch Pamplona pass by as the car headed west out of the city. The western reaches brought a sudden expanse of newly constructed apartment buildings and housing developments, then land being prepared for further development, then rolling fields spreading away to hills and ridges lined with huge wind generators. There were times when the Navarran landscape reminded me of Ireland, other times that Vermont or Scotland came to mind, but the sight of the wind generators gave the land a unique look, a combination of elements I'd never seen anywhere else. They stood in long, sinuous lines, riding the spines of the hills, stretching off into the distance for what looked like miles. As the road wound up in elevation and spun around a curve, Javier took a small side road that brought us up along a number of the generators. Javier parked, we got out.

The land stretched down and away on either of the ridge. To one side, fields of various shades of green, clusters of houses, and off in the distance large, looming peaks –- the Pyrenees; to the other side, more verdant, gently undulating country, stretching itself out beneath morning sunlight until it reached another ridge of hills, more wind generators.

We walked up the road where Curtis began acquainting me with part of the reason he was about to drag me around the countryside: el Camino de Santiago –- the way of Santiago, otherwise known as the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela, a hike he's done not once, not twice, but three times. A long hike. A long, long, long hike, through rugged, mountainous terrain.

The camino intersected the road we were on, coming up the ridge on the side toward Pamplona, crossing over and heading away to the west. At the point of intersection stood a metal sculpture of many people walking, beginning in medieval dress, ending in contemporary dress (that's what Curtis claimed anyway; they all looked the same to me -- silhouettes of walking pilgrims). Above them were stars, referring to the camino itself, sometimes called the Milky Way. Nearby stood a large stone monument commemorating the camino. And as we stood there checking it out, I began hearing the sound from the nearest wind power generator -- not a whooshing exactly; stranger than that, more otherworldly. Javier said a friend of his had come up there with a dog, and when they approached the wind generator, the dog began running back and forth, back and forth, as if the sound of enormous vanes turning were driving it a bit crazy.

[Continued -- and completed -- in entry of 26 March]

rws 1:00 PM [+]

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

[Continued from entry of 13 March]

Saturday night, my second in Pamplona, I stepped out with Curtis and a couple of his friends before begging off early (early here being 11:30), hoping to recoup some of the sleep I'd lost to the early-hours light show the night before. Drifting through narrow streets back in the direction of the hostal, I passed what looked like a cross between a pharmacy and a natural foods tienda where I spied one of the greatest ads I've ever seen: a poster of modest dimensions, maybe 18" by 14", consisting of a photo depicting -- and I swear this is genuine -- an attractive woman in a black bra, close up, meaning from her breasts to the crown of her head. She stared down at her boobs in eye-popping, mouth-open astonishment, hands cupped over them.

The line of text across the top of the poster read "Super Eficaz, Super Rápido, Super Práctico" ("Super Effective, Super Fast, Super Practical"). Below that in insistent, oversized letters read the product name "RASSO DRINK" and below that "Concentrado Liquido A Base De Extractos Vegetales" ("Liquid Concentrate From Vegetable Extracts").

Below that read the words "Super Top Efecto Push Up." In other words, Super Top Push-Up Effect.

"Super Top Efecto Push Up." Advertising copy just doesn't get much more basic than that.

From the woman came the astonished cry: "¡No Creo Lo Que Veo Pero... Con RASSO DRINK Sí!!!" ("I Can't Believe What I'm Seeing But... With RASSO DRINK, Yes!!!" With all them exclamation points, this woman is clearly undergoing a life-altering experience.) "...Y," the poster goes on, "Los Resultados Se Ven!" ("...And One Can See The Results!")

I stared happily at this jewel of marketing comedy, completely besotted with the idea that some unknown entrepreneur would throw something like that together for my entertainment. And it must have been for entertainment. It had to be. I had trouble wrapping my teeny brain around the idea that someone might seriously expect this shpiel to produce results. Though, on the other hand, what do I know? There might be individuals who would be drawn to this primal sales pitch like moths to backyard bug-snappers.

That encounter sent me happily back to my simple, spartan room where I watched a bit of fútbol and began to float nicely off to sleep around 12:30. That's when the bar downstairs turned up their music system -- techno, possibly at 150 bpm. In general, I like techno, but (and I invite you to picture Jack Nicholson delivering the following line:) NOT AT 12:30 A.M. WHEN I'M TRYING TO GET SOME GODDAMN SLEEP.

My room was located on the third floor, and though the bar was at street level, two flights down, the music literally sounded as if it were right beneath the floor of my space, as if someone had clamped monstrous speakers to the ceiling of the room directly below mine and cranked up a high-powered stereo. Not much a traveler can do about a bar playing loud music apart from (a) plastic explosives or (b) waiting it out. I hadn't brought any explosives this trip, so went for option (b). Turned on the TV, read, put in earplugs (fat lot of good THAT did), pulled 'em out again, read some more, watched parts of some seriously trashy movies. At 3:30 the music finally stopped, I finally got some shuteye.

[Continued in entry of 21 March]

rws 1:29 PM [+]

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Duct tape has been scored. (See journal entry of March 9). Not called cinta aislante, as a Spanish friend thought it might be (isolating tape -- narrower, it turns out, than duct tape, available in several possible colors, none of which are duct-tape silver) -- the clerk who sold it to me called it called it cinta americana: American tape. Thank god we're known for something besides heavy-handed foreign policy and films big into explosives/car chases.

So there you have it. Found it just in time, too -- an important seam was coming undone on my monster wheeled duffel. This means it will survive the coming Atlantic crossings.

rws 3:48 PM [+]

Back in Madrid. Last night's return flight from London featured one of the most unnerving takeoffs I've ever experienced -- high winds shaking the plane back and forth, up and down -- landing in Madrid two hours later through a layer of clouds. When I dragged my sorry butt out of bed this morning the sky remained cloudy. Around midday the overcast began to break up, by the time I went to out to lunch brilliant sunshine had taken over. Spring's back. Though the temperature coasted up to around 70, nearly everyone continued wearing jackets and coats, as if they couldn't trust or believe it just yet.

It's a holiday here -– Father's Day (el Día del Papa), but also something beyond that, I think, a day honoring one of the many saints who get fêted in these parts. Folks were out in the streets partying last night. I wondered about it, ignorant re: the holiday, but figured what the hell, there is sometimes no logic to the numbers of people out for nighttime revelry here.

It rained virtually all weekend in London. It's good to be back in this city's sunshine.

I found about the holiday when I went to the post office this morning, discovering it closed up and dark. Likewise the nearby Centro Comercial. Virtually everything remained closed today except for some restaurants doing big business because of the lack of places to go. The movie theaters opened later in the afternoon and I decided to check out the film that got Ben Kingsley his latest Oscar nomination, Sexy Beast. Whoooo-eee, that is one intense mother! Well worth seeing, but fasten your seatbelts -- pretty much from the moment Ben Kingsley's character is first mentioned, things get heavy and don't let up.

Right. Enough of this. I'm just checking in. Will get back to the weekend up in Pamplona tomorrow.

Be well.

rws 3:16 PM [+]

Sunday, March 17, 2002

Well, my ISP has not wanted to let me spend much time online this week, and especially didn't want to let me into Blogger. Then I went away for the weekend (am in London visiting a friend, sitting in a flat in a half-finished building off Warwick Road in West Kensington). Will be back in Madrid tomorow evening.

News from the U.K.:

The headline from Friday's edition of the Evening Standard --

The headline from Saturday's edition of The Daily Mail --

An entry from the Fast and Loose column of Time Out, a London arts and entertainment weekly:
"Young, coloured and gay." -- What the next Pope should be, according to a new alternative prayer anthology for gay Christians.

rws 5:25 PM [+]

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

[Continued from entry of 12 March.]

The dessert course appeared as soon as Curtis ditched the joint. Two courses: a big basket of walnuts and a plate holding alternating slices of cheese and something Marco and Jim thought might be conserve or preserve of quince, which grows wild in the mountains locally. The walnuts: not the large, perfect specimens one sees in a supermarket -- Marco thought they might have been grown at this farm. As we dug into them (the management thoughtfully provided a nutcracker, Jim and I immediately struggled over it), I discovered that the more I ate, the more delicious they became. We quickly hoovered them up, leaving the table strewn with mounds of broken shells.

Between the four of us, we'd gone through a pile of food. The bill amounted to 100 euros, about $90 U.S., dirt cheap considering all the entertainment that came with the package. Coffee didn't seem to be available, however -– astonishing, that, considering the way Spaniards normally toss down espresso. We decided to find another site for after-dinner caffeine, Jim saying it needed to be a place that also had cigars (called "puros" here).

We paid up, had a few last words with the proprietor –- a genuinely hilarious individual. When we stepped outside the day had become, if anything, grayer, damper, the air more cool and tangy.

Jim pulled the Fiat into the parking lot of a restaurant by the highway, we wandered inside to the small bar area where coffee and Jim's cigar awaited. As we stood around, sipping espresso, Marco noticed a wooden display case positioned atop a refrigerator that sat by the wall to one side of the bar. Containing arty postcards, all shots of local, rustic scenes, including a particular one that caught his eye, a picture of a hefty guy lifting a large, heavy, square object, apparently as part of a traditional competition, the way Scots fairs have the log throwing thingy. He reached to pick that card out, and with his touch the display shelf fell behind the refrigerator, producing jarringly loud clatter. All action in the bar stopped, all eyes turned to Marco. Curtis and I quietly disassociated ourselves from anything but innocent, unobtrusive coffee sipping. Marco and Jim got the display shelf back up on top of the refrigerator, collected the postcards, put them all back in the display. Except for the one card Marco wanted -– there had only been one of its kind -– which had slipped under the refrigerator, out of reach.

Back in Pamplona, Marco and Jim dropped me and Curtis off where they'd picked us up, way the hell across town from where I was staying, though not far from Curtis' place. Great for him, as he wanted to take a nap. I wanted to hit an internet joint I'd found the night before, so grabbed a taxi.

A local quirk: for some reason, you can't hail a taxi on the street in Pamplona. You have to go to a taxi stand, which means you have to know where they're located, information a furriner like myself might not have. Curtis pointed out a stand, in a driveway in front of a hospital. Without that help, I might have been up the proverbial creek.

I spent a good long time at the internet joint, during which a loud, insistent political demonstration started up, began making its slow way through the local streets. Curtis and I had come across another one the night before, that one looking like a large squad of cheerleaders, done cheerfully up in clown wigs, doing moves to something they chanted I couldn't understand. The kids were high school age, so the cheerleader thing seemed like a possibility. Curtis disagreed, looking a bit intense, we let it go at that.

The Saturday night demonstration: larger, very different, consisting of two long columns of kids –- again, high-school age -– done up in traditional folk outfits of some kind including, for many of them, two long bells tied around them so that the bells hung out from their backs, like long, rigid, brass breasts. The kids moved in a slow, trotting cadence that rang the bells loudly in a pronounced rhythm, punctuated by chanting I couldn't make out and horns that other kids blew. This was all done by teenagers –- no grown-ups were involved. In fact, the grown-ups I saw seemed to purposely keep their distance, mostly looking anything but amused. There was something oddly, subtly aggressive about the demonstration, and I made my way quickly by, glad to be past it and off into other, quieter streets.

The point of these demonstrations, I was later told, was support of ETA, and in particular the pushing of a particular cause: the return of imprisoned members of ETA to Navarra, so that they could serve out their sentences there. It's apparently being promoted as a humanitarian idea -- i.e., so families could visit more easily -- that would also be a blow against the Spanish government's "repression" of ETA "freedom fighters." (Why the quotation marks? Because the whole thing has the distinct feel of what I can only describe as extremely partisan propaganda.) The members of ETA who are in prison are generally there for assassinations or bombings, or for activities in support of same, and the atmosphere that I encountered in Pamplona around all this felt intensely charged and unsafe. Apparently, it's not considered wise there to express one's sentiments if one does not support ETA as it can result in violence and intimidation. Or so I'm told.

Pro-ETA graffiti/posters/handbills were ubiquitous in the old part of the city, some bars had pro-ETA literature and posters prominently displayed. In talking with Curtis about all this, he clearly seemed to tap into deep emotions of anger and frustration. The same is true of most Spaniards I've heard talk about it. I can only listen and watch, thinking of the long years of IRA/UDA violence in northern Ireland (my father's side of the family all having come from the south of that green island) and the pointlessness of it all.

I don't know what I expected to find in Pamplona, but it wasn't such a sharp sense of danger and paranoia. The juxtaposition of that over a beautiful, lively city, abundant with blossom-covered cherry and almond trees, felt strange, a little unreal.

[Continued in entry of 20 March]

rws 1:41 PM [+]

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

[Continued from entry of 11 March.]

Soon as we sat down, a sizeable loaf of hard-crusted bread materialized, along with a large knife. Marco took to carving the bugger up and strewing slices around, us gnawing on them as we tried out the cider. Before long the first course appeared, a large platter of tortilla de bacalao. On the chance you don't already know this, a Spanish tortilla has no relation to a Mexican one except that they're round and get eaten. Spanish tortilla: essentially a kind of omelet, usually in a form that suggests a quiche/omelet hybrid. Thick and round, made with eggs, with potatoes and/or green or red pepper, often with other ingredients –- ham, shrimp, greens, sausage. They're delicious, and have been a near staple of my diet here. Bacalao is salt cod, which is what this tortilla contained. Though I'm not generally a fan of fish (pescado), bacalao is usually mild enough that I can deal, which proved to be the case here. (Bacalao: also the Spanish word for techno, as in music of the 210 beats per minutes variety. Why? Got me.)

We were given no plates apart from the platter with the tortilla, leaving us no option but to use forks to cut pieces off rapidly-shrinking mother tortilla and ferry them directly to mouths. Between the four of us, the tortilla dematerialized in no time flat.

Next course: a chuletón. A chuleta is a chop, often a pork chop (chuleta de cerdo). A chuletón is a massive version of a chop or, speaking technically, a huge freakin' slab of meat. In this case a gigantic slab of beef, done dark on the outside, which gave the appearance of having been well-cooked. (Brief pause for snorts of laughter.) On cutting into it, we found ourselves staring at meat of such a deep, shocking red that Curtis wondered aloud if they'd actually cooked the bugger or if they'd just slapped some black paint on it. It was, apart from the seared exterior, some of the rawest flesh I've ever eaten. And, I'll admit it, pretty good. The four of us quickly demolished the first one. Jim called for a second, it appeared. I'd about reached my limit for consumption of raw flesh, but as this one turned out to be bit more well-done, I had a little. When that one disappeared, Jim called for a third. Even the proprietor seemed impressed with that. That final slab essentially went to Jim and Curtis.

During all this, more diners arrived, the calls to cider continued. A couple of times, those calls led the growing crowd down into a sub-basement where two more casks lurked. At one point, the proprietor led everyone outside and around the corner of the building to a storage room, redolent of hay and crisp country air, housing two large metal tanks off at one end, each containing a batch of cider. After the afternoon's initial cider round, Curtis, Jim and Marco collectively decided they preferred wine, they spent the rest of the event working their way through a couple of pitchers worth. I stuck to cider, being immune to the alcohol and enjoying the semi-chaotic ritual of it all.

The crowd sharing the basement with us: an interesting, motley group. Entirely Spaniards, I think, apart from our table, including families with children -- the children sitting together at a table coloring with crayons -- and at least two infants, who received a lot of attention. There were a fair number of 20-somethings, including one anarchist at the table behind me who got some marijuana circulating. We didn't realize this until we saw the proprietor standing by one of the casks near our table finishing off a joint (un porro). We got talking with the 20-something, he immediately laid half of a porro on us, which Curtis and I stared at as if someone had just handed us a live grenade. I prefer to stay more or less lucid, so took a fast, cosmetic, token hit and tossed it to Curtis, who appeared completely perplexed. We tried to give it back to the 20-something, he insisted it remain in circulation, Curtis finally handed it off in another direction.

[Continued in entry of 13 March.]

rws 1:26 PM [+]

Monday, March 11, 2002

[Continued from entry of 9 March.]

I got driven out of Pamplona both days of my visit (in motor vehicles, not by crowds with torches and pitchforks). Something that struck me both times: the suddenness with which the city's reach ended. One minute expanses of apartment buildings, gas stations, industrial structures -- the next: country. Not something I've seen many times in the States, where the tendency often seems to be to ugly up as much landscape as possible, spreading new construction across huge swaths of beautiful land.

This particular day: cool, overcast. As we drove further up into what I call mountains and what Curtis swore were not actually mountains when compared with the peaks deeper into the range (he referred to the area we were in as pre-Pyrenees), the clouds thickened and lowered, the landscape became more vertical, more dramatic.

Somewhere during the course of a discussion between Curtis and I re: the dubbed version of the Austin Powers films (according to him, the first film's dubbing used different actors for Austin Powers and Dr. Evil, missing the point and squandering comic opportunities; the second one employed a popular Spanish comedian for those voices, as well as for Fat Bastard; something else -- the Spanish version of the name Fat Bastard: Gordo Cabrón, essentially translating out to, er, Fat Bastard), Marco pulled off the highway, started up a small country road, turning off that onto a smaller country road that meandered up and down hills, bringing us eventually into a small settlement of buildings where it wound through and continued on its way. We didn't go with it. Marco pulled up next to one of the buildings, parked, we got out into silence and fresh, cool air.

I wouldn't have guessed there was anything approximating a restaurant nearby, but Marco and Jim seemed to know what they were doing. We walked a bit, came around the corner of a barn, headed toward what looked like a barn door. As we approached, I could see a sign indicating commercial possibilities, and on entering, we found ourselves in a good-sized basement space -- low ceilings, rough, hard floor, ten or so long, wooden tables flanked by benches. Ranged across one end of the room were three or four huge wooden casks, on the opposite side were two more. All bore a one-word legend in the local language, apparently the type of cider or the type of apple that produced the cider.

The name of this rough-hewn restaurant-style concern: Martitxonea Sagardotegia. The owners: Inaxio Begiristain, Ainhoa Garaikoetxea. Walking around Pamplona amid stores, posters, graffiti written in that language -– combined with many centuries of history –- produced a vivid sensation of being in a foreign country. Factor into that the strange, intense political atmosphere, and I found myself in a milieu I'd never experienced before. More on that later.

Two tables were occupied. We planted ourselves at one in front of the smaller bank of cider casks, the owner checked us out, talking a bit with Jim and Marco about the menu, etc. I waited to see what I was in for. During the drive, conversation in the car had been compartmentalized -– front seat, Jim and Marco; back seat, Curtis and myself. Seated, waiting for food, etc., four-way interaction slowly commenced -- three Americans and a tall, long-faced, long-haired, bespectacled, bestubbled Italian -- in Castellano.

Within minutes, the proprietor appeared by one of the nearby casks, holding a narrow rod, maybe a foot long. He called out something to the room, people from other tables immediately flew in his direction holding glasses. Where a normal cask might have a tap, this one had a smear of putty. The proprietor plunged the end of the rod deeply into it, on pulling it out a stream of cider (sidra) emerged, looking for the all the world as if the cask were taking a whiz. The first person in line immediately positioned their glass down near the floor to collect cider while the next person waited, their glass beneath the first person's -- when the first glass became more or less half full, its owner pulled it away, cider streamed into the second person's. And so it went, most participants collecting a fourth to a half of a glassful, then returning to their table. As I learned, substantial quantities of cider were consumed during the afternoon -- taking a quarter to a half of a glass at a time was a matter of pacing oneself. Not just because the quantities of consumed food and drink added up, but because it was hard cider. For some reason -- don't ask me why; I can't explain it, only appreciate it -- the alcohol in the cider doesn't affect me, so that I'm able to consume it with impunity. I get the impression that it may not affect anyone very strongly, the atmosphere being nothing like the drinking scenes I've witnessed in the States or on weekend nights around Madrid, but I could be wrong. It might simply be that the people handle themselves better.

Positioning one's glass so that the stream of cider is as lengthy as possible seemed to be important -– I vaguely remember someone telling me about aeration and its importance to the cider's flavor during my first visit to a sidrería here in Madrid (a very different experience, though also fun). That might be true. Or it might have more to do with ritual than anything else. Don't know.

[Continued in entry of 12 March.]

rws 1:27 PM [+]

Saturday, March 09, 2002

There is something about spending an afternoon with a group of men that is simply unlike an afternoon spent with a group of women. I state the obvious, I know, but it deserves stating.

This morning: found myself awake around 5 or 6 a.m., never really managing to slip back to sleep. Something about people coming and going at all hours in the hostal. Not that we're talking screaming, drunken laughter or sounds of breaking glass -- just other human beings coming and going during the long Navarran night. The lights in the hostal's hallways apparently work with motion detectors, so that when someone comes up the stairway or out of the elevator, the lights flicker on, going off a short while later. The single window in my little room looks out on a light shaft. Windows from the stairwell look out on the same light shaft. Any time a body ascended the stairs or stumbled from the elevator the lights came on, then went off. On and off. On and off. Fun.

So I found myself awake, but remained horizontal until 9 a.m. Got up, did the basic preening, headed out. The narrow streets of Pamplona were nice to wander at that hour, with atmosphere to burn and few folks about.

Satisfied my internet jones, Curtis appeared, retrieved me, we went for food/coffee. I was never really a coffee person in my life in the States. Now it's close to being indispensible. Of course, I'm talking Spanish coffee, not the American version. And though I've only been here slightly over 24 hours, it's already clear that the food in Navarra, or at least around Pamplona, is superb. Tantalizing. Robust. Delicious.

We found an open joint, had the day's first caffeine infusion and the day's first tapas. Wandered about a bit, trying to find a hardware store (una ferretería), me in serious need of duct tape and so far seeing no trace of it anywhere. Curtis has asked people about it, they all claim to know what he's talking about, but no one knows what it's called here, no one seems to know where to locate some. Swell.

Stopped in at another coffee/tapas joint, an old, elegant place fronting one of the city's many plazas. More good coffee, more excellent food. On impulse, we went into el Museo de Navarra. A beautiful place, as it turned out -- spacious, airy, with a collection that spans materials from 2500 years before Christ to contemporary art -- crystallizing a feeling I've had that this area feels an awful lot like places in Ireland.

We cut the museum visit short to continue the duct tape hunt. Found two ferreterías, both of which closed at 1:30. We, of course, arrived about 1:36. Much swearing in Spanish and English.

Gave up on the duct tape thing, walked halfway across the city to rendezvous with two friends of Curtis' for the day's main event, a jaunt out into the mountains for a meal at a sidrería.

I found myself in Fiat's version of an SUV, being driven by Marco, an Italian living in Pamplona. Jim -- a large, funny, florid-complexioned American married to a Spanish woman from Burgos -- rode shotgun, deep into conversation with Marco as we headed up into the mountains beneath gray skies. Curtis and I sat in back, him pointing out passing sights, mostly old, old, old churches.

[Continued in entry of 11 March.]

rws 1:31 PM [+]

Friday, March 08, 2002

I'm sitting in an internet joint in Pamplona, the capital of Navarra. A lovely city, as it turns out.

The airport: a tiny outpost a few kilometers outside the municipality, in the middle of a long, sweeping plateau around which are ranged an impressive array of mountains. They tossed us off the plane onto the sunlit tarmac, late-afternoon temperature around 60. A brisk breeze ruffled clothes, distant peaks sported crowns of clouds, showing the white of snow. Inside the terminal, Spaniards talked into cell-phones, baggage slowly appeared, two members of the Guardia Civil kept an eye on us travelers.

I grabbed a taxi, and as we approached the city, Pamplona revealed itself to be a long, modestly-sized urban sprawl skirting foothills. Pretty, and prettier the deeper into it the drive went, until we reached the city's beautiful old section, where I'm staying.

Checked in at the hostal, went back out into the evening light, took a stroll to get a sense of the neighborhood. Old, narrow streets, shops on the ground floor, pisos above, most with the requisite floor-to-ceiling french-style doors fronted by full-length shutters and a balcón. Some residents had caged canaries out on their balcones, singing their hearts out in the evening air.

There are more footwear stores here than any city has a right to have. My barrio in Madrid is the same -- how they all survive I can't say. Also, like Madrid, there are many, many places to get tapas, wine, beer and more serious, more substantial food. Numerous bakeries (pastelerías). And a condom shop -- La Condonería (er, 'The Condom Shop').

There are also harsh handbills taped up all over the place protesting the recent detaining by Spanish police of a number of people connected with ETA, the terrorist/separatist group based in el País Vasco -- the Basque Country -- that has an unfortunate habit of leaving bombs in places they shouldn't. "Dejad en paz," say the handbills, "a la joventud de Euskal Herría, fascistas!" ("Leave the Basque Country youth in peace, fascists!")

My friend Curtis, clearly far more resourceful than I'd ever pegged him as being (and I swear I mean that in only the most positive, most appreciative way), just tracked me down, found me hiding here. We will now adjourn for an evening of tapas and related activities.

Maybe more later in the weekend. Be well.

rws 2:47 PM [+]

Thursday, March 07, 2002

I'm into another bout of intensive Spanish classes, two weeks' worth this time.

Here's a truth: throw a bunch of people from different points on the map together in a room, it can prove real interesting. This group consists of five Germans: Jan (from my January classes), a 22 or so year old German guy and three German women -- Stephanie, Sandra, and one who started with our group today whose name I don't remember right this nanosecond, all around 23 or 24, all bright -- a smart, multilingual, late-forty-something Italian woman named Livia, and a Japanese 20-something woman named Aya. Jan wasn't in class today -- just me and a room full of intelligent, attractive women. Not what I would call a hardship.

The group edged its way into a discussion about immigration -- something Germany has had difficult, complex dealings with in recent years -- producing a long, intense exchange between the three German women and Livia (married to a German), Stephanie and Sandra pretty much going head to head at one point. Spain also has complicated immigration problems, from Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, and I noticed that our instructor, Raquel, mostly just listened, as did Aya and myself.

It got me thinking about the long, slow changes that have resulted from massive immigration to the States. It's been interesting to observe the same kind of process underway here in Spain from the perspective of a furriner in the country's capital. Spain has both an extremely strong, well-developed streak of progressiveness, which a lot of the well-educated population takes pride in, and a strong conservative element. The two engage in a near-constant dialogue -– at times a loud, heated, uncivil dialogue -– with various representatives taking up various causes at different times. A few months back a huge controversy mushroomed over groups of illegal South American immigrants who had taken refuge in churches in Barcelona. When it became clear that the government had every intention of shipping them back across the Atlantic, they began hunger strikes, and the two sides pushed their causes via the media which, being the media, was happy to funnel all the noise and drama to the public at large. The situation ultimately limped to a close, the government apparently getting the better of the situation.

It's odd being here in one of the European countries which shaped and influenced so many of the cultures on the other side of the Atlantic. The States are essentially a culture of immigrants and offspring of immigrants (some might include the indigenous peoples in North America in that description), a strikingly different perspective from over here, the land mass that was the launching point for the conquistadores.

Me, I tend to think we're all immigrants, showing up in this life from what I'll call points unknown, stumbling our way through our years, often conveniently forgetting that we're actually all family. All of us.

But that's a rant for another entry.

Tomorrow I head up to Pamplona for the weekend, my first excursion north. A friend who teaches in the University up there apparently has a lot of activity and good eating planned for me. Don't know whether I'll get to a computer to inflict any of the proceedings on you. Will find out when I get there.


rws 2:02 PM [+]

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

I started two more weeks of intensive Spanish classes yesterday. Same school as in January, right outside the oldest part of the city, Madrid de los Austrias, right near the opera house, la Plaza de Oriente and the royal palace.

I catch the subway right here in la Plaza de Chueca, go three stops to the south, get out at the station called Opera (called that, oddly enough, because it's right out in front of the local opera joint, El Teatro Real). To get to the surface from the line I take in the morning you have to struggle up four flights of stairs (stairs -- not an escalator in sight). Then one blessed flight down. Then a final ascending flight of stairs that brings you up and out to the street. And it's in that last climb upward that I've re-encountered something I loved about the commute to the school back in January.

The national lottery here is run by an outfit called ONCE, which is not the English word 'once.' Here, 'once' is the Spanish word for 11 (pronounced 'own-thaye'). It's also an acronym for the Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles (National Organization of Blind Spaniards). ONCE has stations all over the city, some of which are little booths, some of which are just places where people stand selling lottery tickets. And because it's an organization for the blind, many of the vendors are blind folk.

A high number of the blind pass through la Plaza de Chueca, feeling their way along with telescoping canes. Way, way more than in your normal neighborhood. I sat at an outdoor café just off the plaza one time with a Spanish woman, both of us becoming aware that there was a nearly continual stream of blind folks going by -– singly, in twos, in threes. Neither of us knew what to make of it. In our ignorance, we theorized that there might be a school for the blind nearby. I later found out that ONCE has an office a block or two off the far side of the plaza, the traffic being people en route to or returning from business there.

Every morning as I mount the final flight of stairs up out of the Opera subway station, I hear the call of a blind fella who stands off to one side at the top, leaning against the railing there, selling lottery tickets. He usually stands behind a small table, usually has an umbrella set up for when it rains or for days of oppressive heat and sunlight. He calls out various sales lines, delivered as long, drawn out chants, most of which are variations on, "Vamos, señores, el premio para hoy...." ("Let's go, ladies and gentleman, the jackpot for today...."), after which he'll name the figure of the day's expected winnings. He usually extends the word "hoy" (which is pronounced "oy"), letting it go on and on and on, so his rap actually goes something like, "Vamos, señores, el premio para hooooooyyyyyyyyyyy...."

I can't explain exactly why, but something about coming up out of the ground into the center of Madrid in the mornings, being met with that -– it sounds so exotic and musical, vaguely Arabic -– tugs on something down inside me. Like many things in this city do.

A month from now I'll be back in the States. There are things about being back that I will enjoy very much -- people I'll be closer to, the green mountains of Vermont -- but I am going to miss Madrid in ways I can't even begin to describe to you.

That's a few weeks away, though. In the meantime, I get to enjoy being here.

rws 12:33 PM [+]

Monday, March 04, 2002

On the way back from dinner Friday night [see journal entry of March 2], we took an alternate route from the one that passes through the plaza and found ourselves walking up a street lined with caravans that indicated filming of some sort in progress. They might have been shooting in an interior location 'cause we saw no personnel, no equipment, no people milling around. Just the caravans, seven or eight of them.

It's not unusual to see filming going on around Madrid, most of it apparently connected with television -– they materialize at a location, set up lights, shoot something, pack everything up and bolt -– though the industry here has a reasonably high profile and seems to be in decent health. What I've found to be a nice surprise is the generally high caliber of the acting. Doesn't matter if we're talking TV, films or stage, the work is usually okay and seems to indicate pretty good training.

Most Americans and Brits I've met here seem to make a point of mentioning how awful Spanish television is, and yes, there's a lot of wasted air time. I've heard it said that the quality has slid drastically downhill from what it was ten, fifteen years ago. I can't say. All I can testify to is that the pickings are fairly slim when it comes to indigenous programming. I would also say, however, that regardless of the overall quality of the show, the acting is generally pretty good, and that's some consolation to me. In fact, when it comes to films, most of what I've seen from Spain and other hispanic countries -- Mexico and Argentina, in particular -- has been good, really good. And not simply the acting -- the whole production, all the way down the line. Examples which would make good rentals if you can track them down in a local video joint: "Visionarios" ("Visionaries" -– Spain), "Silencio Roto" ("Broken Silence" -– Spain), "Juana La Loca" ("Juana the Mad" -- Spain -- the female lead in this one, Pilar López de Ayala, gives a tremendous performance), "Amores Perros" ("Dog Loves" –- Mexico), "Sin Dejar Huello" ("Without A Trace" –- Mexico), "Nueve Reinas" ("Nine Queens" -– Argentina), "El Hijo de La Novia" ("The Son of The Bride" -– Argentina). Great movies, all of them, though keep in mind that if you're looking for a light comedy the one that comes closest is El Hijo de La Novia. For a great story with a abundant twists and turns, good, high-quality escapist fare, you might want to go for Nueve Reinas. The rest are all worth a viewing, but are not what you might call light entertainment.

There's also "Calle 54" ("54th Street" -– Spain), a labor of love consisting of filmed performances by the cream of what would generally be called Latin Jazz -– a label that encompasses all sorts of styles. You can't go wrong with that one, though you'll have more fun if you have your TV/VCR/DVD plugged into a good sound system when you watch it.

And then there are the films of Pedro Almodóvar –- "Carne Tremula" ("Trembling Flesh"), "Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios" ("Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"), "Todo Sobre Mi Madre" ("All About My Mother"), and many more -– which occupy a whole other universe. He's a wacky, wacky guy, easily worth checking out if you've never seen his stuff, but don't expect American-style filmmaking.

What got me off onto all that? Oh, yeah -– the caravans in the street.

Post-good-night to my friends, as I unlocked the door to my building, six or seven cops passed by, dressed to the teeth in riot gear, complete with clubs and visored helmets. Heading in the direction of the plaza. I've never seen anything like that here, it got me wondering what the hell was up. I was curious, but not curious enough to trail after them. Instead, I went upstairs and, thankfully, the following hours brought no street noise out of the ordinary Friday night partying. No sounds of unrest, no screams, no breaking glass, no yelling, no sirens, no indications of violent conflict. And there have been no police around since then.

As they used to say in catechism class, it's a mystery.

Since that evening, the springlike weather that had blessed the city with beautiful days and light spirits has turned cool, gray and rainy. This is not bad -– most of Spain has had little in the way of precipitation this last autumn and winter. The water reserves are at half of what they were last year at this time, and in Cataluña, northeast of here -– the autonymous community that includes the province and city of Barcelona -– they've had almost no rain at all. Over the last few weeks, the authorities have grown openly nervous about the situation. So it's good, this weather, it's just a serious change. Snow has been falling in the north of the country, there are weather alerts in some provinces. Kind of like March in New England.

It'll pass. Spring is less than three weeks off, the temperatures will resume their slow rise, before you know it everyone will be heading east to the coast and north to the mountains to escape the heat.

rws 12:18 PM [+]

Saturday, March 02, 2002

Went out last night looking to scare up a meal, ran into a couple of friends, we wound up getting some chow together.

It was Friday night in Chueca, the streets busy with people -- all sorts of people, from teenagers and 20-somethings with hair dyed bright colors, to 50- and 60-somethings done up more soberly. We made our way down my street toward the neighborhood plaza, passing folks walking silently, past groups talking and laughing loudly, past a 50-something couple -- him dressed in a suit -- their arms around each other's waist as they strolled, talking companionably.

The plaza: crowded with people, as it is most Friday nights. Last night, however, the energy seemed different -- we could feel it as soon as we rounded the corner and passed through the crowd. Stranger than normal (and that's saying something), different from the usual good-time atmosphere.

We walked along, folks swirling past in all directions, people disappearing down the stairs to the Metro, others emerging from same to step out into the Plaza. And then a group of four of five policemen appeared from the pedestrian passageway we were moving toward, passing us. Not a normal part of the mix, the enforcers -– the plaza is not a dangerous place, there's normally no police presence to speak of. The activity may get loud, some of the partygoers may be strange folk, but it's never violent, never a place of robberies or worrisome confrontations, at least in my experience. It's never been a place where I've felt danger, ever.

I looked up at the 'CONTROLA EL RUIDO'banners hanging from the buildings around the plaza [see journal entry of February 26], wondering if the vibe had to do with that. Maybe the neighbors were so fed up with the noise, with all the nighttime activity, that they were pressuring the city government to do something about it. Maybe the City was responding with a show of police force in an attempt to ratchet down the weekend merrymaking.

Whatever the situation, the vibe was definitely a bit skewed.

And then I saw a 20-something couple, standing with their arms around each other in a sustained embrace, their eyes closed. They were that way when I first noticed them, they remained that way as we passed and headed out the other side of the plaza. A long, long hug, both he and she oblivious to the scene taking place around them. Just holding each other with fierce tenderness, nothing else intruding.

I see something like that, it puts everything in perspective. In that moment, that young couple reminded me of the only thing of any real importance -- everything else suddenly seemed peripheral, insubstantial.

My two friends also noticed them. We shared a smile about it, continued on our way. Found somewhere to eat, had a nice meal. The evening rolled on.

rws 7:35 AM [+]

Friday, March 01, 2002

During my first evening here in the summer of 2000, Leslie –- sister of my best friend's wife, married to a Spanish attorney, now living in this part of the world for something like 19 years -– took me out for tapas. Not a carousing binge. She didn't have that kind of time, I was jet-lagged. More of a brief intro to Madrid's nightlife.

Going out like that in Madrid is a joy. The city is positively heaving with eating and drinking establishments, and the people go out and enjoy them. It's part of the way of life, and it's a pretty good way of life.

So we're in Leslie's car, flying down wide boulevards at genuinely high velocity (another part of the way of life here: driving fast and wild). We insinuate our way into a happening section of the city center through a maze of narrow one-way streets, Leslie even manages to scare up a parking spot –- the fact that it was July 31st, half the population away on vacation, probably helped. We walk a couple of blocks, she leads me to a little joint, an old, well-established place, small but loaded with atmosphere, the display cases on the bar packed with tapas of all kinds. We're ordering, I'm checking everything out. I notice garbage all over the floor. And I mean garbage. All over the floor. Wadded-up napkins, food remnants, cigarette butts. Leslie returns from the bar with a couple of plates of stuff, I ask about the refuse display. Her eyes widen, she laughs, realizing I'm new to all this, explains that it's the custom here. In bars, taverns, tapas joints, people toss their trash on the floor. It tends to accumulate in mounds near the foot of the bar and off to the sides, periodically it gets swept up or at least arranged into more compact mounds. It's just what they do. It's not only what they do, people apparently often judge the desirability of a tapas joint by the amount of refuse strewn around the floor, the theory being that more trash indicates a busier place (the implication: busy = good). Or so I've been told.

I adjusted to this surprisingly quickly, same way I adjusted to cigarette smoke in bars and restaurants. But things are changing. Since the turn of this year, many places have installed small trash containers (cubos de basura), either on the floor inside the foot rail at the bottom of the bar or screwed to the surface of the bar itself. Enough people have been using them that I see far less trash strewn around than I used to. Maybe it's an organized attempt to project a more sophisticated image to the international community. A more urbane picture, something more befitting a global power.

I've become accustomed enough to the cleaner state of these joints that flagrant examples of old-style trash-dropping conduct now stand out. Example: me, in a neighborhood joint a few weeks back. La Cafetería Vic-Mar, a local version of what would be called a greasy-spoon in the States. Not refined or genteel. But fun, clientele a bit wilder, more colorful than your normal joint. And the place does good, thick soups.

I'm sitting there one afternoon wading through lunch, a rumpled, loud 60-something couple is seated at a table about eight feet away from me, finishing up their meal. He's working on a cigarette, his wife is finishing up her food -- when the butt gets down to the last puff, the guy doesn't just drop it to the floor, he flicks it several feet away in a lazy arc that lands near the cafetería's entrance, tossing off a couple of sparks when it touches down and bounces to a stop. It had been a while since I'd seen something like that in a public eating place here, so it caught my attention. No one else seemed to notice. A few minutes later, that couple finished up and bolted, their table remained vacant. Within minutes, a younger type sitting at the bar finished up a cigarette, flicking it off in a grand arc like the older guy had done. Or trying to flick it off in a grand arc, not quite making it. Instead of winging its way to open floor, the butt jerked two or three feet through air to land on the chair the previous butt-flicker had occupied, bouncing, tossing off sparks then coming to rest. The chairs in this place are decent hand-caned jobs, smoke began rising from the chair almost immediately as the cane started to smolder. The butt-flicker's eyes widened, he threw himself at the unintended combustion as discretely as he could manage, wiping the butt off the seat to the floor where it slowly went out.

No one seemed to notice, no one said anything.

The Spaniards aren't always as easygoing as this. Observe a busy intersection at rush hour, you'll see what I mean. But when it comes to tapas bars and the like, it's much more tranquil. The food, the drinks, the conversation are too important to sweat the small stuff.

I like that. I'll miss it.

rws 12:42 PM [+]


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.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .


London '01
Italy '03
U.K. '03
Italy '04
La Sierra

Madrid -- arrival
Emergency Room I
Holidays 2001
Holidays 2002
Holidays 2003
Holidays 2004
Holidays 2005
A neighbor's passing
Madrid -- March 11 bombings
  and aftermath
Emergency Room II
Israeli friend/Madrid Marathon
Madrid -- Royal Wedding
The DELE exam

GONE, a novel:
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10

JOE ROCCO, a novella:
-- Part 1
-- Part 2
-- Part 3

a screenplay:
-- Part 1
-- Part 2
-- Part 3
-- Part 4

Short stories:
Murphy's Wife
Another Autumn
La Queja de Una
  Hermanastra Muy Conocida

-- Personal History
-- Hormones On Parade
-- Accidents, Random Mishaps,
    Personal Problems

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .


fudge it
fear not
idle words
rebel market
letting me be
out and about
kung fu grippe
fanatical apathy
baghdad burning
wfuv's music blog
kexp's music blog
mimi smartypants
between the miles
just a hippie gypsy
the impossible cool
tomato can brushes
vermont homestead
sugar mountain farm

Good Clean Fun:
dave barry
human clock
internet archive
self-portrait day
my cat hates you
out of context quotes
surrealist compliment
strindberg and helium

Makin' Musical Whoopee:
last fm
soma fm

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