far too much writing, far too many photos


Wednesday, April 30, 2003

I've been ignoring a problem with the toilet in this flat for weeks now. Weeks and weeks. Er, well, months, actually. When I returned to Madrid at the beginning of December, I discovered that during my absence water from the toilet tank had begun trickling down into the toilet bowl, meaning the tank had to refill itself periodically, using a fair amount of water over time. Rather than take the mechanism apart and try to figure out what was up, I just turned off the water line to the tank via a simple, conveniently-located tankside knob. When I needed to flush, I turned it back on. Turned it off again, post-flush. Brilliant. Problem solved, sort of.

I mentioned it to my landlords, but as it was something easy to ignore, we decided to ignore it and see how that went. With time, I noticed that when I turned the water back on, the seepage from the tank down into the bowl had gotten worse -- rubber tank parts, maybe, not happy with drying out over and over and over.

A month ago, when the male half of the landlords stopped by for an infusion of cash, I let him know the time had arrived to take care of the toilet. He took the mechanism apart, located what he thought was the problem -- a large rubber washer. Simple and inexpensive enough that we decided we could leave it to me to take care of. I'd find a plumbing supply store in the barrio, pick up a new part, replace the old one. Which I, of course, never got around to, having plenty of other stuff to distract myself with. Until I spoke with the LL a day or two back and he asked how it had gone. Which got me feeling silly enough that I finally got off my adorable butt and swung into action.

Which meant, of course, that I had to locate a plumbing supply store. In the States, I'd pull out the yellow pages. Here, for some reason, the yellow pages don't seem to list things like plumbing supplies in sections like plumbing supplies. No one seems to know where they list things like that. My landlord didn't know. I sure didn't -- I'd already looked through the whole goddamn book.

So I decided to ask a plumber and wandered over to a shop a block from here, an ancient, dark, narrow space tucked away between a tapas bar and a small clothes shop, its front room littered with mounds of tools and dust-covered plumbing parts. I rapped discretely at the door, a friendly, grizzled character emerged from a back room, came blinking into the light of the street. I showed him the part, asked if he knew where I could get a replacement. "Claro," he says ("Sure"), and gives me directions to a shop a couple of blocks away, behind the plaza.

Which turned out to be a shop with shiny displays of kitchen/bathroom set-ups in front, and shelves of supplies in the back. Two customers were there ahead of me when I walked in the door, one just finishing up. He leaves, the clerk starts with the next customer, a 30ish Chinese fella, dressed in what would pass as office casual clothes in the States. He speaks decent, limited Spanish, the fingernail on his left-hand pinky has been allowed to grow long, and been manicured to a sharply rounded point.

An actual plumber shows up just after me, a genial guy in his 30s -- short, burly, clearly coming straight from work 'cause everything about him is soiled, especially his hands, which hold what's left of a cigarette. A second plumbing type shows up after him. Then a short, stout, 60-something woman. We're all waiting because the Chinese guy is buying parts for a complicated job, and every time the counter person finds a requested item, the Chinese guy asks for something else. PVC tubing, brass pipes, mounting materials, joints, little teeny doodads of all kinds. On and on and on.

The elderly woman asks plumber #1 about something she saw advertised on TV, something that gets installed in the incoming water pipes to a given household, which supposedly cleans out the pipes as water flows through it and through the system. The counter person, still hard at work with the Chinese guy suggests it may be a midget with a scrub brush. Plumber #1 has never heard of this product, has serious doubts whether it would have any positive effect, given the age of the pipes in most of the local buildings and the kind of build-up in the pipes. The woman figures she may try it anyway -- if it works, great; if it doesn't, what the hell.

Conversation like this continues while the collection of supplies on the counter grows into a truly impressive heap of stuff, until the counter person finally has to write it all up, looking up prices as he does. More time passes. The elderly woman has found a seat from which she continues producing commentary of all kinds, getting responses from plumber #1 and the counter person. (Plumber #2 had given up and bolted.) At some point, the woman peers over in the direction of the counter, sees the process continues, exclaims loudly, "¡Ay! ¡Todavía no ha terminado ese hombre!" ("Jeez, that man still hasn't finished!") Plumber #1 cracks up, makes an answering comment I can't decipher through his laughter. Everyone's laughing now except the poor Chinese guy, who's trying to ignore it all and get his supplies paid for and out of there.

I finally get the new washer -- a big one, maybe 2, 2-1/2 inches across -- come home, install it. Put the mechanism back together, let water run back into the tank. Water re-commences trickling from the tank into the bowl. I take the bugger apart, tinker with different things, go through a process of putting it back together, trying it out, taking it apart again, experimenting with different adjustments until I get the flow down to a minimal trickle. Couldn't get it to stop flowing altogether, though. Gave the landlord a call, let him know what happened. He'll check it out when he stops by for his next infusion of cash (which should be real soon now, this being April 30).

Meanwhile, it is a spectacular spring day. Tomorrow is a holiday here (Mayday!), meaning many people will take Friday off as well, the kind of long weekend that's called 'un puente' here (a bridge). The feeling outside is relaxed -- this being, in effect, this week's Friday for many Madrileños. Which might account for the outrageous amount of car-horns I've heard braying around the barrio at different times during the afternoon. Happy, festive, not irritated or pissed-off.

I've got class tonight. Then it's on to the weekend.


rws 12:10 PM [+]

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

There are times I find myself walking around the barrio -- taking care of errands, getting a newspaper, maybe stopping for a quick espresso -- in a state of such contentment that it feels a little startling if I stop and think about it. Why, you might ask, should I feel so goddam content? Well, let's see: it's springtime, the weather's friendly (sun and clouds trading off today), the air feels good on my skin, there's a nice breeze blowing. The construction noise across the street is more than manageable today. The city's nicely greened up, the swifts are everywhere, cutting through the air above the buildings at amazing speeds, at times swooping down close to street level, their high calls echoing all around. More and more lovely Spanish women are sporting easy-on-the-eyes warm weather outfits (woo-hoo!!). The city is packed with an amazing variety of humans, providing endless opportunities for fine, fine people-watching, not to mention loads of serious entertainment. The local food is great and reasonably priced (and in fact someone bought me lunch yesterday). There are times when music seems to be in the very air, and a lot of it just feels real damn good. Blah blah blah. And I hang out in the middle of it all, writing.

Yeah, I could get used to living like this. (Er, wait -- I already have, ‘cause I am. HAR!)

This last Sunday was the Madrid Marathon, involving something like 10,000 runners. And yet the scene was so peaceful here in the neighborhood -- not that far away from the event, really -- that I had no clue anything was up. I heard nothing about it on the TV, saw nothing about it in the paper until the day after. Strange.

On the other hand, the Pope (el Papa!) is coming to Madrid this weekend, and a portion of the populace is all astir, readying for a quick shot of Catholicism, something that's ebbed in Spain these last two decades.

It's a visit with political ramifications -- before the incursion into Iraq, the Pope summoned Aznar, the head of the current government, to an intimate sit-down and let him know the Church was dead set against the invasion. Aznar, a practicing Catholic, used the photo opportunity then ignored the Pope's admonishment. Zapatero, the head of the Socialist party and a highly visible presence in the intense conflict between the vast majority of the population and the government re: the war, will be meeting with the Pope during His Catholicness's swing through the city and Aznar's political party, el Partido Popular is not happy about it. The PP doesn't seem to have much interest in flexibility or a style of communication that might lead to genuine consensus (as opposed to everyone else caving in to their agenda) -- their response to events these last few months, whether to the sinking of the Prestige and the resulting massive oil spill off the country's northwest coast (and the government's astonishing refusal to acknowledge the situation, much less take constructive action during the crisis' first few weeks) or the whole Iraq thing has been an aggressive, relentless display of invective and character smears aimed at the opposition parties.

I am aligned with no political party, here or in the States, and have found the in-country political cabaret strange, engrossing, at times hilarious, at other times anything but. Municipal elections will be taking place on May 25, campaign season is well underway, and the PP has been actively cranking up the level of their inflammatory rhetoric while the opposition has so far taken the high road. It should be an interesting month.

In the meantime, I'll be curious to see how huge a deal the papal visit will be. Sunday morning, there will be a mass performed at la Plaza de Colón, a 12-15 minute walk from here. I will not be attendance, but will be checking its effect on the rest of the city center.

Meanwhile, I recently had to book a couple of flights, and in the process found out that my travel agent here -- Guadalupe, a charming, kind, smart, pretty woman with a great attitude -- is going to be leaving the travel agency in two short weeks. I took the opportunity to get her to go to lunch with me yesterday, a move that (a) gave me the opportunity to get to know an extremely nice person a little and (b) gave me a couple of hours of conversation in Spanish, something I haven't had anywhere near enough of in recent weeks. She turns out to be from Extremadura, in Spain's southwest, which means she not only talks quickly, she doesn't pronounce the endings of many words, one of the notable characteristics of the folk in the south of the country. Which meant I had to concentrate like you wouldn't believe at certain moments.

I'm aware that I often have a tendency to write about my Spanish-speaking skills here as if I can barely get out a decipherable "¡Hola!" -- a serious exaggeration of the actual deal. Really. Honest. Considering I knew next to nothing of the language when I first arrived, considering I've gone back and forth between here and the States since then (spending eight months of last year back in Vermont), considering I spend substantial portions of each day writing and therefore thinking in English, that most of my email is in English, I've done great.

I found myself coping well at lunch yesterday. Making mistakes, sure -- part of the cost of choosing to live without a roommate so that there's no Spanish spoken in-house apart from whatever spills out from the radio/TV. But doing fine. And connecting with a person who might be able to steer some intercambio action my way. (Intercambio: when a Spanish-speaker studying English gets together with an English-speaker studying Spanish to make conversation, talking half the time in Spanish, the other half in English.) We'll see.

An interesting person, BTW. Guadalupe has known her husband since they were 15, started going out with him when they were 19, got married two years later. They're now in their late 30s, still happily married, with a 16-year-old daughter Guadalupe describes as outrageously, almost alarmingly tranquil, low-key, easy-going.

I heard some great stories, an example being the one about going to the Barajas airport to pick up a young Mexican couple who flew in for a visit. On arrival at the airport, she discovered that the Mexican couple had brought along seven other people, all of whom were expecting to stay with G. and her husband. Nice folks, apparently, but, er, well, it turned out to be a visit on a whole different scale than the one G. had been expecting.

Nine people.

But I blabber. So I'll stop. There's homework to do and food to eat.


rws 1:34 PM [+]

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Summery weather has begun creeping in here in earnest. A touch cooler and softer than the real thing, this being a bit early for the full-blown item. Which is just fine. It's got people out enjoying it so that the city feels busier than its cool-weather self, slowly finding its feet in the late weekend-morning hours, then picking up steam and carrying on throughout the night. The plazas are full of people, the neighborhood streets overflowing with pedestrians (when passing cars don't force them onto the sidewalk).

Yesterday morning began with overcast skies. When I pulled up the shades around 9 a.m., I took a look at the gray scene and thought to myself, Maybe this will be one of those days that morphs into a beautiful sunny bugger as it moves along. Sure enough, come early afternoon, thinning clouds allowed fleeting appearances of blue sky and sunlight. By mid-afternoon, fine weather had rolled in, people seemed to flow out into the streets like water through a breached dam, remaining there, surging happily in all directions until 4 or 5 a.m. Even then, stray groups wandered about talking and singing for another hour or two.

What I'm getting at with all this spewage is that it is absolutely beautiful here.

When I went out for the Sunday morning paper and cup of espresso around 10:30, it was as perfect a late April morning as one could ask for. I stopped by the kiosk in the plaza, picked up the Sunday paper, headed out the pedestrian walkway that leads to the next street over, la Calle de Augusto Figueroa, and stepped out into the sunlight, heading off to the right, toward la Calle de Hortaleza and my usual Sunday a.m. café joint. I stopped by the streetside recycling bins to dump unwanted sections of the paper along with the circulars. As I'm doing that, I notice a group of seven people standing maybe 15 feet away, in the middle of a side street right where it empties on Figueroa. Four males, three females, all in their 20s and 30s. Talking, laughing. One of the women carries a guitar, next thing I know she's begun playing the intro to a flamenco piece. The others begin clapping in the rhythmic, seemingly ragged way that is integral to so much flamenco (it only seems ragged, the way down-home blues can seem ragged). The woman with the guitar begins singing, some of the others join her. Beautiful, joyful flamenco music rises into the morning air, seemingly out of nowhere. I finish dumping paper into the bin and remain where I am, soaking up this sudden burst of song. A car comes along the side street, the group has to move out of the way -- the music stops, they stand together talking, laughing.

I wait another moment, until it becomes apparent the music won't be starting up again right away. Then I head up the street, my head practically buzzing with the sudden clarity that certain kinds of unexpected moments can bring.

The days are full of amazing small moments. They're everywhere, and sometimes they simply refuse to let us ignore them.

Madrid -- the last Sunday morning of April, 2003.

rws 6:50 AM [+]

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, the writing team that came up with Waiting for Guffman and Best In Show (which got my vote as the single funniest movie of 2000) have just released A Mighty Wind, what may be the "This Is Spinal Tap" of the folk music world.

An exchange from a New York Times Q&A with Eugene Levy:

Q: Could you envision a career as a folk singer?
A: If I wanted to starve to death. If I wanted to drop 40, 50 pounds right away. Without comedy, I ain't gonna make a dime.

[Be warned: The above New York Times link will require you to register with the Times for access to their pages. It is painless, requiring minimal info., and in fact can be done without giving any real info. -- nevertheless, be warned.]

rws 6:23 AM [+]

Get ready -- Norway's party season is just around the corner.

rws 5:44 AM [+]

Friday, April 25, 2003

Blarghh. Have not so far been able to wake up or clear my head today. Can't blame it on the construction across the street, they've actually been comparatively low-key so far this morning. No jackhammer hooha clattering away. Just the more normal excavating activity, punctuated by periods of quiet. There are only two people working on-site -- the guy who operates the front-end/rear-end loader and another who trots around the space helping in whatever ways are necessary. Surprising, in a way, that they can produce as much noise as they have during the last few days. On the other hand, they a big machine to play with, one that can produce serious nerve-shredding noise levels when they get going with it. Professional noise-making gear.

But today, like I've said, they've been relatively tranquil, so I can't blame them for my foggy state. I'm sure I'll get clear enough at some point to begin conducting myself like a high-functioning sentient being.

(Pause here to wander around the piso from one attempted activity to another like a groggy pinball until finally throwing on a coat, going out to pick up a newspaper, hoovering down a cup of espresso. Which brought me a step or two in the direction of, er, clarity.)

I realized after posting yesterday's entry that that little bit about classroom personalities is the first time I've written about the characters I spend schoolroom time with in many, many months. (I mean apart from bitching about being tortured by instructors with the infinite -- possibly fictional, given how many endless varieties they come up with -- uses of the subjunctive verb form in Castellano.) In February of last year, I was in class with some great personalities, in particular a 20-something German male, J., and H.,a slightly older Japanese woman. Nice people, both of them, very quirky in their individual ways, great folks to watch. With sparks flying quietly, discretely between them. She was married, here in Madrid because her husband worked with a Japanese company; he was a grad. student, here studying for an extended period. It seemed pretty clear that nothing extramarital was happening between them -- they simply liked each other. Given different circumstances, who knows what direction that may have taken, but they seemed to stay carefully within the limitations of the situation, enjoying being around each other in the sweetest of ways.

In the wake of writing a bit about them, someone suggested to me that I might be invading their privacy by laying out my observations here. This is a public page, after all, they were real people in the middle of something that could be construed in various positive and negative ways. I thought about that, then made the decision to leave them alone. Around that time, some folks at school became aware of this webpage, a few began checking it out -- another inhibiting factor. And the truth is I've missed writing about that part of my life. It's so much fun, with such a great cast of characters, all showing up to show us who they are before moving on. I realized recently that keeping all that off-limits has come to feel like I'm depriving myself of something important, something I genuinely enjoy. So I'm going to quit depriving myself. (I'm also going quit giving this page's URL to people from school.)

The last time I saw J. and H., BTW, the three of us met for lunch. J. and I had both stopped classes the week before this get-together, J. would be leaving Madrid shortly. Not long after that, H. would be moving to South America with her husband, following his new job posting. That occasion would be the last time I would see either of them.

We rendezvoused on a sunny, cool March day out on the sidewalk in front of a Korean restaurant over on la Calle de Atocha, an area of the city I don't know well. H.'s part of town, apparently, so that she and her husband had tried various restaurants in the barrio. Once J. and I had arrived, she ferried us inside, found us a table in a corner.

Not your standard dining table, this. A circular wrought-iron cover came off to reveal a single-ring gas stove inset in the table's center. The deal was: you order your vegetables and your meat, they bring them to your table in rounds. Everything raw. You cook it to your liking on a flat surface that gets positioned over the burner, you eat it.

We order. We make conversation in our limited Spanish, doing all right between the three of us. The first round of food arrives. H. gets the cooking process started, lighting the fire, laying out the food on the cooking surface. J. and I follow her example, in a short time we're all slapping meat and veggies onto the cooking surface, dragging finished bits on to our individual plates. It may not sound like much here, but there were seasonings used both during and post-cooking, producing a tasty end-result. Fresh, tangy.

So we're eating. J. and H. are sitting together on the other side of the table. We're all talking away. And throughout the process, I got to watch a continuous stream of subtle, minute interactions being played out between J. and H., communications of affection and regard. Simple, relaxed. Two interesting people, both a long way from home, with a connection that only went so far, yet clearly involved emotion and frank mutual appreciation.

H.: a pretty, slim woman of middle height, with long dark hair, nice eyes, a bit of overbite, who tended to dress with some style (that day wearing a black knee-length wool coat with knee-high leather boots).
J.: tall, with unruly medium brown hair, a pronounced forehead and a nice smile, though his expression often remained somewhat neutral, reined in. A person who seemed to have a tendency toward watchfulness.

Intelligent, both of them, with lots going on beneath the surface and a deceptively strong, tender connection.

When the meal was finished and we'd paid up, found our way outside, the March sunlight had moved to mid-afternoon angles, the air remained cool. We said smiling good-byes, I shook J.'s hand, H. and I kissed each other each cheek. I went in one direction, toward Sol, they moved slowly off in the opposite direction. This was, I think, their last time in each other's company. They walked together -- not up against each other like lovers, not awkwardly far apart. Relaxed, their smiles visible to me from a distance as their heads turned toward each other in the course of whatever they were saying, their manner betraying what may have been the slightest edge of melancholy.

Every now and then that image of them comes to mind, walking off down la Calle de Atocha together. Wherever they each are now, I hope they're both well.

People come and go, the days move on.

rws 12:11 PM [+]

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Grumble, grumble. Construction work making big noise across the street.

Over this last weekend -- this last, lovely, long weekend -- the construction people did the four-day holiday thing one better, playing hookey on Monday, not showing up here until Tuesday a.m. Five fine, luxurious days of no big racket.

Then Tuesday a.m. dawned. 8 o'clock, the front-end/rear-end loader's engine gets cranked, at 8:15 work gets underway. This week's work has included the loader's version of a jackhammer as it excavates down into the building site. Man, that's some serious fun. The kind of sound that can gradually knock tooth fillings loose.

There hasn't been a whole lot of that today, for which I am properly grateful. And the good thing about all of this, of course, is that I appreciate the bejesus out of it when they quit around 6 p.m. and silence falls, leaving only the noise of life going on in the barrio, a kind of noise I generally enjoy.

And this week I started up evening Spanish classes after a week off. A small class -- just me, one other student, and Jesús, our instructor. A good guy, seriously into teaching language and apparently enjoying it. Slim, 30ish, thin, angular face, the ultracasual clothes of a perennial student (or a language instructor being paid the typical language instructor's skimpy wage). Has the kind of sideburns that plunge down in front of the ears in a thin, straight line, continuing along -- or just under, actually -- the jaw line to meet at the chin. Combined with the drastically short cut he got over the holidays, his black hair is now a uniform length everywhere on his cranium, from the very top to the point of his chin, creating a strange look.

D., the other student in the class, is a tall late-40s fella from around San Francisco way who's lived in Europe for ages, spending a few years in, say, Sweden, learning the language, immersing himself in the culture and the lifestyle, teaching English to get along. Then moving on to, say, Germany for a few years, for the same routine. Then France. Then one or two other places. Multilingual. And smart. There are moments when I feel like the village idiot of this group.

We sit in class up on the fourth floor of a building that fronts on la Calle de Arenal, three short blocks from the plaza in front of the Royal Opera House. The sky stays light until well after 9 p.m. now, so that there's a view out the room's side window and out the two French windows that open out on the small balcón overlooking Arenal for any time I feel like floating off mentally, staring out at the light and other buildings, where other people occasionally pop out onto the balcones to stare off toward the sunset or show in the windows to pull the shades. I can't drift that way for very long with only two other people in the room with me. Plus the material is advanced enough that I take the risk of getting hopelessly lost if I drift off for long enough that they've moved on to something I'm unfamiliar with, something that happens with unnerving frequency. Jesús has gotten used to my periodic glassy stare followed by an expression of total cluelessness and responds with the kindness of a language-teaching saint. Whatever he's getting paid, he deserves more.


In this journal's entry of March 10 (this year), I wrote:

"Seen in the front window of a neighborhood bakery:
an apple cake -- more a broad pastry than a cake,
actually, baked in a broad pan, the creation only as
tall as the pan's rim. Its surface is covered with apples
slices, beautifully arranged, topped with a honey-colored
gel. Sophisticated, high-quality bakery fare, scrumptious-
looking. Someone has plunged a swizzle-stick into it
that bears a small sign which reads
(Translation: IT'S HARD TO DO).
No price, just those words."

I passed by that same bakery recently and noticed that they still have that kind of delicious-looking apple thingie displayed in the window, though the message has changed. The sign poking up out of it now reads:

(Translation: I'M SAYING EAT ME)

rws 2:17 PM [+]

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

The mounted folk moved by, followed by a cleaning squad of two clad in the city crews' normal outfit of forest green, bright lime green and reflective silver, pushing a wheeled trash can, each carrying a push broom. One of the horses let go as it headed down la Calle Mayor, the cleaning crew hustled over to sweep up the equine leftovers, accompanied by a city cop wearing a reflective vest in cleaning crew colors. That done, they followed the horses and the marching band approached, drums and brass playing loudly. The brass players had apparently missed rehearsals because they were all over the place, murdering the music in enthusiastically eardrum-busting fashion. At which point the procession came to a standstill once more, all sound stopping except for the drums, which maintained a loud, nearly steady rhythm.

And there they remained. For quite a while. Behind the band were long, loose lines of marchers in KKK-style outfits, white with big, red, pointy satin hoods. A couple of them -- short, maybe around 12, 13 years old -- carried straw baskets and moved up and down the street, one on each side, passing out small cards with photos of the procession's Jesus icon, receiving coins in return. Motion finally resumed, the costumed folk began to file by, the first carrying a large staff with a cross up top, the second carrying a banner. Most of the rest carried the large, white candles, a few carried crosses. They were a strange bunch -- mostly short (apparently either fairly young or well on in years, often equal in height to or shorter than the candles they carried), many overweight, appearing lumpily ungainly and uncomfortable beneath their outfits. Three or four walked barefoot. Behind them came the float, accompanied by a group of only five or six people, and as it drew near I saw why -- it was mounted on tires, they were pushing it along. Jesus on wheels, being carted merrily through the streets. Which raised the question of why the long, drawn-out pauses in forward movement? It's not like anyone had to stop and rest from the weight they were carrying.

At some point, it became clear that another procession had turned onto la Calle Mayor and approached behind the current bunch, a procession that appeared far more serious, its marchers clad in black, people of indeterminate gender in pointy-hooded outfits and women dressed in mourning gear -- black, lacy dresses of many layers, complete with mantillas and black lace shawls, black stockings, black shoes. The band consisted of drums and a few woodwind instruments, playing a quiet, mournful number and playing it well. The float was a large, striking affair, its centerpoint an icon of Mary that trailed large, long shroud, emblazoned with silver stars and extending behind for several feet. Two oversized silver candleabras flanked the icon, gracefully-bent arms rising to varying heights, the candles glowing softly in the day's dimming light. The whole affair was borne along by 16 people, clearly working hard, so that when the procession paused for a breather, you knew they needed it.

By the time float and marchers had moved past and the crowd around me began to disperse, darkness was coming on. The final procession had brought the experience some substance, though none of the evening's three compared with what I experienced in Granada. As a whole, the Madrid version came across as Processions Lite, kind of strange considering it's the capital city. Or maybe not so strange. It may be that the spirit expressed so clearly in the south of the country is an Andalucian thing. A friend was down there last week, in Sevilla, the heart of the Semana Santa thing. He's Catholic and gets something very different out of the experience than I do, but his description of the event suggests to me a distinction between Sevilla and Madrid that might be comparable to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Fat Tuesday in Seattle. The second one is fun, a good party; the first is the real item, light years beyond a simple good party, done professionally, with fire, soul and a long, deeply nuanced history.

So now I know.

Afterward, I found my way back over to la Calle de Arenal and headed back toward the Royal Opera House and the Metro station. En route, I passed el Paraíso del Jamón, one of the many mid-level tapas joints that abound here, and on impulse I veered in that direction. Though crowded and busy, I managed to weasel my way inside and position myself behind a couple at the counter who were just paying up, taking over part of their bit of floor when they vacated. The first counter guy to ask me what I want was a South American, who seemed to have trouble with my Spanish. Another camarero took over, one who knew me from my many visits there during weeks and weeks of intensive Spanish classes in the next-door language academy. I asked for a pincho of tortilla español, he responded by slinging a wildly generous plate of it at me -- the last of it, what would have been two helpings in most places. Another order for the same thing came in immediately afterward, he replied that they were fresh out, aiming a friendly wink in my direction.

It's good to have connections.

rws 1:17 PM [+]

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

[Continued from entry of 21 April, 2003]

The Friday evening Easter processions here in Madrid were scheduled to get underway at 7:30 p.m. -- three of 'em, all starting in different locations, taking different routes that occasionally overlapped. Two of the three were set to pass through Sol, so I headed there first, arriving just before 8 to find the streets into the plaza blocked off by the Municipal police, the area overrun by people. The plaza itself turned out to be so jammed that I skirted it, zipping along the periphery to la Calle de Arenal, the route one of the processions would be taking into the plaza. A quick look down Arenal showed a street alive with humans and, visible way down at the other end, the facade of the Royal Opera House. But as yet no procession.

Which gave me time to duck quickly into a beer joint/tapas bar just off the plaza, a place I'd seen many times and wondered about. Normally busy with customers on weekend evenings, as it was this evening. And located temptingly right there in front of me. Hunger, curiosity, convenience -- a potent combination. Inside, I found a stool at the counter, ordered a small plate of patatas bravas (potatos with a spicy red salsa) and a caña (a small glass of beer). And it wasn't bad -- nothing special, but not bad -- until I asked for the bill. Over five euros, nearly $6.00. I nearly laughed out loud in appreciation at the cojones it takes to charge that kind of money for what I'd just tossed down, though I wasn't so charmed that I would make a return trip to donate another wad of cash to the in-house retirement fund, at least not in this lifetime. Paid up, got out, headed toward the far end of la Calle de Arenal.

A block or two before reaching the plaza that fronts the Opera House, I heard the faint, steady sound of marching drums, saw people lined up on either side of the street. And as I entered the plaza I could see uniformed figures slowly approaching, barely visible among the gathered ranks of onlookers. Lots of snare drums playing a steady rhythm, along with a bass drum. And fifes. Interesting, stately, keltic-sounding music.

I found a bit of curb with a good view and watched as the procession began passing by. A male holding a cross on a large staff fronted it, followed by two people with large candles, then three lines of marchers in military-style outfits, all in red/white/black, including tricorner hats, red/white capes with high collars. A couple of rows of regular folk walked behind them, including four women in black, lacy outfits, complete with mantillas. And then came the float, a simple scene of flowers and a big cross. A BIG cross.

A simple scene. Minimal, not elaborate at all, but sturdy and clearly one heavy bugger. Carried by well over 20 bearers.

As the procession moved along, pausing to give the bearers a rest then resuming, the ambient crowd noise nearly stopped altogether, the music and the sound of the marchers' feet on the pavement filling the air. During the rest pause, the pipers stopped playing, leaving the drums' slow cadence the only remaining sound. A few alternate bearers, who had been marching beside the float like, er, soberly-attired pilot fish switched places with some of the current bearers. When the procession began moving again, the pipes started up once more, and the instant the tail end of the procession passed (the end being a large collection of normal folks in your normal church-going garb), crowd noise immediately resumed, people moving to follow the procession, conferring together in small groups or heading off in different directions. Suddenly feeling like a Friday evening out in Madrid.

Interesting, all of it, but a bit underwhelming. Small. Austere. Not much in the way of drama, and lacking, I noted with curiosity, any marchers clad in the classic pointy-hooded outfit. I wondered how one of the other processions would compare and found myself moving back toward Sol, snaking my way through the crowded sidewalk. I came to a pedestrian sidestreet, a wide alleyway/walkway that angles around la Chocolatería San Ginés, a popular old Madrid fixture, and found myself suddenly sucked down the passageway, drawn toward the chocolatería [WARNING: heavy-handed metaphor coming] like a hungry iron filing caught in the invisible EMF eddies of a powerful, chocolate-dispensing magnet. Seriously, there is nothing like a cup of their chocolate -- dark, intense, less sweet than rich -- and a plate of their freshly-made churros. A cup of half-café/half-chocolate is just as good and a bit less overwhelming to an unprepared mouth. Travelers to Madrid, take note.

Unfortunately, this being the evening it was, the streets awash in human traffic and all, the chocolatería was mobbed. I continued along toward the far end of the pedestrian way, where I could see crowds lined up along la Calle Mayor and horsemen going by. The second procession!

Quickly running along la Calle Mayor ahead of the mounted folk (in quasi-military outfits, same as the advance marchers in the first procession), I secured a small patch of space at a crosswalk located just out in front of the coming display. And then they all stopped, horses and everything behind, except for the continued, heavy rhythm of some drummers. For a long, long, long pause. A pause that stretched on and on. And on and on. And on some more. Damn, thought I, this must be one heavy mother of a float, needing serious breath-catching and energy-recuperation.

People took advantage of the continuing pause to trot across the street, switching sides or heading away toward points unknown. Two cops stood in the center of the street, well out in front of the horsemen, conferring about the settings for a digital camera one of them carried. One of the horsemen fielded questions from people in the crowd until his mount began to show serious discomfort with its bit, its mouth foaming as it chewed at the metal, when it began stamping about, moving out in front of the formation in agitated fashion until its rider got it calmed down and back into place.

Two 60-something women showed up suddenly behind me, one of them -- a pugnacious type, her jaw jutting forward aggressively -- began alternately pushing up against me and staring at my head as if trying to bore a hole in it with laser vision, apparently trying to hypnotize me into moving aside so that they could take over my position in the crowd. I'm always holding doors open for people, letting folks enter trains before me, helping parents carry baby-strollers up and down stairways. I have no problem making courteous gestures. If this woman had asked me, if I might have been happy to assist them in getting better situated. After finding myself on the receiving of a few elbow-jabs and shoulder-shoves, I decided to stay put and see what happened. A couple of minutes later they realized that our section of the street was well ahead of the action, and that in fact all action (except the percussion section) had gone inactive, with no indication of going active again in the near future. At which point they took off, stalking down the street toward the plaza and the main body of the currently-inert procession.

I watched people. I listened to the drums, to the voices in murmured conversation all around. At one point, the sound of a helicopter appeared overhead, followed quickly by the helicopter itself, flying low and fast over the roofs of the buildings, streaking into view on one side of the street and quickly out of view on the other. People stopped to watch, heads turned up to the sky, the helicopter's passing leaving a surprising silence in its wake. Almost immediately, the keening call of swifts filled the silence as three of the birds flew along the street, shooting down between the buildings, then swooping back up into the evening's fading light and out of sight.

A dark-skinned Central American couple with two young daughters had inserted themselves into the scene to one side of me. The two little ones, maybe 6 and 7 years old, were in and out of the street, craning their necks to make out what was going on back in toward the main body of the procession. They watched the cops, they talked to each other, giggling. They snuggled up against their parents or held on to parental hands while they leaned back, looking up at mom and dad, asking questions I couldn't make out. They were beautiful kids, providing well-needed entertainment.

Until the drums abruptly began working more emphatically, more energetically, and some woodwind instruments began a slow, mournful tune. The horse riders got their mounts into motion. And the procession actually began moving again.

[Continued in entry of 23 April, 2003.]


Note of passing:

Thank you, Nina Simone, for shining so brightly during your time here.

rws 1:40 PM [+]

Monday, April 21, 2003

The arrival of Monday after a long weekend almost always startles me. I'm not sure exactly what it is -- something about that stretch of time off whipping by so quickly followed by the sudden start of another week. Time seems elastic to me -- its speed and feel change constantly. Sometimes I'll find myself experiencing a long, languid stretch where the hours seem to stretch themselves out in the friendliest, laziest way. Then, after the fact, it all seems to have flashed by at wild, contradictory velocity. Strange.

But the weekend. Man, I don't care how mundane the activity is, a four-day weekend is a joy. Thursday and Friday had a peaceful, summery feel -- warm temperatures, sunlight filtering down through skies hazy with high clouds. I found myself walking around the barrio of Malasaña, the district to the west of Chueca -- another zone of narrow streets and big nightlife, looking and feeling mighty Mediterranean in the spring weather. Wandering around during the daylight hours you might not get any real sense of how active the place gets come darkness -- the bars and restaurants are plenty visible on certain streets, but many of the clubs maintain a low, discrete profile, like those of Siroco and Attitude. (Not so the club called Mutant Beach. During the day its entrance is covered by metal shutters painted in loud, garish colors, portraying a goofy scene of surfing at a, well, mutant beach.) Other hints re: the barrio's nighttime character abound for those with an eye for them -- for instance, a bit of graffiti magic-markered in small letters on a garage door: "By the way in the night be the party." You betcha.

Friday evening: I found myself out with a few thousand other Madrileños in the streets around la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, checking out the Easter processions. They're religious affairs, these processions, each one affiliated with a group/society/fraternity or whatever they should be called, similar to how traditional groups do the Mardi Gras thing in New Orleans. Most nights of Easter week, one or more processions will wind their slow, deliberate way through a long succession of streets, emulating, in their way, the carrying of the cross on the way to the crucifixion.

Last year, at the end of March (Easter Week 2002), I drove down to the city of Granada in Andalucia with a group of folks to check out La Alhambra. A fine place to visit, Granada -- great food, nice people, and La Alhambra is spectacular, easily worth the trip all on its own. After a long day, we found ourselves in the city's downtown area where we stumbled across first one procession, then another, then a third -- all criss-crossing their way through the city center via routes that at times overlapped.

If you spend much time in Spain during the course of a year, you will sooner or later see images from the processions of Easter Week (Semana Santa), the aspect with the most immediate visual impact being the outfits worn by people walking in long lines before and after each procession's float, outfits of the Ku Klux Klan variety, complete with pointy hoods, in different colors depending on the procession -- white, blue, purple, red/white. Weird to someone from the States until you get that these outfits were around long before the KKK and that the KKK probably cribbed the look from here.

The centerpiece of each procession: a float, each featuring some version of Jesus or Mary, of varying degrees of elaborateness and grandness (or grandiosity, depending on your perspective). The floats in Granada? Fairly spectacular -- big and canopied, lit by many, many large candles, each featuring a dramatic image of Himself or His Mother as its focal point. The procession itself extended for quite some distance, consisting of long lines and groupings of marchers preceding and trailing after the float -- people in quasi-military uniforms; women in elaborate black, lacy dresses, complete with mantillas; marchers in the KKK-style outfits. Many folks carry large white candles (large meaning four or five feet in length). Others carry long staffs on which are mounted crosses or banners. A few walk with crucifixes slung over a shoulder, thankfully nowhere near the size of the original as seen in the customary images, but big enough to be symbolic. Each procession features a band, blowing dramatic tunes at a tempo that suits the somber rhythm of the doings. And the tail end of each procession often consists of various-sized groups of regular folks who attach themselves to the proceeding and follow along, swelling or shrinking as people come and go.

At the heart of each procession we saw in Granada was the float -- big, heavy iconic images mounted sturdily on several horizontal poles and carried by squads of volunteers mostly hidden behind surrounding swaths of black cloth. Seriously arduous work done in the spirit of worship and penance, the floats so heavy that the bearers could only go 50, 100, 150 feet at a stretch, moving slowly then stopping to rest. Each crew had what amounted to a coxswain with a large staff walking immediately in front of the float, someone who set pace, provided encouragement, called out the order to stop, got the bearers organized and ready to start again, calling out a three-count before giving the order to lift then proceed. Each coxswain might have others with him, two or three individuals in front of and behind the float to help with support.

Loads of detail, then, with each procession. And around each swirled spectators, filling the surrounding curbs, sidewalks and street. When the doings came to a halt, the music stopped, silence descended as the bearers caught their breath. Team members carried shoulder-height staffs with forked tops on which the float's support beams would rest, taking much of the weight off the bearers. After a couple of minutes, the coxswain would organize the team, the energy around the scene would swell, everyone aware that each team carried a huge amount of weight and that getting it back up and moving again was no small thing. The coxswain called out the three-count, the team shifted the full weight of the float back onto their shoulders, the crowd burst into applause, calling out encouragement. The band struck up a number, the procession would get underway again.

During Semana Santa, television coverage of these processions abound, the images become pervasive. It's a strange phenomenon for someone from out of country to observe, all of it. And I have to say, the true feel of the event does not come across in photos or television images or print descriptions. I did not get it until I experienced it right there in 3-D fashion, in the chilly Granada night, and I have to say its worth getting. I'm not a Christian -- I live a spiritual life, but it's not of any organized religion. I grew up in a Irish Catholic household and that was enough of that kind of thing for me. But there is an expression of spirit and devotion in these processions that is real and powerful, that I'm glad I experienced.

That was in Granada. The deal here in Madrid turned out to be somewhat different.

[Continued in entry of 22 April.]

rws 1:21 PM [+]

Saturday, April 19, 2003

Signs seen in the entranceway to Siroco, a late-hours club in Madrid's Malasaña district (a major nighttime partying neighborhood):

To the left of the door:

Por Favor
Los Vecinos
Están Durmiendo
Podéis Guardar...

The Neighbors
Are Sleeping
You Can Maintain...

Scrawled with a marker on the wall to the left of that:


To the right of the door:

Por Favor, Controla Tu Euforia...
Los Vecinos Están Durmiendo...

Please, Control Your Euphoria...
The Neighbors Are Sleeping...

Six inches below that last sign (in English):


rws 1:55 PM [+]

Friday, April 18, 2003

No, I'm not writing much this week. Like I said, I'm on vacation. However, I just found myself seized by the impulse to blurt out some stuff, so here I am.

Yesterday morning: woke up with a Frank Zappa tune ("My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama") going through my head. Drifted back off to sleep, had a dream in which I picked up Neil Young hitchhiking. We headed up to northern Vermont, hung out there for a bit, after which I drove him down to his destination, somewhere in central or western Pennsylvania. Don't ask me what this stuff is about. I appreciate the hell out of both those characters, but I can't say I worship them and I sure wouldn't describe myself as a classic rock type.

This morning: woke up (tune-free), pulled on some clothes. Stepped outside to a lovely morning -- plenty of sunlight, air mild and soft. Walked around the corner, heard a sound that hasn't been around since last year's warm season, looked up to see one a swift go streaking across the strip of blue sky visible from the street, my first one for the year.

The swifts are the local equivalent of what swallows are for certain parts of the States -- a confirmation that the warm season has arrived. During these last three days, the weather has recovered from the strange damp/gray version of the local climate that hung about last weekend and a bit beyond, sunlight and temperate air taking hold, bringing with them the feel of early summer, the city suddenly feeling a touch Mediterranean. In fact, between this weather and the city being so quiet, so many people gone, there's been a distinct August-like feel at work. Cooler than the real thing, yeah, but with the same low-key, relaxed ambience. The kind of weather that produces a lazy desire to get outside and lounge at a café or talk long walks along city streets, without any real purpose or destination.

So. After the swift sighting, I picked up a paper and baguette, headed to one of the neighborhood espresso pushers and swilled down a cortado. On the walk back here, I passed a stocky, 70ish woman in a heavy dark coat, walking slowly, slowly along, talking to herself. Cane in one hand, a leash in the other. At the other end of the leash, a medium-sized, shaggy pooch did the best it could with the little bit of latitude its pokey, complaining owner gave it. Talk about keeping someone on a short leash -- this poor little bugger literally wasn't allowed to move away from the space immediately next to its owner's feet. So it made the best of its situation, sniffing at the sidewalk, sniffing a bit of wall, looking up at the sky, pink doggy tongue hanging out one side of its mouth. One does what one can.

The sound of nails clattering on sidewalk made me look around, I saw a second dog trotting toward me, larger, a black hound of some sort. Galloping in my direction, mouth open, tongue flopping around. No sense of threat here, just curiosity. I put my hand out, it slowed as it neared, sniffing my fingers, its owner a few feet along watching the encounter. And then we were past each other, off to our respective mornings.

The neighborhood plaza was surprisingly active with passing people, two six- or seven-year-olds riding in circles off to one side in front of the space on teeny bicycles, still using training wheels (the first trainers I've seen since coming over here), the sounds of rattling bicycle parts and high voices chattering busily away all mixed together. Their mother and an older brother emerged from a nearby tienda de alimentaciones, the mother carrying a plastic bag from which the end of a baguette or two protruded. She headed off across the plaza toward the street, the two bicyclists followed, the older brother breaking into a run to pass all of them and head around the corner, out of sight.

Along the other side of the plaza, some individuals sat on the few concrete benches that line that side of the space and one person perched on the seat of a scooter parked between two benches. One of the local nerdy versions of a hipster, dressed in thick-soled black shoes, black pants, dark sport coat, necktie, white shirt, wearing black-framed glasses, listening to a walkman, earpieces plugged into ears. His face bore the scars of some serious zit history, his body moved to music I couldn't hear, swaying back and forth. He sang quietly along, yawning now and then.

The cleaning crews had been through the neighborhood earlier so that no trace of the nighttime festivities remained, all litter gone, plaza hosed down and already dry. I passed through, headed toward home, and as I turned the corner onto the street, an olive-skinned South American family rushed past me, two 30ish parents, four kids swarming around mom and dad, all moving around the street as happily as a bunch of puppies. Beyond them, a slightly stout 50-something Madrileño couple walked slowly along, arm in arm, expressions serious and distant, her in a nice dress and comfy shoes, hair bouffed up, him in light sweater, dark pants and shoes. Serious, serious folks. Hard to imagine them ever carrying on like the South American family (now in the plaza, their voices rising into the morning air in laughing conversation).

The streets have remained relatively quiet. There are folks about, sounds of passing cars, sounds of voices in conversation, now and then laughter, but it all seems a notch or two more sedate than the normal neighborhood soundtrack. Which is just fine with me. I'm debating tracking down tonight's Easter procession, getting a hit of spectacle and seasonal religious hooha. We'll see.


rws 12:22 PM [+]

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

I woke up and made my slow, yawning way outside this morning to find that Madrid has begun closing down for the long weekend. A fair number of restaurants, bars and tiendas have already shut their doors for the entire week, leaving polite notices taped up explaining that they've bolted -- the phrase here is ‘de vacaciones' or, as I saw on one notice this morning, ‘de vacaciones personales.'

Yesterday's local news programs talked about the amount of traffic leaving the city and about the growing holiday traffic around the country, tallying up the highway fatalities that have already begun to accumulate. This morning's Metro ride to the gym was less packed than usual and street traffic is way down from the usual midweek goofiness. The gym itself seemed far quieter than normal. In fact, the city in general is feeling quite a bit more tranquil overall. Clearly, loads of folks have scampered off to other part of the peninsula, with more set to follow today, tonight, tomorrow a.m., a certainty visible in the increase of people making their way through the streets lugging overnight bags or pulling wheeled suitcases, heading toward the Metro, bound for points unknown.

Tomorrow and Friday are official holidays, meaning here on the local level that lots more stores and places to eat/drink will shut down. The news kiosk down the street in Chueca Plaza had a sign up today warning its customers that they'll be closed tomorrow through Sunday. And here in the building, a sign has been tacked to the front door since Monday notifying everyone that there will be no garbage collection tonight through Friday night (trash collection normally happens every night of the week). Of course I blanked on that and brought a sack of refuse down with me when I left this morning, to find the building's cleaning woman had taken in the trash container and locked it away, forcing me to use a dumpster down the street like a bad citizen.

The weather in these parts, normally a joy at this time of year, has been less than user-friendly lately, rain continuing to wipe out Easter Week (Semana Santa) processions in some of the southern cities (TV news programs showing images of weeping, frustrated Andalucian Catholics) and high winds/gray skies/cool temperatures/damp conditions making vacation life less than ideal in the north and along much of the long Spanish coast. Here in the capital, clouds have brought rain at times, blue skies at others, the temperature sliding manically up and down with each change. Local life stoically carries on, though it's clear that local folk are less than euphoric about the general weather wackiness. The upside is that the land around here, by now usually well into the slow turn to the thousands of shades of brown and tan that characterize the warm season, is green and pretty, the reservoirs nearly at capacity.

The construction site across the street has gone into a new phase after weeks of relative quiet in which work by hand was done around the periphery. A few days back, a front-end/rear-end loader showed up and began the process of excavating a far deeper hole than currently exists, work whose hours have slowly expanded until yesterday they went from 8 a.m. until well past 6 p.m., minus the traditional half-hour 11 a.m. break and the 2-3 p.m. lunch hour. The morning start-up has developed the steadiness of an alarm clock -- 8 a.m., the machine's motor starts up; at 8:15, they get down to business. A double-length dump truck appears in the street in front of our building, the loader slowly fills it with soil/debris while a worker stands at its rear by a metal grill that gets dragged out into the street while the loading process is underway, so that traffic has no illusions about what's up and must veer off in other directions instead of parking behind the truck in growing annoyance. When the truck disappears to dump its load, the loader works around the lot loosening up soil, creating great banks of dirt to go in the next truckload.

It would be fine with me if this routine were interrupted by the holiday weekend. We'll see. [Update, 1:20 p.m.: the loader has been shut down and parked in the lot's rear corner, far earlier than the usual lunch stoppage. Pardon me while I go make some fast burnt offerings to the stop-construction-work-for-the-long-weekend gods.]

This morning: I head down into the Metro, get into a train, winding up near a 30-something man in business clothes who stands with one hand on the overhead support bar, the other holding an English-language copy of The Catcher In The Rye, which he appears to be reading intently. He looks up, briefly meeting my eyes, his expression surly, then looks back down at the book.

Entering the Nuñez de Balboa Metro station, post-gym, I hear the sound of a street musician who frequently positions himself at the bottom of the long escalators that span the distance between street level and the concourse leading to the trains. A 20-something male with a fine voice and a pleasing guitar sound, this morning doing a pretty damn good rendition of "Imagine," a song that's come to feel far more meaningful to me in recent weeks, especially in light of its being banned by American radio. I drop some money into his instrument case, continue on down to the train platform, where the first bench I pass hosts a couple huddled close together, her giving him a long, sustained kiss on the neck, him accepting it with eyes closed.

This afternoon, walking along Gran Vía, traffic -- both automotive and pedestrian -- that would normally be heavy and frenzied had thinned out to near Christmas Eve sparsity. The city was quiet enough that there were moments in which silence fell and the sound of church bells floated through the mild air.

There will be Easter processions threading their way through different parts of the city center during the next few nights. If the one I saw in Granada last year is anything to go by, they'll be worth checking out.

On with the day.

rws 1:00 PM [+]

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Out doing errands this morning, I'm walking down a side street, the air mild and fresh after the recent days of rain. A quiet street, both residential and commercial in nature, buildings stretching upward in several floors of pisos, the street level featuring some small shops and restaurants. I'm almost at the corner, ready to step out into a bit of sunlight and head off to the right, toward the local bakery for an excellent baguette, a sandwich, maybe one or two other items. A splash of yellow catches my eye, I look across the street to see a narrow storefront I've never noticed. New, it seems to me, a place I don't recall seeing before. A big, goofy papier mache sun hangs halfway up the rear of the small display window, shining down on a quirky, hand-made scene of what appears to be a busy neighborhood. In the uppermost part of the storefront, the business's name curls around in big, friendly, sprawling letters, spelling out SR. GOMA -- La Condonería de Madrid [MR. RUBBER -- Madrid's Condom Shop]. (I am NOT making that up.)

I cross the street to check out the display, I find myself gazing at a small, cheery barrio, just as it appeared to be from across the street. Several apartment buildings stand shoulder to shoulder along the rear, a few miniature stories high, windows and balcones looking out over a hand-painted two-lane street on which three or four cars are planted, all convertibles, their drivers happily in transit to carefree places, driving in safe, relaxed, orderly fashion. Two cheery people stand at the far side of a crosswalk, waiting for the light. Along the front of the display are three small patches of green -- one a park with a tiny bench, the one in the center featuring a fountain, the third a teensy pond, surrounded by minuscule flowering bushes. Parked off at one end of the street stands a truck, one of those hefty concrete-mixer type buggers, hinting at the kind of ubiquitous activity one encounters in this hopping, full-sized barrio I live in, Chueca.

This cheerful, midget-sized scene is dotted with denizens of the mini-neighborhood, each resident made from a condom packet of square, various-colored foil wrappers, one sporting dreadlocks, all suggesting a happy multicultural community. Littlel bitty condom people with arms ending in white Disney-esque gloves, legs ending in rounded black shoes. All frozen in easygoing postures, singly or in pairs.

A sandwich and a baguette waited patiently at the bakery to come home with me, so I didn't linger, didn't go inside Señor Goma's joint to check out the wares. Maybe another time.

I headed off to finish my errands.

Just another morning in the barrio.

rws 1:14 PM [+]

Monday, April 14, 2003

An old friend arrived this last Thursday night, sending me out to the airport late in the evening to meet her when she disembarked. The Metro line that goes out that way is a showcase for the city's subway system -- shiny, fast, high-tech. And thanks to the expansion of the line that runs into the city from the airport, a trip that used to take an hour now takes an average of 25 minutes. So that I could faff about here at home until just before 10:30 and still get to the airport to meet an 11 o'clock flight with time to spare, more so because a glut of incoming flights at that hour meant that my friend didn't emerge from baggage-claim/customs until well after 11:30.

Seriously, 11 p.m. Friday night must be a major arrival time for incoming flights. From the moment I got to the reception area, a continuous stream of people poured out of the baggage/customs salon, often in long, straggling collections of folks from a particular country. A major flow of passengers from Japan to start with (one lone woman wearing a surgical mask in homage to the pneumonia thingie going on China/Asia right now). Then England. Then more from England. Some Americans. Then England again. Then Ireland. More Americans. Then more from England. Then still more. My friend, J., arrived amid one of the rivers of British arrivals.

It's fun to watch families or halves of couples awaiting the appearance of someone they love, erupting into spasms of waving, jumping about, calling out Yoo-hoo's or aquí's, followed by hugs, kisses, all that. One 30ish Spanish mother met some relatives who emerged from customs with the young mother's two small children. She quickly had both kids in her arms, holding them tightly, murmuring words of welcome and love. When she left, they were still plastered to her body, relatives following with baggage.

The next morning, when I went out to the plaza here in the neighborhood to pick up a paper and a cup of espresso, the skies were gray, the temperature uncharacteristically cool, as if London had followed J. south for the weekend. I turned the corner into the plaza to see three males shambling in my direction together, talking loudly. Two of the three: transvestites -- one black, one white. Possibly heading home after a long night out. I'm hoping that was the case. If they were freshly out in the morning air after a restful night's sleep, they need to consider professional assistance re: make-up and general presentation. (Not that it's any of my business.)

Much of the weekend remained grey, at times rainy. To the point that yesterday (Sunday) in Sevilla, the city in the south of Spain which is the center of Easter week (Semana Santa) observances -- perhaps the major event of the year there for both locals and tourists, something that attracts huge crowds throughout the week -- torrential rainfall wiped out most of the day's processions. Wildly unusual weather for this time of year in these parts.

Anyway. A weekend spent inflicting the city on an old friend. Lots of walking around, some sight-seeing, a bunch of food-fests in various high-level restaurants, bars, cafes. Early yesterday afternoon, I accompanied J. out to the airport, came back alone, spent the rest of the day without direction, drifting around the piso in an increasingly fuzzy mental state until I gave up and went horizontal.

Woke up this morning, my body refused to get up and do some things I'd planned on doing. I've apparently gone on vacation, joining the crowds of tourists surging around the city between now and next Sunday. And what the hell -- up until last weekend a friend stayed here for nearly 2-1/2 weeks, during the process of relocating to Madrid. They left Sunday, I spent the week writing and doing schoolwork. Another friend showed up Thursday night. I've been on duty, between one thing and another for almost a month. I now have my space to myself for 7 or 8 days. This week is free of any commitments, I get to do whatever I want. Which may not be much.

The coming weekend's a long one, Thursday and Friday being holidays, shutting Madrid down to a great extent (apart from the usual weekend partying and family Easter observances). A good time to relax, catch up on sleep, write some, maybe drink the occasional cup of café with a friend.

Meanwhile, seen on today's back-to-back episodes of the Simpsons (dubbed into Spanish):

Sign on a rickety barbed-wire enclosure outside
the entrance gate to a Duff Beer carnival, in
which a few depressed individuals sit on
poorly-made wooden crates, bored,
passing the time apathetically:
Duff Designated Drivers Rockin' Fun Zone

Legend on the entry door to medical offices:
Cosmetic Surgery Group
"We'll Cut You Good"

The two choices on the function dial
of an anesthesia machine in the
Cosmetic's Surgery Group's
operating room:
New Car Smell/Anesthetic

Bumpersticker handed to Lisa Simpson:
(She reads it aloud, her tone expressing
surprise at the year -- the man who handed
it to her shrugs, saying, "We're realistic.")

rws 12:39 PM [+]

Thursday, April 10, 2003

There is a woman I sometimes run into when I go to the plaza cafetería down the street from here for a cup of a.m. espresso. Late 20's, maybe 5'3", 5'4", slender. Works in a stylish clothing store around the corner from the plaza, dresses in the hybrid style that, when done right, is a smooth combo of high fashion and punk/new wave, a look many women here go for to varying degrees. Clothes often dark, though not necessarily black, almost always with skirt instead of pants. High-heeled boots of the stiletto variety, often with fishnet stockings or something reminiscent of that look. Thick black hair cut mid-length, styled so that it goes in all directions. Heavy make-up, including so much base that it's unsubtly visible. Pretty in her own eccentric way. She usually comes in to pick up one or two glasses of café, maybe a cup of tea, carries them back to the store. Returns with the empties sometime later, picks up another round. Sometimes we pass on the street, sometimes we see each other in the cafetería -- she never looked at me or acknowledged me, her expression held carefully blank, until I held the cafetería door open for her one day. Since then she's softened up some, sometimes says a nice hello. In fact, lately her manner in general seems to have softened up considerably, leading to moments when she will suddenly smile nicely, so that her energy, her bearing seems to change drastically. Her eyes soften, something genuinely pretty (and the tiniest bit shy) shines out.

And this is the point: with that simple change of expression, she is transformed from someone cool, opaque, distant, to someone radiating a quality that is something to see. A smile can do amazing things, yes, but more than that we each carry within ourselves such contrasts, and such power to withhold or to radiate a bit of the luminosity that is a part of us all. And whichever it is we do in any given moment can affect the world around us in ways we may never know.

An obvious observation, I know, and perhaps a trite one. I mention it because I marvel at the difference small details like a smile can make in the course of a day.

Each of us is a universe, unbelievably deep and complex, with aspects of deceptively startling beauty that can shine out at a moment's notice.

Let ‘em shine.

Right, I'll stop now. Be well.

rws 12:13 PM [+]

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

I'm scaring myself, Revisited. For some reason -- don't ask me why, 'cause I don't know -- the Zappa song "Mr. Green Genes" (original version from the album "Uncle Meat," has been cycling itself through my head on a repeating loop. One of Zappa's weirder songs if you listen to the lyrics (and that's saying something), one of his prettier ones if you stick to the instrumental version from the album "Hot Rats" (titled "Son of Mr. Green Genes" to differentiate it from the original).

["Hot Rats: a CD of nothing but catchy instrumental cuts, well worth seeking out. Notable for "Peaches En Regalia," a tune you've probably heard at some point whether you recognize the title or not, and for "Willie The Pimp," the lone cut with vocals (sung by the inimitable Captain Beefheart, the balance of the tune featuring fine Zappa guitar and equally expressive electric violin by Sugarcane Harris -- top-notch fare).]

[Sample "Willie The Pimp"lyric:
I'm a little pimp with my hair gassed back.
Pair a khaki pants and my shoes shined black.

But I digress.

Yesterday: a classic spring day. Temperatures in the upper 70s, sky a clear, vibrant blue, sunlight falling gently into the narrow streets of this barrio. The kind of day that draws people out into the street in large numbers, the air filled with the sound of feet walking, of voices in conversation.

Went to my evening language class where I pretty much slaughtered a couple of exercises focusing on both conditional sentences and the more advanced uses of the subjunctive verb form. Afterward, my mission of destruction accomplished, I stepped outside into the busy streets, air still warm, post 9 p.m. sky still aglow with the day's last light, sharply-cut crescent moon looming above the Royal Opera House. Following the guidance of my stomach, I stopped in at el Paraíso del Jamón (the Ham Paradise -- It's paradise! And it's filled with ham!!), where I managed to politely elbow my way into a small space at the packed counter for a small caña of beer and a bocadillo de tortilla, both of which hit the spot. (To anyone planning a trip to Madrid: should you find yourself on the west side of the city center, walking down la Calle de Arenal toward the Royal Opera and the Palace beyond that, you could do worse than stop in at el Paraíso del Jamón for a quick bite -- the food is good and cheap, the people-watching colorful and entertaining.)

Back out on the street, I made my way toward la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, bustling with people and activity, and headed up the main pedestrian avenue toward la Plaza de Callao. There are a bunch of street performers that hang out at different points along that hike, including a 30-something guy wearing a get-up designed to make him look like he's walking into gale-force breezes -- a wig of thick black hair stretching stiffly back from his face, a necktie that bends stiffly back over one shoulder, an umbrella blown inside-out, classically nerd-like glasses with standard issue thick black frames. Normally he's standing mid-walking-into-the-wind pose, or moving from one comic stance to another. Last night he stood off to one side, deep in conversation with another male, both wearing serious, thoughtful expressions, him still in high-wind gear, hair and necktie angling tautly back, glasses slight askew.

On the next pedestrian way over, I could hear the sadly joyful music of a group of Peruvian musicians who can often be found playing around there. Music that moved along with a steady, stately beat, the melody resonating a bit between the buildings as it rose into the night air.

Made my way through the crowds home, dropped off books, picked up gym gear, grabbed the Metro, went to join the nighttime crowds at the health club.

This morning: Still mild, though mostly overcast, blue sky asserting itself from time to time, sunlight swelling for a while then fading once more. Went out for a cup of espresso and a glance through the morning paper, wound up at a joint I've been going to quite a bit lately. The second string counterman was on duty, a guy who doesn't seem to listen when I tell him what I want. For the second time in a row, he gave me a café con leche instead of the cortado I asked for. (Turned out to be good enough that I stuck with it, so I will hereby quit complaining.) A quieter scene than my last time there, the TV playing a nature documentary, looking like it might be centered on the Galapagos Islands. Lizards, tortoises, orcas.

Behind me a 40-something guy stood at the local version of the one-armed bandit, inserting coins, pushing buttons, lights flashing and various sound samples playing in courteously quiet response. To my right, two slender males came in and sat down, one in a local version of rock-star mode, completely in black from his thick-soled shoes to his headband, the only hint of other hues being pallid skin and the reflection of light from several piercings. He and his companion received tall glasses of coffee with a bit of foam at the top, opened packs of sugar and emptied them into the brew, sipped and talked quietly, now and then glancing up at the TV. To the left of the rocker's glass and saucer, his essentials lay grouped together on the counter: sunglasses, cigarette pack, lighter.

Today's papers were filled with the usual mix of bad news particular to this bizarre passage our world is lurching through, with the compensation of hyped-up sports sections, blabbering excitedly about tonight's match-up between Manchester United and Real Madrid, the two teams many believe to be the best in the world right now. This evening's game is the first of two quarter-final bouts between these contenders for this year's Champions League title. Real Madrid is essentially the soccer world's version of the New York Yankees, meaning the best collection of marquis names that money can buy, a kind of ostention that's had a lot of people here feeling ambivalent about the team this year. But as the season moves toward its wind-up and Madrid rolls over one opponent after another, people get excited despite themselves. And when a team of the stature and quality of Man. Utd. comes to town for a showdown, who can resist? In fact, I think it's illegal for guys here to ignore a game like this. One does so at the risk of having their Male Human identity card revoked. Therefore, come 8:45 p.m. I'll be planted in front of a TV, doing my best to comply with local norms.

Outside, puffy, sprawling white clouds are gradually giving way to hazy blue skies and lazy sunlight. It's Madrid's mid-afternoon lunch break -– time to scare up something tasty, maybe an empanada de bonito and a bowl of gazpacho.


rws 2:53 PM [+]

Sunday, April 06, 2003

Similar to yesterday morning, hauled myself out from under the covers, this time at a disgustingly early hour (at least according to local standards, for a Sunday morning) because my houseguest of the last 16 or so days was packing up and heading out at a, er, disgustingly early hour. As it was, I got up to find he'd just bolted and so had to stumble out to the landing to call down a brief, quiet see-ya.

A couple of hours later: got myself out into the still-cool-but-quickly-warming-up morning air, went to the same neighborhood joint as yesterday for the a.m. infusion of caffeine. No TV this time, or at least the place was full enough with people and morning noise that television sounds didn't register. Sat at the counter where the camarero, having reached the point of excessive familiarity with my face and apparently having resigned himself to it, made and set in front of me my usual espresso, me not having to say a word. (The kind of moment that is startling in the nicest possible way.) I started sipping, reading the newspaper's Sunday magazine through what remained of my morning blurriness.

More people enter. A guy sits on the stool to my right, I continue reading. Within a couple of seconds of sitting down, he begins whispering stuff in Spanish. A few words, kind of emphatic, then a pause. A few more, another pause. Then more. Then more, then still more. I finally glance over to check out what's happening, I see that instead of holding a one-sided conversation with himself, this fella's talking to his dog, a black and gray spaniel positioned quietly between our stools. The spaniel finally settles down, sits, and remains with eyes fixed on its person, looking nowhere else. Either completely devoted or waiting for crumbs from an eventual croissant or sweet roll. Pretty cute.

These brief, close periods spent in close proximity with other humans with whom we don't speak lead to interesting stuff. Yesterday evening, for example. Went for a long walk along Gran Vía, sidewalks packed with people out enjoying the sunlight and long, slanting shadows of the pre-dusk hour or two. (Packed with human traffic, lots of folks going in and out of high-end clothing stores, many carrying one, two or three shopping bags: ZARA, El C.I., Territorio, T2[n], BxK, etc.) Wound up at la Plaza de España, as I often do when I'm out in wandering/people-watching mode. A spectacularly beautiful evening, summery temperatures quickly cooling as the sun slipped down beyond the horizon.

The only available bench along the main promenade had an older male occupying one end. Short, a bit broad in the beam. Close-cropped gray hair, bristling in slightly unkempt fashion. Glasses. He had a cane, and as I sat down I noticed it was actually made from a slim tree-branch. Not prettied up, not smoothed out. Retaining knots and bark and all, with a rubber cap slipped over the smaller end and a bunch of tape wrapped around the larger end, forming a handle that fit neatly into his palm. He didn't look at me or acknowledge me in any way, but as soon as I sat down, he began doing some strange, funky arm-stretching movements. Could have been the real thing or could have been some sort off territorial jazz. Don't know. Okay by me -- he wasn't smiting me about the head or anything. After a couple of minutes he stopped, and sat looking around. As did I, there being a lot to watch and enjoy between the weather, the fresh greenery everywhere, the people out enjoying the evening, the birds flying here and there right through the crowds, the two fountains at either end of the promenade. Lots to see, lots to listen to. Sensory input of all kinds, the kind that remind one how amazing it is to be alive in the middle of it all.

The sun went down, the ambient light began to fade a bit. On the buildings around the plaza, neon signage began coming on one by one. At some point, I pulled out my notebook, wanting to scribble down a bunch of stuff before the light dwindled too much. That seemed to spook the older guy, who immediately stood up. He needed a minute or two to convince his body to unstiffen, finally convinced it to walk slowly off toward the end of the promenade that abuts the main drag. An old, unsmiling, stodgy-looking male, not appearing happy about having to share a bench on a lovely spring evening. Appearing even less happy with the idea of me watching and writing.

Ah, well.

Today: another genuinely beautiful day. The city has been out in the streets enjoying the return of the warm season. It's now just after 9:30, the streets are still jumping with activity.

Another weekend has whipped by, another Monday lurks in the wings.

Time to get some schoolwork done. Later.

rws 3:48 PM [+]

Saturday, April 05, 2003

This morning: dragged myself from under the covers, got myself out in the morning air and sunlight by 10:30. Went straight to one of my favorite local café pushers for a morning espresso. Walked in, sat down, exchanged hellos with the guy behind the bar, he got a cuppa going for me. As I sat there, the sound from the TV mounted over the entranceway caught my attention, I turned around to spy a morning cartoon show in process -- Cow and Chicken -- animation done in the style of the late, great Ren & Stimpy, the protagonist in this one being a cow experiencing some intensely trying events, responding with emotional states so exaggerated that they produced wildly extreme physical alterations, body parts stretching here and there in shock, fright and alarm, pulsing, bloodshot eyes bulging bizarrely.

Man, what a surreal, garishly-colored, er, wake-up call.

Pretty good café, though.

rws 7:18 AM [+]

Friday, April 04, 2003

Last night: feel asleep around midnight. Woke up around 3. Could tell I wouldn't be drifting off again right away, got up. Fired up the computer, coasted around the web a bit. Came across a short news article about Adrian Brody's Academy Award lip lock with Halle Berry, which got me thinking about the whole kissing thing.

What an invention, kissing, huh? So intimate, so expressive, so sweetly revealing of one's kissing partner and yet relatively uninvasive (assuming both partners are willing and into it). When done right, it's a means of intimate exploration and nearly endless pleasure. Lip to lip, lip to cheek, lip to ear, lip to neck, lip to shoulder. A lovely, tender means of expressing affection, appreciation, love, desire. Sometimes light, in passing -- a kiss on the top of the head or lips brushing the side of a face. Sometimes ardent, more intense, communicating passion, deep feelings, longings. Sometimes comic, producing a good larf between partners. Sometimes just a nice moment of greeting. (I exclude air kisses here, a social gesture I have no interest in. In fact, one of the most captivating moments in my first couple of weeks in Madrid happened when an acquaintance introduced me to a women he was with and she immediately gave me a kiss on either cheek. Real ones, nice ones, providing a sudden rush of sensation. I wasn't, at that time, aware that the two-cheek kiss was customary here, so that the moment took me by surprise -- a sudden instant of closeness with an attractive woman, our cheeks together, the feel of her lips, her scent, the glancing sensation of her hair against the side of my face. And then she and my acquaintance were off, leaving standing in Madrid's summer sun, sparrows cheeping nearby, the abrupt blur of sensation remaining with me for a few seconds before giving way to full awareness of where I was, post-moment. In comparison with that, air kisses are silly things -- empty, meaningless, blahblahblah.)

And then there are all the possible accompanying sensations involved in deep kissing -- the body contact, the feel of arms around you, maybe a hand on the back of your neck or in your hair or touching your face. That amazing feeling of opening up, of allowing in that happens when a partner relaxes and softens and truly puts their arms around you, truly surrenders to a smooch. The awareness of their breathing, of their body heat, of the muscles moving beneath their skin. And their odors, natural and otherwise, from skin, clothes, hair.

Tthe feel of a partner's tongue, the ways it can be used to explore (or not). And of course, the feel of the partner's lips.

They're funny things, lips. Mostly innocuous, taking up little body surface-area (save the few Jagger-esque, overendowed individuals out prancing about the landscape), yet unbelievably sensitive when used in certain ways, probably packed with nerve-ends. Extremely expressive. Portals as important as the eyes can be in terms of glimpsing or experiencing a partner's deeper self.

Great stuff, kissing. Deceptively deep stuff. And there's Adrian Brody, laying one on Halle Berry, her husband out in the audience, probably going, Hey, wait a minute....

Yeah. Er... where was I?

Right -- up in the middle of the night. So as I sat here at my ‘puter, the friend who's been staying here these last couple of weeks returned from a long night out. We're talking 3:30 a.m., something like that. Brief hellos, I shut down my laptop, returned to bed, where I didn't really get back to sleep until 6 a.m. or so, and even then it was one of those half-awake sleeps. So that when I rose to meet the day, it was a bleary, knackered me doing the greeting, one who's remained thick-headed and not entirely awake since then, despite coffee, food, conversation, a walk. The gym helped some. Maybe getting out to class will.

And after class it'll be Friday evening in Madrid, the streets crowded with people, restaurants and tapas bars busy, the air filled with the sound of voices, of people moving along the sidewalks, of traffic going by. Maybe even with music or wacky impromptu street happenings.

That'll help.


rws 11:40 AM [+]

Thursday, April 03, 2003

A friend has been staying here during the past couple of weeks, a bilingual American in the process of relocating from Pamplona to Madrid. Given that I spend a sizeable part of my days writing, and therefore thinking, in English, living alone has been a liability when it comes to developing my skills re: speaking Castellano. It's one thing to have the TV or radio on, absorbing Spanish that way. It's another thing to converse in Castellano, to have to think and respond to someone blathering at me. So having a speaker of the native lingo on premises has been a help. I mean, god bless this guy -- he answers my endless questions, he deals patiently with me fumbling about and spewing halting, mistake-riddled Español. And as a result of all that saintly forbearance, I've seen some real improvement in my conversational ability – slow and gradual, but real. Yesterday in particular. So I was feeling pretty good when I got to class yesterday evening, flush with the illusion that I would do just fine in the back and forth between high-level Spanish speakers. (HA!!)

In the process of getting a bit of perspective, I learned that in the written version of Spanish, the use of parentheses is looked down upon, is considered vulgar. Meaning not educated or proper. I remember hearing the same thing in writing classes in the States -- better to use dashes or find another way to do what you're wanting to do, parentheses are clumsy, ugly, low-class. And I've got to say, I love parentheses. I think they're useful and expressive. I use 'em regularly, both in this journal and in other, more (hopefully) commercially viable writing, as anyone who has read my stuff can attest. Vulgar? Low-class? Who cares! They're fun, if not overused to the point of bludgeoning an unprepared reader with parenthetical hooha. So they'll remain part of my pitiful arsenal of writing tools. (To anyone who might have a problem with that: deal.)

Meanwhile, the other student in the class is an American from San Francisco way, a character who has been living in Europe for a long time, spending a few years in one country teaching English, learning the native language, enjoying the local life, then heading to another country. So that he now speaks several languages. Man, I'm envious. I'd love to be multilingual. People who are fluent in more than one language, especially those with a bunch of 'em under their belt, are heroes to me.

Everyone needs their heroes, don't you think?

It's a perfect spring day here, the sunlight beginning to take on that quality it has for most of the warm season here, a real Spanish kind of light. A clear, blue sky overhead. The air's cool, there's a breeze, so the long-masted television antennas that have sprouted up from the roofs of the neighborhood buildings over the years move slightly back and forth in the blue air, as does laundry on clotheslines and the big 'NO a la GUERRA' sign hanging from the side of a building above the soon-to-be-ex-vacant-lot from here.

The sight of banners like that is not unusual here -- where the various recent polls indicate that nine out of ten Spaniards remain emphatically against the war, a figure that's held steady in recent weeks -- including rainbow-colored PAZ (peace) flags hanging from windows and homemade jobs with lots of variations on the basic theme. An especially visible concentration of them hang from balcones around the plaza down the street, the site of a large, apparently spontaneous demonstration last night. Loud, loud sounds of bombs falling, explosions and sirens signaled the start of the bugger, broadcast from a third or fourth floor piso on one side of the plaza, home to the owner of an impressive stereo system who has, on two or three occasions during the last couple of weeks, thrown open their French doors and played whatever it is they have -- something pre-recorded, something they've thrown together, I don't know -- at a volume that sends it out over the plaza and down various streets of the barrio. Crowds gather, milling about the plaza, staring up at the balcón, which last night gradually led to people banging on available surfaces as the soundscape continued, including many locals banging on pots and pans.

With time, voices and pots and pans became the predominant part of the mix, creating a huge ongoing cacophony (hooting, hollering, clinking, clattering, rattling, blanging, clanging), all signaling the continuing opposition to the conflict. An enormous amount of noise, hard to miss even if you're inside with music or the TV going. On and on it went, getting louder and louder. I opened a window and cast a glance around this little corner of the neighborhood. Couldn't see anyone else hanging from windows, but people streamed in and out of the plaza, and the din rose into the evening darkness.

I'd been in the middle of tossing together something to east. Finally decided I needed to put that on hold and go get an eyeful of the scene down the street. Pulled on a heavier shirt and a jacket, ran downstairs. As I stepped outside, I could hear that the noise had diminished and so ran to the plaza, hoping enough of the brouhaha remained in process that I could get a good first-hand feel of some fine communal wackiness. Folks still remained in the plaza, but the bulk of the crowd had exited through the pedestrian walkway that leads from the plaza's rear to the next east-west street over and were proceeding down the narrow north-south street that extends away from there, filling it both with a small sea of bodies and with the still-loud-but-slowly-diminishing sound of voices and pots/pans being banged.

The French doors remained open on the balcón that fronts the killer-sound-system piso, but no noise issued forth. Relative tranquility was reasserting itself around the plaza. People stood in groups talking, others clustered around bars or tiendas. Still others moved through the space, heading elsewhere or entering/exiting the Metro station.

Life has a funny habit of moving on. So I did the same, coming home to food and spirited second half of a game between the Spanish national soccer team and the Armenian team. The final: Spain 2, Armenia 0.

Just another Wednesday evening in Madrid.

rws 11:04 AM [+]

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Wednesday morning. Midweek in Madrid. A thin layer of overcast allows faint sunlight overhead. In the streets below, cars and trucks pass through the neighborhood, sounds of work come from all over. Someone walks by with a handtruck loaded with crates of produce, intermittent sounds of hammering, drilling, cutting rise from the construction site across the street.

Went down to the plaza to pick up a paper (trust me, you don't want to hear the headlines), sat down on a bench for a while. The plaza lay nearly empty, unusual for that time of day. No small groups of locals chatting, no dog owners with their charges, no parents with kids. Individuals passed through, heading in various directions; now and then folks would emerge from the Metro.

A couple of small trucks backed into the de facto driveway that runs along part of the plaza's west side, the drivers getting out, opening the back hatches to pull out flats of dairy goods or baked items which went to a few of the restaurants or tiendas that ring the plaza.

Two motorcycle cops pulled in from la Calle de Gravina, the street that borders the north side of the plaza, cruising slowly through the space to stop behind the stairway down to the Metro, where they dismounted, removed their helmets. One went into a small neighborhood-grocery type of tienda for a couple of drinks, the other waited outside, standing in relaxed fashion by the top of the stairs. When his companion emerged, they spent five or ten minutes there sipping at their sodas, chatting with whomever passed by to say hello.

Pedestrian traffic slowly picked up, some folks stopping at the news kiosk to pick up papers or magazines. Pairs of 20-something wearing daypacks began drifting by. At the north end of the plaza, a 30-something woman stood at the public telephone, talking loudly, clearly frustrated about something, saying, "Entendiendo, pero ¿cuándo? Sigue diciendolo y quiero saber ¿cuándo? ("I understand, but when? You keep saying that, but I want to know when!")

The sound of hammering started up in a shuttered storefront behind me, sounds of rehab and construction being one of the constants around here. A 50-something fella in a sport coat, balding, close to 6 foot tall, stopped not far from my bench to write down the telephone numbers printed on a couple of signs posted on first-floor balcones behind me ("SE AQUILA PISO" y "DISPONIBLE" -- "APT. FOR RENT" and "AVAILABLE"). (A first-floor apt. here is located on what would be called the second-floor in the States, BTW.) I hope whoever he's writing those numbers down for checks out the place later in the day, because come the afternoon and evening, the plaza is not the quiet, sedate spot it was right at that moment. Thus the periodic explosion of for-rent and for-sale signs that appear on balcones around the space, signifying neighbors who have had enough. (Signs which blend in festively with the numerous "NO A LA GUERRA" banners and the several yellow banners declaring "PELIGRO -- ZONE CONTAMINADA POR RUIDOS" (DANGER -- ZONE POLLUTED BY NOISE), that last the lingering legacy of a couple of night-long occasions of outrageous partying in the plaza a year or two ago.)

More people appeared from the Metro station. One tired-looking 50-something gent, a bit paunchy, wearing a coat so tight he appeared to have been stuffed into it, reached the top of the stairs lugging a wheeled suitcase. He paused, maybe catching his breath, then slowly proceeded straight ahead, the suitcase wheels making a loud, constant, grating sound against the pavement. He reached the north edge of the plaza and continued straight ahead, crossing la Calle de Gravina to disappear up a street that extends to the north from there.

A 40ish man, looking weathered and worn in the way of someone who's spent some nights on the street, walked slowly by. Another male, weathered in the same way, passed along the northern edge of the plaza, pulling a two-wheeled luggage caddy to which was strapped a small suitcase and a small pack, both of which had seen better days, though clearly being cared for as best as their current owner could manage. Their owner's steps appeared lighter than the previous gentleman's, his posture more erect, head held higher.

A 20-something woman emerged with another group from the Metro station and walked by me -- Converse sneakers, flared blue jeans, black sweater, with a dark violet shawl wrapped around her upper body, applying lip balm from a small container she carried in one palm. Frowning with ill humor or preoccupation.

I got to my feet and headed out of the plaza down la Calle de Gravina to a local bakery for a baguette and a bocadillo. Along the way, I passed a young 20-something woman standing in a doorway, looking out at the street, face impassive, meeting no one's eyes, though passing males checked her out with sideways glances. When I returned from the bakery, she was still there, staring up the street.

I stopped at the local market, el centro commercial, for one or two items. A row of small trucks and vans stood parked diagonally along the curb in front of the building -- from the rear of one, a guy in work clothes and a white apron hopped out with four dead, skinned pigs slung across his shoulder. He disappeared into the building ahead of me, heading to off to a stall to deliver the, er, bodies.

The market was quiet, merchants working away in their stalls, one or two small groups of workpeople standing talking quietly, the occasional sound of laughter resonating in the space.

The stairs up to the second level had two bulletin boards hanging on the wall at the midpoint landing, one of which belonged to ‘la Asociación De Vecinos "Chueca"' (The Association of Chueca Neighbors). Two copies of an association newsletter had been tacked to the board, spread open so that all its pages were readable. The other bulletin board contained ads of all sorts -- one for a haircutter who makes house calls, one for a dog walker, one for a cook (with "larga experiencia en hoteles de cocina internacional y Español -- se ofrece para trabajo en restaurantes o hoteles en Madrid"). One ad announced a Jeep Cherokee for sale (12,000 euros, with "todos los extras"). There were business cards (a general repairman, an electrician) along with two ads for English teachers, one of which was nicely machine-printed ("¿Hablas Inglés?"), with many of its telephone-number tabs already taken; the other, hand-written ("¿Quieres Aprender Inglés?"), still retained all its tabs. A large ad from a woman qualified to teach primary and secondary-school age children in-home, also nicely machine-printed, had picked up an additional line of handwritten text across its top -- "Por favor, los anuncios más pequeños. Gracias" (Please, make your ads smaller. Thank you).

When I headed back through the plaza, en route to home, activity had picked up, the noise level had risen a bit. A dog or two trotted around, sniffing at various spots, now and then pausing to lift a leg.

Wednesday morning. Midweek in Madrid.

rws 11:06 AM [+]

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

I'm scaring myself. Woke up this morning with the song Dear Abby' by John Prine going through my head. Got up, bumbled my way to the bathroom to dump the ballast, bumbled my way back to bed. Somewhere in there the song changed from Dear Abby' to Wild Tyme*,' a Jefferson Airplane tune. What, I ask myself, is happening to me? (So far no answer has been forthcoming.)

*Not a bad tune, actually, from, 'After Bathing At Baxter's,' a driving, slightly anarchic kick in the butt. Recorded before their descent into far lamer territory. Not a bad song to have on a repeat loop in one's head (if one has to have a repeat loop going in one's head).

On the other hand, as I write this a latin tune I heard on the radio this afternoon has been cycling around my little brain. Better.

So. My mother (see the end of yesterday's entry) -- a genuine character. (My working definition of character for purposes of that last sentence: a colorful individual who may be more fun to talk about after the fact than live with.)

In their later years, my parents did the Florida thing, tiring of northeastern winters and taking refuge way down south, settling along the state's mid-Atlantic coast, maybe an hour from Canaveral. For a while that meant driving back and forth with the warm and cold seasons, the snowbird routine. As they grew more infirm, it meant being trapped in the house for much of Florida's long hot season due to extreme heat and humidity, or at least getting into a headset where they believed they had to be. They were well on in years when they had me -- I was, I think, an unplanned event (so much for the rhythm method) -- to the point where I never knew my father without white hair. When they finally, each in their turn, plummeted off the twig, they were WELL on in years.

As those last years slipped by, my mother grew smaller and smaller, eating so little that she finally became bird-like, a teeny little human, less and less capable of taking care of herself though firmly intent on dominating her living space and as much of her life as she could, determined to finish out her life in her own home, not in a nursing facility.

Both my brother and I lived in the northeast, 1200 miles away. Just about far enough. And although I mean that last sentence, I smile as I write it because I came to feel real affection for that character my mother morphed into over time. She developed some fairly extreme ways of thinking and methods of dealing with life, and although it could be a challenge to spend more than a couple of days in her company, watching her deal in the ways she developed and giving her the occasional gentle elbow in the ribs about it (to which she usually responded with laughter) was fun. The family sense of humor was one of its great saving graces, and that impulse to make each other cackle carried us through a lot of passages that might otherwise have become truly suffocating with their heaviness.

In late April of 2000, when I'd made the decision to come to Madrid, I flew down to Florida to spend a weekend with my mother, the last time I'd see her before heading off to Europe for who knew how long. I chose not to tell her about Madrid until I was there with her because I knew it would be a major chunk of news for her to digest, meaning as it did that I would be far, far away. A world away, to her, never having crossed the ocean. (Or gone west of the Mississippi, for that matter.) Meaning, in a sense, that what little nuclear family she had left would be whittled down to my brother in New York State. And when I sat down by her customary perch in her living/dining area and told her, it was clearly a major bit of information, a clump of data that made her go silent and stare ahead.

She'd gone through some medical emergencies in her last years, including a stroke or two that left the use of one side of her body tremendously diminished. She tired with little exertion, she needed a walker to move around the house, used a cane whenever she ranged about outside, walking at a snail's pace. In fact, she rarely left her last home there on Lake Fairgreen Circle (situated in a community built around a golf course, a game neither of my parents played), life being simpler, less tiring if she simply remained inside the relatively safe confines of her little dominion, comfortably crowded (to her) as it was with memories and the accumulation of material stuff. One of the things I tried to do, therefore, when I was down visiting, was to get her out of the house, drive her places she might enjoy. Restaurants, other towns, locations with lots of sunlight, with views.

On my last full day of that April visit, I got her out of the house and into the car, took us out on one of the east-west four-lanes that cross the inland waterway, heading toward the Canaveral National Seashore. A long haul past shopping centers, beach communities, huge blocks of apartments with names like The Beachcomber and Tradewinds East to where buildings disappeared, the road narrowed to two small lanes, the land shrank to a sandy spit of sand, green scrub vegetation, and cactus, water appearing on both sides -- to the east the ocean, to the west an enclosed bay.

A spectacular day of breeze and sun, the sky crowded with white clouds that softened the light, giving it a bit of a glow. We drove along, my mother with the back of her seat down so that she reclined, looking small, tired, a bit lost, but game for an outing. She wore a windbreaker, blue leisure pants, sailing sneakers and her habitual white navy cap, its brim pushed down so that the hat resembled a soft, conical helmet, her unruly, thinning white/gray hair showing around the bottom. She didn't talk much. The partial paralysis of her left side affected her ability to speak, turning conversation into work, her often sounding a bit strangled when she did talk. So she lounged, taking in the day and the surroundings, me helping her to raise the back of her seat when we entered the reserve. Now and then I'd make commentary or ask her something, get her talking a little bit.

It's a long drive along that stretch of road to where the National Seashore's small two-lane parkway ends. Once we'd rounded the highway's ending turnabout, I steered the car up into a parking area that looked out over the Atlantic, we sat there for a while with the windows open, dune greenery waving restlessly in the wind, cactus all around sporting bright yellow blossoms, the air tangy with salt and a feeling of freshness.

At some point, I got out of the car and moved along the boardwalk. The wind had generated impressive surf -- large, insistent waves that rolled rapidly in, breaking in classic manner, producing a constant stream of sound. The murmur of approaching waves built to a roar, punctuated by the deep sound of water hitting the sand, an impact strong enough I could feel it in my body. The hiss of retreating water, changing quickly to the growing sound of further approaching breakers. Deep blue sky, clouds moving quickly along, everything slightly aglow with that day's distinctive light.

Two women approached from down the shore, riding large, beautiful white horses. The sand appeared to be hard-packed, angling off at a sharp incline into the water. The waves came in on each other's heels, the drop of the sand creating a fast retreat of water before the next arrivals, not the long, languid outflow of most swimming beaches. Conditions a touch wilder than normal. The women guided the horses down into the water, where the intensity of the surf seemed to spook them a bit, the animals rearing up when confronted with a mass of water surging toward them, streaming in around their legs. The women remained in control, keeping their mounts there in the shallows, whooping with pleasure amid the waves, the wind, the sunlight, the motion of the two horses as they surged around among the rollers. An amazing scene of primal images, primal power, one that had everyone up on the boardwalk motionless, mouths open, electrified.

When I returned to the car, I found that my mother had been watching the happening with a look of quiet pleasure on her face the likes of which I hadn't seen in some time. She'd grown up with horses out in the country of upstate New York, north of Oswego, near the lake, loved them and, I suspect, missed them. I don't think she'd seen anything like this scene for quite a while and enjoyed it deeply.

She grew quickly tired after that, I drove her back to her house by the golf course. The next day I flew back north and continued getting ready to come to Madrid.

Two months later, my brother flew down with my niece and nephew to spend a few days with Mom. Between the four of us, she got to see those individuals she'd wanted most to connect with one more time. And with that (and having achieved her goal of living out her life in her own home), I think she felt ready to leave behind the limited existence her life had gradually morphed into. Shortly before my brother was to return north, she checked out. Her lungs suddenly filled with fluid, she passed quickly away.

I'm not sure that I've thought of that scene at the National Seashore since then, until I saw the two horses at la Plaza de España yesterday. Suddenly there it all was -- one more memory waiting to blossom into a recollection so vivid it almost becomes three-dimensional.

Life. It's something to savor -- now, instead of waiting until you're about to check out. Know what I mean?

rws 11:41 AM [+]


August 2001
September 2001
October 2001
November 2001
December 2001
January 2002
February 2002
March 2002
April 2002
May 2002
June 2002
July 2002
August 2002
September 2002
October 2002
November 2002
December 2002
January 2003
February 2003
March 2003
April 2003
May 2003
June 2003
July 2003
August 2003
September 2003
October 2003
November 2003
December 2003
January 2004
February 2004
March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
June 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
October 2008
November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
April 2009
June 2009
July 2009

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .


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

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .


This page and all its contents copyright © 2001-2011 by runswithscissors unless otherwise noted.

runswithscissors would like to thank everyone who's ever lived for everything they've ever done.

Syndicate This Site



Bloggapedia, Blog Directory - Find It!

technorati profile

Subscribe with Bloglines

runswithscissors' photos More of runswithscissors' photos