Wednesday, November 03, 2004
Last Friday -- Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Sunday -- Provincetown, Massachusetts:
A convenience mart somewhere between Cambridge and Provincetown, deep inside Red Sox territory:
Yesterday -- Lisbon, Portugal:
Today -- la Plaza de España, Madrid: a small white-haired woman, looking close to 80 years of age, walked slowly, arm in arm with a 20-ish woman. The older woman wore a baggy black coat, large enough that it made her appear even more diminutive than she already was. The younger woman had the air of someone mentally disadvantaged. As they walked, they talked back and forth, their dialogue consisting of one word spoken over and over, their exchange sounding strangely musical:
Older Woman: Ya!
Younger Woman: Ya ya ya?
Older Woman: Ya!
Younger Woman: Ya ya ya ya ya?
Older Woman: Ya!
Younger Woman: Ya ya?
Older Woman: Ya!
They were doing that as I approached, it continued as I passed and moved out of earshot.
This evening, here in the barrio: me, walking back to the flat, just down the street. A slightly paunchy 50-something male stood up the block a bit, staring around, taking care not to glance my way as I approached, turning away as I drew near, presenting his back to me. As I passed, he farted loudly (in local lingo, él se tiró un pedo) -- a classic, the kind Robin Williams can imitate perfectly. Not too long, not too short. Clear, distinct, almost musical.
Mr. Pooter carefully focused his attention elsewhere, staring off down the street, nose slightly up in the air, manner aloof. I noted no noxious odors, thankful to be experiencing this strange moment out on the street in the cool open air rather than, say, in an elevator.
I continued along, heading home for the day, that brief passage joining the countless passages that have moved through my life, slipping through the present moment to disappear into the past.
Thursday, November 04, 2004
Last Friday: me, up at 4 p.m. Wrapping up loose ends -- a non-stop stream of detail work that took me right up to the moment I went out the door and into town to hop a bus south. A good day for a bus ride south, as it turned out -- a golden late-autumn day, Montpelier showing a surprising amount of late-season color, the air warming from early-hour frigidity to sweeter, kinder levels.
The bus: less than three-quarters full, allowing a fair number of riders two seats to stretch out in. At White River Junction, an hour south of Montpelier, we had to switch over to another bus, one already crowded, leaving few vacant seats, me sliding my adorable butt into the last available window number, leaving four or five vacant aisle seats, one of them next to me. The other passengers next to a vacant seat filled them with coats, bags, whatever might suggest 'Dude, don't even think of sitting here!' to a seatless traveler seeking a perch. I didn't. The result: a tall, beefy cadet wearing Norwich University dress grays -- someone who'd taken over two seats on the previous bus in an aggressive way that said 'sit next to me? as if!' -- approached, asking loudly, voice edged with attitude, "Is that seat taken, sir?" (Any time anyone addresses me as sir, I get the impulse to look around, see who the hell they're actually talking to, then tell them to knock the sir shit off.) I said no, he sat, his body large enough that it partially blocked the aisle, the duffel bag he dropped there completing the blockage.
During the switch between buses, he'd run to a nearby McDonalds, returning with a large drink that he now held in his left hand (the hand next to me). He pushed the back of his seat rearward, extended his legs out into the aisle, put a walkman on, closed his eyes, fell asleep. His mouth slowly dropped open, snores starting up as the big body relaxed in small, spasmodic twitches. Which is when I noticed the big soft-drink cup slipping gradually over in my direction, its plastic cover the only thing preventing its contents from running out on seats/floor/me. I poked snoring cadet a few times on the arm. No response. Poked him some more. Still no response. Looked out the window at the scenery, debating whether or not to escalate the poking to shaking, smacking, pulling walkman headset off to yell into ears. When I glanced back, his arm had completely relaxed, the cup tilted over, its top sprang off, soda poured out onto the floor -- amazingly, only enough reaching me to dampen the sole of my shoes. Waking with a start, the cadet jumped to his feet, apologizing for the mess, not appearing to know what to do. I suggested grabbing something to mop up the liquid, he ducked into the bus's portosan, reappearing empty-handed, the bus company apparently having decided stocking toilet paper was not a priority. He went and spoke with the driver, returned with three facial tissues, which had as much effect as a sponge trying to clean out Lake Michigan.
After sopping up what he could, the cadet tossed the dripping result into the portosan, sat down, plugged headset back into ears, closed his eyes once more. Relative silence descended, broken only by the sound of surrounding passengers trying to pull their shoes free of the slowly drying soda's adhesive effect.
Friday, November 05, 2004
Boston. October sunlight shining through autumn clouds. Ongoing highway construction everywhere. Heavy traffic.
Arriving from the north, the interstate is flanked by old neighborhoods, big-box superstores, expanses of old warehouses and industrial buildings. Big sloppy displays of graffiti cover warehouse walls, the side of one building crowded with repeated tags of the word NOSE. All that gave way to the grounds of the appropriately bunker-like Bunker Hill Community College, the boundary line marked by four beautiful college tennis courts -- clean, fenced securely in, empty and still. Beyond the college, a hill rose gently to its apex, the sharply phallic thrust of the Bunker Hill Monument reaching upward from there (not, despite its name, located on Bunker Hill, but on Breed's Hill, where most of the battle took place -- go figure). The slopes of the hill lay covered by old three-decker apartment buildings, packed up against one another so tightly it's amazing the residents can breathe.
Pulling into South Station, we passed another bus, oversized Chinese characters painted in gaudy style on the back along with the words FUNG WAH BUS. I'm looking at this, Cadet Butterfingers next to me wakes up, spots it, exclaims, "Fung Wah!" I could only nod.
The subway -- crowded with an impressive mix of physical and ethnic types -- delivered me to Cambridge. A neighbor of my hosts/friends supplied the key to their flat where I found that the heat had been set to bake and the radiators continued cranking it out, to the point that I had to flee back out into the mild afternoon for some relief. Made the hike to a decent Mexican cafeteria-style joint. The 20-something Mexican guy behind the counter seemed to get thrown by every single question I asked, didn't matter if I spoke English or Spanish, each of us becoming more and more tentative as communications went less and less smoothly. Finally scored a decent plate of food, ate it in leisurely fashion, pondering the days of travel that lay ahead.
Back at the flat, I discovered one of my friends had a lovely heavy-duty laser pointer which I immediately put to use entertaining/annoying the two resident cats. I have no idea if they actually thought the point of light was alive or if they did the willing-suspension-of-disbelief bit -- didn't matter, they chased the bugger everywhere I pointed it.
Friends came home from work, we packed the car, headed down to the Cape, eating Chinese food as we went, traffic thinning as we traveled south. I took the wheel about halfway along, my friends almost immediately conked out, the car quieting apart from the occasional soft intake of breath from one of the sleepers. I managed to ignore eyelids that grew progressively heavier, the rest of the traffic evaporated as the car found its way further out on the Cape. By the time we pulled into Provincetown, the road was empty, the local world dark and quiet.
Next morning, woke up to television noise. S., a confirmed member of Red Sox Nation, had the box on, eyes glued to coverage of the big post-world-series tribute/victory parade. All other programming had been pre-empted, giving way to many hours of commentators blathering, ball players waving at big, happy crowds, confetti spewing from cannons as amphibious Boston Duck Tour vehicles threaded their way through jammed city streets, plunging finally into the Charles River Basin for the last leg of the lovefest, fans lining riverbanks and bridges. One hyper-stimulated celebrant hurled a baseball that whanged off Pedro Martinez' forehead, leaving him with a slight headache and prompting yet another pre-election terrorist alert by the White House.
It's a strange, interesting place, Provincetown -- out at the end of a long, narrow spit of land, water on three sides. The air feels soft, sea gulls glide overhead, the sound of breaking waves, of distant fog horns comes and goes. Tourists, arty types, gays and hetero folk mix in generally relaxed manner. Restaurants rub elbows with art galleries, shops selling tourist dross, the occasional more normal store (drugstore, grocery shops). And plenty of activity, plenty of life in the street, most people visibly enjoying it.
And it has a reputation as a party town, where when the occasion calls for it people act out with few inhibitions. Meaning Halloween weekend there = entertainment.
Saturday night: walked into town looking for a place to dine. A trickier process than you might think, as most joints of any quality either require reservations or are heaving with customers during peak hours. Walked through the village, one place after another full, until we found one with a promising menu and a wait of only a few minutes. On entering, every table I could see was entirely occupied by either men or women -- no mixed groups. Something I'd never experienced before, anywhere. A group of 12 males waited for a table, most working on martinis as they stood around, all of them in drag -- three worthy of note: one guy done up as a woman from India, sari and all; one in an off-the-shoulder outfit that didn't look like much until you studied it more closely and saw that it was completely covered by rows of flip-flops-- dress, handbag, earrings, you name it; the third was the most convincing of the bunch, looking like a confident, slimmer, more attractive, effective version of Divine, with a balcony you could do Shakespeare from. Don't know how he managed that last bit -- he wore an off-the-shoulder number, like flip-flop guy, yet showed serious cleavage.
We wound up seated next to those twelve males, their conversation not only high in entertainment value but providing answers to questions I'd never pondered before. (Q: The best place to pick up drag clothing? A: Dress Barn.)
But enough about phony cleavage and shopping at Dress Barn.
People had taken to the street while we were inside, when we stepped out into the cold air crowds lined both sides of the street to get a load of some serious costumed revelry. All sorts of outfits were on display, some simple and understated, others wildly elaborate. Did not bring my camera, and I regretted it.
Sunday: beautiful, almost summery. Returned to Cambridge that evening, where I discovered that the my jacket zipper had lost its zip, the little part having disappeared without a trace, leaving me with no way to, er, zip up. Wasn't in the car, wasn't in the flat. May have been back in P-town, three hours away, there's no way of knowing. All of which meant the next day's pre-flight hours would be less leisurely than expected, me running around trying to find either a place that could fix it or a decent replacement jacket. No luck finding repair help. Found a nifty green suede jacket I convinced myself might work for me over the coming winter months ($10 at Oona's Experienced Clothing in Harvard Square, the source of my current beloved, now zipless leather jacket), came to my senses after leaving the store. Left it draped over a chair at my friends' place, have as yet sent them no explanation re: its mysterious appearance in their living space.
Sunday, November 07, 2004
Spent Monday night stuffed into a big metal tube with another two or three hundred people, flying across the Atlantic, and I have to say: there is nothing quite like an early morning hike through security checkpoints, customs and miles of Heathrow corridors.
Early afternoon found me, my zipless jacket and my big wheeled bodybag of luggage at the airport in Lisbon, happy that we'd all arrived safely (and on the same flight). Sunlight fell softly through rolling mist, palm trees puncuated the distant outline of the city. A lovely place, with a gentle, welcoming feel.
The guy at customs, on the other hand -- not much welcome there. Not much of anything there apart from appearing like he wished he were somewhere else. Didn't look at me, didn't look at my passport. Opened it up, pounded his stamp, tossed it back. The British Airways flight crew hadn't given us landing cards to fill out, a handout done without fail when disembarking in London or Madrid -- on the way off the plane, I asked if we needed one, got a wordless headshake in response. Didn't know whether to believe them or not, saw people filling them out inside the terminal along the approach to the customs booths. Grabbed one, scribbled in the info. Asked the customs guy if wanted it, he jerked his head no. I thanked him and skipped happily off to baggage claim.
Hopped a bus that ran from the airport down into the center (note to travelers headed Lisbon way -- go for the day or multi-day public-transport pass: a genuine deal that gets you all over the city on all of the various forms of public transport, cheaply), the bus driver responded to my Spanish with no problem. I told him where I wanted to get off, he responded with the name of a Metro stop, meaning, thought I, the bus would be stopping there. I'd studied a street map enough to know we were making a big loop around the general area of the stop he mentioned, I stayed in my seat, trusting we'd reach it eventually. (HA!) At the end of the line, the bus emptied out. I looked around my suddenly peopleless environs, grokked the situation, grabbed my bags, hit the pavement.
The city: crowded, packed with people and traffic. And showing age, looking like it's weathered many centuries of life. A bit blowsy, a bit rundown, but full of life and character, and mighty appealing.
The Lisbon guidebooks warn that street maps portray a city easy to traipse across, implying nothing about Lisbon's hills. Steep hills, with narrow winding streets, and expanses of steep old stairways rising up into equally old neighborhoods. They're not kidding. Not a city to drag a wheeled bodybag around in.
Checked the map at a bus stop, hopped a local that took me closer to where I wanted to go. Got off at the edge of a large plaza, the ocean looming off the far side, a huge, old arch looming off the near side, beyond which stretched the area I wanted. Crossed a cobblestone street, followed the tiled sidewalk beneath the arch and along a wide, old pedestrian way -- the area a strange combination of old, old buildings infused with life by chic, prosperous stores along the street-level.
Found the hotel -- another deal. The room: four stories up -- small, basic, inexpensive. Lacking any fancy touches except a small balcony with a spectacular vantage point for watching neighborhood life, more than compensating for the room's paucity of space/ritziness.
Opened the doors to the balcony. Peeled off clothes (trying not to flash the outside world), squeezed into the closet that passed for the facilities, took a bath. Unpacked some clothes, hung them on the room's two hangers, hoping they'd unwrinkle a bit. Pulled on some reasonably presentable duds, went out in search of food.
Found a local joint, grabbed an outdoor table. On paper, Portuguese is similar enough to Spanish that I found myself feeling dangerously confident as I checked out the menu. Found an item that looked promising -- 'Polvo cozido c/ batatas e grelos.' The Spanish word for chicken being 'pollo,' I thought I was looking at 'stewed chicken with potatoes and, er, something.' Had no idea what 'grelos' meant, figured how bad could it be, whatever it was? A waiter emerged, didn't seem to speak either Spanish or English. I showed him what I wanted, he nodded, I grabbed a table and watched the scene until food and drink appeared.
The scene: local office workers, emerging from lunch joints, heading back to the salt mines. Tourists. Young couples. People being served at other outside tables in front of other lunch joints. Lovely Portuguese women. Gray skies getting steadily grayer, now and then spritzing down light rain that pattered on the awning above me.
And then the waiter reappeared with my chow, me staring at the mound of food that moved my way. 'Polvo,' it turned out, did not translate to pollo -- it translated to 'pulpo,' the Spanish word for octopus. The result: two plump, pink, stewed tentacles coiled atop three big potatoes and a pile of spinach.
Not something I'd ever felt a hankering to sample, octopus, and had managed to avoid it until this point. The plate landed on the table, the waiter looked at me inquiringly. I gave him a smile, he smiled in return, headed back inside. Leaving me staring at sad rows of tiny stewed suction cups.
Monday, November 08, 2004
A moment of inner debate, my stomach urging me to pay the bill and bolt while a more adventurous part of me counseled taking at least one mouthful. Just one teensy, careful mouthful, after which I could do anything I want -- run away, stay put, whatever.
Knife and fork found their way into my hands, I cut into the thick part of one of the tentacles, sawed off a bite, guided it gingerly into mouth. Chewed. And discovered that it wasn't bad. Had a vaguely chickenish texture, a surprisingly mild, unfishy taste. Tried another bite (scraping off suction cups and loose, boiled skin). Again, not bad, despite the occasional stomach rumbling when I thought too much about what I was dining on. Continued that routine, nice and slowly, until I'd finished off most everything except a mound of suction cups and bits of octopus skin. Feeling like such a grown-up. Don't think I'll intentionally order a similar meal anytime soon, but if someone cooks one up and sticks it in front of me, I'll likely try it. (And probably without hurling. Very important, that.)
Rain moved in as I ate, getting heavier, less user-friendly all the time. Making the prospect of walking around the city less appealing with every passing minute.
Went back to hotel, cleansed mouth of octopus remnants. Then found my way to Santa Apolonia train station to see about reserving a spot on a train to Madrid. Pre-trip internet research on certain reputable English-language websites indicated that two Madrid-bound trains depart from Lisbon every day -- one in the morning, one at night. Got to the station, meandered around trying to figure which window would be the right one to bother. Finally wandered into a tiny customer service office tucked away off one of the platforms where I learned that there is actually only one daily train to Madrid, leaving at 10 p.m. every night. I'd planned on staying in Lisbon a couple of days before catching the morning train out. Something about the change in facts in combination with steadily worsening weather conditions gave me the urge to get moving.
Booked that night's train. (The fare: yet another bargain.) Left the station, followed the impulse to walk, rain or no rain. Headed up into the hills, glad I'd brought an umbrella. Found a café, tossed down a fast cuppa and croissant. Walked some more, then grabbed one of the old trolleys that run between downtown and some old neighborhoods perched on the city slopes. A beautiful old funicular, kept in mint condition. A guy sat behind me carrying on a loud, leisurely conversation in Portuguese with two other males spread around the rear half of the car, blabbering on and on and on. (That may have been when I realized that Portuguese sounds like the mutant offspring of Spanish and Russian. The Portuguese spoken in Lisbon, anyway. At least to my jaundiced ears.) Beautiful women boarded and got off the tram. Now and then church bells rang out from passing sidestreets. The coach wound its slow, steady way down from the hills into the center, the rain continuing, darkness falling.
Returned to my little cubbyhole of a room, dried out. Read, snoozed, watched a bit of European television. Ten o'clock found me and my wheeled body bag on the train, getting ready for a night of sleep as the train eased its way out of the station. My little overnight train cubbyhole was situated against the coach's loo, which meant periodic bouts of noises I wasn't looking to get used to. Ear plugs did the job.
And the next morning found me back in Madrid, navigating the bodybag through the tail end of the Metro a.m. rush hour. Since then, I'm re-acclimating. My Spanish seems to have suffered minimally from four and a half months away. I've slipped back into the morning routine of picking up a paper, ducking into a local joint for espresso and a croissant before getting the day underway. The narrow local streets are alive with people. The new apartment building across the street -- under construction for nearly two years now -- might actually be ready for residence by year's end.
Life goes on here in this city planted the middle of a large peninsula, an ocean away from the city in which I was born, far from the green mountains of a tiny state up by the Canadian border, my stateside home in more recent years.
Life goes on.