“Somethin’ for the little lady somethin’ for the little lady-“
“What are you singing?” she asks me.
I point to the speakers. “Step Right Up.” She stares at me blankly. “The song. Tom Waits?” Still nothing. I collapse in a heap of disappointment at the bar. “Can you pour me a bucket of whisky?” I ask the bartender.
“No, I’d be charged as an accessory to your suicide,” she tells me. She pours me a nice-sized shot though. “What’s wrong?”
“Just once, I swear, just once I want to meet a woman who knows the lyrics to a Tom Waits song.”
“Excluding Downtown Train.”
She shrugs. “They’re out there.”
“If you find one,” I say to her, “let me know. I swear to God I’d marry her so fast her head would spin.”
“That’s interesting,” she says when I tell her my name. “Mine’s Nomad.”
I choke on my tinto de verano.
I don’t like to believe in God. When I wake up in a good mood, full of optimism about the world, I’m an atheist, and I figure that the whole sordid record of history isn’t something to get too upset about, because after all, it was written by six billion short sighted, selfish mammals all pulling in different directions, and we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves.
Other days I wake up in a surly funk, and I think that the shit parade that’s been our history has indeed had an author, some sick bastard who gets his kicks writing a story full of genocide, gang rape and child prostitution, and likely ending in environmental holocaust. On these days, the idea that there might indeed be some omnipotent entity hovering over us with the power to send all of us to a district of hell where we spend eternity getting gang-banged by chainsaws, and whose mind, motivations, and turn-ons are completely unknowable SCARES THE MOTHERLOVING CRAP OUT OF ME.
I’m surprised it doesn’t terrify more theists. I can barely peek out from under the covers those days.
So I’m usually an atheist, because I like keeping a positive outlook. But when you’ve spent the past year running around the better part of Europe calling yourself Vagabond and a girl tells you her name is “Nomad,” it’s a bit like God hitting you on the back of the head with a lemon-flavored two-by-four and telling you to pay attention.
“Really?” I ask.
She shrugs. “That’s what it means in Arabic, anyway.”
“And what does it mean in Hebrew?”
We resume the conversation and I do my best to ignore the coincidence, which after all is really just a coincidence, not a huge one at that, and anyway Vagabonds like to travel light, without baggage.
“Where did you go to school?”
“Michigan,” I tell her.
“Oh, Ann Arbor. My ex-boyfriend went there, I’ve always wanted to see the Big House. His pictures always looked so pretty.”
I blink rapidly for a few seconds while I try to calculate the odds of a madrilena using the words ‘Big House’ correctly in a sentence. No need to panic, it’s a country of 40 million people, surely one tenth of one percent have heard of the Big House, leaving 40,000 Spaniards, likely half of them women.
“So you speak four languages?” I ask, trying to change the subject.
“Yes, but I want to learn more. I took this amazing class in college about the bible as literature.”
Enormous red lights are flashing in the periphery of my vision.
“And you had an amazing professor who could read Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew,” I tell her.
She frowns. “Yeah. How’d you know? He taught us all about how the Hebrew creation myth was influenced by the Babylonian myth-“
“Because of the Babylonian Exile. Marduk and Tiamat and all that.”
“Exactly. And he gave this mind-blowing lecture all about-“
“The Book of Job.”
“The Book of Job.”
“Which is your favorite part of the bible.”
“Because God is such a dick in it.”
We don’t say anything for a few minutes. After a while she asks me if I could stop staring at her, because it’s getting kind of creepy. I apologize. “Have you ever read anything by Philip K. Dick?” I ask.
She rolls her eyes. “Hombre. Of course. Do you like Isaac Asimov?”
“He wrote 412 books. I think I’ve read half of them.”
“I’ve got a copy of Dune back at my apartment.”
“The book? Or the movie?”
“Both. I’m kinda nuts for David Lynch.”
True to her word, she has both on her bookshelf, right next to two Italo Calvino novels and a copy of “The Origins of the Second World War” in English. I pull it out and sputter helplessly.
“This. How did? But…this is on my list. My Amazon list. I’ve been meaning to buy it for years.”
She shrugs. “You can borrow it, if you like.”
I put the book back on the shelf.
Right next to a copy of “Rain Dogs.” My knees go a little weak.
“You…you like Tom Waits?” I stutter.
“Oh yeah. Him and Leonard Cohen. But have you heard Jeff Buckley’s cover of Halleluja? It’s actually way better.”
Imagine you’re walking about town of a warm summer night, when you notice that, suddenly, every star in the sky has spontaneously rearranged itself into gynormous cursive letters that spell the words “Her, Dipshit!” with an arrow pointing to someone that is blinking bright red.
It’s amazing, and deeply, deeply frightening.
“Uh, why are you in my bed with the sheets over your head?” she asks.
I try to explain that, apparently, we have to get married immediately, because pursuant to a promise I made to the Almighty, failure to do so might result in all sort of hell being unleashed upon me by some Divine Asshole who likes taking drunken commitments seriously in order to screw with the lives of unwitting fools and vagabonds.
She’s not quite convinced.
I think I might be well and truly fucked.
It’s about 2pm. I’m standing outside the Plaza del Sol station with a pair of new shoes and a $30 new bathing suit, waiting for Hidalgo. We’re running late, which gives us the excuse to attempt an action movie maneuver I’ve always wanted to try. Hidalgo pulls up alongside the entrance to the station on his moped, spare helmet already in his free left hand. He slows only a little, tosses me the helmet, as I chase alongside the moped. I inexpertly stuff my head into the helmet, then leap on the back of the vehicle.
It doesn’t exactly go as planned, but it still feels incredibly incredibly cool. As we rocket down the streets of Madrid, weaving through traffic, passing on the right, travelling at what I conservatively estimate to be thirty or forty thousand miles an hour, I reflect on the strange luck that brought me to this point.
I’ve always been lucky. I’m not superstitious and I don’t avoid the path of black cats or walking under a ladder. But my luck is real. I depend on it. I try not to examine it too closely for fear that it will one day disappear. The truth is, I’ve been blessed with a quick wit, a healthy body, and a charming smile. With that combination you can do almost anything in the world. I did nothing to deserve these gifts, but luck granted them to me, and I’m extremely grateful.
Similarly, my life has, for the most part, been a series of breaks that consistently seem to go my way. I’ve been fortunate enough to know some incredible people in life. I’ve met some incredibly beautiful women and even slept with a few of them. Good things just seem to happen to me without me having to think about it very much. This apparently has something to do with an old gypsy curse (O.K., technically not gypsy, and not a curse. It’s Native American, and it’s more of a blessing-curse-general prognostication, but everyone immediately knows what you mean when you say Gypsy Curse, so I usually use that for shorthand, and anyway, that’s a story for another blog posting).
For those who would scoff at the reality of luck, let me remind you that in all things, there is a probability curve, with most people inhabiting an area within one standard deviation of the center, receiving both mildly good and mildly bad breaks in life. But there will always be those of us on either end of the bell curve. Those of us who, no matter what we do, always seem to get fucked over or smiled upon. For some of us, the penny always comes up heads, for others, tails. It has nothing to do with God or fate, and everything to do with statistics.
Even Napoleon recognized this. When it came time to promote a member of his officer corps, he’d listen to the advice of his general’s regarding the individual in question. He’s an exceptional leader, the generals would say. He has an excellent command of logistics, they’d tell him. His tactical skills are unparalleled, they’d say.
And Napoleon would nod, and smile, and finally, he’d say “Yeah. But is he lucky?”
What does this have to do with anything?
It goes like this: when I try to plan things, they inevitably come out crap. On the other hand, jumping without a parachute, leaping without looking, and generally forging ahead blindly like an idiot, always seems to work out for me. My luck has always been there to catch me.
So when I decided, on a slow Thursday in June, to head off to Madrid for the rest of the summer, I didn’t do a lot of forward planning. I got a hotel room for three days, and trusted to the bell curve that I’d find excellent living quarters within 72 hours.
After 24 hours, I was beginning to have my doubts. After 48 hours, I was having serious doubts. And at 60 hours things were looking grim indeed. I saw plenty of places. Most of them pretty cheap, all of them either miles from the school in which I’d be taking classes, and usually with large Peruvian family. Nothing against large Peruvian families, but I feel a little awkward around children or, well, people in general, and I couldn’t really imagine being able to get any work or studying done in a cramped two bedroom apartment with a dozen rugrats running around.
I left Monday morning with a hopeful attitude to see a place quite close to the neighborhood I’d lived in last year. The neighborhood, close to the Novicado stop and just a few minutes north of Gran Via, was a quiet little hipster scene: lots of funky boutiques, comic book stores, bars, and homosexuals, just my kind of place. I found myself turning down familiar streets until I came to the Calle de Pez, literally around the corner from last year’s apartment. Quite excellent, I thought.
Jorge was there to greet me at the door. I was immediately terrified by the intense young man. To say he gives off a serial killer vibe is an understatement.
Jorge is, like most of the people I’ve met so far in Mardid, also Peruvian, he tells me without blinking. He’s one of three roommates, with me making a provisional fourth. He goes through his list of rules, which all seem to be variations on the theme of “Respect Jorge.” That, and no loud noises. Oh, except for sex noises. That’s fine. You can make all the fuck noises you want, he assures me conspiratorially. The roommates like to fuck.
But they’re not weird, Jorge tells me. There’s a lot of weird people in the neighborhood, he explains, if you know what Jorge means. Jorge means code for gay, and if he thinks this assurance puts me at ease, he’s completely mistaken. My room is a little closet, adjacent to a tiny living room full of exercise equipment and a small kitchen full of protein powder. Keeping the place clean is another major rule for Jorge, because the roommates like to bring girls back to the apartment.
I think there has to be a translation error, because I’m pretty sure when he says ‘girls’ he really means ‘victims’. Oh, also, I’ll need to pass an oral exam with another roommate, the guy who runs the place, who needs to check me out first. I’m not at all certain that this ‘other roommate’ exists anywhere outside of Jorge’s tortured mind.
“Can I talk to the ‘other roommate’ now?” I ask in soothing, therapeutic tones that I hope will bring out Jorge’s auxiliary personality. No, Jorge assures me with a frown, he’s at work right now. Oh, of course.
Work. Right, Jorge.
The idea of moving in with this guy and, potentially, his various personality constructs, is so obviously stupid that seriously consider it. As a writer, am I not contractually obligated to seek out the novel, the weird, the potentially psychotic? Jorge would give me enough material to fill three Me Talk Pretty One Day’s and two Running with Scissors’. Take that, Burroughs! Of course, that’s assuming I actually survived the summer.
I told Jorge I’d think about it and call him back with my answer. I leave in something of a despondent funk, trying to decide whether I’d rather live on the streets for the next month or win a posthumous National Book Award.
I could barely rouse myself that afternoon to check one more, final apartment. The place was insanely close to Plaza Mayor, and anything that central was guaranteed to be both crowded and loud, not to mention expensive. The listing is for 100 euros more than Jorge’s place.
But as I turn of Calle Mayor and onto the quiet little street, I marvel at how tranquil the little plaza is despite its proximity to the center in town. It’s even steps away from one of my favorite bars in the city. This can’t be right, I think to my self as I eat a few nectarines and wait for my contact, Hidalgo to show up. If this place is even halfway decent, and the roommates even halfway normal, I’m taking it.
After a few minutes, a young guy in a moped motors up with large glasses, a wide grin, and a head of disheveled hair, reminding me of what Daniel Radcliffe will probably look like when he grows up. I’m hoping the guy is representative of the neighborhood demographics, when he looks at me quizzically, extends his hand, and introduces himself.
“Vagabond? I’m Hidalgo.”
You know how you can kinda just tell if you’re going to get along right off the bat? It was like that. As he takes me up the lift to the fourth floor, he explains that he owns his own company, a carpooling service for businesses and universities. There is in fact, a newspaper with his picture on the cover when we walk in the door.
“Oh yeah, that was pretty cool. They were doing a piece on startups run by folks under thirty, and they decided to include a profile of us.”
Hidalgo is half-Spanish, half-French, raised in France and studied in England. He speaks three languages and is extremely friendly. The apartment has a large flat-screen TV, a guitar in the corner and art…really good art, all over the walls. I peek out the window of the living room to see an enormous cathedral.
“Is that Almudena?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah. We kinda have a great view. C’mon, your room is upstairs.”
We pass the kitchen on the way. We pass the marble-countertop, all new appliance, comes with a dishwasher, kitchen on the way. We pass two bathrooms. He shows me to a room larger than any I’ve lived in since leaving for college.
“So listen, I know it’s a little expensive…” Hidalgo begins. The rent approximately one-third what I pay in New York. “But the other roommates are hardly ever here, and you’ll have the place to yourself during the day if you need to work.”
I pretend that I’ll have to think it over, and tell him I’ll give him a call. But I’ve already written the check out and am planning to move in the next day.
Which is how, two weeks later, I come to be hanging on to the back of his moped for dear life as we head to his sister’s condo to use their pool. How he comes to introduce me to Raquel, who invites me out to see Celine and Julie Go Boating at a rooftop, outdoor cinema later that night, how I come to realize this is the movie that gave David Lynch the idea for Lost Highway, how I come to stumble back to the apartment at three am, gnawing on a cold chicken sandwich. After a couple of weeks in Madrid I’m already thinking to myself ‘huh, three am on a Saturday, guess I’m making an early night of it” when I run into Hidalgo again, who’s just leaving the apartment for the night.
“Hey,” he grins, another group of friends in tow. “We’re heading out, want to come with for a drink?”
I’ve always believed in Luck. She’s done pretty good for me so far.
We just hit a hundred page views today. That’s like…a lot for this blog. Does this mean I’m going to have to start posting more regularly?
I do hate retweeting myself. Please feel free to do it for me.
“I’m generally against the death penalty. With the exception of the guy who invented the vuvuzela.” -Hidalgo
I tried to go running through Madrid last night, my first jog in about a week that has seen me doing way to much work and not enough physical activity.
That was a mistake.
I’d figured the city had already done most of its celebrating for the World Cup the day before. After all, Cibeles had been packed with tens of thousands of screaming fans watching the game on gigantic jumbotron screens. When the game’s only goal was scored, a thundering howl of jubilation went up that reverberated through the streets and shook the buildings. Plaza del Sol looked like Times Square at New Years. The party was still going on when I collapsed at home, drunk and exhausted, around two in the morning.
I was wrong.
As I gamely picked my way through a throng of people around 8pm last night, I realized the crowd was only getting thicker and more concentrated, not more dispersed. I tried different routes. I headed as far from the city center as I could. To no avail. Spaniards, who I don’t think are known for being big joggers in the first place, looked at me like I was crazy. I was. I gave up after twenty minutes.
I’d met a fellow American who had described her attempt to convey the sense of what this victory meant to a friend back home. “Is it like when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup?” her friend had asked.
It was almost exactly like that. Except imagine the entire city of Chicago actually cared about hockey.
Not only cared, but it was everyone’s favorite sport.
Actually, like it was the only sport anyone played.
And everyone in the country was a Blackhawks fan.
And only seven teams had ever won the Stanley Cup in its history.
And it was Chicago’s first time.
And the entire country decided to descend on Chicago for the celebration.
It was kinda like that. Multiplied by a googleplex and then turned up to 11.
It was a combination of every sports victory celebration I have ever seen, anywhere, combined with a national holiday, and a major historical event.
It’s hard for American’s to grasp the significance this game…this team, has in the Spanish psyche. I know people think we’ve got it bad back home, what with unemployment and the debt and two wars and all.
But…guys. Seriously. Spain’s having a much tougher time than us.
The U.S. unemployment rate is at 9.5% right now. Spain’s is 20.05%
Their national debt as a percentage of GDP is higher than ours, and they’re linked by the Euro to Greece’s economy, which has a national debt of 113.40% GDP. The last time our national debt was that high was when Truman was in office.
And Spain is still smarting from its history of fascism. Flying the national colors isn’t just simple patriotism here: it brings up real memories of cultural and linguistic repression. Flying the national flag in Basque Country, or Barcelona, is easily construed as fighting words.
This is a country with some real separatist sentiments, regions that speak their own languages. These aren’t like Tea Party separatists, who want Texas to secede now that the U.S. is no longer the only industrialized country without a healthcare system (or whatever it is they’re upset about). These are real, gun-toting, bomb-making, kill-people terrorists.
So patriotism hasn’t come easy here. Sports teams have the ability to take on the significance of political beliefs.
You wouldn’t have believed it yesterday, though.
Everyone *everyone* was wearing the national jersey. Everyone *everyone* was on the street, the Spanish flag draped around their shoulders, their VW’s painted the national colors.
It was the biggest party this town has ever seen.
That’s not like saying “It was the biggest party Moscow has ever seen” or “It was the biggest party New York has ever seen,” or Beijing, or London. You know how New York invented bizarre financial instruments designed to destroy entire national economies? You know how China invented taking everyone else’s good idea and ramping it up to a gillion? You know London invented curry and rain?
Madrid invented Party. It’s major export is Party. Eighty seven percent of the national buildings are, to this day, constructed out of brick-reinforced Party. It likes to party until four in the morning. Four in the mornig THE FOLLOWING WEEK. Once, on a Wednesday, I happened to say to a friend in passing that I’d finished work for the day, and a spontaneous street fair erupted in my honor that lasted three days and claimed the lives of fourteen people.
This is a town that does not need the slightest provocation to party, and yet received the biggest one a country can get.
It was the first time in World Cup history the winner was not a country named England, Germany, France, Italy, Uruguay, Brazil or Argentina. Only the third time it wasn’t one of the big five.
Fighter jets flew over the city, splitting off in formation as they sprayed clouds of yellow and red in the sky. The city sang We Are the Champions in English, which sounded weird, and My Way in Spanish, which sounded awesome.
It was a montage of the end of Return of the Jedi, Caddyshack, Obama’s election, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone got laid, the Empire was defeated, and we elected a guy who could pronounce the word ‘nuclear’. It felt that good.
Then the team arrived, and things actually got MORE INTENSE. And they said a lot of things in Spanish that I didn’t fully understand, but the gist of it was that the Cup belonged to the entire country, not one player, and not one region, that this moment was Spain’s, that Spain was big enough to include everyone, that when individuals can overcome differences amazing things are possible.
Then that guy who sings that song got on stage and sang that song with the players.
And it seemed, for a little while anyway, that a flag that had for a long time been seen as a symbol of oppression could come to represent something different, that it could in fact be a bandera de libertad, and come to embody the lyrics’ ideals: Unidos. Somos un pueblo. United. We are a people.
But then again, the world always seems incredibly awesome when you’re hammered, so who knows.
Go on. Wave your flag. You earned it. Que viene y que va.
Woo! Blarg! I Love Soccer! Blarg! Mas Cervesas! Vomit! Woo! Expensive international phone calls! Blarg! Hi, I don’t speak your language, what’s Spanish for what’s your sign? Boyfriend! Punch! Policia! Blarg! Vomito mas! Blarg! Sleep.
How badly am I cheering for Spain to win the World Cup tonight?
I don’t mean that I want it a whole heckuva lot, though I do. I mean I cheer badly. I’m a terrible, neophyte soccer fan. When I see what looks like an obvious foul, I reach for an imaginary flag and throw it violently, much to the curiosity of my Spanish friends. Unfamiliar with soccer’s vocabulary, I substitute hockey’s.
“Nice centering pass!”
“We gotta get the ball into the attack zone!”
“Their neutral zone trap is killing us!”
I’m pretty sure there is no neutral zone in soccer, or, indeed, any where other than hockey and the Federation/Romulan border.
Nevertheless, I give it my best despite my ignorance. My brother, Vagabond Prime, was in Rome during Italy’s World Cup run in 206, and has told me stories, oh such enticing stories, of the bacchanalia that followed. I can only hope Madrid proves to be one-tenth as debauched.
I watch the Spain/Germany game at my favorite bar, which is much les crowded then I had expected, and realize almost everyone is probably watching the game at home, with the windows closed, hands clasped in prayer, on a 57” flat screen TV with perfect surround sound. Still, there’s a smattering of Madrilenos, not merely flying the exuberant colors of “La Passion Roja” but actually wearing face paint.
“Have you ever seen sports fans wear face paint to watch a game in a bar?” my new American friend asks me. I confess that I don’t think I have. Making friends with fellow English speakers is about as easy as getting ripped off by a Budapest cab driver. Everyone’s so desperate to talk to someone in their own language you only need to ask them where they’re from and the conversation naturally takes off from there.
I run into my old friend Fran, who shows up only after Spain’s thrilling victory, and I’m surprised he remembers me from the year before. But he does, and I introduce to him to the two Americans and Finn I’ve been talking to. Fran, in turn, introduces me to two pretty girls, and I suddenly remember with alacrity that Fran is the Best Human Being in the World. Sadly, after an inejoyable two hours discussing the benefits of Las Vegas, the defects of Israeli drivers, and the beauty of Greek beaches, I actually find myself saying the sentence “Sorry ladies, but I’ve still got work to do tonight,” at which point my libido screams at me in disgust, threatening to leave and never come back.
Anyway. It’s Sunday night, and I’m about to go out to the bar. True, I’ve got classes in the morning and work in the afternoon, and staying up drinking until 3am to party in the streets with Madrilenos is probably the last thing I should be contemplating right now. But if Spain wins, it’s a risk I’m willing to take. God willing they will, and I’ll be up until 4am partying, at which point I’ll likely score so badly on my Spanish placement test they’ll throw me in with the kindergarteners (or perhaps, in my hungover state, I’ll become insanely fluent) and my client will fire me. But I doubt I’ll ever look back on either of those possible outcomes with nearly as much regret. This is Madrid, and it has a certain corrosive effect on my work ethic, while having a fantastic effect on my “Live an Excellent Life” ethic.