Posts Tagged ‘Madrid’

Rover. Wanderer. Nomad. Vagabond. Call me what you will.

July 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Heh, Metallica. Boy that takes me back.

In seventh grade I tried slow dancing with the prettiest girl in school (who was very pretty indeed) to this song. Have you ever tried dancing to Metallica? I mean, with a girl? What idiot DJ puts Metallica on at a Bar Mitzah, anyway? Jack McKaid’s older brother, that’s who.

Boy, those were heady days. It’s hard to describe now just how different the world was in 1991. The U.S. was involved in a terrible war in Iraq. A man named George Bush was president. The nation was in the midst of a painful recession. And Metallica came out with the Black Album.

Never did get to kiss that girl.


I’ve got Metallica on the mind today, clearly.

There’s a story behind that.

I’m minding my own business at the Enforex Language school, reading the posts on excursions to Sevilla for the weekend, when something hits me on the back of the head.


Let me back up.

I’ve been in school for about three days now. It’s the same program I used last year, and I swagger in to take the test with much more confidence than I felt a year ago. I’m nursing a wicked hangover and can hardly spell my own name after a Sunday spent watching Spain win the world cup. I’m confident I’m going to test horribly, which means getting placed in a class several levels below my actual comprehension. Which would mean six weeks of nice, relaxing review as I wow my fellow students with my stunning command of the subjunctive.

Instead, I get slapped with a notice telling me to report to level B2. I can’t be in B2. I only got about halfway through B1. I’m a month of intensive study away from B2, at best.

“Look, Carlos,” I say to Carlos, who runs student placement. Except in Spanish, so “Mira, Carlos.”

Carlos looks sort of like Javier Bardem. A perpetually hungover, put-upon version of Javier Bardem, who always wears two day’s worth of stubble.

“Carlos, you don’t know me very well yet, but I’m an idiot. Really. I can barely find my way around a correct sentence with two hands and a…what’s the word for ‘flashlight?’”

“Flashlight,” he says, except in Spanish, so “Linterna.”

“Right,” I say. “Two hands and a linterna. Is that an expression here, by the way? Two hands and a linterna?”


“Oh. It’s an expression in the U.S. It means-“

“I get what it means.”

“Cool. So you can put me in a lower-level class?”

Carlos rubs his stubble dubiously. “Well, you’ve certainly convinced me you’re an idiot.”


“But we’re completely booked up right now. I can’t move you until at least next week. Why don’t you try the class we’ve put you in, and see if you can’t make it work for now?”

They’re halfway through an exercise on the subjunctive voicing of the imperfect tense. “The who what with the where now?” I ask the teacher. It goes on like this for a few days.

I introduce myself. One of my classmates, a Chinese guy named Tony, snaps his fingers when he hears my name. “Like that guy on ‘Community!’”

I scowl. “No, not like that guy on…” I realize I really like that character on ‘Community’. “Yes, Tony. Exactly like that guy on ‘Community.’ In fact, don’t tell anyone, but they based that character on me.”

“Really? Are you a lawyer?”

“No. I’m a writer.”

Suddenly, I’ve got everyone’s attention. “Oooh, a writer!” I’ve got to stop telling people that. The reaction is always the same, and somewhat embarrassing, because I’m not that kind of writer. It’s not like being a writer means you get to spend your life drinking ouzo in the Greek Isles while swing dancing with girls.

Oh. Wait.

Okay, it’s kinda like that. But that’s like five percent of what I do, and not the five percent I get paid for. Mostly it’s writing summaries of round table discussions on subjects as interesting as the value of VAR as a metric for measuring risk in your investment portfolio, or how much of a bump to CAGR Google’s likely to see as the result of implementing more energy efficient server farms.

By the way, if you understood any of that, you understand why I get paid as much as I do to write about this stuff. Fortunately, it pays well enough that I can spend about five percent of my time writing about other stuff.

Like getting hit on the back of the head after class.

Madrilenas are a sneaky bunch, with ninja-like stealth and a mean right hook. You don’t want to piss one off, not even accidentally, and by the look on her face, I’d pissed Sara off something fierce.

“Nice to see you, too,” I said and rubbed the back of my head.

This didn’t make her any happier. “Muthafucka,” she said, except in Spanish, so “Hijo de Puta. You realize it’s been three hundred days exactly since I got drunk?”

I do the arithmetic and snap my fingers. “Your birthday. September 11. How could I forget.”

“Three hundred days,” Sara says while glaring at me. “I’ve been good for three hundred days. Now you’re here and it’s all fucked.”

“You don’t have to drink just ‘cause I’m back in town,” I point out, which makes her laugh.

“Yeah, right. The teachers are meeting Friday at San Miguel’s after school.”

I really love San Miguel’s, which is a cozy bar around the corner from my school with agreeable bartenders, a foosball table, and which still serves ‘Duff’ branded Budweiser two years after ‘The Simpsons’ movie has been out of theaters. Duff seems to be a big thing in Madrid.

I try to be a good boy, keep myself in check and go home at the reasonable hour of 12:30, but my attempt just solicit laughter from my companions.

“Oooh, look at the giri! Going home at 12:30!”

“Look, I haven’t even eaten dinner yet.”

“You’re in a bar, yanki. Eat some tapas and be a man.”

It’s hard to argue with Sara when she tells you to man up.

So it’s later, much later, when I finally walk home after four hours of what I’ve almost managed to convince myself counted as an intensive language lab, but was really just a lot of Sara plying me with whiskey.

At least, that’s my version of events. Sara tells a somewhat different story in which the J&B was my idea, and apparently she’s got photographic evidence to back her up but, hell, it’s my blog and my version that’s going to get told here.

I strolled past the Palacio Real on my way back to the apartment, enjoying the cool night air and the ability to wear jeans without sweating my balls off for a change. That’s when I notice the sounds of a harp player to my right, with a small crowd gathered around.

Street harpist. I admit, that’s one I’d never seen before. What is more amazing, and I am in no way making this up, is that the harpist is a full on goth.

Not a partial goth, either. I mean he’s at least a Level 12 Goth with a +2 against Chromatic Damage. Long brown hair, a soul patch, huge fucking army boots, sleeveless shirt, leather wrist guards and a kilt. He could be a roadie for Trent Reznor. Come to think of it, he looks kinda like Reznor, too.

The thing is, he’s a really good harpist, and I stop to listen for a while. At first I think he’s playing some High Renaissance madrigal. When I realize he’s actually playing Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” I break out into a laugh loud enough to turn the tourists heads.

Heh. Haven’t been able to get Metallica outta my head since.

A group of skater punks were grouped a few feet away from the harpists. One of them, with his shirt off, was doing tricks with what appeared to be a set of nunchucks, twirling them around his body with increasing rapidity and style.

In the darkness it was a little tell if they were, in fact, nunchucks, because my eyes were blinded by the fact that the things were FUCKING ON FIRE.

FLAMING NUNCHUCKS. I swear I’m not making this up. Why on earth has the US Army not invested in training everyone of its soldiers in flaming nunchucks? The element of surprise would surely be worth it.

Random Taliban: The American convoy is approaching!

Taliban 2: Very good, ready the Stinger miss-wait. Is…are they twirling a bunch of flaming fucking nunchucks?

Taliban 1: It’s hard to tell in the dark.

Taliban 2: They are! Dude, they totally are! Those are flaming fucking nunchucks those guys are playing with! Oh man, that’s awesome. We’ve got to get some of those. Ooh, ooh, or no, we could get some AK-47’s with, like, a chainsaw attachment. And the chainsaw could be on fire too! Sweet! Or we could-

And then an airstrike would come in or something.

So…yeah, that was my Friday. Flaming nunchucks and Metallica on the harp. Next time I’m taking my camera.


My English is terrible, but my American is pretty good

July 24, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Oh, goody.

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.

Tags: ,

Wave Your Flag

July 13, 2010 1 comment

“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.

Somos Campeones!

July 11, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Bad Soccer Fan

July 11, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Viva Espana.

Tags: , ,

Airport Security, You Never Cease to Amuse

July 3, 2010 Leave a comment

The girl standing next to me as I put my shoes back on has to give up her Body Shop bottle.

“But I just bought it,” she complains, and points to the Body Shop store no more than fifteen yards from the security checkpoint.

The TSA guard shrugs. “If you give me your receipt I can get your money back for you. But you can’t take it through security.”

She frowns, disheartened. “I figured because they sold it in the airport it would be okay.”

I try not to smile too much at her distress. I’m not smiling because she has to give up her lotion, or shampoo, or whatever it was. I’m smiling because the security guards were able to detect her completely innocuous moisturizing product while once again completely failing to notice either the knife or screwdriver I’m bringing on-board.

I tell myself I have a good reason for doing this, that I really do need to take the screwdriver with me in order to disassemble my camera while in Madrid (new LCD screen still not working right before I left), that the knife was the most useful traveling tool I’ve ever had. But, really, I probably wouldn’t even think about trying to sneak this stuff on a plane until someone told me I couldn’t. Telling me not to do something inherently underhanded is like telling Casanova he can’t sleep with the Doge’s daughter. We’re both just going to interpret those orders as challenges.

The flight is delayed an hour, which is probably a good thing, since the line to check in at the Air Europa counter took about an hour. I was actually afraid I was going to miss boarding. I rush through the concourse only to find I have all the time I could ask for. With nothing else to do in B concourse, I drink, of course, unable to keep my mind on any of the several work-related documents I brought with me about things such as high-yield debt in Brazil and risk appetite among Canadian banks.

The flight is again delayed. It’s 10 o’clock now, and we were supposed to board at 8. All the snack food places are closed, leaving only one solitary sports bar open. I’m beginning to think the delays are a conspiracy to get me to drop money on freakishly overpriced beer.

When the plane does finally get ready to board, I realize to my horror there’s a gaggle of high school students on my plane. American high school students. And my seat is in the middle of them. I listen with mild horror as one of them reads something aloud very slowly, and I realize he’s trying to translate something into English.

Just as he puts his book away, an incredibly bad light jazz cover of Guys & Dolls comes on over the intercom. Desperately, I jam my headphones in my ear to escape the nightmare, but the stewardess informs me “I WILL NOT BE LISTENING TO MUSIC” until we reach cruising attitude.

I’ve been in this nightmare before. Once, on an Iberair flight from Barcelona to Madrid, I had to listen to about 32 bars of a bad cover of the Cure’s “Close to Me.” Imagine listening to that same marimba line over and over AND OVER again while flying over the Iberian Peninsula. Nobody made it off that flight with their mind intact: we were all changed, changed utterly by the experience.

Fortunately, the music doesn’t keep repeating the first 32 bars and does cut out once we’re off the ground.

It’s raining when we land in Madrid, a contingency I’m not prepared for. As a matter of fact, I’m not prepared for any contingency by design. I packed only a small carry-on for my seven week stay, and most of that consisted of a laptop and some books. My clothing choices are limited to a pair of shorts, underwear, t-shirts, and running gear. Hopefully, this will force me into some delightfully comic situations wherein I try to translate the names of items like “Mach 3 Razor Blades,” “Blackberry Power Cord” and “Weapons Grade Viagra” into Spanish for the benefit of bemused store clerks.

But I’m surprised at how well my Spanish holds up the first day. Enough that, for the first time, when I launch into conversations in Spanish, clerks don’t immediately switch to English with an impatient hand wave. I manage to hail a cab, give directions, ask how long the metro transit strike will continue, and, in a truly amazing linguistic feat, explain to a Mobilstar employee that I’ll be staying in Madrid two months and will need a local SIM card for my Blackberry.

This level of foreign language comprehension is something of a new experience for me, and is deeply weird. But I find myself falling into the familiar rhythms both of Madrid, and of life in a foreign country, where the experience of every action is slightly amplified by its alien nature, its novelty, its difficulty. Unable to walk down the familiar streets of New York in a half-somnolent state, I’m forced to actually pay attention to my surroundings, and find that I enjoy them.

Of course, I’m still without lodgings. I’ve got a hotel room through the weekend, at which point I’ll have to find new digs where I can reliably communicate with my editors via internet. If I can’t manage that by the start of work Tuesday, this trip is going to get cut off prematurely, or life will get extremely interesting. I’m having visions of living in a hostel for the next few weeks while sneaking out to McDonald’s hot spots for hours worth of environmental reporting.

In the meantime, I haven’t had a sit-down meal since lunch Friday. I’m off to find a bocadillo.

Safety First

July 2, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m surprised, and more than a little touched, by the number of people wishing me a safe return from my trip. Bastards are unaccustomed to expressions of compassion and concern, as we normally only do so ourselves when we’re trying to manipulate people. So it’s with real pleasure that I hear people tell me to be careful while I’m in Madrid.

In all sincerity though, I must answer: no.

I have no desire to be careful. I have no desire for things to go according to plan. I have no desire to not be robbed at knife point, have my wallet stolen, get knifed in spleen and have to crawl my way to a Spanish hospital one moonlit night in Sevilla. If you survive, it’s a fantastic story, and if you don’t, what an awesome fucking eulogy you’re buddies will give you:

Eulogy Giver: This sunuvabitch died in a KNIFE FIGHT in Sevilla. Probably took down two of his attackers with his bare hands too, the bastard. I’m going to die wearing a diaper in a nursing home while sadistic nurses take advantage of my gradual slide into dementia. Fuck you, Vagabond.

If I do somehow manage to make it to 60, I hope I’ve got a least a few interesting scars, and possibly an eye-patch to show for it. I’ll trade body parts for thrilling memories anyday.

I’m not advocating this life choice. If you’re reading this: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Don’t go looking for trouble, there’s way more than enough of it in this world. Trouble will come to you in its own time.

I’m not going to be stupid, and I’m not going to poke angry bears with sticks. But I hope that neither will I take the safe option. Ever. If I wanted to be safe I’d stay home in New York, the safest city in the country, where I’m never more than a hundred feet from an ATM, reliable food supply, and shelter. To travel is to sacrifice a portion of security for experience.

I read once that danger is like salt. Too much will kill you, but if you give it up altogether, life tastes pretty bland.

Also I mean…c’mon. This is Spain we’re talking about. They’re going on strike to protest a 5% cut in government wages. These guys are way more risk averse than we are.