Thursday, December 20, 2007

Let's Get it On

Sometimes I wonder what life would look like if I could live a song. Or the idea of a song. Listening to Rod Stewart make something new out of a Cole Porter song, the piano light, the horns insistent, I wonder why my hair isn't set in rollers or why my nails are chipped. And where the hell are my silk stockings?

I can understand why losing an iPod is akin to losing a limb. Once you've set your life to a soundtrack it's hard to go back to the mundane. With Marvin Gaye in my head the street comes alive. Like the opening scene of a musical, energy illuminates the mailbox and the streetlights with 1970's sunbeams, the whole world suddenly pieced together, every character with a role and a purpose.

Is there a way to do that without a pair of headphones? I want to think so. I want to feel like a Gershwin introduction or a Strokes song without having it piped in. To be just as imaginative without an electronic prompt. Maybe what music does is open me up enough to see the world in a different light and to do so without a crutch takes time to learn.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Before the metro closes

We were sitting at the back of the cafe playing Spanish Scategories, the table littered with half empty coffees, fickle ball point pens, and two broken plastic hourglasses.
Letter "s":

1. Bocadillos
2. Personas de ficcion

After the hourglass stopped halfway, we let 30 or so seconds go by before we offered our answers. Within each category, you name things that begin with the letter that was rolled. Answers could be in either language, with 2 points for every Spanish word versus 1 point for every English answer.

1. Bocadillos: "Salmon and cream cheese" "Sweet chicken curry"
2. Personas de obras de ficcion: "Scout" "Superman" "Sacajawea"
"Wait, Sacajawea was a real person," Leah objected.
Marisa raised her hand, her mouth in a set line "We don't know that," she said seriously, ready to protect her answer to gain a point.
The table exploded with laughter.

I'm always amazed at how strong the overall feeling of a night or a day or a moment can be. Walking out of Cafe Manuela to catch the last train before the metro closed for the night, we wandered down middle of the street making plans for tomorrow, tripping over each other, laughing.

It's hard not to feel nostalgic about leaving, though to feel anticipatory nostalgia is an odd experience. What used to be a name I told people to pin down my location, Madrid is now a switchboard in my head, lighting up with details of afternoons, favorite streets, and misadventures. Flying towards Madrid on September 6 I had no idea what to expect from the city, nor where it was located, nor what it looked like. I had flown out of London on a morning already cold enough to see my breath hang in the air. Flying over Great Britain the trees and green spread out endlessly, lulling me to sleep. When I woke up 2 hours later the landscape was stretched taut and brown for miles below the double-paned fiberglass window, and I couldn't find the city.

I had seen pictures of el Parque del Buen Retiro, Gran Via, and other main thoroughfares in the guide books I had perused, but they all gave off the same glossy, static sensation. In the cab, making painfully slow and grammatically strictured conversation with the taxista, hundreds of people I knew nothing about flew past the window.

"We're at Cafe Manuela," Kate told me over the general din.
"Wait, is that Margaret?" I heard Jen's voice ask.
"Yeah," Kate said.
"Tell her it's on the street we got lost on last night," Jen's muffled voice said.
"Okay, so it's-"
"On the street we got last on last night. Cool! Thanks Kate, I'll probably be there in about 15 minutes," I said.

Getting off the metro I wasn't quite sure where I was headed, but crossing the street some of the construction looked familiar, and suddenly it was as if someone had taken a giant highlighter and marked my turns. I knew exactly which way to go, slowing my walk down in my certainty.
Cafe Manuela's giant red doors and opaque windows stared dolefully at the street, sounds of Scategories leaking onto the sidewalk.

Friday, December 7, 2007

7 Day Forecast

It looks like snow. Though the air doesn't smell like it's keeping any secrets.

Smelling snow is one of those Farmer's Almanac, Lake Wobegone-esque skills that my father has. He'll stand on the back porch in his nightshirt, a mug of coffee in his hand, and ease the pangs of an old frostbite from his free hand by curling it into and out of a fist. A few steps towards the border of the slate squares and he turns his nose towards the now barren hay field.

"It smells like snow," he says as he steps back inside, his feet making soft noises on the linoleum floor.

When I was little that's what I thought the smell of snow was: the still air curled up in the fibers of his winter flannels, a vague acccent of almond shaving soap and coffee. It wasn't until I was older and became his winter walk partner that the scent of a storm became distinctive.

Walking is one of those activities that has a mountain of identities to choose from. It can wear spandex and power its way through streets wearing a determined face. Or it strolls down the thoroughfares around 7 or 8, as Madrid's streets become crowded with people who "ir pisando huevos" literally, walk as if they were stepping on eggs. In English this would imply a certain hesitancy to broach a contentious subject, but since Madrilenos aren't afraid to do that, it means they walk slowly. Gambol, might be a better word. They walk, looking intently at shop windows and each other, talking.

My dad always carries his socks in his hand when he comes downstairs, pulling out one of the kitchen chairs to put his shoes on. "Want to go for a walk, Meggy?" he asks me. As a general rule, we stop for coffee on the way, listening to local radio. Sometimes we don't talk until we get to the creek, pulling into the gravel parking lot that slopes down towards the water. But walking encourages talking; something about moving steadily creates a foundation that words spring easily from, an active meditation.

Standing next to the water, watching it roil against fallen tree branches, ducks navigating the rocks, we pull our hoods over our heads and look at the leaden, gray sky. "It smells like snow," I say to him. He rocks back on his heels and breathes in. "You're right," he says, "it does."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Afternoon brainstorm

"Hay que acceptar todo lo que hay en tu vida. La vida es la unica cosa que tenemos"
Accept everything in your life. Life is all we have.

At first, this sounded to me like pointless rhetoric, something a self-help book would have plastered across its title page, and then continue to harp on throughout its entirety. "Accept everything in your life" smacked of apathy to me, and it didn't sit well. What's the point of living, I thought, if I don't even take control of my own life? If I don't try to affect my surroundings? There is nothing to be had in resigning myself to all that is. When the John Mayer song "Waiting on the world to change," first saw airtime on the radio, I nearly crashed the car making incensed hand motions.

It's not that we don't care,
we just know that the fight ain't fair
so we keep on waiting,
waiting on the world to change

Fair is an ambiguous creature if ever I've met one. I learned shortly after turning six that "life isn't fair," after staking the fair flag smack dab in the contentious no-man's-land of a sibling tussle. It brought things to a screeching halt. I'd been taught what fair meant, and suddenly my balloon had popped. Sadly, what my mother said is true: life isn't fair, and therefore, neither is any fight. Which means that if John continues to wait for the other man to clean up his fisticuffs, he'll be waiting for a very long time.

I was feeling very righteous about all of this. My grassroots supporting, cause supporting, hipster music listening, self. In essence, the accepted profile of a moderately cool, 20 year old liberal with hopes of changing the world. And then a whisp of a thought took me by surprise. It could be, said the brain, that in order to do anything, you have to first recognize the situation. Could the silly mantra be instead a logical first step? Righteousness reared its freshly combed head. I beat it back with a handful of dirt to the face.

In order to solve an equation, you have to first analyze the problem. Peering at it, prodding it, looking for loop holes. Once you've taken it all in, accepted it for what it is, you're free to solve it.

The weak light wavering over my head burst its bulb, leaving a flair of new thought hanging in its place.
Step one: accept (recognize) things for what they are.
Step two: (And this is when decision and action start) Fight or let lie.

Dear Mommy,

Of all the sage advice that you've given me, these two have manifested themselves recently.
1. Sleeping on a regular basis bestows ability to think like some ancient fairy godmother,
2. even though life isn't fair.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Showing up is half the battle

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to get started. Homework, for example, requires a wind-up that may or may not include several cups of tea, making a list of things to do, agonizing over said list, and/or a half an hour spent cruising uselessly around my email account. It is just at that point when I'm panicking about the crush of work, that my room needs to be cleaned and letters should be written. Then, just as I've talked myself in to starting the laundry, I realize what I'm doing, and force myself to study.

But the same thing happens with going out, as well, or making what I cynically term "life decisions". There I am, ensconced in my little nest of contentment, feeling only mildly bothered by the decision at hand. Whether to wear a dress or jeans or both, whether I should study French or Arabic next term, or whether I should go to graduate school. "A cup of tea would be lovely," I find myself thinking, stalling. "No! Now, put on your shoes and walk to the metro."

"Should I go out?" I wonder, standing in my underwear looking at my shoes. "I should probably do some homework. The grammar final is coming up soon."
"Then again, if I don't go out I'll feel like I'm wasting my time."
"But is going out a waste of my time? Shouldn't I be applying for scholarships of something?" "I'm sure I'll have a good time once I get there."

And that's generally the rule. The moment I act, I feel immediately better, as if I had been riding a bicycle at a snail's pace and had finally let my legs pick back up to full speed. And suddenly, I'm in a bar somewhere with friends, or running down the street laughing, and I forget how I ever doubted it.

Agua de Valencia

Madrid at night feels like a Discovery Channel special: the action shots in which cars and people flow through the streets like a human liquid, and you can imagine it from an aerial view, the intersections bright with stoplights and storefronts, the idea of the individual swallowed by the pure mass of bodies and steel. El Corte Ingles, the Spanish department store, squats like a giant commercial hen over three or four city blocks, its bank of store front windows illuminating the sidewalk with flourescent light. Leah and I had been striding along discussing how best to buy all the groceries and get to dinner on time when I got stuck behind an older woman with a cane and a crowd of men in suits. I watched Leah's back moving surely through the crowd, arms swinging, blonde hair lit by window displays, looking more like a general on parade than a crunchy granola in a soft shell mountain jacket. She turned her head quickly, locating me as I laughed and dodged coats. Without breaking stride she put one finger in the air like a tour guide, looked back again and yelled over her shoulder "Are you with me?" I laughed so hard I doubled up as I jogged to rejoin her.

I felt more sanguine about the idea of feeding and entertaining 15 people once we'd bought all of the groceries. Better, that is, until we had to carry it all home, the 6 kilos of flour, 8 loaves of bread, three chickens, a small tree of celery, and other sundry items, necessitating short recovery breaks on the walk home. The only thing we were missing was Crisco, an ingredient it turns out that only an Amerian would use. It wasn't until Thursday morning that Leah called me from The American Store (it's actual name), to announce that not only had she found canned pumpkin, but had also managed to procure a tub of Crisco, that wonderful, familiar blue tub of hydrogenated fat. "It's small, so I'll have mix it with butter to make the crusts."

I was showered but not yet dressed, wearing an old pinstripe Oxford shirt my brother discarded, sitting on a Hello Kitty stepstool, the trashcan in front of me, peeling 3 kg of potatoes. When the buzzer sounded, I slid down the hallway in my socks; "Hola," I said into the phone, expecting to hear Leah and Steve, but instead heard the sound of empty air on the other side of the intercom, confusion setting in as then the doorbell rang. "It's Andy," said a voice from the other side of the door. I slid to open it, the momentum carrying me past the door as I yanked it. I must have look bewildered; as Andy stood there in his work clothes holding a bottle of wine, his face just as surprised as mine.
"Are you alone?" he asked. "Weren't Leah and Steve supposed to be here at five?"
"Yes, but I'm assuming Leah's five pies took longer than expected."
"Oh, wow. Well, let's open this bottle. What can I do?"

Somehow, in my inaguaral run as Thanksgiving chef, I managed to produce three tender, perfectly done chickens. Three hours ahead of time. My roommate Alice and I stood looking at the oven door, the three pullets slumped in their juices, the stuffing spilling into the pan.
"Do you have a beach towel?" She asked me.
"Yes, why?"
"My mom takes the turkey out, covers it with tin foil, and then wraps it in a beach towel to keep it warm."
"Does it work?"
"Oh yeah," she nodded emphatically.
"But for three and a half hours?"
"No," she admitted, "for maybe an hour before we eat."
We both started laughing. "I wish we could make the oven hot without heating them up and drying them out!" Alice mourned.
"Me too. Well, leave them in a warm oven?" I ventured, staring at them.
"Yeah. And besides, if the chicken isn't hot, everything around it will be."

Steve looked like he belonged in the Beatles: skinny tie, suit, and freshly shaved after a month of growing out a beard, he stood with Leah, each carrying two pies. The whirlwind began in earnest, as Steve and I moved the furniture, Leah began mixing a vat of Sangria, and Andy moved brusquely about the kitchen in his apron, adding more curry to the sweet potato wedges. Friends started arriving, and the house filled with the merry sound of mingling, trips to the porch for sangria, and music. "We're going for more wine," Marisa informed me, "and bread," added Kate, as they buttoned their jackets.

The table was loaded down, the pot of soup nearly lost behind six bottles of wine, stuffing, mashed potatoes, bread, sweet potatoes and chicken. There were so many of us that "buffet style" desolved into "take some of what's in front of you."
"Oh! I almost forgot," I said, and dashed to the kitchen.
"WHERE DID YOU GET THAT?" Neil asked me, cradling the bowl of cranberry sauce in both hands, starting off the giving of thanks with a homage to the the stuff.

We all sat in a circle saying what we were thankful for, in Spanish, plates of food balanced precariously on our laps, and glasses of wine sitting on the floor.
"Doy gracias por mis amgios y esta experiencia."
"Yo doy gracias por mi salud y esta cena."
"Y yo, doy gracias para la juventud--"
"Y que la juventud no sea gastado en los jovenes!" Marisa added joyfully, waving a fork.
"What?" We asked.
"And that the youth not be wasted on the young, it's Shakespeare, right? He says that youth is wasted on the young, so I give thanks for youth NOT being wasted on the young."

Friday, November 16, 2007

Checking Out the Center-fold

The walled city of Toledo in the Castilla la Mancha region of Spain never once changed hands as the result of battle or war. Rather, control of the city was ceded through negotiations or peace accords, even during the city's re-conquisition in 1492. It is an amazing claim for any powerful city to make, let alone a city that was the shared home of Christians, Muslims and Jews during a period known as the "Convivencia," or coexistence, a period that lasted from 711 to 1492. Although each group lived separated from the others and the idea of intermarriage was unthinkable, the three religions afforded each other mutual respect and space in which to exercise their beliefs.

"The question though is not so much 'who is he.' That doesn't really matter. He is human, I am human. Why can't we just treat each other as humans?" -Marc Schutzbank.

In an age where religious radicalism gives rise to violence and mutual mistrust, the history of Toledo seems an impossible utopia. Have we become so blind to others' humanity that we insist that other people believe what we believe? That they adhere to the same creed we do?

European architecture is a constant reminder that co-existence is not just possible, but advisable, and even enriching.

In Naples the foundation of a Roman ampitheatre forms the basement of a row of apartment buildings.
In Rome, the Colosseum sits at the apex of three major roads, a magnificent reminder to the commuters roaring past of man's capabilities.

One of the two surviving synagogues in Toledo, the Sinagoga del Transito, was built by Muslim workers who decorated the ornate wooden ceiling with Arabic and Hebrew characters, their own contribution to a foreign devotion.

And although Ferdinand and Isabella attempted to eradicate mudejar decoration from El Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, the monastery they commissioned after their victory against Portugal, they didn't quite succeed, as the cloisters are rich with apex windows, carved with traditional designs.

I address world peace the way I tend address recycling: the result of a better world is something everyone can work towards, but also something I leave to the next guy, to governments, to grass roots organizations. The reality of peace may be a folly. But to integrate my own corner of the world is worth doing. No need to make grand gestures or bake every one of my neighbors a pie. To accept someone's belief structure and to question my own is a good start.

I'm trying to keep the Toledo Cathedral's security guard in mind: surrounded by mudejar carving in the most important of Catholic Spain's cathedrals, he sat reading an Ikea catalogue.

Muslim and Christian, traditional and modern. Co-existence has deep roots.

Let's make like the stones and groove.