Monday, October 31, 2005

Bottom of the Boot

I've been gorging myself on charm these past few days, whether it is in the beauty of the land or in the genuine warmth of the Italian people. Real charm, beauty that has a lightness and ease to it, as opposed to intense beauty that you have to work hard to achieve or appreciate. The sight of three women, all beautiful and stylish, ages 30something, late teen and maybe eight, riding a Vespa together. Not the ersatz charm which you find in an American greeting card store. (My apologies to Jack Vail in case he's reading this). Yes, souvenir stands in Italy sell cutesy crap, but the foreigness of it makes it fascinating and strange to me. I know: it's not foreign, I am.

I've been in Sorrento since late last week, and have been taking easy day trips to explore the surrounding sites. Friday I was in Pompeii, Saturday I took a trip to Amalfi, mainly to experience the bus ride along Italy's winding coast, Sunday was Naples and today I was on the isle of Capri.

Capri is beautiful. However, this late in the season, there is a fine foggy mist that clings to the island. I probably like fog more than the average person, but on Capri, it can play havoc with two of the better tourist excursions: the blue grotto and Mounte Solaro. I got to the island a little after 9:00, then spent a couple hours wandering around, hoping more of the haze that clung to the mountaintop would burn off. It never really did, and I got impatient, so I took the chairlift to the top shortly before 1:00, then spent an hour writing in my journal and admiring the soft smeared view and thinking "Okay...Vesuvius is out there somewhere..."

After hiking down the mountain along a beautiful but at times slippery slope, I decided to head to the blue grotto. There is an opening within the rocks on the isle of Capri in which the sun's reflected light creates the most intense enjoyable asure blue on the floor of the grotto. You have to take either a bus or a boat to get there, then pay for a rowboat and admission to the grotto, and you're inside for maybe five minutes. Is it worth it? After getting off the bus, I stopped and asked a British couple who were in line for the bus what they thought.

British Couple's Review of The Blue Grotto
It's bloody expensive, and you're only inside for maybe five minutes.

Me: But is it worth it?

Well, it's a once in a lifetime experience, and if you're never going to be in Capri again, it's worth seeing.

I have nothing to add to the British couple's review, except that the blue is an amazing sight, and I know the video I shot won't do it justice. However, I'll be happy to show people the video for free.

Getting back to Sorrento from Capri was quite an adventure. The island's two towns, Capri and Anacapri, are on the mountain and most transportation returns to one or the other. I knew the last boat left at 7:00pm, so I had to get to the port, buy my ticket and be on the bus by then. By the time I was done with the blue grotto and was back in Anacapri, it was 4:30. Now, there are lots of buses that run between the two towns, but not so many that run to the port. When such a bus finally did come, I had to squeeze myself on and stand on the steps by the bus door. We left a number of people behind who don't share my Plasticman-like morphing ability, or my New York "screw you, I am getting on this bus" personality.

As we spiraled around the tight corners and curving streets of the island, all I could think was "I really hope these doors don't open." I shouldn't have worried. Someone's luggage was blocking the doors so that they couldn't open, which made for a bit of an operation when someone wanted to get off the bus. But finally I made it to the port.

After buying my ticket, I discovered, after immersing myself into a crowd the likes of which I have not seen in Europe since I went to a bullfight, that the previous boat to Sorrento never came, so now there were twice as many people trying to get one on boat. However, everyone was well behaved and in good spirits. There weren't any malcontents or assholes in my immediate area. Everyone made the best of a bad situation. Again, I managed to make it onto the boat, although I feel bad about the children and sick people I had to trample to get there. I stood on the back of the boat, watching our journey from Capri to Sorrento, admiring the darkness of night and the lights that decorated both destinations. I think I understand what it is dogs feel when they hang their heads outside the window of a moving car.

Final note: The pension where I am staying, Pension Linda, is run by a charming (that word again) older lady. I assume she is Linda, but the topic has never come up between us. Tonight when I checked in, her dog barked once or twice at me. The dog's name is Cuja, which is a little too close to "Cujo" for my taste.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Prado, part III.01

I forgot to mention Tiepolo. His paintings look like mid 20th century illustrative work, not dated at all. Found a book of his etchings. The man had mad drafting skills. Just incredilbe.

Will write more, but Sorrento is the land of expensive internet.

And thanks to Bill for digging up all the info about sacred milk...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Prado, Part III

It's hard to believe, but it was almost a month ago that I went to the Prado for the first time. It was on Sunday, October 2nd. In the interest of catching up, I'll post this (probably) final entry on the Prado, and then go have some gelato. Ciao!

It's hardly surprising that I liked the work by Velasquez, El Greco, Goya and Bosch in this museum. But the stuff that really excited me was by artists I was unfamiliar with. It was that great feeling of discovering something new, re-orienting yourself after encountering something and thinking "what the hell is this?" Below is a brief list. If any of the artists (Stacey, Andrea, Bob, Karl, Julie) or art scholars (Bill) who read this journal want to add any information, it would be greatly appreciated. As it is, I'm looking forward to getting back to the States and either buying or getting some books out of the library about the following:

- Nicolas Frances (1434-1468) created a giant altar that I loved

- "San Miguel de Zafra" by an anonymous Spaniard. Huge piece, similar to depictions of St. George killing a dragon, only it was St. Michael battling demons. St. Michael is in the foreground, while around him almost like a wallpaper collaborated on by Escher and Bosch, angels and demons battle.

- Tintoretto (1519-1594) I'm sure I'll see more of his work in Italy

- Bassano (1510-1592) Used rough sketchy images, which gave the images a "soft" look. Saw more of his work today. Very dramatic faces, almost to the point of caricature. His "last supper" has so much playing out on the faces of those depicted that it reminded me of Norman Rockwell, of all people. Not subtle, but I liked his work.

- Hans Baldung-Green (1484-1545) Las Edades Y La Muerta - Death and two ladies in an odd, gothic vertically composed painting in pale beiges. Looks very contemporary and like nothing else I know of from that era (though my knowledge is pretty limited)

- Rodrigo De Osona (1464-1518) "Christo Ante Pilates" Master of the grotesque.

- Berreuguette (1450-1503) "San Pedro" Vote for Pedro? Sorry, couldn't resist. Anyway, this is crazy Catholic art at its best. Large series of paintings that depict the life and death of Saint Pedro. Appearantly he was killed by a blow to the head with an ax. His portrait, the center painting of the series, depicts him with a halo, holding a book of scripture, and an ax protruding from his head. It's crazy and a great painting.

While we're on the subject of crazy Catholic art, there are several paintings in the Prado that depict Mary, the mother of Christ, squirting people with her breast milk. I am not making this up. This is one part of my Catholic education that was skipped. When I saw the first painting, I thought "that's odd." But by the third, I knew it was a motif. A crazy one. Several of the paintings depict Mary giving San Bernardo an eyeful. Mom - is this part of the legend of San Bernardo? Did he claim to have a vision in which he was squirted by Mary's breast milk? There's also a painting by Rubens, who I was surprised to discover that I don't really like his art. Too airy fairy for my taste. Too soft. There are exceptions, one of which shows Mary in the sky, squeezing her breast and the drops of milk that shoot out become stars in the sky, mixing the mundane, the religious and the cosmic.

It's just a motif I hadn't stumbled on before. It's rare in American galleries or museums that you see paintings of Mary breast feeding the infant Christ, although in Spain they're not uncommon.

Anyone want to comment?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Prado, part II

I arrived in Madrid yesterday and checked into the same hostal I had used before. I had returned to Madrid to catch a flight today to Rome (where I have arrived safe and sound, but that will be the subject of another posting). It was around 5:30pm by the time I got settled in Madrid, which left the big question: what to do now? I wanted to take it easy, and there wasn t much in the city that I felt that I had skipped on my previous visit. I checked my guidebook and saw that the Prado closed at 7:00, which would give me a little over an hour by the time I got there. Hmmmm. I decided it would be worth going, even for an hour, just to look at some of those paintings again. Plus I wanted to insure that my sister Julie and my friend Bob really hate me.

While there, a group dressed as people from some of Velasquez' paintings paraded by. This means they were dressed like early 17th century royalty. Not only dressed, but playing the parts to the hilt. The young girl, who led the procession was wearing one of those dresses that goes out about a mile from each hip, caught my eye and gave me a royal head nod. I nodded back, and later regretted that I didn't have the presence of mind to bow. She was followed by a Philip IV, who was jolly with his group, but gave me, the commoner, a haughty nod. I returned with a respectful nod.

Then they were gone, having quickly ascended the nearby steps. The only other person who had seen them in the hallway was a security guard who disappeared before I had a chance to ask her what the hell that was about.

The Prado was much less crowded late in the day. At one point, I had Goya's black paintings all to myself. It was a few minutes before anyone else entered the room. You could spend time with the paintings without being subconsciously hurried along by other patrons. I got to study Bosch's work some more. The miserable security guard, who had yelled at me on a previous visit for using a videocamera, was there. And she was asleep in her chair! I desperately wanted to take a picture of her napping, then send it to the Prado and get her fired. But I decided that Art brought out my better nature, so I passed on the opportunity.

Best of all, when I got to the Prado, I discovered (from a friendly security guard) that their hours had changed. The museum closes at 8:00pm, not 7:00.

I will write more about the work in the museum, particularly the stuff that I hadn't heard of that took my by surprise. More to come...

Friday, October 21, 2005


I´m writing this in Tarifa, a coastal town in southern Spain. I´ve only been here a day, on my way to Madrid to catch my flight to Rome, but this town seems to be one of those perfect, trouble-free spots on Earth.

The town is mainly made up of locals, many middle-aged and elderly, and surf bums, along with the shops that cater to them. I know I´m here in the off-season, but the townspeople and the surf bums seem to get along very well. It´s strange to see something so fundamentally American (surf culture) mixing among Spanish architecture. The houses are all the same blinding shade of white, which is unbelievably beautiful when set against the azure blue sky.

There is a sign in the internet cafe that reads "One person per seat. Please, thank you." It´s hard to imagine that they had a big problem with people sharing chairs or sitting on each others´laps while online.

Tarifa has an incredible beach. The sand is like refined sugar, the water rolls in in shades of blue beyond color, and there´s a perpetual breeze that makes it very comfortable to be here. This is what I needed after Morocco. I liked Morcocco and I am glad I went, but it was hard. Two of the things I was very conscious of and wanted to avoid happened to me anyway. One was getting scammed by my "guide" into paying insanely inflated prices for things, and the other was diarrea.

I had read that you should hire a guide when going to Fes´ Medina. The Medina is the old section of town (as in 1000 years old), walled off and filled with almost 10,000 winding streets and alleyways. It´s where people live, it´s the main historic center and it is also a giant marketplace. Being there is an experience like no other. Imagine being in an outdoor shopping mall, except the streets are maybe only 10 feet across and you have to get out of the way every so often to let donkeys pass. I had read that, without a guide, you´ll be inundated with would-be guides endlessly pestering you. The reason why everyone wants to be your guide is because they get a commission on anything you buy in their presence.

I hadn´t gone to Fes to go shopping, but my guide steered me to a series of tourist trap shops. First I sat through a hand-knit rug salesman´s pitch, which was interesting and the rugs were beautiful, but extricating yourself without buying something takes a lot of work. These are the people who invented haggling, they were the merchant class in Spain many years ago (before they got kicked out) and if there´s one thing they know how to do, it´s close a sale. My guide was no help, of course, because he wanted me to buy something so he would make money.

After the rug shop came the leather goods shop. I did buy a jacket here, but paid way too much (in Moroccan terms, not American) and have been kicking myself since then. Again, the salesman was doing everything he could to get me to buy two jackets, so I felt lucky I just got away with the one.

Then came the metal engravers. At this point, I didn´t have the patience to play along. I didn´t want a metal table or plates. If the salesman are supposed to be such masters at reading people, what the hell did they see in me that made them think for a minute that I would ever want a silver teapot that was vaguely in the shape of a camel?

It was a waste of a day. I returned to the medina the next day on my own, and discovered that it´s fairly easy to negotiate if you stay on the main streets. There are several color-coded paths through the medina, and plenty of tourist based "you are here" signs. It was frustrating because I knew about the whole tourist trap scheme and wanted to avoid it, and fell into anyway.

Same with the diarrea. Well, I didn´t fall into that, thank God. But I had that it´s almost a given that tourists get diarrea in Morocco. I had been fairly careful in what I had eaten and only drank bottled water. Until I forgot and had a salad my first night in Rabat. Uncooked veggies: that´s a no-no. I felt a little ill after the salad, but the next morning felt good enough to see some sites. But by noon, I felt ill. I went back to the hotel, stopping off to buy some water and a Coke. As I climbed the stairs to my room, I thought I must look like a junkie trying to kick. Check into a cheap hotel in Morocco, lock yourself in your room with only water and soda. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day either in bed or in the bathroom. Was my thinking I had soiled myself while high in Amsterdam a premonition?

So Morocco was hard. A fascinating culture with beautiful cities, but you realize very quickly how niave you are about the land.

Watching the sun set on the beach today, I felt very happy to be back in Spain, and looking forward to going to Italy. I´m only half done with my travels. I´m hoping that my time in Italy will be as easy as my walk on the beach tonight. We´ll see.

PS - Everyone make sure you tell me how nice my new leather jacket looks, cause God knows I paid enough for it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

My Dinner at Khalid's

I'm sitting at Khalid's house with Khalid, his wife and mother-in-law. Khalid's two sons are taking naps upstairs. We adults are sitting on couches staring at the food arranged on a low table. Today's fast for Ramadan has not broken yet, and everyone is hungry. I haven't eaten since breakfast. When the call goes out a few minutes before 6:00pm, Khalid sighs with relief. "Hear that? Now we may eat." Inside Khalid's living/dining room, the Muslim call issuing from the mosque isn't nearly as jarring or alarming as it is when you are on the street. There it reminds you of nothing so much as an air raid siren or a city of holy men chanting.

I met Khalid on the train from Tangier to Fes. He was very friendly, sharing his crackers with me when the fast broke that night, and eventually guiding me to a hotel close to the train station. "Avoid the cabs. They are all hustlers." After getting me to my hotel, he promised to set up a guide for me for the next day, and invited me to dinner at his home.

I know (ie have read) that this is both a common courtesy and an honor in Islamic countries and that they believe in treating strangers and visitors kindly. So one day later I am eating with Khalid's family. But it's not like being a guest. I'm just sort of there, eating. No special fuss. I'm not the center of attention in any way. It's as if my presence is common, everyday, instead of a once in a lifetime meeting.

Khalid's wife and mother-in-law do not speak English, beyond his wife's halting attempts to say her name and ask how I am. The three of them converse in Arabic, sometimes French, and there's only occasional translations into English courtesy of Khalid. Khalid's mother-in-law may be fairly old. Her face is wrinkled but her headdress makes it difficult to guage her age. Her bone structure, however, makes it evident that she was probably quite a beauty zhen she was young. There's something Eartha Kitt-esque about her, although she looks nothing like Eartha Kitt. I'm intrigued by the contrast between her face and her daughter's plump childlike face. But there's something else about the mother-in-law. She's wearing a sweatshirt that depicts "Teddybear's Nautical Adventures" ("Good Fishing!" is one of them. The Teddybear is using a pole rather than his paws). The shirt is so...unbelievable...beyond kitschy...that I can't stop looking at it. I just want to ask her what would possess someone to buy it, let alone wear it. But the smile it induces in me isn't just mocking.

Like many families, Khalid's watches television while eating. A few minutes of news, a bit of an interview program, and then an Egyptian show, which I think is a soap opera. The inexpensive sets, the bright video look, the fake beards and soap opera acting all remind me of an SCTV skit. At one point, the main character picks a small boy up by the scruff of the neck to address him face to face.

The food on the table is all room temperature (having been placed there during the fast) and is various shades of brown. There is a soup with corn in it, hummus, large hunks of bread, figs, something similar to an omlete pancake. To wash it down they have a sweet thick milk. It's so sweet that kids would love to have it for breakfast, but I only like milk in coffee and something about this makes my throat close. I eat something that resembles glazed calamari, but is in fact a sweet pastry that tastes of cinnamon. Delicious.

But why am I there? I appreciate the culture that invites guests to share dinner, but I keep wondering why I'm there. Khalid eats then leaves the room. I wonder when it would be proper for me to leave. I don't want to overstay my welcome, but I also don't want to dine and dash. Khalid reappears periodically, sits down, says something to his wife, then leaves again. At one point, he mentions that many European men come to Morocco to find wives. "Here it comes" I thought, expecting a line of Moroccan women to suddenly emerge from the kitchen and Khalid pressuring me to pick one. This is basically how I spent the day in the Medina with my shitty guide, but that's another story.

But no potential wives. As the women clear the table, I offer to help, knowing full well that a. I'm a guest and b. I'm a man. But my offer is not rebuffed. It is misinterpreted. After I repeat what I think is "I help?" in Arabic, comprehension dawns on the face of Khalid's wife. She then begins describing the layout of the house. I nod appreciatively, she goes back to clearing the table, and I return to the Egyptian soap opera.

Finally it is time to go. Khalid is going to the mosque for evening prayers. I say I will leave with him, if he could give me directions to walk back to my hotel. "No, you can't walk. Taxi." I exchange heartfelt thank you's to the women of the house, earning wide smiles. I don't know what else to do. I leave with Khalid.

It is dark out, even though it is only sometime after 7:00pm. On the street, Khalid greets a handsome teenage boy in a Diesel jean jacket, puts his arm around his shoulder, and begins talking rather intimately with the boy. It's a little jarring, but I should point out that physical intimacy between men that would never fly in America (holding hands, walking arm in arm, cheek kissing) is common among male friends in Morocco. The only word I can make out is "English." Despite his many kindnesses, I'm not sure I fully trust Khalid. Part of it is natural travellers' paranoia, part of it is because the "great guide" he found to take me through the Medina was more interested in getting me to buy expensive things in his presence so he could earn his commission. But that's another story.

We reached a small plaza. It was time for Khalid to say goodbye and go to services. He introduced me to the teenager, whose name he said so fast I didn't catch it, then invited me to break the fast again tonight. He explained that the boy would help me catch a cab.

We waited in the plaza for a few minutes, not talking. Eventually a cab came by, the boy negotiated with the driver, then held the door for me. I got in...and the boy got in the back seat. I never felt like I was in any danger. I didn't feel threatened or thqt this was a set up. Despite how "foreign" it is, Morocco feels safe. I just tried to figure out how what sort of tip I should give the boy when the moment inevitably came.

We got to my hotel. A day of translating Moroccan dirham into American dollars (which is easy: 10 dirham to one dollar) left me confused. Thinking it was ten dollars, I tried to pay the cab fare with the equivalent of 20 dollars. No, the cab driver and the boy explained. The fare was only a dollar. I got out of the cab, looking at my change, trying to calculate how much to tip the boy. But he just gave me a little nod of his head as goodbye, a half-smile, then walked away without looking back.

Thank you, Khalid. I called tonight to thank him and explain I would not be able to eat with his family again, but the phone connection was so bad that all he seemed to understand was his name.

Shukran bezzef, Khalid. M'a ssalama.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Road to Morocco

I should warn the reader that I am typing this on a French-style co,puter keyboqrd, which is different enough from American keyboards to make things interesting. I will try to catch my mistakes and correct them, but I can't guarantee anything.

Yesterday was a long day of travel. Sevilla to Tarifa was a three hour bus ride, then a 45 minute boat ride to Tangier in Morocco, followed by a four hour train ride to Fes, which felt like a four hour train ride.

No two Moroccans agree on the relative merits of their different cities. Some like Tangier, others dismiss it as "merely a port town." One might think Meknes is an underrated gem, wheras another warned me not to waste my time there. But everyone likes Fes. It is the heart of Morocco. (I haven't heard anything bad about Marrakesh, either. It's just a little too far for how little time I have in Morocco).

By Bus
The bus driver played an American and British pop radio station exclusively. Alan Parsons is the eye in the sky, Neil Diamond is a believer, Christopher Cross rides like the wind. One of the other passengers on the bus had brought a dog on board. Or rather under board, as the dog rides in a pet carrier in the luggage compartment at the bottom of the bus. The poor animal is quiet for most of the journey, but eventually becomes agitated and soon begins whining and howling. Its cries sound like far off screams, which most songs on the radio successfully drown out, although it can be heard during quiet songs. The cries add a particularly chilling counterpart to John Lennon's "Imagine."

By Boat
The ferry from Tarifa is the fastest way to get to Morocco from Southern Spain: 45 minutes vs. over 2 hours from Gibralter. It's billed as a "speed" boat, but it never feels like it's going fast at all. There's a gentle rising and falling, like being rocked to sleep. The waves outside the boat don't break -- white foam gathers at the crest, then disappates just as quickly. I keep waiting for us to pick up steam, but we never do.

Behind me, an Asian woman zith a British accent is discussing problems in her family with her male companion. Her voice has a sound like music in the otherwise hushed cabin. The boat ride is like being in a dream.

By Train
There are lots of small black plastic shopping bags litering the landscape for part of the journey. I assume they were used as trash bags. At one point, a huge flock of seagulls fly up, startled by the train. Their white feathers form a nice contrast to the black bags. Some donkeys graze on what used to be a soccer field, standing in front of the rusted goal posts. It looks like they were playing and decided to take a break and have a snack.

Children still come out to wave at the train as it goes past.

This month is Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. I'm on the train at sunset, when the fast for the day has ended. Two things strike me: one is the legendary generosity of Moroccans, who, even though they haven't eaten all day, are very eager to share with you, to the point of not accepting is considered an insult. I have a mini-feast of cookies, crackers and cupcakes with the others in my train compartment. I share my water, as it is all I have.

The other thing that strikes me is how fast it gets dark after the sun sets. It becomes middle of the night dark within fifteen minutes, literally. The full moon is suddenly out, and all I can think of are those old cartoons, when the sun zips down; the moon zips into its spot, and the sky goes dark like someone has flicked a switch.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Lost and Found

Ah, I have discovered Sevilla´s hip section. I had clues before - the anarchist bookstore with the very polite clerk, the hip hop clothing store with spray-painted murals on the walls - but after being lost in Sevilla´s winding streets for over an hour (not including time out for tapas and a beer), I have definitely found it. It´s in the Almeda de Hercules. The trow of grungy bars and their inhabitants could be straight out of Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Manhattan´s lower east side. So far away and it´s like I never left my neighborhood.

Much of the rest of the city seems given over to tourists and "nice people." I wondered if the young, scruffy and disaffected had a section of town to call their own, or if they kept to the outskirts. Wish I had found this area on my first night rather than on my last. After walking around town feeling out of place in my "House of Voodoo" t-shirt (especially around churches, which all seemed to have well-dressed congregations gathering outside each time I went by) I finally fit in. Except that I don´t smoke.

In some respects it was a productive day. I bought my ticket to Tarifa for tomorrow, and finally plotted my itinerary for the Italian part of this journey. I bought a plane ticket from Rome to Amsterdam the day before I fly home. But my biggest goal today, one that remains frustrated, was buying another Nazarene.

I don´t know what the Nazarenes really are, but I became obesessed wiht them since coming to Sevilla. As close as I can tell, they are a religious order affiliated with the Catholic Church, perhaps only with the Church of the Weeping Virgin. What fascinates me is their uniform, which look like Klu Klux Klans´ but with a really long pointed hoods. I saw some dolls in a shop window my first night here and thought "What the hell are they?" The hoods are sometimes in different colors. Sometimes the Nazarenes carry a giant cross, sometimes just a candle. I bought one from a shop on Friday, and think I offended the shop owner when I asked if he had any other colors. "Macarena" he said, referring to the section of Sevilla we were in, and pointing to the green hood. I guess it´s like going to an Irish store and asking if they have any orange sweaters. And yes, that section of Sevilla is where that damn song "The Macarena" gets its name.

So I got a little lost this afternoon, although Sevilla is such a pleasure to wander that the definition of "lost" comes into question. I stopped in countless souvenir shops, asking "¿Quiero Nazarene?" But no luck. Finally, I gave up and decided to concentrate on getting back to my neighborhood. Of course, then it happened. Like a zen riddle, as soon as you stop searching, you find what you were looking for.* I stumbled acrosss a store that makes Nazarene outfits and it was...closed. This is probably just as well, because might have been tempted to buy one and I don´t know how well it would go over in Brooklyn. Did I mention how much they look like Klu Klux Klan outfits?

I took a picture of the shop´s sign, which is suitably creepy, and went on my way...only to pass a toy store selling large size Nazarene figures for just 6 euros! The toy store was also closed, of course. I truly was trapped in some zen arena (which, by the way, is an anagram for "Nazarene"). After this, I swear I saw a car drive by that had a suction-cup Nazarene figure stuck to their back window. I decided I had had enough of the universe´s mocking, so I went and had a drink.

*It also happened when I was looking for the internet cafe where I am typing this. I had been here yesterday and was looking for it tonight. When I couldn´t find it, I decided to head back to the hotel...and then turned a corner and found the cafe.

Royale with Cheese

Little differences that I´ve noticed:

Many European toilets have two buttons to flush with, one small than the other. The smaller one uses less water. Makes sense.

In the hotel in Bilboa, the lights in the hallway outside the rooms were on a timer, so that they only stayed on long enough for you to get to your room. Less waste of electricity.

It´s difficult getting used to a language, Spanish, in which the lisp is featured so extensively. All that work by speech therapists and gym teachers, beating the lisp out of kids, turns out to be a cultural construct.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


It has started happening. My itinerary has begun forcing me to leave places before I feel ready. As much as I loved Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona, my last day in each location was marked by a sense of closure, of completeness. I knew it was time to move on. But in Bilboa and especially Granada, I have to move on before I am ready. Rick Steves suggests giving Granada "two nights and a day." Bullshit. I could stay herre a week and feel completely at home, and that´s with having seen the major tourist sites in two days. I feel I could emmigrate to Granada and be happy. It appears neo-hippies from all nations already have. The town functioned as a battleground between Islam and Christianity hundreds of years ago, so the architecture and the "vibe" of the town reflects the best of both worlds. It´s where Columbus made his pitch to Ferdinand and Isabel, who now lie in plain wood coffins beneath a beautifully carved stone crypt. It´s what I thought, what I hoped, Spain would be like. If I can´t make it to Morocco for some reason, I´m coming back to Granada. (Or flying to England. I haven´t really made my mind up yet.)

Two nights ago, I sat in a tea house and felt completely at peace. Last night I went to an Arabian Bath and felt completely at peace. Arabian bath: large communal hot pool, a cool room, and 20 minute massage included. I loved exploring the Alhambra, once I figured out their seemingly complex admitance policy.

Oh yeah. One of my typically bonehead moments proved a. how dumb I am, and b. how easy it is to get out an embarassing social situation by slapping yourself on the forehead when the people around you are cool. I had had two beers and two tapas (little bar snacks - bigger than hors d´ouvres, smaller than appeatizers) at a neighborhood bar. When I asked for the tab, the bartender, who looked like an ex-boxer, and, even though I don´t speak enough Spanish to be sure, seemed to be getting picked on by the other smaller, fiestier bartender (sort of like a small yappy dog intimidating a stout bulldog) rung it up on one cash register and told me the cost. When he did this, I swear I saw the same amount appear on the cash register closest to me. I assumed they were linked.

I gave the barman 10 euros, he gave me my change, which on inspection, seemed a little short. "Uh..." I said, looking at my change and the amount on the register close to me. He repeated the amount and the change several times, as if he was trying to teach a slow child basic math. "But..." I finally said, pointing to the register. "No no no" said the smaller bartender, pointing to the register that was actually used. The amount was slightly different, and the change was correct. I literally, and a little theatrically, slapped my forehead and repeated "Lo siento, lo siento," which is Spanish for "I´m sorry." The big bartender signaled that it was okay, and gave me a big friendly grin. He was missing his two front teeth.

Train to Sevilla

Yes, every time I write "Sevilla" I think of Bugs Bunny as the rabbit of Sevilla. "There/you´re nice and clean/although your face/looks like it may gone t´rough a machine."

The unfairness of it all. trains are very condusive to writing, in that they give you large blocks of uninterrupted time to think and relect, along with an ever changing landscape that triggers contemplation and meditation. However, trains are also the worst place to write, in that the constant jostling makes legibility near impossible.

There was piped-in music on the train. It was the sort of bland, easy, adult jazz with vocals that would have made Louis Armstrong say "This shit is not what I had in mind." At one point, a rambling song came on, and I was momentarily convinced that the conductor was singing through the p.a., making up a song as he went along. The Decemberist´s legionnaire´s lament, though bouncy, was not enough to drown this out, so I had to switch my iPod to Del Tha Funkee Homosapien´s kvetch about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Eventually, I go with the jazz vocal vibe and decide to listen to a superior example: Frank Sinatra´s "Come Fly With Me." Looking at the track listing, I formulate the idea of visiting each place he sings about before I die. It shouldn´t be too hard. London, Paris, New York, Chicago: already got those covered. Isle of Capri is scheduled for next month. That leaves Hawaii, Mandalay, Brazil, Vermont and south of the border. This will probably take several trips.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Little Bit More About Art

This was going to be a response to some of the comments about my "Bilboa" post, but I started getting wordy, and figured it´d be better to make it a post on its own.

Molly -
What amazes me is how unpredictable reactions to art can be. We all experienced "appreciating" art, or expecting to like something and find that, yes, as predicted, you did like it. But I´m always interested in when something completely overwhelms you, completely overrides your intellectual faculties, and makes you feel giddy and joyous, or, depending on the work, inexplicably sad and full of sorrow.

Peter Greenaway, a filmmaker who´s work I like a great deal, once said that you don´t have emotional reactions to a painting. Well, I do. Not every painting, but there are some that move me beyond rational explanation. There´s a painting by Van Gogh in the Metropolitan that shows a small child running to greet her father, who has kneeled down with his arms outstretched, ready to swoop her up. The painting is such a primal domestic scene, charming and warm without being sentimental, that it makes me want to cry. (This reaction might also be due to the fact that I know how unhappy Van Gogh´s life was. That a man who suffered so much could create such a vision of pure, simple happiness also makes me want to cry).

That´s something else that amazes me: the realization that someone made this. Someone used their hands, and some paint, and made something where previously there was a blank canvas. That´s part of my reaction to Bosch´s work. A person made those. Granted, a visionary with a wicked sense of humor and remarkable drafting and compositional skills, but still, he was just a person. People made the pyramids too, but that was lots of people. "Temptation of St. Anthony" was made by just one guy.

I knew I would like the Bilboa museum. I had seen photos and video of the museum before. I just wasn´t ready for the, what, ravishment(?) that I felt on seeing it. I didn´t even get to go inside, Stacey and Andrea, because the museum is closed on Mondays, and that was the only day I could work it into my schedule. But I didn´t care. For the record, Jeff Koons´ giant topiary puppy is in front of the museum, almost like he´s guarding it, and Louise Bougouis spider ("Mama") is behind the museum. I had seen both before, but it was great seeing them again in this context.

Mom, we´ll see what I think of David.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Appearantly, what I needed was to get out of Madrid. As soon as I saw the lush green mountains of northern Spain through the window of the airplane, I felt much better. The mountains were so reminescent of Scotland, Ireland, or even northeastern PA, that my spirit soared as we touched down. Even searching for the bus from the airport to downtown Bilboa was a pleasure. The air smelled so fresh, so clean.

Not that being in Madrid was a problem. It just felt bad going back, to the very same hostel as a matter of fact, after having been in Portugal. Madrid had inspired in me the conviction that the Spanish are not a particularly friendly people. After having yet another rude post-menopausal gargoyle cut in front of me, this sentiment was set in stone. Of course, as soon as I think nothing else about the Spanish, I was waited on in a tapas bar by the friendliest, nicest bartender imaginable.

It appears it may just be that big city Spaniards get on my nerves. I was tired and everything was bigging me. I was in the midst of a lot of travel, spending the majority of each day in a different city. This also accounts for why I haven´t posted too much in this journal the last few days. This past week, I have been in:

Thursday - Fatima
Friday - Lisbon
Saturday - Sintra
Sunday - Toledo
Monday - Bilboa
Tuesday - Granada

I enjoyed all these cities and appreciate the chance to get to travel, but it was wearing on me. I had also picked up a little cold in Portugal, which magically changed into Montazuma´s Revenge on the overnight train from Lisbon to Madrid. So I had little patience for the general rudeness of Madrid, nice bartenders notwithstanding. I got back to the hostel after a good day in Toledo and found that I was sharing a six bed room with five girls. Sadly, this scenario did not play out the way it does in movies on Cinemax. They were five very young girls, as in college age, as in those who use the word "like" as every other word in a sentence. However, to their credit, when they got up to go to dinner at 10:00pm, they told me I was welcome to join them. I thanked them, but said I had an early flight. I´m sure the invitation was simply a courtesy, but I was still surprised and flattered. One of those unexpected moments of decency that makes you happy, like.

I had reserved a room in Bilboa online, as I have throughout this trip. There´s something too unsettling about going to a town and not knowing where you´re staying that night, although lots of backpackers (and not just young ones) do this. However, booking places based on a brief online description is just as much of a crapshoot, as I discovered. I arrived in Bilboa for the day, and went straight to the Guggenheim Museum, the reason I included the town in my itinerary. I walked around the building for over an hour, then decided I would try to find my hostel, check in, and try to catch a few hours at the beach at San Sebastian. Well, "try" is the operative word.

Warning bells began tolling for thee when I asked the girl at the tourist info office about the address. She said the street didn´t sound familiar. She got a map of Bilboa hostels and pensions, and my hostel was literally off the map. The index mentioned it, then had a little arrow pointing to some mystery area beyond the map´s borders. "Here be dragons" is what they used to write on maps. But I thought "no problem." I´ve faced, and beaten, bigger challenges before. Figuring the bus station would be an easy common landmark, I went there and called the hostel for directions.

Well, the old lady who answered the phone was very sweet, but couldn´t speak English. Between my English and rudimentary Spanish, I couldn´t make her understand I had a reservation and needed directions. She kept saying her son would call me back. I couldn´t make her understand that he couldn´t call me back, that I didn´t have a phone and was calling from a public phone. After it became evident she had hung up on me, I wondered what to do. Much as I resented taking a taxi, I approached one several cabdrivers, pointed to the address and asked how much it would cost to go there. His puzzled expression at the address told me all I needed to know. He went to confer with the other cabdrivers and to try to reach a consensus as to the street´s location. He came back, told me it would be 5 euros. I thanked him for his help, but had decided that 5 euros each way to the hostel was too much, and the mystery location was more of an adventure than I was in the mood for.

Using the map the tourist office had given me, I headed to the closest location, envisioning a day of wandering around Bilboa, begging for a place to stay and finally having to settle for a room in some superexpensive hotel. As it turned out, the first place I stopped had an available single room. It cost about 1.5x what my orginal place cost, but keep in mind this means $48 vs. $30.

I got to my room and it was like a small hotel room. I had my own bathroom! My own towel! My own tv! All for less than $50! What had I been thinking, staying in hostels and sharing rooms that don´t turn into Cinemax movies? $25 hostel beds vs. $50 hotel rooms? Damn my Scottish ancestory, with their ingrained penny-pinching ways. (My apologies to any Mulhern relatives who might be reading this from the afterlife. Sorry.)

So, was this all worth it? I came all this way to look at a building I couldn´t even go in -- the museum is closed on Mondays. Is the Guggenheim in Bilboa worth the money to fly here (although I did get a cheap ticket) and the temporary aggrevation in finding a room? Oh God, is it ever. Geek that I am, I went to look at the museum three times yesterday, just to see how it looks in different light. I don´t regret a thing. It´s not just a building, but one of the greatest sculptures I´ve seen, and on my second viewing, I was so overwhelmed I almost accosted an Asian tourist to ask him "Aren´t you happy to be alive?" This probably would have freaked him out, but I don´t care. It´s such an incredible building, I could never tire of looking at it. Each approach reveals enjoyable new views and it looks different at different times of the day. It makes the people nearby act with a joy and freedom you don´t see around other museums. I love it. God, I´m so fucking happy to be alive.

Friday, October 07, 2005

I of Fatima

That title is for all you Camper Van Beethoven fans. Which, of all the people reading this, means Lynn and myself.

"I'll be interested to hear (or read) your take on Portugal" my friend Bob wrote. "I hear mixed things."

Yeah, I can understand that. From the little I've seen of the country so far (Lisbon and Fatima), it is definitely a land of contrasts. The people are very nice, very kind. Lots of smiles, and when they correct your pronounciation of Portugese, it's in a helpful rather than frustrated manner. However, I've been cheated out of change her more than in the rest of Europe put together (and that includes living in London ten years ago). Yeah, yeah, it's my own fault for not being careful, but is the trolley driver so hard up he has to cheat people out of 30 cents, or is that his little "fuck you, tourist?"

It is a country that seems to be experiencing growing pains, pains that it sometime shares with its inhabitants. One of the poorest of all EU countries, it benefited the most by joining the European Union. It gained lots of loan money that had to be allocated by 2006. This is good, in that thereºs some needed improvements being made that will ultimately benefit a lot of people. It's frustrating in the short term, in that basic services have changed so much in the country in the short term, and its hard to keep track. An elevator downtown, designed by the same man who designed the Eiffel Tower, currently has its baroque design hidden under scaffolding while it is renovated. They still charge over 2 euros to go up the elevator for the nice view of Lisbon, however.

I spent much of yesterday morning making my pilgrimage to Fatima. Fatima, for those who don´t know, is where the Virgin Mary is said to have made several appearances in 1917 to three children. She made three predictions, all of which have come true, although my translation of the second preditiction (Russia´s conversion to communism playing a part in the second world war) is one I would argue with. WWII was caused by Germany's slide into fascism and Japan´s colonial designs, not by Russia becoming communist. Other than that, I really have no arguments with the Virgin Mary, and would hope that if ever we do meet, this topic wouldn't come up.

When I was a kid, Mr. Jack, the annoying alcoholic who lived next door to my family for most of my childhood, gave us a book of weird phenomena published by Reader's Digest. (Mom - do you know the book I mean? Do we still have it?) The book covered the usual strange phenomena: Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, Aztec calendars...and the story of Fatima. Since then, it's been at the back of my mind to come here. I didn't envision that it would be such an ordeal. The bus station listed in my travel guide has since closed. No sign, no explanation. It's just gone. After searching for a tourist info kiosk, several of which that are listed on my Lisbon map (which I got from a tourist office in Lisbon, by the way) seem to have disappeared, I finally found one and got directions to the new bus and train station. I found the train station without trouble. The bus station, however, was half a block away and a little more difficult. Do you see what I mean about Portugal suffering from growing pains? Considering that some pilgrims have made the trek to Fatima on their knees, I know I shouldn't complain.

What is Fatima in 2005 like? Well, imagine several large parking lots that lead to a blinding white basilica. When the sun is out in Portugal, it is hot and can be blinding. The reflection off all the beautiful marble can make your head swim. The "several large parking lots" are there to hold the faithful, which can number in the tens of thousands at a time. Inside, the basilica is beautiful, white, clean, and despite its size, humble in scope. For something swarming with that many tourists and takes up that much space, it is a surprisingly peaceful spot.

Surrounding the basilica area, about a block away, the town of Fatima is undergoing a development phase not unlike Lisbon's. Think Sacred Suburban Sprawl, and you get the idea. There are shops and shopping malls, and lots of construction going on, mainly to build hotels to hold the faithful. It's tacky in the way that all suburban sprawl is tacky, yet not as vulgar as you might think.

Before going to the site, I stopped and had lunch in the Fatima shopping mall, which contains stores that sell religious things (no surprise) as well as stores that sell secular items (an underwear store, for example). The Fatima shopping mall has a movie theater. What sort of movies would be showing so close to where the Virgin Mary appeared, less than 100 years ago? "The Wedding Crashers" and "Bewitched," as it turns out.

Anyway, I stopped and had a salad and a small pizza. While I was eating, a group of 12 kids, all boys, obviously on a class trip, came in and took over the restaurant. They were your typical early-teen boys: loud and energetic, a little spastic and desperate to see how much pizza they could get for how little money. I have to say, however, they were better behaved than their American counterparts. After playing havoc with the waitress' attempts to install order, take orders, and deliver food, the boys broke out into spontaneous and genuine round of applause as thanks for the waitress' hard work when she handed over the last pizza slice. The waitress beamed.

I did see several people making their way to the basilica on their knees. A new structure is being built to accomodate the faithful. If the concrete base I saw is any indication, this building may rival the pyramids when it is finished. There´s a large area, think open barbeque pit, where you can place prayer candles. I bought a candle, lit it, placed it in the pit, got it out when the flame blew out, burned my arm just a little, lit the flame again, placed it back in the pit away from the wind.

The candle was in honor of my family and friends, so you're all covered.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


So Madrid is experiencing a drought. I had noticed the signs around the hostel saying "please conserve water," were replaced yesterday morning with signs saying "PLEASE conserve water - Madrid is in a level one draught." I guess they´re coming out of their dry season, but the season has lasted longer than expected...

It was noticable this afternoon. I took a bus out of the city to nearby El Escorial to visit the palace/monastary of King Philip II (1527-1598), a man who took his religion seriously enough to share his home with over 100 monks. However, his home was about the size of your average shopping mall, so he could probably get away from the monks when necessary. These monks lived in opulence, too. The monastary portion of the palace was huge, light, and airy, decorated with El Greco paintings and furnished with marble floors.

But I´ve veered from draught to excess. Spain can do that to you. The ride on the bus to El Escorial was through a land that looked like the southwest: groves of withered trees, odd vegetation, and slender livestock trying to feed on arid grassless land. It was beautiful in its desolation, but I was happy to reach the town of El Escorial, with its cobblestone streets, close houses and sidewalk cafes.

The palace itself is an enjoyable walk, and I got to see two Bosch paintings without getting yelled at (not that I would hold a grudge), but on the whole, it is a rather sanitized tourist attraction. Beautiful, yes, but a little too clean, both physically and in its approach to history. On part of the tour, you go through the royal catacombs, the crypts that contain the bodies of la familia royale. The rooms are eerie, but beautiful. There is a large, circular, ornate tomb that contains the bodies of the numerous royal children who died in infancy. It resembles nothing so much as a large wedding cake, yet the representation of infant mortality, even for those who had (literally) all the money in the world, is heartbreaking.

But there is something satisfying about the bodies of a king and his family serving now as a tourist attraction. The people worked and gave their lives for the comfort of Philip II, now it´s his turn.

Entropy seems to be hitting in ways other than the drought. The shoulder strap on my bag has broken,and even though I´ve jerry-rigged it to last the rest of the trip, I wasn´t thrilled when it happened. Even more annoying was when I got a pen out of my bag, and discovered that it had broken. It didn´t leak ink in the bag, just on my sweater when I picked it up. The subtitle of this online journal has now proven true.

Before leaving El Escorial, I stopped in a local bar to have a beer and a sandwich before taking the train back. The sign on the bar showed a bowling ball and two pins. I love it when foreign places adapt fundamentally American iconography. When I got inside, I saw that they do indeed have two small bowling lanes, similar in size to skeeball on an amusement pier.

While eating my late lunch, I watched a Spanish soap opera, which was crazy in the way of most soap operas. There was a character who was supposed to be an old infirm man, but the actor playing him was 45 at most, and had "old man" white powder in his hair and moustache. It was like seeing a high school student play Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman." Even without being able to speak the language, I could tell what was happening because of all the soap opera "acting" - meaningful looks and stares as the music swells. The music in this case contained the familiar "stings" but spiced with twangy guitars, Herb Albert trumpets and I thought I heard some flute in there.

I´m leaving for Portugal tonight. I had checked my bag into a locker at the train station this afternoon so I wouldn´t have to cart it around all day. This evening when I went to get my bag, the big beefy security guard said something to me. After saying "Que?" he repeated it, and after a few minutes of pantomime and repeating words, I figured out what he had to tell me: the lockers are too expensive. They shouldn´t charge that much for people to check their bags.

Madrid part two

Madrid has grown on me. There´s nothing like watching yesterday´s eclipse (or rather, not looking at the eclipse) in the company of a large crowd of locals and tourists in the gardens of the royal palace to make you appreciate a place.

I took a train Saturday morning from Barcelona to Madrid. The person I sat next to was blind, and I don´t think he had the most exciting trip. He didn´t speak much English, I don´t speak much Spanish, plus he couldn´t appreciate the incredible and various scenery flying past. The colors of the Spanish landscape, lush greens and beautiful white sands, contrast with the rich blue Mediterranean sky, and the effect is gorgeous.

They began showing a movie on the train. What could it be? Some unknown Spanish melodrama, with noble peasants, forbidden love and an evil priest who can fly? Some lame Rob Schneider vehicle, dubbed? Nope. It was "Witness for the Prosecution" an Agatha Christie courtroom drama with Charles Laughton and Marlena Deitrich. Never in a million years could I have predicted that.

When we got to the train station, I headed to the tourist info booth. I saw a long line and thought "Great. Guess this is it." Wrong. As it turns out, there was no line at the tourist info booth. This long line was for the cigarette booth.

As mentioned before, after checking in, I went straight to the Prado. The Metropolitan Museum is larger, and the Louvre has incredible work, but the Prado has the highest ratio of both masterpieces and little known paintings that are nonetheless fascinating. Almost no crap. Unfortunately, while I was there, they also had no Carevaggios. I asked a guard, and was informed that their entire collection was on loan to a museum in...Barcelona. Dóh!

I got yelled at by one of the museum guards. Twice. I was in the Bosch room in front of "Garden of Delights" and using the zoom lens on my videocamera to see small details of the painting. I had been doing this for a few minutes, when a security guard sternly explained in Spanish that you are not allowed to videotape the paintings. I don´t have the language skills to explain, so I simply said (in English) that I was not taping, that I was just looking through the lens to get closer. No deal. I asked if I could look through my regular camera. That was okay.

So, after a minute or two of zooming in through my regular camera, she came over and yelled again. She pantomimed that you can only lift the camera, focus, take a quick picture, then put the camera down. (To her credit, some digital still cameras can take brief videoclips, although that was not what I was doing). I suddenly could see myself getting into an argument which would blossom into an international incident, and end with me being banned from a museum I had crossed an ocean to see. I had to content myself with studying Bosch´s vision of Hell, convinced I would see the security guard in there somewhere, no doubt instructing other demons on the proper way to watch the sinner´s torments.

to be continued

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Arrived In Madrid...

and went immediately to the Prado.

Love the Prado, but I am reserving my opinion on Madrid. It may just be that I liked Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona so much, that Madrid is suffering by comparison. We'll see if going to a bullfight, visiting the sight of many of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, and another trip to the Prado can change my mind...