travel back in time

Thursday 16th September, Madrid, Spain

Summer has left Madrid and is making its way to Australia I guess. This departure was sudden enough that it caught me by surprise. Admittedly, this morning was the first morning since I arrived that I've left the flat before nine o'clock, so it was little wonder that the brisk morning breeze caught me off guard. But even this afternoon, when I broke away from my computer for a much needed walk, the change in the weather was unmissable. Gone is the sun's strong radiation that you feel burning your scalp- even through a full head of hair. Gone too the oppressive heaviness in the air, replaced by a fresh, invigorating feeling, kind of like on those commercials for Norsca shampoo. I guess it sounds like I didn't enjoy summer, but that's not it. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have relished the last three and a half months of baking warmth and sunshine- my six weeks in Morocco, the recent glorious weeks in Madrid, northern Spain and France, and even- in a slightly masochistic way- the month of July that I spent toiling in the forty plus degree heat of Chercos. But it's time for a change. Over the last few days, I've found a new lease on life, as they say. I figured I had finally recovered from the damage done to my body and soul in Chercos, but on second thoughts it's probably more to do with the change in the weather. The cooler nights are more conducive to a solid block of sleep, and I can feel the difference in my energy levels during the day. When I mention this to Maria, she just looks at me like I'm nuts.

So with the change of the season, I guess it's about time I wrote a little about what I've been up to in Madrid. You all know why I'm back in Madrid, I'm sure. If you don't, then you've not beeen paying attention and I'm not about to repeat myself. I said, I'm not about to repeat myself. go here to catch up. Well, what had initially seemed like it would be a relaxing time in Spain's sunny capital has actually been- on a number of levels- quite stressful. Maria will read this tomorrow at work, and again think to herself "That guy is nuts. He sleeps in every day, wanders to the shops when he feels like it, spends most of his day eating fresh bread with ham and eggs, and tapping away on his laptop, then when I get home in the evening I find him sitting on the window sill, fresh out of the shower in a pair of pantalons, drinking a Tinto de Verano!" Obviously to the untrained eye, it would appear that I am taking it quite easy, but there is in fact quite a lot happening in my life.

To begin with, my book *yeah, yeah, I know. You're sick of hearing about the book, but it's relevant to this topic* has been the source of much frustration and worry. This is the biggest step of my project yet, since boarding that jet fourteen and a half months ago. After paying half the cost of the printing up front, my credit card has almost reached critical mass. Luckily, payments for the book have started rolling in, because it is this money that I will have to use to cover the other fifty percent of the publishing. I am bound to have underestimated the postage costs associated with delivering the books to every corner of the globe, and I'm quite resigned to the fact that once this book is all said and done, my credit card will be in no better shape than it is now, in fact it will probably be worse. Three trips across North America, spanning twelve years, a thousand hours drawing the stories from my memory and onto paper, another few hundred hours organizing payments and deliveries, and now an expensive flight to the US to take delivery of the books... it almost seems like an awful amount of trouble to go to to make no money, doesn't it? And then I get an email from a reader in the US, asking if the book is a hardcover, seeing as "twenty dollars is a bit pricey for a paperback" Bloody hell, how much would you expect to pay? Remember that this free website costs me over a hundred dollars a month to maintain, due to charges for excess bandwidth since more and more people are viewing it.

Okay, enough about the book. Another situation I'm dealing with is my lack of a shared language with the millions of people around me. It's been my observation that very few people in Spain speak English, and those who do have a small English vocabulary are too shy to use it. Of course, this is not their problem. This is not England, it's Spain. But rationalizing it doesn't make the isolation any easier. It doesn't bother me that I can't engage in witty banter with the checkout chick at the supermarket, or that my only response when people speak to me in Spanish is "That's easy for you to say!" The most trying times are when Maria and I get together with a group of her family or friends. Her friends always make a valiant attempt to include me by speaking English, but I know from trying to converse in French while I was in Morocco how exhausting that can be, and it isn't long before I find myself sitting on the outer, very much an observer rather than a participant. Anyone who knows me will know that this is not a role I take to very easily. Maria keeps me up to speed on the topic of conversation, and does her best to translate any particular comments that she thinks I'd be interested in, but by the time she has translated something and I have given her my response, the converstaion has moved on before she has a chance to translate it back to the group. It is sometimes very frustrating, but I am learning Spanish "uno palabra al dia". Yesterday my word was 'pasomano' (handrail), and the word for the day before was 'peligroso' (dangerous). Now if I ever find myself in a situation where I notice that the handrail is in an unsafe condition, I will be able to warn others around me, and depending on the location of said handrail, perhaps save lives, or at least embarassing incidents.

Another thing that's bearing down on me, perhaps more than it should, is the likelihood that US Immigration will give me a hard time (or God forbid, refuse me entry) on my upcoming visit to America, and the even less likely possibility that I'll have difficulty being allowed re-entry into Spain on my return. Spanish immigration is generally pretty relaxed- they have just smiled at me and stamped my passport on each of my entries so far- but it always depends on the individual officer on duty at the moment. There is always the chance you'll get stuck with some asshole like the BIG FAT PIG who refused me entry into the US last year. I should have included a dedication to him in my book, since he was without exception the only person I met in five months of hitchhiking fifteen thousand miles around North America who wasn't a great human being. The fine people of Canada and America should be proud of yourselves for the way you treat visitors to your shores.

So those are the things that are bothering me. Now what about the great things about Madrid? Well, everything! Honestly, I'm not just saying this because I know Maria will be reading it, I've really fallen for this city *and one of its residents* I'm not sure I've travelled Spain extensively enough to comment on the country as a whole, so my observations will be on Madrid as a city. You want to know what I love about Madrid?

1. I love that at 2:00 or 3:00 o'clock in the morning, the streets aren't owned by staggering drunken slobs and jumpy young chemically improved nightclubbers. Instead- on any night of the week- you will find people sitting outside cafes chatting happily over a beer, or dipping deep fried churros into a mug of melted chocolate.

2. The randomness of opening hours, which at first infuriated me (twenty-four hour internet cafes that don't open till ten o'clock in the morning) now strikes me as charming. Stores close for large chunks of time in the middle of the day, so workers can go home and spend time with their families. I now see this as a good thing. But there seems to be no consistency about what time this siesta starts or finishes. Each store seems to choose its own schedule, and then changes it every day. Once you accept that the store you desperately needed may or may not be open, it forces you to be a little more laid back about things, especially stupid unimportant things like shopping.

3. Speaking of 'laid back', did I mention that Madrid is the capital of 'laid back'? I thought Aussies were relaxed, but we've got nothing on these folk. At first impression, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Spanish don't give a rat's ass about anything... except maybe having a beer and laughing themselves silly. Get-togethers with Maria's friends inevitably turn into ridiculous hilarity (if only I could understand what they're laughing about). These are professional people in their thirties and forties, and unlike many countries I've been to they don't sit around talking about their money woes, world politics and the problem with the 'damn immmigrants'. Or if that really is what they're talking about, they certainly seem to see the funy side of it!

4. Whereas as home, my neighbour James and his noisy stereo used to annoy me almost to the point of committing greiveous bodily harm (my plan to climb from my ceiling to his and drop a steel anvil onto him while he sat on his sofa only failed to eventuate through lack of a steel anvil) the bustling noisiness of our little street is kind of reassuring. It reminds me that I am in a city where people are not uptight. It means that when I want to turn my music up a little, no-one will mind. Then again, at the moment if I don't get a full night's sleep, I can just sleep in after Maria's gone to work- or take a siesta. Ask me about later in the year whether I still find the noisy street endearing when I'm working and really need my sleep.

5. Not only is Madrid blessed with some beautiful 'green spaces' as we call them, such as the huge Parque Del Retiro, and the long narrow park that runs past the Prado, but every neighbourhood has its own little (or not so little) plaza where you'll find kids kicking a football, friends sitting and chatting, people 'exercising' their dogs (watching while a dog takes a dump, then bending over to pick up the hot turd is more than reason enough for me to never own a dog), and old men just sitting and watching the world go by. It makes for a much more social neighbourhood that what I'm used to in Australia, North America or the UK. 6. Within walking distance of our flat, there are a dozen cinemas, a handful of theatres, every type of specialty store you could dream of, a dazzling array of thousands (I really don't think I'm exaggerating) of cafes, restaurants and bars, and some of the world's finest museums. Apparently. I don't go into the museums, but it's nice to know they're there, no?

There are many more things I love about Madrid. I love that when we ask directions frm strangers (Maria has a terrible sense of direction and is always getting us lost!), they stop and not only tell us whick way it is, but give us detailed instructions on the best way to get there. They do the same when I'm alone, and I smile and nod knowingly, but all I understand is the direction that they point their hand. But I can't spend all day telling you how graet Madrid is, I I have to rush off to a meeting- a possible job opportunity.

I'll leave you with a bit about the concert Maria and I went to on Tuesday night. Alejandro Sanz is one of the most popular performers in Spain, and the gig had been sold out for ages, but at the last minute Maria was given two tickets by a friend at work, who for one reason or another could no longer make it. Bad luck for him. Good luck for us. The concert was held in 'Las Ventas', the most famous (that makes it the 'best', according to Maria) bullfighting ring in the country, and by the time the support act (a Spanish rap singer named 'Junior') started, the venue was packed. I've never seen an audience so actively involved in a performance. The crowd knew every word to every song, and sang along with such enthusiasm that at times they almost drowned out the artist. I was soaking up the atmosphere, but although the music was enjoyable, much of the evening was lost on me since I don't understand Spanish.

In fact, the lyrics of Alejandro's songs weren't the only thing that escaped me that night. The concert ended up being a little controversial due to the brief appearance of the famous Flamenco dancer Farruquito. Farruquito is regarded as the best Flamenco dancer in the world, and was also named by Vanity Fair as one of the fifty sexiest men in the world (I missed out again, probably due to the bushy beard I was sporting at the time the judges interviewed me) But Farruquito is in quite a bit of strife at the moment. Seems he was out driving and hit a pedestrian. Instead of stopping to offer help, he sped off, and the pedestrian died. normally in such a case, the driver would be remanded in jail pending his case, but with Farruquito's fame he has been released to return to court at a later date. You might be able to imagine that this hasn't exactly endeared him to the Spanish public. When he strode on stage, the crowd was rapturous. It wasn't till later that I was to learn that they weren't cheering him. They were shouting "murderer!" and telling him to go home! Nevertheless his performance was something out of this world, making me rethink my total disinterest in Flamenco dancing.

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