Sunday 28 April 2013

o : Madrid

La Estacion, Ronda de Atocha

Dear o,

I arrived in Madrid in time for the marathon, and beyond the window of this cafeteria the remaining few are en route to the finish line.  These are some of the best to watch: old men with headbanded heads down, power-walkers in nuclear green shorts, the emaciated and the proud.  I didn’t know this was going on today.  The sky is grey and the wind is cold.  The Metro passengers wear sad, restless faces, and while I see no hint of Boston haunting, there are other ghosts here.  Ghosts I didn’t see last time I was here two years ago; ghosts of Europe, perhaps, or of Spain alone; ghosts that don’t belong in the spring.  The marathon runners are alive, though, and I wish I was one of them.  There are so many things I wish I was doing, wish I had done, wish I were about to do.  Certainly this is a theme of the last few days, but I wonder if it’s also what makes me my own worst enemy.  One day, I tell myself, I will live in the moment.

The rest of our day in Pamplona was sunny, hot and free.  The rolling countryside was aglow in the sun and the breeze was ideal for an afternoon of cards.  I couldn’t find Al in the grass, stone, angular maze of the Citadel near where we parked, and spent a good half hour on the search.  I didn’t realise until after that I had traversed a wonderful relic of 18th century military architecture.  Next time, I thought, I’ll find the museum, learn the dates and angles, sit on a bench and contemplate the past.  Until then, I’ll tell people that it’s one of the best things to do in Pamplona, to hang out with the locals and climb some of the rock walls, to wander over and under the bridge of arches.  I’ll say it’s a wonderful asset for a city, the transformation of obselete martial utility into modern urban enchantment.  And I’ll press my tongue invisibly into my cheek and know I haven’t actually “done it” myself.

We spent the night in the truck, east of Pamplona near the Monasterio de Leyre.  We parked just off the road and faced the lake of Yesa.  The moon rose over it, behind the leafless trees, and I felt my past rumble up into my throat.  Something from childhood, something from a hundred memories.  I wanted to write.  I didn’t.  I would write tomorrow.

We explored the monastery, sat in a confession box for shits and giggles, walked down to the fountain of the virgins and then up to the fountain of the virile.  The latter march was longer and better, but the first was sweet, with those ancient stone picnic tables, carved with faces and broken by asses.  At the places above where we took photos of the monastery between fallen trees, I wanted to sit and listen for a while.  But I was in a rush to get to Logroño.  I’ll see other monasteries in front of beautiful lakes, and there will be other clear days for thoughtful vigour.  Right?

I spent a few days in Logroño, a lot of it at the library, reading and working between lunch breaks.  In the evenings I hung out with my cousin and her friends, listened to the tales of life in a Spanish exchange programme, pitched riddles, ate too well, tried snickerdoodles (cinnamon cookies), enjoyed snickerdoodles, and watched half a chick-flick.  In my strolls around town I couldn’t help but encounter the trekkers on the Camino de Santiago.  They come from all around the world, often betrayed by their blue backpacks, beige vests and sweat-encrusted faces.  Despite their surprising numbers, they were beautiful people, or had at least become so by virtue of their endeavour.  I wanted to be one of them.  From the river valley I saw the plain structures built into the sandstone cliffs beyond with their square black openings, inviting the walkers in.  I wanted to climb up, wade in, join the trail, meet a thousand others, and earn the chance to hear the bells and see the waves of Galicia.  And to feel my feet under me again, the whole weight of my life concentrated in one spot, one purpose, one way.  Unfractured, unstructured, unstoppable.  But I had to get to Sevilla.  There is a plan and a method and a long list of the things I need to love.

On the bus I saw incredible pillared rock formations, and then a tall square castle with keep and outer wall in the middle of a town somewhere north of Madrid.  I’ve noted it in my head to check out in the future.  Let’s say an afternoon for that.

I will do the Camino one day, the whole length of it.  I might even start earlier, from Milan, or Turkey, or Russia.  I will also do the GR-20 in Corsica, a hike across Iceland, and an expedition in the Black Forest.  I’ve got to do a bicycle trip across Europe – every continent, in fact.  Then there’s Kilimanjaro, McKinley and Everest.  Will have to climb those, and am fine with the queues.  I must go sailing, windsurfing, skiing and horse riding again, and try skydiving, paragliding, bungee jumping and snowboarding.  And visit the places I’ve missed: Luxembourg, Munich, Pompeii, Crete, Newfoundland, Malta, Kutna Hora, Andorra, Melbourne, that castle north of Madrid.  I’ve got to learn more languages and get better at the ones I’ve started; play more chess, do more crossword puzzles, read more books and articles and poems and blogs, try more card games.  I need to learn a skill or two, something I hadn’t thought of doing before.  I need to stop listing and start doing.  Or not: I need quality, not quantity. So much to need, so much to have, so much to plan.

I could, on the other hand, just shut up, breathe, look and listen.

No, no, I can’t.  I have to get the train to Sevilla.  I’ve only got a few hours here in Madrid, between bus and train.  What did I need to see here again, that I didn’t get to last time? 

The marathon is finished now.  I’m glad I saw a part of it.



The turtle pen at Madrid Atocha station.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Quaraxx-Anto : New Penpal

Dear Quaraxx-Anto,

I trust it is acceptable for me to use a much-abbreviated version of your name.  It was a pleasure to meet you at the intergalactic penpal conference, and I am honoured to be a window into my world, as you are into yours.  That being said, I am an imperfect pane of glass with a lot of dust and dew, a frame that rattles in the wind, and a view that is sometimes obstructed, typically cloudy, and always in the one direction.  I’ll do my best.

One thing I learned at the conference was that it is a little ridiculous to say, “our planet is in trouble.”  Everyone’s planet is in trouble, from meteors and comets and suns and moons and even unwanted visitors.  The Earth rock is no different, though we like to believe we’re a threat.  We haven’t mastered – or even apprenticed in – the power to interfere with its orbit around its star, to suddenly warp the polar balance, or to blow it into smaller pieces.  No, Quaraxx-Anto, my rock is doing fine.  Our civilisation and species, however, and all the other life with whom we inhabit this place – that’s a different matter.  

Another thing I learned at the conference was that it is a little redundant to say, “our civilisation is in trouble.”  Of course it is!  There wasn’t a single ambassador I spoke to who represented a world without risk.  Some were blasé, of course, some cocky and preachy, others impoverished with passion (you know who I mean…).  But it’s only logical that life, consciousness and society encounter danger – indeed, how could these things exist without it?  Can life exist without death?  The Burog-Bora we saw in his fat green wheeling throne might say yes, since he/she has never died and can’t remember being born.  But I spoke to an engineer from Planet 4568322 (his name for it, not mine) who said that the constituent parts of Burog-Bora do experience death before regeneration, and that he/she cycles through matter.  It is likely that only 0.00001% of his/her matter is retained from about 1.6 billion years ago, the earliest verifiable date of his/her existence.  Consciousness passes on, but what is that, really?  Is the Burog-Bora at this year’s conference the same as the one from last, even if he/she does have the same memory, personality, and faces?  

One of our planet’s scientists and orators is a man named Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and I remember watching a speech of his some time ago.  It wasn’t in-person – because of our inherent physical challenges, all humans cannot be in the presence of all other humans at the same time, so we have recently developed communication tools to give the illusion of intimacy.  Anyways, Tyson said something I hadn’t really thought of before: that life is the logical consequence of complex chemistry.  I know this is probably obvious to you, but we humans have developed an exceptionalist attitude to the universe in our long isolation; we are alive, but we must be fundamentally different from the animals (the other species); and life may be composed of matter, but it must be altogether special, sacred, unique – fundamentally different from that matter.  When you think about it, though, it’s all the same substance following the same laws in varying circumstances.  The logical result of the Big Bang (I know, I know, but it’s what we call it here), in the current circumstances, is some matter; the logical result of matter in a universe this size, in the current circumstances, are an enormous, potentially incalculable number of stars and galaxies; the logical result of this many stars and galaxies, etc., are planets; on some of those you’re bound to get water, then amino acids, then simple life, to complex life, to intelligent life, to civilisation, to intergalactic penpal conferences.  

Anyway, I’m sorry if that was a little long-winded, but what I mean to say is that it’s all in a little trouble, all in a little flux.  Atoms split, chemicals explode, life survives, civilisation struggles, and there was that very weird six-planet, four-gender love polygon at the IPPC which could’ve ended up messy.

I mention that because I was going to start off this letter by saying, “our civilisation is in trouble.”  I was sitting near one of those communication devices I mentioned earlier, and it was all bad news – it’s kind of a joke here on Earth, that the news is all bad.  Perhaps we like it that way.  But it certainly makes a human feel precarious.  Millions unemployed and in the streets, vigilant or otherwise, sweatshop buildings collapsing, national leaders (we still have world leaders)  in their suits (we still wear clothes which identify class) rattling sabres (not so much), economies in trouble, debts soaring, and countless catalogues of half-beautiful, half-naked people trying to make me buy perfume (I don’t).  We have nuclear, biological and chemical weapons dotting the globe and under the apparent authority of a breathtaking variety of human egotistical masterpieces.  We have ethnic hatred, religious hatred, ideological hatred, historical hatred, sexual hatred, geographical hatred, and just plain guy-next-door tribal hatred.  There are people bombing other people for grand reasons, philisophical reasons, resource reasons, monetary reasons, absurd reasons, and no reasons at all.  We justify and condone the guy on the right and lynch the one on the left, but only after bidding for the interview and advertising rights to each.  We are too many, too greedy, and too dirty, and are cooking ourselves alive in the toxic soup of fix-it-tomorrow.  We’ve got new mobile phones and old mass poverty, new hamburger arrangements and old hunger patterns, new bullshit and old bullshit.  It’s all televised, shared, and entirely in someone else’s hands.  We all wonder who that someone is, but we are damn sure they exist.

That’s the state of affairs here on Earth – or, more of a snapshot from the grimy window.  Its frame is shaking right now, and as usual I can’t yet tell if the storm is a personal or a global one.  Is that a hailstorm or is it me jumping up and down?  Am I jumping up and down because of the hailstorm, or is it hailing because I’m jumping up and down?  Maybe that’s the problem with us over here, that we often can’t tell the difference?  Or, maybe that’s the point.

I for one am a hopeful member of my species.  It is said, even bemoaned, that this is an age of cynicism and decline, of reckoning and decadence.  But our tools of measurement are primitive, our examples are obselete, and our humanity is intact.  We have been in trouble before, aware of it or not, and we always will.  I don’t believe that forward progress or even survival is inevitable, but I do believe it is possible.  At least for a while.  

In the meantime, it is heartening to consider that, if there really is only one intergalactic penpal conference in all the universe, and if you follow the logic of logical conclusions, then we’ve quite possibly hit on the meaning of everything.  

I look forward to reading the dispatches from your ‘planet’ – I won’t bother spelling it out.

Until then,


Tuesday 23 April 2013

o : Pamplona

Calle Monasterio de Urdax

Dear o,

You asked for it.

Day 1.  Rose at 6am.  Packed the rest of our Parisian life into bags, folders, baskets and loose armloads.  Shook our landlord’s hand in lieu of cheek-kisses and told him of our trip; he said we were not allowed to call it a trip anymore – it is an adventure.  Hauled the stuff to the truck parked a few minutes away and realised (again) that we have brought too much.  Blocked a one-way road getting croissants and baguettes from an 18th arrondissement boulangerie.  Got on the Périphérique and turned towards Bordeaux.  Noticed the engine’s rumbling between 80 and 110 km/h had become worse in the past weeks.  Made it to San Sebastian by 7pm.  Got stuck in an underground parking lot that we thought might just fit us in.   Got out with the accompaniment of scratching sounds above.  Went for tapas with my aunt and uncle.  Didn’t give them a ride back to our shared lodging because we had too much stuff in the back two seats.  Drove over the bottles containing waterfleas.  Spent an hour searching for the hotel and paid the same motorway toll twice.  Slept.

Day 2.  Rose at 8am.  Drove my aunt and uncle into San Sebastian, noticed the engine’s rumbling between 0 and 120 km/h, plus a bad clutch and evil sounds.  Attempted to fix the surfboard on the cold beach.  Didn’t fix the surfboard.  Searched for garages open on a Saturday.  Found a garage that identified the problem (a defective transmission bar) but couldn’t fix it.  They wouldn’t accept our money.  Confirmed that the Basque people are some of the kindest in Europe.  Decided to call the driving quits until fixing the transmission.  Met for lunch and a game of Hearts in the hot Iberian sun.  Watched the sunset over the bay.  Saw the sun fade back as a little star, then a drop in the galactic bucket.  Ate the best monkfish I’ve ever had.  Returned by taxi.  Everything still there – maybe there would be too much to steal.  Watched an episode of Columbo with my aunt and uncle.  Slept.

Day 3.  Rose at 8am.  Bus to Bilbao.  Had to run around the corner to get the tickets with a sliver of time left before it departed.  Beautiful formations of rock (volcanic?) alongside the road.  Ate unidentified bovine organ.  Three hours at the Guggenheim: brilliant, chameleonic, almost bionic architecture.  Form beats function, but function still wows.  Steak dinner and another round of Hearts.  Went successfully for Power for the first time in my life.  Walked through the old town, by the silent Gothic cathedral.  Slept.

Day 4.  Rose at 6am.  Bus to San Sebastian.  Truck still there, everything inside.  Two-hour search for the Toyota garage in Pasai Antxo, but they had the part to do the job in a day.  Few hours in a local café.  Al unable to find more waterfleas.  Drove along the hill of San Sebastian and parked for the night.  No more rumbling.  Admired the smashing Atlantic and the massive boulders still crossing their slate fingers against centuries of erosion.  True Basque dinner: three tapas bars, superb patatas al ajillo, calamari in its black ink, stuffed stomachs and happy faces.  Returned along the sublime bay: lighthouse light through the mist, tranquil stone warehouses, scents of the cold ocean, dark rock arms embracing the salty gel on the crust of the earth, city light and porous sky brushtroking together.  First night in the truck.  Arranged the stuff – we have too much.  Slept.

Day 5.  Rose at 8am.  Arranged the stuff – we have too much.  Drove to Pamplona, through windy, hilly, lush Navarre, arrived in Pamplona.  Lazed through the Citadel.  Chilly but sunny.  Drank real hot chocolate.  Sat down.  Wrote to you.



Sunset over Santa Klara, San Sebastian

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Viven : Advice for Paris

Dear Viven,

There are books, magazines, websites, television programmes, groups online and off, in most of the tongues of the earth, for those inside and out, French or not, all dedicated to getting the most out of Paris.  It’s the most visited city in the world, and perhaps the most iconic.  Couples kissing (read: making out (read: practically fucking)) on the lock-and-key bridge, the Eiffel’s nightly flashing lights, the subsequent nightly gasping breaths, rotten-eyed service, gleaming-eyed bicyclists, and wallets stolen in front of the Mona Lisa – clichés here are as common as Parisians pissing on the street.  So I’ll try not to shovel on some more; but then, here I am, writing about Paris.  Get your grain of salt ready.

I didn’t fall in love with Paris.  I still don’t know if I’d use the word ‘love’ to describe our relationship, but maybe, ‘mutual respect’ – a working understanding?  What’s the term married couples use when they stay together for their children?  Necessary intimacy?  If Paris and I had children, we’d share dinners, split the weekends, and have bedrooms on opposite ends of the house.  I do think we’d enjoy watching them grow up together, though.  We might even hold hands, rocking back and forth in our squeaking plastic swing set.

Sorry, I digressed.  What I meant to say is, if you’re like me, Paris grows on you.  You need to give it time.  There are indeed secrets and treasures; locals-only knowledge and locals-only hangouts.  The city plays hard to get, and won’t just tear off its clothes on the first date.  Especially not if you don’t speak French.  But assuming you’ve considered the guidebooks and websites and words of mouth, here’s a few other tips on getting it to second base:

Dining.  Throw a rock in Paris and you’ll hit four or five establishments with a kitchen.  Throw a rock with good taste and an eye for value (it’s a special rock), and it’ll probably hit the ground.  There are actually hundreds, if not thousands, of good places to eat for a decent price.  But here’s where I advise you to throw:

1)      The university cafeterias dotted around the city, open variously for breakfast, lunch and dinner – squeeze in with an adequate tray of food for €3.10, and you don’t actually have to be a student.

2)      Bocca della Verita, a superb Italian restaurant on 2 rue du Sabot in the 6th.  Get anything with truffle.

3)      For the Petit Déjeneur Américain alone: Café de Métro, 67 rue de Rennes, 6th.

4)      Not supremely cheap or special, but always good, is Le Nord Sud at 79 rue du Mont Cenis in the 18th.

5)      Hard to find in Paris is a decent place for non-meat eaters.  The Hope Café in Montmartre is excellent for vegetarians, seafood lovers and the ecologically conscious.  64 rue Lamarck, 18th.

6)      Best Turkish sandwiches in Paris.  Maybe even best sandwiches.  Urfa Dürüm, 56 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th.

Bread.  A rule of thumb for Paris boulangeris: go where the people are queuing for ten minutes, when they could easily take two steps next door to where it’s empty.  One of such is Maison Landemaine on 4 rue du Poteau in the 18th, right by métro Jules Joffrin.

Where to work.  Paris is not like London, which is the ultimate for free culture and free indoor public space.  If you want to do some work outside your flat or office, you’re expected to find a café and get a coffee; and it’s true, you can go hours without a bother.  But if you just want a table, chair and a roof, try:

1)      The bibliothèque publique d’information at the Centre Georges Pompidou, 1 rue Beaubourg.  The library opens too late (11am on weekends, noon on weekdays), and for much of the year (for school) there is an enormous queue that will often wrap around the whole building.  People cut the queue all the time, and worse: no one speaks up or stops them.  When the lines get really bad, as at exam time, whole crowds rush and cut to the front when the doors open, literally shoving aside others who have been waiting.  Still, not a word from anyone, including the security staff, who – you guessed it – couldn’t give a rat’s ass.  Inside it is crammed, and the free wi-fi stops working around 2pm when it becomes overaccessed.  However, this is an incredible and admirable public resource (books, video, television, music, public computer stations, language learning material, and excellent services for people with disabilities) which is glorious in the summer when the students are gone, or if you can brave the morning shame.

2)      The mairies of the 20 arrondissements.  Each is open to the public for regular hours, offers free wi-fi, and usually has a place to sit.  Only two that I’ve found, however, have space with tables, chairs and power plugs: the 6th at 78 rue Bonaparte, near Saint-Sulpice; and the 10th at 72 rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin, near Chateau d’Eau.  The latter is a beautiful building, worth a visit regardless.

Sitting in the sun.  Cafés, of course, especially along wide boulevards such as the Champs-Elysee, Saint-Germain or the Grands Boulevards, are perfect for sun-catching, people-watching and time-sinking.  But if you want a guarantee of the sun on your face on a clear day, go along the Seine, or find a large park, such as the Tuileries, the Jardin du Luxembourg, or the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

Running or jogging.  Go along the Canal Saint Martin in the northeast, the Seine if you’re close, Montmartre if you want steps and sights, Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes for size – or pretty much anywhere else if you’re early enough to beat the commuters.

Learn French.  Go to the daily French practice group (Monday to Friday, 2-7pm), open to non-French native speakers only: Cercle International de l’ARC, at 5 rue de l’Abbaye, 6th.  For a small annual fee, unlike some extortionate conversation groups out there, you can go as much as you like.

Books.  Go to Shakespeare & Company, across the river from the Notre Dame, for a photograph and a whiff of sweaty armpits as you attempt to move around; but don’t buy anything at this outrageously priced joint.  A whole series of linked bookstores called Gibert Jeune choke the Saint-Michel area just down the road, with one containing a decent collection of books in English and other languages.  But the best anglophone book barn is just around the corner: the Abbey Bookshop at 29 rue de la Parcheminerie.  It’s the sort of old-world bibliophile’s paradise: too much to sort, too much to read, and too much scent of ageing paper; it gives you that tight, tactile sense of being packed to bursting not by gaggling iPhone photographers, but by story.  It’s owned by a wonderful and very helpful Canadian named Brian Spence, who will probably offer you tea.

To Do.  After Napoleon’s Tomb and the Arc de Triomphe, of course.

1)      Watch the men (sadly, there are very few women involved, yet) play speed chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

2)      Sunset on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur.

3)      Sunrise on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur.

4)      Walk around early on a Sunday morning, before the late-rising French get going. 

5)      Cycle to get around.

6)      Pop in to the English Café Philo (Philosophy Café)  on the first Wednesday of each month, at Café de Flore, 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 6th.  Or the weekly French Café Philo, from 10:30am to 12:15pm every Sunday, at Café des Phares, 7 Place de la Bastille, 4th.  Remember that Sartre and Picasso visited the Café de Flore, which gives it the right to charge you a fortune for truly average food and drink.  And keep your eyes out for the Asshole.  He’ll berate other speakers, hog the microphone for veritable paragraphs, roll his eyes at you, and if you sit next to him you’ll get the Earful from the Master Himself.  One of the most entertaining creatures in all of Paris, if you can stomach it. 

7)      For a conversation about art, dress yourself up, go to a gallery in the Place des Vosges, and express serious interest in a painting or sculpture.  Then listen.  It’s sort of like pretending to want a car from a car salesman, I suppose, if you really like cars.

And.  Watch your step.  There’s dogshit just about everywhere.

Hope that helps!