Saturday, January 29, 2011

A walk in old Madrid

AOG, Madrid

I have this friend. I've not seen him for ages. Not since 2004. The 1st of October 2004 to be exact. The last time I saw him, I was in London. It is now 2011. And I am in Madrid, a city I am still learning about daily.

Today, for instance, I went for a walk around the Prado and Retiro Park area with my camera. 

It was a cloudy day, so the light was good on some shots, less so on others. I had gone to see, a couple of weeks ago, an exhibition at the Royal Palace which showed colonial and Spanish paintings from the XVI to the XVIII centuries.

The purpose of it is to show how the artists of the time spoke to each other in a way which transcended borders and geographical distances. Some of the paintings are amazing. And they are very interesting too in many ways. 

For example, the manner in which a print made in Holland was being reinterpreted in Lima, Peru, 150 years later by a local artist, who, in turn, was drawing on a Spanish master who also used the print as inspiration.

It is interesting to see how the European Renaissance and Reformation conception of the Christian God as understood by the artists of the time was being reinterpreted and redefined in the Americas and Asia. 

Of course, most of the paintings are religious. Virgins, saints, Jesus on the cross, miracles, cherubs, angels and archangels from all over the Christian pantheon.

The exhibition at the Royal Palace was very large, and the one at the Prado, less so. Maybe 3 rooms. It was held at the Moneo extension to the Prado. And, well, I think that they did not get their money's worth. The building is boring, staid. Not exactly interesting. 

At the top of the extension (a brick cube with some windows), there live the remains of the ancient Jeronimo's cloister and it is placed right next to the church of Los Jerónimos, which stands proudly behind and above the Prado Museum. 

 The problem with the cloister, in my view, is that it is now a dead space, condemned to remain so eternally -or at least for as long as the Prado's extension exists-. 

It is in a room, under a roof, and protected from the elements by windows. The thing is, it stands at the top of the cube, as if suspended in midair. This is not how it was originally. But it is how it exists now. 

A museum piece which is being preserved because of the beauty of the architectural ensemble, but which is actually designed to be used, like any cloister anywhere else in Europe.

On my way home, I, as I normally do, took some photographs of the buildings surrounding me, and I began my internal dialogue with the usual thought: "How would he like this?" "Would he like this building? That one?" and I begin to imagine my telling him the story of this square, that palace, this museum, that street, all the time wondering what an American would make of an old city such as Madrid. 

Of its curving, uphill streets, of churches built on 70º slopes which face only buildings in front, and which have hardly any visual perspective. 

Of Renaissance palaces turned into hotels, and convents stuck in the middle of a commercial street, with all their treasures inside. 

Of those buildings in Madrid which are Art Deco, or mimick the best that 1920s new York and 1880s Paris had to offer because for a while, being modern meant being French, and then it meant being American.  

And  at the time, unfortunately, no one in Spain knew how to be modern by just being Spanish. I sometimes wonder if this has changed.

I ask myself these questions because I sometime see American tourists wandering in Madrid, looking strangely at the architecture, at the life that goes on inside bars, cafes, galleries, stores, boutiques, and at how it hardly resembles life back in the US. 

Yes, Madrid has malls and shopping centers, but they tend to be located on the periphery, not the center of town. 

And, Spain being Spain, one has to allow for local flavor. But (not my friend's case), most Americans know little of local flavor. 

Unfortunately, they think the world is a version of the US. And it isn't. So when I see them, I'm wondering about what they might make of it all. 

Of the old façades, the tree lined boulevards, which house tacky post war buildings and XIX aristocratic homes side by side, the massive structures built in a space too small to hold them, but which obviously was all they could do 200 years ago. 

And I imagine me acting as tour guide and historian. 

As I left Moneo's cube, I saw a couple of Korean tourists taking a photograph of the Los Jerónimo's church from below. It stood majestically against a cloudy winter sky. 

I wanted to say something. I wanted them to know that this was no ordinary church. 

That before Madrid's cathedral was finished only 6 years ago, this Gothic church had been where most of Spain's Royal weddings of the XIX century took place. 

That next to it stood the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, itself part of the long lost Palace of El Buen Retiro. 

As I crossed the Prado Boulevard, across Neptune's Fountain, and with the Ritz behind me, I could make out the Spanish Parliament. 

Also built on a hill. I mused on the fact that it, and the Prado, are but a stone throw away from each other. And I wondered if the different sizes of the buildings meant something within the Spanish psyche. 

Did it mean that people in Spain value art over politics?

I would love to think so. But I am not convinced that any one country on Earth does this.

And these are the things I thought about today, when I went for a walk in old Madrid.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New Year, New Language

AOG, Madrid

Last year I decided I wanted to change my life, again. For the better. Again. 

Well, thus far my plans have gone on the back seat due to different circumstances, but they are not entirely parked. No.

I have decided to, at least for the time being, study a foreign language. On my last birthday, when I had decided to go down a new career route, my amazing partner offered to bankroll my French classes. Unfortunately, due to reasons beyond my control, I didn't quite find the right French class. There is a lot of choice here in Madrid, but for one thing or another, I never settled on anything. Or rather, I did find the right class, but I had to exhaust all possibilities. Then Christmas came round, the year ended, I was abroad, &c. 

So, now that I'm back, I've decided to enroll where I had intended to enroll all along, at the Alliance Française. Madame Mère is very happy with this choice too. 
Funnily enough, French classes do not start until today, even though the year 2011 started 18 days ago. 


Last week, by the by, a friend of mine informed me that he was going to Chinese classes at Madrid's 'La Tabacalera'. 

What is this 'Tabacalera'? It is a sort of social group which has taken over a disused tobacco company from the XIX century in Southern Madrid and is squatting the premises, which are gigantic. 

As is often the case in Spain with squatters, so as to gain public favor, whenever they take over a disused or abandoned building, they very quickly turn it into a social/artistic center, and they (whomever they may be) have done so here too. 

I went with my friend, and was surprised (though perhaps I should not have been) at the amount of people which showed up at the venue for Chinese classes. 

Yes, I forgot to mention that the classes are free. Part of the whole social thing. I wouldn't understand.

So there I was, with another 60 people, about half of them standing, listening to the lovely Teresa teach us some Chinese. 

This she had to do in spite of the fact that some people, this Brazilian guy in particular, could not keep their mouth shut for more than a minute. He behaved as though this were a private class. 

Yes, he is one of those people who call attention to themselves at all times. 

Just like me, but without the sophisticated and subliminal tactics I use. Like keeping quiet, and nodding to appear more intelligent and savvy.

But Brazilianness was not alone. There was another guy, he of the 24 Hour-a-day-gay brigade, who was sitting at Teresa's hip level, and, towards the end of the class, kept pestering her to show us some Chinese writing. 

So she did, a couple of words. 

I can't do the pictographs here, but I was amazed to learn that "Rest" is drawn with the symbol for man and tree, and "Family" (and we all LOVED this one), is expressed by drawing a roof and a pig. 

Gotta love Chinese just for things like that!

All in all, Teresa's class served to take away a lot of the fear and apprehension I had surrounding Mandarin Chinese, the most widely spoken language on the planet. 


When the class was over, I went for a wander around the Tabacalera, and found it to be quite interesting. 

There was a hall were people were dancing 1940s Big Band and Swing, a room where there was a Salsa class in full swing, a space where and 'Art Film' was being shown. 
 There even was a sort of Spiritual Room for Black People. No, I kid you not. There was such a thing. 

Needless to say, in Spain there is a small immigrant African community (distinct from any Hispanic Black people from the Americas or Equatorial Guinea, where, as you know, they speak Spanish since it is an ex Spanish colony), where you had to be Black to enter. No, don't ask. I am not Black so I have no clue what that is about. 

Perhaps it is about giving African immigrants a space of their own in a society which won't allow them much space.

I respected the space, and moved on to inspect the rest of the grounds, like the backyard, where I stayed for a very short while before the pong of Mary J. Wanna invaded my nostrils. There was also a slight air of danger about the place. 

They also had art pieces all over the place. Graffiti, drawings, collages. In short, they really push the art aspect, which I have to say I really like.

Not, perhaps, Gallery art, more urban and free, but art just the same.

 Squatters in Spain (known as 'Okupas' -the use of the letter "K" is to give them a certain outlaw Basque and anarchist flair; yes marketing is everywhere), much like squatters elsewhere on Earth, tend to be very friendly people until they loose it and turn aggressive. Much like non-squatters really. 

Except that they do tend to sell you that love the  Earth and your fellow man tree-hugging philosophy. 

Which is fine by me, and I agree with it, but I've never understood why it has to come with dreadlocks, drugs, and general bad body hygiene. But who am I to judge? 

They are happy, mostly harmless, and they are going to teach me Chinese, once a week, for an hour, for free. And all I have to do is survive the premises. 

I think I can handle it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lost & Found

AOG, Madrid

This is the first post of January. I've been thinking about it for a long while but, frankly, I have been busy with "stuff" and I figured I just had to get the blog started somehow so as not to do what I did last year which was to leave it alone for months on end. So here goes.

So, what do I have to say for myself on this fine morning?
Well, if I may recap the past 13 days, the year ended in a more boring way than 2009 and at the end of it all, over the holiday season I  realized I'd found some things, and lost some others. 

Some, if you like, I found for a second time, since they had been, if not lost, then certainly misplaced, long ago. 

To celebrate the end of 2010, my partner and I went to the same Bar in Soho we did last year, with two friends of ours who also met with us on that occasion. 

Unfortunately, this time around the premises were was a bore-fest of almost epic proportions.

Why? Perhaps the economic climate had something to do with it. I don't know. But we were all a bit disappointed by the events. Something got lost in the past 364 days inside that place. 

The culmination of the night last year had been the broadcasting on television of the events down by the Thames -Big Ben, fireworks-, as well as the broadcasting of the celebrations around the rest of the planet up to that point. But this year, the bar in question decided to keep the TV off throughout. We all thought they would turn it on closer to the hour of midnight. But nothing. At midnight, all they did was play the Big Ben recording and some music. Anticlimax does not even begin to cover it. We felt like we'd been cheated somehow. I don't think we'll be going there again next year. 

Eventually we went home around 2:30 AM, and, on the first of January 2011 we went to the movies.

I have to say that the only other time I remember going to the movies on January 1st, was back in 1980. And it was nice to remember this. A memory I got back, and for which I am grateful.

We -my family and I- were living in Mexico City at the time, and I still remember that evening.
My mother, my sister and I left home in the evening; it was cold and dark outside, and we took a cab to the movie theater at the Plaza Universidad shopping center. I remember this because we always went there, the first shopping experience of my life. 

The first time I saw that famous Farrah Fawcett poster I was there. 

And my first Levi's and Lee ads, those with the feet and the sand, I was there. 

It was there where I saw my first ever copy of my favorite  late childhood/early teenagehood magazine: Vampirella. 

But back to films. The movie in question? 

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  It was a movie I could not wait to see.

The next installment of the Spielberg saga, Return of the Jedi, we would watch in Houston, Texas, roughly three years later. 

I remember thinking how exciting it was that the movie theater would be open on such a day, and of how grown up I felt for leaving home on a public holiday. 

And I was over the moon that this movie was out. I think the Star Wars saga is one of the first, if not the first, movie I was anxious to see as a child. There was something about them that mesmerized me back then. 

I don't know quite what it was, perhaps an early form of infantile escapism? I don't know for sure. But I do know that something went on in my psyche back then which, to a large degree, is still with me now.

Childhood was slowly coming to an end, and a new and exciting period of my life was beginning. But, of course, at the time, I knew nothing of this.We never do, do we?

Fast Forward to 2011. My partner and I also decided on a Sci-Fi saga, but of a different caliber: Tron Legacy.

I have to say, the movie is visually spectacular., much like the original was at the time, yes. But the plot is a bit of a turnip, and I can't really say what the movie is about. 

But, of course, the Special FX are amazing and you can watch the movie and listen to the soundtrack on your iPod and not worry about missing the plot. 

The other movie we watched over the holidays was the Spanish animated film Chico & Rita

It was drawn by Javier Mariscal, one of Spain's top designers (and responsible for Barcelona's 1992 Olympic logo) and directed by the Spanish Oscar winning director, Fernando Trueba

We watched it in Spanish and my personal anecdote of the film is that, whilst listening to the dialogues, I thought to myself that they reminded me of the speech that some of the characters have in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez's novels, such as the King of Havana or Dirty Havana Trilogy.

Imagine my surprise when the movie credits roll and I read his name as the speech consultant on the dialogues! I must admit that Gutiérrez was one of my favorite authors of 2010 and I read both aforementioned novels this past year thanks to a work colleague who introduced him to me.

I was able to distinguish his literary speech style in a film and I was very happy with myself that afternoon and for a few days afterwards.  Certainly, watching the film has made me want to revisit Havana 10 years on.

Perhaps the only sad point of these past few days was the fact that I left one book on the plane. Something I've never done before.

It was a short book on the life and times of Emperor Augustus Caesar

I had only just begun to read it, having bought it two weeks before, and was hoping to finish it in a couple of days. 

Yesterday I went to the place where I bought it, a second-hand book store on Santa Catalina's Square, but they didn't have another copy. 

I am thinking about contacting the airport to see if it was turned in by the stewards on the plane. One never knows.