Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Summer reading

AOG, Madrid

Summer vacation is just around the corner and I've lately been a bit preoccupied with my Summer reading list. 

Every year I take a small army of books with me to whichever place I happen to be visiting, and every year I return home with 98 percent of the pages intact. 

I read on the plane, but I'm not a beach reader. Nature gets too in the way for that to happen. I don't get up early enough to read either, so I spend most of the day doing things and not reading, but glancing now and again at the untouched stack of books by my night table. 

I wish this weren't the way things happen, but it is.

This year, this little literary ritual will probably continue, untouched. But I have to say it started a bit early, insofar as the sourcing of the material was concerned. 

Two weeks ago I met with two friends by Madrid's 'Cuesta de Moyano' street. 

This is a place, behind the beautiful Ministry of Agriculture and next to the Botanical gardens which goes from the Prado Boulevard upwards (it is on a slope) towards Retiro Park. 

What is nice about this place is that there are about 20 bookstalls all along one side of the street which sell anything from second hand books, to newly printed books, magazines and literary collections from mid XX century to now.

There are, of course, books from the XIX century and before, but those are slightly out of my price range at present.

I like that here, of all places, all sorts of books can be found. And two weeks ago, I came across 4 strange magazines which immediately caught my eye.

On the first stall I chanced upon there were four copies of the Spanish-language version of "Soviet Literature", printed as they were in Mexico City in 1979 (three of them) and 1978 (the other one). I wasn't sure what to make of them at first, but I guess I was in a Russian writer kind of mood, and I snapped all four for a mere 2 Euros after having a quick perusal.

Now, of course, I am in somewhat of a conundrum. You see, in one of the issues, there is an excerpt of Irina Grekova's novel 'The Faculty' (Kafedra in Russian). 

I've been reading it these past few days and, Soviet overt propaganda aside, it is very well written. I am really enjoying it. 

And, given my ignorance of Soviet writers, I was surprised, pleasantly surprised, to discover how much I was enjoying the excerpt.

Of course, the problem is that this is one novel I'll never be able to finish. I have combed the Internet and discovered that Irina Grekova happens to be one of the greatest Russian women writers of the XX century. 

I have also discovered that that particular novel is nowhere to be found in English, or Spanish, 0r French. 

I can't find it anywhere. There are some of her other novels available, so, since I do like her style very much, I'll have to "settle" for one of those instead.

And on a Soviet-Russia related moment, last weekend in London, I came across Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 'One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich'. An edition from 1979. 

I picked it up because, strangely enough, it was around 1979 when this writer came into my radar as a kid. 

I remember the media circus around him back then, and how all the adults were talking about this book. 

I thought at the time that I would have to read it eventually, but I came across 'The Gulag Archipelago' first about 10 years ago. So I thought it was fitting that I should read this now, so many years later. 

Will I read it over the Summer? Well, certainly it will come with me on vacation, but, as per usual, it will have to fight Nature and its never-ending distractions. 

This is all very interesting because this year, I was planning on reading Roberto Bolaño's '2666'. 

That may have to wait until 2012 now.

Friday, July 01, 2011

The moment I felt most American

AOG, Madrid

On election day 1988 my mother, my sister and I were on a Jumbo Jet heading for Europe. 

We arrived in Madrid and within less than an hour we were on a train heading for the region of Extremadura, on the border with Portugal. 

My thoughts on that long journey (it was about an 8 hour train journey then to add to the transatlantic flight) centered around what our new lives would be like in this continent. I remember being told at the time that Spain only had 2 television channels. 

This might seem ridiculous to you, but I had grown up with cable, and two channels seemed insufficient to me. And third-world like. And I wasn't happy about it.

I remember stepping off the train and looking over the tracks to my right. A beautiful hill and forest scene with sheep peacefully standing there, hardly moving. To my left, the future. 

We had gone to Extremadura because one of my mother’s great aunts lived there with her Italian husband, who came to pick us up at the train station. My parents were separated now and would divorce a few years later, and this was the only close family we had at the time. 

The car which picked us up at the station was a white Ford Escort. I remember thinking then “ok, I know this model, everything is going to be ok”. 
View of the city of Caceres
 A couple of days later, my sister and I went into town on our own. I clearly recall my thoughts when I saw this very modern looking parking meter with a digital screen right next to a XVII century Baroque palace with medieval elements attached to it.

I immediately thought back to the meters in Houston where you had to stick a quarter and roll a handle to watch a little flag pop up telling you how much time you had left. 
 At that moment, America didn’t seem modern at all, especially when compared to this country which could allow things like Baroque palaces and modern digital machines to co-exist side by side. It was, I think, my first eye-opener.

A year after landing in Spain, we landed in London. Life was moving on.

I have to say that from the moment I set foot in Europe in 1988 I have felt American on a daily-basis. It is hard to explain, but it must be related to not really knowing what the deal is most of the time. To making a faux pas here and there, that you are not even aware that you are making. 

To looking at things and thinking, “my God what are they on about with this?”. 

To reacting to some situations in a manner different from expected by my friends and colleagues.

To not settling for tripe when tripe is being served (although I think this is more about me than about me being American; many Americans settle for tripe too easily).
I know I am different from most of the people who surround me and my life. I think differently.  I act differently. I react differently. I want different results. Better things in general.

And I'm glad I do. Just as I am glad that they think differently from me.

I have experienced hundreds of examples of this  cultural disparity since election day 1988.

But back to the original question.

In 1995 I went back to the US and stayed with a friend in Alabama. it was my first trip back since 1988.

Although everything was familiar I could see small cultural cracks here and there. I was no longer the same person who’d left the country 7 years before.

And the questions began to flood in. Some positive, some negative.

Why do people drive everywhere? Why don't they make more sidewalks? Why do they all eat so much processed food? Why are things national and not local? Why are there so many people who allow religion to rule their lives? Why all this racism and hate? Why are women's fashion and hair stuck in the 1980s?

I was feeling very much the European throughout. But then something happened.
 Shortly before I left, I went out one night in Birmingham and I met this guy who was very friendly.

I remember talking with him about things, his life and his future, and mine. He was about my age and had achieved quite a lot. He told me about his up and coming projects, dreams, and achievable goals. There it was once again. American positive thinking. Everything was possible.

I remember thinking during that conversation that I needed to get my butt in gear and be like my right-there-in-front-of-me peer.

I needed to complete my education, just like him, and start aiming for a good job, just like him, and aim for a better life, just like him.

He was talking to me in a language I completely understood. The cultural references were identical. The outlook was familiar and well trodden. The goals achievable. The future was bright, and it had an American glow about it.

I felt very American just then. That instant catapulted me back to the person I used to be just before that Pan Am flight touched down at Madrid Barajas Airport in 1988. The feeling stayed with me for a long time afterwards.

I returned to London.

Yes, the minute I got back to my flat in central London the questions started flowing, but in reverse.

Why is everything so expensive? Why is everyone so poor? Is this a police state? Why doesn’t anyone smile? What am I doing here?

It was a few years before I realized what I was doing there and before I could answer my  own questions.

I confess that these days, I am one of those people who feel very American in Europe, and very European whenever I go to the US. I can't help that. In fact, I rather like it. 

Modern Neighbors

AOG, Madrid

The cool thing about growing up in America is that most of us (not all) live in homes large enough to house a small third world village in the backyard. It is one of the perks of living in a large country and of growing up in a place where most people rather live in a house than in an apartment or a flat. Of course, places like New York, or Chicago do tend to combine high-rise living with houses or town-houses.

However, this was not the case with me growing up in Texas. My home had a front-yard and a backyard. And my bedroom alone was larger than my entire ‘modern euro-studio’ in central Madrid. And no, I’m not exaggerating.

I have to say that ever since I moved to Europe, I’ve missed space. Not outer space. Living space. I miss walking around my home and not knocking into tables or armrests. Not hitting my shoulder on the doorsill. Having a backyard to look at (like I said, Texas, where the heat stops you from setting foot outside for anything over 1 minute). Stretching my arms out and not touching the corridor’s walls. Space.
My studio flat is very similar to this image, though smaller.

I also miss playing music loudly in the knowledge that the neighbors are too far away to hear it. Here, I can hear the couple next door make love. Which means they can probably hear me talking on the phone and everything else.

And I know they do because just the other day, a note was slipped through the door asking me to please not do any washing after 10PM. Guess what time I normally do the washing when I get home?

Yes, they did have a point, and yes, I was in the wrong, and yes, I should have known better. Yes.

So, once I cursed the day they were born (because I’m only human and I can't help being defensive at first) I decided I would be a good little Southern gentleman and post a note apologizing for my actions.

The next day, just as I was leaving for work, I noticed that the note I wrote on a small Turkish card I had leftover from my trip to Istanbul last year was on the floor, unread. Well, I only discovered that after I picked it up and noticed it was unopened. Yes, I was, again, in the defensive thinking “how dare they!!”. But they hadn’t dared, they just hadn’t noticed it.

So, again, I left it wedged in between the door and the doorframe. When I came home that night, it was gone. Had they read it, I hoped so. But had no clue.

One month later, or last Tuesday, this guy walked in when I was checking my mailbox downstairs.

Are you our neighbor?

I answered “Yes” expecting the worse.

We both got into the elevator.

Oh, its great to meet you. We loved your card!

Thank you. I’m sorry I…

We thought ‘how wonderful to have a neighbor like you’, you know? People are so rude these days.

Thank you. But I was the rude one.

Oh, we were so pleased when we read your note. We couldn’t believe it! Nobody does that anymore. People are so selfish.

It’s very kind of you to say so, I feel really bad that I made so much noise, but you see...

Honestly, please feel free to count on us for anything you need. Anything at all.

I didn’t realize there were two of you.

Yes, my partner and I. We’ve been there for about a year now. But I travel a lot. 

By now the elevator had reached our floor.

We said our goodbyes in the friendliest manner possible and I was feeling both good, for having had the kind of upbringing that would make note-writing to people you have bothered a necessity, and bad for having had the kind of life experience with humanity which makes you curse your neighbors for leaving you a note asking you not to do your washing late in the evening, and you thinking that that is the only time you have to do it but, alas, you will concede.

The thing is, right, that one of them had never been particularly friendly towards me ever. He’d seen me on the street, seen me leave home a couple of times, we’d even avoided taking the elevator going down once or twice.

And then he (or so I thought) left me a note saying the washing machine bothered him. A very polite note, I have to say. But by then I figured he really didn’t like me at all. 
So this turn of events towards the friendly and nice side of the Force really threw me. Of course now I wonder which of the two is the one that I didn’t think liked me much. In any case, it might be that he likes me a bit more now. Or not.

In my defense, I will say that when I first moved into the studio flat I call home, my neighbor at the time, this girl, knocked on my door at four in the afternoon one day because the music bothered her.

She was wearing a bathrobe, her hair was a mess, and she was really upset that I had dared to play music at …four in the afternoon, thus waking her up from her effing siesta du jour.

Evil, but ...
I was shocked at her request, but, of course, complied. For the next few months I was tempted to leave a note on her door asking her to climax a) less loudly or b) muzzled
Yes, for the next year and a half I could hear her orgasms at all hours of the day and night. And yes I was very tempted to say something about it…but never did. I honestly thought she might have been a hooker or something. 
But I think she was doing the same guy, who was probably married, which would explain the “all hours of the day” part of the equation.

So forgive me for thinking all neighbors are evil and must be destroyed. And yes, after our little elevator trip, I had to mentally recant all my previous curses.

I wonder if I need to fill out a form or something?