Once again, humans and sights are distressingly absent from my vacation photos. At this point I've given up on even trying to be well-rounded. (I've also discovered that I take abysmal outdoor photos, I'm still working on that.)
Comic Relief. There is only one constant on all vacations: a Robin Williams movie will inevitably play on the plane. Thankfully, there were 20 to choose from (I tried watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but can never sit through movies on planes. A rousing game of Bookworm did keep me occupied for a while) so Dead Poet’s Society wasn’t forced on me. Later in the week I had a strange brief dream, more romantic than sexual, involving Robert Sean Leonard (who was in Dead Poet’s Society and who I’ve never given much thought to ever) but he was supposed to be some indie comic, if I can type such a phrase straight-faced. Also, had a dream that Oliver Schwaner-Albright, a New York Times dining section writer that I no absolutely nothing about, called me. On the the line was a gay man claiming that my father was a relative in common and he knew this because he was working on a documentary with Ken Burns. I kept insisting there was no way we were related but he wouldn’t believe me.
Tortoises vs. Hares. When I saw a Spanish thirtysomething couple saying "adelante" and mocking a fast walker, exaggeratedly pumping their arms up and down, I knew I was in upside-down town. No matter how hard I try to ease up, I cannot stroll. I enjoy barreling past people and storming around; that's why I wear flats. (Just yesterday I got suckered into taking one of those Facebook quizzes about my inner nationality and very unsurprisingly I got German. I've never been pegged so accurately: "You are precise yet romantic, efficient yet dreamy, friendly yet somewhat suspicious of others…you are easily annoyed by the slowness and/or stupidity of others.") But Spain, like much of the world outside NYC is composed of slow movers. Abnormally slow movers, like the motion of their feet is a visual trick like that Russian Futurist dog painting (who knew it was housed in Buffalo?). It looks like they are putting in a lot of effort yet they're moving at what I'd estimate to be 60% of a normal gait. For fun, I tried to match everyone else's strides but it was physiologically and psychologically damaging. I don't necessarily enjoy being in a hurry but I find it insufferable to get stuck behind someone on a sidewalk or staircase and not be able to pass.
Mad Props. Which brings me to the matter of the pervasiveness of canes and crutches and not just among the elderly. James even commented on this and he's not one to notice such things. Why do so many people in Madrid need walking aides? I've also wondered why I see more people with vitiligo in NYC than anywhere else on earth, so maybe it's just one of those things.
Aw, Nuts. I’m a sugar limiter but I’ll make exceptions for extraordinary sweets. Unfortunately (for me, not my health) most of what I saw displayed in Madrid bakeries was frankly, kind of resistible. Everything seemed brown, tan, beige, crumbly, hard, dense and dry—the anti-Demel. Soft, moist and colorful is where it’s at. I didn’t take any photos; you’ll just have to believe me. When I started seeing Frutos Secos advertised on the windows and awnings of their equivalent to a corner deli, it reinforced my impression of their odd palate. Dried fruit as a calling card? It only now occurred to me to look up frutos secos and as it turns out the phrase isn’t literal: it means nuts of all types and dehydrated legumes and garbanzos. Still shrivelly and dried out, though.
Black Lungs. I know Europe still clings to cigarettes more strongly than the US but even France has banned indoor smoking. Not so, Spain (I don't recall Barcelona being so nicotine-crazed). The only other places I've been where smoking was still semi-tolerated indoors were China and Macau (not Hong Kong) but that's nothing compared to Madrid, and besides, in Asia the behavior is kind of a men-only thing where Spain is equal opportunity. Not only is smoking rampant in most public spaces, smoking sections are nearly nonexistent and yet no one seems to have a problem with this. If you even light up while outside in the US, you are certain to get at least one dirty look or pathetic scolding cough from a passerby. I smoked through half of my teens, all of my twenties and a bit of my thirties, though I haven't smoked seriously in six years, meaning I don't buy packs but might have a cigarette at a party, equaling no more than two-three cigarettes a month I would guess. I only smoke when I drink and only rarely then. Yet, I love smoking. It's not a nasty habit to me and I was sad to give it up (if I didn't have high blood pressure and get gross-feeling and raspy, I would probably not stop). I always cave on vacation just as I eat as I please when not in NYC. Luckily, I can turn it off in a (rapidly failing) heartbeat. I can smoke like a locomotive for a week and then not touch a cigarette for months. It's a gift. Unlike sugary and fried foods where once I start, I can't stop eating junk and that's all I want to eat. I'm still trying to get back on track with a semi-healthy eating regimen. Last night it was homemade fried chicken but today it is oatmeal, sashimi and jogging (is it '80s to use the word jogging? At least I didn't mention aerobics. I hardly move fast enough to qualify as full-fledged running).
Strange Brew. Beer is the drink of choice, not wine, cider or sherry (yes, sherry's a wine). I think outsiders equate Spain with wine but as my Madrileño Spanish teacher pointed out, "ir de caña" going for beer is a common phrase where no one says "ir de vino." Even at high end restaurants, men, women, young and old had cañas on the table while perusing the menu, though a bottle of wine might eventually be ordered to accompany a sit-down meal. More oddly to me were the Lilliputian portions. Everyone seems to drink juice glass-sized beers these s-called cañas or equally tiny glasses of wine dubbed chatos. They're cheap, like 1.50 euros and intended to accompany a single tapa. My concern was that these bars are so intimidatingly crowded that getting another drink was barely worth the hassle. Perhaps that is why a one-drink/one-tapa crawl is standard procedure.
Underground. We rode the subway numerous times per day and not only was it never crowded (once it did approach NYC levels of uncomfortable closeness) we never waited more than four minutes, which was easy to gauge since they have those nice arrival time boards hanging on the platform. I love efficiency (uh, oh, that inner German is getting excited)! They even have a Bibliometro, a.k.a. a staffed library kiosk in the middle of some stations…and riders were actually checking out books. What did weird me out was that the subway doors do not open automatically. This was not immediately apparent to me on my first day trying to disembark and I panicked. A passenger getting off or on has to either push a button or pull a lever (depending on train style) and the trains are so uncrowded that at stops many doors simply stayed shut. Is this an energy-saving tactic? It made me nervous that a door might malfunction and I would be stuck on the subway car.
You Kin't Do It. Dunkin' Donuts is Dunkin' Coffee in Madrid. Maybe they don't know what donuts (or even doughnuts) are because the chain calls them rosquillas, which from my observation of traditional bakery windows seemed denser and hefty than yeasty frosted American donuts, which is what Dunkin' Coffee were selling. I'm not a donut person and forgot to peek at what flavors were on offer. While at Alcampo an awesomely enormous modern supermarket (with a department store on the second floor) in the Vaguada Mall, there was a guy dressed up like a donut and handing out chocolate-iced samples in individually packed plastic shells. The container just said Donut, so maybe it's a new marketing push. To spare his dignity, I did not snap a photo.
Stay Seated. Just as in Buenos Aires, movie theaters have assigned seating. I like this (perhaps it's that inner German in me). I often see a movie I would never watch in NYC while on vacation (Madrid: Watchmen; Mexico City: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End; Buenos Aires: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Penang: Red Eye). After purchasing a ticket, you can show up late as you'd like knowing you have a seat waiting for you. None of that annoying NYC up-and-down, hovering, maneuvering, squeezing into empty spots at the last second in the dark. Or maybe that's just my issue because I tend to go to movies early and get a good seat, then have to stand up to let people in and out for the next 20 minutes.
One Last Thing. No one has ever questioned me about my last name in NYC (eh, in the early 21st century a Puerto Rican girl who signed me up at the world's most demoralizing Lucille Roberts on the Bushwick/Ridgewood border suspiciously asked me if I was "Spanish") or the few big cities I've visited in Latin America. They have no reason to since Garcia is the eighth most common surname in the United States. Might as well be Smith or Williams. But both the woman who checked me in to my hotel and the woman who checked me in for my flight home seemed unusually curious about my last name and made a point of mentioning how Spanish it was. The older airport woman simply asked if I could speak Spanish while the younger hipper girl at the hotel scolded me playfully. My only authority on Madrid-ness, Pablo the teacher, said, "They think all Americans have names like Jackson." For the record, Jackson is at 18th place in surname popularity.
And by the way, it rained all six days I was in Spain. Like a mold, I thrive on chilly dampness, though.