There are a lot of reasons to envy bears. They are adept at catching fish with their hands, which I haven't seen a human doing outside of Mulan, they are outfitted with a nice and quite fashionable coat that works with all seasons, and their diet of berries and honey works for me. Yes, bears have a lot going on for them, but I would say the best thing they do is hibernate. I mean, what a concept, you know? All summer you work up to being a fatty no-friends, gorging yourself on all of the wonders of the forest, getting chased by bees, all that fun stuff. Then, when the weather starts getting nippy, you find yourself a nice warm cave, kick out and wolves that happen to be in the vicinity, and just curl up and sleep. I mean, doesn't that sound amazing this time of year? As someone who doesn't do the whole Christmas thing, honestly, right about now I could use some cave time.
The problem with Madrid is, well, let me stop myself right there, because, when we start talking about the problems of Madrid you need a snack and a comfortable chair and a bathroom break and maybe a drink or two because that's like a whole day right there. But one of the MANY problems of Madrid is that as a catholic nation, Spain is all about the Christmas in a big way. Now, I myself have no problem with "La Navidad" back home in my native land. Sure, lot's of things are closed and, frankly, red and green looks good on approximately NO ONE (sorry to burst that bubble there), but as long as movie theaters and Asian communities stay open I'm pretty much good to go. The trouble is that here in Spain things don't actually work that way. This place truly does shut down for the birth of Jesus, everything just stops. Cafes, shops, supermarkets, pretty much everything but the churches, for some reason, are shut down from the afternoon of the 24th to the morning of the 26th. I know. Crazy.
So really, the truth is that I have no choice but the hibernate at this time of the year. And that is exactly what I have been doing. Curled up in my little cell-like room, gorging myself on Spanish cookies and endless cups of tea, I've honestly almost forgotten that the outside world is all about decking the halls with boughs of whatever. However, while bears sleep all winter, I myself will be exiting my period of self-imposed hibernation, and, in fact, the Spanish Empire, in two short days. That's right, gentle readers, I'm off to Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or Germany, for those of us not born with pretzels and beer in our hands. In the beautiful and, might I add, very cold city of Berlin I will be checking out museums, cafes, some famous wall-thing, and spending time with my delightful compadres in struggle, Ben and Michael (hi, guys!). So even as my struggle in Spain draws to a close I can see the next struggle on the horizon, glowing in the light of the northern European sun. Bring it on, Berlin. After my battles with dusty Spain, I think I'm ready. And as for Madrid, well, suppose I must bid it a semi-fond farewell. It's been, at the very least, emotional.
So I recently had to explain to a room full of people what the miracle of Hannukah entails. In Spanish. Yeah. Are we having fun yet?
Look, it's not like I didn't expect for this country to be a little, shall we say, Jew-deficient. I'm neither crazy nor particularly stupid, and I've read, you know, at least one book about European history, like, ever. But to be fair to myself, it's not like I've ever really spent a long time in a place that had no knowledge of Jewish culture, practices or general sense of humor. I mean, after 5 years in an Episcopalian elementary school, which was, to say the least, slightly confusing, I ended up spending 10 years in Quaker School, so, well, in Struggledelphia that pretty much means bring on the bagels and shmear because you couldn't swing a dead cat around your head without hitting a fellow tribesman in that place. And while I myself considered not-Yale pretty damn Christian, 30% of the population does indeed, in theory, shun the pork products, so, really, not too shabby. So I suppose you might say that I've pretty much spent the majority of my life among the chosen people, and, hey, it's not like there is anything wrong with that. We generally tend to be funny, self-deprecating, and we nosh like no one else. All in all, I'd say it's been a pretty good deal, thus far.
However, the one thing a life lived in Hebrew hasn't really given me is the concept that there are large groups of people out there for whom the term "latke" means nothing at all. So when Hannukah came around here in Madrid I was, shall we say, at a bit of a loss. One problem is that the Jewish community here is, well, chicitita, as the Spanish would say. We as a people tend not to return to those places from which we've been asked to leave. Of course, the consequences of this mean that we are currently looking for a new planet. Still, I figured, if Mount Sinai wont come to Noah, Noah could go to Mount Sinai. So I decided to throw my own Hannukah party, in defiance of several hundred years of Papal decrees. And while I actually was able to convince a large group of people to come and celebrate the festival of lights with me, I ran into some trouble explaining to them exactly what it was.
To be fair, it's not as if Hannukah is really our most important holiday. While fun and chock full of fried foods (how can you go wrong), it's not nearly as significant as Purim or Yom Kippur, and it doesn't hold a candle (see what I did there?) to Passover. The only reason it's gained such popularity in recent years is because it falls so near to Christmas that we can pretend we've got something to equal the birth of the Christan Messiah. But what further hindered my celebration was the fact that here in Spain there is no cultural context for Judaism. It's not as though people have any kind of association with the term "Jewish". They don't consider us greedy money lenders screaming for our pounds of flesh, nor do they see us as lawyers and doctors who love a nice brisket, nor do they understand us as hilarious if neurotic comedians who marry their own step daughters. They've got nothing when it comes to us.
So when you are trying to explain the Maccabes and oil lamps and dreidel and gelt it's like you are speaking another language. And if you are in fact accustomed to speaking another language altogether, well, that, my friends, is what we call a struggle. Put it on the list you are keeping at home.
In the end I just sort of had to throw in the towel and tell everyone this was our version of Christmas. It's not entirely untrue, to be fair, and honestly, after some wine, it's not like anyone was listening to me anyway. I suppose some things are just untranslatable at a certain point. Upside? They really seemed to understand the concept of latkes. You have to take the victories that you can.
I've got a lot of grievances against Spain. Look, let's be fair here, this is a wonderful country. The bread is delightful, the wine isn't half bad, the people are certainly friendlier then the French (though for the love of God who ISN'T), and the people tend to dress so oddly that should you go out in a less then cute ensemble, well, you fit right on in. But in the long and uncomfortable history of Espana which includes but in no way is limited to introducing syphilis to native peoples of all sorts of lands, killing or deporting anyone with an interest in Elohim or, for that matter, Allah, and, of course, the fact that no one in the country can speak any other language other then Spanish because despite the fact that Franco has been dead for 30 years apparently we can still blame him, for, um, everything. Sure. Let's go with that.
And I wish I could be noble and say that my complaints against this place have anything at all to do with the history and persecution of the Spanish empire, but, alas, I am far to shallow. No, in fact, as I'm really all about the petty, my unhappinesses here tend to be of a far more strugglesome origin. You know, it's all the little things, the way the internet only works on oddly numbered days or how there is no good Asian food anywhere or how strangers just straight up stare at you in the subway. A cornicopia of little moments, really, each one more painful then the next. As the Christmas season, or, as they say here, La Navidad, draws closer, well, let's just say the thought I tend to have in my mind when viewing the city is along the lines of "What fresh hell is this". So when my friend Andrew, (hi Andrew!), arrived to visit me this past Friday, well, let's just say I was feeling less then enchanted with Spain's capital. The hundreds of people unironicilly wearing reindeer horn hats didn't really help.
However, if there is one thing that will renovate your enthusiasm in a place is seeing it through someone else's eyes. While I am at the point here where all I can see is struggle abounding like it's going out of style, well, Andrew sees jamon ibirico dripping gloriously off pieces of bread, rivers of Ribera and Rioja wine gushing through the streets and amazingpieces of art at every turn. Trotting around the cobbled streets and crowded avenues of Madrid I was struck again by the complicated and uncomfortable beauty of this city. I wouldn't say it's tranquil, or even charming, but it has it's moments of excitement and beauty, even when you are being harassed by strange beggars who implore you to buy a sprig of Rosemary from them for good luck. Yeah. Because there's a lot of logic going on there.
As I waved goodbye to Andrew this afternoon in the frantic and garishly lit Puerta del Sol, I couldn't help but consider just how lovely Madrid can be, or would be, if there weren't all these other people wandering about. I have to say, sometimes they sort of ruin it for me.
I currently have less then two weeks left in Madrid. That's probably a good thing. In a perversion of what Oscar Wilde once said, either I go, or this city does. Given how disorganized Spain has been since the fall of it's empire in South America, well, I don't really see it having much of a fighting chance.
Oh, my dear lord. Last night I legitimately spent the evening with a young man of my age and general demeanor who totally and without shame listened to his c-d player the entire time. From my apartment to one bar to another bar and every street upon which we walked, this kid was in his own world, with the c-d of his choosing. Naturally I was both enthralled and concerned by this action. Why, might you ask? Let me explain.
First of all, who the HELL has a portable c-d player in this day and age? My GOD that was odd to see. To be fair, this young man also carried around with him a small but substantial library of c-ds to switch in and out. Which is something that would be quite common to see in, oh, I don't know, the late nineties? Yes, well, welcome to Spain, a country where the concept of the Internet is still one that needs to me explained to the majority of the population. The other day someone told me that her parents refused to get the internet in their house because they insisted that they didn't have room for it. A second of all, who on Earth DOES that? Who listens to their music when they are with other people? Because I am a creeper at heart, at one point during the evening I found myself unabashedly staring directly at this person, as one does when something totally insane occurs. "What?" he asked me. "Nothing", I said.
Now, in another life, this incident would have totally baffled and confused me for days, maybe weeks on end. But since I came to and started living in Spain, well, this is just another day in the life. Now that I'm here I've come to realize that Pedro Almodovar isn't making fictional movies, he's making documentaries. The randomness of this country continues to amaze me daily. For example, yesterday I had planned and hoped to take a day trip to the nearby town of Segovia. I woke up, shook off my hangover, and headed to the train station to meet some friends and buy the tickets. Of course, as this is SPAIN, all of the trains for the day were sold out. How it is possible for every train leaving every half an hour to a town less then an hour away to be sold out, well, I have no idea, but guess it is. Just another fun fact about being here, I suppose.
This month at my favorite vintage theater here in Madrid they are showing a series of Charlie Chaplin films. When watching the hilarious and heartbreaking movie The Circus and observing the hijinks and antics of Chaplin as he ran, bowlegged, around a group of clowns, I couldn't help but relate strongly to his "little tramp". Lost, confused, mugging for the camera, honestly, that's like my Tuesday night here in Spain. If I had a mustache and a bowler hat, hell, you wouldn't know the difference.
Still. At least I take my headphones off when spending time with other people. I have to say, I don't think that's culture difference, I think that's just a struggle.
Has life ever seemed to be a wild french farce to you? No? Well, it does to me, almost daily. Now that I'm finally settled into my apartment and my life in Madrid, now that I'm feeling the slightest bit comfortable and able to communicate fairly decently in Spanish, now that I really feel like I've got the metro system down and I know where to buy the cheap groceries, of course now would be the time that I once again get sick. Of course. It's only fair. Thanks, struggleverse, always a pleasure.
To be fair to the powers that be, however, at least this time I'm living in an apartment rather then in a hostel, so this time I can shut my door and cough away to my heart's content without worrying about drunken backpackers stumbling into my room at 4 in the morning. This is not to say that people aren't stumbling into the apartment at 4 in the morning, but at least they don't come into my room and turn on the light, so, you know, major improvement. And, given how much I've been coughing lately, I can at least be happy with the thought that I'm bothering my roommates just as much as they bother me.
So, this past weekend, while others were out at all hours of the night dancing to electronica in clubs and elbowing their way to the bar for mojitos (which are strangely popular here, don't ask me why), I myself was getting acquainted with some chicken soup and tea and forging a deep and personal bond with my bed. To keep myself occupied and, frankly, to prevent myself from downloading ever episode of 30 Rock ever aired, I started reading Sylvia Path's iconic novel The Bell Jar. As I traveled through the world of New York in the 1950's with it's bizarre gender relations and pressures, I couldn't help but consider through my dayquil and lemon-tea soaked haze, all that has changed and all that has stayed the same. The main character of the novel, Ester, worries that the only thing she is good at is being a student, and when she no longer feels motivated by acedamia she sinks into depression and madness. I'm not sure if this is a good book to read after your college graduation or a terrible one, but on the upside, well, it sure makes my life seem better by comparison. Sure, I may be in a similar situation, a little lost, a little bewildered, and I do so love my full skirts and cardigans, , but at the end of the day my generation of women have a lot more going for them then the ability to write in shorthand and at the very least no one I know is even thinking about getting pinned. All in all, I guess I would say that sick or not, I'm glad to be living in this age if 1955 is my alternative. I mean, does anyone actually use shorthand anymore?
I woke up feeling better this morning, and I'm almost done with Sylvia Plath. I also found a new song I like. Things are looking up, it seems.
Ah, Thanksgiving, that special time of year where it's socially acceptable to eat so much that you either pass out and drink so much that it seems like a good idea to scream at a group of men in strangely tight pants as they throw a ball around a large field of grass. Well, to be perfectly fair, back home in the States both of those things tend to be socially acceptable ANYWAY, but I think you see my point. The fact is that I actually usually find something strangely comforting about this holiday, the food, the family, the copious amounts of alcohol (oh, dear, is your family not like mine? Pity). Despite it's puritanical heritage, it isn't a particularly religious holiday, so everyone can pretty much celebrate it as they like. As my mother reminded me, the true origins of the holiday really lie in a group of desperate and isolated people who were probably so thrilled to have lived through the year in that terrible and strange land we now know as Massachusetts that they were just looking for a little celebration. I'm sure they never dreamed that one day their distant ancestors would be honoring the tumultuous early years of settlement and slaughter by covering sweet potatoes with marshmallows and trying to eat our weight in turkey. How proud they must be.
Of course, this year I'm not spending Thanksgiving in the States, so I supposed it's a whole new ballgame. As turkey is one of the few native foods of North America it can be fairly difficult to find here in the land of smoked pig products, so that was out. And because my decision to come to Madrid was spontaneous, to put it mildly, I don't really know enough people here to cook a whole bird of any kind, I mean, considering all the people I know here, frankly, a cornish game hen might be pushing it. So what is an American girl in Spain to do? Well, the only thing she can, frankly, which is make a nice meal for the few people she can rope into bringing wine, and count her blessings. Frankly, considering how cheap wine is here, that's not so bad, all things considering.
There are a lot of things I'm thankful for this year. As always, I'm thankful for the big things, my family, my friends, my wireless internet connection. However, I've always said that it's the little things that make life worth living. Here is the short list, in no particular order: 1. Mad Men, Season 3 2. Impossible dogs, and the people who put sweaters on them 3. The fact that I saw an old man hit a waiter with a cane today in a Cerveceria 4. Modcloth.com 5. The fact that I no longer live in a hostel, though at times my apartment feels like one... 6. Free tapas with every glass of wine at basically everywhere in the greater Madrid area. 7. In light of the temperature fluctuations here in Madrid, the fact that I brought multiple layers to Europe. 8. The fact that I will be back in the US by the time Sherlock Holmes comes into theaters 9. Free entrance to El Prado and El Reina Sofia daily. 10. The fact that no matter where I am, my flourless chocolate cake still sames to taste the same.
I must say, while we in the States might think we know what it's like to love sports, but we have NOTHING on Europe. I saw a group of men crying the other day when Real Madrid won in a seasonal match with Zurich. Take THAT, Superbowl. To all you football fans who are offended, well, call me when you start crying.
As for the rest of you, Happy Thanksgiving! Eat some extra turkey for me. I myself will be contenting my stomach with chicken. Same difference, right?
This morning I woke up at 11:30. While for some people this might not seem like anything out of the ordinary, for me it is a bit odd, as I make a solid effort to rise daily before 10. As I have school five days a week here in Madrid, I usually wake up around 8:30 to make it to class on time, so on the weekends my system tends to be accustomed to getting up at a respectable hour. And because I really really really like sleeping, I tend to go to bed before the sun begins to rise in order to be able to wake up at these early hours. While to most people this might sound normal, here in Madrid if you aren't drunkenly watching the sunrise daily then, well, you aren't living. I've actually met people who come to Madrid for a three day period, just to party, and never ever see the city in daylight. (And I thought MY friends were partiers, hi Jon!) Thought this amazes me, I generally try to think about it as a practice of an extraterrestrial, that is to say, I can observe and respect it without really letting it impact my life. Or at least, I thought I could.
The fact is that the last two weekends when I have arrived in my apartment with every intention of going to sleep, waking up early, and generally being like everyone else in the world, well, Madrid just keeps getting in the way. During the period of time I fully expect to be sleeping I might, for example, find myself having a heated debate over American fast food chains with a frenchman while fighting a german girl for the last shot of whiskey. Or I might be talking about the Italian government with a pair of syblings from Turin while observing a Spanish barman ask a Chinese couple to leave. (Have I mentioned lately that this place might just be a wee bit racist?) Either way, when I look down at my watch it's at least 3 hours later then I think it should be and I'm within the 4 hour mark of sunrise. And the strange this is that almost everyone I live with has remarked on how early I turn in when we go out.
Now, I recognize that as a 22 year old living in a foreign country I really should probably want to explore the discotecas and body-shots so popular with the young people these days. But frankly the idea of pumping techno music and aging Spanish lotharios taking a break from their wives for the night doesn't exactly appeal to me. Moreover, I happen to think that there are plenty of things worth doing in this city or it's surrounding countryside while there is still sun in the sky, regardless of what some guidebooks would have you think. But I don't want to be rude, and at the end of the day it's better to be talking to drunken Swedish people then no one at all, so I end up going out most of the night AND, because I'm just too compulsive not to, exploring this area of Spain all day. I honestly don't think I'm going to sleep a full night until I return to the States.
For a fun beverage when drinking socially here, they literally mix red wine with coca cola. It's called calimocho and it's a real thing. What is it they keep saying about how sophisticated Europe is?
While there are certainly enough things to do in Madrid to keep a person occupied for quite a while, I mean, the street performers alone deserve at least a month-long tour, it can be nice to get out of the city, if only for a day. So earlier this week when wandering around Madrid and thinking for the 10th time that day that Madrid is bizarre, I decided that it was time for me to spend a day away.
One of the delightful things about Madrid is that not only is it a gorgous city in and of itself, but it's frighteningly well located. Within two hours from Madrid are at least 10 cities, five of which are worth seeing. Sorry, other five, but I think you know that to be the truth. So when you want to take some time apart you've got a lot of options. I myself, for my first day trip out of the city, decided to venture to the beautiful city of Toledo, whose winding cobblestone streets and golden stone buildings make the place look like it just time traveled from 1305. Luckily for those who visit Toledo today, they will not be required to invent the horse collar or do anything involving midden. Instead, what they will find is a claustrophobic little place with twisting turning paths and a 500 year old church around every corner. That is, if they can even REACH Toledo, because, as we all know by now, getting anywhere by train in this country is the equivalent of inventing the wheel, it's not impossible, obviously, it can be done, but DAMN is it a struggle!
When I arrived at Madrid's Atocha Train Station I made my way quickly to the ticket office. Now, it should first be said that Madrid is clearly a very modern city, and the Atocha Train station is a very modern train station. Clean, relatively, and full of signs in both English and Spanish, at first glance the station doesn't appear to be a mess on top of a struggle. How deceived I was, my friends, how deceived. As you enter the main ticket office, which issues all tickets for trains going outside of Madrid more then 20 minutes, you might observe what feels like ten million people waiting. After a few moments, you might also realize that everyone is holding small slips of paper with numbers on them. Okay, that makes sense, right? Taking a number? But where could the number machine be? Certainly it wouldn't be in plain site, in an easily accessible location, that would be CRAZY. No, it's got to be in the corner, half covered by a plant, an unsung hero living in the dark. And is the machine a nice clean new object that looks like it was made in the last 40 years and is being held together by more then tape? Why, of course it doesn't! When I finally got my number it turned out that there were 37 people in front of me in line. Say it with me, can you? STRUGGLE.
So perhaps it isn't that Toledo is so beautiful, but rather that after the ordeal of buying the tickets and waiting for the train and walking 20 minutes uphill to reach the city made getting there such a relief that it could have been Pittsburgh and I woul have been thrilled to see it. Luckily, Toledo is not Pittsburgh, so I'm going to give it the benefit of the doubt.
I spent the day strolling, or rather, climbing the hilly little city which is chock full of tiny Mosques, huge Churches and medium sized Synagogues. It's a regular monster-mash of sacred spaces, really, all beautiful and all chock full of tourists staring at maps. I myself was among them, to be fair, as I got lost no less then 5 times in the space of five hours. By the time I returned to Madrid Saturday night it was almost a relief to find myself back in a big city, because at least by this point I know the way back to my bed. Sometimes, well, that's all you can hope for.
There is nothing quite like having a friend visit you when you are living alone in a foreign country. For those of you have have yet to have this experience, i.e., most of the world's population, let me inform you that it is a glorious experience, because in an desert of strangers a familiar face is like an palm tree oasis. (I've been thinking about Aladdin a lot lately. I like Abu, the little monkey, I like his vest. What? He's delightful!)
So when my friend Haley, hi Haley!, mentioned she might want to come to Madrid, I jumped at the chance to have her here. Because Haley is living the glamorous life in Paris (well for those prices it had BETTER be glamorous), it's not too difficult for her to jump across the border and enter the land of huge rice dishes and odd Franco references. It's frankly the MetroNorth of plane travel, to be honest. For those of you who don't get that, well, move to New Haven for, like, five minutes, and then you will.
Now, considering I live in an apartment with approximately ten billion other people, the chance to stay in a posh hotel with one of my best friends seemed like an ideal prospect, especially considering just how many of my roommates seem to be at the peak of their, um, stamina, let's say, in the mornings. What I didn't consider was just how strange it would be to experience Madrid as a tourist, strolling through the calles and avenidas like the American I try so hard not to be. Honestly, it was rather a relief to be walking around the city with Haley, gawking at all the quintessential Spanishness, being troubled by the increasingly pathetic street performers, marveling at the oddness at every turn. As Haley marveled at the beggars in the streets, the low prices (because compared to Paris Dubai is an outlet store, really) and the ability to smoke anywhere you please, I couldn't help but be grateful. There is nothing like having someone used to the French around to make you appreciate the Spanish. And you can quote me on that.
Now that Haley has returned to Paris and I am still living a life with one foot in the third world (Thank you, Spain), I only hope I can keep that sense of gratitude with me. Considering that I have yet to meet a friendly waiter, a kind shop owner, or any person who says "Excuse me" when they straight up run into you on the street, I'm thinking it's going to be a struggle. Oh, well, if there's one thing I do well...
I really enjoy Halloween, I have to say. It's actually always been a favorite holiday of mine, something about the idea of eating copious amounts of candy, or, as we grow older and wiser, drinking copious amounts of alcohol that's been created to taste like candy as we sit around in funny outfits and watch movies whose primary dialogue is screaming. I guess I just like all the costumes, really, even those that observe the now-famous slut rule (I swear, I'm just waiting for the slutty nun and slutty saints costumes, my GOD girls, put those things AWAY). So I find it rather sad that I've spent at least two out of my 22 Halloweens away from the United States. (To be fair, however, I can't really remember my first 5 Halloweens, so those are lost to me as well. There, that's 7. Damn.)
When I spent my Halloween in Russia I was living with a group of Russian students who delighted in the concept of Halloween and practically forced us at gunpoint (or at vodka-point, much more dangerous), to have a party. However, something about running around a soviet-area apartment building in a Hedi-of-the-Swiss-Alps costume seemed, I don't know, romantic, dashing, totally insane, take your pick. Again, there was vodka, so it's all kind of a blur. But this year, here in the struggle that is Spain, I just wasn't feeling the Halloween magic. Something about the holiday just didn't resonate with me this year. Perhaps the idea of dressing up as someone else isn't as appealing when your own life is a mess, I don't know, sort of an anti-escapist thing. Or maybe it's because I don't know anyone here in Madrid who would really get my June Carter circa 1967 costume, complete with go-go boots and a painkiller addicted sidekick. I don't know. But really, I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself.
Luckily, my Spanish teacher had told me about a vintage movie theater in Madrid which shows movies in their original format. The strange fact about Spanish cinema is that they tend to dub absolutely everything in theaters, and as fun as the idea of watching rapid fire Spanish come out of Kathrine Hegel's mouth is, well, I'm not really willing to pay 10 euros for the privilege. So instead of catching up on the latest in romantic comedies, I've been watching classic American films for less then 3 euros a piece. So for Halloween, when all of Madrid was wandering around in various (terrible) costumes, my friend Ashly and I (hi Ashly!)went to el Cine Dore for an evening of Roman Polanski's classic, hilarious, totally dated film "The Fearless Vampire Hunters". However, something rather odd about el Cine Dore is that, unlike the rest of this country, it always always always starts on time. So when we were five minutes late, well, the rest of the audience stared at us like we had more then one head. Additionally, and maybe quite a bit get's lost in translation, but I have to say, I was one of the only people laughing in the entire theater. I mean, this is a movie that contains a Jewish vampire, sex jokes galore, funny accents, and, to top it all off, an extremely young and hilarious looking Roman Polanski. I mean, how is that not the best thing ever? Seriously.
Getting a drink afterwards with Ashly only highlighted the crazy that is the Spanish interpretation of Halloween. Gazing at the streets filled with terrible costumes and roving gangs of crazies, well, one has to conclude that there are certain things we of the USA really do better then anyone else.
There is nothing quite as uncomfortable as being sick in a foreign country. I could not recommend this less, and it's a real shame, because I personally have been sick in many foreign countries. Blame on the change in environments, all the new people, the different food, the lack of United States style sterility, hell, blame in on the henny, whatever you blame it on, it always happens to me. Let's not go to far, here, because, knock on wood, I've never gotten anything really terrible and life threatening, but what I lack in severity I seem to make up for in volume, because I've gotten sick in almost every place I've spent more then a week. While I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit in my short lifetime, there have been periods of said travels that I recall only as a haze of tissues, tea, and desperate searches for a translation of the word "antihistimine" in various languges. Not that that doesn't have it's charm.
Here in Spain I managed to last about 3 and a half weeks without getting sick, so, really, that just might be a record. However, this past Sunday as I walked down Calle Atocha I recognized that I could no longer ignore the fact that I could barely breathe through my nose and my throat felt like something had died in there. Super.
While getting sick in the comfort of your own home at least has the comfort of soup, tea, daytime television and more blankets then a dorm room in Minnesota, getting sick in a strange place while staying in a hostel is uncomfortable to say the least, and tragically free of trashy television. Moreover, I would advise all of you to be careful mixing decongestants with travel, and here is why: When you are traveling everything looks a bit off to you anyway, as, you know, it's all accented and European, or whatever, and when you add cough medicine into the mix, well, that's just a whole new ballgame, you know? Finding myself wandering aimlessly yesterday with no idea where I was or how I had gotten there was certainly a fun new experience for me, and one I wouldn't wish on my enemies.
Luckily, no one really noticed that I seemed to have no where to go or nothing to do because, well, honestly, spend a day in Madrid and you will assume that everyone is unemployed. For no reason that I can asertain at this moment, the denizens of Madrid seem to delight in standing around in public. Every square, plaza, street corner and parque has people just waiting there, passing the time, inevitably smoking, reading, sipping "Cola Lights" (EUROPE), and generally just doing nothing. Now, to be fair here, I have realized that a fair number of these people are, in fact, prostitues, in which case, it's totally clear for what they are waiting. But the rest of them, well, seriously now, what's the deal? I mean, they can't ALL be recent college graduates high on dayqil putting off real life by hanging out in Spain, can they? And if they are, well, I don't know, maybe we should form some kind of club. It's a thought.
I woke up feeling a lot better this morning, which is a good thing, because the closer it gets to the weekend here the later people go out at night, which makes for some awkward early morning conversations as I get ready to go to class and everyone around me is stumbling into bed. It's hard enough to speak Spanish with drunk French guys when you are sober, let alone hopped up on cold medication. Trust me on that one.
Let's run down the pros and cons of hostel-dwelling, shall we? Pros: 1. It's very very very cheap. For the price of around 25 dollars an evening you can have a bed, bathroom access, free wireless internet, laundry services, a safe for your valubles and daily breakfast. Not bad, for Europe, where sitting on a bench in a park can often run you at least a couple Euros. 2. If you are the kind of person for whom traveling in foreign lands is an opportunity to get wasted in a variety of bar and club-like locations, a hostel is a great place to stay, because for a set price you can do a "pub crawl", which is an event, as some eager young Canadians explained to me, in which helpful strangers lead inebriated travelers through a series of "pubs" and clubs. Traveling really does broaden your horizons, doesn't it? 3. There is a bar in the basement.
Cons: 1. It's very very very loud. It's more then possible that because you pay so little to be there they had to make the walls out of paper, cleverly concealed as walls. 2. The lack of personal space can overwhelm one, as can changing in the bathroom, sleeping on a bunk bed (how do children DO this?) and hiding all your stuff because as nice as other travelers are, well, you gots to live by Hitchcock rules and TRUST NO ONE. 3. There is a bar in the basement.
Nevertheless, as uncomfortable as hostels can be, and as much as my friend Jon makes fun of them (hi, Jon!), I do enjoy staying in them overall because, well, did I mention cheap? But more then that, really, is that you can meet people of all kinds, which is a blessing and a curse in it's way. Currently as I type this a stressed out Korean man reads in the bed near to mine and a Brazilian guy dozes, which is socially acceptable during the day here in Spain, point to Europe. Last night I sat in the hostel bar ( I mean, I could leave, I guess, but it's RIGHT THERE, so...) with an extremely, painfully earnest german boy and about 20 loud french teenage girls. Ah, the world, it's such a great place where teenagers everywhere all dress exactly the same. Like a Delia's catalogue just threw up all over them.
Luckily, my Spanish classes here have started, so I no longer feel obligated to connect with strangers in the hostel, because I can now connect with strangers in my classes. Speaking Spanish with a dutch girl, an austrian girl and a french guy can get a little awkward, but I'm not going to lie to you, it beats watching french girls writhe around a hostel basement to the soothing sounds of Rhianna. And not, you know, new, post haircut Rhianna, but old vintage Bring it on: All or Nothing Rhianna. Some things travel so slowly across the Atlantic Ocean...
While is is a commonly held belief that Spain, and, in fact, all of Southern Europe, is a balmy land of sunshine and smiles, the sad truth is that Spain enjoys a winter just the like the rest of the world (or the rest of the Civilized world, as I believe I've made my thoughts on California crystal clear). When I walked out of my Spanish class this afternoon, it was cold, rainy and disgusting. Just like fall at home.
Ah, Espana. You saucy, strange, porcine laden country. Humid with sun and cigarette smoke, Spain is filled with boys with mullets and sweat bands, girls with rilo kiley bangs and shaggy boots, old ladies who look like they are on vacay from a convent, school children wandering in packs like plaid covered sheep, old men gathering over tapas y cervezas, brandy, almond encrusted pastries, Arab arches, cool sneakers, palm trees, red wine, Velasquez, and lots of other things. Madrid, the capital city, the 18th century city with starbucks on every corner, is a large and twisty city with plazas everywhere you look and people of all types and sizes rooming it's streets. And now, I'm one of them.
I've been in Madrid for three and half days now, which has given me time to visit the Prado, to walk around Plaza Mayor and much of the rest of the city, to take the obligatory trip to el Corte Ingles (a giant department store native to Spain with SO MANY LEVELS) and in general check the struggle out all over this city. Not only do fanny packs ABOUND (why? why? I just, I don't, I can't...I mean my DAD has one but I just...no), but additionally there are street performers, nuns (who are maybe street performers? I couldn't say) and hilarious struggles at every turn. For example, last night I saw a woman at a bar order a lemon Fanta and beer. Several days in a row have gone by with me seeing amazing and unaccountable public displays of affection, really to the point of, oh, my, did I just see a baby made in front of me? And, honestly, spending an afternoon at the Prado Museum means just a delightful few hours of German tourists standing in your eyeline like it's their job. Really? You need to see this El Greco THIS badly? More to the point, you need me to NOT see El Greco this badly? What did I ever do to you?
All of this time spent solitary may be getting to me. In an effort to connect with other sentient beings I've been feeding birds during my lunch times. You see, the weather here in Madrid has been frankly lovely, warm, sunny, dry, holiday weather if I've ever seen it. So I've eaten almost every meal (alone) outside, with only aves for company (that's Spanish for Bird. See how this is a learning experience?) On the other hand, though, it makes having wine at lunch seem much more acceptable (hi, Jon!), because my friends, the birds, don't have room in their heads to be judgmental. Thank god for tiny animal brains.
Wandering through various museums and national tourist sites, I couldn't help but wonder, what are other people my age doing at this point in time? Why, they are going out, of course, and given that this is Spain, they are sleeping until 2pm. pregaming at 10pm and heading towards their first club at 1am. Right, just about at the point when I have been in bed for at least an hour. Lovely.
I probably should enjoy European techno music and overpriced drinks with a 10 Euro cover while dancing throuhg a cloud of stale smoke and bad cologne more. Yeah. Let's leave that sort of thing for future-Leah, shall we?
My Spanish classes start on Monday. Thank goodness they do, because judging this hard takes a toll, it really does. Trust me.
So as it turns out I'm currently writing this on my stomach on a bunk-bed in a hostel in Madrid. Funny how life turns out.
This morning I was lying in bed in Tobarra, not 10 hours ago, counting the minutes until it made sense to get up. As I waited for light to fill the sky I couldn't help but reflect upon the day ahead. Because Tobarra is a tiny town, remote from most major cities, the only way to leave it's dusty little shadow is to take a bus from the Estacion de Autobus which rests on the eastern limits of the town. Of course, this is Spain, and rural Spain at that, so no one is quite sure when the bus comes or where it stops. Deciding that I wasn't willing to risk missing my only ride, I arrived at the station at 7:45, which turned out to be just in time for me to wait for an hour for the bus. Joining a group of bewildered chain smoking Spaniards I waited on the sidewalk with my belongings around me in the morning chill, thinking, well, with fun times like this, who needs coffee, you know?
Two bus rides and one furious and painful walk later (new shoes, many blocks, heavy bags, a regular recipe for fun)I was standing in the Albacete Train station. Let me tell you something about Spain, just in case you ever consider visiting. Please, trust me on this one, never go to Albacete. Just, let that dream go. Really. I'll save you the train fare. And, frankly, that's not nothing, honestly, because even if European train travel is cheaper then train travel in the US, well, it's still nothing to sneeze at. It takes a lot of money to get out of a one horse town, let me tell you.
My two hour wait in Albacete was followed by two hours on a train to Madrid, watching the countryside go by in all it's dry desolate beauty. This was the alternative to watching the 2008 remake of the classic film The Women. One of the most hilarious things about Spanish train travel is that they provide you with movies and headphones, like a plane. On the way to the farm they gave us the animated version of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, and so frankly I consider The Women an upgrade, and a positive sign. However, dubbed Meg Ryan isn't really my thing, so I opted out of the movie and watched the country go by. Equally lovely is the individually wrapped jelly bean they give you as the train pulls into the station. A waste of plastic, sure, but delicious.
When I arrived in Madrid I ended up walking the wrong way for a few blocks before I got my bearings. However, now that I'm showered, changed, no longer smell of horse and have left Tobarra far behind, well, I'm feeling a little more at peace with the world. Bring it on, struggle. I've got wifi, I downloaded the new Mad Man, I'm ready. Hola, Madrid. Vamos a luchar.
When you are considering a vast and important life change and decide to go work on an organic farm in Spain for a few months, there are some key factors you really ought to consider.
1. Is the farm in the middle of no where? 2. Is there one working phone in the vicinity? 3. Is there internet access in more then one location in the surronding, say, 100 square miles (or Kilometers, it is Spain, after all)? 4. Are the owners of this farm insane drunken prejudiced Brits who will mock you, your Americaness, you beliefs and your clothing constantly and speak no Spanish? 5. Do you really like horses? 6. Do you really like the smell of horses on everything you own? 7. Do you have enough money for alcohol? 8. Do you even enjoy farming? 9. Do you want to be picking straw out of various parts of your underthings constantly? 10. What the hell are you thinking?
Had I considered even one of these key questions I might now not be finding myself in just such a town, working on just such a farm, franticlly looking up flights back to the United States. Because as it turns out, the tiny town of Tobarra, while charming for an hour, is dreadful for any longer then that. And while the idea of getting back to nature and being totally cut off from the world as you know it and the itunes store in particular is a delightful one, the reality is far more painful. I am now bruised, scratched, bitten (thank you, Campero the stallion, you´ve made my day) and thinking about my escape plans. In other words, come next Tuesday, I´m out of here.
In times of stress, trouble, or when you find your life plan for the next five months falling to bits around you, it might help to breathe, relax, and try to find a wine opening. Oh, well, life is nothing if not a series of setbacks. Or, in my case, life is currently a series of jobs involving horse manure. So you scrap the plan and start again somewhere else, right? Preferably somewhere where they speak Spanish. Given that I´m in Spain, I had no idea that would be so difficult to find.
Long story short, I´ve got some more time on this strange farm (which I use the lip of a highway to walk to daily. Seriously. What is the term for ¨ghetto¨ which you can apply to the country? Whatever it is, I need to know it), but I´m counting down the days. A week from right now I´ll be in Madrid, where I think Í´ll be staying for at least a month or so. The struggle, my friends, I´m feeling it right now.
When I woke up this morning my first thought was ¨how exactly do you milk a goat?¨. An addendum to said thought was, do we think it´s different in Spain? (Sometimes I refer to myself in the royal we. Just go with it.) Now, it´s not as if I´ve ever had anything against goats, per se, but I have to admit I´ve never been so actively concerned about them until today. Why is that, might you wonder? Well, today was my first offical day as a volunteer on an organic farm in Southern Spain, a space-time paradigm away from not-Yale and all it´s considerable charms. Hope and change indeed, eh, Mister President?
Let´s backtrack. While Monday morning saw me atoning away in Temple, Monday evening saw me seated in the Philadelphia airport, breaking my fast with a glass of Merlot. As I boarded the plane to Madrid I realized a few things. One, it´s worth paying for more leg-room on Trans-Atlantic flights even if you ARE five foot nothing and never growing again. Two, airplane wine is delicious if you can get it in bulk. And three, life altering choices to pack up and move to an organic farm in another country seem a lot less scary when you first chose them 6 months ago. Additionlly, The Proposal? Not worth seeing. I know, your mind, it´s blown.
Figuring I couldn´t actually ask to turn around a fully packed plane halfway through the flight to Europe, I went to sleep. When I woke up, cramped and cranky, we were about to arrive in the Madrid Barajas Airport, which may be a lovely building but appears confusing and uncomforable when you are carrying two bags which way aproximatly twice your body weight around it. After a stressful and frantic subway ride from the airport to the train station (three transfers, 4 flights of stairs, 500 regrets that I wanted to save money and didn´t take a cab) I was seated in Madrid´s Atocha Train Station, a beautiful building with a high arched roof and a giant tropical garden right in the middle of the main concourse. Having asked at least 5 people, all who responded with different advice, you HAVE to love the Spanish, really, I finally figured out where to get my tickets and where my train would arrive, and settled down with a nice cup of coffee and and a heaping pile of anxiety. There really are times in ones life when law school feels like the easier option, I swear.
6 hours later I was being shown around an 88 acre farm by Sue Lust, a charming and frankly hilarious English woman who owns and runs Viva Iberica, a horse stud farm with 45 horses, 20 acres of olive trees, 15 acres of almond trees, 4 square acres of grapes, 8 chickens, 4 dogs, 3 geese, an unknown quantity of peacocks (I have NO idea) and one goat. I met my fellow wwoofers, a cheerful array of German girls who look like they stepped out of an Octoberfest poster, unpacked my things, and feel into a deep sleep unencumbered by bags, planes or anxieties, Itá amazing how your body shuts your brain off when you need it to.
I didn´t have to milk the goat today. I did have to feed all the horses twice, pick almonds, groom and excersize a fair amount of the stallions, muck all the stalls and clean the barn. So all of that I´ve got down pat. If only I could settle this milking issue I´m sure I could be running the farm by the end of the week. After all, what more could there possibly be?
No pictures yet, I will post some as soon as I can access wifi on my computer. I did, however, see a dog kill a rabbit this morning. So I´m sure that´s just as good.
Call us "alternative" or "weird" or, as many have through history, "mystical banking lawyers with medical degrees", but we of the nation of Israel have our on special New Year which we consider far superior to the regular "get so drunk you can't remember your own name time". Not only do we get to spend any where from a few hours to an entire day praying at temple, depending on our denomination, but a guy with an uncoiled animal horn plays music for us as we communally speak in a language that sounds like it was developed by a tribe of people with serious sinus problems. Jealous? Well, you should be. Because whatever else it is, our New Year comes at a time when I think we need it most.
Think about it. Fall is the time when the days become shorter, light starts to fade from our part of the world and it's no longer really that acceptable to drink white wine. People are putting on clothing as opposed to taking it off (a practice I really can't support) and the golden promise of summer has faded with the realization that you did approximately one eight of what you had planned to do with your time in the sun. If there is any time to reflect and reconsider just what exactly it is you are doing, it's now.
When I told my friends and family about this decision there were mixed reviews. Some people were delighted by my choice, despite the fact that it seems totally unrelated to my interests, college major, television watching schedule and hair care regime. Others were more skeptical. As my friend Jon and I discussed in our post-synagogue brunch and gimlet fest (Hi Jon!), not only will I be missing a large chunk of pilot season, but I wont be back in the US for a good 7 months. Which is, well, terrifying. But frankly, not as terrifying as staying would be.
Look, my friends have been lucky. They have gotten jobs (which in an of itself is just some miracle right there so it seems my praying on Saturday worked, thanks Rabbi!). In fact some of them have gotten jobs that they actually like, which considering how hard that is at any point in time, not just with the economy looking like it just survived a four car pile up, is amazing. But really while some are doing well more are doing poorly, or not doing anything at all. And as cynical as we can all be (hi, self) the truth is that with the new year dawning, at least, according to the Jewish Calender (seriously, can anyone read that thing? I can't.) when it comes down to it I would rather be doing something to help the world then nothing at all. So come Monday, after the wild and crazy day of fasting which Yom Kippur promises to be, I will be heading off to a more shall we say organic way of doing things. What better way to start the new year?
Please stay tuned, for updates from the farm and all my travels about the great struggle we call the world. No matter what I do or where I go, I can guarantee you, I'm embracing the struggle as it comes.
There are a lot of really good reasons to go to New York Struggle. You might have deluded yourself into thinking that you in every way resemble Audrey Hepburn and need to have yourself a day at the original Tiffany's. You may be in need of a laugh and be visiting the derelict clown college formerly known as Wall Street. You may (shudder) be feeling the need to pay ten dollars for a beer. Or you may, as I myself did this past weekend, be there to visit the black circle of death known as the Chinese Consulate.
Now, I am no stranger to the strange, communistic bureaucracy that is the soviet mentality. I mean, I've lived in Russia, I can understand that as part of our unending loyalty to the state and the revolution we must be comfortable with the fact Struggle Embraces US. Nevertheless, the sheer lack of logic that seems to color all interactions with those of the Red persuasion still has the power to baffle and enrage me, especially when it stands between myself and my carefully constructed travel plans.
Let me explain. My friend Lisa has decided that a cuisine not based on soy is no way to live and has abandoned these United States for a more wok-seared life in the far east. And considering the fact that I will be spending the majority of next year traveling, I thought, hey, why not just add China to the list of places in which I can impose on friends and gawk at foreigners. And so I bought a plane ticket and brushed up on my zen teachings and, as one must when one visits Peoples Republic, took a bus to New York, woke up at 7:45 and walked to the Chinese Consulate, miserably chugging coffee in the pouring rain.
My visa application in hand and my best "non-terrorist" look on my face, I presented my papers to the visa officer. "You're going to China in April? Come back here in March." I patiently explained to the officer that this was not a possibility. She therefore placidly directed me to a line twice as long where I would wait for another, more senior officer. Sandwiched between a Hasidic man and two French teenagers I tried to breathe normally and not imagine killing everyone in sight. When I reached this visa official it took me about twenty minutes to carefully explain to the man that as I would be staying in rural Spain for the next five months it might be hard for me to hire a travel agent who could help me plan my trip to China. Though the look on his face made it clear that he couldn't imagine why I would find such a task difficult, he had me wait, sectioned off from all the other customers, until he could contact HIS senior officer. At this point, I must say, I think I blacked out from the effort of holding back my screams.
Eventually, two lines, two hours and 160 dollars (US, mind you) later I was the proud possessor of a one year Chinese Tourist visa. They placed it a page away from my Russian one. I guess to leave some room for Cuba.
Pictures are not encouraged in the Chinese Consulate. And by not encouraged I mean forbidden. You can take the people out the republic....
Later in the weekend I went to the St. Gennaro festival in little Italy where fat Americans ate everything that is possible to fry and people pray to images of the cross eyed patron saint of disasters. No wonder China want to keep us out.
I don't know if there is something in the water they give you at large private universities like not-Yale, or something in the air, or some subliminal signal they implanted in my sesame street, but I have to say, I'm good at the shmooze. While generations past may have attempted to disregard social conventions and overturn Emily Post, my own peers and I seem to have decided that if there is a cocktail hour happening we are damn well going to be a part of it, and not only because we are resessionistas, but because talking with people twice our age about subjects beyond our comprehension is really what we do best. We as a generation when asked what we are rebelling against can calmly give answers like "racism" or "global warming" or "low rent vodka", rather then upsetting a small town and driving away on a motorcycle (do you know the mortality rating on those things? Incidentally, aren't these horsd'oeuvres fabulous?) Reading social cues and bantering about political situations is the way we roll. Or at least, I thought it was.
I recently was out to brunch with my brother,who is himself a champion level shmoozer, and we ran into an acquaintance of mine who is the sibling of my brother's friend in LA. Now, this young person is, with the exception of their west-coast origins, nearly identical to many of the people I know, private school educated, recently graduated from a high profile college, clearly intelligent, not a terrible dresser. But the thing is, well, the thing is, this kid just can't play the game.
Now, let's be clear here, I'm not saying that I myself don't have my share of awkward moments. I actually probably have more then my share of awkward moments. I could open an awkward moment store and sell some off and still really have enough left for the rest of my life, just to give you an image of my awkward moment reserves. But I at least can carry on a conversation without feeling like I need to phone a friend.
But perhaps I'm being harsh, here. Perhaps I've been deluding myself all these years in thinking that the people around me know what they are doing in public. Perhaps lots of us are struggling to make conversation as they wait in line at the grocery store or for more canapes at a party. Perhaps it's only the weather that is preventing humanity from leaving their homes naked each day because they can't be bothered to dress. And so, for those secret struggles out there, unable to discuss topics which they neither know nor care about at length with virtual strangers, I provide for you now a practical guide to shmoozing:
1. Gently mock yourself. It makes other people feel instantly superior, and therefore, at ease.
2. Once you find out where the other person is from, inquire about that location. For example: You're from Iowa? Wow, is it weird for you to be in a building over two stories and not made of corn husks?
3. When discussing someone else's job, it's wise not to react badly when you find out they do something you neither understand or respect, like hedgefunders or people who make handbags.
4. Talk about T.V. Everybody loves T.V.!
5. If they don't love T.V. just walk away. It's not you, it's them.
I have been told by many that the Fall after your graduation from college is the strangest period of time you may ever experience. The summer may pass you by in it's normal fashion, a blur of trips or internships or jobs or reruns, much the way it always has. We are conditioned from an early age to enjoy the summer, to see it as our vacation time, our respite from school and it's routines. However, as August moves forward I find myself in the period of time in which I usually start to look forward to the beginning of the school year, with it's Target runs and uncomfortable conversations with people whose names you barely remember. This year, though, I'm looking to the future, and I have to say, I'm drawing a blank.
As my friends begin to peel off and start their lives being busy and important in New York (Hi Shaughnessy and Michael), or political and high profile in Washington D.C. (Hi Jon and Elyse!) or snowed in in Chicago (Hi Becca!), or off to Teach for America or save the amazon or perfect their Chinese or Texan, I myself remain here in Struggledelphia, lost in limbo.
Look, it's not that I don't have a plan for the fall, I do, and it's a good one, but more on that later. The truth is that I really think whatever I do now, whatever anyone my age in my situation is doing now, is really a kind of limbo, no matter how well planned it is. It's going to take a while for anything to equal or to feel like the security and stability of an academic setting. And perhaps that is okay, at least for a while. Perhaps security isn't the thing that we should be looking for, but rather instability, not a constant but a variable.
Yesterday I saw the play "Never the Sinner", John Logan's chilling and terrifying look at the relationship, crimes, and trial of Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb. As I watched this superbly performed piece, another fabulous offering from the Maucking Bird Theater Company, I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief. Leopold and Loeb were freshmen in college when they murdered young Robert Franks because, in their own words "they could". Now, I'm not saying that academia necessarily drives people to murder, though, of course, I've never taken multi-variable calculus. But I am saying that, unstable as it might be, I'll take limbo for a little while. A change might do us all some good.
History is scattered with what my middle school gym teacher might call "good efforts". As someone tragically born hand-eye coordination deficient my childhood gym classes were filled with falsely cheerful cries of "nice try, Leah" and "that'll heal with time, we promise!".
But while I wont be entering the Olympics any time soon, unless there's a category for struggle, in which case I'm taking home the gold, I usually can give more then a "good effort" when it comes to other activities, like, say, eating, or mocking, or watching tv. And I do indeed enjoy reading, in fact I'm not half bad at it, I rarely have to look up words, my comprehension makes me moderately amusing at cocktail parties, and I don't shy away from books whose length challenges the bible to a cage match. In fact, some perverse part of my mind attracts me to tomes of great length, maybe because I can use these novels both as reading materials and as small hand weights to tone on the go. The Iliad, Don Quiote, Crime and Punishment, I've slogged my way through several of the world's great books (of course, the term "world's great books" was coined by the older white gentlemen who wrote them, so let's not put too much stock in THAT) and I've enjoyed the process, to some extent. Lost in a world of windmills, ancient cities and names that end in -sky, I've wandered the halls of the western canon, chewed my way through the words of dead men like a bag of potato chips. So this summer when I decided that I should tackle Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina I was looking forward to the wide world of 19th Century Moscow. Lord, was I fool back then.
Look, don't get me wrong. Anna Karenina is a wonderful book, and I'm enjoying it, I really am. I just can't seem to make myself read it. I'm 500 pages in, I'm finally at the point where I can figure out who is who, no small feat considering that ALL THE NAMES ARE THE SAME, and I just can't seem to move forward. Instead of sitting down and reading this great novel, among other things I have done the following:
1. Re-watched the second season of Mad Men. 2. Read the last two Harry Potter books, the Rough Guide to Europe, Sputnik Sweetheart, several Terry Prachitt novels, a book of Chinese folktales, and countless magazines. 3. Considered changing my stance on Lost after seeing a photo of Matthew Lillard with his shirt off. 4. Scolded myself for my shallow, shallow mind. 5. Rented 10 apartments. 6. Memorized the contents of the Sephora website. 7. Spent some time with my good friend wine. 8. Attempted to create the perfect gazpacho. 9. Took a tour of historic Philadelphia. 10. Stared at the cover of Anna Karenina.
So clearly I'm in a weird holding pattern and I think I need a motivational coach or a trainer or something to get me through this. Do they have that sort of thing?
I know you've all been dying to hear from me this past week, and you feel stunned, betrayed, hurt and saddened that I haven't had a chance to write. Maybe you talked to some food about this. Maybe you went a little overboard with the prescription drug and vodka cocktail that I like to call "the junior high delight". But whatever your coping mechanism was, I apologize for putting you through that, and I assure you, I will try not to let it happen again. But Leah, darling struggle of our hearts, you cry, where WERE you? Well, my chickens, I was in the land that time forgot, the world of yesterday, the struggle behind the struggle. Yes, that's right. I went back to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Now, before you moan and groan and beg me to take that silver spoon out of my mouth before it CHOKES me, let me remind you of a few key facts. One, it is now August, so Puerto Rico is face the approximate temperatures usually seen on, say, the surface of Jupiter, or a particularly warm moment in Hell. Two, this event may well have been titled: Puerto Rican Highways have I known, because we spent at least two full days marveling at the complete lack of logic that went into Puerto Rican highway design. And three, most significantly, we went to Home Depot.
There may be people out there that love, nay, adore Home Depot. There may be people who live for the lighting displays, the stacks and stacks of thinly sliced wood, the floor tiles which go on as far as the eye can see. I, however, am not one of them. Frankly, having once gotten lost in a Home Depot at the tender age of six and finding myself sobbing at the front of the store until my parents heard the loudspeaker announcement and came to my rescue, I'm not so much a fan. And despite the claims that everything sounds sexier in another language, asking for drill bits in Spanish didn't really light my fire. Wandering the aisles and aisles of screws and bath fixtures, I couldn't help but think that no matter where you go, home maintenance is a huge bitch. Thanks, terrible economy, for saving me that lesson first hand.
I ended my trip by being an extra in my cousin Jessie's movie, which meant three hours in a studio with 50 other people pretending to be the audience for a fake talk show, Nada Que Perder, or Nothing To Lose. As my aunt Jeanie plastered make-up on my face ("this is no-glow, dios mio, Leah, your skin! You gonna thank me...), I though back to the live iguana I had seen days before, strolling the streets like a lazy tourist. Now that's a creature with nothing to lose. Me, I'm still somewhere in the Home Depot. Check in the kitchen section. I like the stove tops.
When I was but a wee struggle my darling mother,( who deserves some kind of award just in general, I mean, the woman took me to the Renaissance fair like 50 times, I mean, no she didn't, that never happened, kidding!) would tuck my brother and I into bed nightly, intoning that famous line from Hamlet that inspired tenth grade essays the world over and one terrible film. Now, I am quite sure that my mother was not attempting to introduce us to the concept of suicide at such an early age, and in fact I didn't really understand the reference until later in my life. However, recently, as sleep has become more and more of a vanishing commodity in my life, that line torn from the mouth of the melancholy dane has began to haunt me.
Now, I have never been one to experience sleepless nights. With the rare exception I can usually sleep like a log and have through tempests and clear skies alike. When I was younger and my neighborhood was less gentrified and more crack den, I would snooze blissfully, happily unaware of gunshots and police sirens blaring through the night. I had a gift, a rare talent to sleep on regardless of the circumstances, and I don't know what sin I committed, but I think it's gone. Something about the combination of summer heat and attention hungry kittens has wrecked havoc on my ability to sleep, and I find myself waking up at 7am every morning with a start and fitfully tossing and turning until I can no longer pretend that Mr. Sandman is coming back. Then, staring at the expectant furry face of a small demon disguised as a cat, I throw off the covers and head towards the computer for a breakfast date with my boyfriend hulu as light begins to fill my house.
I can't just blame the gatitos, however. The truth is, when you consider the world the way it is today, how can anybody be sleeping that soundly? I swear, sometimes it's like the thought of the new season of Mad Men is the only thing that keeps the world moving. I couldn't say whether I'm waking up every morning because of everything I read in the newspapers or because my back is sometimes mistaken for a scratching post, but I do know this: My waking life may be something of a struggle lately, but it's beating my time asleep hands down. For example, the hole in the ozone layer is shrinking. People seem to have finally stopped talking about Twilight. They recently opened up a new ice cream place a block from my office. The silver lining, my friends. It's out there. Trust me, I wake up early enough in the morning to catch it.
It's been a while since I found a song I loved enough to recommend to anyone, but the creepy sweetness of Joanna Newsome's The Book of Right ON has me hooked.
I like dance the way that I imagine cats like swimming, it's not something I can really do, per se, but I admire the effort in others. I appreciate watching dance, I am excited and fairly un-critical, or, at least, less critical then I am of the things I have any talent at all at, like cooking or walking quickly and efficiently down the street without disrupting other people (yes, crazy mumbling homeless man from this morning, I'm talking to you). So it was with great pleasure that I learned that my mother had gotten free tickets to Balletx, a local company whose work has pushed the envelope that is classical ballet, or so I had heard. Alas, when it comes to my life, nothing is free of struggle, because struggle will, despite ones best efforts, abound like hell.
Feeling pleasantly calm after dinner and two glasses of wine, my mother and I took our seats in the Wilma Theater, surrounded by a fully filled audience of wide eyed theater-goers ready to experience the magic. And, frankly, I'm sort of still waiting.
The show, which was really three separate pieces created by the company and divided by two intermissions (which was the first mark against it, I mean, two intermissions? Seriously? Don't these people dance full length ballets? If the outfits for each piece are just various different sweatpants can't we just cut some time and save ourselves the price of a costume designer? Come on, now), began with a dance that showed us all why most dancers never cross into acting (though they SHOULD). The dancers, standing in a line on a blank stage staring seriously into the audience began moving awkwardly yet gracefully (awkward in a way only really graceful people can be) and speaking short lines of text that were repeated over and over again like a round. The next piece featured four "set" pieces that resembled four small barres which the dancers had to awkwardly trundle around the stage as they lept and moved to four very different songs. The last piece, and my personal favorite, was a vicious and stirring dance to Ravel's Bolero, a piece of music I have always enjoyed. I will say this, that what made this piece stand of from the two others was the violence and savagery in the dance, juxtaposed with the song itself. Swan Lake, eat your heart out.
Look, don't get me wrong, these are some amazing dancers. Most of them come from our best ballet company, and their training and precision is impeccable and evident. Their sheer abilities are wonderful, but at the end of the evening I was left with the question of why? Why had they made these pieces? What was the purpose? Each one was too close to ballet to be truly groundbreaking or innovative, but far enough away to feel like modern. The images themselves were interesting, but what did they evoke? What lasted from this encounter other then my continued appreciation for Ravel and my envy of the svelte ballet silhouette? I couldn't really tell you.
I must say, I do so enjoy this season. Some might say that Spring and Fall are the best of all possible times, and I understand that those times of year are delightful in their own way, all temperate and breezy and whatever, but me, I like the Summer, I really do. I like the heat, I even like sweating, as my friend Lisa says, there is something that feels healthy about it, even though she is far too much of a lady to hug someone while she is doing it (me, of course, I have no such a compulsion, ask my mother's silk shirt collection if you are curious). And, well, as for the humidity that haunts our fair city of Struggledelphia, well, my hair wasn't going to be up to any good in the best of circumstances, so really, I can't complain.
But it's the humidity that really gets me. Living in a city means putting up with a lot of strange smells under normal circumstances, but something about the combination of humidity and sunlight really brings out the bouquet, shall we say, of this fine wine that is a Struggledelphian summer. On my way to an appoint the other day I walked through Rittenhouse Square park, a wonderful place to people watch, eat your lunch, and watch women of many nationalities and cultures care for white children. I fondly remember a wonderful evening I spent in the park with my friend Mariel as we dined on Japanese food and bud light and heckled capoeristas as the sun set. Good times. Anyway, on this particularly painfully hot afternoon as the sun beat down turning my once cute outfit into a hot mess of awkward looking, I turned my head to see a Labrador retriever calmed seated in the fountain, up to his doggy ears in water. Is it wrong to be jealous of a dog? Well, if it is, then I don't want to be right.
Looking into the eyes of this particular canine, I saw a spark of understanding in his gaze. "Find your own fountain", he seemed to say. Would that I could, my friend, would that I could. Shaking my frizzy little head, I headed off to the free library to pick up the book on Fidel Castro and compilation of Chinese fairy tales I ordered. I told the librarian I have eclectic taste.
Of course all that humidity had to end at some point, and now it seems monsoon season has reached the east coast. The rain scares the hell out of my cats, and hilarity ensues. Unlike a certain dog I know, they don't seem to be big on water.
For those who live in or around the proud city of Struggledelphia The Barnes Foundation will not come as an unfamiliar name. However, as I try to account for those of you not living in our beautiful town of corrupt politicians and dreadful public transportation. I know, I'm really selling this place. The truth of the matter is that I very much adore Struggledelphia in all of it's insanity because it is that same level of crazy that has us hosting "The Fattest Day of Summer" (beautifully covered at Philebrity.com), or the hipster's paradise in cycle form, a biking and sodium filled evening once a week of pretzels and skinny jeans, or the Barnes.
The Barnes Foundation has faced a huge amount of scandal in the last couple years, and I certain don't feel qualified to explain the history of the foundation (not that that usually stops me) but suffice to say, the Barnes is a large art museum located in the suburbs of Struggledephia. In the museum hangs one of the largest private collections of impressionist art in the world, which was painstakingly collected by Mr. Albert Barnes, who, as my friend Andrew described him, must have been like Henry Clay Frick on crack. . Mr. Barnes developed some kind of pharmaceutical product (oh for the days before the Food and Drug Administration. My dreams of being a traveling con-man/doctor will never be fulfilled now) which earned him his millions and allowed him to pursue his true passion, Art. Barnes went on to buy lots and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of art, which he offered to the Struggledelphia Museum of Art, who found Cezanne's landscapes and Renoir's cherubs outrageously avant garde, and rejected him out of hand. Not to be defeated, Mr. Barnes established his own damn museum, which now is available only by appointment, at least until it gets moved to it's new downtown location in the next few years. However, given the lawsuits surrounding the move (Barnes specified in his will that the collection was never to be moved or re-arranged) that might take a while.
Where do I come into this story? Well, in celebration of my 22 years on this planet, my friends Andrew and Becca were in town for the weekend, and, savvy art history majors that they are (were? what's the etiquette here?) they decided that we should sojourn to the suburbs and face the museum head-on. And what is the museum, you ask? It is a struggle. A huge, terribly displayed, wildly strange, Renoir filled struggle with strange iron hinges and tools hung next to and surrounding each painting like some kind of medieval torture chamber with an appreciation for bowls of artfully rendered peaches. There is amazing art in this museum, beautiful stunning paintings that beg to be seen and studied, but four rooms in you realize a series of things:
1. Renoir is unbearable for more then two paintings in a row. Barnes bought his whole studio. 2. Putting tiny paintings close to the ceiling of a room may deter perspective thieves, but only because no vision is strong enough to see the thing from the ground. 3. African tribal masks? Great. Matisse? Great. But not in the same room. (I'm having nightmares)
This museum is, in short, a thrill ride of crazy with some struggle thrown in for good measure. I salute you, Mr. Barnes. You make struggle look easy.
I don't know what it is about birthdays, but they always strike me as odd events. When you are little they are whirlwinds of excitement and cake, and, because at that age it's still acceptable, you can have a theme. I remember one favorite birthday when my parents had a woman from the Struggledelphia Zoo come in with cages full of live animals and I spent the day joyously chasing roosters around my yard with a boa constrictor decorating my shoulders a la Britney Spears. I also got to hold a hedgehog. Best day ever. But, as we grow older and wiser, we tend to shy away from parties with matching Aladdin napkins and plates, and are more attracted to parties with matching tequila shots.Certainly last year, my 21st birthday, was celebrated with the theme of "shwasted". I fondly recall proudly stepping into a Strugglevania liquor store and presenting the clerk with every form of id in my wallet, including my Russian student visa and my library card. She was unimpressed, but she gave me my first legally purchased alcohol ever. I guess Cyrillic wasn't her best subject.
Some might say that 22 is a massive let down from the birthdays which have come before it. It doesn't have the wide eyed wonder of my zootastic event or my Disney themed pizza party. I don't feel like a responsible part of the country like I did at 18 with my new-found ability to vote and buy pornographic materials (anyone else think it's weird that those two go together? Don't blame Clinton. It's not his fault. Damn you Supreme Court!). I have been legally drinking for a year (sorry, liver) and so the bloom is sort of off that rose. So do I have to look forward to as I celebrate my departure from the womb? The world being what it is, and me being a young college grad fighting not to be nauseous when observing the job market, honestly I think there are times when we all wish we could just hop back in.
But I'm choosing to take a more positive approach, and view this birthday as a step forward. Hope and change, right? I mean, that's what I voted for. In my power yoga class (which I take twice a week with my parents. Say it with me: Never been cool) a middle aged father of two with huge tattoos and a shiny bald head guides us through an hour of intense poses and stretches in a room heated to 100 degrees. While my usual response to his voice goes something along the lines of "oh, for the love of god stop talking and get to the part where we lie down on the ground because my arms are about the EXPLODE", he did say something the other day that made me think. When discussing pain, like the pain that shoots down my legs in downward dog as I scowl at my feet and sweat, he said that what pain really is is change. We feel the pain of changing when do something different, and difficult as the pain can be to stand, it's that pain that makes us something better.
I'm all for self improvement. Especially now that I can legally drink my way through it. So as painful as growing older may be, I say, bring it on. Another year of struggle, coming up.
Leah Franqui is a fairly interesting person/director/writer/reader/eater/drinker. She likes ugly dogs and dislikes her hair in the morning. She's a sucker for environmental causes and plays hardball with deals on chewing gum. She is a struggle.