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.
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.