Tuesday, February 8, 2011

European Adventures in Blue

A few bits and bobs written on the road:


Life on the road is, and always will be, a life half-lived. We scramble from one train to the other, one hotel to the next, in a sort of intent desperation to see the most of this world in the shortest period of time. We live in cafes and hotel rooms and long unwashed clothes. There are so many things happening at once, every single day, that we begin to forget dates, countries, languages. I almost forget my birthday. I no longer can remember the feel of sleeping in my own bed. Our adventures in blue begin in Madrid, a bit before New Years Eve. Our first hotel is in the city, up the art deco apartment buildings. Sometimes I get awoken by either gunshots or firecrackers, I cannot settle on which. Spaniards are kind and helpful, but it only serves to make me feel guiltier. I am a tourist verbose in all the wrong areas. Too pompous or self important to bother learning Spanish (English may be universal, but only in American standards, that is, none at all) I feel thick, daft and unapproachable. Going to a coffee shop, supermarket, pub or post office leaves me in a state of constant self-loathing. I’m too fucking righteous to bother with hola or per favour or gracias and not through rudeness, but I’m simply too dim-witted to commit such things to memory, and so fucking imperialistic and ignorant, I ignore an entire country’s nuances, customs and history. Because that’s what language is, all the history is held in that gentle Spanish, and wars have been launched in those tongues, yet I can’t be bothered. Truth be told and in my heart of hearts my mode of thought is that I figure most people speak English anyway. They don’t, as the next month with reveal, but I’m happy in the delusion for now.

Our second hotel in Madrid is further out, a metro ride away to the business district. It’s an odd, soulless place, where human beings live alongside sterile display shops and highways, and it reminds me of Adelaide. Cars line the streets in haphazard order. Balconies are narrow and geometric and somebody’s decided that they should all look the same. Between our hotel and the metro station is an old style Spanish bungalow run down and awash in graffiti. It appears abandoned, but a small shiny modern house number and letterbox gives itself away. Madrid is a welcome warmth from the bitter frost of London. 16 degrees and we’re peeling off jackets. I imagine the streets in summer as something resembling hell. The heat would simmer above the black asphalt and a thick fog of pollution and dust would settle in swollen clouds on the horizon. I wonder if people would be outside then, when their tiny flats grow too hot, whether they would spill in cheerful clusters onto the streets and small armies of children would swot basketballs over the clay court near the metro station.

Madrid itself, the city I mean, when we finally get stuck into it, is rather charming. The first restaurant we go to cheerfully attempts to decipher our poor Spanish and desperate hand gestures. They appear to find us funny, which is a far sight nicer than just being rude which is what we are really. By the end of the conversation, three waiters are serving us and we’re all nodding and speaking English with a European lilt in a bizarre bid for clarity. The waiters seem genuine young fellows, and tolerate Tina’s continual “but is it Vegetarian?” with as much patience as genuine young fellows can allow. We’ve all ordered insalate, a salad, except for Thomas who has resolutely ordered a hot dog in some sort of odd determination of American tourism. Or perhaps he just felt like a hot dog. Our salads are enormous, I would say ginormous except I have a fear of using words that when written on the page look like sexually transmitted diseases. But there, I’ve said it anyway. Our ginormous bowls of salad arrived and Tina’s, rather lovingly, was garnished with a heap of tuna. Embarrassed smiles and pointing ensued until her bowl was whipped away and returned minus the offensive tuna.

The rest of Madrid is just as kind. Streets are broad and sunny, architecture is tall and impressive but never imposing. The sidewalks are the size of football fields, and locals enthusiastically walk small dogs (the kind that can fit in city apartment doorways without breathing in) through large manicured parks. What space has been afforded in exterior endeavours is lost inside; shops are two feet wide and ten feet long yet seem to accommodate an entire bar, coffee machine and gaggles of elderly men puffing wisely on pipes. I know ’gaggle’ seems a word only afforded to young girls who chatter, but really there is no word better to describe these ancient monoliths in cloth caps and crumpled shirts.

I only know Madrid through it’s Metro stops, so if you get off at Sol you will inevitably find yourself flushing into an H&M quicker than you can say ‘globalisation.’ But the Metro stop of Opera will be a much more cultural experience, and a short canter will find you the palace and the parliament and probably a few art galleries I never entered. Apparently when I was three I briefly met the King and Queen of Spain and hit it off in a gurgly childish way, but nobody waved hullo from the palace windows or blew trumpets or even brought out a photo album, so I pretended to look at the view and left with dignity intact.
At some point, perhaps on our last day, Tasman and I wandered the Madrid botanical gardens, and it was marvellous. Whoever keeps all that grass trimmed and shrubs shaped in such an intricate fashion should be given a small city in thanks.
Somewhere leading off the palace gardens are some rather misleading stairs, and one can spend the afternoon admiring their ability to not function as steps in any shape or form.
In the evening for reasons unknown to everyone, Tasman and I end up at an Irish themed bar and drink a litre of genuine Irish-Spanish sangria served by a Portuguese bartender and discuss how the Exeter would be ten times better if they served beer nuts too. However, soon we realise the beer nuts would soon be employed in their primary use as missiles between one drunkard to another, and we reach a sangria stupor discussing the ‘misuse of privileges’ in tones that may suggest budding head teachers.

A night later, New Years Eve is a crowded but strangely muted affair in the town square. In true tradition, the Aves and the other tourists stuff grapes into their faces every second in the twelve seconds leading to the big ding-dong-turn-of-the-century and I almost vomit the whole lot up with six seconds to go. Indeed for a crowd so big, there’s little hoo-hah at zero, and we all go home an hour later with that strange suspicion that it might not have been New Years at all and our grape eating antics will be on Youtube tomorrow.
Eventually it is time to leave Madrid, and Tasman and I catch a train (first class, too!) to Barcelona in order to catch a connecting train to Carcassonne in the South of France. As our train pulls out of the station I begin my usual internal good-byes (though I must admit, if there’s one thing we don’t need to say good-bye to it’s cities, as unless there’s a freak wave or a Basque militant decides to hide a few bombs in the glove compartment of a parked Audi they will generally always be there. Surely there are more fleeting things to bid goodbye to; sandwiches that reach the upper echelons of taste, for example. Or people that casually ask you the time on the street). We speed through the back of the city, in what will become the first of our many many many train journeys through Europe. The scene, which seems so familiar now, then felt rather odd. It is an odd introduction, when your first and last impression of a city will always be those back of buildings and desolate warehouse districts and container yards and oil fields and graffitti scrawled walls, ledges, roofs, tunnels and chimneys. It’s rather like first meeting somebody when they’re stark naked; it feels impolite to comment, but it can’t be ignored. The train lines seem to be where builders have given up any hope of getting a decent wad of buildings together to look presentable, and have left them to their own devices and built bits on bits. As usual I’m amazed at the amount of people that can live per square metre. On every third apartment balcony hangs a blow up Father Christmas (he’s climbing, not hanging, I should say) with countless sacks of inflatable goodies in his bag. The cheerful little fellow is clinging with the sort of determination that is the stuff of his legend, but I will still always wonder how children still believe in him when there’s fifteen of him climbing into their apartment block every year.
As the train speeds further on the builders have become lazier. Sometimes they haven’t even bothered to put glass in the windows, or paint on the walls. Of course, it all seems rather humorous, but really watching this world go by is dreadfully sobering in reality. When we speed past the real shanty towns, bits of corrugated iron and washing and tarpaulins is when none of it is funny anymore, and it all feels a little claustrophobic. But luckily we’re in that wonderful void of first class train journeys, and pompous young waiters are plying us with gin and tonics and meals and complimentary earphones, so shanty towns begin to feel a very long way away. Several classes away, in fact.
Despite the fact that Tasman and I are giggling at how fast the train seems to be going, that we get given free things, and that we have free use of wall plugs under the arm rest, nobody sternly tells us to leave, or even gives us an ‘eyes to the Heavens’ look. Salud to that, dear friend.

Lucy Campbell

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