the diary thing 
BACK ON THE BUS. We've just learned that our bus driver won't take us into Madrid today, since there's some kind of bus driver's strike or lock-out happening in the city, and he doesn't want to risk driving into the town, where protesters might attack the bus. One of those European labour disputes we read about in the paper, the kind of thing conservative governments and the EU are trying to eliminate. We'll be dropped off at the train station in Avila, Marguerita tells us, clearly furious at the driver.

I'VE BEEN LOOKING FORWARD to seeing Avila, if only for a glimpse of the town's walls, one of a handful of surviving medieval fortified towns left intact. I'm probably asleep, though, before we're out of Salamanca, and when I'm nudged awake by Dennis an hour or so later, my head jerks up and the first thing I see is the walls of Avila.

The bus heads for one of the gates of the town, where we pick up our guide, who then has us driven back to a couple of choice vantage points of the town for photos -- it's obvious that there's no way any of us can sell our pieces back home without what might be the most picturesque view of the trip. We all scramble our of the bus and scatter all over the roadside to get our shots. It's faintly ridiculous, but I'm certain that all of us will come home with a few shots to make our friends and editors gasp. Nothing beats castle walls for sheer, graphic value.

One of the best views of the city is from Los Quatro Postes ("The Four Posts"), a shrine across the Adaja river from the city where St. Theresa and her brother were supposed to have been stopped on their way to seek martryrdom by the Moors. Inevitably, I suppose, a painter sits there working on a view while our group clambers around the rocks taking pictures. While I'm loading my camera, Chris, one of the English women from B.C., comes up to me.

"I've just had the most unpleasant encounter," she says. "I asked the painter over there if I might take a picture of him at work with the city in the background, and he told me to basically bugger off."

I chuckle with what I hope sounds like sympathy.

"Artists," I say distractedly. "Absolutely the scum of the earth. Ill-mannered and sociopathic, the lot of them."

She turns to me with a look of dismay. "I don't think that's true. Many of my friends happen to be artists, and I always have a lovely time with them."

So much for the much-vaunted English sense of irony, I say to myself. But, foolishly, I can't let it rest.

"Not in my experience. Most of my friends are artists and I wouldn't trust a one of them. Egotistical and narcissistic. Best avoided."

"I must admit I find your attitude quite negative."

I shrug and turn back to my camera as she walks away.

ALL IN ALL, AVILA IS somewhat disappointing -- I'd somehow expected something a bit less tourist-y, though in retrospect I don't know what I was expecting. We head to the monastery of Encarnacion, where St. Theresa spent 27 years, and are shown the visitation cells where she experienced the visions that inspired her saintly career. I doubt if there's a religious person in the group, in any devout sense, but everyone is appropriately solemn, of course, except for Dennis, who mutters the odd irreverent comment under his breath to me. Our guide, Elena, is very nice, however, and quite devoted to the Saint in a benign way, so we don't want to offend her.

Back at the city walls, we get off the bus and walk around one of the gates, near where a section of the fortifications have been restored for public access. Dennis points out the tiny lizards that live in the stones, and seem to provide food for the flocks of birds wheeling overhead. Michael strolls across the grassed-in moat to take some close-ups.

On our way into the Church of San Vincente, Bob gets into a religious discussion with Helen and whoever might be nearby. He's talking about the comparitively recent acceptance of agnosticism and athesim in public life, and how it's still basically impossible for anyone to get elected to any prominent political office who doesn't, even just cynically, profess (Christian) religious faith, especially in the States. 

"That reminds me of my mother," Helen tells him. "I keep telling her I'm an atheist, but she keeps saying 'No dear, you're just an agnostic.'"

Everyone laughs, and I say, "That sounds like such a mom thing to say."

Suddenly, I hear Chris behind me. "Shut up," she hisses. "I'm a mother, you know."

I pretend I don't hear her. The tension, inevitably, has begun to show.

OUR TOUR OF AVILA peters out before we get a chance to see the Cathedral, while the group is left to wait by a tacky tourist stand inside the gate to the Plaza de Sta. Teresa. Bored and sunburned, we walk through the gate to the plaza and end up in a cafe, sipping beers. By now, I'm starting to get an inkling that I'm not well. I'm feeling nauseous, and my skin is feeling prickly, like my pants are lined with sandpaper. When the rest of the group sets off for the bus to the local parador for lunch, Bob, Vincent, Dennis and I tell them we'll catch up with them shortly, after we've finished our beers. 

My appetite is gone by lunch, and I can barely make a dent in the huge veal steak that's placed in front of me. I know I'll regret that later. Marguerita makes a joke about drinking too much, and asks the waiter to bring me some aspirin.

"The young Madrileños stand together in groups, or lounge on the seats or chairs, remarking very audibly on the women and young girls who pass and repass before them; it is as though they appraised their beauty, and would cheapen it with fantastic compliments."
- The Cities of Spain (1925)
Edward Hutton

Spain -- days six to ten. The end of the trip. A long one.

ON THE TRAIN TO MADRID, I find myself sitting next to Matt, a young American travelling around the country after finishing his courses in Salamanca. He's off to Paris to meet his girlfriend, and seems to want to talk. His voice, however, is sullen and faintly resentful, and I suspect he's about ready to head home. He nods with his head at a little girl and her family, in the seats ahead of us.

She's about seven or eight, and very loud. With a succession of shrieks and squeals, she demands in turn the attention of her family around her, parents and grandparents, and interrupts their conversations frequently. They seem unperturbed, and give her whatever she wants: attention, a piece of fruit, a drink from their bottle of water.

"Look at that little girl," Matt mumbles to me. "She's so spoiled. Spanish kids are the most spoiled kids in Europe, I swear. The parents here don't give them any discipline at all." His voice is dripping with disgust.

I might have mentioned that most Europeans have the same opinion of American children, though he probably has a point. The well-behaved European child, held in check by strict family structures and neighbourhoods that act like villages, is becoming a thing of the past, as neighbourhood bars and bakeries give way to Pizza Huts and Dunkin' Donuts in the big cities, and the example of mass tourism in the villages. Gaudy, sensationalistic Spanish television might have something to do with it, or the new preference for smaller families. I might have had just such a discussion, but Matt doesn't seem too interested in what I have to say, and in any case, I'm feeling sick and tired, and nod off to sleep after a few minutes of polite agreement with his opinions.

RIGHT OUT OF THE TRAIN STATION, we pour ourselves into taxicabs and head down the Paseo de la Castellanas into the old town. It might be unfair, but my first impression of Madrid is hardly favourable. The Paseo is a broad boulevard, bordered on either side by highrises and glistening office blocks. We might be anywhere in the world, and I imagine that Buenos Aires or Sao Paolo or any major South American capitol has a street like this, lined with headquarters of business and government and expensive apartment buildings, some guarded by soldiers in fatigues with machine guns across their chests.

Downtown Madrid is a bustling jumble of streets, snarling traffic and the odd plaza opening up with a square and a fountain before it's swallowed again in the wall of eight or ten-storey buildings. I know there are two large parks somewhere off to either side, but I don't glimpse them once. I can imagine it must be oppresive here at the height of summer.

Our hotel has a nicer name than it deserves -- Hotel de la Opera -- and the theatre for which it's named, on an adjacent square, is specacularly ugly. We have the evening free, so I put my bags in the room and search out a nearby cybercafe to send e-mails home. I stumble back to the hotel, suddenly quite drained, and intend to have a nap before heading out on the town.

I'm woken up by Vincent, phoning from the lobby to remind me to meet them there. My joints are aching and my head is swimming and I tell him I'd probably better not. By the time Dennis phones me, around midnight, they've been drinking absinthe with Den's buddies from Madrid and try to coax me out. I'm nauseous and shivering and the sheets feel like sandpaper. I tell him it's probably not a good idea.

I spend seventeen hours in bed with a 24-hour flu. I suppose I can thank either the jet-lag or the exchange rate for the seven hour gift. I can barely remember drifting in and out of sleep, watching the Spanish version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and being impressed with how closely they cloned the show, and how much more difficult the questions seem. I watch CB4, a Chris Rock film that I'd seen on television a couple weeks before at home. In Spanish, they translate the "gansta" characters into Spanish 

using the Madrileño street slang* that I've heard Dennis use for years. For some reason CNN, broadcast in English, has no sound. I notice that my room seems to tilt slightly toward the street, and that this makes the blood rush to my head as I lie in bed. I can hear the couple in the room next door as clearly as if they were in my tiny room with me.

I WAKE UP AT NOON the next day, feeling better, yet somehow unrefreshed. I decide to treat myself to a shave, and trot up to the peluqueria up the street from the hotel. It's a good shave. I buy some aspirin on the way back to the hotel to meet the group for the day's outing.

After a nice lunch of tapas at a bullfight afficionadoes' bar on a fasinating, seedy square, we meet our guide outside the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language and head off to the Prado after a short lecture on the functions of the academy, which seem, I have to say, entirely ceremonial, except when they were forced to fold the Spanish letters "Ll" and "Ch" into the "L" and "C" sections of the dictionary for reasons of efficiency and modernity.

Our guide seems nice enough, but I've had enough of guides, and leave the group to wander the Prado alone. I'm willing to let myself be led around an unfamiliar town by a guide, but I've spent a lot of time in museums, and can find my way around just fine without a short lecture on Goya or Velasquez, every few minutes, or the pressure to keep up. 

It's a good thing, since the Prado is one of those museums, like the Met in New York, or the Louvre, where you turn a corner and find yourself looking at a canvas or a sculpture that you've seen a thousand times in books or prints, and are suddenly brought up short with how small, or large, or dark, or delicate, or blue or yellow it actually is. I spend twenty minutes in front of Hieronymous Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights", and Brueghel's "The Triumph of Death", both in the same room, across from each other. I scrutinize the Brueghel, one of my favorite paintings, from inches away. I feel suddenly so much better.

I walk slowly through the rooms of El Grecos, but find myself hurrying up when I look at my watch and realize that, with ten minutes to go, I haven't gotten near the Goyas. I find myself brought up short, however, by the enormous portraits of the Bourbon monarchs of Spain, the principal benefactors of the museum. They are, without exception, the ugliest, perhaps the stupidest-looking lot I've ever seen, a real testament to the perils of inbreeding. Finally, I have to leave, the Goyas unseen. Perhaps another time. The museum is closing.


Three words basically form the kernel of the slang Castillian spoken in Madrid. Learn these words and interject them into your broken Spanish and you'll never be mistaken for a first-time tourist.

HOSTIAS: Literally, "host". A classic example of a religious term turned into an epiphet, the Madrileño equivalent of "Goddamn" or "Jesus Christ". An even more colourful epiphet is used in the countryside, and involves variations on the phrase Yo cagan en la leche de la Virgen: literally, "I shit in the milk of the Virgin". Variations include "I shit in the milk", "I shit in the sea", and "I shit on the whore that bore you".

COÑO: Literally, "cunt", but not as emphatic or derogatory as puta. Used as an exclamative, with the second syllable drawn out ("Co-ñoooo"), it usually means the equivalent of "Oh yeaaah" or "Riiiight". I've also heard it used in Cuba and by South Americans.

TIO: Literally, "uncle". The equivalent of "man". "Hostias, tio" would be almost the same as "Goddamnit, man".

detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights

detail from "The Garden of Earthly Delights"

THE FAREWELL DINNER FOR THE GROUP is at the hotel, where an okay meal is accompanied by entertainment, as the lights in the room dim periodically and one of our wait staff begin serenading us with arias or zarzuelas. It's incredibly tacky, and made even more so by the adoring group of elderly Finnish tourists grinning beatifically during the singing, and the ballots they distribute at dessert, which encourage us to vote for our favorite singers. Dennis is having a hard time holding back his giggles. At the other end of the table, Vincent looks like he's in pain.

Michael leaves first, and I hand him one of my business cards -- it seems a small courtesy from one photographer to another. Angela gets up to leave, but stops at our end of the table with a look of mischief. 

"I came up with a name for you lot, back in Salamanca," she says, indicating Dennis, Bob and I. "I called you the 'Three Muskedildos'." 

Dennis breaks into guffaws. "Very good. I like it."

I feel vaguely insulted.

After the group breaks up, the Muskedildos, plus Vincent (an honourary fourth) head off for a final night on the piss. Dennis takes us to a seedy little neighbourhood near the Plaza del 2 del Mayo, a bohemian-looking district full of punk rock bars and drunken students staggering down narrow streets. We bar hop for awhile till we find a congenial place with nice tapas, where I treat myself to an absinthe or two. Out on the street, we run into two young girls, one of whom has a fascination with Quebecois cinema and attaches herself to Vincent, while the other one giggles and makes drunken banter with us while leaning against Bob. Dennis tries to coax them out to a further bar, but just as quickly as they appear, they're gone, re-absorbed into the shifting crowd of young people. I feel suddenly very old.

We finally catch a cab back to the hotel, and stand by the elevator for a minute or two exchanging farewells. Dennis' room in on the second floor, so he sees us off into the tiny lift. The doors close, and we stop laughing for a moment. 

"Who was that guy?" Bob asks us, earnestly. We're laughing again.

VINCENT AND I CATCH A TRAIN to Barcelona the next day. My friend John meets me at the station, and I bid Vincent adieu -- I've given him John and Rosa's number, and offered to meet him for dinner, but I'm sure he's probably seen enough of me, and everyone else in the group, for the moment.

Hutton didn't think much of Barcelona. "...Alone of all the cities of Spain, I found Barcelona hateful; and even now I can't think of it without a sort of distress." Barcelona, to Hutton, was too modern, too "full of restlessness, an unnatural energy, haunted by the desire for gain." I find it charming and lovely, just enough like home to be comfortable, just different enough to feel exotic. John and Rosa describe it as a provincial city, and express the good citizen's dismay at the changes to it. They talk about their trip to Rome, about the quality of the food, and the stunning antiquity of the buildings and streets. I laugh, and tell them that K. and I talk about Barcelona in exactly the same way.

bar coaster from the BoadasIt's nice and quiet at John and Rosa's. They're busy people, and while Rosa spends the day in her office translating dubbing dialogue for Catalan television, John and I sit at either end of the dining room table, John busy on his new laptop with final touches on an essay he and Rosa have translated into English, myself with my maps and my brochures and itinerary, trying desperately to reconstruct the last week. At night, we head out for dinner and drinks. They take me to the Boadas, my favorite bar in Barcelona, a virtual New Yorker cartoon come to life. I love it here.

John takes me for a walk through the town to show me the changes that have happened since I was here, two years ago. A poor neighbourhood near their street has been levelled, with a boulevard cut through and tidy new apartments built to replace the snarled streets and tenements that grew up there over a few hundred years. The face of the city has changed a bit, as well.

"Spain has liberalized its immigration policy recently," he tells me, and I notice that the neighbourhoods being razed and re-built are full of Arabic street signs. The faces we pass are often black, thought their Spanish sounds perfect. The legacy of colonies and dissolved empires. 

"Of course, there's been a lot of fuss about it, but I don't mind it at all," John says. "It reminds me of Toronto, really."

He takes me across the old town to the cathedral, and past there across the Via Laietana to the poor neighbourhood where he first lived when he moved here. It's also being razed, to make way for an east-west boulevard planned years ago, supposed to cut across the Ribera to the park and the neat, grid-like streets of the Eixample beyond. They've shut down the Santa Caterina market as well, and in demolishing it came across the foundations of a convent and a necropolis. 

I come back a day later to take pictures of the half-demolished apartments nearby, then squeeze through the storm fencing around the ruined market to look at the excavations. They've been left half-done, a great pile or red earth by the former entrance to the market, and long, maze-like pits lined with crumbling brick fill the empty space, bounded by the still-standing walls of the market, some buttressed with steel I-beams. Around it, the tenement apartments with their spidery t.v. antennas and newer satellite dishes ring the site like a wall. It's chilly, and threatens to rain, the same weather I left at home in Toronto. They've opened a Pizza Hut at the entrance to the Boqueria, the grand old food market off the Rambla. My train leaves tonight.

BACK IN TORONTO, I'm told that the big sensation while I'm away is a show called "Survivor", where a group of people with little in common are stranded on a desert island and have to vote each other off each week, one by one. The simmering personal tensions that fester have become major topics in the media, on web sites and around office lunchrooms. I wonder why they had to bother with the desert island -- any tour bus would probably do.

and writing 
Rick McGinnis
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