Later in August
I walk out of my building and a wall of party hits me, coming down the cobblestones. In this particular instant, a lovely lady with long brown curly hair advances toward Calle de Toledo, on the arm of her benevolent boyfriend as she talks with her lookalike gal friend. No sooner does the trio pass me by - I am headed in the opposite direction, Calle de Cava Baja, epicenter of the fiesta - than little rainy pebbles of sadness within me suddenly evaporate and my mood lifts like mist off a lake.
The music pounds, synchronized speakers from neighboring bars dumping merengue. Trumpets chatter. Vocals holler. A woman in pigtails off to the side of the road swirls her short skirt. She knows all the words. The crowd surges around her.
Generally it takes a minute flat for me to walk to Willow’s. I’ve timed it. Tonight it might take five. It’s 10pm on Thursday night of La Fiesta de la Virgen Paloma and lines for the outdoor bars merge with streams of revelers. Groups of men and women groove to the music in the narrow street. I feel a little helpless and stuck, like when I enter the Sol metro through the fenced-off walkways slammed with tourists negotiating the construction area.
Still, when I arrive at Willow’s I know I have to call Robert. “I don’t want to go up to his place anymore,” I explain to her. “We were going to sing sad songs, which would be nice any other time but I’m done being sad for today.”
Robert finally picks up. “Oh good, you answered!” I exclaim.
“I couldn’t find my phone. Did you call many times?” he asks.
“No, no, this is the first. I am at Willow’s now and, well, the festival is in full swing and it’s making me happy. Is there any way you would consider -”
“Oh, I thought the parties were just Friday and Saturday night. You want me to come there? Sure. Anything you want.”
Robert lives in the north of the city, not very near us. Yet he is willing to quickly eat his dinner (10pm is dinnertime) and come down on the bus. After I hang up I say, unnecessarily, to Willow, “Robert is wonderful.”
“So,” she says, “why are you upset?”
“I’m not upset. Sad.” Willow understands me better than almost anyone else, even though we have known each other barely two months, so I don’t mind correcting her. “Sometimes both occur together, but not in this case.” I lean back in her computer chair, unfocus my eyes toward the squat round glass table halfway between us. “Starts with a ‘A’ and ends in ‘lexander.’”
“Oh?” She gets up and goes into the bathroom for something.
“I’m still in love with him.”
Willow comes back. She scans her bookshelves, pulls out a volume, turns to me. “Here.” She hands me a medium-large paperback bearing the calligraphied title, 100 Love Sonnets of Pablo Neruda. “This might make you feel the way you want to feel.”
I’m inclined to think she’s wrong. How could odes to a poet’s mistresses ameliorate a broken heart? I take the book, because I trust her implicitly.
“I need it back,” she cautions.
“It’s a pretty good book, despite the disaster of a cover.”
Thinking she is referring to the condition of the book, I flip through it briefly and answer, “It’s fine.”
“Obviously you don’t feel the same way about pink that I do,” she giggles.
I check out the front again: a background the color of pink candy hearts superimposed by a grid of small red dots.
“Oh, I see. It looks kind of diseased,” I concur.
I look up as Gipsy Kings music blares through the open window. Baila baila baila! Baila baila baila me! “I’m not sure I can stand another night of this on endless repeat,” Willow says with a wry laugh. Then she looks up and about her beautiful studio apartment, anchored by marble floor, draped with cushions and scarves, and cries, “There’s a DJ right outside my window! Playing the same music till 3:30 in the morning!” She gives over to more laughter.
“I’m surprised that people in Spain like this music,” I remark.
“Oh, it’s great music. I’m really glad the DJ downstairs is not playing horrible disco.”
“I mean - generally the music that the rest of the world associates with a particular culture or subculture, is music that the culture in question tends to hate. In the States, when people think of Spain, they think of flamenco, and Gipsy Kings are very popular there. Also, most people in the States think that swing dancers all love the song ‘In The Mood.’”
“Oh, OK, I gotcha,” Willow says. “But no, this is really good music.”
“I’m glad it’s appreciated here. The Portuguese bakery across the street from where I used to live played these guys a lot.”
“Yes, in Boston. Somerville.”
Pero yo siempre cantare, the Kings continue to declare, in the street.
“Maybe you should sleep at Robert’s tonight. He has a lot of extra space, right?” I suggest.
“Yeah, a 3-bedroom flat and he’s the only one there!”
“Maybe I’ll go with you. I have to come back and do some things in the morning, though.”
“We can take the bus; it’s about an hour to Sol.”
“An hour, really?”
“I love it. I can take a book, read, relax.”
When Robert arrives we hit the bar downstairs from her house for our first drink. She knows the bartender, naturally; he gave her two bottles of wine just before her last brunch party when she realized she didn’t have anything to drink in the house. Stores are all closed Sunday; no way to get anything, much less alcohol. Also, this is the same bar where we celebrated, with a few other friends, my first lindy hop performance in Spain last Saturday.
“Did you know that the Gipsy Kings are from France?” says Robert, who is French. “I mean, their heritage is Spanish, but they grew up in France.”
Robert is one of the best people I have ever met. He always has a smile for me, for Willow. He would probably do anything for either of us, wholeheartedly, cheerfully. An accomplished guitar player, he’ll play and sing, whatever Willow or I want him to, far into the morning hours. He’s funny and adorable and great company. In November we will lose him to Edinburgh, because the Scottish physicists are next in line to receive the benefit of his expertise.
Willow perches on a bar stool, adjusting the thin black strings of a crocheted, bell-sleeve top she’s put on over a bright red camisole. You’d think a redhead wouldn’t necessarily look great in red. Not so Willow. She’s completed her ensemble with short cut-offs and wedge shoes. She looks lovely. OK, hot.
We’re not long for the bar downstairs from her house. Robert drinks his first beer - what they call here a caña, probably only 200 ml or so - and rolls a cigarette while I ice my Coca Cola Light (if you say Diet Coke here, people look at you as though you are speaking a foreign language). Then we all go out and wander. The streets are chock-a-block; we thread among shifting walls of people. Robert has the guts to light his cigarette very close to the back of some guy’s pink button down. Just as we make it to the other side of Calle San Bruno - my street (alleyway) - the kind of thumping disco that Willow hates envelopes our collective existence. She wails in frustration.
A few steps onward I catch the vocals as well as the bass: it’s “Like a Prayer” and I can’t help myself; I start singing and shimmying as we walk. Over to our right, a pair of girls can be seen way above the crowd, dancing on top of one of the outdoor aluminum bars. Each is wearing a fedora, strapless top and short skirt. I make a mental note to dress a little more sexy tomorrow night. Who wears a long black skirt to a bacchanalian street party?
The next two bars are playing merengue, but Willow doesn’t want a drink here because it’s more expensive than anywhere else on the street, so we keep on.
We wander the cobblestones, through the hollering drinking dancing masses. I lose my bearings quickly after we begin walking up and down different streets. Willow has lived here for years so she knows everything and I don’t have to worry. She doesn’t like to talk about where she is from so I won’t say anything about that here.
As we turn onto a street that leads uphill I almost can’t believe my eyes. From a distance, at the top of the hill, I perceive what look like countless long narrow balloons, the type used to make balloon animals, waving back and forth as if part of a Chinese dragon costume. My friends indulge me in following the spectacle and are patient with my efforts to get a photo on my blackberry, but alas, it is moving away from us, and the crowd is far too thick to get a better view.
Our trek down this road has not been for naught: about five horns, including a tuba, plus a small drum set, launch into fast New Orleans jazz. The crowd is screaming and cheering. I can’t help Charlestoning. Robert and Willow get drinks and talk as I bop around on the beer-wet street.
Then, when the crowd begins to clap along with the music, I stop and cringe. “I can’t believe they clap that way here! Aargh!” I moan.
Willow and Robert regard me with amused patience.
“On one and three,” I explain. You’re supposed to clap on two and four. It’s driving me nuts.”
“That’s your way,” Willow says. “In Spain, they clap like this.”
“No, no. It doesn’t have to do with where you are. It has to do with the type of music. It’s fine to clap on one and three for marches and country music. But when you hear jazz, it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s two and four. The other way is just wrong!”
“Anytime you say that something is just wrong,” she grins, “it’s going to mean frustration for you.”
“I know,” I sigh. “I don’t think I’m doing too badly. I can accept and adjust to everything about life in this foreign country EXCEPT clapping on one and three.”
Robert and Willow then begin a spirited discussion on the complicated clapping rhythms used by guitaristas and flamenco dancers. They demonstrate a couple of them. I’m intrigued. It helps me take my mind off the horrendous clapping going on up the street.
They finish their drinks and we move on. “Let’s go toward Tirso,” Willow suggests, referring to the Tirso de Molina metro stop. Where we live is roughly equidistant between two metro line stops - a 1-2 minute walk to each.
We settle in a bar on a quiet street, ordering drinks inside before realizing the they won’t let us bring them out because they’ve poured them in glass.
“Can’t we just put them in plastic?” I ask.
“I won’t drink wine out of plastic,” Willow says.
“Right,” I agree. Robert has bought me a Coca Cola Light with Johnnie Walker, which would be fine in plastic, but I’m also fine to stay in the bar. We three clink, looking each other in the eyes, and then sit across from the bar on some tall stools. It’s a small place and there are no tables.
“Oh, but there’s this girl outside and she looks fantastic. Really hot,” Willow says. “She’s wearing this top that has practically no back, and a striped skirt. And she has this fantastic body. Robert, you should go see.”
“Oh, no no. I’m already with two beautiful women,” he says.
“I want to go see!” I put my drink on the counter and head out with my blackberry. They laugh as I depart.
Willow is right. The girl in question is amazing. Unlike the show-offy types on top of the bar on Calle de Cava Baja, this lady is purely enjoying herself, whooping it up, dancing with two guy friends. She is happy. I walk up the street a bit and try surreptitiously to take a photo. As I head back to the bar, one of the guy friends says something to me in rapid Spanish.
I look up at him, dismayed. “Lo siento,” I explain. “Soy Americana. Mi español es mal.”
“Oh!” The guy stands up straight and brightens. His blond hair sticks out in different directions. He’s kind of adorable. “We were just laughing that you got a picture of us looking really stupid!”
“Not at all.”
“Yes, here we are, making idiots of ourselves! So, you are American - where are you from?”
I have the usual conversation I have with people I meet here: are you on holiday, what are you doing, how long will you stay, etc. He’s very nice and I have an inkling to stay a few minutes longer with him and his two friends, but a kind of fatigue overtakes me and I decide to return directly to Willow and Robert, so I can sit down and drink my drink.
As I approach the narrow door to the bar, though, two men are struggling to drag a soda fountain machine inside, attached by many tubes to a dense steel container, about the height of a keg but narrower. A woman standing outside directs them. Then she puts two more heavy containers on top of the stoop, still blocking my way. “Coger uno para passa la niña,” she hollers at the men. I’m sure I’ve recorded the Spanish incorrectly. They obey her, after which I rush inside and sit back down next to Willow.
“Coger uno para passa la niña!” I shout. “I understood it, and I can say it again!”
“What?” Willow says, as I am making no sense.
“I can understand Spanish! I can say it again in Spanish!”
“Apparently you can also spit Spanish,” she says, wiping her face.
Robert says, “You know in South America, coger means ‘to fuck.’ Here you say ‘coger un tren,’ and the South Americans think we are talking about fucking a train. I mean, they know what we are saying, but they still think it’s funny.”
“Because it is,” I aver.
Soon we are talking about the common mistakes made by people new to Spanish: how much of a difference a vowel can make, as in pollo (chicken) and polla (penis).
“But wait a minute,” Robert says. “Polla ends in an a, which means it’s a feminine noun! How can that be?”
“Oh, no, it can’t be. It’s probably like problema, which is masculine,” I suggest.
“Problema is feminine,” Willow asserts. “Una problema.”
“Mm, I think it’s un problema,” I respond. Now, Willow is fluent in Spanish, whereas my Spanish still officially sucks. Someone trustworthy (I forget who) told me about “un problema” recently, so I am confident in my position.
“Si,” says Robert. “Un problema.”
Willow gets up to go ask the bartender. I look at Robert and point to him and to myself, and squint my eyes and nod, as if to say, we are right!
Willow has begun chatting with the bartender, so Robert and I approach and sit at the bar too. Manuel is from Venezuela, a smiling man with kind eyes. He confirms un problema. He also, with a shrug, informs us that polla is indeed feminine.
“My mind is blown,” I announce.
The four of us chat a while longer. I mostly listen, because things are taking place in Spanish. It’s a very pleasant time and we close down the bar.
Willow and Robert walk me home. It’s 3:30. I’m drunk and exhausted. I don’t really have any words to express how fortunate I am, how grateful, to be exactly here with exactly there people having exactly these experiences. No words, that is, except for those above.
Ten hours later, on the metro, the sadness hits again. I pull out Willow’s Pablo Neruda book. Each poem is in Spanish, followed immediately by the English translation. I read a few lines in Spanish, then skip over to English, back to Spanish, over to English one more time. I close the book. I am thrilled and in tears. Neruda’s poetry is often described as sensual/ sexual, but those are not the feelings. I have a surfeit of emotion, and one of my most fulfilling experiences is to somehow let that all open up. It’s why I write. The lines I have just read make me feel the way I do when I listen to my favorite music in any moment. No words without music have ever done that to me before. The book is still closed, because I don’t know if I can tolerate more joy right now.