[For an explanation of what’s going on here, you might read Incognito ergo sum.]
I touched down at Barajas airport in Madrid on a plane full of Swedes who where on their way to represent Absolut vodka at a trade fair. A very jolly bunch, as Swedes go. While talking with the young woman beside me, it occurred to me that I was in a position to perform an experiment. You see, people I know in Sweden tell me that while I have a foreign accent, I don’t have an English (much less American) accent. I decided to test that assertion, and out of the blue, I asked my seat-mate where she thought I was from. A bit taken aback, she said, “Well… you’re not Swedish, right?” I confirmed this, and suggested that she make a guess. She was completely unable to guess where I was from. So I suppose I have to concede that my friends are right; apparently I’m just a vanilla foreigner.
Linguistically, going from Sweden to Spain was interesting, too. Although my Swedish has improved quite a lot since we moved there last year, my Spanish is still better, which means that it is a relief to enter Spain—not quite like being home again, but something in that vein. Everything becomes pure poetry in Spanish; for example, traffic cops are called agentes de movilidad: agents of mobility. That’s what we need more of! In the subway from the airport (I lived in Madrid so long ago that I continue to be amazed that the metro now goes to the airport), we passed the stop Esperanza, made famous by the Manu Chao album Próxima estación: Esperanza. I was excited to hear the familiar announcement, but to my great dismay, they had turned off all station calls. We sat in sullen silence through Esperanza, la Paz, and Prosperidad.
Truth be told, I really don’t feel at home in Spain. Part of my fascination with the country stems from how incredibly foreign it is, in a way that Sweden, for example, could never be. In Spain, the medieval and the modern mix in uncanny and wonderful ways. For example, the other day I went out for a hike, in the hills west of Albarracín, and saw a shepherd, complete with a dog and a staff and a bell that he gonged and gonged, herding his sheep through the maquis. At first I thought there were two people there, but then I realized the shepherd was talking on his cell phone.
But back to the capital: Madrid is always a full-on assault on the senses, and in some cases, the sensibilities. The part of town I stayed in borders on one of the surprisingly plentiful red-light districts, complete with neon-flashing strip clubs, overweight prostitutes standing in clumps on the corners, legless beggars on the sidewalk, knots of northern Africans idly chatting, and women in essentially peasant garb trying desperately to sell fistfuls of rosemary to passers-by. I spent some time wandering around Lavapies (literally “foot-wash”), up and down streets such as Calle de la bisutería pésima and Calzada de los restaurantes indios, or perhaps that’s just how I thought of them. Cruising around the area at about 11 in the evening, I noticed that there were people everywhere, and I thought “Man, the weekend is really hoppin’ around here!”—and then realized that it was Tuesday. That’s Madrid for you.
Sitting in a churrería the next morning having some coffee, my spirits were lifted when two happy, good-looking, middle-aged men came in, each wearing a gleaming wedding band. “Of course,” I thought. Spain, despite being a determinedly Catholic country, where men are still extremely macho (and, by the way, the large majority of adult women have only ever had one sexual partner, as reported in the paper the other day by some researchers wrapping up a large-scale survey), has fully legalized gay marriage. That’s right, Spanish men (and women) may now marry each other and enjoy the full rights of married partners throughout the country. Which is something that ultra-liberal Sweden, for example, still hasn’t managed to institute. These are the sorts of contradictions that make this country fascinating to me.
Posted by: Gregory