Category Archives: Madrid

the graffiti of malasaña.

As a newly self-proclaimed New Yorker (honestly more for the convenience of telling people I’m from “Nueva York” rather than “Seattle”… everyone knows NYC, no one in Spain knows Seattle), I am in the habit of comparing every new place I encounter with the Big Apple. Well, in Madrid, I found my little bohemian East Village cousin: Malasaña.

Flickering, dim street lamps illuminate the women wearing black-nail-polish-repaired stiletto heels and lacy thongs that peak out from under microscopic skirts, whispering their services in husky smoker’s Castellano to passersby. Rats scurry from one dumpster to the next. Music drifts lazily out of bars on plumes of smoke–reggae, rock, hip-hop, salsa, pop–warming the lonely February night air. The smells of sweet vermouth, exotic curries, unfiltered cigarettes mingle. Drunken teenagers cavalcade as hipsters for the night. Fashions of today, tomorrow, yesterday flaunt their flamboyant colors and patterns, modeled by the skinniest bitches around.

This is a Saturday night in Malasaña. And it feels like home, almost.

Decrepit warehouses, a potpourri of garbage and cigarette butts, the occasional condom wrapper, shuttered store fronts, flickering neon signs advertising lonely bars, winding empty streets, crudely constructed corrugated fences…. no matter how the streetlights hit, all I see is grey grey grey. Then I round a corner and graffiti claims everything. Defiling storefronts, crawling up the backs of brick buildings, spiraling up air shafts in arcs and clouds; the black outlines of faces and figures and profanity mark signs, posters, garage doors. The graffiti swells and blooms in the same unwanted beauty as yellow dandelions. It comes back stronger, more voracious than before–every city implemented graffiti cleansing only challenges it to go greater heights, to more precarious mediums.

The other day, after class, I took a walk in the light of day through this majestically grungy and proud barrio; I saw something spectacular. Amidst the phone numbers, initials, and declarations of love, there was talent as well. Several men and women, dressed in white, paint-splattered outfits, were outlining fabulous primary colored abstract figures of men and women, animals, geometric shapes, landscapes, nondescript items… it was a contemporary Joan Miró tapestry. Eight collaborators spilled their talent across a blank whitewashed wall that begged for color and defilement. Combining talents of several generations, perspectives, abilities, and tastes, this was a fantastic, welcomed discovery.

While I love graffiti–perhaps a New York bias–this was a little different than the tagging I’d seen before. It was incredibly intentional, thoughtful, and consciously momentary. There is a strong possibility that the local municipal government will come by in the next month or so to wash their work away… but that’s not what mattered in these lengthening shadows of a chilly February day in Malasaña… these artists sharing wine, pigment, and philosophy on public art were there simply in order to create something admittedly transient. This group of friends and artists didn’t seem to really care if it meant that an afternoon with friends in the sun was wasted when they discover their art gone tomorrow; they really only wanted to make something brilliant to share.

The beauty of graffiti is really quite simple. Sure, there is a stigma–everything has one–but graffiti is so intentional, so simultaneously purposeful and irrelevant, loud and then silenced, beautiful but crude that viewers can’t help but stop and wonder. Who wrote “TE AMO, MARIA,” “THL WAS HERE”? Does it matter? Not really… but the point is, in the midst of the broken, used, crumbling things, the graffiti artist loves you. They want you to enjoy a little color amidst the grey grey grey and to stop and wonder, “who was here before me?”


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The perhaps once colloquial, but now widely accepted verb “tapear” was invented by the Spanish solely to describe the act of eating tapas. Though, it occurs to me as I write “eating,” that this isn’t even the word I’m looking for; in fact, I can’t find the word I’m looking for–do I mean to write “enjoying,” “consuming,” “indulging”….? Though I find the exact meaning of this word is a little ambiguous, I have come to understand that “tapear” means to spend an afternoon (most commonly on a Sunday) moving from one tapas bar to another sampling the regional offerings. Tapas bars, when done right, are each unique; one may serve small dishes distinct to the Basque Region of Spain (a region in the Northeast), one to the Galician (the Northwest corner), or one that is strictly madrileño (of Madrid). They are enjoyed slowly, with good company, (and do I even need to say it?) good wine. Tapas are an entirely Spanish novelty; once again, for madrileños, it is not necessarily about the consumption of food or wine (though that certainly has much to do with it!), but the quality of time spent doing it. The word “tapas” doesn’t translate to mean a specific dish, rather it refers to a process. Just like everything else in this country, “tapear” epitomizes the art of taking one’s time and taking pleasure, this time… in food.

In Madrid, there is a small winding street in the La Latina district–Calle de Cava Baja–that is most famously known as home to some of the best tapas spots in the city, maybe the country, and who knows–maybe the world. I know I can hardly take credit for hard work here, but I am proud to say that it indeed took some good shopping around before my friends and I found the perfect spot. But perfect spot we did find. Called La Camarilla, this place was neither pretentious nor humble. A combination of old-world wood work and modern chic lines, this restaurant oozed quality and refinement. But aesthetics aside–and more importantly–La Camarilla showed us what “tapeando” is about: picking and choosing exactly what you want, when you want it, and how you want it. Some say America is the land of choice, but I have never had so many choices to face in a meal before…

Standing before a long glass case, we gaze at rows upon rows of beautiful culinary inventions laid out on white ceramic plates. Before me: a piece of delicate, fried cod over grilled vegetables on a small tosta (meaning “toast,” from a baguette); skewered chicken with fresh tomatoes and caramelized onions; thin slices of salami, prosciutto, pepperoni on tosta; brie with a thin slice of meat and mushrooms on tosta; zucchini stuffed with mushrooms and cheese rolled up and sprinkled with parmesan; buttery rolls; garlic-infused and stuffed olives; miniature omelets (they are called “tortillas” in Spain); anchovies on tostas; manchega cheese thinly sliced, and the list goes on…. Each displayed like an individual work of art. Flustered and delighted, my friends and I–over the din of chatter and jazz–took on the overwhelming task of ordering. The menu was of little help. The job was left up entirely to our senses–our gaze upon the small dishes, the smells of meats and cheeses and breads and oils, the clatter of plates and forks, the chatter of people around us–and our sparse knowledge of Spanish food vocabulary.

“¿Qué es ‘morcilla’?” I ask the aloof and very stunning waitress. “Sangre del cerdo, con cebollas,” she responds, unblinkingly. Ah, so this is blood sausage. Maybe I will leave that culinary delight for my next tapas outing, I tell myself…

Soon our orders are whisked away to be heated and served, right from under our tantalized noses. My mojito arrives. The real work begins. I ordered the cod over roasted peppers and zucchini on a tosta, as well as the chicken skewers with tomato and onion, and the mushrooms with roasted jalapeños and prosciutto–innocent enough. But this was my predicament: the room was packed with people drinking, eating, talking. Everyone standing around small tables–plates balancing precariously on knees, stools, any open surface–oblivious to everyone else but their own party, with a frantic waiter carrying not two, not three, but four plates at a time as he rushed from group to group. My friends and I arrived at peak lunch hour–2 to 3pm is typical–so were given the option of standing at the tapas bar itself, forced to form a sort of semi-circle around a more or less non-existent counter space. So, balancing a large piece of cod on a small baguette while trying to avoid stepping on my neighbors toes, knocking over a plate of meat, or spilling my mojito or someone else’s, I wondered just how the hell I was supposed to eat this thing. (Where is my comfortable table with chairs? I guiltily sighed.) So, without much choice, I dove in. The tapas were messy, beautiful, challenging in every sense of the word, and delicious. I ate my cod/vegetable/tosta, chicken/tomato/onion skewer, and mushroom/proscuitto/roasted pepper tosta with gusto, spilling crumbs and mushrooms as I went. Washed down with a fresh squeezed mojito, this was decidedly one of the best meals I had experienced in a while.

With the check paid, our stomachs full, and our spirits lifted, my friends and I burst back out into the cold (well, relatively speaking) January air, with the startling realization that the process had taken a considerable portion of our afternoon. I considered this a small success; I had finally spent an afternoon tasting. With our arms-length personal bubbles temporarily popped, and our gastronomic understanding of Madrid broadened, we left the small tapas bar–and with resolute promises to return.


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el baile.

The Spanish take life seriously, self-consciously, but with humor. Since Spain has neither engineered many material goods, nor propelled the sciences and thinking forward in the same way that, let’s say, Germany or France has, she has remained interested in practical life–questions of life and death, religion, the arts. Uninterested in smoothing out human annoyances such as problems of efficiency and natural circumstance, Spain has been left behind in material output; not surprisingly, this has allowed Spaniards to focus their interest on who a person really is, rather than what she or he has produced. During the time that other European countries strove to understand the human psyche, produced large quantities of philosophical literature, or drove technology to what it is today, the Spanish were interested in the marriage between reason and emotion. This is a culture that, over centuries of social, economic, and political turmoil, has always known that great art was possible only on that basis: discovering and understanding the real as well as the abstract. And just like that, the Spanish prove–as the rest of the world struggles to channel ecstasy, anger, pain into art form–that there is really nothing to it. They have been creating works of art that deal with diametrically opposing emotions and realities since El Greco, Goya, Picasso, Lorca, and long before.

Perhaps one of the most expressive and well suited examples of this is one that I discovered last Saturday night. So far, this was my most startlingly moving encounter with Spanish art, or more specifically, dance: the flamenco.

Flamenco. The enigmatic origins of this word are as telling of its history as they are of its performance. Sensual, beautiful, exotic, and emotional–yes–but jarring and disturbing, as well. Historically, this is a dance that can be traced to the Andalusian region of Spain; it was a dance of the oppressed and the poor. Flamenco is, simultaneously, dance, song, and guitar. It is a tripartite act in which all members of the stage participate; together they express through their song and rhythmic stomping, clapping, shouting, dancing and guitar playing their joys and sorrows of everyday life.

Seated in the second row from the tiny stage (imagine: a small, dark, crowded–elbow to elbow–room, marked by the intoxicating smell of wine and expensive cologne), I became a captive audience to a humble group of six performers. A dancer–a tall, lean, quietly attractive man dressed in black–taps his heels in muffled rhythm to one of the singers’ (there were two singers, one young and one old) painstakingly cautious, but melodic ballads. To the singers’ left, two guitarists pick at their instruments, respectfully, as they wait for the singer; smiles and nods are exchanged, and then shortly, the group bursts into life. The dancer’s quiet collectiveness, with his eyes closed at center stage, pervades the show. The liveliness of the singing, stomping, and strumming does nothing but emphasize his tranquility as he begins to move in rhythmic precision–tapping his heels, snapping his fingers–while self-consciously wringing the front of his shirt. The energy on this stage–the musicians’ exchange of smiles, winks, nods, discussion amongst themselves–seemed an almost accidental show of camaraderie, spontaneity, effortlessness. The dancer’s quick progression across the stage–never losing balance or the beat as he spun, tapped, leaped–was only the visual focal point; it was the exclamations of “olé,” the momentary intimacy that the performers and audience shared, and the simultaneous tranquility and anxiety of the music that struck me as… unusual. I was mesmerized. These men were having a blast; they didn’t take the task at hand too seriously, and this made them all the more captivating. These men were here for us, sure… but more importantly, they were here for themselves.

As I watched the dancer’s expression–eyebrows deeply knitted, mouth pursed, beads of sweat rolling down his gaunt cheeks–I realized something: where in American culture do we see such devotion and humility? Here I was watching a man, a stranger, experience every emotion in the book as he made mistakes and–looking embarrassed–laughed, frowned, shouted in frustration, sweated out of sheer physical exertion, pulled at his clothes in (this is really the only word I can find to describe it) ecstasy, until he finally just stopped. I don’t know the man’s story, have never met him, don’t even know his name–yet, I believe that I witnessed what could possibly be the most intimate emotions that he has.

Please excuse my digression, I will return to my original point: at this midnight show in a cozy corner of Madrid, while slowly drinking sangria (shamefully touristy, but so good), I came face to face with Spanish culture at its best. The flamenco illustrates almost perfectly this well-aged Spanish mentality: life and death, love and pain, joy and sorrow are intertwined, and therefore–if justice is truly to be done–must be expressed simultaneously, without shame, and entirely self-consciously.

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Madrid is a little grungy, crude, complicated, and even at times intolerable. As Hemingway so frankly put it, “I do not believe anyone likes it much when he first goes there.” Admittedly, my first day here was marked by extreme jet-lag, my second by utter homesickness, but my third… by enchantment. What moved me to the latter? Maybe it was this afternoon’s glass of (cheap, but very good) red wine, or the salmon tosta, or the churro con chocolate…. but I want to believe that most importantly it was the recognition of the entirely human and deliciously visceral embrace of pleasure that each and every madrileño seems to put into practice everyday. This is a city devoted to hedonism. Though Madrid hasn’t forgotten its history–Franco’s death was a mere three decades ago, religious and racial intolerance are well documented themes in its sculpture and art, and even the genesis of its language is a result of centuries of violent Roman invasion and occupation–madrileños maintain a sense of lightheartedness, a “mañana será otra día” kind of attitude. As a result, madrileños are highly capable of moving from the bad to the good times in swift succession. A turbulent history sure as hell doesn’t stop these people, rather it reminds them to enjoy life.

Madrid has no Colosseum, Big Ben, or Eiffel Tower to speak of. Yes, it is home to good, cheap wine, an enormous variety of fresh seafood, excellent art, and leading haute couture designers… but what sets it apart from other cosmopolitan cities? Well, this is a question to which the answer I am still working on–and I think I’m onto something. It will take a few more vasos de tinto and some good research before I have a tangible answer, but I know this much: the madrileños have it right. In the space of one hour spent wandering Conde de Peñalver (a wide avenue running through the Salamanca district of Madrid), I witnessed an unabashedly open mouthed, full tongued, groping, and passionate kiss–the likes of which I have never been audience to in the states–a group of shockingly well preserved, fur-clad, lipstick-smeared elderly women engaged in animated and unashamed gossip, a paradoxically stick thin woman diving into a heap of terribly indulgent churros con chocolate, and a solitary, grinning, gap-toothed man truly joyfully playing an accordion in the metro to no one in particular. I’m talking about people that devote at least two hours to napping every afternoon, in the middle of the day! I guess my point is this: madrileños don’t possess guilt (something us anglo-saxons haven’t seemed to cast off ever since our Puritanical ancestors sent us on our way), hindsight, or shame. They live through the senses, take pleasure in the simple, the old and the new alike, and are able to enjoy something as basic as human company while appreciating the value of precious solitude.

It is in this vein that I devote the following semester: to the pursuit of indulgence, bliss, and experience. Classes aside, I will devote this time in Madrid to unveiling a human necessity that I find highly overlooked in our American culture: the worship and devotion to pleasure. I solemnly take note that this is no easy task, but I look forward to reveling in good food, wine, music, art, architecture, and sun; I will remember that no, I am not in New York–land of the hectic and overly stimulated–and will instead take two hours to eat lunch in a cafe on a Tuesday afternoon, take a siesta when perhaps I would be better advised to go on a run, and not look back as I take a bite into a sinfully rich postre typical of any Spanish breakfast table.



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