I’m still not exactly sure where I live.
Here are some scraps of information I’ve digested: I live in Madrid in a short street with an African name. My neighbourhood is at the bottom of a long hill about two minutes from a river called the Manzares. Around the corner from my flat, there’s a street called the Promenade of the Melancholics. From my apartment, I have ungenerous views of the desiccated edges of the city.
It doesn’t add up to much. In fact, since I moved to Madrid, I’ve mostly been on auto pilot. I walk to work and I go the supermarket. I visit the bank or jump on the metro, but much of my new city is a mystery to me.
One morning a couple of weeks back, I broke routine and took a slightly different route home from the centre of town. Not far from my home, I stumbled upon several police wandering among what could have been the remnants of a gypsy camp. On a pavement near a major intersection were piles of clothes, pieces of scrap metal, an old television. I saw a twisted jersey, a sock. A cable that connected nothing to nothing.
The police were listless. They kicked at old boots, or tapped at their mobiles or simply stared into the mid-distance as If looking for answers. I imagined homeless families fleeing in a hurry, shedding their possessions as they ran. What had happened here?
A fortnight later, perhaps, I found myself wondering through the same area, again quite by chance. This time, however, the streets were lined with dozens of market stalls. That’s how I found out I live five minutes from Madrid’s famous weekly flea market, the Rastro.
It was a mid-afternoon by the time I came across the market, and people were already packing up, stacking cheap Chinese clothing into the backs of battered vans. A group of gypsies arrived and tried to tempt the thinning crowds with wilted vegetables. There was little to see, and I was tired, so I decided I’d come back another time to investigate.
Just around the corner, though, I found again several mounds of discarded clothing. There were more stray shoes and lonely winter jackets and I knew now I had found the tidewrack of the Rastro, its unsellable remnants.
Another morning, I spotted the flotsam again. This time a hollow-eyed man on crutches was combing through the junk. He was filthy; the soles of his shoes had all but peeled away, and his elbows were escaping from his jacket. As I approached, he turned towards me, and I was already deciding I wouldn’t give him any money. Instead, this gentleman of the streets gave me the most courteous, the most humbling, of greetings.
It’s true. I don’t know exactly where I live yet, but I do know that I have a place to go home to, and food in the fridge and a piece of plastic in my wallet which lets me access money. Sometimes, that’s a fortune.
From time to time I find myself thinking about the television show The Walking Dead and why I haven’t managed to stop watching it yet.
For those of you who have been lucky enough to miss the series, The Walking Dead is a post-apocalyptic zombie horror show set in the American south. Based on comic books, it centres on a group of people who have miraculously avoided catching a disease which has turned most humans on the planet into zombies, or ‘walkers’ as they are called in the series.
It’s an irresistible premise: for me at least. As a child of the eighties, I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb (remember that?) and I was reared on a steady diet of post-nuclear holocaust disaster literature. The most brilliant of these stories was — and remains — Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, a novel about humanity 2,000 years post-Armageddon.
Before I was ready for Hoban, though, there was the early 50s novel The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham about the colonisation of earth by deadly plants. In Wyndham’s world, nearly everyone has been blinded by a spectacular but retina-burning meteorite shower. In the first scene of the novel, our hero wakes up in a hospital the morning after the celestial show which he was unable to watch because his eyes were bandaged. When he tries to summon a nurse or a doctor, no one comes. He soon discovers he has, in fact, been saved from blindness on two counts.
The Walking Dead borrows a lot from The Day of the Triffids; the first-ever episode even rephrased the opening scene of the Wyndham novel with the main character sheriff Rick Grimes waking alone in a hospital. This is not the only parallel between the two shows. Both, for example, have their own-eyed man who “is king in the land of the blind”. In John Wyndham’s novel, this situation is metaphorical. In The Walking Dead — an almost intolerably literal show — we have the character of the governor whose eye was removed in an act of revenge.
The television show and the 50s novel share one other key element. They are both almost quite dreadful, and I don’t mean in the horror sense.
Looking back at The Day of The Triffids now, I see that the writing is appalling clunky. In The Waking Dead, there are moments of technical brilliance—the zombies themselves are spectacular — but the show is generally awful. The acting is tolerable at best. The action is glacial in its progression, and the sets seem amazingly rickety for such a high profile show. So why do I keep watching?
Part of the answer is habit of course. And some of the fascination has to do with me wanting to see when the zombies are next going to turn some innocent victim into a gruesome mass of exposed tendons. But I also think there is some deeper subtext. I think The Walking Dead is popular because it serves as a useful metaphor for the current economic crisis.
The television show deals with a group of people who have lived through a Lehman Brothers-style cataclysmic event and must somehow find new meaning in life while also processing the guilt they feel at having survived the worst of it all. Meanwhile, the vast mass of humanity refuses to conveniently disappear. The streets of the brave new world in The Walking Dead are populated by zombies or ‘walkers’. In the show, these ‘people’ lurch around in the search for their next fleshy meal emitting agonising groans from time to time. In Spain, you can see them sleeping in doorways, begging at the portals of supermarkets, or selling tissues to cars stopped at traffic lights. Some have found solace in drink and drugs. Others stay at home and out of sight.
Meanwhile, the one percent — those, like me, with work and food and a home —try not to have too much contact with the zombies so as to avoid contagion. We keep our heads down on the streets and in the office. We keep the target small and forget to say thank you for our good luck as often as we should.
The really pending question in The Walking Dead, and the one that has been hinted at in series three, is that of a possible cure. Are the zombies an unchangeable feature of the landscape in the future, or will some magic formula restore our loved ones to us? If this is the case, then it’s not going to be a simple process. Expect more bailouts to follow.
And Happy Easter everyone, especially to the good people of Cyprus.
I went to Toledo a day late.
I visited Toledo on Sunday instead of Saturday because Spain’s national railway company Renfe couldn’t get its act together to sell me a ticket.
Whole volumes could be written about the vagaries of of rail travel in Spain but I promise to keep my rant as short: my trip to Toledo was delayed a by 24 hours because none of the ticket machines at Madrid’s Atocha station were working, and because the staff in the ticket office seemed more interested in chatting with each other than flogging off tickets for the 10:20 to Toledo.
You can imagine the scene: crowds of confused tourists, irate Spanish grandmothers in fur coats, a slightly nervous, slightly overweight security guard. The minutes ticking away. I missed the train.
Anyway, it turned out the Saturday trip down to Atocha station wasn’t entirely fruitless. I didn’t make the train but I did have the pleasure of filling in my first bona fide complaint in all my years in Spain. That’s right: I actually resorted to the hoja de reclamaciones, or the official complaints book.
If you’ve spent any time in Spain, you’ve probably been vaguely aware of the existence of such things. These books — part of this country’s rickety consumer rights infrastructure —provide a way for people to vent their frustrations over anything from cheating taxi drivers to churlish taxidermists. In Andalusia, for example, the hojas are actually obligatory for all businesses, whether they be a religious artifacts shop or a first communion fashion store or a flamenco designer’s boutique.
After a while, you don’t really see these little signs, in that same way you don’t — in a bar — notice all the posters of waxy-looking Jesuses decked out in crowns of thorns or the mouldering stuffed bulls’ heads that line the walls. So it is with the hoja de reclamaciones.
But last Saturday at Atocha station I entered into the fray of civil society and demanded The Book. Driven along by indignado rage, I stormed into the Renfe customer service centre and noted down my litany of frustrations into a purple A4 jotter which felt like something you might use to decorate the set of a television show about a 1950s advertising firm. My complaint was then carbon-copied in quadruplicate — seriously – before each individual copy was decorated with a seal.
The Renfe staff on duty could not have been less interested. They handed me the book almost wordlessly and then silently presented me with two copies for my records. It set me wondering how many millions of these complaints forms have been filled out and filed away in dusty cabinets over the decades. Will anything ever come of my grievance? I wait with not-very-bated breath.
And Toledo? Well, given that – for reasons which remain mysterious — all Spanish towns have to be the capital of something, I can safely report back that Toledo appears to be the capital of Marzipan and swordmaking. Neither of these were items that I particularly felt like buying last Sunday, but it did occur to me a day or two later that some sort of sabre might have come in handy at the ticket office at Atocha station.
I’ve just had my first morning in Madrid after three weeks of living here. That’s to say, I’ve just had my first morning which didn’t involve alarm clocks and rapid-fire ablutions and gulped-down cereal before traipsing off to an office to sit before a computer.
Today, instead, I had one of those real mornings where sleep ebbs and flows and it takes you hours to climb out of bed and only then because it’s time to saludar al señor Roca, or greet Mr Roca, as the Spaniards sometimes put it, referring to the company that makes so many toilets here.
Anyway, this morning there were no mobile phones and I didn’t go online and the sun was shining so brightly in this city of Cervantes that I knew I would end up walking.
When I left the house, I thought I was going to the river. I’ve been staying in Madrid’s La Latina neighbourhood this week and each day I’d look at the map and see the tell-tale little sliver of blue and think: ‘I must get down to that bloody river’. So that’s where my feet took me first.
And actually it was just slightly disappointing. Because despite the impressive black fish and the solid bridges, the Manzanares is little more than a trickle really; it’s no Seine, and it’s certainly no Mekong. The city is re-landscaping the zone too, so that the river banks are dotted with a multitude of rather sad-looking saplings. Like upturned brooms, and worn-out ones at that.
But it turns out that I wasn’t destined for the river anyway. Apparently my subconscious mind had been busy fomenting its own plans these last seven days. Because after the river I continued on and into the vast green space that is the Casa de Campo, Madrid’s biggest park. It’s huge and very popular too, especially on bright Saturdays like today, I suppose.
For the first kilometre or so I was dodging alls sorts of odd people in neon costumes (joggers mostly and whooping, pumped-up bike mountain riders). Then I arrived in a whole other landscape, a sort of a park within a park. This mini-dehesa, or Mediterranean forest, was almost silent and dense with gnarly old oak trees, not to mention a sparse population of solitary forest philosophers doing very un-city like things like admiring sticks or gazing up into the sky at passing herons.
I started to climb and after a while I reached the top of a pine-capped hill from which I had views of Spain’s jumbled capital with its oddly-muted palette of cream and terracotta and Colombia blue and forest green.
Anyway, as the perfect morning slipped into history, and as I walked and my body started to remember what it was actually designed for, I had a delightful creeping realisation. Taking in the milky blue sky and the chattering parrots and the drifting storks, I became aware that this was spring welcoming me to 2013.
For the last couple of weeks, I have waking up in Seville on Monday and getting on a train to another country called Spain. Or at least that’s how it feels.
After a period living in the capital of Andalusia, I now find myself commuting to Madrid for work. At the moment, I am in the national capital from Monday to Friday but soon my transition will be complete and I am even to become a citizen of this fine communidad.
To be frank, it’s all quite disorienting. After last year’s sojourn in Saigon, I’ve been enjoying the relative intimacy of a city with just 700,000 souls, give or take a few. In Seville you get to know lots of faces, and can amble from one end of the old town to the other in a pleasant hour or so. In Madrid, by contrast, my fold-out map comes with more creases than a tramp’s spare pants. The sheer number of neighbourhoods here is staggering. Will I ever know my Chamberis from my Chuecas or my Legazpis from my Listas? It seems highly unlikely.
Anyway, last Friday evening, I caught the fast train back from Madrid and stumbled out of Seville’s Santa Justa station a little after midnight. Home. The city smelled of olives and a vacant lot was flush with flowers. I thought: I will miss this place.
But the capital does have its virtues and delights. One advantage to being here in the centre of Spain – here in this city on the River Manzanares – is that they speak Spanish, rather than the language approximating Spanish which I have become accustomed to in Andalusia. I no longer feel quite so foolish with my highly correct Castillian.
I’m enjoying, too, the boulevards of Madrid, and the gentle slopes, for Madrid is a metropolis of inclines and slides. It’s an elegant old beast as well. On Gran Vía, there are shades of London’s Pall Mall while the residences around the Retiro are as slim-hipped and stylish as any Parisian apartment block. Then there are the armies of mincing long-legged women and – in winter – dark-coated old men who might be taking a break from the set of a fifties film.
But —but — will I ever feel at home here? Train rides have become such a metaphor for my life: all these cities as stations, apartments like luggage offices, a constant swapping of keys and letterboxes and corner stores and then a quick look over the shoulder as the place recedes. Next stop, señores pasajeros, Madrid.