The middle-aged woman with the raccoon mascara sidles closer. Dragging from a slender cigarette, she mentions casually that she was the inspiration for Gretchen. “You know,” she says with a dusky voice that pierces the smoke in this place, “…James Michener?” She says she likes the way I play the piano before remarking on my accent. “You’re American.”
I counter that I’m Canadian.
“Oh, you sound like an American.”
“I’m from Windsor,” I answer. I’m still at DEFCON 1 for the anti-American sentiment I’ve been told to expect but have so far not experienced personally. Besides, the people in this pub seem to like me. Just minutes before, they’d had their glasses hoisted upward and were singing and swaying in unison as I pounded out New York, New York on the piano. They’ve kept my tip jar brimming with pesetas and my head spinning from the rows of drinks they’ve pushed my way; so much so that I decide I should peel myself away before the increasing sloppiness of my playing—always my own personal gauge of waning sobriety—places me in disfavor with them. But as soon as I take a seat at the bar, another beer slides my way. I can’t lift my head anymore, not even to thank the person buying it, and so I just wave vaguely and nod my head in gratitude.
I wish I could say there had been some aching academic intrigue that brought me here; some lingering intellectual remnant from my history classes that made it a place that was impossible not to want to visit. But the truth is, the choice to hop a plane and fly to Spain was an impulsive act hatched mainly in the plain of my brain. As the last weeks of my final semester at Michigan State University were drawing to a close, it occurred to me that while other students would be flocking to some warm, sun-soaked Florida beach for spring break, I’d be left staring out at the exhaust-blackened snowy remnants of another Michigan winter through the Plexiglass window of the parking booth I’d worked at since high school. While other students were barhopping on weekends, I was squeezing 25 hours of work into two days. While other students were getting MIP tickets, I was pleading to my boss for a raise.
My first year at MSU, a brainless fungal spore from down the hall stood outside my dorm room at 3 am, drunkenly pounding his fist into my door. A frat pledge, he was known to kiss other members’ exposed body parts and guzzle entire jars of hot sauce. When I opened my door to tell him to cut it out, he laughed and told me everyone on the floor thought I was weird.
“It was the weird chimps that left the herd and evolved into humans,” I said, without missing a beat. He teetered stuporously for a moment, looking me over, then stumbled back to his room. From behind his closed door I heard the sound of glass crashing.
Money. That was the problem. I resented not having it, and I resented those who did. Money may not buy happiness, but seeing the way some of the other students I’d known had lived so frivolously with their parents’ financial blessings, I thought it might at least postpone some of the unhappiness. And so, on a morning in early February, I decided to stop being so responsible and try some happiness for a change. With the Visa Gold credit card I’d been so careful not to splurge with, I booked a flight to Spain. I spoke virtually no Spanish and had never even been on a plane. Still, from a world map, Spain seemed to stand out; a westward-facing peasant woman with the Portugal profile that stared out at the Atlantic horizon like some lone figure on a shore.
Scammed! And I hadn’t even been in the country an hour. I wouldn’t realize it until later but the friendly cabbie in the newsboy cap hadn’t really been a cabbie after all. Approaching me at the airport baggage carousel, he asked if I needed a cab.
“Yes, please,” I said, feeling like roadkill from the long, cramped flight. I hadn’t bothered making hotel reservations anywhere so my only request was to be dropped off somewhere in the city that was close to everything. I walked with him back to his car; a battered yellow space capsule on wheels that had been left idling in the loading zone like a getaway car. Inside, it smelled like chicory and peanuts and the rearview mirror was draped in a Mr. T-sized swell of rosaries and other dangling religious artifacts. There’s no meter in the car, but it’s all right. I’ve already agreed to his proposed flat-fee: 8000 pesetas for anywhere in Madrid. Besides, the guy’s really friendly (future cab rides from cabs with, you know, meters in them, would transport me much greater distances for half the fare).
Zipping quickly through Madrid’s rambling luge run of streets and roundabouts, he quickly deposits me in the heart of the Puerta del Sol district; a lively square of cafes and ornate buildings and shops with huge slabs of meat strung up to cure in the windows. Roads stretch radially outward from a large fountain centerpiece like spokes on a wheel. A large neon billboard advertising something called Tio Pepe glows in the gathering dusk atop a nearby building. I’ve happened to arrive on the day of the national election and the Spanish people have just elected a new Prime Minister. Revelers flood the streets. Car horns blare throughout the city. I feel lost. Overwhelmed. Frozen where I stand as people push past me. A stone in the center of a fast-moving stream. With no clue of where I’m going, I pick a direction and begin walking.
Within the hour I’m standing at the balcony of my third-floor hotel room at Hotel Asturias. March is nice here; what we might call “balmy” back in Michigan for this time of year. A fragrance like sweet liquor hangs in the air and the celebratory atmosphere from the street below seduces me. But I’ve been awake too long; long enough to have seen day turn into night, back into day, and now night again. I’ve traveled two continents and six time zones. And, so rather than stumble around the street like an extra from a George Romero film, I’ll compromise and sleep with the balcony door open.
At breakfast the following morning, I’m startled to learn that I’ve already blown through a three days’ budget in my first night. My room, though restful and clean and not exorbitantly pricey by any means, illustrates just how much I would need to sacrifice when it comes to personal comfort if I was to survive the next nine days. And so after a day spent photographing Madrid and learning how to navigate its Metro rail system, I return to Asturias, where I buy some pastries and soda from the Hotel store, then make my way up to the upper floors where I slip out a window and onto the fire escape. With the wool blanket and the pillow I’ve scored from a supply closet, I settle in to my makeshift rooftop flat, light up a cigarette, and toast a sunset that blushes every color of the renaissance.
Coming Next Week…Anywhere Is, Part II: The Lights of Africa