@

Writing caregiving essays recently, has put me in the mind of my first marriage, and its disastrous conclusion (recall the surfing Buddhist who happened to be my best friend), which in turn got me to thinking about its disastrous beginnings, which got me to wondering how we ever made it six years in the first place.

In a future post, I hope to treat you all to a little archaeological expedition of my former life, wherein together we will sift through the rubble of my first marriage (laughing at my sadness and folly), its rapid decline, and my subsequent foray into to bikram yoga, hair dye, and ragtop convertibles.

But today, kids, I want to talk about foundations, and how not to build them. In the spirit of non-fiction, I’ve changed only the name of my former wife, who will not kill me if she reads this. I hope. She’s pretty fair in that respect.

Molly got pregnant two months after we met. The next week I left for Greece.

You see, there was this other girl, her name was Sarah. She had freckles and a big messy head of hair and she liked to drink red wine and get naked and paint bowls of fruit. Sarah once loved me madly, a long time ago in Tucson, but I hadn’t loved her back. She was living in Athens now, where she drank red wine and got naked and painted bowls of fruit. I don’t know what made me change my mind about loving Sarah, but I did. So I bought nonrefundable tickets to Greece, and I bought them months in advance, before I’d even met Molly, let alone got her pregnant.

So you see, I wasn’t running from anything.

Bowloffruitposters


When I arrived in Athens, I wasted little time in
informing Sarah that I loved her, that in fact I’d always loved her but hadn’t known it, and that I was prepared to keep on loving her until the industrialized world were in ruins, or the Chiefs won the superbowl, and that I hoped, I prayed, that she still felt the same way.

Sarah said that I hadn’t just said what I’d just said, or at least that she hadn’t heard it, and how dare I say it, and that I was never to say it again ever. And that I was welcome to stay so long as I understood this.

I took that as a no.

And from that moment forward, her studio apartment began to seem awfully small. What with all those bottles of red wine and all that fruit, there wasn’t much room for the two of us. I didn’t want to stay, yet the prospect of leaving that apartment was among the most desolate I’d ever known. I couldn’t afford a hotel or even a hostel if my money was going to hold out, but fortunately ouzo was well within my means, so I took to the streets, getting lost nightly, falling down stairs, pissing on ruins, speaking my six words of Greek to anyone who would listen.

Nobody listened.

I was heartsick and homesick and I ached in my belly with a hunger for something vague and incomprehensible, something that either had been and was no longer, or never was, or perhaps something I’d only tasted. Maybe it was food, maybe it was more ouzo, but I doubt it. The latter seemed like a reasonable solution, if nothing else.

Ouzodoll

So I drank ouzo until I was flat on my back and I howled at the spinning moon and nobody howled with me. I kicked cans down empty streets at dawn and turned my collar up against the chill and tucked my hands up under my arms and plodded on with purpose and determination through the Grecian night to absolutely nowhere.

I begged the Gods for a sign and one fine afternoon they delivered me an alley cat half-crazy with starvation, and I watched the wretched little creature fight for her life and give birth squeeling beneath a porch, only to die with a whimper. And I watched a barrel shaped old woman in black knee socks and orthopedic shoes snatch up the litter with expert dispassion, and stuff them pink and squirming into a pillow case and drown them in a nearby fountain in the name of mercy.

And I walked on.

Secretalley


And the only thing that brought me comfort, the only thing that offered me ballast in these mutinous and uncharted seas was the thought of Molly and I together, six thousand miles away.

And so it happened that I was half a world away when I fell in love with Molly MacDonald and her silver tooth caps and her books about Entomology and the tiny pink scar running diagonally across her forehead. And I was six thousand miles away when I fell in love with our unborn baby.

And from six thousand miles away I could see our future. We’d be poor, but that was okay, because Molly could always smile and illuminate the world with the flash of her silver teeth, and we could push the stroller down to the park together and loll around in the grass in the shade of an alder and have picnics, with peanut butter sandwiches cut into tiny squares and cold canned green beans in little plastic bags, and the whole world would be beneath the shade of an alder. And when we were done we could stuff the sticky bags into the sticky plastic pocket in the back of the stroller, and go home and put the baby down for a nap and make love and read E.E Cummings aloud and eat dinner for the rest of our days.

Shadytree1big


What I remember most about Athens, more than its crooked streets and billboards and crumbling walls and eight million cats, is its phone booths. The fact is, I’m nothing less than an expert on the subject of Athenian phone booths. For, not only did I sleep standing in phone booths, I started calling Molly collect at all hours of the day and night, from all quarters of the city, so that thumbing through my psychic photo album now, I find nary a shot of the Acropolis, nothing of the blue Agean.

Just phone booths.

Last_phone_booth_in_new_york


Here I am in a booth on a windy back street near Plateia Karaiskaki, where I’m begging Molly not to have the abortion. But I’m too late.

There I am in a phone booth amidst the chaos of the Plaka, with its smell of cat piss and onions, where Molly’s telling me she’s met a guy from Los Angeles named Sal who owns a bar.

Here I am in a port authority booth with a spider web crack in the glass and the initials Chi Epsilon carved into the reflective metal above the keypad, where Molly is telling me she’s moving to Los Angeles.

That’s me in the shadow of the Parthenon, where tourists from Edinburgh and Boston and Yokohama are mulling about, while Molly tells me she’s slept with Sal, and I imagine him with a uni-brow, stinking of Leather cologne, emptying himself inside her with a grunt.

And there I am a day later in a murky hotel lobby in Psiri, beneath the watchful eye of an Albanian clerk, where Molly confesses that she hasn’t really slept with Sal, that she’d only been saying it. Either way, I believe her.

Here I am on a side street off Athinas near the Hotel Attalos, outside the scariest Chinese restaurant ever. The guy behind me in the wool cap is wheeling about the booth like a turkey buzzard trying to hurry me off, as I beg Molly to forgive me for leaving, and for not having said a few simple words in time. The phone reciever smells like my grandfather’s aftershave, as I beseech her not to move to Los Angeles, not to move anywhere, without me. I beg for forgiveness, for absolution, for a future with or without babies.

For two weeks in Athens the phone booth was my confessional. For two weeks I called Molly collect. For two weeks she accepted the charges.

Wilma_oct_23_phone_booth

 

I’m no fashion maven, but I know what I like. And it’s not paisley dresses. Molly was wearing a paisley dress when she picked me up at the airport. We clumsily embraced. There was no kiss.

At first we drove in silence but for the rain and the swish of the tires and the thrumming of the wipers. Somehow the conversational fare reserved for such reunions simply wouldn’t do. How was your
abortion? Fine. How was your lover?

Thanks for picking me up, I said at last.

Sure, she said, staring straight ahead.

That was it for awhile. Gazing goggle-eyed out upon the luminous sprawl of Renton, I began to wonder if my optimism had not duped me again. From six thousand miles it all looked manageable.

You look great, I said. I like your dress.

I hate it, she said.

We drove on. The wipers started squeaking.

As we rounded the back side of Beacon Hill and the skyline burst upon us, I felt somewhat at ease. I was home. I never wanted to leave again.

I’m leaving next week, she said. I’ve got a job set up.

You mean–

No, something different. Something through Kelly.

You mean the one that pisses her bed? I said.

No, the one with the big tits, she said.

Oh.

I had a dream you fucked her, she said matter of factly.

Fucked Kelly?

Yeah.

Uh . . . okay.

You like big tits, right?

Well, yeah, I guess.

Does Sarah have big tits? Did you fuck her big tits? Did you get her pregnant?

And how about Sal? I said. Does Sal have a big dick?

I wouldn’t know.

Didn’t that hurt? Two days after the–

I said I wouldn’t know, she said.

We drove on. She stared straight ahead, gripping the wheel fiercely.

I didn’t touch Sarah, I said. She’s just a friend. I told you that.

Friends, she said.

The rain was letting up as we hit downtown. Molly killed the wipers. I cracked my window some. The fresh air was good. We took the Seneca exit and came out on Sixth Avenue. It was still early.

You wanna get a drink? I said.

Where? she said.

Wherever.

Molly swung a right onto sixth, and we headed north from there. For awhile, anyway.

Dear I-

In the several week run up to my exit here from your beautiful country, many people, including yourself, have asked me what I will miss about Spain. The main reaction of those who find out I’m leaving resembles this: “You been here how long – six years? Shit man. That’s a long time. Damn.” Most follow with “Why are you leaving?”.

These reactions naturally force you to consider the reality of your exit. These final days have been flashing before me like a movie reel, unable to to see one frame and appreciate it. As I type these words, I can already feel the credits starting to roll.


Before I know it, I’ll be gone, and a huge chunk of this time I’m invested in this country will seem like a distant dream. I hope to never be one of those people that lived abroad for a time and then constantly boasts about it at any given unsolicited opportunity, as if it would make me seem more worldly or cultured than I am.

To help avoid this potential pitfall and to not repeat myself, I’ve comprised this rather long list of what I will and won’t miss from this country I called home for quite a while. It is not a complete list and in no order of importance, but a representation of a few of the frames I’ve been able to catch, grasp and remember as I’m mounting one of the sloppier international moves in recent history.

1. I will go through Jamón Ibérico withdrawl within days of leaving. I will hunger for the general high quality food and the societal attitude towards eating it. They honor the privilege of eating. In contrast, back in the US where meat is usually formed into cute geometric shapes that resemble juicy brown play doe, here it is in its raw, naturally cured form. I am not ashamed to admit that I will direly miss seeing walls lined with cured legs. Other favorite foods: Tortilla, Pulpo a la Gallega, Gazpacho, Albondigas, Cocido, Chorizo/Salchichón, Pan tomáca, Calzots.

Oh yeah, I will miss all the inexpensive and excellent wines.

2. I will yearn dearly for the relentless dose of culture that seeps from pretty much every corner of this capital city. Sculptures on the street, book fairs, art weeks, film festivals, theater and dance month, architecture week, parties on the streets until the A.M., etc. Every month in Madrid is simply too much to choose from, and while I regret not taking full advantage of even 20% of what it has offered, I’m better off for knowing it exists and having lived surrounded by it.

3. I will miss the national pastime of dando un paseo, or taking the leisurely stroll that Spaniards take at any hour of the day, inching their way to their destinations or simply having no destination at all, completely oblivious to any one around them. It is a testament to their natural ability to appreciate the moments as they pass.

4. I will not miss the way Spaniards are completely oblivious to any one around them when they take their leisurely strolls, mostly because I’ve been trying to walk around them and they’ve been blocking or hindering my own North American beeline for the past six years.

5.I already miss my beautiful little feral bastard of a feline companion for three years, El Lío.

He now lives on a farm in Avila and from reported accounts is contentísimo. Letting him go was one of the harder decisions I’ve had to make in a long time, but I think it was probably the best for him. (I hate Sting.)

6. At some point, after I will have lived for some time back in a land where apathy is (or at least was) contentment, I will damn-near ache to see a protest. Spaniards will get off their asses to raise a sign and yell in unison for just about anything. The March 11th attacks brought about 10 million people to the streets country wide, 1/4 of the population. Gay marriage brought the right out en masse (which was either 2 million according to their protest organizers or 200,000 according to the police). The perpetual Israel-Palestine conflict brings about one protest every two months. When gas hit 4$/gallon last summer, the truckers blocked highway lanes; the lack of affordable housing brought about 500 out to protest against it; anti-capitalism protests…nude protesters for animals rights…nude bike riders in Madrid balking against Madrid’s lack of bicycle lanes…anti-fascists protests…anti-ETI protests…anti-bullfighting protests…dogs and their owners group together decrying the unfair fines of 300€ they get when they let their dogs go free in parts of Retiro’s park where signs specifically state they should always be on a leash…angry Spanish youth protesting against the restrictive laws not permitting them to drink (illegally) on the streets that provoked a riot two years ago here in Madrid. I once saw a group of 10 people condemning the newly installed car meters in their neighborhood, signs and all.

The list abounds, and I hope they never stop fighting, even if it’s by a small group of mothers who think they should be allowed to breastfeed in the Prado. They protested by bringing their hungry babies to the Prado and letting them feed for all to see.

7. I will not miss the way you guys smoke here. Around 40% of the adult population light up on a daily basis in any restaurant or bar. You tried outlawing it back in 2006 but the smoking lobby fought it hard enough (read: deeply fingered the government’s pockets) and now you have the equivalent of the US in the 50s. As much as I’ve smoked and tried to quit here, you make it nearly impossible for certain kinds of people to quit, as well as an intolerable hell for nonsmokers. One very good thing about the US is the fascism-level control over the public air secondhand smoke.





a rare sign in a Madrileño bar

8. I will long for your benches. At any given point in the city of Madrid, you are no more than a few hundred feet away from a bench. Most other cities and pueblos in Spain seem to adhere to this bench culture. Due in equal parts to the brutal heat and effusive sociability of Spaniards, this ample placement of benches throughout Spain make it one of the best countries to sit down and do whatever you do when you do so (read, people watch, smoke, drink maté or beer, swap pleasantries, etc).

9. After all this time of hanging clothes out to dry and washing dishes by hand, I will miss the former and not the latter. Washing dishes by hand sucks. Hanging clothes out to dry is a rather peaceful process, especially when the professional violin player in building across the patio practices with his or her door open and fills the space with some calming classical solos. I will also miss hanging clothes out to dry in July or August and having them dry in less than 30 minutes.

10. I will miss Enrique, my doorman. His job is simple: come in the morning around 10 am, sweep all six floors, attend to any tenants’ needs, leave for lunch around 2 pm, come back at 5 with glassy eyes, an alcohol-laden grin and a suit. When he stands at the threshold of the building to the street and a pretty girl walks by, he whispers something that I’m pretty sure would be unadulterated harassment in the US. If I am near, he looks at me and raises his eyebrows. I raise mine back and nod my head at an angle. I don’t condone this behavior, but find it very macho doorman-ish of him, and he certainly wouldn’t be him if he didn’t do it.

11. While I certainly don’t think the US is without its both blatant and latent racial issues, I will not miss the viscous undercurrent of racism that flows deep through this country’s ethos. Whether it’s the Spanish basketball team posing for a picture in the Olympics in China with each player making “slit-eyed gestures”, or Spanish Formula 1 fans yelling out “puto negro” or “negro de mierda” at Lewis Hamilton in Barcelona last year, or the “monkey chants” during a British football match in 2006, or, especially, when I’ve pointed this out to some of my Spanish friends, they are unable to see what’s offensive about it. In this way, Spain has tendencies towards the US in the 50s.

12.  I will miss the sex and violence that adorns the media in all its forms. The day after the March 11th train bombings in Madrid, El Mundo ran a picture on the front page of one of the wagon’s carnage with two body-less heads mangled in the aftermath; in Fallujah when those four American civilian contractors were killed and one was burnt alive in 2004, his charred body being dragged down the street as people cheered around him/it, that was the front page on El País. The news often shows car accidents with dead bodies covered in sheets and blood spilled everywhere. It is very common to open a newspaper, turn on the TV or see a billboard with a woman’s breast bared. It never seems like something we need to be protected from, nor something unnatural or impure. This month’s Vanity Fair boasted a rather controversial cover with two female models naked, buttocks and one nipple exposed. It was billboarded across Madrid like a movie poster.

I will miss these sometimes shocking, sometimes sexed-up images because they seem much realer the American depiction of reality as represented through the media. America’s supposed puritanical nature seems much more sheltered and ultimately damaging psychologically. If we are unable to even see the caskets of dead American soldiers coming back from a war we started, then what the hell does that say about us? It says we can’t stick our heads far enough into holes in the ground.

13. I will miss the concept of a Spanish house. Casa for most means the equivalent of condo in American or British. They live on top of, underneath and next to each other here, like ants. One positive effect of this is a very social society that isn’t afraid to touch you or stand clearly in violation of the standard American personal space of two feet. It can be welcoming once you’re used to it.

14. I will not miss being lived on top of, especially by the guy in the flat above who tends to urinate at 1 am and, just as I’m about doze off, get the aural sensation that someone is peeing all over me. And what follows is, expectantly, that I get flushed on.

15. I will probably cry around mid-March next year, wondering what happened to the excessive vacations that Spain experiences. Including weekends, the average Spaniard does not working 1/3 of the year. Most everyone is given three weeks of vacation up front, with about 15 days of national holidays throughout the year.

16. I will ache to see the two-toothed smiling 80-year-old lady in my neighborhood who sets her chair out on the sidewalk whenever the weather is warm and just watches the world approach and leave her.

She makes the sidewalk her porch and nobody protests about it. When I walk passed her, without fail she smiles at me and whistles a grumbled but well-intentioned “Buenas tardes”. Her smile is so wide, inviting and sincere that I feel like I should stop and talk to her, maybe give her a big Midwestern hug. But I don’t.

17. At some point — as soon as the US has another lunatic decides to take out his own family or coworkers before offing himself — I will pine for being back a society that does not have the general populace carrying guns. This is by far one of the most peaceful societies I have known. That being said, they kill each other here either the old fashioned way: stabbing — a much closer and therefore difficult way to end someone’s life. If you’re going to kill someone, sticking a sharp object in them repeatedly is much more difficult than pulling a trigger a couple of times. (At least I think that would be the case.) Guns are for pussies. Also, I will miss the smiling policemen who do carry guns but never seem threatening or filled with an arrogant sense of power. Here, whenever I see a cop, I never have the fleeting thought: “What am I doing that is illegal right now?”

18. I will miss the sheer devaluing of all vulgarity that the vast majority of Spaniards partake in on a daily basis without being aware of it. Joder, Mierda, Coño– “fuck”, “shit” and “cunt” respectively — are so pervasive that, to an outsider’s point of view, they seem more like “damn”, “shoot” and “hell”. Me cago en Dios (”I shit on God”) — probably equivalent in its essence to “Motherfucker” — is thankfully still reserved for special situations.

19. I will miss having no car. I haven’t driven regularly in almost six years and I feel better off for not having done so. As Robert Persig once said, driving a car is just more boring television, and I’m about to go back to a lot more television. I hope to relocate to a smaller town like Austin or Portland that has smaller Euro-style shops and walking neighborhoods.

20. I will miss the Sunday magazine El País Seminal (EPS) and the literary supplement Babelia on Saturday. One notable distinction from the states is that writers and novelists almost always double as columnists in newspapers, probably because it’s the only way to make a consistent living between books. As the newspaper dies its languid death, this too may change. But I’ve learned a lot of Spanish from following excellent writers like Javier Marías, Carlos Fuentes (Mexican but writes for El País), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian but write for El País), Javier Cercas, Manuel Vincente, Manual Rivas, Rosa Montero, Ray Loriega, Antonio Moliz Molina and my favorite Spanish (er, Catalán) writer Quím Monzó. The absence of my easy access to them will be long and profound. I will also miss being able to walk down the block and buy a newspaper from a kiosk.

21. I will not miss the inverted Spanish standard of printing titles on book spines. It’s the opposite to the rest of the world, so…what gives?

Yes I, I will undoubtedly yearn for many aspects of this unique and fascinating country, its mad, deafening capital and, of course, you. I’m very lucky to have met you and many other sweet souls and peaceful pilgrims in my extended sojourn as an expat. You’ve been wonderful to me, and I will remember you with nothing but fondness, and sunshine, and joy. I may some day move back here, but for the foreseeable future, I am going back to watch the mighty superpower bumbling , see if I can’t help it in some way, see if I can’t help be a part of the change that it needs, see if it can’t help me be a part of a change that I need.

Spain– with all its flaws and setbacks, its feeble economy slipping into almost 5 million unemployed, its Mediterranean coast polluted beyond life-sustaining levels, it’s expanding desert and droughts, water distribution issues and rampant political corruption, among many other problems — is still one of the best countries on the planet.

When I look back at the blurry frames of my six years here and think about the multitude of reasons I came and the many for which I am going, I can only answer the question planted above of “Why are you going?” with this simple and succinct answer:

It’s time.

Con mucho amor,

K


I’m in Wu-Fong, in a car, fearing for the lives of everyone around me (my life included). The rules that govern Taiwanese traffic are apparently more like guidelines, and this frightens me.

My girlfriend is driving. She swerves the car into the right lane. How did she know there weren’t any motorcycles approaching on the right? I have no idea. It’s too complicated for me to keep track of.

For the last two weeks, I had intended to write up a little review of the new Star Trek film, but then I got thinking about what this franchise has meant to me. Don’t worry — I’m not some loon who knows the stardate of when Kirk took his first swig of Romulan Ale, and I certainly can’t translate Shakespeare into Klingon. However, I’m not a casual fan, either. I’ve seen enough Star Trek to know what the prime directive means or that Uhura’s name comes from the Swahili word for freedom.

startrek

It is the most unique candy bar imaginable. I am not even sure I can call it a candy bar. It is a roll of sweet, lemony cottage cheese – smooth and fluffy, none of that weird, gritty, rubbery stuff – covered in a layer of crunchy milk chocolate. It’s about the size of my middle finger and it’s wrapped in a red polka-dot foil. It’s “Turo Rudi.” Literally translated: Cottage Cheese Roll. Or “rollie,” if we want to be accurate.


GALICIA, SPAIN-

I awake at 7 am, mostly from unwieldy nervousness. Before I have time to pause and consider what is to come, I strap on my 20 pound backpack, leave the pilgrim’s shelter in Sarría and ascend a firm incline for about 45 minutes into a Tolkien dream sequence.

Once inside, the misty mountain top has no visible exit; white pulpy air hangs still upon all scenery within a 100-foot diameter.

The path levels out, my head soaking in frosty sweat; I feel like am in the heart of a chilly other world, alone.


You have to do this alone. It’s part of the allure of el Camino. It also offers you a chance to forget about the maddening urban life that is Madrid, or Berlin, or Oslo, or Paris, or Los Angeles or wherever it is that you came from in order to do this.

Going hiking usually necessitates the presence of friends, but this modern pilgrimage is essentially a journey into self, regardless of whether you believe in God, believe positively that God does not exist or simply don’t care. To do it with a group of others is just another way of having a good time and cracking jokes or philosophizing while taking an slightly arduous, unending stroll.

An hour passes, the fog clears and the sun blesses every inch of the surrounding farmlands and endless green with its idyllic royal luster: the divine yellow ignites smiles on all the determined pilgrims and brings an easy contentment to northwestern Spain on this early April day.


Three hours in, my bottle is long since drunk and the only thing my dry mouth cares about is where can it find be sated with fresh water. As this thought becomes an ever-increasing concern, one of the many dilapidated walls that offer the ubiquitous yellow arrow that points all pilgrims toward the proper path–the path toward Santiago de Compostela–offers a distinct green arrow that says fuente.

My mouth salivates; I quicken my steps.

***

Walking, such a simple action that is taken for granted until it is compromised in some way.

It is the only mode of transportation on this pilgrimage besides the option to ride a bicycle or a horse.

If you walk the entire Camino Francés from Ronces Valles on the border of Spain and France at the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic, you will walk 800 km (500 miles). Most pilgrims do it within one month. Some of the extremists take three weeks, clocking an average of 40 km (25 miles) per day; others take five or six weeks, averaging 20-25 km (12.5-15 miles) per day.

Your backpack should weigh no more than 10 % of your body weight. You should carry no more than three changes of clothes and the essential items, which vary from pilgrim to pilgrim. For me, the essentials include a flashlight, earplugs, basic toiletries, toilet paper, a swiss army knife, nail clippers, a notepad and pencil, etc. All else is superfluous.

I am here on my own volition even though I was required to walk for two days as part of the class by the same name in which we studied most of the aspects regarding this historic pilgrimage.

Something’s been nagging me since I started studying the phenomenon: the translation of the name. El Camino de Santiago is normally called “The Way of St. James” or sometimes “The High Road to St. James”. The word camino in Spanish is bunch of different things, but it’s normally NOT “the way”: road, journey, path are the usual equivalents. Yet on this massive hike, people commonly say to the pilgrims ¡Buen camino!, which I’m certain would not get translated as “Have a good way!”. Probably the most accurate expression would be “Have a good journey/trip”. But what nags me about it is that neither of these truly capture the essence of the Spanish.

I suppose this simple example illuminates  the trappings of translation quite compactly.

At its most basic, my motivation is to find out what it means to be a modern pilgrim and to try and get a glimpse into what it meant to be one 1000 years ago.

The medieval pilgrim did it for different reasons: penitence, infirmary or punishment. Many pilgrims did the journey because they were lepers, diabetics or mysteriously stricken with some unknown disease. Cancer and lunacy were unknown then, as were weak hearts and pretty much every other currently known disease. To go on the pilgrimage was to seek the divine, helpful hand of God via his Jesus’s trusted confidant and apostle, St. James, the patron saint of Spain.

The history of the pilgrimage is rather long and unfitting for a space such as this, but it’s worth mentioning the crux of the story.

St. James was decapitated in the year 44 by Herod in Israel. His body was placed on a small one-body vessel that made it through the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic until it reached the Galician shore.  About 750 years later his body was discovered where the city’s cathedral now stands. Throughout the following 1000 years, the pilgrimage acted as a sort of political/religious coagulant for a broken, post-Roman Europe, one that the Catholic church used–along with the pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem–to unify Catholics and countries which in that era were inextricably linked.

It worked, making el Camino de Santiago the most popular of all the western pilgrimages in the past millennium. The cities of Burgos, León and Santiago de Compostela actually grew into their modern metropolises thanks only to the existence of the Camino and the infrastructure built around it to help the pilgrims make it to Santiago.

The kicker–for me at least–is this: the body in the cathedral has a head attached to it. It’s never been decapitated. It has scientifically been proven that the body in the sepulcher of St. James is either not St. James or he somehow gained a head after death. This latter story is the official Catholic one, the one the preaches miracles abound. One of the main impetuses for medieval pilgrims was to be able to touch the reliquaries that held supposed relics from saints in hopes that they themselves would receive some of the divine magic and cure themselves. And St. James the headless-headed enigma buried beneath the massive Cathedral is one of the biggest relics of them all, with the exception of wood from Christ’s cross. (Interestingly enough, if you took all the supposed splinters of wood that people have claimed was from the original cross, you would have need a large boat to support its weight, or it would take 300 men to hold it up.)

For the modern pilgrim, blisters, chaffing and inclement weather are the biggest enemies; the pilgrim who embarked on this journey that started around 800 AD and reached full peak around 11th-13th centuries, had death looming over most of the time. Their average life span was 35-40 years, the majority of babies were stillborn, a dry spell in the weather meant starvation for at least a year and the bubonic plague was as much of a concern as the bandits who often pursued and killed pilgrims just for being on the road. Not to mention the imminent fear of the Moors, who had come to reign in about 80% of Hispania in part of this middle ages.

To the medieval pilgrim, traveling alone was unthinkable.

To boot, if they made it to Santiago de Compostela, they had to go back–on foot–which is the mother of all understated anticlimaxes. The modern pilgrim grabs a bus, plane or train and is back sleeping in their climate-controlled queen-sized bedroom while listening to their Ipod and cooking a frozen pizza.

***

The first day ends after six hours of walking. I arrive to Portomarin…

and pay 3 euros in the community shelter. I get the top bunk in a room with 40 other bunks.

I eat, scribble some words on a notepad, snap a few photos, climb the ladder to bed around 8-9 pm and put in the ear plugs in order to mute the cacophonous snoring that pilgrims naturally emit while resting.

As I lay my head down, I realize that day one really doesn’t count.

It doesn’t count because your fresh and amazed by the newness of it all.

Blisters are a few days away, as are charlie horses and strained muscles.

For the same reason, the second and third day don’t really count either.

Day four is when you’re almost almost accustomed to walking 25 km a day that you go an extra two or three or four, on to the next pueblo or two to gain some ground.

And then — inevitably — it rains a steady, windy drizzle, sometimes pouring down.

I put on the poncho on day four and get so figuratively lost in my thoughts — which are mostly centered around the miserable nature of the day — that I literally get lost. I miss a crucial arrow and before long, I’m on the highway walking alongside coches and camiñones that spray water on me.

My cheap poncho starts ripping down in the chest area, making my inner shirts wet — another preoccupation of the modern pilgrim. Wet clothes and shoes make for an unpleasant journey.

I would give you a full play-by-play of the events, but I realize now as I type this, what, really, is there to tell?

I walked, I ate, I rested, I walked on, I rested, I ate, I slept.

I took pictures.

I sometimes called on the help of others when I needed it; I sometimes helped others who needed it.

I was exhausted and, by the time I reached the cathedral, exhilarated.

In total, I walked about 120 km in five days, enough to obtain the official pilgrim’s credential that logged me as another number for the year. In 2006, 100,377 pilgrims did at least this same distance that I did; in 2007, 114,026 walked it; in 2008, 125,141. (These stats come from the Archbishop’s office of Compostela itself.)

The volume of books that have been written about the Camino in the past 15-20 years is astonishing. It seems like if you can string together a sentence and snap some photos, you too can write about what it means to be a pilgrim (myself not excluded). Paulo Coehlo did it, as did Shirley McClaine. I’ve read the Coehlo one and excerpts from others and, honestly, I wouldn’t recommend a single one in terms for literary merit. (But if you ever decide to do it, they certainly are helpful to know what to expect.)

That said, it seems to be a slippery task to be able to write about this and not fall into the abyss of cliché. El Camino, the road, the journey not the destination, do it, push yourself beyond your limits, persevere/ struggle through the hardships, never lose site of the goal, be patient, give 100%, etc.

In the end, over a month after having done it, I still wonder what it was that I learned. I never got what I expected: no revelation, realization or epiphany. Maybe this is was part of it: don’t expect anything. It will be different than whatever you do expect, so keep them minimal. The only thing El Camino de Santiago really offers you is some time alone and with strangers, some silence, some nature, some beauty, some exercise, some challenge.

Now that I think about, that’s quite a lot.


Ben Stiller is caustic without a cause, something like Napoleon had he served as a mere comedian/actor or, better put for his times, court jester. Stiller has the perfect life and exudes confidence to such an extent that one wonders whether confidence is a kind of systemic poison that serves as an irritant not to the person who swallowed the poison but to those within vicinity of that person. All of this is to say my interview started poorly.

 

My mother gave my father a Diane Arbus photo book for his birthday the year I was ten and he was thirty-four. The entire family (Mom, Dad, my older sister, Becca, and my younger brother, Josh) gathered around and slowly waded through it, picture by picture. The pages were thick and glossy and smelled remotely of plastic. Almost all the photos were portraits—people whose entire lives seemed exposed through the simplest physical details. There was the terrorizing image of the boy holding a toy hand grenade, the stoop of the Jewish giant who stood beside his small rodent-like parents, the overly-shadowed nasal-labial folds on the middle-aged woman cradling a baby monkey whose face is identical to hers.

And then there was the Topless Dancer.

She sits in a chair in her dressing room in San Francisco, wearing a long sequined, chest-cut-out gown, which I have always imagined to be red (the photo is in black and white). There is a slit up the front of the gown, revealing her crossed legs, shimmery in stockings—closed-toed pumps on her feet. Her sleeves are long and flared with boa-like feathers at the cuff. Other than her face and hands, her breasts are the only bare flesh she exposes: giant breasts, buoyant-looking, inflated to the point of bursting. One finger is pushing into a breast so you can see that there is little give—like a waterbed upon which your body won’t make a dent. Her nipples are glowing, bright eyes beckoning, yet blind to the viewer.

At the time, they were the strangest, yet somehow most fascinating breasts I had ever seen. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen a lot breasts—we lived in Southern California, it was the seventies; my parents and their friends had frequent pool parties where all the adults were naked as the children cowered at the water’s edge in their chaste orlon swimsuits. What made the topless dancer’s breasts special was the fact that the purpose of their exposure was simply so that they’d be appreciated. They were breasts for the sake of breasts—breasts beyond normal human breasts—breasts as a prurient object of desire that had nothing to do with the person who wore them.

The following year, in Fifth grade, my own breasts began to develop. I discovered it while sitting on the edge of my bed in my underwear. There was a pain, or throb in my breasts, something that called me to them. With a fat dirty-nailed finger I rubbed and prodded until I found a large sore nut underneath the thin skin of each nipple. I called my sister in, she was fourteen, a flat-chested gymnast, on the precipice of anorexia.

“What’s this?” I asked, and I pushed her finger onto one nob.

“You’re developing,” she said. Then she looked away, furious, almost-panicked and called for our mother. “MOOOOM!”

My mother came in the room—she wasn’t a doting or involved mother, but she did have an interest in my brother, sister and me; she liked to observe and note us in the same way that she noted the details of the faces in the Diane Arbus photos.

“Jessie’s developing,” my sister said.

My mother placed a finger on my nipple and rubbed.

“Yup,” she said, “you’re developing.”

That was the beginning of a three-year rift between my sister and me. It was when I started to receive, without ever asking, the things she wanted most.

Sometime in the middle of the school year, the swollen garbanzo beans beneath my skin pushed out so that through a thin tee-shirt or blouse, one could see my puffy nipples. The Mediterranean climate of our town—our location on the jagged California coast—demanded no hats or mittens or woolen vests like I’d seen on television or in magazines, so it never occurred to me to hide or cover up my new developments. And then came the day that Kevin H., who was often teased because his father was a gay activist, pointed at me as I walked down the open air hallway, and shouted, “Jessica’s sprouting!”

It was a refrain no one could resist repeating. And how could I have blamed them, as even to me, the words Jessica’s sprouting sounded freakishly interesting. I was sprouting—growing things with seeds I had never planted, tending to a tiny crop that already was of great interest to my peers. People love breasts, and I was starting to get them. My thrill of them, however, seemed like a secret I wasn’t ready to share. I asked my mother for a bra.

All underwear for my sister and me was purchased at J.C.Penny. The dressing rooms were in the Lower Level, a dingy place with carpet that looked like it belonged in a basement or a carport. Back then, girls’ bras came only in white or beige (think of teeth: bleached or tobacco-stained). And one fabric: polyester. Mom hustled me out of the dressing room as soon as we found two that fit, handed me the credit card and let me pay for them myself (a deeply embarrassing transaction) while she rushed outside for a cigarette.

The bras provided a good barrier—they hid and cradled my breasts until the time I entered high school where I eventually discovered the power of breasts; the power of the Diane Arbus Topless Dancer.

“Jessica,” wrote one boy in my ninth-grade yearbook, “I’m glad you sit near me in math. I like the clothes you wear. Love, John.” Other than his signature, there was nothing in that inscription imitative of the usual yearbook platitudes. I was stuck on the clothing line. My uniform throughout high school consisted of shorts, flip-flops and Hang-Ten tanks, tees or halter tops. There were hundreds of girls, mostly blonder, taller, tanner and prettier than I, who dominated the fashion scene at our school.

At a beach party to celebrate the end of the school year, I approached the John who liked my clothes.

“What do you mean you like my clothes?” I asked. He was holding a Lowenbrau, squinting into the sun.

“I like your clothes?” He took a step closer, I could smell the tangy beer on his breath.

“You wrote that in my yearbook,” I explained.

“Your body,” he grinned, “everyone can see the shape of your boobs and your butt in your clothes.”

“Everyone?”

“Everyone who looks,” he said, “and I always look.” John laughed quickly with a machine gun hahahaha, as if to cover up or blow away his words.

I was startled, but also fascinated by what he had just revealed. It gave me a thrilling awareness that I was unable shed: there were people who were actually looking at me.

That summer my family took a trip back east to see our relatives. I was fourteen, about to be fifteen—fully grown into the same size and shape I am today. My sister was seventeen. She had had her bout with anorexia and was one year into recovery. Within a matter of months she had gone from size 0 to size 6; from flat-chested to a C cup; and from amenorrheal to menstrual. Our builds were opposite: where I was broad-hipped, she was slim; where I was small-waisted, she was not; my legs were soft and doughy, hers were sinewy and narrow. But we both had large breasts.

A farewell party for my family at my uncle’s house in Vermont produced the following scene:

My grandfather is at the bar (this branch of the family consists of people who have actual working bars in their houses: beer on tap, neon Coors signs, St. Pauli Girl mirrors, the whole shebang). He is holding a glass half-filled with chunky ice cubes, amber scotch covering the ice with just a couple glassy peaks sticking out. My uncle is on the other side of the bar, pouring drinks, watching people, listening.

My sister, Becca, and I are standing together, near our grandfather, but not so close as to have a conversation with him. We are talking to each other, discussing our cousin Donny who has grown handsome, man-sized, since we last saw him, and who has invited us for a ride in his truck in order to smoke a joint.

My grandfather lifts his glass towards us and speaks loudly in the way of people who command rooms, the way of people who are used to being listened to by everyone around them. “Would you look at the tits on these girls?!”

My sister and I aren’t sure who he’s talking about at first. We both look at my grandfather, cautiously. We are, it seems, the only girls in the room.

“Rodney!” my grandfather says, and he turns to my uncle behind the bar, “Can you believe the tits on these girls?!”

And now we know that indeed our tits are the subject of this public conversation. Instinctively, we huddle closer together. I can feel my sister breathing; I can sense the tension coming off her skin.

Rodney smiles, nods his head, raises a glass as if to toast our breasts.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, “You’ve got mighty pretty granddaughters with mighty big tits.”

Finally, our grandfather addresses us directly. “Do all the girls in California have tits like that?”

In our confusion, we nervously giggle. This is an encounter for which we are not at all prepared. I feel like I am panting, yet somehow not breathing.

“Well?” he asks, laughing.

Becca grabs my hand and pulls me out of the room, still giggling. She says nothing to me about what just happened and so I say nothing, too. We avoid our grandfather for the rest of the party, although I am always aware of where he is. It is clear that neither of us wants to be seen by him in the same way that yearbook-writing John had seen me. I learn then that the thrill of being looked at depends entirely on who is looking at you.

I never saw my grandfather again. We left the next morning and, as usual, he
avoided the goodbye scene. The next year, as my grandfather was dying of cancer, my mother flew to his deathbed. When she came home from the funeral, my mother reported that his dying words were, “I never should have had children.”

“Well,” I said to her, “at least he didn’t mention your tits.”

 

This is my tenth post on TNB, which I’m treating as some sort of milestone. And as with all milestones, I’m going to take this moment to look back and reflect on what a crazy journey it’s been… (Imagine some sort of bubble effect or that wibbly-wobbly screen wipe with harp music at this point.)

As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a gangster writer. Or kind of. I’ve always wanted to be a writer when I haven’t had crazy schemes of what I was going to be.

A memory that haunts and embarrasses me to this day is standing up in class at the age of about five, wearing glasses and no doubt a zany waistcoat. I was a nerd as a kid, I dressed like a fucking magician. I was standing in front of a class with a list of books I was going to write (most of them about dinosaurs) and how much they would retail for.

What if you could take a collection of short memories, weird and otherwise, and store them on your iPod? Then people could scroll through and play them back at their leisure. Would some play in loop mode? What would some of yours be?

the walkmen

I fucking love the Walkmen.

Do you know the Walkmen?

If you don’t, you should. I would embed a video clip for their greatest (or anyway best-known) song, “The Rat,” if I knew how. Brad, how do I do this? I’m a technical moron, and undoubtedly a moron in other ways, as the following will demonstrate.

Wilco’s got a new record coming out, their seventh, set to be released on June 30. The album’s called Wilco (The Album), and it’s one of those late-career, self-titled deals, so I suppose we may need some reminding that it is a record properand not some sort of greatest hits package. I caught wind that they were streaming the new record for fans and the Wilco-curious. So I headed over to Wilcoworld to check it out, only to discover that the free stream hyperlink had been supplanted by a pre-order hyperlink.