Gillian in China, the second time

I flew into Hong Kong under a typhoon warning. I expected drama when I arrived, but the air was perfectly still. The white birches lining the hallway seemed somehow sepulchral. There is nothing so terrifying as the calm before the storm.
It didn’t help my feeling of unease when, at the border, a Chinese official wearing a mask pointed something that looked very much like a pistol at my head. Apparently, he was measuring my temperature in an effort to make sure that no one with swine flu made it into the country.
The typhoon never materialized.
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Poetry of San Francisco

Graffiti on the front steps of a townhouse on Haight St: ‘Pig tested, Big Brother approved.’

Man to woman on street: ‘Do you have 25 cents? No? Thanks anyway diablo motherf***ing satanic fingernail-ripping b****.’

Original composition, inspired by my friend Sarah’s predilection for haikus (for example, see June 26 post in Euroclass09):

San Francisco sucks
Everyone is so happy
They hog good karma

Man at bus stop: ‘Are you homeless?’
Me: ‘No, but thanks for asking.’

I really should buy some new clothes. Fortunately, thrifty chic is the norm in China. I take off in a few hours.

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3, 2, 1…

Truly, northern Michigan in summer is one of the most beautiful places in the world (not my leg).

The crystal-clear lakes bring to mind a less pleasant beach experience I had last summer, which I described the last time I updated this blog:

‘Qingdao is an old German colony with one of the most unappealing beaches I have ever seen: brown, rocky and weed-strewn, tidepools that smell more like cesspools, and a horizon dominated by ill-conceived modern architecture. After two days, I headed back to Beijing. On my way out of the city, I marveled at its size: it seems like there are enough skyscrapers to house all the jobs in the world. And yet there are cranes everywhere – dormant while the city struts its stuff for the Olympics, but ready to roar back into action. Celtic tigers and lions notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a future not dominated by the Chinese dragon.’ (23 Aug. 2008)

I’ll be back in China next Friday. Can’t wait to see how things have changed.

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The future, Part I

I’m a senior in college. Many of you will be at some point and more of you have been already. This is the year that decides the rest of your life, or so at least many of my classmates seem to think. Realistically, with the average American changing careers 6-7 times during the course of their adulthood, whatever my peers and I end up doing next year is not necessarily make-or-break. 

Even with this in the back of my mind, however, I got swept up at the beginning of this year in ‘e-recruiting’, also occasionally, affectionately known as selling one’s soul. E-recruiting is the name given to the process wherein hundreds of Harvard students are wooed by firms that intend to offer one or two spots (maybe) to students, who go on to fame and fortune – really just the latter – in the world of finance or consulting. I half-heartedly applied to some firms and then started looking into grad school and fellowships.  

It’s been kind of fun. I recently turned in an application to follow the steps of thousands of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route across France and northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela; ostensibly to study the motivation and religious convictions of modern-day pilgrims while cleverly incorporating the knowledge gained from my medieval history courses and language study here at Harvard.

And then a few weeks ago I went to morning prayers, a fifteen minute service held at 8:45 every morning in Memorial Church. Other than a hymn and a closing prayer, it’s not much of a religious affair. The centerpiece is always a speaker, unreliably Christian, who gives a short homily about work, life, baseball, whatever.

I always mean to come more often, but I suffer the delusion that I will get something incredibly important done during the same time period (usually sleep).  Anyway. The talk of the morning was about being mindful of the world’s poor: about how a mosquito net which can save a human from malaria costs less than two coffees, if we would only take the time to send the money in the right direction. 

These are logical points, and they are ignored on a regular basis. In the midst of e-recruiting and fellowship-applying, it was easy to forget how using Harvard’s money to fund a joy-trek across northern Spain might not be the best way to ‘give back’.

Of course there are different ways of doing our best for the world. I’m not condemning the idea of looking for spiritual fulfillment or suggesting that every college senior should do Teach for America in Mississippi or build canals in the African desert. People have different strengths, and the way to best serve the greater good of humanity – or God, if you like – is going to be different for every individual. Maybe, on said trek across northern Spain, I’d gain cultural insight and language proficiency that would allow me to make better informed decisions in a future job in the US foreign service. 

It’s easy for those of us who are studying: we can glorify the stuff we do every day as contributing to our future usefulness.  And those of you who teach are surely helping us. And those who work to make this University community such a good place for fostering intellectual and personal growth are likewise performing a valuable service. 

I could go on. Anyone who does any small thing to make the world go round is serving the greater good. A father who drives his kids to school is taking time to raise his children well, which is for the greater good. The dining staff who check our IDs at the entrance of the dining hall to make sure each hall is allotted the right amount of money – is serving the greater good. 

The difference is in the degree. Maybe that father could be better serving the world by having his kids ride the bus, saving the gas money, going to work earlier and coming home earlier to spend time with his kids in the afternoon. Maybe that dining hall ID checker could be inspiring freshmen to be a better person like Domna over in Annenberg. Maybe I could spend next year challenging myself by teaching in rural Mississippi. Maybe each of us could have two fewer coffees and buy a mosquito net. 

Simply put, it’s not enough to be doing well if we have the ability to be doing better.  It’s not enough for ourselves, it’s not enough for humanity.

I have no wish to discuss my own religious beliefs or lack thereof on the internets, but Sir Francis Drake wrote a poem in 1577 that I’ve always found moving:
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true

Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when 
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.


Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

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I climbed the Stairway to Heaven

My inspiration for going to China came from a classmate at Harvard. She taught English in southern China for the month of July and invited me to explore the north with her ‘because it would be easier to travel with a Westerner’ (she was born in Manchuria and moved to California when she was ten). I assumed this meant she – a petite, pretty Asian would feel unsafe traveling alone. But I was a bit confused: I may be tall, but was I really the best choice for a bodyguard?
As it turns out, my martial arts skills were never called for. In fact, I felt more comfortable walking down the street in China than I do in continental Europe, where any woman with two legs, no feathers, and possessed of a soul* can count on unwanted attention. Foreigners, especially, are treated with immense respect. Whenever I was on a crowded train or bus, people would insist I take their seat. If an official saw me waiting in line at a train station, I would be immediately taken to the counter. This special attention was the reason Jenny wanted to travel with me: as a Chinese girl, she would have to wait in lines and fight for space like the rest of her countrymen. By toting along a tall white girl, all that nonsense could be avoided.

(I should mention: this indulgence to foreigners, predictably, does not extend to the marketplace. Strangers with their favorable exchange rates are the natural prey of knockoff-Burberry-clad merchants. I only narrowly managed to escape buying a ‘Rolex’ worthy of a French President.)
We joined the obligatory herd of tourists at the terracotta army outside of Xian before catching a fifteen-hour train ride toTai’an, a town in Shandong province south of Beijing. The train was basic: six boards intended to function as beds to a compartment, a hole at the end of the car for a toilet, and a fan which probably last functioned under Mao for ventilation. Sharing our compartment were a middle-aged man who snored, a Blackberry-toting businessman, and two shirtless boys who stared at me for hours at a time. And I thought the businessman in Common Class would have been a more unusual sight.
Two days in Taishan were spent climbing on foot and descending by cable car Tai Shan, the ‘first of the five sacred mountains in China’. Taking to heart the posted warning ˜Obey the rules and have a good trip’, we mostly stuck to the path, which has been a pilgrim route since before Confucius’s time (571-489 BC) and is dotted with ancient temples and dramatic carvings on seemingly inaccessible cliffs. The last .2 kilometers our 10.7km climb up the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ had 1600 stairs, a fact I would have been happier to learn in retrospect. Suffice to say it was a good workout.
The view from most of the way up the Stairway to Heaven
We moved on to Qingdao, an old German colony with one of the most unappealing beaches I have ever seen: brown, rocky and weed-strewn, tidepools that smell more like cesspools, and a horizon dominated by ill-conceived modern architecture. We stayed for two days, and I headed back to Beijing on my own. On my way out of the city, I marveled at its size: it seems like there are enough skyscrapers to house all the jobs in the world. And yet there are cranes everywhere – dormant while the city struts its stuff for the Olympics, but ready to roar back into action. Celtic tigers and lionsnotwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a future not dominated by the Chinese dragon.
The beach at Qingdao
* Reading: Candide
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Over the Hills and Far Away

It is said that he who tires of London tires of life. She who tires of Madrid has reason. If the intermittent wind blowing stale, 110 degree heat across your face doesn’t get to you, the smoking and the locals’ propensity for public urination might.
Don’t get me wrong: for all its squalor, Madrid is an unforgettable city. Each of three big museums – the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza – has a collection that would be worth a detour on any European trip. For those who would rather eat pig’s ears than be stuck looking at paintings, you could get them, served with salt, in any bar, along with an endless list of foods more or less deserving of the term ‘delicacy’. And while at that bar, you might make the acquaintance of a talkative of Madrilena, as the people of this city are generally friendlier than car salesmen. He or she might offer to show you the city, and you might find yourself arranging to meet at 2am, when the heat of the day has subsided to a comfortable 85 degrees. 
And then you might get an inkling of what La Movida was like. Or is like, depending on your interpretation: some people contend it’s still not over. The movida was an outbreak of joyful hedonism in the years that followed the death of Francisco Franco, the dictator whose oppressive, repressive rule defined Spanish life for nearly half a century (1939-1975). I imagine it as the Weimar Republic without the sense of impending doom.
Joyful hedonism notwithstanding, I got tired of Madrid. I spent the last weekend of July and the first weekend of August inBurgos and Basqueland, respectively, and took my summer vacation from my summer job in China. WIth a nod to the fact that this blog is supposed to be about living and working in Europe and similar disrespect to chronology, I’ll start with China.
From the forbidden city
The smog is not very noticeable, thanks to draconian measures taken by the government in the weeks leading up to the games. Beijing’s legendary traffic is likewise gone. The only vehicles on the road seem to be official Olympic transport (usually ominous black Audis with tinted windows that zoom by on the reserved lane on every highway), buses, or taxis. The taxi drivers generally have no idea where they are. Telling them a landmark like, say, Tiananmen square will not do; you must provide an intersection and optimally directions. You cannot buckle your seatbelt because there is a nice white cover with the Olympic logo on the seats. Public transport, by contrast, is a dream: the metro (which four years ago had two lines and now has 13) is spotless and equipped with TVs which endlessly broadcast whatever sport in which China is currently doing well. I have seen the synchronized diving enough times to have the entire routine memorized and might have memorized the shooting were it not so incredibly boring. And am I the only one to be disturbed by the fact that the average age of the Chinese gymnastics squad seems to be around 7?
Smog might be lessened, but the city does feel like it’s been engulfed in a cloud. The humidity is through the roof and visibility is ten New York blocks or so. Which makes the seemingly temperate temperatures miserably hot. If it weren’t tonic to my lungs after Madrid weather, I would be more bothered by the fact that my shirt is soaked through after a five minute walk.
I managed to get tickets to the quarterfinals and repecharges of the rowing events held on the 11th from a friend. While waiting to meet with her, I talked to one of the Olympic volunteers, who spoke excellent English. He wanted to convey how much China wanted to be respected and open to the rest of the world. I told him I’d had a wonderful time and everyone had been incredibly friendly (true) and it seemed like the Olympics had brought a lot of positive change. But I also heard that 300,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homes to make space for the Olympic green with its iconic Bird’s nest and AquaCube. ‘I think they would tell you they were happy to move,’ he said. I was skeptical, and said as much in an email I sent to my rowing teammates back at Harvard. But one of them, an ABC with lots of family back in China, informed me my suspicions were baseless:
‘It is very clear to me that though there are likely
exceptions, most Chinese people feel that they have won the lottery
when they are informed that the government (or some business) wants to
take over their property. The reason is that they are often
compensated to ridiculous excess. For all of the Chinese government’s
problems (and we are all aware that there are many), it does refuse to
force the people from their land. Business people are often upset
because the Chinese citizens usually don’t actually have formal rights
to the properties (though many of them built their own houses and have
families who have lived in the same place for generations- it brings
up good questions about ownership). There have been many cases of
Chinese citizens refusing to sell their properties to the government
until they are offered an amount that is satisfactory to them. That
amount is generally unreasonably high. If the people who gave up
their properties in Beijing for the construction of the Olympic venues
were able to get good compensation, then it is definitely possible
that they weren’t terribly upset to move. And the fact that they can
tell their friends that the Cube and the Bird’s Nest was built on
their land will probably give them immense pride- an extra benefit.’
I narrowly missed seeing the US women’s 8, stroked by Caryn Davies, a Radcliffe alum, coast to first in their heat, which lets them bypass the repecharge and proceed straight to the semifinal. They went on to win the gold, but failed to set a new world record, which they have both of the last two years. This is by no means a measure of athletic incapacity: in rowing, weather can make or break even the strongest set of oarsmen. A strong tail wind, ie wind going in the same direction of the racing, will boost speed, but make the boat less stable, which means that a well-balanced, technically expert crew stands a good chance of making a record.
I did get to see Michelle Guerette, the US women’s single sculler and Radcliffe athlete, coast to an easy first in her quarterfinal and then saw her chief competition, the Belarusian Ekaterina Kaarsten, ‘beast’ her heat, as some might say. In the semi-finals on Wednesday, Michelle led her heat for nearly the first 1750 m (out of 2000) of the race but was passed by a Chinese sculler with one of the most fantastic sprints I have ever seen, no doubt aided by the roar of the Chinese in the stands by the finish line. Both first and second place progress to the final, however, and I had a hunch Michelle was saving her fireworks for the more important race. Kaarsten likewise finished second in her heat. Sure enough, Michelle went on to an impressive silver to Bulgaria’s Rumyana Neykova, the current world record holder, and Kaarsten gained a bronze to add to her golds from Atlanta and Sydney. Another highlight was seeing the Winklevoss twins, the Harvard grads who contracted Mark Zuckerberg to program a facebook-like program called ‘ConnectU’ only to have him procrastinate and then publish his own version. They might not be billionaires, but stood a chance at being medalists, thanks to a spectacular last 500 meters that saw them surge from 9 seconds behind the leader and fifth in their heat (out of six) to second in their heat. They ended up placing sixth in the final.
I spent the evening after racing with a rowing coach I met in the stands and a friendly group of British men who live in Beijing and coach football. The semi-native Beijingers took us to two of their usual haunts in the center of town. At the first I ran into a friend from the church choir I grew up singing in. I seem to have a knack for this kind of thing (see ‘Why not?’).
After Beijing, I went traveling with a fellow Harvard student and Chinese native. We spent the first two days in Xi’an, which was the capital of China for, oh, 13 dynasties or so. Highlights include the city walls – 59 feet thick at the base, and still nearly perfectly intact, though they were built in 600something. Evidently the Chinese make better walls than Europeans. Or maybe Europeans are just better at breaking them. We also visited a sacred Buddhist pagoda that was cracked in an earthquake in the fourteenth century, and then seismically restored to perfection by another earthquake in 17something. Feeling holy, we continued with a mosque built in 742 – that’s 110 years after the Hegira, which marked the founding of Islam. Those Muslims traveled quickly. Seeing the religious buildings highlighted an interesting difference between Western and Eastern cultures: while many of us Westerners seem so preoccupied with religion that we see the world coming to a catastrophic battle between Islam and Christianity (Clash of Civilizations, anyone?), the Chinese have managed to exist for a few millennia absent any significant religious conflict, at least until the Cultural revolution. From the peasants to the emperors, they have been happy to identify themselves as Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and seemingly any other thing that came along that encouraged them to better themselves. And often multiple religions at the same time. My aunt’s take:
‘I’m not well versed in Asian religions, but I do know that Confucius stressed the collective over the individual (ie, family is more important than the individual; community trumps family; and state trumps community ) so an individual’s relationship with a higher being has little importance in one’s daily life in China. Actually, what an indivdual thinks, period, has little to do with affairs of state. By contrast, the three monotheistic religions in the West (Christianity and Islam, and their ‘parent’ Judiasm) stress an individual’s ties to God, so religion perhaps has greater importance to the average person in the West than it does in the East. We take it personally and emotion plays a role, hence our fuse is shorter when fervently held beliefs collide.’
To be continued.
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Operacion Triunfo Americana

I went to a concert last Thursday with Maria, the girl who owns my apartment. The group, Marco Fernandez and the Backstabbers, consisted of a translator as lead vocalist, two of his friends from school on guitar and drums, a pretty brunette who occasionally pushed the keyboard to no audible effect, and a bassist who looked like a cross between Ted Kennedy and Jack White.
The club was misty with smoke: the ban which has recently illegalized the sacred pasttime of smoking in a French café has not spread as far as the Iberian peninsula. Marco Fernandez spent much of the forty minute set pulling up the back of his jeans, which despite being stretched like the skin of a chorizo across his thighs kept sliding downwards to reveal shiny black boxer briefs. He also occasionally fell on his knees and started beating the floor, all the while shouting into the microphone with the intensity of a Spice Girls fan on the reunion tour. He sang in a Spanish-accented English which I found almost incomprehensible, except for the word ‘quiver’, which he used more often than I imagined necessary. I asked Maria why he chose to sing in English rather than his mother tongue.
‘It’s the only way to be famous, really. And why make music other than to be famous?’
I thought that was a novel idea. In my world, you make music either because you love it or as a way to stave off the reality of going into a 9-5 job for as long as possible. But Maria was getting at a crucial point of Spanish pop culture: most of it is American/British import. Britney is still getting plenty of airtime over here, along with her evil twin Amy Winehouse.Operacion Triunfo, the Spanish version of Pop/American Idol, was nearly won by an American, and almost all the songs on the show were in English. Clothes with English graphics are clearly hip, regardless of what they say: I saw a girl on the way to work this morning wearing a shirt that said ‘Push fashion enchantment doors blister future,’ which either holds deep mystical significance or shows the inefficacy of online translators. In a twisted way, it makes me feel better. We Americans have spent our entire history trying to emulate and improve upon European culture; it’s strangely satisfying to see them return the interest.
But back to Marco Fernandez and the Backstabbers. Jack White/Ted Kennedy was a friend of Maria’s, and he came to hang out with us after the concert. I asked him his name.
‘Me llámo Emmanuel, pero puedes llámame Mortimer, o Señor la rata,’ he said, and growled at me. Literally, he growled.
‘Did he just say his name was Emmanuel, but I should call him Mortimer or Mr. Rat?’ I asked Maria.
She nodded. â€˜He’s so cool. He’s the best of the Backstabbers.’
It turns out Maria has a rock band too. She told me something about it one of the first nights I was living in the apartment, but, with my lack of proficiency in Spanish, I thought she said she was trying to form one. Which made sense, given the sort of sounds I heard coming from their rehearsals in the room down the hall. I’ve never actually heard a stuck pig, but it might sound similar.
So it was with some trepidation I went out to Nasti, the club where Maria’s band (Maria Teresa and the Double-Crossers? I didn’t catch the name) was playing, last Saturday. They put on a good show, though, if you keep in mind the theory of public presentation that seventy percent is how you look, twenty percent is how you sound, and ten percent is what you say. Giving them the benefit of the doubt on the words, they were eighty percent of the way there.
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Yo no soy racista, pero…

I didn’t meet Alberto, my Italian roommate, until my third day in my new apartment. He’ll be continuing a master’s in political science this fall but is waiting tables for the summer. It’s not unusual to go out for dinner at 11pm here in Spain, so I assumed he got home well after I go to bed. Sure enough, I ran into a stranger with an aggressive case of bedhead on Sunday afternoon.
In the ensuing conversation, I learned that Alberto was well-traveled. He’s visited much of Europe and has been to New York, Miami, San Francisco, LA, and San Diego. I asked him what he thought of the States.
‘I like New York, but California me encanta.’
This is a phrase I love: [California] enchants me. What about Miami, though?
‘Well, I like Miami, but.. don’t get me wrong, yo no soy racista, pero hay tante cubanos all.’ I’m not racist, but there are so many Cubans there. Then he grimaced and waved his hand as if to imply that Elian Gonzales and all his brethren were akin to a new kind of algae invading the Miami beaches.
A week later I met a Spanish man, Pablo, in the Retiro park behind the Prado. We got to talking about the upcoming US Presidential election, and he asked me who I was voting for. I told him I hadn’t decided: I think both candidates are interesting prospects.
‘Yes, but you know, Obama is black.’
I had been expecting a slur on Republicans, a comment about McCain’s age, or a sort of thin-lipped disapproval at my indecisiveness. What exactly did he mean?
‘He’s just not really American. What you Americans need is a new Kennedy.’
I said I didn’t understand why being black made Obama un-American, and countered that many people were calling Obama a new Kennedy.
‘Yes, but Kennedy was Irish, and Catholic.’
Now I was really confused. Obama is not American because he is black and Kennedy was American because he was Irish?  I asked Pablo to clarify.
‘Yo no soy racista, pero… Let’s just say it would never happen in Spain.’ I’ve been warned that you can never change a Spanish man’s mind about two things: football and politics. I tried to reason with Pablo anyway. He countered: ‘ You don’t understand. I work with a lot of black women. Yo no soy racista, pero son todas putas.’ The conversation was going nowhere. We moved on to bullfighting.
Racism, like religion, is one thing I’ve never been able to understand. Much less the kind of self-righteous disclaimer that Alberto and Pablo use – yo no soy racista – as if beginning a sentence that way can cancel out the way you end it. It’s like saying ‘I’m Spanish, but I think Germany should have won the European Cup.’ It just doesn’t make sense.
On a lighter note, I just discovered the delightful work of Matt Harding.
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Why not?

My last night in Paris, I unexpectedly ran into an old friend at a club. Perhaps unexpectedly is an understatement. I last saw the man three years ago when we were singing in the choir of the American Cathedral in Paris. I assumed he and his wife and two children had long since moved back to the land where they drive on the wrong side of the road and spend an hour and a half making tea, from whence they’d come on a two-year appointment for his wife’s job.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked non-judgmentally.
‘My work mates and I are out on a lash-‘ (a lash, translated into American, is a memorable night of drinking which, in all likelihood, you won’t remember) ‘because Giles here is moving to Gambia to teach English.’
‘That’s fantastic,’ I said, and turned to Giles.  ‘Are you going through World Teach? Or some organization like that?’
Giles giggled, and I realized he was probably wasted. ‘Why, then? Why Gambia?’
‘Why not?’ he countered.
Why not, indeed. I’ve decided to appropriate Giles’s moyen de vivre for the summer, which may help explain my apartment search.
I stayed my first few nights with the fiancee of a friend from home, but mindful of the adage that fish and houseguests go bad after three days, I had my eye out for a place of my own. 
Compared to most capital cities, Madrid is very affordable: a centrally located studio runs in the 450-700 euro range, and a room in a shared apartment can be as low as 250 euro a month. I scoured a few Craigslist-type websites and narrowed my search to five habitacions (rooms in a shared apartment) which were reasonably priced and a comfortable distance from work.

I looked into the cheapest first. It was in the heart of Chueca, the gay district, populated primarily by shirtless men with the kind of muscles only elsewhere seen in Roman statuary. With my limited (but improving!) Spanish, I called the owner. He said something I interpreted to mean we would meet in front of the fruit shop with the pink awning at 5pm.
Pink may be an uncommon color in most urban settings, but in Chueca, I was surprised they managed to refrain from painting the fire hydrants magenta. Finding a pink fruteria in between the pink bars and pink convenience stores and pink travel agencies sounded about as easy as finding a gay Catholic priest. Plenty exist, but they sure are hard to distinguish from their surroundings.
In search of the fruteria, I got a chance to survey my prospective neighborhood. A dull thumping music was emanating from a bar with a pink awning and painting of a naked man looking coquettishly over his shoulder on the door: apparently 5pm is by no means too early to start the night’s partying in Chueca. There were about as many shoe shops as there were grocery stores, Tabacos, butchers, and bakeries put together. Most selling women’s shoes. There were also a number of people with pink eyes: I have not smelled so much marijuana since the Fridays in high school when the kids in the back of the bus would indulge in recreational chemistry instead of their usual Marlboros.
I was pretty sure I found the fruit shop in question at the appropriate time and waited. I smiled vaguely at passerby, none of whom were over forty or looked like they had been out of a gym for more than four hours. I sent a text message to the owner of the apartment: ‘donde eres? Estoy delante de la fruteria’ and within a minute, a ball of paper fell on my head.
Two stories above the fruteria, a bearded man with very good aim was waving and shouting ˜BUSCAS HABITACION?” (˜You’re looking for a room?”).
The bearded man and a 20-something woman wearing a purple shirt just covering her conspicuously fake breasts welcomed me on the second floor. They were offering a corner room with a slightly mildewy mattress (which is a feat, given Madrid’s dry climate) and a view into the airshaft. It gave off an unconventional odor of drying laundry mixed with ganja. The two burners in the kitchen looked like they hadn’t been cleaned since Franco’s era and the couches in the common area didn’t look much better.
‘So, are you interested?’ the bearded man, whose name was Pepe, asked.
Why not, I thought.
‘Yes, very! I’d move in right away, if you want.’ Say what you will, the place had character.
‘We’ll have to get back to you: we have three more people coming to look tonight.’
I was surprised. Did they really think they were going to find someone else willing to live in that hole? Was I too uninteresting to fit into their boho world? Was that something that should bother me?
The second apartment was a five minutes’ walk north in the student district of Bilbao. The entrance and the stairs were made of spotless white marble and the door was substantial: more than eight feet tall, green, with an elegant gold screen covering the peephole.  I’ve always thought a door can say a lot about the people who live inside. I guessed that the inhabitants were rich, older than they admitted, and probably had a small white dog with curly hair that would shed on my laundry.
The girl who let me in, though, was wearing sweatpants and couldn’t have been over thirty. The living room was painted a light purple with a cheetah running across the walls. Everything looked lived in, but clean: a few cracked tiles, a few stains on the kitchen counter, the hardwood floor starting to come apart so that it clicked under my shoes as I walked down the hall.

I gave her the money for the deposit – the place was forty euros a month more than the one I’d seen in Chueca – and left a guidebook on my new nightstand to hold my place.

So here I am, living with a Spaniard, an Italian, a Colombian, and a Venezuelan in my very own auberge espanol.  I just got a call from Pepe, though.
‘Are you still interested in the apartment? We’d love for you to move in right away.’
‘No, thanks, I said. ‘I’ve found one.’
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Merry and Gay

My friend was wrong, of course (see previous post).  Spain did win the European cup for the first time in 44 years last Sunday. Had I not been asleep on a couchette from Paris to Madrid I might have taken part in a fiesta as wild as ‘Woodstock, Oktoberfest, and the Kentucky State Fair put together,’ to quote a bleary-eyed native from that state I met on the Metro on the way to work Monday morning.

No matter though: I made it to Madrid in time for the fiestas surrounding Orgullo Gay. I hadn’t known that Madrid was the ‘Capital of Gay Europe’ until a few weeks before I left, but there was little mistaking it once I arrived. The newsstands display more glossy magazines of men in various states of undress than tabloids with the latest disgraced Hollywood starlet. Where in other cities you might find street vendors selling knockoff sunglasses and Gucci bags, Madrid’s sell rainbow scarves and cowboy hats. (Out of curiosity, has the gay cowboy stereotype always been around, or did Brokeback Mountain just launch a particularly enduring fashion trend?). So I might have missed one fiesta, but I managed to walk right into another one.

I was confused, though, because I assumed gay pride week was the same worldwide, and last week, a friend and I stumbled onto the Paris Gay Pride Parade. We had gone in search of a Georgian restaurant a friend had recommended (Pirosmani on Rue Boutebrie in the Latin Quarter – if you find yourself in the area and don’t try their stuffed eggplant, you will have lived a little less fully). Mid-meal, we were drawn out of the restaurant by the siren song of ‘Blue (da ba dee)’ playing at an altogether too loud volume for 2pm on a Saturday. 

We spent and hour or two snapping pictures of especially interesting drag queens – my favorite was dressed in a cropped nun’s habit with rainbow trim and makeup reminiscent of Darth Maul from Star Wars Episode III – and dancing to awful, infectious techno music. 

There were a few somber turns: at one point, a foghorn sounded and a bespeedoed man on top of a Mac truck held up a sign saying ‘3 minutes de silence pour les victims de SADI’ (French for AIDS), which, to a moving degree, the thousands of people in the crowd obeyed. Not long after, a float went by carrying gallows representing each of the countries which still administer the death penalty for homosexuality. On the whole, however, the event was a positive one: the celebration of inclusivity and, well, pride it was intended to be.
I was surprised to find Madrid’s gay pride parade less colorful than that of Paris. From what I saw, there wasn’t much of a nod to serious issues beyond a few placards demanding equal marriage rights worldwide and a puzzling one that read ‘Denying gay rights is GAY!’ The drag queens were not nearly as outlandish, though a person of indeterminate gender dressed in a neon green catwoman suit did press a wrapped condom in my hand. A bit taken aback, I wondered if I give off a particularly straight vibe or if he/she assumed I was a transvestite. Or maybe free love was simply the order of the day.
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Sex, Politics, and Football

I’m working in Spain this summer, but I flew to Paris, where I used to live, to get a cheaper transatlantic flight and to catch up with old friends. I met one in the Marche St Honore, a quaint square not far from the Avenue de l’Opera which had an alarmingly modern glass brick of a building in the middle. 

She and another friend, Caroline, had just seen ‘Definitely, Maybe’, a ‘chic-flic’, to console Caroline, who has just broken up with her boyfriend of two years. After briefly discussing our personal lives, Caroline turned to me and asked ‘Alors, tu adores George Bush?’ She went on to explain that she fancied herself the only libertarian in France and that, while she disapproved of Bush’s spending habits, foreign policy, actually his entire administration in general, she saw a lot to like in the American Republican party.

I said that she must, then, be happy to have Sarkozy, practically a libertarian by left-leaning French standards, in the Presidency. She gave me a withering look and I was reminded of the fact that I have yet to meet a French person who has expressed any faith in the political system. What did she think about Europe, then?, I asked. And the Lisbon Treaty, which the Irish so recently blocked by voting against it in their national referendum? (The EU, still lacking a Constitution – the draft proposed in 2005 failed to pass referendums in France and the Netherlands – takes as its legal code a succession of treaties, the most recent of which is the 2001 Treaty of Nice). It would never pass, she said. 

The way she sees it, Europe is doomed to a future of lukewarm alliances between semi-hostile nations who nevertheless realize they have more in common with each other than the rest of the world and therefore will accept small compromises, but only after exhausting every effort to demonstrate they would rather not. Like, for example, the Irish, who will eventually accept some version of the Lisbon treaty, most likely almost identical to the one 53% of them just rejected. In sum, Europe can look forward to a future as full of exasperating negotiations as the last 50 years.

Tiring of politics, the discussion moved on to football. Not to make any gross generalizations, but I’ve found that many of my conversations in France follow this basic pattern: standard greeting (a kiss on each cheek), inquiry into the personal life (do you have a boyfriend?), discussion of politics (plus ca change, toute c’est la meme chose), and, finally, football. 

Spain beat Russia in the semi-final for the quadrennial European Cup and will be playing Germany tomorrow evening. I mentioned how frustrated I was with myself for having bought a ticket for the overnight train from Paris to Madrid for Sunday evening and therefore unwittingly ruining my chances to see this potentially historic event with the Madrilenos. Two years ago, I was chaperoning a tour in Italy and we found ourselves in Rome the night Italy won the world cup. After putting my charges to bed with dire warnings about how dangerous the streets would be – full of drunk soccer hooligans! – a fellow chaperone and I put on as much azure (the color of the Italian jersey) as we could find and hit the streets. 

The scene was, as one might predict, absolute bedlam. Thousands of mopeds and Peugots with twice as many passengers as they should normally hold were packed bumper-to-tire along the avenues. Blaring horns competed with flag-draped and beer-soaked revelers chanting ‘Italia!’ and the opening lick to the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, which I later learned is the theme music played on TV before soccer games. I’m not a fan of professional sports and you could not pay me to watch a Red Sox game on TV, but I’ve had quite an affection for European soccer matches since that evening.

‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ my friend said with a wink. ‘You won’t be missing anything. Germany is definitely going to win this one.’

Reassured (falsely), I said goodnight to my friend and met a friend from Harvard who wanted to go dancing. One thing led to another, and we found ourselves watching the sun rise over Paris from the steps of Sacre Coeur with Nick, a rather drunk American serviceman on leave from Baghdad. 

Sitting among the glass shards of wine bottles left over from others’ Saturday night revelry, I asked him how long he had before he went back to Iraq. ‘I’ve been stop-lossed,’ he said. ‘Do you know what that means?’ I replied that I wasn’t sure, but from what I understood it meant that soldiers who had served their time were sent back overseas rather than discharged. ‘Exactly,’ he said. 

I didn’t press him on it, but I’ve been wondering a lot about the policy recently. According to Wikipedia, ‘Stop-loss’ is ‘the involuntary extension of a service member’s active duty service under the enlistment contract in order to retain them beyond their initial end of term of service (ETS) date.’ When servicemen enlist, they generally sign a contract obliging them to a fixed term of 2-4 years. In the fine print, however, is the catch: ‘the President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States’ Title 10, USC Section 12305(a). Challenges to the legality of the policy are, therefore, difficult, but challenges to the moral rightness of sending those who have already put their lives at risk for their country back into the combat zone involuntarily are gaining ground, no doubt aided by the recent movie ‘Stop-Loss’ and the general discussion provoked by our upcoming election.

I turned to hug Nick, in a completely inadequate gesture of sympathy for his situation, but found he had wandered over to a group of French 20-somethings in order to bum a cigarette. They asked him what he thought of the war in Iraq. He drew his eyebrows together in a look of extreme concentration for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and said, ‘It’s heavy. Shit. It’s heavy.’

Not knowing what to say, we watched the rooftops turn from dark gray to silver. My father once pointed out how, in the early morning twilight, it always seems like the sky is as bright as day, and then the sun actually appears and it’s hard to hold back a feeling of utter joy and contentment with the world. I’ve always found it to be true, no matter what is on my mind, and this morning was no exception. I wonder if it worked for Nick.
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An Explanation

The terms of my employment this summer include an order to contribute to the blog of Harvard’s Center for European Studies. As Johnson said, noone but a blockhead ever wrote but for money.
I’m spending my days in Spain working for Suffolk University‘s Madrid Campus. As of yet my job lacks formal title but I’m sure I’ll have imagined something compelling by the time I send my resume to prospective employers in the fall.
The campus is located in the heights (relative to the rest of the city) of Ciudad Universitario, which most of the universities in Madrid call home. My fellow staff are a mix of American, English, and Spanish and we all share one big office, save Raul the Computer God in his subterranean lab and the number crunchers hidden somewhere on the second floor. The receptionist has a beautiful name, África, and the building is not air-conditioned.
That’s really all I have to say about work at the moment. Though I do feel bound to share this tidbit I stumbeld upon while doing research yesterday.
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