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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