Monday, December 26, 2005


Madrid Taxis

I’m finally sorting out the trek notes from my North Africa trip this past fall and thought I'd give you some of my thoughts and impressions.

Que Ciudad!

On the way to work in Morocco I had a short layover in the Old World.

Madrid is a striking city. I wish I’d had more than 48 hours to take it in.

I’m a veteran “urban trekker,” though, so two days gave me enough time to get a feel. I covered over 20 miles on foot around town and had a great time. Probably even lost a pound or two.

Anyone traveling in Europe can’t help being impressed with the real affection the locals have for their cities. Madrid is a case in point.

You can see it in the dogged determination to hang on to historically significant buildings and neighborhoods, in the reverence for place that drives meticulous efforts to highlight beauty at every corner, and in the way Europeans actually “live” in their public places. Parks and plazas and streets are always full of people hanging out and enjoying the pleasure of being around other people.

It’s not that we Americans don’t like our cities.

But it seems we’re more ambivalent about our urban scapes.

We sort of like them and are willing to hang out with each other in movie theatres or malls or in stadiums.

At the same time, we’re willing to let cities deteriorate or die if it “makes sense” to do so and--in general--we seem to have a lot less trouble scraping even the most important buildings or sites.

A pretty interesting difference. You can’t help but notice it.

I kicked back in my room after the two day trek and watched a little television the night before heading out.

Didn’t have many choices so I ended up watching a local game show.

Some of it was familiar since it was very loosely based on “Jeopardy.” The production values were current.

The host could have passed for conventionally hip here. Slightly overweight, 30-ish, ironic and pleasant, soul patch, male pattern baldness, stylized 50’s bowling shirt and 60’s IBM ‘scientific management” heavy frame glasses.

The contestants had to answer detailed questions about various neighborhoods around Madrid. It was pop culture stuff along with the most specific questions about history and geography and architecture and current events.

If you didn’t know the city in great detail you got embarrassed.

The people on the show knew their stuff.

I guess that wasn’t so surprising. Any show can find individuals that will make the grade.

What surprised me was that the show is a big hit in Madrid. Again, Europeans may value their cities more than Americans.

If a show like that ever made it in a place like Los Angeles, contestants would have to know who built the Watts Towers or give the exact street corner of the giant stucco doughnut atop Randy’s in west LA.

I can answer both of those questions—even after moving out of town two years ago—so I guess in at least some ways I’m a European at heart.

The Color of White

Many European cities are full of millions of white people.

I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising. But it really is for an American traveling in Europe.

A place like Madrid can feel exotic to a New World citizen because most of our cities are so "racially diverse.”

Even a city like Minneapolis—the frozen home of powder milk biscuits that help Nordic Protestants do what needs to be done—can come across like the capital of the 3rd world compared to some places in Europe.

By nature I tend to look for difference and diversity, but like most Americans, I’m used to a racial and cultural idiom of white, black, brown, red and yellow.

Madrid, where pretty much everybody in the central city is “white” according to that simple “crayola crayon” world view, moves you into distinctions often lost in America.

I saw “white” people with dark brown eyes, light brown eyes, light green eyes, dark green eyes, light blue eyes, and dark blue eyes. Even red eyes post vino.

Every shade and hue of blonde hair, red hair, brown hair, black hair and sometimes blue hair among the grannies. Straight hair, wavy hair and kinked hair. Thin hair and thick.

Dark brown skin, light brown skin, pinkish skin, reddish skin, pale skin and pale skin with freckles.

Then you’ve gotta take the different eye, skin and hair colors and textures and mix ‘em and match ‘em into cool and complicated combinations to do justice to the actual people on the street.

Is there another “racial” group with more physical diversity than “white” people?

Makes you wonder if there’s more to things than the crayola thinkers imagine.

At the very least it makes “white people watching” in Europe pretty entertaining.

Lithping with the Betht of Them

I’ve noticed that people of various Spanish speaking nations are convinced that their version of Spanish is superior to others.

My family and I lived in Guatemala many years ago for a number of months doing intensive language study.

The Guatemalans laughed out loud at the way Mexicans speak Spanish, and some Argentines I met there thought that Guatemalan Spanish barely qualified as “civilized.”

Turns out Castilians are the cockiest of the lot.

My feeble attempts to speak the mother tongue provided amusement for more than a few of the locals I ran across.

They asked me about my “Mexican/American” accent with a knowing smile and encouraged me to soften my ‘c’s.’ In Castilian Spanish a name like “Garcia” is pronounced gar-thee-ya rather than gar-see-ya.

Ath a rethult, everybody thounds like they’ve got a lithp.

By my thecond day I wath lithping with the betht of ‘em.


Blogger jon said...

By your standards I'm much more of an American than a European. I like the practicality of my city and could care less about the landmarks. I only live a couple miles from that Randy's, but I wouldn't mind if they tore it down and put something better in its place. Same with the Forum, Hollywood Park, City Hall, or anything else considered a landmark around here. I don't think it's a superior mindset, but certainly a different one.

I think that every "racial" group has an enormous amount of physical diversity. I've never been able to convince my students that white people have any physical diversity at all - to them, every pale-skinned man they see looks like my brother or my father. They see much more variety in terms of skin tone and facial characteristics among blacks than among whites. And then look at the "asian" race - the diveristy there rivals the rest of the world combined.

4:15 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Ya, great point Jon. Way more interesting visuals going on with all "races" than most of us can see clearly.

Having lived in inner city environments for many years, my family and I used to get that "all white people look alike" thing all the time. It reinforced for me how powerful the crayola view can be--when "white" people routinely have the most intense diversity of color in hair shade alone (jet black, blazing red, intensely blond, brown, you name it) you wonder how "non-whites" fail to register those obvious distinctions. I'll bet there is some interesting research (that I'm not familiar with) about how the brain percieves only what it is conditioned to percieve. Sort of a mental version of "if you're a hammer everything looks like a nail."

10:39 AM  
Anonymous Greg said...

I like Madrid. I spent several days there on a foreign language trip in High School.

Thinking back I do remember being impressed with all the public spaces. It feels a lot different to sit on a park bench in Madrid than it does in Los Angeles.

I also liked the 7-story dance club down the street from our hotel, each floor having a different style of music.

Did you check out any of the museums and see some Picaso?

12:27 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Being an art nut I spent about 5 hours total in the Prado and the Reina Sophia. Got my fill of Velasquez and Goya in the former and all the modern greats in the latter, including a whole bunch of experimental art by current Spanish folks. The Reina was the last modern art museum on my "world list"--seen the rest of em in NY, LA, Chicago, London and Paris, and I thought the RS was at least as good as the rest. Really impressive.

3:58 PM  

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