Monday, July 19, 2010

the weekend: the worst and then the best

Okay, so this weekend was an experience.

I am going to write about it in reverse, because that way it ends on the really good note instead of just the okay good note.

So first: Sunday.

I hung out in my room for a while. I was kind of tired from the day before, so I made a big bowl of mashed potatoes and ate them. At about 3:00, I decided I needed some exercise and went out for a walk with my bag. I thought I might do some sketching. I went toward Plaza Mayor again; it's very pretty and the walk there is nice. I stopped in an H&M (thinking to myself: you know, sometimes globalization is not all bad) and bought a striped shirt and new pair of shorts (one pair of mine is getting some holes.) (Side note: Am now a size smaller in some H&M clothes than I was in May. Yay! Unfortunately, the sizes aren't real consistent in that store -- the same size is 34 on the first floor and a 40 on the basement floor.)

I then continued on to the Cathedral. I was wearing one of the pretty dresses I bought specifically for Spain, the one that Chris dubbed my "running through the plaza with a fountain and pigeons" dress. Given that, I felt okay about going inside the Cathedral today, taking pictures, and generally looking around.

Then I followed a tourist sign that said "Basilica de San Francisco," I think.

I got mugged.

In retrospect, I did a lot of stupid things: I went into a big garden alone, listening my iPod, not paying attention to the fact that I couldn't be seen from the street. (In my defense, it was 5:00 PM and still brightly lit.) A guy came up from behind me, grabbed me around the throat, and choked me until I fell down. Another guy came up and took my bag from me. They left my iPod next to me and ran away with my bag, which had two sketchbooks, a pen, a guidebook to Spain, my shorts and shirt, a thing of nail polish, 50 euros and a wallet with my insurance card. Also my camera. The camera is the thing that bothers me the most. Well, that's a lie. My keys bother me the most, given that somewhere in my sketchbook is my address in Madrid. If those guys were smart, they could get to the rest of my stuff. I was assured that anything that wasn't a camera, a phone, credit cards, or money would just be thrown away, but it's hard to feel confident of that.

I was so stunned that I didn't realize what was happening until it had already happened. I remember thinking, "Do I know you?" when the guy grabbed me, because I am so used to my personal space being inviolate. I tried to hit the guy taking my bag, when I should have been trying to hit the guy holding me.

I was pretty stupid.

When they ran off, I got up and screamed "FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOU FUUUUUUUUUUCKK YOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUU" for a minute, then ran down the street and gasped out to the first guy I saw, "Do you speak English? I was just attacked!"

He didn't, but he grabbed a couple walking by who did. I explained to them what happened, and they took me to the police station. Once they found out that my credit cards and passport were not in the bag, they were very encouraging and said that probably everything would be fine.

They had to leave to catch a plane, so I sat alone in the waiting room of the police station for a bit. At first the other people ignored me, but then one lady (who could obviously see I was freaked out) gave me a bottle of water. An old man, Angel Dominguez-Fernandez, sat down beside me. He was there because his wife had hit him, I think. We talked for twenty minutes in my broken Spanish and some little English, some Spanish on his part. He had a fairly strong accent, which was difficult for me to understand. I learned a word for "take or steal": coger, which I thought meant "choke," because I mimed choking and he said that word. "Coger con violencia" was the phrase he and the police used. Midway through I left to use the bathroom so I could wash off my elbow and knees, where I had gotten scraped from falling/being pushed down.

After about thirty minutes they called me in and I made my report. The police officer didn't speak English, so we went on my clumsy Spanish -- and it seemed to work, for the most part. I felt dumb because I couldn't convincingly describe either of the two guys, except that they both looked Spanish and one guy was wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

I doubt I'll get my stuff back. I thought about asking if a police officer could go with me to check in the trash cans for my books, but at the end of it I just wanted to go home. The police officer gave me a couple euros to take the Metro, so I didn't have to walk (another small blessing.)

Upon arrival at home, I had to ask one of my apartmentmates to call our house manager-type person so I could get new keys to get into my room. She was also very kind, as was another apartmentmate who arrived home shortly thereafter.

I got into my room, Skyped my mom, bawled some, and talked a lot. She said to me, "If you call your dad crying, he will be on the next plane over there to get you," and then tried to convince me that I should wait a little while -- even until the next day -- to call him and explain. I insisted on calling him right after though. What I didn't say to my mom last night was how good it sounded to have my dad come rescue me. I definitely remember feeling sad while I was waiting in the police station, when I had the thought, "I really wish I wasn't traveling alone."

Dad was okay; I was okay. I watched Beauty and the Beast afterwards to placate my mind. It was kind of hard to focus on the screen, which I attribute to having seen the movie so many times (it's hard to separate out what you expect to be happening from what is actually happening) before plus tiredness plus a hint o' shock. I think I am going to self-label "keeps a cool head in a crisis" because I didn't get really upset until it was all over. Also I slept okay last night, even though I expected to have nightmares.

I know I'm going to have a lot of (maybe even profound) thoughts about this soon, having to do with violence and culture and -- a lot of things. I remember thinking once that it was better for a person like me -- who has a loving, supportive family, a powerful country, and (to be blunt) a skin color and a gender that get attention -- to be attacked, than for this to happen to someone with no recourse. I still think that. If it's going to happen to somebody, it might as well happen to somebody who has the resources to deal with it and still come out okay.

I also had the thought that as a Christian, I'm probably obligated to forgive the two guys who mugged me. Well, I'm going to have to ask for forgiveness for myself on this one, because it's going to be a really long fucking time before that can happen.


On Saturday I woke up at nine (oops, meant to get up earlier.) I spent an hour cleaning up and cruising the internet for the necessary info. I wanted to visit Toledo, and I believed I could make a nice day trip of it (which indeed proved to be the case.) By ten I was on the subway headed to the Plaza Eliptica bus station in southern Madrid. 14 stops later on linea una (which I subconsciously refer to as "the blue line" because it's colored blue on the maps) and four on the circular, I got to Plaza Eliptica, where I was able to buy a 8.76 (ish) euro round trip ticket to Toledo on the level above the Metro in the same station, then run to the bus on the level above that.

The bus ride was nice, although the suburbs outside Madrid are pretty desolate. Spain may be in the same temperature range as Iowa, but it's way, way dry, at least in this area. The suburbs are also obviously not as well-to-do as central Madrid. There are strings and strings of discount furniture stores lining the highway, along with lots of abandoned storefronts and lots of graffiti.

I listened to a Kate Nash album on the way there, Made of Bricks. She was recommended to me on as being similar to Adele and some other British soul singers. Until now I had only listened to one of her songs, Pumpkin Soup. I had to chuckle at the fact that of all her songs, I picked the one to know that is probably the least interesting, least weird, and least creative. Her lyrics are conversational, often somewhat bizarre, and sometimes sound like she's just singing to herself. Given that, though, a couple of her songs (We Get On, I think was one) almost made me cry. I really like her voice, in any case, and her lead-ins are always bouncy and fun (probably clichéd, but what can you do). Of note (not always good note) are songs where she just repeats, "Why are you such a d*ckhead" for the whole thing and The Skeleton Song, which is actually very cute and is her singing to her "best friend," a skeleton she keeps in her closet. I listened to her second album (? I think?) on the way home, You're My Best Friend.

(My iPod has been consigned to my room until further notice, however, given the trouble it has helped get me into, so presumably I won't be getting it out until the next bus ride.)

I got to Toledo at noon. The bus station is down a pretty steep hill from the city itself, which is surrounded by a series of walls that I imagine both served as defense and retaining devices. There are also a series of gates, although the walls attached to them don't exactly make concentric circles. I'm not sure if some of the walls fell into disrepair and were removed, or if the old Toledanos figured they didn't need walls on the side that is a cliff looking over a river, or what.

The second gate (Puerta del Sol) was pretty cool. There were multiple vertical layers of stone, such that there were lots of slots for defenders from above to rain down various types of crap on those attempting to approach. In one wall there was a very, very, VERY narrow and steep staircase where you could awkwardly climb up to the room the town defenders would have occupied, and up yet another claustrophic, steep stair to the top of the tower (which was surrounded by 6-foot walls with arrow slits, so it wasn't exactly easy to fall off. Phew.) I read the Spanish placards about the history of Islamic architecture in the town and wrote down the words I didn't know (in the notebook that got stolen later, ugh.) I learned words like "plasterwork," "masonry," "brick," and "vault." They also had covered with plexiglass the holes that you as a Toledan defender would have defenestrated pointy things from, so you could look down on the people walking below you.

After descending from the tower, I walked through a large plaza (for the old city of Toledo, anyway) with a McDonalds (should have eaten there -- it would have been cheaper.) I walked through a horseshoe arch that looked out on what I suspected (and later confirmed) were military barracks from Franco's regime.

On that end of town is the Museo de Santa Cruz, a religious hospital from the 1500s remodeled into an art/history museum (like the Reina Sofia, only 200 years older). Again, old hospitals (at least in Spain) are lovely, with a big courtyard and galleries in the center. The tapestries (there were a lot of tapestries) were kind of boring; mainly I was interested in the 15-20 paintings they had by el Greco (don't remember his real name right now.) His style is really distinctive -- almost Impressionistic, with soft brushstrokes and sort of a glow-y light illuminating his subjects -- just 350 years or so before the Impressionists. They had a set of paintings of all twelve disciples and Jesus filling a whole room. I went around testing my art history knowledge -- I could identify St. Andrew (the X-shaped cross), but for the life of me I don't know why a little demon-y looking thing, a knife, and a chain signify St. Bartholomew.

In the courtyard were also gravestones from all eras during Toledo's history, from prehistoric to Islamic to Christian. I particularly liked the Muslim gravestones -- as one of my friends once commented about Japanese, if you don't understand it, typography looks only like art. And certainly (at least it seems to me) there is a far stronger tradition in Arabic of making letters into beautiful forms than in any Roman-alphabet using language.

There was also an exhibit about restoring the different types of art in the museum, from polychrome wooden sculpture to paintings done on wooden panels to plasterwork. I took pictures of the big placards to read later when I had a dictionary handy. Reading a lot in Spanish, particularly when I don't know a lot of words, gives me a headache.

Also, the museum was free. Did I mention that? It's hard to resist a free museum.

Afterward I walked through a garden (ugh, in retrospect that was a stupid idea) where I met an inquisitive small dog who ultimately decided I was too intimidating to approach. I tried to find the Alcazar (which I think must be the Arabic word for fortress or keep or something -- a lot of old fortresses in Spain are called Alcazar) and while I'm pretty sure I walked around it, I never found the entrance. I spent some time walking down supremely narrow streets, some literally no wider than a corridor. The thing is, people drive in Toledo. They do! And it's like the North End on crack and acid -- windy, ridiculously sharp corners, tall buildings utterly compromising visibility, unexpected dead-ends, and some streets are so steep I doubt a small car could get up them. That was one theme of my trip: Wondering how different modern life would be in a medieval city.

Anyhoo, Toledo is small, so it only took me 15 minutes or so to find their biggest (in several senses of the word) attraction, the Cathedral. It was built over the course of several hundred years, from the 1300s to 1600s, I think. (It kind of showed -- stuck to the side of all the Gothic splendor was a weird neo-Classical Roman pillared portal.) I bought a seven euro ticket in the shop across the street (the most expensive attraction in Toledo) and went inside.

Well. It was huge. Really, really huge. We weren't supposed to take photos (a voice on speakers informed us of this every 10 minutes), but there was no way they could police that cathedral effectively because of its sheer size. Lovely windows (although mostly too high to get a good look at), a LOT of gold, very tall pillars.

I paid one euro (ugh, wasted euro) to listen to a recorded "history of the cathedral" in English (the recording spoke way too fast and mostly it was a string of names and dates.) I did, however, learn that the cathedral had 80 columns and was 45 meters high (150 feet or a 15 story building.) (I think that was the height in the sanctuary, but it may have been the height of the tower.)

Around the perimeter of the apse were lots of locked rooms with little shrines to various saints, against with lots of gold and carving. I didn't recognize many except in the general way one recognizes various versions of Mary. They also had (this amused me) instead of racks of candles in front of the chapels, like they have in St. Patrick's in New York and a few other places I've been, electric machines that automatically make one light pop on when you put in a one-euro coin. (Did someone try to set a chapel on fire?) At the center of the cathedral was a "core" (their word), which had the choir stalls and GIGANTIC ORGAN. More elaborate, overwhelming carving in expensive hardwoods and marble. In line with the "core" was the altar area (sorry, forget the real word), which was also fenced off and locked, which made sense, as the altarpieces were made of hundreds of pieces of gold. Unfortunately on the backside of the altar they had set up large screens and were broadcasting a melodramatic educational video. :P

They had transformed the sacristy into a museum for the elaborately, luxuriously embroidered robes of past bishops, textiles that dated from the 1600s. (That room was really HOT so I did not enjoy it very much.) They also had paintings of the bishops of the cathedral going back to 900 or so up to the present day -- although it looked to me that the first 20-25 portraits were all painted by the same person (probably lots of mythical forebears up to the time when the cathedral was actually being built), and then the portraits started evolving in style and presentation.

A combination of guilt and determination to get my money's worth of my seven euros led me to sit at the dark far end of the church on the steps leading up to the "main door," which is not opened very often (or ever? not sure, but a tour guide said that door is never used) and sketched a bit. I need more practice; it was not a very accurate sketch. (The story according to a guide standing near me is that anyone who walks through those doors of the Cathedral is forgiven their sins, but the caveat is that they are never opened. Mary Beth has cast doubt on this theory and suspects indulgences were involved.)

I left the Cathedral and decided it was time for lunch. I picked an outdoor cafe with lots of umbrellas and these fans that spray water into the air in front of them, as well as a fair share of Americans sitting around and talking (I could hear them, it was obvious they were American.) I awkwardly ordered paella (stupid!) and a Coke. Paella is a rice dish that Spain is famous for, often with seafood. Unfortunately because it's famous I people often sell crap versions of it. I have no idea whether this paella was good paella or no, but it wa s okay. Not great. Just okay. I learned that even though I thought I didn't like squid, I actually like squid okay, particularly in comparison to mussels (SOOOOO FISHY) and weird lobster-like crustaceans with almost no meat on them. It also had chicken legs and a single lone, pathetic lump of dry pork.

The worst thing about that cafe was that I was charged 3 euros for a tiny glass bottle of Coca Cola and 3 euros for a slightly larger glass bottle of water. That brought the total to 21 euros, which is the most money I have spent on one meal in Spain so far. (Most of my meals cost between 50 European cents and about 2 euros, depending on whether there is chicken involved. Yay cooking.)

I wandered down the hill toward two noted attractions in my guidebook, two of the three synagogues built before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 from Spain still sanding. On the way, I walked by the Iglesia de Santo Tomé and couldn't resist paying 2 euros to go in and gawk at El Greco's El entierro del Conde de Orgaz, one of his best-known works (i.e., another one of those paintings you've seen if you've ever taken a Spanish class. Review.) In real life. . . it wasn't as impressive as I had hoped, primarily because you aren't allowed to approach closer than 10 feet and can't take pictures, so it's very hard to appreciate the details of the painting (and there are a lot of them.) It also had a relatively small viewing area, so I had to wait ten minutes before I could even approach the rail in front of it. Meh.

That church was quite small, though it had at least two saintly shrines and lots of other paintings. One interesting thing I noticed was a bulletin board on one wall with a picture of a baby and "Está mi vida!" written over it. Given how liberal modern Spain is, I was frankly surprised to see pro-life materials posted, even in a Catholic church. (However, the Spanish Catholic Church seems far more inclined to confrontation that the American equivalent, based on other sources.) It was also the first time I had seen evidence of a church that was still trying to reach out to a modern audience and not just a touristic one.

I bought some postcards (no doubt part of their plan!) and wanted down the hill further, into the old Jewish barrio, where the Sinagoga del Tránsito, the Museo Sefardi, and the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca are. I've never actually been inside a synagogue before, let alone an old one, so I don't know how the services go or what the logistical requirements of a place of Jewish worship is (as compared to the altar, baptismal, pulpit, etc. in a church.) In any case, both synagogues were lovely. The Sinagoga del Transito was a huge, two-story, open space, with panels of carving around the top, which also included stone latticework windows. There is a women's gallery on one side, a sort of recessed balcony with more gorgeous carving and a lot of inscribed Hebrew writing. The Museo Sefardi (museum of Sephardi Jews) was attached. I didn't read everything, again -- mainly just the English cards they had in some rooms. I noticed a silver crown and cape made for a Torah scroll, as well as some pretty interesting jewelry and traditional clothing. Sephardi Jews, for those who don't know (I didn't), refer specifically to the descendants of the Spanish Jews cast out in 1492, many of whom settled in Northern Africa, Turkey, and areas around -- which made for confusion, as I believe there were already Jewish communities in those places. In any case, in modern Hebrew (according to Wikipedia), Sephardi basically means "Spanish," making them literally "Spanish Jews." I though this was an interesting corollary to the other Jewish group that one usually hears of, Ashkenazi Jews -- whose designation literally translates to something like "German Jews."

I did read one of the Spanish placards about the Sefardi language, which is closely related to 1500s Spanish, with lots of loanwords. In the book I just finished, Ghosts of Spain, the author commented that he was able to carry out an (albeit awkward) conversation with an elderly gentleman in Israel using his Castilian Spanish and the gentleman's Sephardi.

My camera battery died about then, but I managed to get in a shot of the steep cliff that goes down to the river right outside the Jewish barrio (so they weren't entirely without protection.) I ended up sketching for a while inside the other synagogue, because I was not going to leave without some proof that I'd been there (luckily I took and downloaded pictures from my camera of these sketches later than night, because that sketchbook was among the things stolen. :P)

That synagogue had the obvious and weird subtext of having been converted to a church at some point (Santa Maria la Blanca?), which was doubly peculiar given its extremely Islamic-type architecture. There was a display of art from a modern Christian artist, with lots of images of saints and Jesus, as well as a couple of nuns and monks wandering about in brown habits.

The synagogue closed at 6:45; I walked down the hill to the bus station and got on the 7:15 bus for Madrid.

It was an eventful weekend, to say the least.

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