Review: The Concept of Mind

Review: The Concept of Mind

The Concept of MindThe Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Men are not machines, not even ghost-ridden machines. They are men—a tautology which is sometimes worth remembering.

The problem of mind is one of those philosophical quandaries that give me a headache and prompt an onset of existential angst when I try to think about them. How does consciousness arise from matter? How can a network of nerves create a perspective? And how can this consciousness, in turn, influence the body it inhabits? When we look at a brain, or anywhere else in the ‘physical’ world, we cannot detect consciousness; only nerves firing and blood rushing. Where is it? The only evidence for consciousness is my own awareness. So how do I know anybody else is conscious? Could it be just me?

If you think about the problem in this way, I doubt you’ll make any progress either, because it’s insoluble. This is where Gilbert Ryle enters the picture. According to Ryle, the philosophy of mind was put on a shaky foundations by Descartes and his followers. When Descartes divided the world into mind and matter, the first private and the other public, he created several awkward problems: How do we know other people have minds? How do the realms of matter and mind interact? How can the mind be sure of the existence of the material world? And so on. This book is an attempt to break away from the assumptions that led to these questions.

Ryle’s philosophy is often compared with that of the later Wittgenstein, and justly so. The main thrusts of their argument are remarkably similar. According to what I’ve read, this may have been due simply to the influence of Wittgenstein on Ryle—though there appears to be some doubt. Regardless, it’s appropriate to compare them, as I think, taken together, their ideas help to shed light on one another.

Both Wittgenstein and Ryle are extraordinary writers. Wittgenstein is certainly the better of the two, though this is not due to any defect on Ryle’s part but to the indomitable force of Wittgenstein’s style. Wittgenstein is aphoristic, sometimes oblique, employing numerous allegories and similes to make his point. Ryle is sharp, direct, and epigrammatic. Wittgenstein is in the same tradition as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, while Ryle is the direct descendent of Jane Austen. But both of them are witty, quotable, and brilliant. They’ve managed to create excellent works of philosophy without using any jargon and avoiding all obscurity. Why can’t philosophy always be written so well?

There is no contradiction, or even paradox, in describing someone as bad at practising what he is good at preaching. There have been thoughtful and original literary critics who have formulated admirable canons of prose style in execrable prose. There have been others who have employed brilliant English in the expression of the silliest theories of what constitute good writing.

Ryle also has the quality—unusual among philosophers—of being apparently quite extroverted. His eyes are turned not toward himself, but his surroundings. He speaks with confidence and insight about the way people normally behave and talk, and in general prefers this everyday understanding of things to the tortured theories of his inverted colleagues.

Teachers and examiners, magistrates and critics, historians and novelists, confessors and non-commissioned officers, employers, employees and partners, parents, lovers, friends and enemies all know well enough how to settle their daily questions about the qualities of character and intellect of the individuals with whom they have to do.

This book, his most famous, is written not as a monograph or an analysis, but as a manifesto. Ryle piles epigram upon epigram until you’re gasping for just one qualification, just one admission that he might be mistaken. He even seems to get carried away by the force of his own pen, leading to some needlessly long and repetitive sections. What’s more, his style has the defect of all epigrammatists: he’s utterly convincing in short gasps, but leaves his reader grasping for something more substantial.

Ryle is often called an ordinary language philosophy, and the label suits him. Like Wittgenstein, he thinks that philosophical puzzles come about by the abuse of words; philosophers fail to correctly analyze the logical category of words, and thus use them inappropriately, leading to false-paradoxes. The Rylean philosopher’s task is to undo this damage. Ryle likens his own project to that of a cartographer in a village. The residents of the village are perfectly able to find their way around and can even give directions. But they might not be able to create an abstract representation of the village’s layout. This is the philosopher’s job: to create a map of the logical layout of language. This will prevent other foreigners from getting lost.

Ryle begins by pointing out some obvious problems with the Cartesian picture—a picture he famously dubs the ‘Ghost in the Machine’. First, we have no idea how these two metaphysically distinct realms interact. How does mind influence matter and vice versa? Nobody knows. Thus by attempting to explain the nature of human cognition, the Cartesians cordon it off from the familiar world and banish it to a shadow world, leaving unexplained how the shadow is cast.

Second, the Cartesian picture renders all acts of communication into a kind of impossible guessing game. You would constantly be having to fathom the significance of a word or gesture by making conjectures as to what’s happening in a murky realm behind an impassible curtain (another person’s mind). Conjectures of this kind would be fundamentally dissimilar to other conjectures because there would be in principle no way to check them. In the Cartesian picture, people’s minds are absolutely cut off from all outside observation.

It’s like this: Imagine if their was a mechanical wheel whose rotation was supposed to represent something happening on the surface of a planet 3 billion light years away. There would be no way to check what the wheel’s rotation meant, since the planet is beyond observation. The Cartesian picture turns all human behavior into a similar situation, where we are trying to guess at something we can never observe using signs that are related to their object in an unknown way.

Ryle is hardly original in pointing out these two problems, which are just the mind/body problem and the problem of other minds, although he does manage to emphasize these embarrassing conundrums with special force. His more original critique is what has been dubbed “Ryle’s Regress.” This is made against what Ryle calls the “intellectualist legend,” which is the notion that all intelligent behaviors are the products of thoughts.

For example, if you produced a grammatically correct English sentence, it means (according to the “legend”) that you have properly applied the correct criteria for English grammar. However, in this scheme, this must mean that you applied the proper criteria to the criteria, i.e. you applied the meta-criteria that allowed you to choose the rules for English grammar and not the rules for Spanish grammar. But what meta-meta-criteria allowed you to pick the correct meta-criteria for the criteria for the English sentence? (I.e., what anterior rule allowed you to pick the rule that allowed you to choose the rule for determining whether English or Spanish rules should be used instead of the rule for choosing whether salt or sugar should be added to a recipe?—sorry, that’s a mouthful.) The point is that we are led down an infinite regress if we require thought to proceed action. This is one of the classic arguments against cognitive theories of the mind.

(I believe Hubert Dreyfus used this same argument in his criticisms of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Considering the strides that A.I. has made since then, I’m sure there must be some way around this regress, though I don’t know what. Hopefully somebody can explain it to me.)

These are his most forceful reasons for rejecting the Ghost in the Machine. From reading the other reviews here, I gather that many people are fairly convinced by these arguments. Nonetheless, some have accused Ryle of failing to replace the Cartesian picture with anything else. This isn’t a fair criticism. Ryle does his best to rectify the mistaken picture with his own view, though you may not find this view very satisfying.

After doing his best to discredit the Cartesian picture, the rest of the book is devoted to demonstrating Ryle’s view that none of the ways we ordinarily use language necessitate or even imply that “the mind is its own place”. This is where he most nearly approaches Wittgenstein, for his main contentions are the following: First, it is only when language is misused by philosophers (and laypeople) that we get the impression that the mind is a metaphysically distinct thing. Second, our intellectual and emotional lives are in fact not cut off and separate from the world; rather, public behavior is at the very core of our being.

Here’s just one example. According to the Cartesian view, a person “really knows” how to divide if, when he’s given a problem—let’s say, 144 divided by 24—his mind goes through the necessary steps. Let’s say a professor gives a student this problem, and the student correctly responds “six.” The professor conjectures that the student’s mind has gone through the appropriate operation. But what if the professor asks him the exact same question five minutes later, and the student responded “eight”? And what if he did it again, and the student responded “three”? The following dialogue ensues:

PROFESSOR: Ah, you’re just saying random numbers. You really don’t know how to divide.

STUDENT: But my mind performed the correct operation when you asked me the first time. I forgot how to do it after that.

PROFESSOR: How do you know your mind performed the correct operation the first time?

STUDENT: Introspection.

PROFESSOR: But if you can’t remember how to do it now, how can you be sure that you did know previously?

STUDENT: Introspection, again.

PROFESSOR: I don’t believe you. I don’t think you ever knew.

The point of the dialogue is this. According to the Cartesian view, introspection provides not merely the best, but the only true window into the mind. You’re the only person who can know your own mind, and everyone else knows it via conjecture. Thus the student, and only the student, would really know if his mind performed the proper operation, and thus he alone would really know if he could divide. Yet this is not the case. We say somebody “knows how to divide” if they can consistently answer questions of division correctly.

Thus, Ryle argues, to “know how to divide” is a disposition. And a disposition cannot be analyzed into episodes. In other words, “knowing how to divide” is not a collection of discrete times when a mind went through the proper operations. Similarly, if I say “the glass is fragile,” I don’t mean that it has broken or even that it will necessarily break, just that it would break easily. Fragility, like knowing long division, is a disposition.

According to Ryle, when philosophers misconstrued what it meant to know how to divide (and other things), they committed a “category mistake.” They miscategorized the phrase; they mistook a disposition for an episode. More generally, the Cartesians mix up “knowing how” and “knowing that.” They confuse dispositions, capacities, and propensities for rules, facts, and criteria. This leads them into all sorts of muddles.

Here’s a classic example. Since Berkley, philosophers have been perplexed by the mind’s capacity to form abstract ideas. The word “red” encompasses many different particular shades, and is thus abstract. Is our idea of red some sort of vague blend of all particular reds? Or is it a collections of different, distinct shades we bundle together? Ryle contends that this question makes the following mistake: Recognizing the color red is knowing how. It’s a skill we learn, just like recognizing melodies, foreign accents, and specific flavors. It is a capacity we develop; it isn’t the forming of a mental object, an “idea,” that sits somewhere in a mental space.

Ryle applies this method to problem after problem, which seem to dissolve in the acid of his gaze. It’s an incredible performance, and a great antidote for a lot of the conundrums philosophers like to tie themselves up in. Nevertheless, you can’t shake the feeling that for all his directness, Ryle dances around the main question: how does awareness arise from the brain?

Well, I’m not positive about this, but I believe it was never Ryle’s intention to explain this, since he considers this question outside the proper field of philosophy. It’s a scientific, not a philosophical question. His goal was, rather, to show that the mind/body problem was not an insoluble mystery or evidence of metaphysical duality, and that the mind is not fundamentally private and untouchable. Humans are social creatures, and it is only with great effort that we keep some things to ourselves.

I certainly can’t keep this review to myself. This was the best work of philosophy I’ve read since finishing Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in 2014, and I hope you get a chance to read it too. Is it conclusive? No. Is it irrefutable? I doubt it. But it’s witty, it’s eloquent, it’s original, and it’s devoid of any nonsense. This is as good as philosophy gets.

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Escape to Valencia

Escape to Valencia

Our long delicious winter vacation was coming to a close, but we still had one weekend left. Originally, we planned to stay home and relax; but traveling so much had gotten us addicted. After returning from Ávila, we hastily arranged and booked a trip to Valencia to savor the last gasp of our holiday.

Valencia is the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona. It’s situated on the Eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula (a three hour drive from Madrid); and according to Wiki, its port is one of the busiest on the Mediterranean. The city has a long history; Romans have been mucking around here since well before Christ. The city, as well as the surrounding province, even has its own language: Valencian. (From what I hear, it’s just a dialect of Catalan.) This language is not just spoken by the people, but it’s officially used; streets are called carrer and not calle here, which confused as we tried to look up our address.

Our Blablacar driver was a native of that city, and spoke with their characteristic accent. Our fellow passenger was a gato, a cat, which is the slang term for people whose parents are both from Madrid. This is a lot less common than you might think; most people, if they didn’t themselves move into the city, have at least one parent who did.

Both of them were swell fellows. I tried keeping up with their conversation, but a question I asked inadvertently led them into a deep, energetic political discussion. This was just after the election in Spain, and obviously both of them had a lot to say on the subject. It’s interesting to me how much Spaniards enjoy talking about politics, even among people they hardly know. Americans usually avoid political discussions at all cost, even (or perhaps especially) among family. But these two guys, who’d just met, seemed to be having a very deep conversation on the subject.

I wish I understood them. The political situation now in Spain strikes me as similar in certain respects to that in the States. Particularly, there seems to be a widespread dissatisfaction with the establishment, and this dissatisfaction expressed itself in the formation of two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos—which is quite odd for Spain, normally a bipartisan country. In the States, this anti-establishment ethos is expressing itself as new candidates rather than new parties, which I think is a consequence of our political system. But I won’t say any more on the subject since this is the extent of my scant knowledge.

We got to Valencia at around dinner time (for Americans), checked in to our Airbnb—with another welcoming host and another comfortable apartment—and went out to eat. Although we’d only been in the car for three hours, it was about thirty degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer here. We went from winter jackets, scarves, and hats to light sweaters. It was even warm enough to eat outside, underneath an orange tree laden with fruit. I suppose large differences in altitude account or these abrupt shifts in climate. Still, it’s hard for me to get used to it. All these climatic zones seem jammed next to one another. In the States, we keep our hot and cold zones far apart.

We woke up the next day ready to experience Valencia. As per our usual routine, we visited the cathedral first. But on the walk there, we couldn’t help noticing the graffiti on the walls. Much of it was the usual stuff, but some of it was really excellent. There were abstract pictures of colored squares, detailed images of batman, and several grotesqueries I can’t adequately describe. Most interesting, though, was the image of a ninja that was painted all over the city, on walls, parking machines, in entrances to stores. I couldn’t help thinking that this ninja had some mysterious significance, that it had been drawn by some shadowy organization as a sign, or perhaps as a clue—but to what?

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But perhaps the conspiratorial part of my brain was overactive from seeing the spray-painted slogans of anarchists all over the city. “No king, No God, No Owner. Revolution,” they said, under the symbol of anarchy, an A inscribed in a circle. I think the anarchists should try a different strategy; these messages written on public dumpsters and apartment buildings seem rather impotent.

We got to the cathedral. I have to admit that my memories of this cathedral are pretty hazy; after a while, they all start blending into one another. The façade was the most pretty and distinctive part. At one entrance, the door is connected to a round wall with three levels; it looks like a section from a Roman amphitheater was just stuck on the side.

(According to Wikipedia, there was a style of gothic architecture particular to Valencia, which was employed in this cathedral, along with elements from Romanesque and neoclassical; though how exactly this Valencian gothic differs from French gothic, I can’t tell you.)

Outside the cathedral, in the surrounding plaza, high school boys were skateboarding, a fact that my girlfriend found particularly amusing.

“Can you imagine just skateboarding in front of something like this?” she said. “Europe is crazy, man.”

We went inside. Skipping the descriptions of the usual beautiful stuff—the altar, the stained glass windows, and so on—I’ll only mention that the Valencia Cathedral holds the best candidate for the true Holy Grail. Of course, there are many other chalices in Europe which are claimed to be this blessed object, but the opinion of most Christian thinkers and historians is apparently that this one in Valencia is most likely to be the real deal. It’s displayed in one of the cathedral’s chapels, somewhat external to the main area.

I sat in a pew for some minutes looking at it, without having any idea what it was supposed to be. All I saw was a shining gold object, nothing more. It was only after we left and my girlfriend looked up the cathedral on her phone that we found out. As usual, admission came with audioguides; but lately, to practice Spanish, we have been asking for these to be set in Castellano. A consequence of this is that the majority of the time we have no idea what we’re looking at. Oh well.

Next was the Torre de Serranos, an old fortified gate at the north end of town. Valencia used to be completely surrounded by walls (as were most major cities, I gather), but now only a few gates remain. What surprised me most was its height. Compared to the gates of Ávila, this one was absolutely massive. The visit was quick: Pay the fee, climb some stairs, and enjoy the view of Valencia. Perhaps since we’d just visited the castle walls in Ávila a few days before, standing on this tower wasn’t especially engaging. But the view is certainly nice. Valencia, like Madrid, is an interesting mixture of modernity and history. For the most part, it looks like any city in the twenty-first century, with concrete and glass buildings, except for the odd medieval tower popping up here and there.

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We descended. It was lunch time now, and we knew what we had to eat: Valencian paella. Apparently, that most famous of Spanish dishes, paella, originated in Valencia. In restaurants in Madrid, paella is often made with seafood—prawns and oysters and so forth—but, as I was informed by my Valencian Spanish teacher, “paella” with seafood is not true paella at all. To be traditional, it has to made with chicken, rabbit, and vegetables. So that’s what we would eat.

Lucky for us, we usually get hungry for lunch a whole hour before most Spaniards, so we had no trouble getting a seat at a good restaurant. In fact, we were the only two people sitting outside. (As our Airbnb host explained to us, the Valencians have a different view of hot and cold; what was a beautiful day for us was a bit chilly for them.) The food was prompt, the waiter friendly, and the paella delicious. Though I still think that the very un-traditional paella I cook—with chorizo and hot peppers—is better!

Stomachs full, we went back towards the Torre de Serranos, and then went to the Jardines del Real. The name comes from the royal palace of the erstwhile kings of Valencia that used to occupy the area. The palace was demolished during the Napoleonic wars in order to prevent the French from occupying it—a move that, according to Wikipedia, was the product of envy and stupidity rather than necessity.

But I didn’t know that at the time. All I remembered from my conversation with our Airbnb host was that he said the word “palacio” when he recommended it, which led me to believe that there was still a palace to visit.

“Where’s this damn palace?” I said to my girlfriend.

“What palace?”

“I thought there was supposed to be a palace here.”

“Iunno.”

We went from one end of the gardens to the other.

“Maybe it’s outside the gardens?” I said. “Think it’s that thing?” I pointed to a tall building.

“Could be.”

We walked over to the building and looked up. It was a bank.

“Where is it?”

“Just forget it,” my girlfriend said. “Let’s go back to the gardens.”

The gardens were quite nice, at least. Most memorable was a big bird cage in the center, filled with a dozen or so different species of bird, including one lonely rooster. I thought it curious that all the birds congregated in their own corner with their own species.

We sat in a bench for a few minutes to enjoy the Valencian sun. The weather was perfect, though I was having some trouble appreciating it owing to my bitterness from failing to find that damned palace.

Next we went to the Museo de Bellas Artes, also recommended by our Airbnb host. In turn, I’d like to recommend this museum to you, for it was excellent. It’s free to enter; and the collection, though small, is tasteful and impressive. The art is arranged chronologically, with the oldest works near the entrance on the first floor and the most recent by the exit on the second. I enjoyed the older paintings the most. There’s something about Medieval art, a certain simple tenderness, almost naïveté, that I find especially moving. No attempt is made at realism. The often disproportionate figures, with heads and bodies turned at unnatural angles, stand in an flat space with a gold background.

What’s more, the scenes depicted are often bizarre. One typical example is a portrait of Luke the Evangelist seated before the Virgin, writing his Gospel. The only reason you can tell it’s Luke (the faces are hardly individualized) is because there is a little, tiny bull, the symbol of Luke, pointing with his hoof at the page; the bull even has a halo. Apparently, to the Medieval mind this wasn’t at all strange.

Upstairs there was some masterful Renaissance paintings, including one by El Greco and Velazquez. The difference between the gothic and the Renaissance era paintings is stark. Faces are individualized, bodies are solid, shadow is used to create a sense of space, and perspective transforms the two-dimensional flatland into a three-dimensional world. Medieval paintings are symbols, whereas these are representations. What happened to the European mind to create this huge shift?

We’d seen nearly everything in an hour or so, and decided to leave. On our walk out, I noticed a painting of Jesus pouring blood out of the wound into a golden bowl, from which two lambs were drinking. Now, I’ve discussed the morbidity in Catholic art before, and some people have tried explaining it to me. But I can’t see this as anything but grotesque. Yes, I can appreciate the symbolism of Christ the shepherd giving his blood for the meek lambs, but I don’t have it in me to look beyond the picture of lambs drinking blood as the smiling, bearded Jesus squeezes it from his wound. It gives me goosebumps.

By the time we walked outside, the sun was setting. We decided that we’d walk down the Parque Cabecera. This park was built in a riverbed. According to what I’ve found online, the park used to be the river Turia. Apparently, this is just another name for the Guadalquivir river that runs through Sevilla and Córdoba. This river was diverted from its course after it flooded in 1957, causing major damage to Valencia. Now it’s a park, and quite a pretty one.

It winds its riverine way through town, below street-level, filled with trees, gardens, and ponds. The park was lovely, but quite long—or at least we thought so, having by now been walking all day. We walked and walked, our feet sore, hoping to get to the end of the park so we could see the sunset on the beach. But we didn’t have enough time, or else underestimated the distance, and the sun had almost totally set before we reached the end.

This didn’t matter so much, for the park was nice enough. Garden after garden went by; palm trees swayed gently above. We went under a few bridges; pedestrians crowded the sidewalk; kids were skateboarding; adults were bicycling. Eventually we walked through a gate and into a gigantic playground. It must’ve been the biggest playground I’d ever seen. And instead of a jungle-gym, swings, a slide, or any of that, there was a massive plastic statue of Gulliver, tied down to the ground by the Lilliputians. His body was the playground; kids slid down his stomach, climbed up his cheeks, jumped on his belly button.

There’s something almost sacred about playgrounds. It’s a space that the community devotes purely to enjoyment. Kids from all backgrounds, rich and poor, natives or immigrants, are equal (or nearly so) in this plastic wonderland. They are happy just to run around and feel their legs, to shout and hear their voice. Only the severest misanthrope could remain cold at the sight.

Now it was dark; the day was over. By now completely exhausted, we walked back to our apartment, had dinner at a burger place, and slept. We still had another half-day in Valencia.

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Our first and only stop for Sunday was the Oceanographic, the largest aquarium in Europe. (TripAdvisor ranks it as the fourth best aquarium in the world; the best is in Lisbon.) It sits in the same area as the Parque Cabecera, one of the buildings in the Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias, the City of Arts and Sciences.

This complex is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Valencia, and for good reason. Here, the Spaniards’ flair for modern architecture is on full display. Every building is given a futuristic design, looking like sea shells, tulip bulbs, shark fins, and other shapes too difficult to describe. The buildings are sleek and shiny, covered in reflective glass and girded with bands of metal. There is a planetarium, a science museum, a theater, and of course the oceanographic—which, according to Wiki, was designed to have the layout of a water lily. I failed to notice this when I looked at the map.

The only bad part of our visit was paying the entrance fee, which was surprisingly steep. I suppose it costs a lot to maintain all these animals. It hurt to fork over the money, but in retrospect it was well worth it.

Our tickets came with a free dolphin show; and the next one was starting almost immediately. We headed to the dolphin theater and found seats, high up so we didn’t get splashed. The show began, and immediately became very cheesy. Dance music started playing, and the announcer’s tone and manner were so exaggerated it felt like a WWE commercial. The kids were damned excited, though, and several of them even stood up to dance to win the privilege of playing with the dolphins.

The show began. It was exactly what I expected. Dolphins flipped, jumped, did backflips, swam backwards, and then towed around their trainers in the water like little speed boats. Simply for their physical ability, dolphins are impressive animals. Imagine how much force it takes to accelerate a dolphin fast enough to shoot straight out of the water to snatch a fish dangling from a fifteen foot (three meter) ladder. Their whole body must be one giant muscle.

Two things bothered me as I watched the show. First, I’d just re-watched the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a pretty mediocre adaptation, but which does start with a musical version of “So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish,” and now I couldn’t get it out of my head. Then, I remembered this quote from the book:

“For instance, on the planet earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars, and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was to muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

Second, I kept thinking that there was something morally questionable about the whole affair. As evinced by the show, dolphins are smart—very smart. Consider this: A dolphin can watch a human spin around on land, and then translate that movement to its own quite different body in the water. Monkey see, monkey do is not a sign of stupidity, but of intelligence. Imitation is a sophisticated cognitive task. And dolphins are not only smart, but highly social; like dogs and humans, they live in groups with their own hierarchies.

What’s the morality of keeping a creature like this in an aquarium? Do they get bored swimming around their pools? Do they get listless and depressed being isolated from the ocean? Does the loud music and the applause of the show bother them? I don’t know. The strongest argument I know in favor of keeping intelligent mammals in zoos is utilitarian: Yes, maybe they’re less happy here, but they’re safe; and besides, the publicity and good-feeling generated from zoos and aquariums makes people more likely to donate to charities and to set up nature reserves. So maybe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. And perhaps the dolphins enjoy the exercise of performing and the bonds with their trainers? Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this show was questionable in some way. We would never do this to people; and many believe we shouldn’t keep chimps or gorillas. Where do we draw the line?

This led me to a deeper question: What is intelligence, anyway? How do you define it? Is it a measure of the complexity of tasks the brain can perform? But spider webs are enormously complex, yet we don’t think of spiders as intelligent. Perhaps intelligence is the ability to learn? This seems like a better definition. Humans, the smartest of animals, are also the most adaptable; we can learn to make new technology, and then use this technology to live in new environments. Chimps can learn to use tools and even to use sign language; dolphins can be trained to perform like this.

Well, I wasn’t solving any deep mysteries that day. The show ended, we clapped and left. The rest of the aquarium was divided into ten sections, each one a different natural habitat. I neither can nor will give you a rundown of each of these. Just the highlights.

One of the tanks was for the seals. They’re lovely creatures, so dog-like that you can imagine keeping one in your backyard pool. Although, as I looked at the seals, the same pang of unease shot through me as when I saw the dolphin show. They must be bored swimming around that cage all day and all night long. And having people point and gawk can’t be pleasant. Case in point, a little girl next to me began throwing a yellow toy—one of those minions from that Pixar movie—up and down, and a curious seal on the other side of the glass began following it. The seal even tried to snap at the toy, like it was a fish; though of course he just bounced off the glass. The kid’s parents thought this was cute and neat, and I admit it was kind of cute. But it also seemed a bit cruel, adding insult to injury.

Of course, there were lots of fish. I like looking at fish, but not especially. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a fish? Nothing seems to look back at you. The same goes for birds, for the most part. In one section, under a big netted area which I believe was the wetland habitat, were lots of birds standing about. They were very pretty; but if I spend too much time looking at one I get unsettled. I try imagining what’s going on in their brain, and get nothing.

Also in abundance were lots of strange sea creatures. There were sea horses, those surreal beauties that look like fantasy intruding upon reality. These creatures—bright orange and smaller than my thumb—gently float around, wrapping their little tail around seaweed; to me they seem so precious and fragile, it’s as if they are made of the stuff of imagination. Jellyfish also give me this impression, floating in their tank like plastic wrap, lit up like neon signs against the black background. How bizarre is it that something like this—something I can literally see through—can be alive?

In one cage were two spider crabs. I could hardly believe my eyes, they were so big. And according to the audioguide, they weren’t even fully grown. The two crabs leisurely made their way across the bottom, their thin, spindly legs—perhaps three feet long—supporting their armored body. Their shell must be tough; it seems such a slow-moving, easily visible animal would make easy prey. Less mobile animals also occupied the tanks, star fish and anemones. I find anemones particularly fascinating. Who can believe that those things are animals? They just sit, their thin tentacles swaying in the water, waiting—for what?

More impressive than the tanks were the tunnels. The Valencia Oceanographic boasts not one but two tunnels, through which visitors can walk, surrounded on all sides by ocean creatures. The first tunnel was the more modest, consisting mostly of fish. There was, however, a beautiful bright green monstrous eel, swimming about in one corner. It opened and closed its mouth repeatedly, giving me a close up glimpse of its impressive row of teeth. The audioguide explained that the eel did this to breath better, not as a threat; but I’m not buying it.

The second tunnel was many times more impressive. This was the deep ocean. It was filled with sharks of all kinds, with long, saw-like snouts, with flattened bodies, and of course the classical, recognizable form, an aquatic death machine swimming above your head. I don’t know anything about sharks except that they are terrifying and strangely beautiful. Also present were sting rays, looking angelic was they glided through the water, flapping their wings. Of course, there were lots of fish, too; and some of these were quite large.

This brings me to a question: Why don’t the sharks in these tanks eat the fish? Why don’t the big fish eat the little ones? Are aquarium keepers just good at grouping animals in the right way? Or do they keep them well-fed, thus suppressing their instinct to hunt? There must be some art or science to it, since I’ve not once seen one of these sharks even attempt a nibble. And I find this impressive, because if I was a big, mean shark floating around a tank all day with a slow, juicy fish, eventually my self-control would fail me. I suppose it’s possible that sharks won’t attack a fish they’re constantly around. Maybe this is why they had an area of the tank, separated by a net, for “acclimatization”? Anyways, if any of you knows the answer to this mystery, please enlighten me.

As cool as this shark-tunnel was, the most impressive section of the aquarium was the arctic region. It was there I saw the first living walrus I’ve ever seen—two of them. For such fat, fleshy creatures, they’re astonishingly graceful in the water. Even more astonishing were the belugas. These white whales are midway in size between dolphins and orcas—which means they’re quite large, dwarfing even the walruses. They’re damned cute, too, seeming to have a constantly inquisitive smile on their faces.

The chubbiness of both animals, walrus and beluga, is visible evidence of the harsh, freezing environment they’ve adapted to. It boggles my mind that these two huge creatures, which doubtless require enormous amounts of food to survive, have managed to arise in such an apparently barren environment. Natural selection works wonders.

Now, we were done. We had a Blablacar to catch. We ate some overpriced food from one of the aquarium cafes, and scrammed.

I can’t end this post without a description of our ride back. We traveled with three others—the driver and two of his friends. All of them were Spaniards. The driver spoke excellent English; however, he learned English from serving in some pan-European military force (Eurocorps?), where he used English to communicate with his fellow soldiers from Poland. As a consequence, he spoke with an absurd and hilarious Polish accent, even using Eastern European mannerisms. Frankly, he sounded like Borat.

“Yes, yes, you speak English, very good!” he yelled back at us, as we spoke with one of his friends. “You make friends! A’right!”

This friend of his, who sat in the back with us for the ride, was a professional bodybuilder. The poor guy had to constantly be on a special diet, which I think gave him a food obsession. He couldn’t stop talking about how he wanted to go to Chicago to try the deep dish pizza.

“Oh my God!” he said, showing us a picture of the pizza on his phone. “Can you believe this? We have to go!”

“Oh, you like pizza?”

“Like pizza? I love it!”

“Have you ever been to New York?”

“Yes, it was magical. And there I had the best pizza of my life. It was from Dominoes. Amazing!”

The poor man.

Now our vacation really was over. Next morning, we would have to drag ourselves back to work, after not working for three whole weeks. It was an awful shock. But in the meantime, we had visited nine fantastic Spanish cities. I’ve never had a better break.

 

Day Trips from Madrid: Alcalá, Chinchón, Aranjuez, and Ávila

Day Trips from Madrid: Alcalá, Chinchón, Aranjuez, and Ávila

There are many advantages to living in Madrid. For a Spanish city, it’s big, it’s bustling, and it’s diverse. But one of my favorite aspects of Madrid is its location. By design, the capital of Spain is almost equidistant from every corner of the country; to drive from Madrid to Catalonia, to Andalusia, to the Basque Country, and to Galicia all take roughly the same amount of time. And transportation isn’t hard to find; the city is well connected by rail, highway, and plane to every corner of the country. Travel is cheap, easy, and fast.

As a consequence, there are a great many excellent day trips you can take from Madrid. I’ve already written about some of them: Toledo, Segovia, and El Escorial. Each of those is interesting enough to merit an entire post. In this post, I want to talk about some of the perhaps lesser-known cities for day-trippers. I’ll start at the very beginning, with my first trip inside Spain.

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Alcalá de Henares

As soon as I got to Spain, I blabbed to everybody I met that I had read Don Quixote. I was very proud of this, for I thought it gave me some kind of badge of honor in Spanish culture. And indeed, a few people seemed genuinely impressed—though less so when I told them I read it in English.

“Ah, so you like Cervantes?” a friend of ours said.

“Oh yes, he’s excellent.”

“You should visit Alcalá de Henares, then. It’s where Cervantes was born.”

“Wow, really?”

“Yeah, check it out. You can get there on the Cercanías for free with your metro pass. Take it from Atocha.”

This was only our second week in Spain, and we were still a bit disoriented by our surroundings. The prospect of taking an actual trip in Spain seemed almost Herculean, an added challenge to the day-to-day struggle of navigating our new city. But I was determined to get culture, by hell or high water; so as soon as we could, we made it to Atocha station and took the Cercanías to Alcalá de Henares. (For once in our lives, we found the train without a problem.)

The train was too full for us to sit down. We stood by the doors, both of us swaying nervously with the ever-present anxiety you feel when in a strange environment. I was looking forward to seeing the area around Madrid, but the windows were smudged and dirty; and the view, from what I could see, wasn’t much anyway. Meanwhile, I’d terrified myself by reading online stories about the ingenuity of pickpockets in Europe, and couldn’t stop casting interrogative glances at all the passengers around me, wondering whether any of them were thieves eyeing me up, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

Station after station went by, and I was paying fierce attention to all of them, paranoid that we would miss our stop and get hopelessly lost. It’s really exhausting traveling somewhere totally new—it is for me, at least—because you can’t take anything for granted. The doors of the trains work differently; the seats are arranged differently; the automatic announcer is speaking a foreign language. Added to this, I was constantly afraid of doing something wrong by accident, breaking the train etiquette of Spain and drawing everyone’s attention to myself. It’s pretty amusing to me now, as I look back after three months; but then it was just stressful and scary.

We arrived. After some confused mucking about, we began making our way to the center of town. Neither of us had Spanish SIM cards yet, so our phones didn’t work. We just followed the crowd, who all seemed to be walking in the same direction. The city seemed rather ordinary at first—though even this was interesting to me, since I hadn’t seen any city in Spain besides Madrid yet—but soon something caught our eye. It looked like a little castle, with a tower on one end and a tiny battlement at the top of a square structure.

But what really made it stand out was the intricate ornamentation. The façade of the tower, for example, was covered in swirls. It was quite pretty. Although we didn’t know this at the time, it’s called the Palacete Laredo, and is one of the sites in Alcalá.

Looking at my photos of it now, I can tell that it was built in a Neo-Mudéjar style, with crescent arches and a domed minaret. The top of the main building, however, is not Neo-Mudéjar in style, but rather looks like a small copy of the Alcázar in Segovia. In fact, the more I look at my pictures, the more of a stylistic jumble the place appears, with all sorts of different elements mixed together. Of course, at the time I just thought it looked weird. (As I see from looking at the Spanish Wikipedia, there’s a museum inside, though the place when closed when we got there.)

We kept going, following the trickle of pedestrians into the center of town. Eventually the buildings started to look older; the streets were narrower here and paved with stone. But what most caught our attention was a big beautiful bird, sitting on top of an old church. It looked so incongruous and stood so still that we were convinced it was fake—that is, until it twitched its head. When we got a bit closer we could see it had built a big, bushy nest up high on the building.

As we moved on, following the throng of people wherever it seemed thickest, we eventually found ourselves in a dense crowd. Little shacks were set up all over the place, selling cheese, sausage, olives, nuts, spices, tea, wooden bowls, leather bags, colorful scarves, cheap jewelry. Not only that, but all the people in these shops were dressed up in funny outfits, like they were in Medieval times. Was Spain always like this on the weekends? I was both excited and terrified—excited to see a slice of Spanish life, but now scared more than ever about being pickpocketed.

We rounded a corner and came across an outdoor restaurant. Dozens of tables and chairs were gathered under a tent. Several harried men in ridiculous costumes—looking like court jesters, with striped red and white shirts and big puffy hats—were running left and right, carrying massive trays of food. Outside the tent was the cooking area, where a large circular charcoal grill was covered in sausages, meats, fish, and vegetables of all kinds. Immediately I felt very, very hungry. From the shops were hung all manner of flags and banners painted with signs from medieval heraldry—black, yellow, and red.

Every new street we entered was more packed than the last. Soon it dawned on us that this wasn’t at all normal, but was some kind of special festival. (Actually, as we later learned, this was the Medieval Market, which was held from October 8 to 12.) As if to confirm our suspicion, a group of men dressed up like medieval soldiers, with fake swords by their sides, paraded through the crowd while another man, dressed in rags, pretended to be a lunatic. One of the soldiers held him by a rope, while the maniac ran after people in the crowd (mostly women), gargling his throat and reaching out his dirty hands. Another soldier was beating a big bass drum, while they all shouted things that I couldn’t understand.

We wandered along this way, two bewildered Americans, absolutely intimidated by our surroundings, until eventually we were standing in front of a couple of statues. I immediately recognized these as being Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; both of them were sitting on a bench, and seemed to be having a damned good time. In between the knight errant and his square there was a space on the bench where tourist after tourist was lining up to have their picture taken. I would have had my picture taken, too, if I wasn’t so afraid that my phone would disappear as soon as I took it out of my pocket.

Behind the bench was the Cervantes House. We got on line and went right in. It’s quite a small place, actually. In the center of the house is a little courtyard, around which every room is situated. The insides of these rooms were furnished to look like they would have during Cervantes’ lifetime. I have to admit not much caught my eye, except perhaps the old kitchen equipment. It was more rewarding just to pace about, thinking that I was standing in the very place where Cervantes, that master of masters, entered into the world. This feeling was so strange to me that I’m not sure I quite took it in. This was perhaps the first appearance of “European Travel Syndrome” in my life. You simply can’t have an experience like this in New York.

In just half an hour, we were out in the street again. We didn’t know anything else to do except walk around, seeing as much of the city as we could. Many of the buildings were impressive; but at this early stage, we didn’t really know how to go about visiting buildings or even how to look at them. In fact, what I most remember were not the buildings themselves, but the dozens stork nests sitting snuggly on rooftops, their bushy lairs looking somehow both ridiculous and majestic.

Eventually, we decided to sit down to eat in one of those tent restaurants. The waiter ran up to us, his floppy hat thrown over to one side of his head, and asked us in a slew of Spanish words what we wanted. We ordered two things, and he was off. At this point, we were so clueless in Spanish that most of the time we didn’t even know what we were ordering in restaurants. This was a classic example: We asked for “pimientos fritos” thinking they were french fries; five minutes later, the waiter dropped a plate of fried, salted green peppers on our table. I know, I know, this is a ridiculous mistake, not least because “potato” is “patata” here—not hard to guess.

The upside of our ignorance was that we ended up learning a lot about Spanish food, since we accidentally ate a lot of it. These pimientos were a case in point: we loved them, and pimientos now are one of our staple dishes. Really, if you’re in Spain and you can’t speak Spanish, just go into a restaurant and order whatever sounds interesting. All the food is good here.

After eating the pimientos, and then following it with a plate full of chorizo and tomato sauce on bread, we began to walk around again. But I’m afraid we didn’t do much of interest; and in an hour, we were on our way back to the train station to return to Madrid.

Reading over what I just wrote, and comparing it to what I find online about Alcalá de Henares, it’s obvious to me that we left most of the main sights unseen. Oh well, next time. But it was a fantastic stroke of luck to arrive on the very weekend when they were having their famous Medieval Market. And as I look back on it, this trip seems to presage our whole time in Spain so far: we arrive clueless and unprepared, and yet everything works out marvelously. Traveling in Spain is, in fact, a lot like ordering in a Spanish restaurant: even if you have no idea what you’ll get, you can be sure it will be delightful.

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Chinchón

“Just once, I’d like to begin a blog post without our travel troubles!” I said to my girlfriend as we walked around, confused and lost, looking for the bus to Chinchón. We’d just walked fifteen minutes in the wrong direction, and were heading back to the metro station now.

“Shut up,” she said. “I have it here on my phone.”

Indeed she did; and we were soon standing by the appropriate bus station near Conde de Casal, waiting to go to Chinchón.

Chinchón is a small town—its population is about 5,000—just south of Madrid. It isn’t the home of any big castles or cathedrals; it isn’t the place to take the best photos or hear the best music. Rather, Chinchón is a place to sit and eat, and that’s what we planned to do.

After an hour on the bus, we arrived. Immediately we headed for the plaza mayor, the most famous place in the town, a five minute walk from the bus stop.

This was the first week of January. We had this week off for Tres Reyes, the Spanish holiday celebrating the three magi who visited infant Jesus. Instead of giving presents on Christmas, this is the day when most gifts are exchanged. And lucky for us, the combination of Christmas, New Year’s, and Tres Reyes makes for a long, long holiday.

We’d just gotten back from our Christmas trip to Andalusia, and were thirsting to see more of Spain. Unfortunately, Madrid and its environs are a good deal colder than the south of Spain. We were freezing. Added to this, the weather was awful that day, overcast, windy, with a bit of rain. It was the kind of dull, dreary weather than can make the Taj Mahal look dreadful.

But the plaza mayor of Chinchón didn’t look dreadful at all. It looked positively cute. Identical white buildings with green balconies and tiled roofs surrounded a circular area in the center. This area was filled with sand. A few guys were selling donkey rides to kids, leading a long train of donkeys with excited children bouncing on top of them around the square, while their parents walked cautiously beside. A plastic Christmas tree decoration sat in the exact center. Every building had a restaurant or two, which was good because we were already quite hungry.

Man of this century that I am, I looked on my phone for the restaurant with the highest rating: it was called La Villa. Of course it was expensive (for a Spanish restaurant). But it was the new year, and we felt like living high.

I’m glad to report that I absolutely stuffed myself, and then ate some more. The house red wine was also just fantastic, dangerously so, for I drank too much of it. After I ate and drank my fill, we ordered dessert—also great—and then asked for the check. This came with two complementary shots of Chinchón, which is the local liquor, apparently. Since my girlfriend can’t drink, I had to have both shots. It was strong, I tell you, and had a subtle liquorish flavor, a bit like Jägermeister. As we walked out, we noticed a bunch of black-and-white pictures hanging on the walls. Closer inspection revealed that they were of bull fights in the plaza mayor of Chinchón. Apparently, it was originally a bullring, which explains its symmetrical layout.

After this, there’s not much to tell. Stomachs painfully full, we waddled around town a bit. We found a castle, ruined and empty, which we couldn’t enter. There were several churches, closed to visitors. And then there was a view of the countryside beyond, rendered a bit dour by the weather. An hour later we were waiting at the bus stop with a bunch of chatting old ladies, and an hour after that we were sitting at home, drowsy, relaxed, ready for our next trip.

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Aranjuez

“Oh God, not again! Why can’t we get anything right?”

We were standing in front of the Royal Palace of Aranjuez. It was big but not imposing, perhaps because of its playful pink color. The building’s two wings seemed to stretch toward us like a man reaching for a handshake. On the top of the building the Spanish flag was fitfully blowing in the wind.

“Why!?” I whined. “We managed to come the only day that it’s closed! Why didn’t I just check the hours? This always happens!”

It was Monday, the only day of the week that the palace isn’t open for visits. We’d just taken the train from Atocha station in Madrid. It was the day after our trip to Chinchón, and the weather was still gloomy and overcast. I wasn’t in a good mood.

“Shut up,” my girlfriend said. “It’s not a big deal.”

We began walking around, somewhat aimlessly. In the area surroundings the palace there is lots of monumental architecture, with large open courtyards surrounded by stone walls; rounded archways line nearly every surface, which along with the reddish color gives the complex a unified aesthetic. But I wasn’t in the mood for appreciating architecture.

“We’ve been in this country for months,” I said. “And still we mess up even these basic things.”

“It’s not a big deal,” my girlfriend said.

By now we were standing in front of the Iglesia Real de San Antonio, and I was still sulking.

“This sucks,” I said.

“Come on,” my girlfriend said. “Let’s go eat.”

We walked into town, found a restaurant, and sat down. The food was surprisingly good, and also cheap. By the time I finished, I was in a considerably better mood. And in that spirit, we went off to see the gardens.

It was a miserable day for this. The trees were bare and skeletal; the flowers were nowhere to be seen; the place was empty and desolate. The wind was blowing freezing air, the endless gray clouds cast a dreary shadow over everything, and in general the world looked bleak.

The only light relief from this brooding picture were the geese. At least, I think they were geese, though they didn’t look much like the Canadian geese I’m used to. There were dozens of them sitting in the river. And as we passed by a few geese wandering around the park, they began honking at each other. It was a comical sight. It looked like they were having a petty argument, and perhaps they were.

With nothing much to interest me, my mind began to wander. We’d just begun watching Kenneth Clark’s landmark television documentary, Civilisation; and that program had brought to the fore a question I’d long thought about.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” I said. “It’s supposed to be good for you in some way to travel to all these famous monuments. You see these beautiful buildings and paintings, and ostensibly the experience ennobles you. But how, specifically does that work? How does it improve people to appreciate fine architecture, for example?”

“Uh, well it’s historically significant, and it’s important for people to understand history.”

“That’s true. But it seems that it’s something more than just history. After all, you could just read a history book. Why do people spend all this money to visit places so they can see fine architecture?”

“Because it’s nice to look at?”

“I guess. But lots of things are nice to look at. Lots of celebrities, for example, are nice to look at, but nobody thinks looking at celebrities makes them ‘cultured’.”

“Right…”

“And of course, seeing beautiful art doesn’t necessarily do anything for you. If somebody is naturally uninterested in or insensitive to fine art, he won’t be improved no matter how many museums you force him through.”

“Okay…”

“So it seems to have something to do with the appreciation of beauty. If you can appreciate beauty, and you see something beautiful, it improves you in some way (supposedly). But how?”

“Mmm…”

By now she had completely zoned out and I was talking to myself. I gave up and started turning over the question in my mind. But I didn’t make any progress, and soon my mind was someplace else.

We kept going, crossed a bridge, and found ourselves walking along a road lined with sycamore trees, their overhanging branches leafless and emaciated. To our left and right were fields of farmland—empty.

More than anything else I’ve seen in Spain, this wintry and desolate landscape reminded me of home. I felt like I was in upstate New York, taking a wintertime stroll. The wind whipped up and send a chill to my bones.

A wave of homesickness came over me as I walked. What am I doing here? Where am I headed? I don’t know. What is my mom doing? And my brother? What’s happening with my friends? Don’t know, either. What will happen next year? What will I do when I get back home? And when will that be? How will I be changed? And how will home be changed?

The road extended into the distance, empty and dreary. And as I looked down that road, I could imagine nothing but sadness ahead of me. This sadness wasn’t just for myself. I was seized by that tender, reflective melancholy—what Virgil calls “the tears of things”—when you realize that the universe is indifferent to your happiness, that all pleasure is temporary, that death is permanent, and that all your hopes and dreams, and those of the people you love, might come to nothing. It’s the realization—so painful we do our best to forget it—that tragedy is an inevitable part of life. And though this fact is unbearably sad, it is the source of beauty; for beauty is so precious because, like all things, it is doomed to pass away.

In this pensive state of mind, perhaps just a result of the weather and the new year, we walked down the long road, turned a corner, and kept on going. We talked about our plans for next year, and expressed anxiety about how we’d cope if we had to go long distance. And then we fell into silence as the leaves crunched underneath our feet and the light leaked out of the sky, and we said little as we dragged our weary feet to the train and left.

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Ávila 

Our trip to Ávila was a whole lot more successful.

Early in the morning, we took a train from Madrid to that splendid city. Ávila is the capital of the eponymous province; it sits in the south of the autonomous region of Castille y León, and houses a population of 60,000. Of course, I didn’t know a bloody thing about the place when I booked the trip, but by now I’m sure you’ve come to expect that.

The train ride was stunningly lovely. It made its way northwest of Madrid, passing town after town until we got to El Escorial. As we went by, I relished the chance to see the monastery again, if only in the distance.

Now we were in the Guadarrama mountains. Through the window I could see valleys, far below us, green but nearly treeless. Far in the distance the sun hung above the horizon, glaring yellow. Underneath was a sea of clouds, apparently sitting at ground level. Occasionally a derelict farmhouse or a stone fence could be seen, and once or twice I spotted a few cows, looking tiny and delicate in the valleys below. We passed through several tunnels, and eventually a city could be seen up ahead, which grew nearer and nearer until the train slowed to a stop.

We were in Ávila. We walked out of the station and into the city center, and in just five minutes we were face to face with the one of the gates of the city walls. It was an impressive sight: two towers flanked the door, two rows of battlements above. I imagined what it would’ve been like to be the poor soldier trying to break in these walls. Arrows, stones, and other projectiles would rain down upon you as soon as you came near. It would be a pretty wretched day. I wonder how generals went about conquering places this well fortified? The only safe way seems to be a siege: starve them out. I tried imagining what it would be like to be a peasant, stuck inside a besieged town, watching the supply of grain and fresh water gradually dwindle. I suppose war is hell for everyone involved.

We walked around the wall until we found the entrance to climb up. A few euros exchanged hands, and soon we were standing on the walls of Ávila. They’re impressively well-preserved. To my eye it seemed that they could’ve been built yesterday. But according to Wikipedia, they were constructed from the 11th to the 14th centuries. The walls are thick and tall, and seem strong enough to withstand even a cannonball—not that I’d know. We walked and walked, circumnavigating half the town. Red-thatched roofs of houses stood in the foreground, while in the background, far away, thin white clouds hovered over the mountains

My girlfriend absolutely loved the walls. She smiled like a five year old at an amusement park as she peered through the battlements, her hair waving in the wind. I was in a bad mood again: I was hungry. I absolutely hate being hungry. I’m ashamed to say this, because it underscores how easy and prosperous my life has been, but I feel acutely miserable if I wait too long between breakfast and lunch. I get so sour that even the most interesting and joyful experiences seem dreadful.

So as soon as we had walked the kilometer of wall from start to finish, and climbed up and down our fair share of stairs, we headed to a restaurant. And for whatever reason, I decided that we would go to the top-rated restaurant in the city: El Restaurante Bococo.

We sat down for the Menú del Día—which was a bit pricey, but not overly so. Little did I know what awaited me.

First the wine. Two orders of the menú came with a bottle of wine; and since my girlfriend can’t drink (it’s genetic), it was up to me to drink all of it. Granted, we didn’t have to order it in the first place; but I’ll be damned if I pass up a free bottle of wine. We didn’t have all day, so I had to drink pretty quickly. Bottoms up.

Then the food. As usual, I nibbled on the bread as soon as it was brought out. Normally, the portions aren’t that big (for an American) so I don’t worry about filling up my stomach a bit. But I knew I was in trouble when our first dishes were brought out. Each of them was big enough to share. After eating both—a soup with pork, sausage and beans, and fried eggs with pieces of foie gras over potatoes—I was comfortably full. Then our main dishes arrived. We had both ordered steaks, and they were massive. I was determined not to let any of the food go to waste, so I started determinedly stuffing piece after piece down my throat, hoping to outrace the signals of distress emanating from my stomach. Steak, wine, steak, wine, until my stomach felt like it would burst. Then, I ate some more.

By the time all the food and wine was done, I was in misery. I stood up to go, and I was so full and so drunk I could hardly suppress my groans as I shuffled across the room and out the door. You know, I pride myself in being an unusual American, but in this respect I am as American as can be. Bill Bryson, in his Notes from a Small Island, put it best:

To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure as possible into one’s mouth more or less continually. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright.

But I had to pay a price for this pleasure, since the rest of the day I could hardly move or think. Note to self: next time, don’t get the bottle of wine.

Still, though I was in pain, I was agreeably buzzed. This made the Cathedral of Ávila particularly moving for me. It’s a Romanesque church, built around the same time as the walls. In fact, the cathedral built into walls, making it a fortification as well as a house of God. The cathedral itself has a square, imposing, massive quality. Its plain grey façade is hardly enlivened by decoration.

The North Door of the cathedral I found particularly impressive. This door is, I believe, the most gothic in style, since its arches are pointed. As in many cathedrals, the doorway is surrounded by concentric arches, which are filled with figures. Long, drawn-out statues of saints sit below, each of them dressed in a robe; and above, in the arches, tiny seated and standing figures fly over you like little angels. In the center, above the door, is the Last Judgment. It’s quite interesting to me that, at this time, Jesus wasn’t conceived as the joyful, forgiving, kindhearted father figure he is today (at least in many parts of America); rather, he was a powerful and vengeful deity, who condemns sinners to the fire.

Another doorway was more Romanesque. Above its rounded arch floral motifs abounded; the door is flanked by two soldiers, their bodies covered in what look like fish scales, wielding shields and clubs. Statues of lions were seated on platforms to the right and left. Above the door, the window was divided into pretty swirling patterns. In a third doorway, also Romanesque, smiling demons seem to pop out of the stone, along with two curious cows heads. I’m sure these mean something, but don’t ask me.

We walked inside. I was trying my best to be alert and focused, but the wine was having its effect. I kept zoning out as I walked around the cathedral, and didn’t get the proper experience. Still, I remember being very impressed by the carvings in high-relief behind the main altar. They represented scenes of intense drama. I remember one in particular that depicted what appear to be Roman soldiers massacring women and children. Their swords are drawn, and several are stabbing or slashing down at women on the ground, whose hands are uselessly raised in defense, their faces contorted in terror. It’s a gruesome scene; and the craftsmanship is excellent. It’s a marvel to me that Europe has so many works of art of that something of this quality can be considered minor.

The rest is a blur, however, and the next thing I knew I was being whisked off to the Basilica de San Vicente. According to the Wikipedia, this is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in the country. I first noticed it when I was up on the walls, remarking to myself that it was a very pretty building, and I was gratified when I found out that it’s one of the main sites to see. According to legend, it’s built on the site where three siblings were martyred during Roman times.

More bizarre figures stand on the capitols of the columns flanking the door—sphinxes this time. Also apparent were more floral, swirling designs in the stone. On the inside, right before the altar, is a massive, elaborate cenotaph to the three martyrs, covered in painted carvings that narrate their lives from beginning to end. It was impressive. But this is the only thing that stuck in my befuddled mind, and soon we had to go.

In fact, we had run out of time. We’d spent so long at the restaurant stuffing ourselves that we gave ourselves only a few hours before our train back to Madrid. So, with much reluctance, we pulled ourselves away, passed again under the main gate of the city, and headed towards the station.

We did stop to briefly visit a monastery on the way—I can’t even remember which—but we basically ran through it. Surprisingly, there were several museums in the building. I remember suddenly passing from a stone courtyard into a room filled with glass cabinets with stuffed animal specimens inside. There were bears, crocodiles, and lions, along with birds, monkeys, snakes, and much else. The specimens looked like they had been sitting there a long time; the eyes in particular were replaced by silly-looking glass eyeballs. And since there was nobody else there, no other tourists and no staff, it felt a bit creepy to be standing in that cramped room with so many dead animals.

But now we had to run for it. We trekked up a hill and got on the train with minutes to spare. I planned to read, but fell into a deep doze as soon as I sat down. And so my drunken body was conveyed to Madrid, where I could make more questionable decisions.

 

 

 

Review: The Essential Plotinus

The Essential PlotinusThe Essential Plotinus by Plotinus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after reading Glenn’s fine review, and I’m glad I did. This is an excellent volume; and although I haven’t read the complete Enneads, so I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the editor and translator, Elmer O’Brien, did an expert job in selecting the very best sections from that long tome. In just 170 pages, one finds a complete philosophical system and worldview. I’ve read few books that pack so much into so few words.

It is often remarked that Plotinus was more of a mystic than a real philosopher. But of course, those two aren’t mutually exclusive categories. I’ve heard both Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s works compared to mystical poetry, and indeed the clear demarcation between philosophy and religion is a relatively recent phenomenon. So don’t let the mysticism put you off. This is a serious and significant work of philosophy.

At both the literal and metaphorical center of Plotinus’s system is his concept of The One. The One is the source of all reality, the source of existence itself: “It is by The One that all beings are beings.” It transcends all forms of knowledge; it cannot be described in any words: “This principle is certainly none of the things of which it is the source. It is such that nothing can be predicated of it, not being, not substance, not life, because it is superior to all these things.” The One, which is the same as The Good, is the goal of Plotinus’s system: to seek, through contemplation, an experience of the wellspring of all existence. “By directing your glance towards it, by reaching it, by resting in it, you will achieve a deep and immediate awareness of it and will at the same time seize its greatness in all things that come from it and exist through it.”

Now this all sounds quite abstract and incomprehensible, but I think Plotinus’s point is rather simple. Nothing can exist without having some sort of unity; and the more unity something has, the more stable is its existence. For example, a choir only exists if all of the people composing it are organized in some way. When they disband, the unity is broken, and the choir ceases to exist. A human body exists because all of the diverse parts which compose it cooperate and coordinate their activities. Once this organization ceases, the unity of the parts is broken, and the body ceases to function and ultimately passes away. The more simple something is, the less contingency is has. To pick an inappropriately modern example, a molecule exists because the atoms which compose it are in a particular configuration; once this configuration is broken, the molecule is gone. What persists are the fundamental particles, quarks and electrons, which are (we think) absolutely simple, and therefore persist through all the shifting configurations of matter and energy that cause everything we experience through our senses.

The One is what Plotinus calls the “first hypostasis.” The One is the principle of all existence, because, without some sort of unity, nothing could exist. But by itself, The One doesn’t exist. In fact, to give it any predicate, even the predicate of “existence,” is to attribute some contingent quality to it. So just as Heidegger is fond of reminding us that Being is not a being—that is, the cause of existence cannot itself be something that exists—so does Plotinus warn us that we can know absolutely nothing about The One. It is formless, devoid of all qualities, transcendent of all thought, beyond even our categories of “real” and “unreal.”

But of course, the universe exists, and therefore cannot be identical with The One. This leads Plotinus to his “second hypostasis,” which is The Intelligence. Now, from what I understand, The Intelligence is the realm wherein dwell all the ideals and forms that comprise true reality. Plotinus, borrowing heavily from Plato and Aristotle, considers matter to be pure potentiality. What turns the potentiality into an actuality is a form or an ideal—such as Humanity or Fire in the abstract; and these can only be apprehended through the mind, or intelligence. These ideals are eternal and immaterial; hence it is these ideals that exist in the highest degree, being contingent only on The One, completely independent of matter.

But The Intelligence is static, comprising all things at once, timeless and perfect; yet the reality we know is ever-changing. This leads Plotinus to the “third hypostasis,” which is The Soul. Plotinus thinks not only that people have souls, but that The Soul is responsible for all movement and order in the universe. Just as a human is animated by an indwelling soul, so are the planets and animals and everything around us moved by The Soul, which mediates between the inactive realm of matter and the perfect world of The Intelligence. For Plotinus, each individual soul is just a part of The Soul; and like Plato, he believes in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls.

This elaborate metaphysical doctrine is the backdrop of Plotinus’s spiritual practices. Plotinus shares with many other Western mystics a scorn for the body. The senses are the source of nothing but illusion and suffering, and drag the soul down into petty considerations and vain pursuits. The first step is to appreciate the beauty in sensible objects, for beauty is not raw sensation, but consists of an order or organization in our sensations. The next step is to move beyond the senses altogether, engaging in dialectic to examine the pure ideals through thought alone. But unlike Plato, for whom philosophy was largely a social enterprise, the last step in Plotinus’s system is an introspective voyage to The One, a state of perfect blissful peace, a contemplation of the source of all reality, that transcendent origin which has no qualities and which cannot be grasped in words or thought.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this, especially for one such as myself, a secular rationalist. Of course, Plotinus is worth reading from a purely historical perspective, for his deep influence on St. Augustine, and thence on Christianity itself. And if you are religious or spiritual in any way, be it Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or simply fond of meditation, I’m sure that you can find something of value in Plotinus. From a modern perspective, as philosophy pure and simple, Plotinus’s system isn’t very compelling; for Plotinus does not make strict arguments, but rather grounds his thought in introspective experiences. Yet if you are like me, or like Bertrand Russell—a man who could hardly be more secular or averse to nonsense—you will nonetheless find something beautiful in Plotinus, even if it is perhaps just an elaborate dream, a philosophical fancy, an extended description of one brilliant man’s lonely meditations.

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Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra

Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra

Tales of the AlhambraTales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To the traveler imbued with a feeling for the historical and poetical, so inseparably intertwined in the annals of romantic Spain, the Alhambra is as much an object of devotion as is the Caaba to all true Moslems.

The name “Washington Irving” has haunted me since I was a boy. I went to a school named after him. We visited his beautiful house, Sunnyside, on a field trip. The house where I grew up is just 500 feet from Irving’s grave in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—quite a modest grave. My high school football team were the Headless Horsemen.

So imagine how it felt, after moving across an ocean, to see the name “Washington Irving” hanging above a door in the Alhambra: “Washington Irving wrote in this room his Tales of the Alhambra.” It was as if some circuit had been closed, some cycle had been completed. I’d spent the previous week racing through the book in preparation for my visit. And now, here I was, face to face with the same literary giant who hung over my childhood, who had also managed to cast his spell over this magnificent palace.

That’s my tale; what of the book?

The Tales of the Alhambra is something of a hodgepodge. It begins as a travelogue and ends as a collection of fables. In 1829, Irving travelled from Seville to Granada, apparently out of simple curiosity. Once he arrived, he fell under the enchanting influence of the Alhambra, and ended up residing there for several months. At the time, the Alhambra was in a sorry state. Several centuries of vandalism and neglect had reduced it to a ruin, and dozens of poor squatters were its only residents.
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Probably its derelict condition added to the romantic wonder with which Irving beheld it. The book is written in a high-flown, almost mystical tone, with fact and fantasy blended into a vibrant fabric. His own observations and experiences are interspersed with historical sketches and old legends, which he purports to have learned from the residents. The final impression is of supernatural beauty. If you’ve seen the Alhambra, this is forgivable; it’s hard to exaggerate its splendor.

As Warwick points out, Irving is most fascinated with the Moors of Spain. The fact that a people with enough culture and power to create the Alhambra could totally vanish beguiles him. Who were they? How did they live? His vigorous imagination fills in the continent-sized gaps in his knowledge, allowing his fancy to run rampant. It’s obvious that he considers the lost civilization of the Moors to be a kind of forgotten paradise; he has nothing but praise for the nobility and sophistication of Spain’s erstwhile inhabitants.

While he stayed there, he grasped at whatever trace of this civilization remained, in architecture, history, and in the people. Irving does his best to convince himself and the reader that the monumental dignity of the Moors of Spain can be seen still in the Spanish peasants of Andalusia. He praises these people almost as highly as their predecessors, saying “with all their faults, and they are many, the Spaniards, even at the present day, are, on many point, the most high-minded and proud-spirited people of Europe.”

The book is enjoyable in short doses but gets tiresome in big chunks. Irving’s tone, though compelling, is monotonous. You can only tolerate breathless wonder for so long without craving something else. His stories, too, are quite repetitive. Hidden treasures, enchanted warriors, princesses in castles, forbidden love between Christians and Muslims—these make an appearance in nearly every tale.

Still, this book is well worth reading, not only because Irving is a skillful and charming writer, but also because it’s a window into the cultural history of the Alhambra, how it has been interpreted and understood by Western writers. For me, of course, this book has a personal significance that extends beyond the boundaries of its pages. Irving’s stories may not have been real, but his name is real enough, which for me has taken on the semblance of a ghost.

As for you, I hope you too get a chance to read this book, and to visit the Alhambra: “A Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away.”

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Christmastime in Andalusia

Christmastime in Andalusia

 

As the Christmas season approached, and a three-week long holiday loomed ahead, I was faced with a question: go home, or stay here? The prospect of a few weeks in New York excited me; I could see my family, my old friends, and tell them about everything I’d been doing. And there is just something delicious about returning home from a long time abroad. You are bathed in a mysterious, exotic aura, filled with stories, transformed—perhaps only subtly—by new experiences. Or so I’d like to think.

But staying in Spain was equally attractive, though for different reasons. I could travel, go someplace warm, see some beautiful sights when most of the other tourists would be away. And, besides, I only just got here; barely three months went by between my arrival and Christmas break. Finally there was the issue of airfare across the Atlantic, which is no inconsiderable thing.

Well, when I looked up the cost of flights, and when I then looked up the temperature in Málaga, there was hardly a decision to be made: pay $700 to go to wintry New York, or 30€ to go to sunny Andalusia. So on December 23, I was up late packing for a weeklong trip. (Packing doesn’t take me a long time, though, since I just throw some clothes in a suitcase and hope for the best.) This year, for the first time in our lives, my girlfriend and I weren’t celebrating Christmas with our families. We would spend Christmastime in Andalusia.

 

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The Voyage

On December 24—or Noche Buena (“Good Night”) as the Spanish call it—at an egregious hour in the morning, we met up with a couple of guys, roughly our age, that we’d contacted through Blablacar to make the drive down to Jerez de la Frontera.

They were both extremely nice, agreeable fellows; but I’m afraid they had Andalusian accents and I found them unusually difficult to understand. For those of you who don’t know, the people of Andalusia have something of a reputation for their way of speaking Spanish. For one, they speak in this rapid staccato, and seem to speak with their voice in their throat. It always seems to me like they’re mumbling, even when they’re talking quite loudly. What’s more, they drop the terminal “s” from every word: tres becomes tre, and gracias becomes gracia. This applies to names, too: Jerez is Jere here, and Cádiz, if you can believe it, is Cai (two syllables).

Thus conversation was, unfortunately, pretty stale. One of the guys, the driver, was an engineer, and the other was a cook in a gourmet restaurant. I could understand just enough of his talking to realize that he was mainly describing elaborate, fusion meals that he and his coworkers prepare—Japonese/Caribbean combinations and things of this nature. He obviously loved his job, and spoke of cooking with an enviable enthusiasm. But I’m afraid my command of Spanish cooking vocabulary extends only to the most basic of ingredients, and apart from that I was lost.

So I slept; and my girlfriend slept; and we woke up and then fell asleep again. The countryside around us, normally so flat and treeless that you can see for miles, was shrouded in a mysterious and impenetrable wall of fog. Apparently, morning in the south of Spain are typically foggy, which I find odd considering how absolutely, positively sunny and cloudless are the days.

We were on the same road that we took to Seville; so even though I couldn’t see much, memories flew by the window instead. There are castles, mainly in ruins, dotting the countryside; we must have passed five or six. It’s sort of incredible hearing the nonchalance in a Spaniard’s voice when they point out the window and say: “otro castillo.” Even more charming were the great, big, black silhouettes of bulls, which stood here and there, sometimes next to the highway, and sometimes on a hillside beyond. These big bull signs were, I believe, originally set up as advertisements; now they’ve become something of a symbol for Spain, and you can find them on book jackets and postcards.

Another charming feature of the landscape is the livestock. In what look like wild, unoccupied fields you can see cows grazing, sheep huddling in herds, and horses bathing their shiny coats in the sun. No human can be seen watching over them; not a fence is in sight—except perhaps and old, derelict stone barrier that looks short enough to hop over. The Spanish countryside has a kind of rugged, rural, pastoral charm that I didn’t expect to find in an industrialized country. Unlike the East Coast of the United States, which is an unbroken urban sprawl, the cities of Spain are widely spaced out, leaving large and rugged stretches of countryside in-between.

Symbols of the old world and the new are, however, strangely and pleasantly intermixed. Probably the best example of this are the wind turbines, gigantic white towers, their blades slowly and meditatively spinning. These can be seen dotted throughout the landscape, in the distance on the horizon, or right up next to the highway. On our first drive we also passed a field of solar panels, glistening like the future itself in the sun. These new technologies served to break the spell of the castles and the wandering livestock, snapping you back to the twenty-first century. But they also showed a wonderful continuity; people still made their living here, and were still doing their best to achieve harmony with their environment.

But the castles and the bulls and the horses and the turbines were nowhere to be seen this morning; just the grey fog, the clouds overhead, and the few feet of road in front of us. I was having trouble staying awake, and still more trouble staying asleep. So I drifted in that unpleasant, cramped, confusing, groggy twilight between consciousness and unconsciousness, my neck hurting, my knees in pain, my eyelids feeling as though a gigantic weight had been placed upon them. Long car rides are not always fun.

Soon we were there. Our driver, very kindly, drove us right up to the door of our Airbnb, and soon we found ourselves in Jerez de la Frontera, blinking in the familiar bright of the Andalusian sun, our bags sitting on the sidewalk, both of us tired and dazed, pressing the buzzer to get in.

 

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Jerez de la Frontera

Our hosts were just as kind and friendly and welcoming as our driver had been. One of them, the husband, was a professor of Spanish and French from Switzerland; and his wife was a wonderful woman from Peru. They were hospitality incarnate; they gave us a tour of the neighborhood, told us about the bus schedule, provided us information about all the things to do and see in Jerez, and in general answered every question we had. Not only this, but they had the patience of saints with our halting, slow, mistake-ridden Spanish.

Soon we were on the bus, heading towards town. We arrived at 3:30 in Jerez de la Frontera, on Christmas Eve. The restaurants were jam-packed, the streets filled with so many people eating, drinking, and talking that there weren’t nearly enough chairs, so most people had to stand—not they anybody seemed to care.

With more hope than foresight, we thought we could visit some of the main sights of Jerez. First, we tried the Alcázar, another Moorish castle. It was closed. Then, we tried the cathedral. Closed. After that, we walked to a bodega (winery), to taste some famous sherry. (Did you know that sherry is named after Jerez? I didn’t.) This was closed, too. It was Christmastime in Andalusia, and the only places open were the restaurants.

So we walked around, somewhat aimlessly, feeling lost and out of place. What were we doing here? This was the holidays, a time for family, and here we were, just the two of us, alone in a strange city with nothing to do. After two hours of wandering, we decided we might as well eat, and sat down at the first restaurant we could find.

Two tables over, an entire extended family seemed to be gathered. And all of them were playing flamenco. Three boys were strumming on guitars, others were stomping and clapping, and they were singing in unison, the women an octave higher than the men. It wasn’t professional by any means, but it was fun and exciting. Really, it’s hard for me to describe how romantic the day suddenly became as we sat outside in unbeatable weather, listening to people play flamenco—not because they were being paid, but to celebrate the holidays. One guy in particular, who was wearing a suit, sunglasses, and a scarf, was a particularly good singer, his tenor voice strong and dramatic.

We sat at that restaurant as long as we could before they kicked us out—which was at about 5 o’clock. Then, instead of taking the bus, we walked all the way home. We both felt good, but a little lost; we spoke with our families through Skype, but this only served to remind us of what we were missing. Loneliness is easy to forget during the days, when surrounded by crowds, overhearing small-talk, exchanging pleasantries with waiters. But as the sun goes down and the shops begin to close and the people retreat indoors to be with their brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, you cannot forget that you are not at home; that on another side of the globe, your own family is celebrating without you; and that instead of being surrounded by familiar faces, you are surrounded by faces entirely new, and even strange.

And with these thoughts, I went to sleep, happy at least for the nice weather to have my girlfriend with me. As so many cheesy song lyrics remind us, it’s a lot easier to be lonely with someone else.

Christmas morning. We got out of bed and went downstairs. Sadly, there weren’t any presents waiting for us, not even a tree; but there was breakfast. It was simple and delicious: bread, yogurt, fresh fruit, and Serrano ham. Even though they had eaten several hours before, our goodly hosts sat at the table with us just to talk. As I sat there, I realized how odd it was to be staying at the house of a stranger—or, at least, someone we’d just met—during Christmas. It felt somehow intrusive and indecent. But then I realized that our hosts were immigrants, too, and all their family was elsewhere as well. This made me feel a bit more at home.

We were off to town again, though we hardly knew what for. Just like yesterday, everything was closed; and today, not even the restaurants were busy. So this time, we didn’t even try to see anything. We sat down at a restaurant, ordered some food, and relaxed. I must admit, though, that I was getting a bit cranky by this point. Not only had I missed Christmas, but for what? So far, we hadn’t done anything on this trip; it seems I had made the wrong choice.

I calmed down a bit after I pulled out my Kindle to read. Sometimes, I wonder if a psychologist would say I’m addicted to reading. I do it obsessively, and I get testy when it’s been too long since I’ve read. Also, I’ve built up a tolerance, allowing me to read more difficult stuff for longer periods of time. Is this an addiction? Well, hopefully it’s not bad for me; though perhaps being dependent on anything, even books, is undesirable. The downside, of course, is that I get ruffled when I don’t have time to read; but the plus side is that I have an easy way to calm down and to regain composure. But is this what alcoholics tell themselves?

I read, and the day passed. There is something strangely intoxicating about sitting in a café in Andalusia. I don’t know quite what it is. A big part is just the weather. The sun is so bright it’s almost hypnotic. Do the residents here get used to it? The intense light is just so constantly present; it transforms everything, making colors brighter, laughter louder, people friendlier.

Then again, the people really are friendlier in Andalusia, or at least they seem to be. Here the social instinct of the Spanish is expressed most fully. In New York, there are crowds, of course; but the crowds are always crowds of individuals thrown together more or less by accident. But the Andalusians, they congregate purposefully, joyfully, taking pleasure just in the feeling of togetherness and camaraderie and excitement that good crowds generate.

Even though you aren’t really talking with anyone, the general sociability of your environment makes you feel at home. You feel like you’re a part of something, like you could strike up a conversation with anyone around you and they would happily reply. Well, that’s the impression at least; I’m not sure if it’s actually true. Our Spanish is still shaky enough to make us abnormally shy, especially around Andalusians. But just feeling so welcome, as if we’re part of a community, adds to the pleasure of the place.

What else about the cafés? The food is probably the least exiting part. We typically sit wherever we find a decent menú del día—the cheap and plentiful lunch specials of Spanish restaurants. This food is usually good, but not great. And I quickly exceed the one drink that’s included in the menú, but the drinks are cheap here.

The day wore on, and nothing much happened. I was reading an essay by David Foster Wallace; he was describing his time playing tennis as an adolescent—a topic that holds very little interest for me, seeing that I don’t even know enough about tennis to understand how it’s scored. The pomo stylistic devices weren’t helping either. But I hadn’t much else to do. My girlfriend and I had been spending so much time together that we normally don’t have a lot to say to one another; and besides, I was still a bit cranky, so I didn’t think I’d make good conversation.

I looked around the square; there wasn’t much to see. A cone-shaped, plastic Christmas light sat in the center. Beside that was a civic statue of someone riding a horse, surrounded by fountains and flowers. Palm trees were lightly swaying in the breeze. At another table, an elderly British woman was yelling at her dog every time it barked; but the dog didn’t seem to care, and kept on barking at every passerby. Behind me, some kids were riding around on a toy car ride that played cheesy music as it went by. Later, another group of kids were amusing themselves by exploding firecrackers in the middle of the plaza. These firecrackers were astoundingly loud, sounding like gunshots. I nearly jumped out of my seat the first time one went off. I’m still surprised that the kids’ parents, who were sitting nearby, didn’t mind their six and seven-year-olds playing with such powerful explosives. American parents would sooner let their kids eat gluten and get vaccinated.

We sat there for four solid hours, until the sun began to set behind the restaurant, casting the square in shadow. Without the sun, I began to feel colder and more lonely. So we left. The walk back took us through several strip malls, all completely vacant. Although the sun was still out, we could see the moon. It was full, and seemed much bigger and closer than usual. Behind us, the sun was setting, turning the sky a bright, storybook pink and orange. By the time we reached the house, all was dark.

Everything was closed, even the supermarkets. What would we eat? Our hosts came to the rescue. In their freezer, they had cooked, seasoned pork chops ready to heat up, along with rice, potatoes, and salad. It was fantastic. We sat around the table, talking some more—the kind of supremely pleasant small-talk that is both interesting and easygoing, the kind that engages the mind enough to keep your attention but not so much to get you flustered.

We ate; we slept. The next day we were going to Cádiz. But here I will break the chronology, so that I may write about all of our time in Jerez at once. So allow me to skip to the morning of December 27, our only day in Jerez when everything was open.

Our first stop was the Alcázar of Jerez. Yes, Jerez has an alcázar, too. This alcázar is located right in the center of town, surrounded on all sides by a pretty courtyard filled with orange trees. But today, this courtyard was also filled with people. The locals were holding a market around the old pile of stones—a flea market, more precisely. Tables and tables were filled with all sorts of delightful rubbish, old plastic toys, dusty books with broken spines, varieties of colorful knickknacks, tiny statuettes for nativity scenes, and much else. We wandered through the crowd as we looked for the entrance, passing around the entire building before we finally found it.

We went inside. The Alcázar of Jerez is much more a fortress than a castle. It is a compound surrounded on all sides by a high wall. I can’t say I found the insides very impressive. Compared with the alcázars in Seville and Córdoba, this one had little to offer. Though there was a garden inside, it was fairly small; and the walls and floors lacked that delicate, delightful Moorish ornament you can find in Seville. To compensate, there were areas of archeological interest: you could walk into the remains of a Moorish bath, and see the oven and the machinery that the Christian conquerors used to make their pottery. But the best part was just the opportunity to stand on the walls and see the whole city spread out before us. Yet it took us barely an hour to explore everything. Then we went across the plaza to see the cathedral.

Compared with others I’ve seen, the Jerez Cathedral is quite small, though this doesn’t detract from its charm. Stylistically speaking, the cathedral has some interesting features; what I noticed were the gothic flying buttresses combined with neoclassical columns. As usual, I was excited to walk around the building; but this plan was dashed as soon as we walked in the door. The people were having a service.

The whole place was packed, every pew totally filled. At the altar, several white-robed priests were gathered. One of them was speaking through a microphone, his old, tired voice projected throughout the cavernous space. He sighed rather than preached, seeming to exhale the words with minimal emphasis. Meanwhile, his proclamations were punctuated by the cadences of an organ, going from the dominant to the tonic minor chord. This might have been the first time in my life that I’ve heard an organ in a cathedral. The sound was duly impressive. But more interesting were the musical interludes provided by a group of flamenco singers and guitar players. Yes, here in Jerez they even have flamenco in their church services. It sounded absolutely great in that old building, and provided a welcome contrast to the old gentleman’s fatiguing voice.

“You gonna put that in your blog?” asked my girlfriend as we walked out.

“Of course,” I said. “I put everything in my blog.”

This was the end of our time in Jerez; we had to eat lunch, pick up our luggage, and then catch a Blablacar ride to Málaga. But before I tell you about that city, I need to swing back in time to relate our daytrip to Cádiz, which we took on December 26.

 

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Cádiz

As usual, the trip began with a problem. Trying to act with foresight, we bought train tickets the day before. But, as our host told us later that night, the tickets are only good for one day. Ours were expired. So we had to try to convince the train official to change our tickets, and do this with our halting Spanish.

We had an even bigger problem. Although we took a Blablacar to get here, we booked a flight to return to Madrid. But as my girlfriend realized on Christmas Day, we didn’t have our passports. She had forgotten them. (Normally, she keeps my passport, too, because she doesn’t trust me with it.) Could we board the plane with our driver’s licenses? Would that be enough? We needed to check to make sure.

The morning was thus off to a stressful start. We both had that sort of irritable cabin-fever you get when you spend day after day with somebody in a foreign country; every word we exchanged was peevish bickering. Things ran pretty smoothly, though. The man at the ticket office was very nice and understanding; it took him only five minutes to change our tickets. This sort of thing would never happen in New York. Then, we sat down in the waiting room (the next train wasn’t coming for an hour) and tried calling the airline.

“I don’t understand,” my girlfriend said. “It’s not working. I’m just getting this weird message.”

“Try again and lemme listen,” I said. She did, and I held the phone up to my ear. Indeed, there was a message; but it was in such fast Spanish I hardly understood a word.

“I dunno,” I said. “I’ll try with my phone.”

I called the same number, and got the same message.

“I think it’s saying that we need to add money,” I said, after listening closely. “Though I don’t know why. We just recharged our phones.”

“Ugh,” my girlfriend said.

“Wait, let me try calling you,” I said, and dialed her number.

I got the same bloody message.

“What’s going on?” I said. “We can’t make calls with our phones, apparently.”

“Damn passports,” she said. “Can’t believe I forgot them.”

“I guess the only thing we can do is try tonight at our Airbnb,” I said.

So we put the issue to the side, and waited for the train. I passed the time by reading more David Foster Wallace. This next essay was about television and its effect on modern American fiction. It was quite dated, however, as people’s viewing habits have changed dramatically since the mid-nineties. But it passed the time.

Soon the train came and we were off. The ride was gorgeous. We seemed to be going through wetlands; on either side, we could see fields half-flooded with water, with irrigation ditches dug through them in a grid-shaped pattern. What were they growing there? Outside the window I could see the aquamarine blue of the ocean, sparkling in the sunlight. (Okay, I have to shamefully admit that I was under the illusion that Cádiz was on the Mediterranean. It’s on the Atlantic Ocean. I’m an American doofus.) I was somehow reminded of Key West, even though I’ve never been there.

We arrived. My first impression—and impression that gained in force throughout my stay—was that Cádiz was painfully pretty. This description is almost literal, as every new sight made my stomach twist a little more. The old city center sits on a peninsula, jutting out into the ocean. The narrow streets, lined with white, pink, yellow, and skyblue buildings, lead you through the interior; and every few blocks you come across a little plaza, with sidewalks tiled in black and white, and tropical trees I can’t hope to name. Eventually you’ll reach the water, lightly lapping the shoreline, which is so bright and blue it looks like its been dyed. In places, a wall separates the sidewalk from the shore. Perhaps it was originally for defense, or perhaps it’s just a levee.

We got to the periphery and strolled. The scene was so intensely pretty that it made me felt simultaneously ecstatic and relaxed. My girlfriend had a list of things to see and do here, but now we couldn’t believe anything could be better than the city itself. We passed a church painted with pastel pink, built in a colonial style, and kept going.

Eventually we reached a park, El Parque Genovés. A long promenade cut through the center, each side lined with ferns shaped into spirals and cylinders. Big, twisting, knotty trees, covered in rubbery broad leaves, jutted from the ground, their trunks exploding in multiple directions; one tree’s trunk was even horizontal enough to sit on like a bench. At the end of the walkway was a little pond with plastic dinosaurs playing inside. Trees even more bizarre bid us farewell as we left—one with a bulbous, almost cucumber-like trunk; and another that looked like it’d been turned upside-down, with its roots in the air.

We turned another corner, and now the prettiness became actually painful. Directly before us was a bay, filled with little white row-boats, floating idly in the calm, sparkling waters. To our left was what looked like an old fortress, a squat, square structure built of tan stones, standing over the water. And to our right was the beach, nearly empty. A domed, winged white building stood on platforms on the sand, perhaps some old aristocratic beach resort. The scraggly heads of palm trees dotted the shoreline, and a boardwalk extended into the ocean beyond. Really, my scribblings can’t do it justice; it couldn’t have looked more perfect. .

I couldn’t pull myself away; so we sat in the nearest café, and decided to have lunch. As luck would have it, we made a good choice, for the service was attentive and the food delicious. I sipped a glass of sherry as I attempted to burn the view into my memory. The white boats and buildings, the yellow-brown sand and tiled walkway, the ocean breeze and the slightly sweet taste of sherry—I was enamored and intoxicated. It was one of those views that look immediately familiar because they are so classically picturesque.

(This beach is called La Caleta, by the way, and I’m not the only one who’s fallen in love with it. According to Wikipedia, it has inspired musicians and poets. But probably the reason it looked so familiar was because I actually had seen it before; it’s featured in the James Bond movie, Die Another Day—though in that film, the scene is set in Cuba.)

An hour later and we were on the move again. We went straight for the beach, stumbling over the sand in a kind of bewildered, euphoric daze. Only a few other people were there, most of them sitting on the sand and looked out towards the ocean. At the end of the beach was a boardwalk, leading towards a big structure sticking out into the water: the Castillo de San Sebastián.

“Oh, this was on my list,” my girlfriend said. “It’s a castle or something.”

“Let’s go,” I said.

Beside the walkway, a man was building an elaborate sand castle. I can only imagine how many formless sand piles he must have created before this masterful miniature gothic cathedral. But impressive as it was, we had a real castle to see.

We started making our way across the platform to the castle. The stone walkway was narrow, only wide enough for two people abreast, but it stretched several hundred feet into the ocean. By now it was getting windy and overcast; the waves were no longer gentle, but angry. They splashed against the platform, spraying foam onto the walkway and covering my glasses in salty droplets. The wind whipped up every few seconds, turning our clothes into balloons and making our hair dance wildly—and occasionally blinding my girlfriend with her own locks.

The further out we crept, the more of Cádiz we could see behind us. The city was no longer the pretty jewel it had been one moment ago, but a bold bulwark against the brooding power of the sea. And standing there, looking back at the maritime city and the sea, I believe I got an inkling, only the faintest, of how brave and reckless sailors must have been to set off for a voyage across a seemingly limitless ocean, into seas and lands unmapped, powered only by the wind and the waves. Those guys had guts. I can hardly find my way around my own city without using a GPS.

We reached the castle. It was in a dilapidated state, consisting mainly of ruins and rubble. There was a small research facility for ocean life, but the exhibition fit into a single room and didn’t much interest me. I can’t say I was very impressed by the castle, either, which was mostly a collection of stone walls. But the view from the tip of the island was splendid, allowing you to see the whole coast of Cádiz and far beyond. Yet it was really the ocean that captivated me. The sound of crashing waves, the smell of salt, and the feeling of the cool breeze chilling you to the bone.

By the time we decided to walk back, I was in that dreamy, intoxicated state that overcomes me when I spend too long looking at something beautiful. But this time it was something more than beauty. As I walked back, buffeted by the wind, splashed by the waves, I felt my identity being washed away, too. It was the same feeling that always comes upon me when I gaze at the ocean: that I was melting into the environment, my identity blending with everything around me. It’s probably the closest I come to mystical experiences.

We still had much to see. Our next stop was the cathedral. It wasn’t very far off. Its tall form towered over a row of apartment buildings. These buildings were painted in pretty pastel colors; and the view of the marble cathedral looming above these made that feeling of painful prettiness return. Our road ran right along the sea; and to my right, separating the sidewalk from the ocean, was a pile of giant, perfectly cubic stones. I suppose they had been formed by pouring concrete into a mold. But why not just use natural stones? Don’t know, but it is amusing that one of them is painted to look like a die.

We reached the cathedral and went inside. This was far from gothic; everything was smooth lines, rounded forms, and clean white marble. This was neoclassical, elegant and symmetrical. According to the audioguide, this cathedral was built when Cádiz began to profit enormously from Spain’s trade with her colonies in America. Thus this grand edifice resulted. Though similar in scale, the feeling evoked by this architectural style is so different from the gothic cathedrals I’ve walked through.

Toledo, for example, is unearthly, dark, brooding, otherwordly; its purpose—a purpose inscribed in every square inch—is not to celebrate the congregation, but to give them just a taste of the divine majesty and wrath above. This cathedral, by contrast, looked more like a celebration of human reason than divine might. Its even proportions, its emphasis on balance, its ghostly white marble columns, all this reminds one more of a mathematical problem made manifest rather than a vengeful deity who sits in judgment.

If you visit this cathedral, make sure to go to the crypt in the basement. There isn’t much to see, but the central chamber has really astounding acoustics. Stand in the right place, and even a whisper will be magnified into an omnipresent hiss. And the sounds of your footsteps bounce from the roof to the floor like a rubber bouncy ball sped up fifty times. Its quite impressive.

Next stop was the Torre Tavira, an old tower from the city’s golden age of trade. At first I thought it was a scam—pay a few to climb a lot of stairs. But it turned out to be perhaps the best thing we did in Cádiz. First, the view from the top is probably the most impressive in the city; it’s magnificent. I texted a picture to my mom, who responded: “Now you’re making me jealous.” But the experience got even better when we were led by the guide to the camara obscura. This is a very old and very simple device, consisting of a darkened box or chamber with a small opening for light; an image, upside down but otherwise accurate, is produced on the inside by use of a mirror.

Our tour guide led us into the room, had us encircle a disc-shaped surface, and dimmed the lights. Then, she asked if anybody needed her to speak in English—but my girlfriend and I bravely decided we’d listen to everything in Spanish. The show began. Light poured in through the roof, created a perfect image of the city on the surface. It was magnified quite a bit; and by turning the mirror overhead, the guide could focus on different areas. It wasn’t terribly informative, just the names of notable places and a short description; but it was a strange and very cool way to see the city.

The show ended and we went downstairs. By now I was exhausted. Being continually astonished really takes a lot out of you; I didn’t have the energy to gape at anything else. Besides, it was getting dark by now, and we had to get back to Jerez to sleep. So we pulled ourselves away from this city, walked to the train, and returned to our Airbnb. Please, if you get the chance, visit Cádiz. It’s a jewel.

But we still had business to attend to: our flights. As soon as we got back, we asked our hosts if they could help us call our airline. With their usual helpfulness, they accepted; after a short call in Spanish that I didn’t much understand, he informed us that our drivers licenses would work.

“No problem, they said. As long as it’s a legal document.”

“Great!”

We were relieved and exhilarated. But this isn’t the end of this story.

 

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Nerja

Our next Airbnb was in Málaga. Our Blablacar driver for the ride was another nice fellow. His accent, however, was absolutely incomprehensible to us. He spoke like a jackhammer, and made about as much sense. I’ve heard from people here in Madrid (who are obviously biased) that the people of Cádiz have the worst accents in Andalusia; some Spaniards even tell me that they have trouble understanding the people down there. It really was like another language to us.

At least we could understand the radio, since it was in English. Apparently tons of people from England live in and around Málaga, so the place is practically bilingual. Radio stations, advertisements, store names—English is all over the place.

Before our trip, a friend of ours had told us that the province of Málaga is his absolute favorite, so we decided to spend two of our three days there taking day trips to other cities in the area. The first of these was Nerja.

Nerja is a short bus-ride from Málaga. The bus station is at Vialia, which I think is the central transportation hub in the city, for both buses and trains. We tried to get up early to go, but we were both feeling so tired and lazy that we didn’t end up getting to the bus station until 11 o’clock in the morning.

By the time we arrived at the station, I was an irritated, useless wreck. We had only bought breadsticks for breakfast; and when I don’t eat a good breakfast, I get cranky and childish; I get so frustrated and lightheaded that I can’t do anything. Add to this the thirty-minute walk from our Airbnb, and it makes for one very cranky me. I snapped at everything my girlfriend said, couldn’t pay attention long enough to locate our proper bus, and in general whined like a baby while my girlfriend was forced to do everything. Lucky for me, she did find the bus (while I was busy buying a sandwich) and soon we were on our way to Nerja.

Nerja is a coastal town on the Mediterranean. It’s mainly a tourist town now, so far as I can tell. Judging from what I overheard, almost every other person was from England or from Germany. Young, old, fat, skinny, well and poorly dressed, every species of tourist was present.

And for good reason. The place is beautiful. After walking through the town from the bus stop, my girlfriend and I suddenly found ourselves standing in a plaza filled with restaurants and people, which sat on a big rock overlooking the sea. The view was incredible. In front was the Mediterranean, a bright aquamarine; and flanking the plaza, far below, were small beaches. Foamy waves washed the sand where kids were playing in the water. Over these beaches, white houses and hotels clung to the cliffs, every window open to the ocean breeze. It could not have looked more like a tropical paradise.

We climbed down some stairs from the plaza to the beach. It wasn’t very big, actually, since steep cliffs hemmed in the sand on either side. But it certainly was pretty. Whole families were sunning themselves on the sand; brightly colored canoes were sitting near a little hut; and a father was playing with his daughters in the gentle waves. Neither of us were wearing swimsuits, though, so we could do little more than enjoy the scene—not that this wasn’t rewarding enough.

After we got our fill of staring, we climbed the stairs again and ate. We had only one thing more to see in Nerja: the caves. The Caves of Nerja were discovered as recently as 1959; since then they have become a major tourist attraction. The only reason I knew about them was because our previous hosts, in Jerez, recommended them. Unfortunately for us, the caves aren’t in the town center; they’re about an hour away by foot. And since we didn’t really know any other way to make the journey, and since the weather was nearly perfect, we decided we would take this hour, and walk.

A lot of this journey was, unsurprisingly, pretty dull; though there were some neat things to see along the way. We passed restaurants, houses, farmlands, bridges, with the Mediterranean constantly on our right. Eventually we came to the Aqueduct of Nerja, which looks like a Roman Aqueduct, more or less, but was actually built in the 1800s for the industrial revolution. It’s a fine piece of architecture, with four rows of arches built of red brick. And apparently it’s still in use. We eventually arrived at the caves, both of us quite tired, paid the entrance fee, and descended into the bowels of the earth.

The first chamber was about the size of my living room. This was roughly what I expected, so I wasn’t disappointed. The next was slightly bigger, though not terribly interesting. Then we walked into one of the big chambers.

It was stunning. I had no idea these caves were so huge. Standing at the bottom of one of the big chambers was like standing in a basilica looking up at the roof. The walls and floors, the stalactites and stalagmites (I forget which one is which), had that peculiar melted look, as if the rock of the cave was chocolate left out too long in the sun. How many years of water drip, drip, dripping must it have taken for these bubbling, flowing textures to have arisen in solid stone? You can’t wrap your mind around it.

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And the caves kept going, every chamber more impressive than the next. In the last and biggest there was a tremendous pillar, extending from the floor to the ceiling like a column in a cathedral. Indeed, the elaborate patterns in the rock reminded me very much of gothic ornamentation. And as I looked around the space, I couldn’t help thinking that this was nature’s response to humanity’s attempts at grandeur. Unconscious, undirected forces of the earth conspired to create this place, a place that makes our concentrated labor, the product of intelligence and persistence, seem almost pathetic.

I also thought about the early humans, thousands of years ago, who must have taken refuge in caves similar to this one—perhaps this very cave—seeking protection from the cold and the predators. What were their thoughts as they sat here in the darkness? What did they talk about? How did they pass the idle hours? What did they ask from life? What were their dreams? And did this place, so grand and so inhumanly vast, excite the first mystical yearnings in our ancestors? We cannot know; but standing there, it seems easier to guess.

After an hour, we were blinking in the daylight. Tired and thirsty, we still had the long walk back from the caves to the city center, to catch the bus back to Málaga. So we bought bottles of water and set out, too tired to talk even if we had anything to say. The clouds closed in, evening fell, and the sun was setting in the distance when we reached the station, bright pink and lovely. Both of us fell asleep almost immediately after we sat down. We had to rest: we had another trip the next day.

 

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Ronda

I am in no position to say this, but I suspect that the drive from Málaga to Ronda is one of the pleasantest in Spain. The countryside is exquisitely rustic, with sun-baked fields and tiny towns full of white houses. We took a Blablacar with a nice young woman, on her way to her pueblo nearby. By the way, it seems to be a common thing for Spaniards, young and old, to refer to their birthplace as “my pueblo.” I gather that most young people leave to go to school and find jobs; but family ties remain strong, and weekend trips to visit parents and relatives are ubiquitous.

We were dropped off in the center of town, and began making our way to the only landmark we knew: the bridge. There are actually three bridges in Ronda, but the most iconic and by far the largest is the Puente Nuevo, or “new bridge.” It’s eye-poppingly massive, a stone structure standing almost 400 feet above the river. I’d seen pictures of it and wondered if the reality would measure up.

The reality surpassed the photos. It looks like something from a movie, made using small-scale models or CGI. How on earth was it built? What mad giants put this together? It seems impossible; and according to Wikipedia, it almost was. It took over 40 years from start to finish, and fifty workers died in the process. They must have been paying very well to entice people to work in such dangerous, daunting conditions. Even so, for all our love of the heroic individual, the Puente Nuevo is a brilliant testament to what ordinary people can do when we work alongside one another. Mountains can be moved one pebble at a time.

We paid the entrance fee to walk down into the bridge itself. Inside was a small room filled with TV monitors, displaying information. None of this particular caught my attention, however, so in just five minutes we went back up. A word to the wise: this is a waste of money; don’t bother entering the bridge.

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After we had taken our fill of photos, we began to walk around the promenade overlooking the cliff. The view of the countryside was, if possible, even lovelier than the bridge itself. A vast green field was divided into neat patches, some brown, some with rows of bushy plants; here and there was a farm, looking like doll houses from so faraway; beyond was a patch of forest, which led to the sierra in the distance, the morning fog still sitting on the peaks. On a dirt road a pickup truck was making its way to who-knows-where, throwing up a tiny cloud of dust. To our left we could see a path leading down from the other side of town into the gorge.

It looked like too much fun to resist. We crossed the bridge, found the path, and soon were carefully edging our way down. The path forked several times, and each time we chose the one that led towards the bridge. At times it was quite steep and slippery, so we proceeded slowly for fear of falling. We were getting close to the bridge now; it loomed overhead like a NYC skyscraper; the white noise of the small waterfall below was now clearly audible. After walking down a hazardous rock path, made slippery by a small trickle of water, we came upon a little shack. It was visibly run-down, obviously hadn’t been used in years. A narrow concrete path, barely a foot wide, led to it; on our left was a pool of water, and on our right a steep drop that would seriously hurt. I figured if I felt my balance slipping, I’d rather get soaked then killed. But our balance didn’t fail, and we made it to the shack.

It wasn’t terribly interesting. The inside was full of old leaves, beer cans, and other garbage. On the walls was spraypainted the ominous message “It’s easy to descend into hell,” which I took to mean the square hole in the floor.

“Wanna go down there?” I asked my girlfriend.

“No way.”

“Good idea.”

We turned around and began again to approach to the bridge. In fact, the path went right under it. A staircase that bounced too much to inspire confidence led down to a concrete pathway with a wobbly iron railing that went straight through to the other side. We passed underneath, and then under some impressively huge boulders sitting at the base of the bridge. Both of us were in stunned silence that we were allowed down here; this would never be permitted in the U.S., where I bet we would be instantly shot as terror suspects.

This impression of trespassing was reinforced after we found ourselves in a small working area. There was a concrete hut, empty on the inside, with plants growing on the roof; clearly it hadn’t been used in years. Nearby were all sorts of metal devices—a trough, a wheel used to raise and lower a barrier, and other things I didn’t understand—laying apparently unused and rusted. The place had that sort of eerie, post-apocalyptic feel that all abandoned places have; and this contrasted most strongly with the running water, the vast cliffs extending overhead, and the bright sun.

Still, we didn’t linger long; I think both of us were silently scared of getting arrested. After our fill of pictures, we started trekking back up. The steep ascent didn’t feel good on my knees, I can tell you.

By now we had had our fill of the bridge. I knew of only one other thing to see in Ronda: the Plaza de Toros, or bull ring. Apparently, it’s the oldest extant bull ring in Spain, and thus in the world one would think. It’s not used for bullfights anymore, however; now it’s a museum. The price was a bit steep for what was inside, but we decided to go ahead and enter anyway.

I’d never seen a bullring before, so I had nothing to compare it with. But it was quite pretty. Two rows of seats surrounded a circular area, filled with sand. A wooden barrier separated this space from the first row of seats. The barrier wasn’t quite tall enough for my taste, though. It was easy for me to imagine a big, angry bull leaping over the wall and plopping down into the audience. I was also surprised that the ring itself wasn’t bigger. It wasn’t small, by any means; but from what I know of bullfighting, there are several men on foot and on horseback during a fight, besides the big bull. I stood in the center and tried to imagine what it would feel like, how absolutely terrified I would be if I was facing a bull, only armed with a cape and a little sword. I have no idea how they do it; I suppose I’ll just have to watch one.

On the inside of the ring is a little museum. It’s a bit shabby looking, but it had a lot of interesting information in it about the history of bullfighting and of other violent European pursuits, such as dueling and hunting. Most memorable for me were several pairs of ornate dueling pistols, in lush velvet cases, alongside plaques that explained which famous persons had used these weapons on one another. The fact that people actually did this sort of thing—that it isn’t just some conceit made up by Hollywood—I find deeply impressive. I can’t imagine any situation in which I would let somebody fire a loaded pistol at me purely for the sake of honor. As the honorable Falstaff said:

Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honour”? Air.

I can’t help feeling that bullfighters would disagree. I’m sure Hemingway would. But I’m no Hemingway, in so many ways.

Speaking of Hemingway, after we spent enough time in the museum to get our money’s worth—staring at the rifles and pistols, the elaborate costumes for men and horses on display, and perusing the old bullfighting posters advertising bygone shows—we made our way to the gift shop, where I found a copy of his Death in the Afternoon. I couldn’t help myself.

Our remaining time we spent strolling around the city. There were Moorish baths, but we’d seen some at the Alcázar in Jerez; the only other site I knew was the so-called Puente Roman, or “Roman Bridge.” Apparently, this is a misnomer since the bridge was built by the Moors. It spans the same river as the Puente Nuevo, though it’s much smaller. Still, considering how much older the bridge is, I still found it impressive; and the view of the countryside beyond, though not nearly so spectacular, is quite pleasant.

We kept strolling, making our way up narrow streets paved with stones, back towards the train station to meet our ride back. My shoes—cheap sneakers with obnoxious neon green laces—have thin soles, so I could feel every stone sticking out from the pavement. Our footsteps made that distinctive thud footsteps make in quiet, narrow, stone-paved Spanish streets.

Eventually we reached the main road, got to the station, and were again driving through the Spanish countryside. We had only one day left before our trip was over. This one was for Málaga.

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Málaga

We had a full day of sightseeing ahead of us in Málaga, but we had business to attend to first: our flights. We decided that, even though we had already called our airline, we would go to the airport to ask in person.

The Málaga Airport is only twenty minutes away from the city center on the Cercanías; we were there in no time. We walked up an escalator and into a big building filled with people queuing behind one another dragging big bags and looking generally miserable. Walking through an airport, even a relatively uncrowded airport, tends to give me an uncomfortably Orwellian feeling. Perhaps it’s the lines and the security, or the heavy emphasis on procedure and regulations; or maybe it’s just the sour and anxious looks on everyone’s faces.

I felt sour, too, because I had to spend a part of my day in Málaga dealing with a silly mistake. But on we went, past the long lines for airport security and check-in, finally finding the help desk for Iberia.

“Hello,” we said to the woman (in Spanish). “We have a question. Our flight to Madrid is tomorrow, but we don’t have our passports. Are our driver’s licenses okay?”

“Uh, I don’t think so…” the woman said. “I’m not sure, but I believe you need your passports. Can you have them mailed?”

“No, our flight’s tomorrow.”

“Ah.”

“We have pictures of our passports.”

“Ah.

“Is that enough?”

“I’m not sure… but I don’t think so.”

“How can we make sure?”

“You have to ask the check-in supervisor. He should be over there,” she said, pointing to an empty desk. “I don’t know when he’s coming back.”

“Thanks,” we said, and went to some empty chairs to wait. Ten minutes went by, then twenty; no supervisor guy. I was feeling progressively worse and worse, partly because I was just hungry, and partially because this seemed like a completely pointless waste of time. My girlfriend wasn’t feeling much better.

“Ugh,” she said. “I can’t believe I forgot those passports.”

“This is stupid,” I said.

“Where is that guy?”

“Stupid Spanish airline.”

That’s a fair sample of our conversation.

Thirty minutes went by, and the supervisor didn’t appear.

“How about this,” I said. “Just get a refund or some credit from the help desk, and we’ll take a Blablacar back tomorrow. I don’t want to take any chances with this.”

“Fine.”

We walked to the helpdesk.

“Hello? We’d like to cancel our flight for tomorrow.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. You’ll have to do it online or call this number.”

“But our phones aren’t working.”

She shrugged.

We walked away, getting more frustrated by the second.

“Oh wait,” my girlfriend said. “I can just use my American phone to call. I think that one’s working.”

She pulled out her American phone and made the call. Soon she was connected with somebody from Iberia, and this person spoke English.

I overheard one side of the conversation.

“Hello, I need to ask, can we get on a flight with our driver’s licenses. No? Okay then I’d like to cancel the flight. Our reservation code is XXXXXX. Can we get a refund? No? Okay, can we get credits with Iberia? No? Really? Oh, I see. I see. Okay. Okay, thanks. Okay, goodbye.”

We were screwed. We couldn’t fly, and we couldn’t get any sort of refund. My girlfriend, who paid for the flight tickets, would lose her money. A deep pit opened in my stomach, the kind of gnawing hopelessness that only modern bureaucracy can produce. It’s the same horrible feeling I get when I’m filling out an application for something important, a job or a school, and can’t stop my paranoid daydreams about forgetting one crucial field of information, misplacing one comma in my essay, sending the application one day too late.

But lucky for us, the flights were pretty cheap, so not much money was lost. It could have been a whole lot worse. Still, my girlfriend was pretty upset about it, and I wasn’t in the mood to be comforting. So we rode back to the city in sullen silence, her beating herself up, me fantasizing about eating pizza, after wasting two hours and 80€ on a flight. Thus began our day in Málaga.

We ate quickly in a shawarma place, and soon we headed to our first stop: the Alcazaba. This is a citadel in the center of the city from the time of the Moors. It stands on a hill overlooking the surrounding streets, a collection of tan walls and towers. We paid the small fee and went inside. Most of the walking was uphill, which didn’t make the doner kebab in my stomach sit any easier. The place was attractive for its gardens and its promenades rather than its architecture. Absent was that superfluity of ornament that one finds in the best Moorish architecture. The place seemed like it had been gutted, its walls the only remaining husk.

Still, it was a pleasant hour spent wandering around its walls and gardens, enjoying the ubiquitous Andalusian fountains and streams that flowed all over the place. These tiny aqueducts, carrying water down stairwells, across walkways, and into fountains, might be the most distinctive sign of Andalusia. Although I don’t know this for sure, I suspect that these comes from the Moorish legacy; water has a special significance in Islam, I believe. Regardless of creed, running water gives everything the touch of paradise, especially in a climate this hot and dry.

Below the Alcazaba is a Roman Amphitheater. You can walk inside and sit on the top steps for free. By now, tired, frustrated, and my stomach now in full-blown rebellion from the greasy food, it felt magnificent just to sit down for a few minutes. Immediately below us were the ruins of where the stage had been. Beyond was the modern sidewalk, where a street performer was singing and playing guitar. He was playing John Mayer, if memory serves.

To me this moment is something of a symbol for travel in Spain. This odd juxtaposition of ancient and new, of noble and tacky, of timeless and transitory, is what characterized all trips to historical places. The architecture is lovely, yet the constant crush of tourists with selfie-sticks and the peddlers with their overpriced baubles insistently shock one back to the present day.

Daylight was already waning, but there was something more I wanted to see: the Castillo de Gilbralfaro. This castle stands on the same hill as does the Alcazaba, but much higher up. To get to it, we had to go up one slanting road after another, which zig-zagged its way to the top. It must have taken half an hour to get there, with fairly frequent stops for two unathletic Americans to catch their breath. The views kept getting better, though, so we pressed on, until finally we reached the entrance and walked in.

As the guard informed us, we only had half an hour before the placed closed. We didn’t waste any time. At the first entrance to the castle walls, we climbed up and began walking. The view from up here was unbeatable. We could see for miles and miles, the harbor, the city, and the sierra to the north. The castle walls went all around the perimeter, allowing us to see the view from every direction.

After walking across one wall, entering a tower, and climbing some stairs, we found ourselves standing on the highest point of the fortification, absolutely alone. The whole city stretched out before me; I could see the ships at dock and the massive cranes used to load and unload them; two large freighters were sitting in the water offshore; thousands of white apartment and office buildings spread across the hilly terrain; and green mountains curved into the horizon. From up here, everything looked so precious and so delicate. The town, in particular, looked like a bunch of toys scattered across the landscape.

I know this will sound ridiculous, but as I stood there, my hands resting on the battlement, looking out at the city beyond, I was convinced that I could taste, however slightly, what it must feel like to be a king. Everything below me looked fragile, while I felt suddenly so powerful in my tower. I looked across the city, and tried to recreate the thoughts that would go through an actual king surveying his kingdom. Imagine knowing that each person in each house, each shopkeeper and blacksmith, each landlord and beggar, was subject to your laws and dependent on your protection? This is the kind of power that gets to people’s heads. I was only fantasizing and it got to mine.

I don’t think I’ve done justice to how beautiful the view is from the Castillo de Gilbralfaro, so I’ll just add this: it was by far the most beautiful thing I saw in Málaga. I hope you get a chance to go.

Night was falling. To our right, as we faced the Mediterranean, the sun was setting, turning the sky a vivid orange. We descended slowly, by now completely cured of the stress of the morning, once more under the enchanting aura of Andalusia. The weather was perfect, the sky was cloudless, and everybody around was laughing. And in this state of reverie, we headed for the beach.

By the time we arrived, the sun had sank completely below the horizon, leaving the world in twilight. We walked alongside the water, listening to the soft sound of the waves. It was dark and a bit chilly now, and only a few people were on the beach. Eventually we reached a walkway made of stone leading out into the water. As we began to walk out, we passed by a blind couple making their way back. It seemed bizarre and a bit dangerous for blind people to be walking here, since it was rocky and the main attraction was the view. But I suppose getting closer to the splashing waves and the sea air would be just as rewarding.

We got to the end and sat down on a rock. The last light was just leaving the horizon, painting the western sky purple and the skyline red. The shore, the city, and the harbor were outlined against the sky; the skeletal silhouettes of cranes hung over the water; a lighthouse began flashing its warning. To our right, we could see the two freight ships sitting in the water, now looking like tiny villages with their lights turned on. In the city of Málaga, lights began to flicker on, red and orange and yellow. The wind whipped up, chilling us through our light clothes and sending waves splashing.

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We went back, towards town. We passed the beach and walked along the harbor. A ferris wheel, lit up with blue lights, was spinning in the distance. Dozens and dozens of shacks lined the road, selling fireworks, dolls, toys, knickknacks, incense, candy, and nativity figurines. The sidewalk was crowded with Spaniards; kids were all over the place, some sparring with toy swords, some slumped in sleep in strollers. We reached the avenue with the Christmas lights and turned towards town. A long arch of Christmas lights extended over the packed sidewalk. It might have been the biggest Christmas decoration I’d ever seen. Suns and moons and stars studded the glowing canopy; and although huge, the whole thing seemed tasteful rather than ostentatious. More than anything I saw that vacation, this walkway, crowded with laughing people, awoke in me that wonderful Christmas feeling, the feeling of naïve wonder and excitement, when you remember the magic of childhood when the world was simple and good, and everything was new.

Our trip had come to a close. We were taking a Blablacar back the next day. To celebrate, we ate at El Pimpi, a restaurant and winery that was recommended to us by a previous driver. The service was astonishingly attentive for a Spanish restaurant (I learned later that they charged extra for the service here), the food was excellent, and I drank several pintados, which the waiter explained was half sweet wine and half fino (a particularly dry type of sherry).

In the morning we woke up early, said goodbye to our hosts, and walked to the train station, Vialia, to meet our driver. Five hours later, we were stepping out of the car, into the cold Madrid air. It was New Year’s Eve. That night we celebrated with some friends of ours, ate the customary 12 grapes as the clock counted down, and kissed. I don’t know what kind of year 2016 will be, but I hope it ends half as well as 2015.

Review: Democracy in America

Review: Democracy in America

Democracy in America Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I struggle to penetrate God’s point of view, from which vantage point I try to observe and judge human affairs.

A few months ago, bored at work and with no other obligations to tie me to New York, I decided that I would look into employment in Europe; and now, several months and an irksome visa process later, I am on the verge of setting off to Madrid. Unsurprisingly, I’m very excited to go; but of course leaving one’s home is always bittersweet. This is partly why I picked up Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, as a sort of literary good-bye kiss to this odd, uncouth, chaotic, and fantastic place which has, up until now, molded my character, sustained my body, and contained my thoughts.

This turned out to be an excellent choice, for this book is without a doubt the best book ever written on the United States. I am able to say this, even though I haven’t even read a fraction of the books written on this country, because I simply can’t imagine how anyone could have done it better. As it is, I can hardly believe that Tocqueville could understand so much in the short span of his life; and when I recall that he wrote this book after only 9 months in America, while he was still in his thirties, I am doubly astounded. This seems scarcely human.

Part of the reason for his seemingly miraculous ability is that, with Tocqueville, you find two things conjoined which are normally encountered separately: extremely keen powers of observation, and a forceful analytic mind. With most travel writers, you encounter only the former; and with most political philosophers, only the latter. The product of this combination is a nearly perfect marriage of facts and reasoning, of survey and criticism, the ideas always hovering just above the reality, transforming the apparently senseless fabric of society into a sensible and intelligible whole. Almost everything he sees, he understands; and not only does he understand what he sees, but so often hits upon the why.

Although this book covers an enormous amount of ground—religion, slavery, culture, government, the role of women, just to name a few topics—there is one central question that runs through every subject: What does the appearance of democracy mean for the future of humanity? Tocqueville sees this question as the most pressing and significant one of his time; for, as he perceived, what was happening then in America was destined to inspire Europe and perhaps the whole world to adopt this new form of government, which would forever change the face of society. In short, Tocqueville is seeking to understand America so that he could understand the future; and the plan of the book follows these two goals successively. The first volume, published in 1835, is a thorough analysis of the United States; and the second volume, published in 1840, is a comparison of democracy and aristocracy, an attempt to pinpoint how a switch to a democratic government causes far-reaching changes in the whole culture.

Tocqueville is famously ambivalent about American democracy. He often sounds greatly impressed at what he finds, noting how hardworking and self-reliant are most Americans; and yet so often, particularly in the second volume, Tocqueville sounds gloomy and pessimistic about what the future holds. Much of his analysis is centered on the idea of social equality. He often reminds the reader—and by the way, Tocqueville wrote this for a French audience—that Americans, rich or poor, famous or obscure, will treat everyone as an equal. The entire idea of castes or classes has, in Tocqueville’s opinion, been abolished; and this has had many effects. Most obviously, it gives free reign to American ambition, for anyone can potentially climb from the bottom to the top; thus results the ceaseless activity and endless financial scheming of Americans. And even those who are quite well-off are not spared from this fever of ambition, for the lack of inherited wealth and stable fortunes means that the rich must continually exert effort to maintain their fortunes. (Whether this is true anymore is another story.)

Thus we find a kind of money-obsession, where everyone must constantly keep their minds in their wallets. In America, money is not only real currency, but cultural currency as well, a marker of success; and in this context, the creature comforts of life, which after all only money can buy, are elevated to great importance. Rich food, warm beds, spacious houses—these are praised above the simpler pleasures in life, such as agreeable conversation or pleasant walks on sunny days, as the former require money while the latter are free and available to anyone. The central irony of a classless society is that it forces everyone to focus constantly on their status, as it is always in jeopardy. You can imagine how shocking this must have been for Tocqueville, the son of an aristocratic family. There simply was no class of Americans who had the leisure of retiring from the cares of the world and contemplating the “higher” but less practical things in life. All thought was consumed in activity.

This results in a society of the ordinary individual. In America, there are few “great men” (as Tocqueville would say) but a great many good ones. Americans are self-reliant, but not daring; they are often decent, but never saintly. They will sometimes risk their lives in pursuit of a fortune, but never their fortunes for the sake their lives. An American might temporarily accept hardship if there is a financial reward on the other end; but how many Americans would forsake their fortunes, their comforts, their houses and property, for the sake of an idea, a principle, a dream? Thus a kind of narrow ambition pervades the society, where everyone is hoping to better their lot, but almost nobody is hoping to do something beyond acquiring money and things. One can easily imagine the young Tocqueville, his mind filled with Machiavelli and Montesquieu, meeting American after American with no time or inclination for something as intangible as knowledge.

In the midst of his large-scale cultural analysis, Tocqueville sometimes pauses for a time, putting off the role of philosopher to take up the role of prophet. Tocqueville does get many of his predictions wrong. For example, he did not at all foresee the Civil War—and in fact he thought Americans would never willingly risk their property fighting each other—and instead he thought that there would be a gigantic race war between blacks and whites in the south. But Tocqueville was otherwise quite right about race relations in the slave-owning states. He predicts that slavery could not possibly last, and that it would soon be abolished; and he notes that abolishing slavery will probably be the easiest task in improving the relationship between blacks and whites. For although slavery can be destroyed through legal action, the effects of slavery, the deep-rooted racial prejudice and hatred, cannot so easily be wiped clean. In support of this view, Tocqueville notes how badly treated are free blacks in the northern states, where slavery is banned. Without a place in society, they are shunned and fall into poverty. The persistence of the color line in America is a testament to Tocqueville’s genius and our failure to prove him wrong.

But perhaps the most arresting prediction Tocqueville makes is about the future rivalry of the United States with Russia. Here are his words:

Americans struggle against obstacles placed there by nature; Russians are in conflict with men. The former fight the wilderness and barbarity; the latter, civilization with all its weaponry: thus, American victories are achieved with the plowshare, Russia’s with the soldier’s sword.

To achieve their aim, the former rely upon self-interest and allow free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals.

The latter focus the whole power of society upon a single man.

The former deploy freedom as their main mode of action; the latter, slavish obedience.

The point of departure is different, their paths are diverse but each of them seems destined by some secret providential design to hold in their hands the fate of half the world at some date in the future.

While discussing such an obviously brilliant man as was Tocqueville, whose ideas have become foundational in the study of American society, it seems almost petty to praise his prose style. But I would be doing an injustice to any readers of this review if I failed to mention that Tocqueville is an extraordinary writer. I was consistently captivated by his ability to sum up his thoughts into crisp aphorisms and to compress his analyses into perfectly composed paragraphs. I can only imagine how much better it is in the original French. Here is only a brief example:

Commerce is a natural opponent of all violent passions. It likes moderation, delights in compromise, carefully avoid angry outbursts. It is patient, flexible, subtle, and has recourse to extreme measures only when absolute necessity obliges it to do so. Commerce makes men independent of each other, gives them quite another idea of their personal value, persuades them to manage their own affairs, and teaches them to be successful. Hence it inclines them to liberty but draws them away from revolutions.

In the brief space of a book review—even a long one—I cannot hope to do justice to such a wide-ranging, carefully argued, and incisive book as this. So I hope that I have managed to persuade you to at least add this work to your to-read list, long as it may be already. For my part, I can’t imagine a better book to have read as I prepare myself to visit a new continent, about the same age as was Tocqueville when he visited these shores, for my own travels in a strange place. And although, lowly American that I am, I cannot hope to achieve even a fraction of what Tocqueville has, perhaps his voice echoing in my ears will be enough to encourage me to look, to listen, and to understand.

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The Monastery of El Escorial

The Monastery of El Escorial

“This is it, this must be it,” I said to my girlfriend, as we powerwalked to the bus station of line 664.

“Are you sure?” she said.

“Yep.”

“I thought we were supposed to take 661.”

“Nope, this one is good, too.”

She said nothing, but walked up to the bus schedule.

“The next bus isn’t coming for another half hour.”

“Alright.”

“You sure this is right?” she said.

“It’s on the website!”

We sat and waited. Cars and buses went by on the road in front of us; I quickly got absorbed in my book, Bertrand Russell’s The Analysis of Mind. Russell was arguing that mind and matter weren’t two separate things, but only different aspects of the same thing. The writing was brilliant, the argument well-made, but I didn’t buy it. Russell’s view required a metaphysics that made sense-data the fundamental stuff of the universe, an idea with no appeal to me.

“I’m bored,” she said. “And hungry.”

“Mmhmm,” I said, without looking up from my book.

“Where are we even going again?”

“To the Valle de los Caídos.”

“And what’s that?”

“It means, ‘The Valley of the Fallen.’”

“And why are we going there?”

“There’s a huge, huge monument that Franco—you know, the dictator Franco—built after the Spanish Civil War. I heard about it from a book. It sounds interesting.”

“Not really.”

More time passed; the scheduled hour of departure, 2:30, came and went.

“It’s not coming,” she said. “I know it’s not.”

“Just give it five minutes. Maybe it’s late.”

Five minutes passed; then ten.

“Give up,” she said.

By now I had gotten hungry, too, so I agreed, and we went to eat some rather awful take-out Chinese food. We had to wolf down the food, though, because we were trying to eat it before the next scheduled bus would arrive at 3:00.

We nearly ran all the way back to the bus station, our stomachs now full of cheap, rubbery noodles, and sat down again. Three o’clock came and went, and the bus failed to materialize.

“Let’s go,” my girlfriend said. “This won’t work.”

With a sigh, I got up, and we began to walk away. We passed the Moncloa train station; but this time I noticed a little logo printed on the wall, a logo that looked like a bus.

“Maybe the buses are underground?” I said.

“Ugh!” my girlfriend said. “I suggested that an hour ago, and you didn’t even notice!”

“Huh?”

“I said that as we walked by, and you just ignored me!”

“Oh, really?”

She grunted in dismay.

“Let’s just go,” she said.

We went inside and took the escalator downstairs. And there it was, a gigantic bus terminal, right below our feet the whole time.

“I told you!” she said. “I knew it!”

“Okay, okay.”

The door for buses 661 and 664 was right next to us, with a schedule on a screen above. The next bus wasn’t for another 40 minutes.

“Guess we gotta wait,” I said. “Wanna go sit outside?”

Another grunt of dismay.

We went back up the escalator, crossed the street, and into the Parque del Oeste, where we sat on a bench. I continued with Russell. Now he was trying to analyze mental categories using behavioralism, by trying to describe internal states by pointing to observable, physical actions. I didn’t like this approach either, though it was thoroughly absorbing to read. My girlfriend, meanwhile, sat next to me and groaned from time to time.

Finally, it was time to go, so we got up and headed back downstairs and onto the bus.

“This is a waste of time,” my girlfriend said as we sat down. “It’s already too late to see anything.”

I had to admit she was right. By the time we got there—the bus ride is about an hour—it would be about 5:30. But I’d already invested so much time in finding the damn place that I couldn’t turn back now.

The ride was pleasant. I spent some of it in Russell again, who was now criticizing—and I think rightly—our philosophical notions of “will” and “freedom” and “choice.” But reading on the bus made me feel a bit whoozy, so I put down my book and enjoyed the countryside passing by.

Finally the bus pulled into a station. I got off and looked around.

“Now what?” my girlfriend asked.

“I dunno. Maybe let’s ask somebody?”

We walked over to the information desk in the bus station.

¿Hay un autobus al Valle de los Caídos?” I asked.

No,” the woman said.

“No bus,” I said to my girlfriend. “Guess we gotta walk.”

“According to Google Maps, the walk is three hours,” she replied.

“What?!” I said, and looked at her phone. “This must be wrong. The instructions online said to come here!”

“Well, that’s what it says.”

“Let’s just start walking and see what happens.”

The path led us up a street through town. It was incredibly steep, maybe the steepest sidewalk I’d ever trekked up. The smooth walkway even turned into stairs at one point, so sharp was the incline.

We reached the top, tired and panting, and began to head down a long, twisting road, passing some houses and a church along the way, as well as several crosses which stuck out of the ground at intervals. We could see the view of the countryside beyond now—this town, whichever it was, sat on a hill—a rolling expanse of flat terrain with several little pinpricks of light from the scattered towns and villages, their street and building lights just turning on as day turned slowly into night. The sky was red by now; obviously we didn’t have a lot of daylight left.

“How close are we now?” I asked.

“Um, still three hours.”

“That can’t be right,”

“Let’s just turn back,” she said. “There’s no way we’ll make it.”

The road was curving now, taking us through a neighborhood of identical white houses. The whole place was eerily empty; there didn’t seem to be anybody around. No cars were on the road, no lights were on in the houses, no sounds of voices could be heard.

“You’re right,” I said finally, stopping in my tracks. “Let’s go back.”

We turned around, I defeated, she placated, slowly making our way back to the bus station. I felt disappointed, but not terribly so. This town, though I didn’t mean to come here, was quite pretty; and because I’d only been in the country for about a month by this time, I was happy to see a slice of life in Spain outside of Madrid.

Then I remembered something I’d seen as the bus pulled into the station. For a few seconds, I had a glance of an absolutely gigantic building, which looked like a castle or a royal palace.

I pulled out my phone and looked on the map to see where we were. It said: El Escorial. Then I looked up “Things to do in El Escorial,” and the first thing to pop up was that same big building I’d seen earlier. The description called it a monastery.

“Hey, let’s go here,” I said to my girlfriend, pointing to the picture.

“Where’s that?”

“In this town.”

“What is it?”

“I dunno.”

“Fine, I guess.”

The walk was only fifteen minutes; and soon we found ourselves standing before a huge structure, bigger even than the Toledo cathedral. It had a roughly square layout; beyond the outside wall was a stone courtyard, which wrapped around the whole thing. There were lots of children playing here—hanging on chains, running in circles, climbing on walls—their parents standing a dozen feet away, talking amongst themselves.

Within the outer walls I could see a huge dome, crowned with a spire, towering over the whole structure; and on every corner was a smaller but still impressive pointed spire. An ornate wooden door, surrounded by false columns in the building’s façade, lay in the center of one wall.

In another spot was a simpler door, regular-sized, surrounded by signs. We got closer to read them, and found that they displayed the visiting hours. The place closed at 6:00. It was 6:20, we’d just missed it.

There was nothing else to do. We had to get home in time to meet one of my girlfriend’s college friends, who would be staying with us for a few days. We had to go. So we walked to the bus station, and left. Not only had I failed to see the Valle de los Caídos, but I’d failed even to salvage the trip. I’d dragged my girlfriend around the whole day and got nowhere. For something that’s supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable, traveling can be a bloody pain.

§

Two months went by. The thought of revisiting the monastery lurked quietly in my brain for that whole time, resurfacing occasionally; and now we finally had a chance to do it.

Another trip down the escalators of Moncloa station, another bus ride, a short walk, and we were there.

It was just as splendid as I remembered, and just as big. The whole structure of El Escorial is so impressive that it seems to take up more space than the little town that surrounds it. And when viewed from the north, you can see part of the Sierre de Guadarrama looming beyond—the same mountain range where we would climb the next day, in Los Cotos—with the clouds hovering over the tops of the mountains, making the whole scene look grand and almost painfully picturesque.

But we were on a mission this time, so we walked inside, bought our tickets, got the audioguides, and began.

The first stop on our itinerary—and the tiny, detailed map that we were given at the front desk made clear just how big is the monastery—was a chamber dedicated to one painting: El Calvario by Dutch painter Rogier van der Weyden. (In English, the painting is simply called The Escorial Crucifixion.) The painting was kept in a darkened room, which had information about the painting’s genesis, restoration, and history printed on the walls (though I didn’t bother to read it).

Though I’m not expert in these matters, I thought the painting was a masterpiece. Jesus, his eyes closed in death, hangs limply from the cross. The Virgin and St. John stand on either side of him, Mary wiping a tear from her eyes, and St. John looking up with open palms. Both figures are clothed in gorgeously rendered white robes, so sharply painted they look more like marble statues than real fabric. Indeed, there is something statuesque about the whole painting; it does not so much convey movement and passion, but calm resignation, quiet tragedy, and somber stillness. But the expression on St. John’s face is, I think, the most impressive part: it is sad, careworn, but also stern and serious. Behind the crucifixion is a kind of paneled wall, blood-red in color, which provides a contrast with Jesus’ flesh and the white robes of Mary and St. John, as well as creating a kind of abstract space, devoid of landscape beyond. El Escorial is right to be proud of this painting.

I asked the guard if I could take a picture, and he said no. But then, he walked away, and shortly returned holding out two little pamphlets, which had a color photo of the painting printed on them. A guard willingly going out of his way like this is something which, I submit, would never happen in a New York City museum.

We moved on. After climbing some stairs and passing through several dark hallways, we found ourselves in the erstwhile royal apartments. Apparently, El Escorial was not only a monastery, but a Royal Residence as well. These rooms were filled with all sorts of ornate, antique furniture: chairs, bookshelves, beds covered in rich, velvety tapestries.

More interesting, for me, was a clock in the study, which had a little torch attached to the front of it so you could see the time at night—the original version of a backlit digital watch, you might say. The other interesting bit was a sort of wooden wheelchair that a king—I believe it was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V—used because he had a bad case of gout, which caused severe swelling and arthritic pain in his feet and legs. It was a stark and rather pathetic reminder that even kings are not immune from sickness. And what use is power if you don’t have health?

There were portraits and paintings adorning every wall, none of which interested me especially; and in two of the rooms, there was a kind of sun watch, which consisted of a metal strip on the floor, marked at intervals, and a little hole in the ceiling above. I think you’d have to close all the windows to use it.

But the most beautiful objects in those apartments were the highly elaborate, wonderfully ornate wooden doorways that connected room to room. Without paint, the designer had inlaid scenes and decorations in the surface—floral designs and landscapes—by using light and dark pieces of wood. The sides of the doorway had fake Greek columns, and the whole thing was topped with a crowned arch. Every square inch of the doorways was meticulously detailed; every surface was covered in patterns and pictures. Just trying to fathom how much time it would take to put something like this together takes my breath away.

Even so, I can’t say I was terribly excited by these apartments; old furniture has a habit of failing to impress me. But it wasn’t long before we had left the apartments, entered another dark hallway, and were walking down a very forbidding set of stairs, deep into the basement of the building. As usual, I hadn’t done any research before arriving, so I had no idea what to expect. Yet nothing could have prepared me for how stunning was the room we were about to enter.

The Panteón de Reyes, or the Mausoleum of Kings. The room was so extravagantly beautiful that it was almost oppressive. It’s an octagonal space, perfectly symmetrical. In the center, at eye level, immediately opposite the doorway, is a gold crucifix, hanging between two dark marble columns topped with gold. In fact, gold seems to be everywhere in this room, the walls, the ceiling, the chandelier, the candle-holders (which look like angels leaping from the walls), the window-panes, the columns, and the coffins. Yes, there are coffins—coffins from the floor to the ceiling, on every wall, even above the door. They’re made of a dark, bluish stone, I think marble, and each has a gold plate on the front with a name inscribed. These are the names of monarchs. Here is buried almost every king and queen of Spain since Charles V (Charles I of Spain).

As I stood there, gaping up at the domed ceiling, staring wide-eyed at the coffins that contained the ashy, dusty, decomposed remains of inbred kings and queens, I had one of those moments where you can’t quite believe what’s happening is real. And it was only the last inch to the mile of astonishment I’d just traveled when the audioguide informed me that, above the doorway I’d just entered, were two coffins waiting for the present king and queen. Truly, I’m stunned they let people down here. It’s possibly the most impressive room I’ve ever been in.

We couldn’t spend all day there staring, though; there was much else to see. So we pulled ourselves away, traveled back up the stairs, and then down another flight to another tomb.

This was the Panteón de Infantes, or Masoleum of the Infantes. The Infantes were the sons and daughters of the monarchs who were never kings or queens themselves. There were six or seven different chambers; the tombs and coffins inside were mainly made of white marble. Only two particularly stuck in my memory. The first was a fine sculpture adorning the lid of a coffin. The remains inside were of the “natural” son (read illegitimate son) of one of the kings. He must have been well-loved, however, as the sculpture was excellent: it depicted the man laying down in death, his head resting on a pillow, with a serenely peaceful and noble expression on his mustached face. He is dressed neck to toe in fine armor, and is holding a real metal sword. At his feet rests a lion (which I know symbolizes something but I can’t remember what).

The other tomb which impressed me was hardly a tomb at all, but an ornate mass grave. It was the collective coffin for the numerous sons and daughters of the king who died before puberty. Most of them, I gather, died in infancy, as was common back then; probably a few died shortly after childbirth. The tomb was a regular polygon with twenty sides and two levels, which makes for forty slots—forty young bodies. It was another stark reminder that not even royalty are exempt from the tragedies of sickness and death which beset us all. And this richly decorated tomb, with the emblems of royalty painted on every side, was also, in a way, a monument to how much medical technology has advanced. For every parent now is better off than were those kings and queens, buried in tombs of marble and gold, who could afford the best doctors money could buy and power could persuade.

With these gloomy thoughts in my mind, I walked on, through a hallway with life-sized statues of armed soldiers carved into the walls, and into the gift shop, where I paused to buy the official guide of the place.

“It’s beautiful, this building,” I said (in Spanish) to the lady at the register, as I was paying.

“Yes, it’s like Don Quixote.”

“Huh?”

“You know, it was built during the Golden Age of Spain. It’s a symbol of our history.”

“Ah, how cool!” I said.

She was right, of course. This monastery was built at the high point of Spanish power, as the Spanish crown was busy opposing the Protestant Reformation with their own Counter Reformation.

I said “thanks” and continued on, up some more stairs and into the art galleries.

I was stunned again. Every corner of this place seemed more beautiful than the last. A large hallway with an arched ceiling extended before us, each wall covered in artwork. Tastefully arranged throughout this hallway were paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, José de Ribera, Velazquez, Bosch, and El Greco—among others. It seems that Europe has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great art; it’s just everywhere. Here you run into masterpieces by accident. And not only were these paintings wonderful, but the room itself was a work of art. The ceiling was decorated in bright colors, and in every corner, above the doorways, above the windows, was another painting.

Every one of these paintings had a religious theme. There were pictures of saints in the wilderness, contemplating crucifixes; of saints being martyred, a knife to their throat; of saints contemplating heaven, face upturned; of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, and more.

I find this devotion to images to be an interesting feature of the Catholic religion. After all, one of the ten commandments is not to worship any graven images—though arguably pictures of Jesus and the saints are not “graven.” In Judaism, it is absolutely forbidden to portray Yahweh; and religious iconography is similarly proscribed in Islam, which is why Islamic architecture is decorated in elaborate ornamentation rather than paintings. And in Protestantism, too, religious images are debarred from being used in worship; the use of pictures and relics of saints in worship was one of the original bones of contention during the Reformation.

Though I’m not religious myself, these interdictions make some sense to me. In these religions, God is considered transcendent, unknowable, beyond every human category. Not only that, but in every Abrahamic religion, God is considered to be the sole source of all that is good and holy—the saints, as it were, shine with reflected light. And since a painting is a copy of something you can see, and since God transcends the visible world—as well as our conceptual world—it follows that religious iconography is, at best, two symbolic steps removed from God. And this is not to mention that to paint something is to transform it into something static. In other words, to paint is to capture in some way; and no good Christian believes that God can be captured.

In fact, the use of icons in Catholic history has been far from unchallenged. Putting aside the whole Protestant Reformation, I must mention iconoclasm, a movement which swept through the Byzantine Empire during the eighth and early ninth centuries. At the time, icons—religious images of saints or the Virgin Mary—were widespread. It was believed, then as now, that saints could intercede on your behalf, beg God to show mercy; and by focusing on the image of a saint, one could increase the intensity and efficacy of one’s prayers. But perhaps under the influence of spreading Islam, some began to feel that this worship of icons was too close to idolatry, and fought this practice. Some Emperors were iconoclasts, others iconophiles; and although many painting and images were destroyed, the icons emerged triumphant—that is, until Martin Luther.

My point is that it isn’t just me who finds this intense love of religious images a bit strange. And I’m also not alone in thinking that the incredible proliferation of saints in Catholicism—saints for everything you can imagine, from toothaches to fireworks, and I’m not exaggerating—is more reminiscent of paganism, with its long roster of Gods and demigods and nymphs and heroes, than of a strictly monotheistic religion. But I think my perplexity just indicates that there is something in the Catholic faith, a certain attitude, that remains alien to me. Regardless, one can hardly fault an attitude which has given rise to some of the most incredible works of art and architecture the world has ever seen.

Lucky for me, some of these masterpieces were gathered in this very hall for me to see. We spent some time drinking our fill, listening to our audioguides, until we moved on. Now we were in a long hallway, which surrounded a central courtyard that we couldn’t enter. On the outside wall was painted a huge fresco, or rather frescos, which consisted of different scenes from Jesus’ life and deeds. I walked along, only glancing at these frescoes—after a while, I have to admit, I get a bit tired of the same religious themes in all these paintings—and went into what I believe was the oldest part of the building, an old chapel.

It was a bare room, the only decoration being a few paintings on the walls. In the front was an altar with a terrific painting by Titian: The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. According to tradition, St. Lawrence was killed by being roast alive on a gridiron; and while he was being killed, he supposedly called out to his torturers “I’m well done! Turn me over!” (This is part of the reason why he’s the patron saint of comedians.) Well, this painting was considerably less cheerful. The scene is, rather, almost hellish, taking place at nighttime, with the impressive, muscular form of the saint reaching towards heaven with an outstretched hand as he’s burnt alive.

According to legend, the very floor-plan of the El Escorial monastery was based on the interlocking bars of a gridiron, in honor of St. Lawrence. And this is another part of the Catholic faith that confuses me: why are the instruments of death—the very instruments used to torture the saints and the Son of God—so celebrated in their artwork? It strikes me as rather morbid.

Next we were led by the audioguide’s itinerary up an impressive flight of stone stairs, to look at the still more impressive ceiling. The light was so dim, however, that I couldn’t appreciate it. All I could tell was that it was a picture of heaven, with the Holy Ghost in the center (as usual, symbolized by a dove), surrounded by clouds and sunshine and angels and saints. There’s a picture of it in my guidebook, but the small size doesn’t do it justice, unfortunately.

I descended the stairs, reentered the hallway of the long fresco—I believe it’s called the main cloister—and then, after various twists and turns, I found myself, once again, gaping. We had entered the basilica.

As a space, it felt basically like standing in a cathedral. The stone ceiling towered high overhead; and I could see that this ceiling, too, was painted, though again the space was too dark for me to see it clearly. In little niches in the pillars were hung paintings, and I think at least one of these was by El Greco.

The main altar was elegant, and (as far as magnificent altars go) restrained. Fake columns divided the altar into perhaps a dozen spaces, in which are either paintings or sculptures. In the very center, below Jesus and the Virgin Mary, was another painting of St. Lawrence being burned, though this one was far less moving than Titian’s. On either side of the altar, in the walls flanking it, are golden sculptures of royalty, knelt in prayer. These sculptures are extremely impressive, each figure wearing finely detailed armor or ornate dress, each one draped in a cape or a robe—and the capes of the kings are painted with the royal insignia. But what I liked most was just staring up at the huge dome, which seemed impossibly suspended in the air, light streaming in through the circular windows.

After spending some time wandering around the gigantic space, exploring its nooks and crannies, we left; we were led into a courtyard where our audioguides say goodbye to us. But I remembered that we had mistakenly skipped one room on our tour, and so set off, girlfriend in tow, to find the Sala de las Batallas.

This room was easily found. It’s a rectangular room, with an arched ceiling, perhaps about fifty feet long. What’s impressive are the scenes of battle which cover every wall of the room, charging cavalry, marching infantry, men fighting with pikes and guns and swords; cities being besieged, ships being sunk, and finally triumphs being celebrated. This whole room was a piece of propaganda, a monument to the military triumphs of Golden Age Spain. The paintings were, however, done in a curious way, without proper perspective or proportion; perhaps this was to fit more soldiers into the frame?

But now we really were done (though I later realized we’d forgotten to visit the Royal Library). And not only were we done, but we were tired and exhausted. Trying to absorb so much information and so much beauty at once leaves you with what I call the “museum-goers headache,” the slight pressure in one’s head accompanied by the glazed expression of the eyes that follows extended art-viewing. Thankfully, the chill air of the mountains shocked us out of this rather quickly; and soon we were leaving the monastery for town.

In the main squares, where all the best restaurants seemed to be, were life-sized plaster sculptures of animals and people. It was a nativity scene, with the three kings, villagers, donkeys, horses, pigs, chickens, and even an elephant and a giraffe—not quite to scale, but surprisingly big. But apart from their size and number, there wasn’t anything impressive about these sculptures; in fact, they looked like they had been painted and put together by children, with disproportionate limbs and bright red ovals for their mouths. I’m not trying to put them down, you understand; it was just a funny contrast after the monastery.

In fact, these frumpy sculptures were a perfect end to the day, a comical and yet powerful reminder that the very same culture which had given rise to the monastery lives on, lives still today. We were surrounded by the descendants of the people who had, so long ago, constructed the beautiful building we had just left, still living in the shade of the Guadarrama mountains, still making monuments—though nowadays, the monuments are a bit more humble.

 

 

 

Climbing in Cotos

Climbing in Cotos

“I think that was the train,” I said to my girlfriend, as the train accelerated away from the station and into the distance.

“Oh.”

“Maybe we should have ran for it.”

“Oh well,” she said. “I bet there’ll be another one soon.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you see anything on the board?”

“Uh,” I said, squinting my eyes. “Nope.”

The two of us were standing on a platform in the Chamartin train station in Madrid, trying to get to Cercedilla. A friend of ours, a local, had told us that we could see mountains there. But unfortunately for us—and all too typically—we hadn’t checked any sort of schedule before attempting the journey.

“I guess we just gotta wait,” I said, and pulled out my Kindle to read.

We sat on a bench and I began distractedly reading, glancing up at the sign board every few minutes. Ten minutes passed; then twenty. Finally, the name “Cercedilla” appeared on the glowing sign board: the next train wouldn’t arrive here in the next hour.

“We really should have ran for it,” I said, and began to sulk.

“Wanna wait?” my girlfriend asked.

“Not really.”

“So what else should we do?”

I pulled out my phone to check my email; another friend from Madrid had sent us a couple of recommendations for stuff to do in the city. One was for a retrospective expedition on the works of Kandinsky—but I wasn’t in the mood for modern art. The other was for a free event at the Museo del Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum), which sounded interesting—at least, interesting enough to help me stop sulking about missing the train. So we got on another train, this one towards town.

Although this post is about the mountains, I must say that Museo del Ferrocarril was quite pleasant. The exhibition consisted of a dozen or so trains, most of them antique, sitting in a big warehouse which, I think, used to be a railway station. There were steam engines, with their impressive boilers and muscular gears; old luxury trans-continental dinning cars, with finely decorated furniture for the erstwhile aristocracy; quaint aluminum trains, looking like tuna cans, from the ‘50s and ‘60s; and much more.

But especially memorable was the chance to look into the engines of these old behemoths, thanks to several trains which had their sides cut away, giving us a schematic view of their innards.

Whenever I look at complex machinery—and I suspect I’m not alone in this—I get a kind of sickening sense of overwhelming complexity. I realize, with a twist in my stomach, that I have only the faintest and vaguest idea of how these things work; and despite being the beneficiary of thousands of years of technological progress, I am completely unable to sew a button back on a jacket, not to mention build an engine that runs on pressurized steam.

This is one of the ways in which I feel most disconnected from the modern world. Take this very computer. How does it work? I haven’t a clue; and yet I use it every day. And this problem isn’t confined to Luddites such as myself: even the most skilled engineer couldn’t learn how every piece of technology works; there’s just too much of it.

And not only can no person learn everything, I’m willing to bet that no single person even knows how to build just one typical product of the modern world—an automobile, let’s say. I mean everything: the materials, the engine, the insides—the whole she-bang. How do you take raw aluminum and iron ore from the earth and refine it into workable metal? How to you make rubber tires from rubber trees? How do you construct and install power steering, gears that won’t jam, dependable brakes? How do you skillfully arrange all the levers, switches, and buttons so the driver doesn’t have to take his eyes off the road? Each of these tasks is a world unto itself, and could be divided into a dozen subtasks.

My point—admittedly a banal one—is that technology is extremely complicated. And in times like this, when the comforting veneer of a machine is peeled away, revealing the jungle of gears, pipes, wires, circuitry, cylinders, valves, tubes, pistons, pumps, rods, crankshafts, coils, spring—when all this, normally tucked safely out of sight, thrusts itself into my awareness, I feel that all of my effort to learn about the world, all of my travels and reading and thinking, are absolutely futile, since I can’t understand how a train from the 1800s works, much less the whole world.

But my girlfriend, unaware of the quiet existential crisis surging inside me, had a lovely time climbing in and out of trains, sitting in the old seats of a trans-Iberian express, and pressing buttons on an antique control panel. Really, it is a lovely museum—just don’t look into the engines.

§

The next day; round-two.

This time we looked up the schedule beforehand, and had gotten to the station with half-an-hour to spare. Nothing could stop us now.

But there was a problem. Although trains that were scheduled to depart an hour from now—after our train—were on the information board, our particular train wasn’t. Where was it? What track did we need to go to? We sat down, once again, on the platform and waited, once more, for the board to tell us where and when the train would arrive. Time ticked away; the sun kept shining; people shuffled back and forth; a train arrived, opened its doors, and then departed. Still nothing.

“Maybe we should ask someone?” I suggested.

“Okay.”

We went up the escalator and into the station building above. It looked like an airport terminal, but smaller. After some aimless walking around, we found the information desk, where two Spanish men were lounging and chatting. They didn’t stop or look up as we approached.

Perdona,” I said, interrupting them.

“¿Si?

¿Cuando es la próximo tren a Cercedilla?”

Diez minutos.”

“¿Y donde?”

“No lo sé.”

Well, good. The train was coming in ten minutes, just like we thought. But even the guy at the information booth didn’t know the crucial question: where? I began to panic.

“It’ll be here in ten minutes!” I said to my girlfriend.

“Calm down.”

“We can’t miss it again!”

“Just relax.”

“This is awful!”

More aimless wandering. Then, looking up, I noticed a monitor with all the information for incoming and outcoming trains. At least this one had the train to Cercedilla on it; but it still didn’t display what track.

“We’re screwed,” I said. “Nobody knows where this train is coming. We’ll never get there.”

My girlfriend merely grunted—she’s used to this sort of thing—and we both stood there, somewhat pathetically looking up towards the screen, with the same expectant, reverent, apprehensive expression that some people wear when they look up at the altar. Just one number, one little digital twitch on the screen, and we would be delivered.

And we were. With three minutes to spare, we were informed that the train would be arriving on track 10. So we rushed through the station, down the escalator, and onto the train to Cercedilla.

The ride was roughly an hour. This was one of my first times seeing the countryside around Madrid, and I savored the experience. Most striking, for me, was how dry is the environment. The soil is tan and sandy; the trees are short and shrubby; and rolling brown fields stretch out towards the horizon, with a sierra beyond. A few towns dot the landscape, and here and there the fields are divided into plots. To a New Yorker accustomed to towering trees and even taller skyscrapers, the easy visibility across so many miles is startling.

Stop after stop swept by, until eventually we reached our destination: Cercedilla. But I didn’t have much time to look around, for soon I felt my girlfriend tugging on my arm.

“What’s that?” she said, pointing to small train nearby.

“Dunno.”

“The sign says Los Cotos,” she said. “I think those are the trains to the mountains.”

“But I thought that was the train to the mountains,” I said, pointing to the train we just exited.

“I’m pretty sure this is right,” she said.

Three minutes later, we were sitting on a quaint old train, much smaller than the one that took us here, with plush red seats which faced each other. In fact, I felt vaguely like I was sitting in a booth in an old-fashioned diner.

“Cute train!” my girlfriend said, as the thing creaked into motion.

Immediately, we were heading steeply uphill; and we remained slanted this way the whole trip, as the train crept up the mountainside. We went by the backyards of houses, passing pools and patios, and kept climbing until we left all signs of the town behind. We were in a pine forest now, a uniform sea of green thorns and pine cones and grey bark.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a movie; the trip was so dreamy and picturesque. As the train wound its way up, making wide, concentric circles—each successive circle decreasing in radius—we were given a more expansive view of the mountains nearby, their sides covered in the same uniform sea of pine trees that surrounded us. The air started to have that fresh, wintry, pine smell I normally associate with New Brunswick, except here the air was thinner, less rich. Maybe this is all in my head, but for somebody who has lived at sea level his whole life, even the air in Madrid, at an altitude of 2,100 feet (670 meters), seems a bit deficient in oxygen. Here this feeling was especially noticeable.

Even the train seemed a bit exhausted as it slowly crept its way up, passing a town (which I gather is very inconvenient to live in, at least regarding public transportation), through a tunnel, and then another sea of pine.

By the time we arrived, I was fairly intoxicated with the sight. Have you had this feeling? For me, after I spend some time looking at something extremely beautiful—a sunset, a cathedral, a mountain—I eventually get sort of high, a bit lightheaded, as if I’m slightly drunk. Well, I felt this way when we arrived, dizzy and grinning like a fool.

Neither of us had any idea what to expect when we got out. There was an old, derelict station building, and a road leading away from the station and up a hill. But whatever curiosity I had for my surroundings evaporated when I walked out of the train and into the cold.

“Man!” I said to my girlfriend. “It’s freezing here!”

“You didn’t bring a jacket or something?”

“No.”

“You only brought your t-shirt?”

“Yeah…”

“What were you thinking?!”

“But it was warm in Madrid!”

She just sighed—as I said, she’s used to this sort of thing. Poor woman. Meanwhile, desperate not to spend too much time here, I said to the conductor:

“¿Cuando es el próximo tren?

Quarto menos vente.”

I looked at my phone; it was 3:15: Twenty-five minutes to go.

“I guess we might as well look around,” I said to my girlfriend, and we headed up the road.

We were soon greeted with a sign; it said: Sierra de Guadarrama, Parque Nacional. We had wandered into a national park. Before us was a parking lot, several buildings—a restaurant, some bathrooms, an information center—and beyond a stunning view of the mountains. The bulbous and almost monstrous form of a cloud, grayish-white, was sitting on top of one of these peaks, seeming to be trying to devour it. It was stunning.

But I had goosebumps by now, and although I vainly tried warming myself by rubbing my arms and bouncing on my toes, I was too distracted to appreciate much of anything.

“We really have to go,” I said to my girlfriend. “Sorry.”

“Are you kidding? We got up early and spent two hours in the train, on a Sunday, and we’ve gotta go back?”

“I can’t stay here. I’m so cold.”

“Ugh!”

And so, thanks to a small but stupid choice (as I left my apartment, I actually considered whether it would be cold enough on the mountain to merit bringing a jacket, but decided against it), we made the long trip down the mountain, back to Cercedilla, and then back to Madrid. We had been defeated a second time.

§

Two months later; our third attempt.

We’d figured out the public transportation; I’d bought sneakers, a winter jacket, a scarf, and a hat from Primark (the new big one on Gran Vía). In short, we were ready for our third attempt to scale the mountain.

Once again, we took the train from Chamartin; once more, we went through the countryside to Cercedilla; again I was treated to the beautiful sights of the nearby mountains and pine forest as the train wound its way up, climbing to Los Cotos. And I breathed a sigh of relief in the cold air when, looking out towards the mountain, I saw another cloud gnawing on the same mountain. We were back; and this time I wasn’t shivering.

But before we began to hike, we decided to eat in the café near the station. We both ordered tortillas—a word which, if you don’t know, means something different here. Essentially, a Spanish tortilla is an omelet with potatoes. They’re quite tasty. But we both found it so absurd, and so typically Spanish, when our generous slices of tortilla were served on top of generous portions of bread. Potatoes on bread, carbs on carbs. I really have no idea how the Spanish stay so thin.

This done, we began. We followed a dirt path up into the forest, towards what I gathered was the top of the mountain. But almost immediately I felt winded, as if somebody had hit me in the stomach.

“I can’t breathe,” I said, loosening my scarf around my neck. “The air here—it’s so thin!”

“Really? I feel fine,” my girlfriend said.

“What?” I said between gasps. “How?”

“Just relax.”

I was heaving by now; every breath I took, although it filled my lungs, left me unsatisfied, needing more. Just walking at a gentle pace left me as winded as if I’d been sprinting. It’s quite an odd feeling, breathing air at a high altitude; it was like was drowning on dry land.

But I’m a stubborn person, and occasionally my stubbornness is a virtue—like when I’m trying to force my weak, flabby body up a mountain. So we pressed on. The path zigzagged its way up, from left to right, from right to left, gently leading us up and up.

We were on Peñalara, the tallest mountain of the Guadarrama range. The mountain rises about 3,600 feet (1,100 m) from its surroundings, and at its peak is 8,000 feet (2,500 m) above sea-level. Coincidentally, according to Wikipedia, 8,000 feet is also the altitude at which people begin to be susceptible to acute mountain sickness (AMS). But I knew exactly none of this at the time.

It wasn’t long before I noticed the trees getting smaller and stumpier. We were nearing the tree-line. By now the restaurant below looked like a toy house, and I was getting used to the air; soon I was comfortable enough to start walking at a good pace. (I know, by the way, that experienced trekkers, or even amateur ones, will likely laugh at my breathing difficulties; but I’m a writer, not a climber.)

Every foot we advanced made the view that much more stunning. I’d never seen anything like it. The mountainous horizon seemed to roll, like an undulating sea; and the head of every mountain was buried in a cloud, which sat like fluffy top-hats over a crowd of heads.

Soon the trees had all but disappeared; the only vegetation left was dry tufts of grass, forcing its way up through the rocky soil, and a few shrubs here and there. The rocks had interesting patches of neon-green on them, which I took to be lichen. Now we were ourselves just a few hundred feet away from a cloud. We took a break on a big rock to eat some snacks, and noticed a strange little round hut in the distance with a blue door. What was it?

We pressed on. I was tired now, too tired for conversation, too tired even for my usual complaining. But as my mind wandered, I found myself thinking of a documentary I’d once seen about Nietzsche. In one part, an actor portrayed the thinker, a mustachioed man in a dark jacket wandering around a snowy mountain, obviously deep in thought, as the voice-over recited lines from Nietzsche’s works. This, in turn, reminded me of my copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which has a picture of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog on it, an iconic painting of the Romantic period. A brilliant idea struck me.

“Hey hold on,” I said to my girlfriend. “I want to take a picture.”

“Okay.”

“Take my phone. I’m gonna go stand on that rock over there.”

So I clambered over a pile of jagged rocks off the path, and carefully positioned myself to recreate, as best I could, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, one leg raised, one hand on my hip, looking out towards the mountains. I felt somehow both extremely cool and unbelievably lame as I did this. But it came out pretty good.

Going

We kept going. There wasn’t much distance now between the clouds and us. By this time I was under the influence of that same intoxicated feeling. The view was so grand it was almost painful to look at. I didn’t feel tired any more, not cold, not winded. It was as if I was being pulled up, propelled by a force I couldn’t see or understand. All of my senses felt supernaturally acute; the sun seemed nearer, the air clearer, the light more vivid. There was hardly any sound except my own breathing, the crunching of rocky soil beneath my feet, and the breeze going by my ears. I felt incredibly alive; my whole body was a tingling, twitching mass of sensation. The feeling was so intense that I couldn’t believe I’d ever been alive before this; everything leading up to this mountain was some sort of sleepy dream, not life. Or maybe this was the dream?

Finally we were there. The view disappeared behind a veil of gray clouds; we were standing in the sky. I could see my breath now; some patches of snow were laying here and there on the bare ground. A couple of hikers passed us, going the other direction, obviously much better prepared than we were, with poles and those futuristic-looking synthetic jackets. Meanwhile, I was wearing a cheap coat and a hat with a little fluffy bun on the top. But it didn’t matter; we made it.

We walked around a bit, though there wasn’t much to see. In fact, there wasn’t anything to see; we were completely surrounded by fog, which was so thick that the sun was dim enough to look at directly. We walked perhaps three hundred feet before deciding to turn around.

But as we began to head back, a strange feeling started to take hold of me. I looked in the direction which, I was sure, we had come from; but it looked completely unfamiliar. Suddenly I felt lost; I began to feel dizzy. What was going on? Why didn’t I recognize the path? Was I suffering altitude sickness or something? Was I disoriented? Was it safe for me to try to navigate back?

My thoughts jumped to a scene from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, when Bryson himself was climbing a mountain. Being the nervous man that he is, he’d read up about altitude sickness beforehand, learning about how the lack of oxygen had made some climbers hallucinate and act erratically, sometimes making stupid decisions that got themselves killed. So when Bryson got up in a mountain himself, he began doubting his own mental state, suspecting that he may have come unwound without noticing.

Then I thought of a story I’d heard while studying archeology in Kenya. Many years before I arrived, a man, a graduate student who was on his own searching for fossils, suffered heat stroke and eventually died because of it. The desert sun just got to him. He took off his clothes—a terrible thing to do in a desert—and ran in a random direction until the combination of sun and dehydration killed him.

Was something like this happening to me? It’s an interesting paradox, when you think about it, trying to determine your own sanity. If I was losing my judgment, how could I judge whether I had lost my judgment? If my hold on reality was compromised, how could I tell?

Terrible scenarios began to pop in and out of my consciousness, wherein we get ourselves totally, hopelessly lost and are eventually eaten by a bear—if there are bears around here—or simply starve or freeze in the vast national park. Nobody knew we were here; nobody would notice if we got lost. Oh God! What was I thinking?

“Want a carrot?” my girlfriend asked. She’d brought a plastic bag full of carrots in her backpack, and was holding out an orange stick for me to take.

“Oh, thanks.”

I took a bite of the carrot; and the crunch, crunch, crunching in my skull snapped me out of it. I took a deep breath; I was completely fine. The path began to be recognizable, and in just five minutes we were stumbling and slipping down the mountain.

As soon as we left the cloud, and the sunny sky and the view beyond reappeared, I noticed something. Below us, an eagle was drifting silently in the breeze, getting gently nudged around by the flowing air. An eagle, below us! It was incredible. Nothing, not even the cloud and the view, had so brought home how high up we were.

But we couldn’t stay; we had a train to catch. So, exhausted and hungry, we both made our way past the rocks with the bright lichen, past the dry grass and the stumpy shrubs, until we were again surrounded by tall pines. It took us three tries, but we had conquered the mountain.