My new balcony
Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, the French time based sound installation artist, recently brought her lastest work to Madrid. On & On, an exposition at Casa Encendida, explores the theme of how natural phenomena like light, sound, fire, mold, and birds interact with natural processes such as growth and decay, stability and entropy.
That’s sort of an arbitrary question for me because I would literally love to go anywhere. But right now I am feeding a growing obsession with China. Everyone I talk to sort of seems surprised by that, like when I mention China they just think of overpopulated cities and greasy food and pollution and plastic crap. Obviously, the symptoms of the astonishing rate at which China is developing their economy are apparent on various levels, but, as far as travel, China is a massive piece of land that has nearly every categorization of ecozone known to man. The subtropical forests of the south, the mountains of Tibet, coniferous forests in the north, lake and river basins, the Gobi desert and the Silk Road in the northwest, the plains and grasslands of the Northest on the Mongolian border, the rice paddies, tea plantations, and bamboo forests. China is covered with unusual geological formations and plantlife, caves, waterfalls, and hot spring lakes, not to mention the most captivating selection of out-of-this-world wildlife on Earth. That’s enough right there for someone who loves wilderness, but as someone who loves cities, I have to mention that the two biggest Chinese cities are becoming, and are going to be, super hip. I have an artist/musician friend in Shanghai who went for 3 months and never left, he was having so much fun. And I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about Beijing, it’s where the Chinese youth subculture seems to be emerging strongest. Remember that hand in hand with economic development comes cultural development, explosions in art, music and design. Also, Beijing is one of the oldest cities on the planet and the effect of the artifacts of its ancientness juxtaposed with its modernity, is sensational. But mostly I just want to ride a bamboo raft down the Li river.
I woke up this morning to a woman wailing down in the street. I thought I heard her say something about “robo,” figured it was just another purse snatching and rolled back over. But her wailing got louder and I started to hear a crowd amassing. I thought maybe her flat had been burgled. I thought maybe her entire life savings had been looted by an ex-boyfriend. I was not even the tiniest bit prepared to see, when I finally peered out my balcony window, a full-on five alarm inferno erupting out of the balcony windows of the flat across the way, two over to the left, one floor down. I guess I’d never really seen a fire blazing away like that before, huge bonfires in a backyard, yes, the forest fire of 2001 in Prescott, Arizona from a distance, yes, a lifetime of crappy footage on the news, yes, but somebody’s home, an apartment, 10 meters away from me, no. The affect was tremendous. At that distance you can feel the heat, ash wafts into your hair, the massive black smoke roils into every nook and cranny, and you put your shoes on just in case. Other than a family who fled from the same building and dissappeared around the corner, I didn’t see anyone running away or packing up. A man was on his cellphone, the small crowd was restraining and presumably comforting the wailing woman, and every single other resident on the block was out on their own balconies, some ironically smoking cigarettes, some holding their children, and some, just like me and my roommate, feverishly recording everything on digital cameras. Seeing everyone else, some on balconies even closer than mine, if you can imagine that, just calmly watching quelled my first reaction of “we gotta get the fuck out of here.” Then I remembered my ex-roommate telling me why there was bricks between the beams of the ceiling. A Barcelona apartment, and I suppose all old apartments of Europe, are ensconced in about 12 inches of stone. The danger is relatively low of any fire spreading to another flat. Of course, fire can crawl balcony curtains, sparks can jump up to a wooden flowerpot, and when the butane tank that every kitchen uses for its hot water and stoves blows up, the explosion can easily make it out into the stairwell. So maybe not everyone was watching calmly, just they knew they had some time, they knew the “bomberos” or firemen, whose jackets that say “Barcelona Bombers” (bombero in Catalan) never fail to delight me, would come eventually. It certainly did feel like e-ven-t-u-al-ly. I don’t know when the blaze started but it took at least 10 full minutes from when I started watching for them to arrive. I guess that’s not crazy rediculous. It just seemed like too long.
I did start shaking and breathing faster and sort of ducking when all the junk on the balcony started popping. Stuff just let go into entropy, a foldable metal clothes drying rack sprang apart in the heat and fell to the pavement, several terracotta flowerpots exploded and released their soil, a glass tabletop shattered and merged with the wafting ash, a rolled up venetian blind said goodbye to its hooks and uncoiled itself like a red hot carpet into the street below. Objects that, just the day before, leaning out of my balcony with my boyfriend, I had named in Spanish. Every week I trade him an hourlong English lesson for an hour of Spanish vocabulary practice. We go to a public space and I try to name or describe what I see. Yesterday, feeling lazy, we decided to analize the balconies of my block. The balcony across the way, two over to the left, one floor down was a rich lode of vocabulary as it was chock full of identificationally- challenged clutter. I got to use words like amasijo, chisme, trasto, and desechos; jumble, bric-a-brac, junk, and detritus. Later, when I was watching the bomberos rake up the smoking remains, I felt almost remorseful for having so slandered the wailing woman’s posessions. Certainly detritus was better than ash. And that’s what she owned now. I had never learned the verb for “to char” in Spanish. Carbonizar. To turn to carbon. Yesterday, I had scrutinized those items that seemed so permanent and now they were just traces of carbon over the sea.
The bomberos are almost gone now, they’ve taken the yellow crime scene tape down at either end of the street. They spent about two hours examining the structural damages to the building. Stone is not impervious to fire, the balcony of the upstairs neighbor has a large crescent shaped hole where part of it fell away in the concentrated flames shooting up from just below. The perfectly right-angled stone frame of the balcony door has lost all of its edges. Whereas before it appeared like a stately bank vault entrance, now it looks like an ancient cave or prehistoric tomb; the stones now undulating their soft facets under the still-dripping water. The last two bomberos are gathering up the entropic remains from the street, spraying and sweeping, and a great airing out has begun. The neighbors have all thrown open their balcony doors, they are shaking out curtains, wiping down windows, sweeping the tiny terraces, watering plants. There is still no sign of the wailing woman, she was carted away in embraces hours ago. But I expect she will be back later to begin her own unfathomable airing out. With the smoke completely gone and revealing 60 degree weather, and the sun’s rays finally overhead enough to penetrate the canyon of our alley, I take stock of my own detritus. Looking around my humble room and thinking about what I could lose and how it would feel, I understand the momentary collective mindset of my 10 meter community, it’s a perfect day to start spring cleaning.
Gandhi Bookstore in Mexico City has unleashed their 2011 advertising campaign via billboards, posters, magazine spreads and their famous postcards. Mexico has retardedly low book reading statistics and the ad guys over at Gandhi are sweeping me off my feet with their caustic, tongue-in-cheek, philosophical, and nearly desperate approaches to get people to read more books. They have more than a hundred postcards up on their Facebook page. Link here.
The reader: an endangered species.
Women: bring readers into the world.
Stupid people don’t go to heaven.
Less face, more book.
Well, after last night it makes 2 attempted and now 2 successful robberies for me and my short stay here in Barcelona. It happened in the middle of an evening English class, in McDonalds, around 8:30pm. We always meet at McDonalds because they don’t play music, it has a vast amount of comfortable tables, they don’t care if you don’t buy anything or even bring in your own food, and its always empty. But last night it was especially desolate. We were the only ones in the whole front section. I guess because of this, I put my biggish black bag under my seat, something I would never do in a crowded cafe. About half-way through class, I noticed some activity out of the corner of my eye, my brain registered it as an employee wiping down a table and thought nothing of it. I was facing the wall, my student was facing the room. About five minutes later, I felt more activity near us and noticed my student glancing strangely at someone in my periphery. It was like they were deciding whether or not to sit at the table next to us. A chair was pulled out like they were going to maybe sit down but then they left. This took, maybe 4 seconds in all, and I never turned my head to follow my student’s gaze.
I’m just so locked into my space bubble in public, like on the metro or the street, I don’t meet eyes with anyone, ever, and I never pay attention to any action in my periphery. Not because I’m spaced-out but because its what my innate defense mechanisms have mutated into. It seemed like in Philadelphia and Mexico City, if you gave your attention to someone looking for it, you instantly gave yourself up as easy prey, like if you just acted like they didn’t exist they wouldn’t fuck with you. This is maybe a good defense mechanism in places where overt violence and egomaniacal gangsters abound, but in Barcelona, it’s exactly what damns you. A person who refuses to give their attention to a little activity near them, even quite near them, is a person who will be robbed many times in Barcelona. Most of the victims here aren’t like me, they get robbed because they don’t know the rules and they’re not paying attention beacause they’re clueless. This is the easiest and most common victim, the wallet in the back pocket sticking halfway out, a camera hooked on to a bag strap, an unzipped backpack, mostly tourists. But pickpockets can even play people who are extremely aware and on guard, by diverting their vigilance to some other kind of action. Robbing a cellphone off a table under the owner’s nose is easy, just have a jacket hanging over your arm or a clipboard with a petition full of signatures, anything that acts as a shield, and while you get 10 seconds of their attention asking for a cigarette or a signature, the other hand makes split second swoop across the table and that’s it. The victim could have really been on guard, could’ve been thinking “who is this bum asking for a smoke” or “what is this paper, I’m not signing anything.” The victim felt suspicious and was even scrutinizing the persons actions, just not the RIGHT actions. To get a guys wallet out of his inside jacket pocket takes a lot more diversion, so much so, that he will be alarmed and feel that something threatening is happening. But it won’t be the hand making a slightly perceptible swoop near his chest, it’ll be the hand that’s squeezing his shoulder really hard. The rich guy’s thinking “What the fuck is this guy doing grabbing my neck like that, saying something about recognizing me from college, smiling, what the fuck is this guy doing?!” And then when it’s over a second later the guy breathes a sigh of relief, glad that the shady guy left him alone, and that nothing came of it. He won’t realize that his wallet is gone, and that that’s what the guy was doing until he gets home.
My thief last night was a good one, really good. She was observed by my student the whole time. My student said she never saw her bend over in the slightest, which means she must of used her foot to slide the bag out and push it under the table behind us. We actually have no idea how she did it. But my student said there was an accomplice, another woman, about 5 yards away who caught her eye for a second, enough for my thief to bend over once the bag had been slid out from under my chair. I didn’t realize until about 10 minutes later when I went for my water bottle. I felt proud to have been prey to someone so skilled, then I felt really fucking angry, then I felt like an idiot who deserved it for putting their bag under their seat in fucking Barcelona.
CATALOGUE OF INCIDENTS AND LOSSES 2010 -2011
JUNE 10 2010: Man casually gets closer and closer to my backpack and I barely sense him reaching out an arm to unzip the front pocket. I switch bag to my other shoulder and he falls back. I had just attended my study abroad program’s “Theivery In Barcelona” session and I was savvy. LOSSES: 0
JUNE 26 2010: Man and woman on moped drive up alongside me and woman grabs my side bag. Due to it being slung diagonally across the chest, woman lets go and they drive off. LOSSES: 0
JULY 16 2010: Man runs up to me in nearly empty street and grabs at my side bag. Finding it difficult to slip off he starts tugging and wrangling really hard until the strap breaks and he runs off with it. LOSSES: 30€, credit card, American ID card, lighter, lipstick.
JANUARY 11 2011: Woman slips bag out from under my chair without me noticing. LOSSES: 60€, datebook, novel, sunglasses.
You can watch some cool videos of thieves caught on camera below.
Well, we tried. But we didn’t make it all the way around the Alps. We both woke up with hangovers and colds after our night in bone-chilling Venice. After making it to our cozy bed and breakfast in Bolzano (below), Sarah came down with a 24 hour virus. Or else it was something she ate at the rest stop in Padua. We woke up with brave intentions to push through to Salzburg where we already had a hostel reserved. But with me coughing and sneezing and her running to the bathroom yet again, we decided to stay on for another night and then start the long drive back to her flat in Lyon the next day. It didn’t really feel like defeat since we decided to take a scenic route towards France from Bolzano through the heart of the Italian Alps, down around the coast of Lake Como and then down to Milan. I hadn’t yet gotten my fill of Italian practice or those Lombardy lakes.
One thing about those scenic routes, they always take much longer then you think. But they do save you a lot of money. The trip on the highway from Lyon to Barcelona alone is like 60€ in tolls. I don’t know how people afford it. The only problem with doing scenic routes is doing them in the winter. We had to work with only eight hours of light a day, which was not even close to adequate, even with hitting the road at 9 every morning. The backroad I was most excited for, SS45 out of Genova to Piacenza, has a handful of incredibly poetic tiny towns and one midsized medieval relic called Bobbio (below), that stands with it’s Roman walls and aqueduct intact, which were all ensconced in darkness and fog by the time we had wound our way there.
If you’re going to do scenic routes in winter, try to limit your daily mileage to 200km. Most of the mountian roads kept me in 3rd gear and going less than 50km per hour. One of the most stunning routes we did get to drive in daylight was the Moyenne Corniche which hugs the cliffs from Nice (below), through Monaco, and down to Ventimiglia. The entire stretch offered foggy panoramas of the sea down below which was the most mind-blowing shade of milky-opaque teal I have ever seen.
Our tour of South Tyrol was SS42/38 from Bolzano to the northern tip of Lake Como. Which took about five hours and had hairpins so acute and so often, I spent long stretches stuck in 1st gear! It was also the deepest into the Alps (below) we could get on our trip short of jumping on one of the many ski lifts strung out on all sides of the road. Thanks to the perfect sunlight and clear sky, we were able to discover for ourselves what a panorama view of those pristine jagged peaks can do to a person.
Another wonderful route was the scenic loop around Lago di Garda (below), the biggest of the Lombardy lakes. It too had the same chalky opaque water, though less teal and more cobalt. That must be caused by the snow melts which carry sediment into the water and scatter the light (is it obvious that I just googled that?). The ferocious winds blowing that day made actual waves crash on the shore. It felt like we had the lake to ourselves as the road was empty and the many little towns dotting the route were shuttered and silent. The faces of the mountains that plunge into the lake on the west side are so steep they decided to bore through them rather than pave. The entire 50km stretch is nearly one long tunnel, though the scenery is not occluded as in many places there are columns in place of an outer wall, making a series of stony picture windows. The view from the opposite side of the lake, of what appears to be an endless row of caves perched just above the waterline, is stunning.
All in all, I think three things. One is that I am deeply comitted to Italy. Two is that roadtrips should be saved for summer, when there is fifteen hours of daylight and clear weather. Three is that a week long driving tour should be kept to one small region. We could’ve spent the whole time exploring the plethora of castles around Verona, soaking in the rainbow colored villages which spiral along the coastline near Genova, or sampling the wines and photographing ancient church steeples in the Tyrolian Alps. Not to mention Venice. I have nothing to say about Venice. Just go there. Go there right now.