Mad riddles | Madrid, Spain

Madrid’s streets surfaces were not just a visual feast for the eyes, but also an excellent way to brush up on my rusty Spanish vocabulary.

Even the most mundane of maintenance shaft covers were educational and beautiful to look at.

Firefighters!

Public lighting! (maintenance hole cover boasts Madrid’s coat of arms, featuring the city’s symbol – the bear with madroño tree)

Telephone systems! (Alright, I didn’t actually have to look this one up.)

Covers of canals, named after former Spanish monarchs!

And my all-time favorite design – natural gas!

Some other street markings were more ornamental than functional, like the gratitude plaques installed by the municipality in front of some businesses:

Here, the one in front of Casa Mira, a cake shop specializing in turrón (Spanish nougat) since 1855.

…. and the one at the Lhardy restaurant, established in 1839.

Others yet, perhaps most perplexingly, called for a quick gender self-identification:

All roads lead to… | Madrid, Spain

This is the figurative center of Spain – the precise point from which all of the country’s main roads radiate and are measured. Located in front of the former post office building at the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, the design of the marking echoes the semi-circular shape of the square itself, which is meant to look like the rising sun, with the streets radiating from it as its rays. Historically, the square has been a place for madrileños to gather, meet, welcome in the New Year, protest and even carry out assassinations.

So, it is just as well that, to get onto the Kilometer Zero marking, I had to literally jump over some police barricades, which were set up in order to keep out the protesters camping out on the square amid the demonstrations taking place at the time.

There was a less permanent, and slightly more ambiguous, marking on the ground nearby:

Something old, something new | Madrid, Spain

Images of the ground in and around the CaixaForum building in Madrid can only barely begin to suggest how thoroughly impressive the entire space is. But even they, on their own, manage to hint at the broad sweep, thoughtfulness and consideration for consistency with which the turn-of-the-century former industrial building and space around it was remodeled and turned into the present-day contemporary art center.

Located in the middle of Madrid’s three most import art venues – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, the CaixaForum building – originally a power station built in 1899 in the industrial style typical of Madrid at the time, was redesigned by the Swiss architectural duo Herzog & de Meuron (who also designed London’s Tate Modern 2, which used to be a power station as well).

In the renovation process, the old brick structure was hollowed out on the inside, lifted up off the ground and additional floors, encased with rusted steel, were constructed on top. The reconstruction, which took place between 2001 and 2007, created an entirely new and thoroughly impressive space while still giving a nod to the building’s historical appearance. Next to the main structure, in stark contrast to its brick and rusted steel façade, now stands a 24-meter high “vertical garden” – a large green wall, on which 15,000 plants from 250 species grow.

The garden, designed in collaboration with the botanist Patrick Blanc, is supposed to establish a connection with the Botanical Garden, located across the Paseo del Prado from the CaixaForum, while the wooden railing along the staircase inside the building somehow seems to organically tie the otherwise industrial interior to the garden.

I suspect that I would have been slower to notice the inspired way in which the building was transformed and the thoughtfulness with which it interacts with its surroundings if it weren’t for my recent dismal visit to Sofia’s newly opened, hastily “brought up to date” and hugely disappointing Museum of Contemporary Art.

Women on the verge* | Madrid, Spain

After being on the verge of missing it on several fronts, through a series of mishaps and very close calls – brought on by my and my friend Krissy’s disastrous organizational skills and total lack of ability to plan ahead, in the end we miraculously made it to Madrid and to our lovely friend Guadalupe’s wedding (Congratulations, Lupita!).

The wedding was beautiful – from the stunningly radiant bride and charming groom to the tiniest details. I especially enjoyed the service in the church, which had every Spanish-speaking guest cracking up while I was tearing up and, later, the Argentinean guests’ enthusiastic explosion on the dance floor.

My only regret was missing what, as far as I can predict, was probably my once-in-a-lifetime chance to wear a fascinator, something that eating copious amounts of deliciously refreshing gazpacho every day could compensate for only in part.

Believe it or not, in the three short days we spent in Madrid, we not only attended the wedding (and consumed many gazpachos), but also managed to do, see and visit many other fun things, which was bad for my feet but very good for taking pictures of the ground beneath them (links will be activated as posts go up):

• we strolled around the charming Las Letras neighborhood, with its literature-covered streets;

•  we popped into the contemporary CaixaForum museum;

•  we came upon the massive protests near Puerta del Sol and the precise point from which all of Spain’s main roads radiate and from which all road distances within the country are measured;

• but throughout, I kept looking down at Madrid’s street surfaces, which – even when serving the most mundane of purposes, were surprisingly ornate.

* In the wedding spirit of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,the title of this post is, obviously, borrowed from Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Although in this case Im rather referring to being on the verge of other things, namely – in the case of my friend Guadalupe, married life. As fate would have it, another very dear friend of mine was on the very same verge on the very same day, but across the ocean, in New York. I would have loved nothing more than to be able to make it to both weddings, but unfortunately the time difference of six hours, which proved too little, and other annoyingly practical constraints with time, money and distance made that impossible. A few days later, however, my wonderful friend Ji Sun shared this picture from the wedding in New York:

Not quite what I had in mind when I said I would be there in spirit, but quite touching nonetheless.

La belleza de las letr¡ah!s | Madrid, Spain

As somebody who is obsessed fascinated with writing and words, on the one hand, and interesting ground surfaces, on the other, I know too well how rarely the two actually overlap. So, I was enthralled when I realized that we are staying in Madrid’s Barrio de Las Letras (Neighborhood of the Writers). The area used to house some of the great authors of Madrid’s 16th-century Golden Age of letters — Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, and its pedestrian streets are now covered in brass-lettered poems, quotations and literary passages written by them and other Spanish writers.

¡Ah!, indeed.

I vaguely remembered walking in the area and being very charmed by the literature-paved streets the first time I was in the city over six years ago and, although I had no idea which part of Madrid they were in, I intended to find them again this time around. So, you can imagine my rapture when, on my first night out, while running around the city, I gazed down to find myself standing atop one such a brass-lettered passage. Adding to the glee was the charmingly obliging Spaniard who surprised me by throwing himself onto the ground and into the frame as I took a picture.

As I walked around the neighborhood the next day, I realized the poems and passages were everywhere, they were too numerous to read carefully, even if a better grasp of Spanish on my part could make that possible.

Some of the writing and writers were easily recognizable nonetheless.

But mostly, I enjoyed spotting interesting words (whose meaning I had to look up later). I especially loved ¡the inverted exclamation marks!

Here, la belleza = the beauty, made more beautiful when squeezed between ¡ and !.

Others, even without much punctuation, just looked beautiful, even though I had no idea what they meant:

(Turns out this is the first stanza from the poem “The dark swallows will return” by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.)

For a while, I could not get enough! But eventually, I stopped snapping photos every few meters, put my camera away and just enjoyed walking on top of literature, literary.

Disorientation is loss of the East | Sozopol, Bulgaria

As I walked along the harbor – my feet still unsteady from the rocky boat ride, and watched the sun setting to the West, I was reminded of a passage from the book that gave the name to this blog – Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet:

“Disorientation is loss of the East. Ask any navigator: the east is what you sail by. Lose the east and you lose your bearings, your certainties, your knowledge of what is and what may be, perhaps even your life. Where was that star you followed to the manger? That’s right. The east orients.”

That’s the official version. The language says so, and you should never argue with the language.

But let’s just suppose. What if the whole deal – orientation, knowing where you are, and so on – what if it’s all a scam? What if all of it – home, kinship, the whole enchilada – is just the biggest, most truly global, and centuries-oldest piece of brainwashing? Suppose that it’s only when you dare to let go that your real life begins? When you’re whirling free of the mother ship, when you cut your ropes, slip your chain, step off the map, go absent without leave, scram, vamoose, whatever: suppose that it’s then, and only then, that you’re actually free to act! To lead the life nobody tells you how to live, or when, or why. In which nobody orders you to go forth or die for them, or for god, or comes to get you because you broke one of the rules, or because you’re one of those people who are, for reasons which unfortunately you can’t be given, simply not allowed. Suppose you’ve got to go through the feeling of being lost, into the chaos and beyond; you’ve got to accept the loneliness, the wild panic of losing your moorings, the vertiginous terror of the horizon spinning round and round like the edge of a coin tossed in the air.

You won’t do it. Most of you won’t do it. The world’s head laundry is pretty good at washing brains: Don’t jump off that cliff don’t walk through that door don’t step into that waterfall don’t take that chance don’t step across that line don’t ruffle my sensitivities I’m warning you now don’t make me mad you’re doing it you are making me mad. You won’t have a chance you haven’t got a prayer you’re finished you’re history you’re less than nothing, you’re dead to me, dead to your whole family your nation your race, everything you ought to love more than life and listen to like your master’s voice and follow blindly and bow down before and worship and obey; you’re dead, you hear me, forget about it, you stupid bastard, I don’t even know your name.

But just imagine you did it. You stepped off the edge of the earth, or through the fatal waterfall, and there it was: the magic valley at the end of the universe, the blessed kingdom of the air. Great music everywhere. You breathe the music, in and out, it’s your element now. It feels better than “belonging in your lungs.”

Just in case you needed another reason.

When the Zeitgeist falls out of step with the times | Sofia, Bulgaria

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the inspiring intervention with the Soviet Red Army monument in the center of Sofia. Overnight, an anonymous graffiti artist transformed a part of the monument, which until then had featured a group of heavily armed Russian soldiers and partisans going into battle, into a colorful posse of comic book characters, superheroes and popular culture icons. Spray-painted underneath the unlikely congregation, a caption read: “In step with the times.”

The short-lived intervention was not just masterfully carried out, but also managed, with a single sweep, to raise issues that have been brewing for years on so many different levels: from pure aesthetics to discussions about contemporary art, national symbols, history and politics.

I thought it was brilliant.

Just four days later, the superheroes disappeared as quickly and as mysteriously as they appeared. In a move that must have put the guerrilla graffiti artist to shame with its swiftness and secrecy, the Sofia Municipality had the monument scrubbed clean in the middle of the night.

A couple of weeks after the superheroes’ short-lived appearance, I went to see the monument again – now mostly back to its usual black. Although only traces of colorful paint now testify for its brief transformation, they still stand as a reminder that this momentous (and momentary) transformation ever happened. Although public debate on the intervention has mostly died down by now, the passing of time seems to be doing nothing to diminish my fascination with it.

Not entirely by chance, my visit to the monument was preceded by a trip to the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Sofia, which – in what is surely not a mere coincidence either, opened on the exact day on which the soldiers and partisans woke up as Superheroes. But even without this contrast, Sofia’s new museum of contemporary art is a confusing and sad place.

Visitors are first met by a stone plaque that reads “Museum of Contemporary Art,” which looks more like a tombstone on a grave than anything else. A path among decidedly un-contemporary sculptures then leads to the museum’s entrance. The turn-of-the-century, former arsenal building has been brought up to date in the most superficial and unengaged way I could imagine – by renovating its original façade and smacking some iron and glass appendixes onto it. Inside, the opening exhibition isn’t any less perplexing: in one corner of the space, a couple of Christo and Jeanne-Claude lithographs uncomfortably rub shoulders with a few silver-framed Chagalls and Picassos. The main exhibition consists of decorative ceramics from Norway.

I was dumbfounded, the earnest assurances from the ladies working in the museum that contemporary sculptures will be put in the park behind the museum and the current exhibition will be replaced by a permanent, presumably contemporary one, doing little to ease my uneasy state.

To add insult to injury, as a final stroke, the abbreviated name commonly used to refer to the museum in Bulgarian is SAMSI (Sofia Arsenal – Museum for Contemporary Art). In Bulgarian, ‘sam si’ means ‘you are alone’.

Traveling without moving | Byala, Bulgaria

For all its lackluster, the otherwise uninspiring Black Sea resort town of Byala had a surprising variety of exciting grounds.

I couldn’t find out exactly what period the intricately arranged pavements in the town’s otherwise dismal center date from, though, judging from their quaintness, I would guess that they are from the socialist times.

Byala’s architecture is an unappealing mix of communist-era rest homes and community buildings, new marble hotels, uninspired (and often unfinished) private houses, shoddy shops and folky restaurants that border on tacky.

But at least the town seems pretty consistent with its pavements, including those that will be laid out in the future.

One of the place’s saving graces for me was, predictably, the sea (although a long hike up and down steep paths and roads under construction was required to get to and from it).

What also filled my five-day sojourn in Byala were the series of workshops, presentations and actions as part of a trans-border project on mobility and movement. It was run in part by uqbar, the same people who organized the Transient Spaces / Tourist Syndrome summer camp in Palanga, Lithuania, which I had the luck and pleasure to be a part of almost two years ago and which, in a way, provided the initial spark for the start of this blog.

But the most thrilling thing about being in Byala, by far, was the chance to see a few of the lovely people from Palanga again, meet several new exciting people and hang out with them (and infect them with the feet-photo obsession).

I’m still buzzing with excitement.