I’m just waking up now after my second cafe con leche, hitting my stride with this 30 minute group “sprint” we do. The caffeine lifts me temporarily out of my baseline state of apathy. I’m at the Writer’s group that meets on the top floor of this cafe in Chueca: the trendy, gay-friendly neighborhood of Madrid. I miss Adderall, the jolt of power, of feeling in control and being the master of my universe, sucking in the adulation and adoration of every one around me. Commanding presence and respect. That fiendy energy, dopamine flooding the bloodstream, it never mattered who I was talking to or what I was studying. With Adderall, every thing had the potential to be known and understood, inside and out: 9/11 conspiracy theories, management styles, psychological strategies.
I am constantly in this state of being a passive observer of action, engagement. My drug use counter acted that. I played out these delusions of Grandeur like I was the Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or Jordan Belfort in the Wolf of Wall Street. I’ve been overdoing it with Intercambios lately (a meeting for coffee where we both teach each other our respective native languages). Most of these girls and guys tell me that I am the first intercambio they have ever been on. “Its rare to have an Intercambio with a person from NYC! Que guay! (how cool!)” I smile my smug, self satisfied smile and play the part of a metropolitan, sophisticated 20-something, as if my geographical location could make me a more interesting person.
I went to my therapist last night, the travel/health insurance I have here covers every penny of it here. Even though I was never diagnosed with anything, as their manual states I need to have to warrant full coverage, oh well. She has the purest of intentions and is action oriented, grounded firmly in reality, whereas I want to philosophize and commiserate over every reaction, every glance, every annoyance and all my paranoid delusions. I want to give sermons praising my God of Sadness, brooding, and depression. She doesn’t stand for my proclamations of paralyzing self-pity. She wants concrete answers and solutions.
She’s essentially the one person in Madrid I can speak to on deeper level and let out some my cultural adjustment rage. Most notably, the lack of good take-out food, the slow waiters, getting off at the wrong bus stops. “Espera! Este es mi parada!” – “Wait, this is my stop.” I shout from the back of the bus. Because I fall asleep on my commute to work and don’t click the button in time. They don’t stop at a station if no one is there to get on and no one has clicked the button to get off. I admit this is ONE instance where you are more efficient, Spain.
I am constantly being looked at like I am mentally challenged by any number of service people and friends because I don’t have the perfect Castilian Spanish. I will repeat the same word 4 times, and then tweak the tiniest intonation of a letter and “Ohh, tu dijiste CalorAdos. Ahora entiendo.”- “Ohh you said CalorAdos. Now I understand.”
Spaniards say “Que has dicho?” – “What have you said?” or “Que has hecho?”- “What have you done?” Referring to an act or spoken sentence from 10 seconds before. There is an obvious parallel in the way British English contrasts to American English and the way Spain Spanish contrasts to Mexican Spanish.
As Americans we would say, “What did you say?” Brits would say “What have you said?” referring to something in the last 10 seconds, and this sounds overly proper to Americans. There is an attitude that permeates Spain’s culture that they possess the best way of speaking Spanish and all other countries dialects and accents are inferior. But then again, many Spaniards have said to me that Americans completely neglect to pronounce their R’s, and we drag out consonant sounds. There is a reason that American girls fall for the British accent at a much higher rate than British girl falls for the American accent in guys. I have accent envy. The foreign and new is appealing because we are all in search of an escape from our own one-dimensional lens of culture. Only one lens through which to view the world is just not enough.
Upon leaving the therapist’s office I think she is agitated at my constant statements that I can do her job better than she can. Also, my many refrains that her point about my self-fulfilling prophecy is just common sense and a simple conclusion to arrive at.
“Well, you’re essentially a life coach then, if your just telling me activities to do and that my paranoid reactions to events are not based in reality.” I said, in a moody tone.
“Peter, I think you should take a week to decide if I’m the best counselor for you to be seeing. I would not be offended if you decide to see someone else.”
It is cathartic to regurgitate rapid-fire all my repressed anger and resentments, the recurring dreams about high school and my friends, coaches and classmates that I never felt I was worthy of, and the anger at years squandered.
As I am within a few years of the big 30, this milestone and dividing line of adulthood, I am starting to put my foot on the accelerator. I am more aware of my mortality with every passing day and the anxiety of leaving this world with a legacy of impotence and cowardice. Every day I write in my journal “Contemplate my death.” at the end of every entry. I will write it multiple times some days. It serves as my mantra, like “Hare Krishna” for the Hindus, and the Beatles, because Beatles songs encapsulate the extent of my knowledge of Hinduism. Sometimes I will add in a “Contemplate dust, bones, ashes, dirt, blackness, annihilation, what was my state before I was born? Nothingness.” I try to repeat it and pound it into my head that I’m going to be ashes in the ground in 50 years, 20, or 5, who knows. What will it take for me to get it through my head that this is all finite? “Its just a ride” as the fiery Comedian Bill Hicks famously said, who spoke out with rage and genius satire against the tyranny and hidden corruption of the Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior’s regimes, dying of cancer at age 32.
When you’re young: the teenage years into your early 20s, life appears as this magical red carpet, extending out into these bright white pillowy clouds on a sunny day. Nothing will get in your way and there is so much time to recreate yourself, to be better, to create this ideal self that lives in your head that you have never gotten around to actually becoming, because its too hard, its uncomfortable. Putting my writing out there for people to evaluate and have reactions to, is hard, but its the only way to connect on a deeper level, to let myself be exposed and vulnerable. There are thousands of comedians and musicians with stage fright who never share the full extent of their gift. Harry Nilsson was one of the most talented musicians and singers of the 20th Century, but he had stage fright so he never did a live show, dying of alcoholism at age 54. There is the bored, repressed, borderline homicidal cubical monkey who needs to quit his job before marriage, and children descend on him and he can only long for the big bad world out there from his cage in safe suburbia.
Its bad form to ask about ex’s on a first date or intercambio but sometimes I try to finesse my way into a transition and put on my best “naive and good-natured” face. Its usually the only thing that can keep my eyelids from closing and falling asleep right on the table with some of these girls. Compound that with my brain fog and exhaustion from listening to screeching adolescents annoying me all day long and my irritation is set on high.
I just moved into an apartment with an American so now I have one roommate instead of 6 Spanish speaking roommates. Its a bit easier to get along.
I guilt the prospective Intercambios into coming to the bar down the block from me called the Taproom, they have a wide range of craft beers on tap, which is a rarity in Madrid. Spaniards are repetitive not only with their food but also their beer. Usually they only have Mahou, or Estrella Galicia beer at any given bar here.
“So you invited me to a craft beer bar, but you don’t drink.” She (and many) say.
“Yeah, well its one of the few bars in Madrid that are somewhat modern and resemble the bars in New York City. I didn’t feel like walking too far on my injured foot either.” I say. I order a Sprite at the bar, and I assume the bartender is thinking the same thing as my language exchange partner, with his thinly veiled scowl when I am 5 cents short.
I have a friend Maria that is from outside Madrid but we meet once or twice a week. We went to see the movie Arrival last week which is especially relevant as it is about how the patterns of language shape our perception of the world, and limiting yourself to only one language limits your understanding of a wide range of emotion and ways of communicating concepts and meaning. I’m still processing the message of the movie.
If I were to pick any of the people I am friends with out of a hat, there’s a 50% chance she’ll be named Maria, being attributed to the heavy Catholic influence in Spain with the Virgin Mary and all. So I don’t have to go to the trouble of changing her name on here like I have done with everyone else.
“As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to take a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know that it’s happening we are forty, fifty, sixty…
-Karl Ove Knausgaard- My Struggle, Book 1
My Struggle is one of my favorite book collections, there are 6 books in total. It is a semi-autobiographical work about his own life, his family, his problems with alcohol, an emotionally negligent father and the narrator’s inability to relate to most other humans, with many long tangents about the meaning of life and death and the intricacies of different kinds of art spliced throughout. The narrator has an unlimited supply of existential anxiety, a strong desire for solitude, pinprick sensitivity, and a poignant knack for finding beauty in the most simple happenings of every day life. I have found it to be a the most hyper-real representation of minute to minute emotion that I have encountered, and I could not stop reading. It is translated from Norwegian but I think the translator Don Bartlett is masterful in his rendering of the original. And as you might guess, he has a melancholic temperament that ranks up there with the best (worst) of them: Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, John Cheever.