“I Have Been A Long Time in a Strange Country”

This un-posted post was written (by me) in 2015, but in many ways still feels relevant. This week, Olive mentioned living in shoulds–it’s amazing(ly depressing) how little my own shoulds have changed over the past four years, though I have very much come to terms with the fact that Spain is my first and nº1 love.


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September is here, fall in full-swing.

This week, Pope Francis will make his first visit to The United States. He will spend the weekend in Philadelphia, birthplace of America and home of the most beautiful city hall in the entire world. Major roads and rail stations will be closed. Businesses will shut their doors early on Friday. Some employees will escape, others will stick around. SEPTA has sold its “Pope Passes” and The Local News stations have spent weeks Prepping Us For The Pontiff.

Me? Pope willing, I’ll board an airplane on Sunday and fly to Madrid. It may just be the most bitter-sweet September yet.

September, for the past three years, has been a game of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Spoiler alert: I go. I always go. This year I’ll go with a sense of urgency that hasn’t accompanied me much during the past three years, or at least not in a way that was so difficult to quiet. You should earn more, you should do more, you can’t live this way forever, it says.

I’ve become a friend to uncertainty. In Spain, in the fall, I miss the smell of Philadelphia, of dying things, of leaves and the dreams of a summer passed. By Christmas, the only thing that might possibly satisfy my homesickness would be an opportunity to curse at the psychotic driving skills of a soccer mom in a mall parking lot. Any mall would do. Wishing the Dunkin Donuts barista a Happy Holiday! might also suffice. Then there are the bagels. The bagels, I never stop missing.

By Spring, I come to terms with the fact that the things I actually miss the most cannot be touched, screamed at, or eaten. I miss the simple comfort of people understanding me. I mean the quiet, pure understanding that happens when you grab coffee with someone who knew you when you had a uni-brow. I mean the half-cultural, half-sentimental way you just seem to get along with strangers who experienced Snowpocalypse ’11 and know who The Mummers are. In Spain, there are no Mummers. My brows are almost always well-groomed.

I believed that things would “make more sense” when I came home this summer.  That’s what they usually do. I tend to fall in love with Pennsylvania all over again, while she’s green and people aren’t afraid to go outside. By August, I begin to imagine a life in which I live in an apartment with hardwood floors and have a job I love that pays well. I go shopping at the market on Market, where there is never any shortage of artisan cream-cheese. I buy shoes without worrying about the weight of them. It’s a dream like any other: romantic, unrealistic even in its simplicity, and probably misguided.

Because, despite all the doubt, there is Spain. What happens when I think about leaving Spain “for good?” The most heart-wrenching, ear-grating flamenco cantes begin to play. I stifle back tears and declare that I was insane to entertain the idea. The things I miss while I’m away turn into terrifying potential futures. Like, the check comes after dinner without my asking, and no one thinks its weird. The stores are open on Sundays and there are more brands of bread than I know what to do with, each of them more wildly unnecessary than the last. I remember all the times I’ve sung the praises of choice while I’m away and start to feel ill. The “work ethic” I so missed turns into the disturbing phrase “two weeks vacation, if I’m lucky.” People often say it proudly.

In “After Some Years,” W.S. Merwin writes:

I have been a long time in a strange country.
The natives have been kind, in their weird climate,
Receiving me among them as one of themselves.
Their virtues are different from ours, and in some ways
Superior. I have lost the sense
Of absurdity regarding many of their odd customs.
I get their wry lingo tangled up with my own.
Maybe you have to go far away
To learn where it is that names you. The fruits here
Are excellent; better than at home.
I can no longer taste them. I would be glad
To be standing in a drab city of my recollection
Where no one but newsboys would name this place
And they mispronouncing. I hope I may
Before too long. Before the speech here has become
Natural to me, even more so
Than the tongue I was born to, before these
Sights cease to be more foreign and are more familiar
Than any I can recall. And while I
Can still clearly remember that at home too the world
Is made of strangers. For I do not wish
To head back into an expectation
Of anything better than is there, and struggling
With some illusion, find my own place
Is as far away as ever. But it should be
Soon. Already I defend hotly
Certain of our indefensible faults,
Resent being reminded; already in my mind
Our language becomes freighted with a richness
No common tongue could offer, while the mountains
Are like nowhere on earth, and the wide rivers.

Replace mountains with mummers, and it might have been me who wrote the poem. Perhaps my time will come, sooner rather than later, to return to my land, but one thing has certainly become clear this summer: the world is made of strangers. In my daydreams, I had forgotten that. As foreign as Spanish words feel in my mouth, I cannot imagine them being anywhere else. One day, it might hurt to speak this language—but I cannot imagine a day without madre mias or spirited political diatribes—for as much as I hate them, they, too, have their place. I cannot imagine a life without the overflowing enthusiasm Spaniards seem to have for both the inane and the profound.

Rosa María was my host mother in Granada and, one night while she wondered at my insistence upon romantically pursuing a tall, dumb elf, I informed her that el amor es una mentiraLove is a lie. That’s the sort of joke that only a twenty year old will tell to a sixty-something widow. She corrected me. El amor es peligroso. Love is dangerous.

How right you were, Rosa.

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American Healthcare & A Few Useless Book Reviews

Happy Saturday, from me and my bed.

Last night I was riding up Ribera de Curtidores on a Mad Bici (not sponsored), feeling on top of the world. I was zooming past the Friday night drunks and just about ready to ride that bike to the top of my five flights of stairs, except that the bike weighs 200 kilos, and is not mine, so I left it at the station.

And then I checked my phone.

I had a new message from my mother, saying something along the lines of…

“Hello dear, I’m sorry to say that a bill for 900 dollars arrived to the house for you.”

To which I responded: “I REFUSE. I WILL NEVER COME BACK TO AMERICA AGAIN.”

900 dollars for a medical test that took all of 2 seconds and involved inserting a common q-tip into my vag.

Now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to inform y’all that I’ve been on a big reading kick recently. Here’s what I’ve been getting into for the past 21 days:

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
    by Mark Haddon
    Read on a Sunday afternoon, after a 5K. Heartwarming, eye-opening, easy-to-follow, and so on, and so forth.
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
    by Truman Capote
    This short, seminal classic had me hooked and is perfect for morning metro rides. The word seminal sounds like it has something to do with semen and, after flipping through the dictionary, I realize that it can and does. Seminal (adj.): pertaining to, containing, or consisting of semen. Awesome! That’s a great segue into my next book….
  • The Gene: An Intimate History
    by Siddharta Mukherjee
    Did you know that, for a time, the prevailing theory of genetics was called preformism? Scientists believed that semen contained tiny pre-formed humans that, once deposited into the uterus, would simply begin inflating into their mature form, a la Magic Grow Toys:
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    I happen to love scientific history and this book has me considering going back to school. 10/10!

Keep reading, keep biking.

Love,

Seo

Gimme Champagne and Some Filthy Rich Lovers of Paint

Last Spring, I told anyone who would listen that I wanted to open an art gallery. I don’t know anything about the logistics of this process, but I do know that I love thick paint, tortured and methodical artists alike, and the prospect of entering a market that involves aesthetics, occasional political engagement, and investors with grossly expendable income. When my boss, who knew nothing of this dream of mine, offered my coworker and I a VIP pass to ARCO Madrid, I said YES baby, a million times yes.

I imagined it this way: I’d be welcomed with a glass of champagne, on a red carpet; under golden light, I’d rub elbows with Madrid’s elite. Maybe, I thought, if I managed to perfect an attitude of both intrigue and boredom, I might get my foot in the door of some cool Nordic gallery. In reality, the VIP pass meant we had access to a free coat-check service, a complementary rum cocktail, and an overpriced lunch. No complaints there, of course, but the nature of  my personality meant that I approached no one and networked primarily with the walls. Also, the lights were fluorescent.

By the end of the afternoon, I was no longer sure what counted as art. Was the cleaning woman part of a performance piece? weren’t the fire extinguishers arranged rather evocatively? what could that man’s bald spot possibly represent? (Defiance in the face of destiny, perhaps.) And how about that contrast between the service-woman and the suit-clad executive? Might we take a moment to reflect upon the many uses there are for hands?

I am told, anyway, that this is a rather common side effect of attending contemporary art fairs.

America, Part 6, Day 2

New York City’s immensity is never more apparent than when navigating the thousand-lane road from JFK to Philadelphia, PA on a Saturday afternoon. Twenty-eight years of knowing the Northeast and I’m still shocked to find out that this airport is not, in fact, just across the road from Newark.

“Shit is entrenched,” says Scott.

Once passed the Holland tunnel and ten minutes of marveling at man’s ambition, the road is ours.

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It’s good to be back.

At Heathrow, the Brits were on their best behavior, gifting smiles and biscuits.

At JFK, the line-master instructed:

“If ya customs form ain’t finished, get outta the line. Ya wasting peoples time.”

Any other welcome would have been a lie.

Follow Your Heart and You’ll Always Feel Delirious

I love you under the rain and under the clouds and after midnight on Tuesday nights. I love you at lunchtime and on Sunday mornings before the hung-over crawl out from under their bed-sheets. I love you even and sometimes especially when I don’t, forgiving you your excessive escalators and stale Saturday winds.

I ignored you when we met. Skinny from silliness and afraid of everything, you were too wild for me, full of chatter. Five years later I hauled my suitcase up the stairs in Tirso de Molina. There was a light rain falling. Men were shouting and selling: paragua, paragua, paragua! I was lost but didn’t care. I would remember this moment for many months, especially while listening to shitty guided meditations. We stayed in a one room studio in Arganzuela. For three nights a madwoman banged trashcans and howled “Arabian Nights” beneath the window.

In August you were deserted. Queens with pencil-thin eyebrows smoked in doorways and danced chotis and I couldn’t stop smiling. The metro back was empty but for one sleeping woman. I looked up at the ceiling in my airport hotel and wondered what was wrong with me.

In September I had a bed and nowhere to rest my head. Waking up to you made me happier than I’d been for a long time. Sure I was lonely but I was also awake. Friends and strangers came and went. Gran Vía was a trap. I stumbled through January. Some nights the windows shook.

Last March, J asked what was wrong with me: why did I have to walk so far if the metro was right in front of us? It must have been one of those early Spring days, still cold enough for a coat, everybody falling in love. It took me seventy-five minutes to get home and I listened to Nino Bravo most of the way. Here he is, singing his way down the Paseo del Prado:


And there I was, trying real hard not to spread my arms out and sing right along with him. Maybe I should have. I’m here now only because I decided to honor impulse, after all. One year later and many are the afternoons that I still feel like singing up and down your hills.

Happy anniversary, Madrid.

Love,

Seo