Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why I Love Cities

This is why I love cities! There is so much going on, so much happening, that even when you are without a plan, and wandering aimlessly, something takes hold of you – opportunities present themselves. There's always something going on. If a babysitter and some kids can find the Marvel Comics representation of the thunder god Thor, then anything is possible!

I started out my day with a map spread out on a table, beside my toast, croissant, hot chocolate, and juice. What would I do? Where would I head? Most of the museums and galleries were closed today. After all, it was Sunday. Who would possibly expect something to be open during a Sunday? Such thoughts have no place here. That's like assuming things should be open past 2:30 in the afternoon. Or 14:30 as I'm coming to think of it. I do like this European tendency to use twenty four hour time.

There was one museum, the museum of archeology. It was not open open on Sundays, but also free. Fair enough, seemed like a good starting point. So off I went, walking towards the museum, until I realized that I was lazy. Sure I'd slept for nearly 11 hours, trying to reclaim some much needed sleep (not enough – I'm still dead tired. It's the curse of the free breakfast. Sure you think it's a deal, but then you realize that it's forcing you out of bed early – and once you're up it's just so hard to convince yourself to head back to sleep. One of the athletes here said it has something to do with all the carbs. I don't know anything about such things. Sounds like Dr. Atkin's nonsense to me. But maybe?

So my walk was cut short, and instead I headed down the stairs to the subway, buying myself a ten ride pass. I'd need to take the tube to the airport, and I'd probably find some good reasons to use up the other eight, provided that I pre-paid for them. So now I was shuttling along to the museum, and that is something I can't complain about. The subways here are roomy, uncrowded (despite the fact that population is double that of Barcelona) and the lines all tend to run into one another. And the changes? They don't require a marathoners endurance to get from one line to the other.

Topside I headed towards the museum. What I saw was the National Library, library museum. Interesting, but not what I was looking for. I checked my map. This was the right spot. Well, I was off to see a museum, so why not check this one out, and then scratch my head some more.

I had to pass through a metal detector, and have my bag x-rayed before I could enter. Security at the airport slightly terrifies me, if this is how they treat you at a museum. But very well. I made it through, and in I went. I saw some picutres, some books, some printing presses. Look – I'm sure it was great, and really intersting. Other people seemed very engaged. There was even a large architecture exhibit. But all the information was in Spanish, and I couldn't figure out why I should care.

There was one wall chronicling the history of recordable media though – from rock to Blu-Ray. That was an interestng sight. There was a record shaped object with holes cut out in it, like for a player piano. I would have liked to know more about that – but, again, all in Spanish.

Aside from that all I really noticed was a copy of Alice in Wonderland, from 1935. I shrugged. My copy's older.

I left the museum. I checked my map again. Nope, I was definitely in the right place. There was a three dimensional image of the building drawn on the map and everything. Mind you, the words Archeology museum were printed at the rear of the building – but... no. It couldn't be? Could it?

Walking around, I found the entrance there. Yes – two museums, one building. Fair enough. In I went, after being scanned again. And I was instructed to check my shoulder bag in the locker room – or at least I think I was. You know what, I bet he was just pointing at the coat check and saying what a lovely gent the guy behind the counter was. Playing ignorant tourist, I smiled, and walked in, bag on my shoulder.

Here's the thing – it's normally gender profiling that makes me have to check my bag. Women are never asked, with their huge purses. But I am. I've staged private protests, explained logic, and flat out refused creating all havoc for minimum wage employees the world over about this issue. But they've always spoken English. I figured it would be best to just avoid the issue all together here. Plus, there were men with backpacks on, so forget you – ticket man.

Inside – and this is why I go to museums on free days, not pay money for who knows what days – I was quite disappointed. It was one floor. Four rooms. And not a whole lot to it. Yawn – the only thing that made me think, well isn't this lovely, was a bull mask just like the one Ensign Ro Laren wears in True Blood. Once more, I headed back outside. It was 12:30. I had assumed on the museum to keep me occupied until at least two. Mind you, I had expected the museum to be bigger than a quarter of one floor of a building. But, you know, not everything works out that way.

So what to do now? Where to go next.

On my map was a building that looked like a coliseum. Should be neat to see, I thought. It was called the Plaza de las Ventas. Probably a fancy looking shopping mall or something. Still, it was shaped like a coliseum in my little map, so I thought if nothing else it would be good for a picture, and help justify the purchase of my metro card.

When I got there, I noticed some stands out from selling trinkets, and food. There was also a small line. A small line at a mall? What ridiculousness was this. Then I noticed they were selling tickets. Then I noticed a sign with the word toros on it. I may not know much spanish, but popular culture has taught me that that means bulls.

I had my assumptions, but I asked someone who just bought a ticket (who i heard speaking english) what they were all about. He started to run away from me. Honestly, a thirty year old man kicking up into a ridiculous trot. I asked again. He said they were for a bull fight. Indeed I was correct. Then I asked how much they cost. Fleeing, he shouted back, ask at the window.

Was he in a hurry or the biggest jerk I've yet met? Who can say. Maybe he was a pogonophobic.

I walked up to the window and asked how much tickets were. I was handed a list of prices ranging from 1 euro 90, to 139 euro. I could make no sense of what anything meant, or what seats were what. I just asked for a cheap ticket that wasn't terrible. The three euro ninety cent one was selected for me. I was told to report back thirty minutes before the fight at five thirty to get in on time.

I had no idea what to expect. I was both excited, and terrified. Cultural experience!

But that was still hours away. What would I do? There was something that looked like the C.N. Tower on my map – the Torre Espana. It was just on the other side of a rather large park. Time for a walk. The park provided a lovely walk under the shade of large trees, providing a lovely view of – the six lane highway. Oh Spain, will you never cease. But at least you were a relatively safe distance from the highway at this point. A good thirty yards or so, down the hill. When you were near the end of the park, you found yourself four inches from it. A literal four inches. And you were lower than them. The wheels thundered by at about eye level. And yes, it was quite distressing, to be sure.

Changing my route a bit, for a safer walk, I quickly neared the tower. It was kind of like the one in Toronto – except covered in satellite dishes it was also a terrible prop from a Science Fiction B-Movie. You know the space ship from Close Encounters? Yeah – I'm pretty sure it was used for that.

But when I started to truly believe it on some level, I thought I realized that I was in much need of sustenance. Food was a priority. I had not eaten since the ever so light breakfast. Being Madrid there were no grocery stores, no matter where I walked – but there were a number of tiny Chinese shops that are like a cross between a drug store, grocery store, and the back of a dollar store where they sell all the random hardware crap nobody would ever want – until for some reason you actually need a random piece.

For four euro, I picked up a giant jug of Sunny D (which I have drunk more of this week than in my life combined – it provides me with anti-scurvy goodness.) a baguette, an orange Nestea (fantastic!) and more chorizo. My sandwich would be constructed, and devoured back at the bull ring.

I found a nice bench in the shade – taking a moment to appreciate just how important shade was. In the sun, you would sweat, and in the shade you would shiver. I opted for shiver. I am a creature build for cold weather survival and operation. I adapt quickly. For the next two hours I continued to read my novel (thirty pages from the end) and feasted – while drinking my fill of vitamin C enriched orange drink.

And then the gates opened. I'd like to say how exciting it was to head into the stadium, but I'm not going to lie. That feeling would have to wait about fifteen minutes as I stumbled around trying to find my seat. I will never make fun of people who get confused in the Skydome ever again. Amazing how confusing something so simple can be when you have no idea, whatsoever, what's going on. I tried to match words on the wall with words on the ticket. No such luck. I kept walking up and up, and finally I found my seats. For seats cheaper than my lunch, they were surprisingly good. Except there was a huge pole in my way.

For thirty minutes as people filed in, I crossed my finger no one would sit beside me. No one did. I was able to shuffle to make my pole problem disappear.

The seats, as they were, were drawn on with paint, along a cold concrete bench. You could rent (buy? I'm not sure) cushions for twenty euro. Yeah – no thanks. Only a few people opted for this. That would increase ticket prices a distressing amount.

And then the event began. It began with pageantry, and display, as the matador, and his helpers wandered around the ring. They were engaged in some form of ritual dance. The whole bullfight stems from the ritualized sacrifice of the animals, you see. Bull fighting, I was told, was more of an art than a sport. Sure thing.

When the first bull was let into the ring I was immediately distressed to find that cartoons had lied to me. This was not one man versus a bull. There were five people all tiring the bull out, and hiding when it came close. A trumpet blasted. Two men on horseback came out with spears. The bull ultimately charged the horse – protected with some sort of mattress blanket to protect it from the horns – and received a stabbing for its efforts. Two stabs, and then the trumpets blared again.

A man came out with two weighted darts. At close range, they were stabbed into the bulls neck. This was repeated two more times, before the trumpets blared.

Now it was time for the matador to come on the scene alone. He danced with the bull, calling it forward, and engaging in what cartoons had taught me bull fighting truly was. All of this lasted between twenty and thirty minutes. At that point a sword was thrusted into the bull, killing it.

Just like the end of the fifth inning, the worlds fasted grounds crew came out, repainted the circle in the stadium, and hooked the bulls corpse up to horses that quickly pulled it from the field.

I learned later, thanks to wikipedia, that the open round was for the matador to observe the bulls behaviour. The spears were to weaken its neck muscles, so it couldn't thrust as much, and the darts reinforced this. The final stage was performed with ritualized movements. This would all come later though. At the time, I was just disillusioned that there was no contest here. It was just systematic slaughter.

And the first fight was the hardest to watch. The inexperienced matador stabbed, nearly ten time, at the bulls head before it finally went down. The crowd booed, and hissed. This was not a good fight. Thoughts of disgust flowed through me as I watched it.

The next would be far easier. And far better.

A skilled matador took the field next, not relying on henchmen to perform his darting task. He performed with flair, and much crotch swaggeling, thrusting towards the animal in his shiny fifteen thousand dollar costume. At the end, it took only one blow to thrust the sword through the bulls back, penetrating its heart.

The feelings of disgust were leaving. I was acclimatizing to what I was watching. Strange how easy that is some time.

There would be six fights in total. And the crowd would both boo, and cheer – and yell at the programmers for producing such low quality animals. Twice the matadors refused to continue the fight, as the bulls had no energy left in them (never mind they'd been stabbed deeply in the back) and were herded off the field. Their fate is unknown to me – but probably not good.

Six bulls killed on field, before my eyes.

And it's hard to say if it was a good experience or not. I don't think I'd go back – but I don't think I'd say I'd forever stay away. What I found sick at first became much easier to watch. And I started to pick up different parts of what was happening.

Luckily I didn't have to think much on the moral implications. I could just chalk it up as an important cultural experience, and be on my way. Who needs to over think these things?


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