Vamos España 1 of 3: The Bear and the Strawberry Tree (Madrid)

Vamos España 1 of 3: The Bear and the Strawberry Tree (Madrid)

“A strawberry tree? Preposterous!” I thought, having never heard of one before. The strawberries I am familiar with grow on vines in cool climates, hugging the mountaintops of Baguio City. So when I learned that Madrid’s coat of arms features a bear rearing up to prise strawberries off a tree, I was intrigued.

Other than the name, it turns out the strawberry tree and the common strawberry as we know it are completely unrelated. Part of the evergreen family, the strawberry tree is found in the Mediterranean and parts of Western Europe and is favoured by bears and other animals for its fragrant and luscious fruit, which look like spiky little lychees. One particularly interesting tidbit is, if left to ripen on the branch, its fruits start to ferment. This can result in some very drunk bears, which is apt because it is entirely possible (and ridiculously easy) for a person to get drunk in Madrid, and not just on alcohol.

Like meticulously aged rum, Madrid is intoxicating. It’s old, a Miss Havisham kind of old, an aging but elegant aunt draped in all her finery, surrounded by art and the mementoes of the past, smelling of cigarettes*, helpless against the slow march of time, yet glorious despite its slow decay.

And it’s grand. Boy, is it grand. It’s a sprawling city filled with ostentatious town plazas, wide avenidas,large rotundas and sprawling parks and gardens; with daunting castles and baroque aristocratic homes that reflect the power and pride of the Habsburg – and, later, the Bourbon – dynasty, and the elevation of Spain in its prime.

It was, of course, virtually impossible for me to cover all of Madrid in two days, which is all the time I had allotted for this most grand of cities. So I did what I could, focusing on the Centro district, which houses the older parts of the city. Although Madrid is now very much a modern city, with infrastructure befitting the nation’s capital and the centre of Spanish commerce, a very impressive number of its historical neighbourhoods and landmarks still remain for us to appreciate.

Palacio Real de Madrid (The Royal Palace of Madrid)
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The Palacio as seen from the Jardines de Sabatini

Can you say you’ve been to Madrid if you haven’t been to the Royal Palace? It’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. With over three thousand rooms, it is the largest functioning royal residence in Europe, and dwarfs Buckingham Palace in size. I didn’t bother booking a visit inside, because I knew it would take at least a day to fully appreciate its grandeur.

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Palacio de Cristal, Buen Retiro Gardens
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Part of the Monument to Alfonso XII the Peacemaker, Buen Retiro Gardens

I was fortunate to get to the Buen Retiro Gardens just before sundown, which gave it an almost ethereal quality. If you’re short on time, it’s important to know which parts of the park to visit before visiting, because it is quite huge. Not Central Park huge, but still, huge. I went primarily for the Crystal Palace, built for the Philippine Exposition of 1887, and by happy chance stumbled onto the monument to Alfonso XII just as the sun was about to set. Bathed in the shadows of dusk and the last gasp of a setting sun, it was a delight.

Puerta de Alcala
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One of Madrid’s many Las Meninas sculptures. This one sits outside the Temple of Debod
Secret Nun Cookies!

secret nun cookies

And of course, the hunt for the not-so-secret secret nun cookies! Baked by the cloistered sisters of the Monasterio del Corpus Christi, getting your hands on these can be quite an adventure. It involves navigating a few confusing back streets, finding the right door, and knowing what to ask for – a particularly difficult feat since the nuns of this monastery do not interact with the outside world. We lucked out when we followed this one guy who seemed to be creating his own documentary, because he knew how to speak Spanish and helped with the buying process (that’s him in the .gif!). When ordering the cookies, one has to place the money in a sort of blocked out lazy susan that spins, without you seeing the person giving you the order. When it spins back around, your money is gone, replaced by cookies, and then it spins one more time (if needed) to give you your change. It feels deliciously illicit. Tom of Boingboing has a great how-to guide, if you ever want to undertake it yourself.

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The queue for the El Gordo lottery

The hotel I stayed at was just off the Gran Via near the Puerta del Sol, and just up the street from the Doña Manolita lottery. The line-up was insane. Insane. It’s the only word I can use to describe it, the photo doesn’t even show half of the line-up, which stretched around the block. I didn’t know why this little lottery place was so hot, people were willing to stand in the rain and cold just to get themselves a ticket, but this piece on The Local explained it all. It’s considered a Spanish tradition to take part in the El Gordo (The Fat One) Lottery come Christmastime, and Doña Manolita’s branch is famous for selling tickets that eventually turn out to be the winning ones!

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The colossal Terminal 4 of the Madrid Barajas Airport  makes you feel like you’re underwater

I described this trip to a friend as an all-you-can-eat buffet. I was attempting to absorb as much of Spain as I could in a very limited amount of time. I know, I know. It’s an exercise in futility, because there is so much of it to absorb and there was no way a week would enough to try to hold all of it in. But I tried, anyway. And I don’t regret it. In Madrid, I felt like that bear in their coat of arms. I knew the strawberry tree held an immense amount of riches, and was only able to enjoy a few. But that is how it sometimes is, and I am thankful I got to enjoy it at all.

 

* not kidding about the cigarettes/cigarillos/cigars – it took me a few days to get used to how prevalent smoking is in Spain (I later found out 1 in 3 people smoke). Madrid made my head spin, and not always in a good way!

The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain

The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain

I lost a couple of drafts I’d already been working on while I was away on my last big adventure of the year, which sort of sucks. I like writing in the heat of the moment, overwhelmed by all the sounds, tastes and textures, so much so that it’s almost a relief to get it all out, but now I’ll have to start from the beginning, after another numbing work week has already passed me by, to try and remember what my week in Spain was like.

Spain feels like a dream now. A hazy, wonderful dream spent exploring twisting, secretive alleyways, grand palacios and beautiful, manicured jardins dotted with marble statuaries of king and queens come and gone; of carefully watching my sneaker-shod steps on rain-slicked stone mosaics in an ancient summer palace where sultanas once danced and sang, accompanied by the soothing melody of trickling water; of staring up, aghast and bowled over by the imagination of a single, solitary artist, his work an explosion of creativity so immense, at least three generations of builders have passed and still his work is incomplete.  A lovely adventure punctuated by dipping spongy, delectable soletillas (ladyfingers) into almost mythical cups of the richest, velvetiest hot chocolate you can imagine; of washing down delectable bites of seafood and chorizo with tinto de verano, which is like sangria, only better; of conversing in broken Spanish and giggling at the antics of very handsome (and very friendly) waiters at a crowded tapas bar, always with their eye on you, attentive to your slightest need, all naughty winks and nods of approval at your obvious enjoyment of what their establishment has to offer.  It’s only been a few days, but that’s what it feels like. A dream. Like waking up and wondering if all that really happened.

So here I am, buried in photographs of memories made within the span of a mere seven days, trying to recapture the magic of what it was like to see the great kingdom and former empire of España, taking stock of all the things I loved and the things I couldn’t abide.

So much of Spain remains in the lifeblood of the Philippines, in our language and our food, our interactions and instinctive social cues, our beliefs and our way of community. As a country whose influence has impacted so much of my homeland, even its name, Spain has always been on my list of dream places to visit, if only to see and experience life in a land that colonized, shaped, influenced and yes, to a certain extent, terrorized, my home for centuries. It’s also home to forty-eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, if chasing World Heritage Sites is your thing. It’s second only to China and Italy, tied at fifty-five. As such, it definitely is well worth your while to give it a visit.

Send in the Clown

Send in the Clown

“No longer is he forced to be part of the scenery; he is the scenery, and such is the strenuous effort of Phoenix’s performance that it becomes exhausting to behold. Get a load of me, he seems to say, and the load is almost too much to bear.”
– Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

The general perception of clowns runs the gamut from freakish, to tragic, to malevolent and, ultimately, to homicidal. It is as if we instinctively distrust anything, or anyone, who makes such an aggressive attempt to be joyful. Pop culture gives clowns a bad rap. The most ironic thing about a clown is that clowns never seem to be happy.

One of the biggest Joker contentions is that it’s too full of itself, too self-important, trying too hard to be of import, to be relevant and in effect becoming a wannabe. Is it, though?

I disagree with naysayers who claim it’s a film meant to make the Joker sympathetic, to excuse his insanity, to present him as someone wronged by society. If anything, I admire Joaquin Phoenix’s deep dive into the the complete mental breakdown of a clown-for-hire. He knows this isn’t a character you’re going to ever like, and isn’t interested in being loved, or understood, or forgiven. He just is. His performance is a tour de force, and there is no wonder he’s being mentioned as a definite Oscar mention. It’s fearless, because there is absolutely no attempt on his part to gain the sympathy of the audience.

 Isn’t that what viewers do? Consciously or unconsciously, because we see the movie mostly through its hero, or anti-hero’s, eyes, we are automatically predisposed to relate to its lead. Yes, Arthur Fleck’s life is hard. But so is everyone else’s, in the gritty Gotham of the early ’80s, with garbage lying uncollected on the streets, graffiti on the walls and giant rats everywhere. Yes, there is a scene where he gets beat up, and there is also a scene where he is told he wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t made stupid choices. But everyone makes stupid choices. It’s how we choose to live with them that matters. And sometimes, some people are just too broken to live with themselves.

As I mentioned, there is zero attempt to make Arthur Fleck relatable, which may (and has) enraged quite a few. I couldn’t like him, lord knows I tried, and ultimately, I think that was the point. Joker is the equivalent of two middle fingers thrown up at the viewer, an I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-you-don’t-like-me manifesto that flies in the face of the traditional Hollywood ending. You walk out of the theatre drained and numb, because that is what living life as Arthur Fleck is like. By the end of it you stop feeling, or even wanting to feel, because the sheer effort of being happy, of staying happy, in a world that feels like a nightmare is too much to bear.

This is not Venom, a movie that tried very hard to make Eddie Brock likeable enough for people to want to see sequels; Joker is a movie that doesn’t give a shit about what comes next. Which, come to think of it, is apt. It’s true to the form of its main character, and, incidentally, its director – Todd Phillips, the guy who gave us The Hangover Trilogy and one of my all-time favourite movies, Old School. All his films are nihilistic, saved only by the goofy charm of its leads.

“You know what I am?” asks Heath Ledger’s Joker, in the Christopher Nolan iteration, “I’m a dog chasing cars.” Perhaps this is what makes the Joker the undying, ever-popular foil to the moody, grim Batman we all know and love, and a character whose ability to chew scenery is Oscar-bait when done right. Batman cares too much. The Joker doesn’t give a shit. He never has, and he never will. Why should his movie do the same?

Random YouTube K-Hole: Face/Off

It takes a lot of guts to do confessional type music videos, ones where they allow the camera to focus on them and nothing but. There are no distractions, no costume changes, no choreography or hairography.  It feels like close-up music videos are having a small moment, so without further ado let’s start with Selena Gomez and the blind item that is her music video for…

Lose You to Love Me – Selena Gomez (2019)

Oh, the shit that got stirred when Selena released this three days ago, mere weeks after famous ex Justin Bieber married someone who wasn’t her. The op-eds on who she was singing about flew fast and fierce hours after this video showed up on YouTube.  How could they not? The moment Selena sang “in two months, you replaced us”, Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, and Elle scrambled over themselves to remind us that two months after their last official break-up, Justin Bieber had moved on with model Hailey Bieber, whom he married for the second time this year.  It’s not the first time she’s alluded to how difficult the Justin Bieber era of her life has been through song, but as crazy as that part of her love life has been, at least she knows enough to mine it for all it’s worth.  In the video, Selena is no longer the sad, self-hating mess in The Heart Wants What it Wants. Here she’s a little bit older and a little bit wiser, shaken, not stirred. It’s an admirable effort, but the true vulnerability that’s required when you do close-up videos like this one is missing.

Memories – Maroon 5 (2019)

Maroon 5 has a way of releasing catchy little earworms, singles that wriggle their way into your ears and never seem to leave. You’ll find yourself singing or humming along to their releases almost as soon as you hear it the first time. We’ve only just driven out last year’s Girls Like You from our collective psyche, and now they’re back again with Memories, Maroon 5’s ode to their recently departed manager. The band knows enough to entrust their frontman with the heavy lifting when it comes to their visuals, and he’s has always been more than happy to acquiesce. Here, Adam Levine meets us head-on with nothing but lush, fully grown-in beard and body art. As a statement, it’s braver than Selena’s – Adam Levine’s take seems less concerned with looking pretty than it is with working through his issues and moving on. That’s what I like about Adam Levine – he seems so comfortable in his own skin, he’s able to just sit there in nothing but his birthday suit and even in grief, put on a show. As the camera moves slowly farther away from the Maroon 5 frontman, a little part of me can’t help wondering if we’ll see a surprise dad bod, but it stops just short of showing us everything we want to see.

Nothing Compares 2U – Sinead O’Connor (1990)

Everyone knows the late – and sorely missed – Prince wrote Nothing Compares 2U.  Die-hard enthusiasts like to cite the song as an example of how prolific Prince really was – enough to be able to practically give away a hit with nary a second thought, he wrote it under an hour for a side project. It’s likely he never intended Nothing Compares 2U to be anything other than a throwaway song inspired by missing his housekeeper. Then along came Sinead O’Connor, huge doe eyes swimming in tears, features as starkly beautiful as her interpretation, her version a miserable wail of longing and loss.  Apart from a few seconds of random, scene-setting scenery, it’s five minutes of staring at nothing but Sinead, and not once do we want to look away from her or her anguish. A testament to her sheer pull as a budding artist, the video for Nothing Compares 2U is arguably the precursor to all the close-up music videos that have come after it. It set the template for how to do it, and while there have been a few of note (see Radiohead), none have come close to capturing lightning in a bottle the way this music video did. It was, and is, an unforgettable visual that deserved all the awards it won in 1990, the year Nothing Compares 2U was released. 

Toronto the Good

Toronto the Good

The best kind of meet-ups are the serendipitous ones, the kind that just fall into your lap one day like a gift from on high. It’s not every day I hear from people who take the time to read things my crazy self says online, so when Miiesche of Soulstriptease reached out, wanting to know what it is like living in Toronto, it really made my day.  And reader, I did get to meet Miiesche last month and it was fun seeing Toronto  again through the eyes of a newcomer.

Although I grouse about living here, especially in the winter, the truth is I do love Canada, and Toronto, the city I now call home. Here, I’m sharing my answers to Miiesche’s questions about Canada, in the hope that it’ll convince others to either visit, or at least consider it as a place to live. The caveat is after a one-year stint in the GTA, I’ve really only lived in Toronto, so a lot of my answers are based on this one city!

What’s it like living in Canada?

My favourite thing about Canada is the quality of their public libraries – access is free, the advantages are legion and one of the first things I did when I moved here was get myself a library card because I am a nerd like that. The minimum wage in Ontario (the province I live in) is $14, which is decent. Over here, anyway. Food staples are affordable, and it’s manageable for as long as you’re not off drinking away your money on the weekends, or have any expensive vices like smoking. Cigarettes are costly, beer, not so much. If there’s anything that’s true about Canadian stereotypes, it’s that Canadians love beer, barbecues and hockey.

Officially, Canada has two languages: English and French. It’s why you’ll see both languages on labelling everywhere, even if most of the Francophones are based in Quebec, a province that spends a lot of its energy trying to ensure everything is in French. They got stymied when they tried to Frenchify the word “pasta”. Truth. They’re nuts. Lol. Most of the rest of Canada speaks English. Toronto, while not actually the capital of Canada (that honour goes to Ottawa), has so much swagger it may as well be the capital. It’s been said that Toronto is like New York City if it was run by the Swiss. I don’t really know what that means, but if it means cleaner and has less crime, then that is true! Rent here is kind of high especially in the downtown area. You’d be lucky to get a one bedroom with utilities included for about $1K a month (this may not be THAT expensive UK-wise, but I’m not too savvy about the rent over there). I would consider the east end the most affordable area rent-wise. Not to worry though, the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) is pretty solid, so you’re covered if you don’t drive. That said, one of the favourite things Torontonians like to do is complain about our public transit; some say TTC stands for Take The Car, and there are days when it’s true.

What about taxes?

Each province has a different sales tax rate. Alberta for example, has the lowest at 5%. Here in Ontario, it’s 13% 😭. It could be worse, it’s 15% in Newfoundland and Labrador and some other provinces.

Work, the weather, different neighbourhoods…

Work is plentiful, if you’re willing to work hard and aren’t choosy. There’s a lot of opportunities in the city, and also in the Greater Toronto Area. The drawback is really just that a lot of employers try and use contract work (i.e. hire you for just a year or a few months) to try and get out of paying your insurance coverage, dental, paid days off and so on. I do think that depends though, it’s not always true. There’s a lot of opportunity in the engineering, tech, finance and medical sectors.

Toronto is an amazing city for neighbourhoods – it’s the kind of place where you turn a corner and suddenly you’re in a whole different place. All the cultures and nationalities are well represented – the food scene is vibrant (if you’re into trying out different kinds of cuisine) and I love the diversity over here. It does kind of suck, curfew-wise if you like to party/drink. Last call is at 2AM (ridiculous) and it’s a bit of a challenge to find quality restos that are open around that time. There’s always Chinatown. It’s also a very supportive environment for artists, and very LGBTQ friendly. One of my favourite neighbourhoods is Church Street (I like to call it “the corner of gay and gay”) which has a very active and welcoming LGBTQ community. It’s a madhouse each year when Pride comes around. 

And finally, the weather. I both love and hate the weather over here. Winter unofficially starts about late November, and finally peters out in mid-April, even if that’s supposed to be spring. Winter takes up about a third of the calendar year, and it can be very bitter. Toronto is right next to a lake, and the lake effect causes our winters to be relatively humid (compared to the dry winters in, say, Manitoba or Saskatchewan). It just feels colder, is all. If there’s anything I’ve learned about winter here, it’s that it’s never over until it’s over so I’ve learned never to let my hopes up. The upside though, is that it’s glorious in the summer. Sunshine and cool breezes and all that lovely stuff. Except for the folks in British Columbia (the Canadian version of the West Coast), we have such long winters that when summer comes around, it’s cause to celebrate. That’s why Canadians love to barbecue so much. Fall is my favourite, because it’s beautiful and just the right temperature for me.

I know this got long, and I also liberally name-dropped some Canadian provinces, which might not be familiar. If you have a chance, take a peek on Google maps and see how crazy large the Great White North really is – there’s literally room for everyone, including you! 

I powered through all the RuPaul’s Drag Race episodes I missed, including All Stars, and… yeah

I powered through all the RuPaul’s Drag Race episodes I missed, including All Stars, and… yeah

If July was all about Amazon Prime trapping me in the sticky web of Lost’s whodunit and whydunit and howdunit plots, I’m in danger of being trapped again, this time in the morass of RuPaul’s Drag Race now that Crave has all the episodes. ALL. THE. EPISODES. That’s eleven regular seasons, plus four seasons of All Stars, which is a lot of screentime, especially if you want to stay relevant. If you stay relevant you don’t got to get relevant, and it’s nice to be on the pulse, although at this point being relevant doesn’t seem to hold as much attraction as it used to, given the speed at which our world spins, powered by a 24/7 news cycle that never seems to leave any room for respite.

Still, RuPaul’s Drag Race has always been enter-taint-ing for me, even in the days before it became the juggernaut it is today. So Crave getting all the episodes is a good return on investment, methinks. Luckily for me, I’d seen a good chunk of RPDR already back when Netflix and I were still on good terms. But Netflix didn’t have Season 1 of RPDR, or all the All Star episodes, so this has been a good chance for me to catch up on everything that I’ve missed, to the detriment of everything else, but hey. Choices!

Two weeks later …

I finally got through everything I’d missed, and I don’t think I missed very much, if at all. All Stars 3 went out with a whimper, All Stars 4 tried to please everyone, and Seasons 10-11 made me realize that the drag queens being featured were younger and a helluva lot less well-read than the relatively brainier ones that went before. I mean this is a show that gave us the rapier sharp wit of Bianca del Rio and her Rolodex of hate (“Beauty fades, dumb is forever!”) and the less pointed, but no less entertaining mind of Katya Zamolodchikova (“Adore Delano, giving you smell-my-punani, Poetic Justice realness.”), my top two all-time favourite queens.

Let the record show that for me the flame sputtered when they gave too much airtime to Eureka, a queen who spent a lot of her time being jealous and insecure and being unable to own up to her own bullshit in Season 10. It officially flickered out and died in Season 11, when Silky Nutmeg Ganache couldn’t read or recognize the word “colonel” on the teleprompter in a mini-challenge,  a queen who spent her time hogging the camera, bragging about her a masters degree.  It just got dumber. It’s also too calculating, overproduced and a lot faker interaction-wise,  than it used to be.

All the op-eds about how it’s become more work than fun to watch RPDR have merit (and you can read them here, here and here.)  I don’t know if I can even summon the energy for Drag Race UK. The bestie says he’ll still watch it, so I guess I’ll have the experience by osmosis.

So, do I feel like I wasted all that time? Maybe a little. But again, hey. Choices. 

The Belgian chocolates I brought home are all gone and now I’m sad

The Belgian chocolates I brought home are all gone and now I’m sad

Things that are worth it are very often fleeting. I think it’s because they’re fleeting that they are worthwhile, because that sense of impermanence, of the ephemeral, is what gives it meaning. So we assign importance to things we know won’t last. Things like laughter. Fresh bedsheets. Life itself. Or, that very last piece of DelRey chocolate, studded with four different kinds of nuts and and a raisin’s fruity kiss. What a slice of absolute heaven on earth.

Smack in the middle of Antwerp’s Diamond District, DelRey is a posh little chocolate shop  whose pralines, truffles and chocolate confections glow almost as brightly as the diamonds in the other store windows. They’re almost as expensive, and goddamnit, I know should’ve gotten more.

This isn’t meant to be a puff piece for DelRey, as much as it may sound like it, but I’m writing about them because their chocolate is exquisite and their shop is native to Antwerp. Belgium is home to a lot of luxury chocolatiers with global reach, so it was still nice to feel as if we were supporting a local business. A very successful business whose flagship store  looks very much like a high-end jewelry shop, but a local business all the same.

So why was a not-so little girl like me being all gross and bougie, spending my time contemplating premium, rich bitch chocolat belge?

The answer is, I sold a kidney.

(No, I didn’t.)

The answer is, I leased my womb to a very kindly gay couple.

(Still no. But hey, make me an offer.)

The answer is, I am a scion of a powerful Philippine political family living high on the hog on the government’s dime,  laughing as we watch the common people suffer.

(Ha! No. But wouldn’t life have been interesting?)

The answer is, I was in Belgium for the first time, and not getting chocolates in Belgium is like going to Italy and never trying the pasta. The country is the birthplace of the praline as we know it today and they take chocolate making so seriously, its composition has been regulated by law for over a century (it must contain at least 35% cocoa fat, and be refined and moulded in Belgium), so I’d have been a fool to miss out on a taste, however pricey.

I know I should’ve just closed my eyes and ignored the price, but it’s hard. It’s hard, no matter how much you try and shove those thoughts away and remind yourself that you’re only on vacation once. It’s hard to,  when a small box of their chocolate costs as much as, say, a Swiss Chalet dinner for two – complete with sides and a drink – and I’m someone who is more than capable of finding happiness in a handful of Ricoa Curly Tops. 

It was worth every penny though, I’ll give them that. I’ve never been partial to chocolate, both as candy or as ice cream, but there’s a reason Belgium is known for their chocolate because the taste was exquisite. So smooth, so rich, none of that weirdly acidic aftertaste from a Hershey bar. I’m sure I’ve had Belgian chocolate before, but never fresh from the source, so this was a nice little return on investment for me.

Gun to my head, I’m still iffy about spending all that much on candy, but I wouldn’t mind a box or two every so often, and while Antwerp gave me a lot of good reasons to revisit it again, this one is as good an excuse as any!