Friday, December 30, 2011

Where Home Lies (Part I)

If you divided Spain into four quarters, the town of León would sit in the middle of the one no one knows about. In this town I spent fourteen years since my birth: this translates into a deep, spiritual bath in its very particular personality, and countless afternoons full of beautifully lit sandstone and terracotta. Talking about it would take me several hours of passionate speech on its virtues and its flaws, so I will reduce it to "a town of beautiful architecture and sybarites".

Rear view of the apse of the town's famous cathedral.

The architecture of my town is one tight potpourri of artistic styles: from the sophisticated elegance of Spanish Baroque to the primitive imagery of Romanesque, from the restraint of the forties to the sheer greatness of its walls, built by the Romans. Everything is tossed together in a big architectural cocktail, one of constant evolution and change through many generations of modifications and improvising. It is this town, full of vibrant humanity, that constructs, destructs, improves, glues, re-purposes and preserves as change prints its mark on the seasoned stone, the battered brick and the crumbling mortar. Never before I had felt to compelled to touch the aged materials, as one stares in the eyes of an old man, to feel its noble battles with time.

House of Botines (left), designed by Antoni Gaudí.

Plaza del Grano (Grain Square), a cobblestone shrine of peace during the day.

At the Calle Ancha (Wide Street). Building range from the 17th to the 19th Century.

The people are a rather singular segment of the life in León. As with most Spaniards, you will notice that same relaxed sense of life at the tune of good food, rest, family time and personal wellness. The Leonese, by tradition, have had a fame of brute or unrefined (cazurro), or hicks. However, as you cruise the streets giving quick glances at its natives –with faces stretched by the cold and burned by the sun in the Summer; solemn and serious-, you will itch with curiosity about the ladies' fur coats, the shiny German sedans cruising the streets and the expensively decorated establishments. In all our brutishness and despite the current crisis, we Leonese appreciate luxury in its rawest, most durable and conservative form. It is a long-settled philosophy of buying with greatness, giving with generosity, and contributing to social order through one's own image in the group. Being well dressed or furnishing one's business with noble materials is proof of one's intentions to contribute to a greater collective wellness, good taste, and memorable splendor. Hence I qualify us as a rather unrefined group of sybarites.

This admirable business, Tommy Mel's decided to go all-American in historic León.

More will be coming soon, related to my actual experiences in my town, and that strange feeling of being a foreigner in your birthplace. There's plenty of photos of very personal places in town!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Madrid: Coats and Clairvoyance

One weekend a couple years ago, when I was twenty-one, I felt incredibly idle. So, I decided to put on my best clothes and ask a classmate from University –a rather mischievous being from the times when I thought Art History was my call- to accompany me on a tour of the historic core of Oviedo, Spain. What really happened was that, in our deep boredom –accentuated by rather caffeinated tea- we entered the best antique store in town, and I, in my silly bravery, asked to see their collection of paintings, "as the Rhode Island School of Design, the institution I work for, is looking to make some new purchases for its Museum". Yes, I lied: I seldom do it, but very wonderful things happen when I do. The antique dealer asked us to follow him to a corner of the store, opened the door of a little den, and pulled a canvas wrapped in a blanket. Once he took it off, my eyes widened in amazement: a portrait of Ferdinand VII of Spain, by Goya... two inches from my face. He explained that a gentleman from the Prado Museum had certified its authenticity due to the age of the materials, the brushstroke style and the colors, compared to his other work. "Most definitely a study from his workshop, with the touch of the master". As art historians in ecstasy, my classmate and I analyzed it for the next fifteen minutes. I dropped a business card and left with a beaming grin. "What had just happened?!" we asked each other.

You may wonder what this story has to do with my current journey. Well, keep on reading and I will show you how it relates to my short trip to Madrid to renew my USA visa.

The Barajas Airport is a monster of a building, one of the top five biggest airports in Europe. It spans in a flat piece of land that could put Kansas to shame. Its internal construction is a hybrid between the Pompidou Center and a wavelength graph, an monotonic symphony of wooden parabolas and delicate steel strings.

The lighting in the space is gorgeous, and the floor is just... spotless.

Repetition, repetition, repetition... and COLOR!

Dawn in Barajas... notice the structuralism of it all, and the wooden blinds.

Much like in Yellow Submarine, I ended in a "sea of holes".

And, on my ride to the Embassy, I drove past a Jetsons landmark.

The section dedicated to the visas in the US Embassy looks pretty much like the DMV. I naturally could not take any pictures, but the space was not attractive enough to deserve them anyway. You take a number and get served three times (reception, fingerprinting, and actual verification). The entire process took a little under three hours.

Back in the street, I resolved to walk and refresh myself, maybe grab lunch later. I went in-n-out of two different malls, which I honestly feel I do not belong. But hey, enjoying free heating in the freezing morning of Madrid is just priceless, despite wearing my father's thick woolen coat.

The botellón (big bottle) is a quintessentially Spanish youth phenomenon. Pigs.

And so I kept walking, not having been in Madrid for the last five years. There were some new glass skyscrapers in the outskirts, but the historical city center had remained the same, boasting a mix of 17th, 18th and 19th Century constructions, very solid and oversquare, that give Madrid an air of almost claustrophobia compared to Barcelona.

For some reason, my mother had insisted in seeing a clairvoyant friend of hers, famous in the Spanish media. I admit to be distrustful of this profession, but, being in Madrid, it could not hurt to do something different outside of my area of comfort. Especially if they are friends with your mom. He could see me around five thirty, so that gave me a five hour gap to aimlessly walk throughout the city... and plenty of time to get bored. And when Miguel gets bored, start fearing for the worst.

Oversquare Spanish charm.

Puerta de Alcalá, a gate to Madrid for travelers from the East like me!). And, in front of it, a very European sight: a BMW helmet-free scooter. They stopped making them long ago.

National Archaeological Museum, in the works.

And so I kept walking where the buildings looked prettier...

And prettier...

..and I stumbled upon the Palace of Communications (HUGE POST OFFICE)...

...and the Bank of Spain.

This part of Madrid reminds me of one of my favourite painters, Antonio López, perhaps the most famous hyper-realist painters in Spain. I admire his palette, not only fully accurate of the light that dominates the big plain of Madrid, but of its spiritual texture. We Spaniards have an adjective called "castizo", meaning "traditional, solid, pure-blooded" –with somewhat of a brute edge-: that is what Madrid is. Having come from a four-year exile in the USA, I started to feel foreign in my land of birth, yet I posed no doubts about my identity as a very castizo (or, perhaps, cazurro) tumbleweed-man.

Antonio Lopez's Gran Via (1975-1980).

The Gran Via, as I saw it yesterday (12/22/11).

Even more overly solid downtown Madrid buildings... I need some greenery!

One hour and a half into my touristic flâneurism, I spottet a cavalcade of armored Audis with tinted glass next to the Ministry of Economy, so I decided to stick around to see the minister in person. I had realized –from the news- that Spain was undergoing a change of government, so, in this tense environment, yours truly stood very close to one of the big official automobiles and used his clunky cellphone as a fictional walkie-talkie, with his hair all greased and tidy, wearing his father's coat with the same pride as the other Secret Police agents (overcoats are not common to wear in Spain –big plus), looking dead serious.

This is the military police. Their unique hats are called tricornios (three horns).

I'd tell you that if I was a Minister I'd chosen a Mercedes. Just saying!

"He's coming out", said one of the agents of the Secret Police as he darted inside one of the little tinted Peugeots. A big Audi came out of the building, escorted by two large Ford sedans. My fun had arrived to a somewhat disappointing end –but hey, at least I was not kicked out of the scene. I left nonchalantly towards the Plaza Mayor, in search of some nice place to have some tapas.

Puerta del Sol: every New Year is kicked off here!

I had to visit this place! I actually bought an artisan bar of soap for the family.

I would have pretended to be a priest and sneak here, but I was too hungry to care.

Plaza Mayor. Nice place to be, but too many tourists.

Flawless fruit from a local market.

The lady at the soap shop took my card and had a loud laugh after seeing my credit card. "Wells Fargo, like in the Wild West!". What followed was a fun conversation about what I did for a living, and how her family was a dynasty of Volkswagen die-hards. I was sad to hear that they had to order the parts for their aircooled type-4 from the USA, despite having Germany next door. One of the reasons I am in the US: you can still drive nice cars on a daily basis, and have pride in them... instead of surrendering to ugly econogumdrops.

I kept on going, alarmed by the amount of tourists and the impact they may have on the price and quality of the food in the restaurants in the area. I did see a two Japanese women eating percebes (strangely phallic barnacles typical from Spain) for the first time, blushing.

I ended up in the Royal Palace, and no, I did not pretend to be a nobleman or an academic for the sake of visiting the inside. Gosh, I should just make a TV series about myself wearing that coat and going places where I am supposed to know what I am doing!

How would you like some Spanish churches? BOOM!

Panorama I made out of several pictures of the Royal Palace. Click to enlarge.

I finally found somewhere decent to eat, a daily menu for $10. Carrot cream, Iberian pork and homemade custard, all included with bread, drink and coffee. It was wonderful.

Now, I had two hours and a half to kill. I headed to the Prado to take some pictures.

Been there already. Free access after 6pm! Too bad I would be on my way to the airport.

I still felt like doing something out of the ordinary, so I went to the Information Office and requested to see the Goya specialist who had written the report about the painting mentioned at the beginning of this entry. I wanted to talk to him in person, because I know that if I wasn't going to purchase the painting for myself, someone else out there might be interested. I just had to get back in contact with whoever certified it was authentic! I was pointed the way by a security staff member, to a building behind the Museum. There, I was pointed to the Casón del Buen Retiro, a block away, where the curators were. And finally in the right spot, no one was in their office. But at least I had seen many buildings of singular beauty, and had a phone number to schedule an appointment... all is not lost, and I had a great time.

Royal Academy of the Spanish Language. They tell us how to spell.

Casón del Buen Retiro, home to the Prado's curators.

I went up to the Plaza del Callao and spent an hour in one of my favorite bookstores: Fnac. I went to a corner where I would not be too bothered by the massive influx of Christmas shoppers –and sadly, this was the poetry section. I read several poems by Neruda, Góngora and José Hierro, each with their very unique style (Góngora being the most pedantic, yet imaginative and invigorating). Half hour before my appointment, I rushed up the Gran Via to see the clairvoyant.

He told me that the TV show would be successful in the short run, but my success I would make in Manhattan (home of my design collective); he also said I would meet my special someone in the City, and that she would accompany me in my travels around the world. No issues on my health. I really did not have much to ask, so I inquired more about family members I cared about. As I said before, I am not a believer in fortune tellers, but it was a new experience regardless!

Back in the airport, I passed out in the waiting bench. I was so tired, one of the attendants had to shake my shoulder to check if I would be boarding. Gosh, what a complete day.

And with this photo and the memory of the dreadful, bouncy landing, I close this post.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Now here - Now there.

I do not why, but I have the feeling that today is going to be a great day (link).

If the world does not end in 2012, next year will be one of the most remarkable ones in my entire life. For any artist, graduating from school is an infinitely stressful experience, one of self-discovery and meditation. Artists often lack the safety of a stable, full-time job prospect after school, one of the reasons many of them live gig-to-gig on a freelance basis. This is the case with many of my friends, and one of the reasons I decided to found an art & design collective.

The idea sprung up from the desire of many of my fellow RISD classmates / friends wanting to live in San Francisco, where I was working on vintage Mercedes. For that reason, I looked for a space (see this youtube video made for me by a realtor) and an investor, but the idea looked a little far-fetched for him. However, a few weeks later, he got back to me with a proposal to convert a relatively useless office space his family had, just there, sitting idle.

Tyler's visit made my plans complete: I would be hopping cross-country between Kansas and NYC (New York City), between the TV series and the design collective. I quit my job as an automotive restorer, and headed to New York city to get a feeling of what my future life would look like in the s0-called Capital of the World. If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere!

View from my friend's penthouse in the Upper West Side. Simply breathtaking.

The space is the 2nd floor above the Seven Eleven, two blocks from Times Square!

Many ventilation pipes in the way, but hey, it's free!

Thanks to my friend's generous parents, we will start developing the space in January. They will provide some basic contractor work (walls, bathroom, floors), and I am sure we can do something about the many ventilation pipes that stand in the way... either re-tube them or rise them to make the most out of this blessed office. There's a lot of office furniture in storage, so that is free as well –we pretty much need the people and the equipment.

Before my flight to Spain, I spent four days in New York City... mainly talking to my friend about the great plans for the future, visiting the space, walking around Park Slope, surrounding myself with women in terrible need of a head/back massage (do not ask me why, but at one point I had THREE OF THEM on my bed), being all cuddly and affectionate, and eating the best chocolate chip cookies I have every had at Levain Bakery.

One day I shall call "this" my half-home.

The final day in the City was slightly heartbreaking. It was almost as if all of Manhattan had decided to become ten times more interesting by the time I left, with venues, concerts and other friends visiting the area to do great things. On my way to the airport, I kept trying to convince myself that I would be back in a month.

Before taking off... the Boeing 757 is a very poorly insulate plane. Just saying.

I will see you in a month, Newark Airport!

It was beyond tender to have three of my friends come with me to the airport. I really wish them the best of luck in New York. One of them, Finis, found what seems to be the best sublet in the world: a room with a family of circus performers; the other, Rachel, is still working to find a visa sponsor so she can stay and work in the United States. Been there, done that... and what a stressful situation, for goodness' sake. I really hope she finds someone who can hire her...

Dawn upon Catalonia, Spain... about one forty-five minutes before landing.

These color were so beautiful I HAD to take a shot.

Dear Barcelona: I am home. What does my new home look like, I wonder?

Picked up my luggage, and went to my new address. It felt strange, as I had never been to this new building my family had moved to. The views from this tenth-floor flat were drop-dead gorgeous, but I was slightly upset that my mother had thrown away many of my belongings and replaced them for her own stuff. What now stood before me was a hallway-sized cubicle with a bed, a white Ikea desk and a white armoire. My beat-up antique furniture (including my much-sought-after Siemens library lamp) and almost the entirety of my book collection had been thrown out or given away. My moral took a strong hit, but I still kept in mind that if I wanted to live life on the road, I should not cling to material things. Too bad no one even bothered to even sell my stuff!

RIP, dear old bedroom (2009) full of cheap antiques.

The new flat was much smaller, but the views are the best of any place we have ever lived at. It is an older high-rise from the seventies, with some sound insulation problems, but many upgrades in the kitchen and the bathroom. A new set of double-layer windows would be lovely, so that should be next on the list once my mother and my sister get a job. *Sigh*.

I made a panorama with the views from my new room!