Not so lucky was having developed some diarrhea after more than a week and a half in Spain, having been too cheap to continue the discipline of not drinking the tap water as we had been instructed by some of our fellow backpackers prior to entering the country. My intestinal distress wasn’t too bad, but involved fairly frequent trips to the train car’s toilet during the night, which was basically a hole through to the tracks below. I was grateful that whatever foreign microorganisms were upsetting my digestive track weren’t causing more havoc than they were.
I awoke to the gentle rhythmic shaking and rattling of the train, that had so successfully lulled me back to sleep overnight after my last toilet visit, but now accompanied by an additional ambient rat-a-tat of raindrops hitting the window of our compartment. The diffused light of a rainy morning filled the space, and Steve was already awake and sitting on the bench across the compartment, lost in thought, staring out the window and writing something, perhaps a letter back to the States. I noted how deeply I had slept leveraging the full extent of my nicely cushioned bench seat, not quite long enough to completely stretch out my feet and lie flat, but enough to allow for several comfortable sleeping positions on my side or on my back with my knees bent a bit. I recalled a piece of a dream where Steve and I were about to take the final for a class and I realized that, unlike Steve, I had never gone to lectures or even read the book.
The rain was still coming down pretty hard when our train got into the big central station in Madrid late Monday morning. The station’s information desk had a fairly nice and very free city map, plus a clerk who spoke some English, and gave us directions by foot then bus to the American Express office. We donned our rain ponchos designed to cover us and the big packs on our backs, which made us look like strange colorful lumbering aliens from an Outer Limits episode, and we ventured out into the wet urban world to make our way to our destination. The bus was crowded, and it was particularly difficult negotiating the aisle of the bus with our big packs on our backs. And with our covering ponchos all dripping with water, as we moved down the bus aisle it was way too easy to brush somebody or otherwise fling water drops and get them wet. At some point back in Barcelona I had learned to say “lo siento” to apologize.
Our directions from the information clerk in the train station were good, our honed skills navigating a European city even better, and we made it to our destination about half an hour later. These major European city American Express offices were like oases for American travelers, particularly us backpacker types. You could count on there being people working there who both spoke good English and knew where things were in the city, including museums and youth hostels. If people from back in the States sent you mail, this is where you’d get it, and could even take your time, sit in comfort and read those letters. This was also where you could get money wired from back home and change it into the local currency at a reasonably good rate. There were generally also a fair amount of other young English speaking backpacker types checking their mail and getting money wired that one could network with and trade information and maybe even find a travel companion, or at least some folks to have a beer or share a bottle of cheap wine with.
So the Madrid Am Ex office did not disappoint, it was like Christmas come early, showering the weary traveler, me that is, with gifts of love, connection and treasure. The $100 I had asked my mom for was waiting for me, actually sent by my dad, and I fired off postcards to both my parents thanking them and updating them on my status – presently in Madrid, then back to Paris, then on to Italy. With that extra hundred I would not have to scrimp so much, and barring money spent on emergencies, I should have some left to buy Christmas presents for my family members, that still seeming important somehow. I also got three letters, two from my mom and one from my dad. They were deliciously packed with news from home, words of encouragement, expressions of pride at my keeping on with my travels despite my homesickness, and a general sense that they were lovingly anticipating my return in mid December.
True to form we met a handful of fellow backpackers. Two American guys who we had met a week back on the train to Granada shared their story of going to Morocco. That country, just across the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain, was a big destination for young backpacking sojourners, portrayed as sort of a hippie heaven in Crosby, Stills and Nash’s well known song, “Marrakesh Express”. The song was written and sung by Brit Graham Nash who had a sweet friendly voice like Paul Simon, with band member David Crosby doing his Garfunkel like harmony thing on the choruses…
Take the train from Casablanca going south
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth
Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellabas we can wear at home
Well, let me hear ya now
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
All on board the train, all on board the train
I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair
Certainly it had been the intended destination of our Canadian hippie magic bus comrades Zo and Randall, though we had no idea if they ever got there. But it had also been mentioned by any number of our cohort I had encountered in my now six plus weeks in England and on the Continent. I mean who would not be tempted by images in the song of romantic train rides, young women travel partners with their head and shampooed hair on your shoulder, plus smoking (presumably hashish) – sex, drugs, rock & roll.
The two guys at the Am Ex office had a more cautionary tale to tell. They told us how they had befriended this young Moroccan guy who spoke English, and how this guy and his brother had subsequently tried to rip them off. They said everyone in the country seemed to be trying to cheat them or to steal some of their stuff. It was certainly a fear of us backpackers that locals, particularly those living on the streets, might try to take advantage of us and our naivety to that street life. I had to consider the source though. These two guys, though they talked the hippie “hey dude” talk and had the requisite freak flag long hair, seemed pretty ego involved and certainly did not have anywhere near the lightness of being of Zo and Randall. I had not been to a more third-world country like Morocco, but having interacted with some of the street denizens in and around the train stations of Northern European cities, I had found that engaging people as fellow human beings and maybe sharing some conversation and a bit of food or drink stood you well in keeping yourself in a safe space.
We also met this young American woman named Becca who had been traveling about Portugal and Spain on a 50cc motorcycle she had bought used in Lisbon. She had been on the road about the Iberian peninsula for more than a month before the thing had broken down, and she had managed to get a lift for her and her bike to Madrid from a truck driver. Having had such trouble hitchhiking as guys in Spain, the ironic thought went through my mind that of course it was a truck driver who had come to her rescue, one of those same truck drivers who would never pick us up once they figured out our long hair had no discernable tits under it. She was in the process of trying to get money wired from her family in the States to fix her bike, but she said they were not happy at her means of travel and that she was doing it solo.
Becca was a very independent young woman who was used to being on her own and sported the sort of crusty standoffish persona that I imagine a young woman needed to take on to try to stay safe on her own in a foreign land. Meeting her recalled my encounters with Miranda, though Becca was thankfully not culturally tone deaf like Miranda had been. She was not pretty in any conventional sense, with dark eyes, a hook nose, a bit of a sunken chin, and thick black hair, long enough in theory to reach her shoulders but way too wiry to really get there. I was of course taken with her regardless, based on her chutzpah.
I enjoyed and identified with the broad spectrum of female type people I continued to meet. Perhaps like a mainly hetero kid in a candy store, but more than that there was a level of comfort I had around most women that I did not have with most men. I just seemed to have more visibility into and appreciation of their true souls than I did with men. It was like I had led many past lives as the female of the species, and though male in this incarnation, I was still more comfortable with that prior orientation. Or maybe it was just that my mom and her female best friends, my “feminist aunts”, had shared so much with me about their lives deepest struggles and aspirations, and I had not had those comparable sharings from my dad or any other older male types. For whatever reason, women seemed more mature somehow and less ego involved.
Finally leaving Becca and the inner sanctum of the American Express office and all its charms behind, Steve and I and two other American guys went hotel hunting, but definitely not those two who had the issue in Algeria. We checked out six places before we finally settled on one that seemed the best deal. It was an old hotel in a so-so neighborhood around the train station but also close to the Prado museum, which was by all accounts the big attraction in Madrid, other than the more first class bullfighting circuit, which I now had absolutely no desire to see even if I’d had the money. Our hotel room was actually one big room with four beds in it, a table with four chairs and a mirror and sink against one wall with a towel rack complete with towels, though only two. Next to the sink was a large three-door wood cabinet for hanging clothes (none of us were familiar with the French word “armoire” yet). The entrance to the room from the hallway were double doors that looked like they originally had glass in them that had been replaced by painted wood panels. The walls were light green, the ceiling white and the floor was wood. The hotel was kind of rundown, but you could tell from all the appointments of the interior of the place – tile floor in the lobby, wood floors upstairs, real wood chairs and furniture, wrought iron patios, moulding on the doors, walls and ceilings – that it had once had some class. Our room was on the fourth floor with a nice balcony with one of those wrought iron railings, overlooking a busy, noisy, trafficy street. It cost us 320 pesetas a night, that just 80 pesetas each.
We found out quickly that our two roommates were just recent travel partners of convenience and not really buddies. They went their separate ways in the morning, the one guy Phil asking to tag along with Steve and I while his partner was off to some obscure museums, other than the Prado. It was interesting how various backpacker types made these sorts of short term travel alliances, with less connection than Steve and I, to better handle the logistics and loneliness of life on the road. Steve and I had been functioning more as a couple, though remaining a platonic one at my insistence.
So the two of us with Phil in tow found a little cafe type place with cheap food and pinball machines, had lunch and played a few games. Phil kind of looked the part of a hippieish engineer, a short guy, maybe five foot eight, with his plaid workshirt, lots of frizzy blonde hair, and black plastic glasses. He shared with us that he was from Athens Georgia, which apparently was a very hip and progressive college town in an otherwise conservative area, that sounded not too unlike my own hometown of Ann Arbor. He had grown up as a “townee” in the college town, not unlike me, but he had now completed his undergraduate degree in engineering at the University of Georgia there and decided to do some traveling in Europe before starting a graduate program in electrical engineering at the University of Berlin. He reminded me of my best friends Jerry and Avi, and the rest of my nerdy wargamer cohort back home. He had even played some of the same Avalon Hill military simulation games that I mentioned in sharing about my own background.
He was planning to head from Madrid up to Paris and from there on to Switzerland and maybe down to Italy, very similar to my own current thoughts on my itinerary. It was interesting how fluid all our travel plans were, changing from day to day, since none of us were constrained by prior hotel reservations, tours, or people we had to meet in specific cities on specific days. One week I was thinking I’d go to Vienna after Italy, and then the next I’d have a change of mood and think Switzerland rather than Vienna. With my rail pass, all of Western Europe was like a geographic already paid for all you can eat buffet.
I suggested that the three of us might travel together. Phil liked the idea, and though Steve didn’t say anything one way or the other, his body language seemed comfortable with the concept. But later that evening back in our hotel room after a couple bottles of cheap “vino rosado”, Phil announced that he had decided he was sick of Spain and was thinking about taking a train out tomorrow night to Paris. Again there was the issue that Steve would have to pay separately for the train and I knew his money was short. I was with Phil on that feeling though, despite the bargain Spain was for the low-budget traveler, I was ready to move on to other locales.
The next morning Phil, Steve and I went to the Museo del Prado, the one venue that everyone I had encountered during my odyssey who had gone or were going to Madrid agreed you had to see when you were there. I think the place had more paintings than the Louvre. There was a large central hallway with many rooms off to the left or right that held any number of works by a range of famous artists that I had heard of from my mom or from reading her big art books full of painting prints, including Velazquez, El Greco, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt. It struck me as interesting all the paintings that included a representation of biblical Jesus, all of which portrayed him with similar hair and facial features – the iconic long face and nose, sad soulful eyes and long straight hair. But who really knew what he looked like? Some ancient artist, perhaps the first or one of the first to attempt to depict Jesus, had created a visage that caught on and was copied to a degree in the huge array of paintings that depicted him.
The first big room to the right off the main hall of the museum had paintings by the turn of the 16th century German surrealist painter Hieronymus Bosch, who they referred to as “El Bosco”. They had his most famous painting, actually three panels together, called “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. It was a huge impressive thing, each side panel more than three feet wide and seven feet tall, and the middle panel maybe eight by seven. It was a sort of giant 16th century editorial cartoon, one panel leading to the next to tell a narrative of sorts and make its point, in this case presumably about the dangers of the “sins of the flesh” and trifling with God’s law.
The first panel showed an earthly paradise, presumably the Garden of Eden, with water, lush plants and an array of content and recognizable animals – birds in the foreground and small and large mammals in the background, including elephants and giraffes. Amidst all this bounty of nature a robed figure, presumably God but looking a lot like depictions of Jesus, stared out at us with a pensive and even worried expression on his face. His left hand was over the wrist of a young woman, naked with small breasts and a bare vulva and long braided curls down her back below her butt, who appeared to not be standing on the ground so much as levitating. Her eyes were cast down to the ground submissively. On the other side of the robed figure, sitting attentively on the ground was a young naked male figure, with his small penis and a bit of pubic hair just visible between his outstretched legs. The two naked figures were a pale white and their facial features look very nordic. The Jesus-looking God person in the robes had a more swarthy complexion.
I was familiar with the commentary on this painting from my Western Civilization class at college the previous fall, describing the work as calling out man’s transition from paradise through perversion to punishment, acting out myriad fantasies of sensual and sexual gratification, with this first panel getting that ball rolling with God’s presentation of Eve to Adam. And in this painting it wasn’t even supposed to be Jesus but God himself, who most artists depicted with an older craggier face and a big beard.
With my highly charged libido, percolating for more than a week with no relief, I found myself sexually aroused and fixated on the naked Adam and Eve figures, imagining them on top of each other, having sex, once God reascended to heaven after completing his “delivery” of foxy nubile Eve to her eager partner. I wondered if Bosch himself was turned on by painting young nude figures, and got away with doing so in what I understood to be a very sexually repressive time, because of the Biblical context he was painting in, and the cautionary tale he was trying to present.
Bosch’s own wild sexually charged imagination was on full display in the second panel of the painting, which depicted presumably the excesses of “earthly delights”. Literally several hundred mostly naked figures, perhaps more female but many male, mostly white but some black, in all sorts of sensual, erotic, even kinky activities, like some grand all Eden orgy amongst animals and oversized cherries and other pieces of fruit. And in the background, at the top of the picture, these wild pink and blue structures, looking like alien buildings from some Dr. Seuss book or bizarre drug-induced sci-fi cartoon, and some in my mind looking even like whimsical rocket ships.
Again the detail of the various acts and activities of the naked revelers aroused me as I studied each bit of the panel. In the foreground at the bottom of the picture mostly standing naked female figures, some carrying giant fish, socializing with each other amongst giant strawberries and other berries. Among the more bizarre stuff, a man seated in a large egg-shaped structure with his head up and mouth open being fed like a baby bird by a giant duck. A naked young woman sitting on a whimsical piece of fruit, that was bursting open to release seeds, while she watches a naked young man about to kiss her vagina. A man on his hands and knees with flowers coming out of his butt. Two naked women wildly dancing pressed against each other and adorned with cherries, the top halves of their bodies inside a translucent eggshell shaped object with an oversized owl sitting on top of it. In the left midground various people and animals cavorting with each other and oversized berries in a pond, while to the right the iconic scene of nude figures sitting under or picking those forbidden apples from a grove of apple trees. Beyond that a field surrounding a small pond full of naked women many with birds perched on their heads. Around the pond a parade of many horses, cattle, pigs, camels and other more fantastical hybrid creatures being ridden by nude women or men or even birds. And in the body of water in the background, surrounded by the outlandish pink or blue structures, mermaids and human-like aquatic lizards swam and played amongst other more completely human swimmers, all nude.
Finally the third panel was a similar array, but now a more nightmarish depiction of Hell. A man in the foreground with long daggers piercing his hand and his torso. Another man being nuzzled by a pig wearing a nun’s habit while another horrified clothed man with a small board on his head looked on. A subdued woman being embraced by some sort of green creature with vines for hands wrapping around her naked body. Then an array of grotesque scenes including humans and nightmarish creatures surrounding the iconic centerpiece of the panel. The giant head of a man looking back at what remains of his freakish body. A circular hat, like a tabletop, sits on his head with tiny humans and birds dancing on it around a whimsical Dr. Seussian gourd of sorts. The head’s half body a broken hollow shell with various figures inside it or climbing up a ladder into it. His two arms, also hollow shells but looking like rooted plants with animal hooves, each hoof planted squarely in a small rowboat. All this with dark erupting volcanoes and burning buildings filling the background.
Bosch’s picture was mind-boggling in its scope and imagery, and doubly so to be standing in front of the imposing physical piece of art itself, over seven feet tall and the three panels side by side more than twelve feet wide. And given my own libidinal state, I found myself taking great pleasure in its deliciously erotic detail and wildly imaginative and sexually deviant kinky concoctions. The museum’s narrative about the painting said that it was probably commissioned by a German patron of the artist, and I had to laugh imagining the rich patron perhaps describing to the artist what he wanted him to paint. And what would a religious authority of the time have thought of this arguably pornographic piece of work. Could it somehow pass muster and be acceptable in a repressive time because it could be defended as a cautionary representation of the horrific consequences of the sins of the flesh. But was it in reality the patron’s Renaissance equivalent of a skin magazine centerfold for his private masturbatory pleasure.
Of all the works in the museum, the other artist that really struck me was Francisco Goya, the great Spanish painter, featured like “El Bosco” in his own gallery within the museum. His big canvases were as graphically realistic, at times agonizingly so, as Bosch’s were surreal.
My libido already piqued by Bosch’s erotic imaginings, Goya’s six foot wide “La Maja Desnuda” and its clothed counterpart “La Maja Vestida” were eye catching, hung side by side. Seeing a rendering of a life sized nude woman in all her realistic glory was still a very uncommon sight for me. Though now old enough, I was still too shy to walk into a newsstand and buy a Playboy or Penthouse magazine. The few I managed to briefly peruse clandestinely at the newsstand or at a friend’s parents’ house had had airbrushed images of women featuring big bare too perfect breasts and dazzling round rear ends, but never pubic hair or any part of a vulva, let alone a vagina, at all. And the centerfolds had those staged “come hither and fuck me” facial expressions rather than this more realistic direct gaze with a hint of shyness befitting a person posing nude for an artist. Even the one sleazier skin magazine I had seen showing a woman’s vulva had the pubic hair fuzzed out along with any male penises, apparently still no nos based on whatever censorship of magazines there still was.
But here she was in the museum, staring out, pondering us looking at all her naked female parts. There were older people and even some children standing around me, looking at her, or even looking at me looking at her a bit too long perhaps. The thought struck me that a life size painting of a nude woman was highbrow art, but that same nude woman live posed in the gallery on the same divan would have been scandalous!
And in another nod to a more realistic portrayal, in his adjoining painting of the same woman clothed, she seemed a bit more self assured, which you’d figure most people generally would be with clothes on. In fact the look on her face in that version showed more of that brashness that I appreciated in women generally. I pondered which picture was painted first, probably the one with her clothes on. I really had to spend more time in art museums.
But beyond this enlivening eroticism, I was most profoundly taken by Goya’s works capturing the horrors of war and general human degradation in the face of poverty. At eleven feet across and almost nine feet tall “The Shootings of May Third 1808”, depicting the execution by firing squad of Spanish civilians engaged in an insurgency against Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, was visceral and stunning. I was captivated by the various scared or defiant faces of the men about to be shot for taking action against their invaders. I wondered if I would have the courage to face a firing squad for my own strongly held convictions, and not break down crying and pleading pitifully for my life.
In some ways the most stunning and disturbing of Goya’s collection was “The Two Old Men Eating Soup”. It portrayed a fairly wretched looking old man giving a spoonful of soup to another man so cadaverous, he looked way more dead than alive. And adding to the effect, the first man has a grin on his face and a glint in his eye, which looks either demented or as if to say, “Hey, this is a GOOD day, at least we have a little food!”.
The next day was our last in the Spanish capital, now minus Phil who had taken the train to Paris the previous evening, and we spent it walking about the governmental area of the city. Steve wanted to see if he could get information or even talk to someone in the German or Swiss embassy about what it would take to get a permit to work in either of those countries. I didn’t really have anything better to do so I tagged along to at least see this part of the city. We were lugging our packs because we had checked out of our hotel and were planning to take the overnight train out of the city north across the French border, to where we could hopefully hitchhike more successfully in Southern France. But by the time we found each embassy they were already closed for the day.
It was interesting to me how Steve and so many of my fellow young traveler cohort, from the U.S. or other countries outside of Western Europe, were intent on working in Europe, presumably at fairly menial jobs in restaurants, hotels or construction so they could prolong their stays. They seemed to have much less drawing them back to their homes than I did. But it also made me ponder what I might do to make some sort of living when I completed college. My hope was to work in theater somehow, that was my intended major at Western Michigan University, but what would that really look like? Did I have the talent to be a professional in either musical comedy or drama? I was operating on the not well thought out belief, just a fantasy really, that I did somehow, either as an actor, director or playwright.
My experience over the past three years in that unique youth theater group in my hometown, Youth Theater Unlimited, had been so developmentally broadening for me, having had experience and even successes in many aspects of theater on stage and off. But if I was honest, I wasn’t sure I could make the case that I was an exceptionally talented actor. And I was still an unproven neophyte as a director or writer. I guess I was banking on my continuing college study as a theater major would somehow get me there. But the more I thought about it the more disquieting it was to the foundations of my self chosen post high school path into adulthood.
Stymied on the embassy front and still lugging our fifty pound packs, Steve and I spent the late afternoon window shopping at the downtown flea market, me starting to ponder Christmas gifts for my family, and taking my thinking away from the dissonant thoughts about my own career path into adulthood. The market was not in full swing, being more of a morning thing apparently, but I looked at some extensive displays of hats and leather gloves that might be good presents for my mom and dad. But finally as twilight loomed, and having skipped lunch as we often tried to do, and slogging our heavy packs all day, Steve and I both became suddenly famished and started a two hour frantic but unsuccessful search for a restaurant in our price range. Madrid, particularly this central city government adjacent area, was much pricier than Barcelona, Granada or even touristy Torremolinos. Finally reaching a level of relative desperation and fatigue, we settled for a grocery store where we got two of our cheap comfort foods, yogurt and bread.
It was already 7:30 pm, and our overnight train out of Madrid was due to leave at 10:30. With our shoulders aching, we gritted our teeth and got to the train station and spent our last several hours in Madrid happily seated in the waiting area, packs finally off our backs, staring at all the bustling people and the ever updating, mechanical clickity clack of the big train status board, consuming massive quantities of bread and yogurt, and very very grateful that my intestinal upsets were finally subsiding.