travel and the art of mental maintenance: II. Madrid, the arrival

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

the arrival

I was supposed to take the train from Paris to Madrid. It was one of those things that I had planned out well in advance like the responsible adult I had thought I was. I bought my Eurail pass and everything.

If I remember correctly, it was an overnight train. In the planning stages, this was a good thing because it meant a night I didn’t have to pay for a hostel.

But then, as Paris wound to a close, all the ephemeral friends I had made in my hostel there were starting to drift away… some back to their everyday lives, some onto their next adventure. The loneliness was creeping back in. The tide was coming in again.

Suddenly, an overnight train journey was starting to feel a bit too much like claustrophobia. As if the train would trap me with myself and the bleak possibility of unwanted social interaction. Loneliness is strange sometimes in that you know social interaction should be good for you, but you fear it ever-the-more intensely.

This was the beginning of a pattern that would repeat over and over while I travelled, in one of those unearthly hybrids of art and mathematics.

So I looked up Ryanair. It was something absolutely absurd (like only 20 Euros) to fly from Paris to Madrid. So I booked it. I get irresponsible with money when faced with potentially anxiety-ridden situations. Anything to avoid it. Take my money. I booked a flight leaving that night. It would get into Madrid at about midnight.


I took the Metro to the dying embers of central Paris where I had to catch a coach to this tiny little airport, the name of which eludes me. It was one big room lined with vending machines on one side, and windows on the other. You could watch the rickety planes come in and airport staff push the staircases up to them. For someone who grew up in a city with a major airport, this felt like time travel. As it I would see The Beatles descend at any moment. A pretentious, privileged thought, but one I had all the same.

Ryanair doesn’t book seats. It’s a free-for-all. I would come to learn the best entrance strategy (always go for the back set of stairs; most people rush the first), but at this point, I just went with the crowd.

I had my Lonely Planet travel guide and I spent the flight plotting my route from the airport to the hostel in Madrid. Easy peasy, it looked. Just one metro line, with one change. Doneskis.

But by about one in the morning, I discovered that part of the Madrid Metro was down for maintenance. I had to find the surface and find a shuttle bus. I got on the wrong one.

When I realized something was wrong (which took an embarrassingly long time), I got off the bus, and hailed a cab. I handed the address to a hostel over to the driver and he took one look at it and gave me a long, tired look. Without a word, he started driving.

Madrid in the middle of the night is an odd place. It is funny to compare it to other cities, especially my own, Vancouver, which shuts down at about one-thirty am, just after the last Skytrain pulls out of downtown.

Madrid is one of those cities that goes all night. Sure, it’s quieter than during the day. But there’s still stuff going on. It feels like an underground of sorts. Like you’re somehow complicit in this secret world.


By two-thirty am, the cab pulled up at the end of a long alley. It was wide enough to know that it was a viable walkway, but narrow enough that the cab driver silently said no fucking way.

I gave the cab driver a look as if to ask where the hell am I supposed to go?

He pointed down this Spanish Knockturn Alley and said, “Down. Just little. On left.”


He looked solemn. By now, I had assumed this was his natural state of being, solemnity, but as I opened the cab door, he said, “Careful. Bad town. Very bad.”

I had sincerely wished he’d not said that. How could this have helped? Like now I could watched out for maniacs but before I would have embraced them with open arms? Did he think I was expecting the residents of Spanish Knockturn Alley to break out into a rendition of the Lollipop Guild at my arrival?

I side-stepped a few leering types, but I made it to the hostel unscathed. I managed to get a room and snuck up to it quietly, tiptoeing amongst the already asleep. So as not to cause unnecessary noise, I slipped off my shoes and slid into the bed fully clothed.

As tired as I was after such a long day, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes. I pulled the blanket up to my chin and stared at the underside of the bunk above me. My heart was pounding. I could feel my pulse in my ears.

Holy shit! How had I taken the events of the evening in such stride? I had been stranded in the middle of the night in a foreign city I had not even seen in the daylight. And I had been alone. Completely alone. No one had known I was even in the country.

How stupid could I have been?

Once I replayed everything over in my mind, it was impossible to calm myself down. I had to repeat over and over: You’re safe now. Calm the hell down. It’s over.

It was a strange day, but an important one. I realized I could handle it. Things would be thrown at me and I only had myself to rely on. But I could handle it.

And maybe I needed to be a little bit more responsible with myself… and my money. But I wouldn’t learn that lesson until years later.

black paintings in a white wing

Sometime in the late summer of 2008 – right before the crash – I was in Madrid. Madrid is home to one of my bucket list items (if I actually had a bucket list): Picasso’s Guernica.

Housed in the Museo Reina Sofia, Guernica is an absolutely astonishing sight to behold. The impact of such a piece comes not only from its imagery – rendered starkly in monochrome – but also in its sheer size.

I truly thought no other work of art would ever provoke such an emotional and visceral reaction from me. I actually gasped, my breath catching in my throat the moment I stepped into the gallery space. “Nothing will top this,” I thought, “Ever.”


But Madrid had a lesson in wait: checking items off a bucket list is one thing, but the moments that truly take us by surprise are often far more rare, and far more valuable.

Perhaps the next day or even a week later – my memory has grown hazy – I visited the Museo del Prado. I wandered room after room of classic paintings by the Old Masters: Titian, Rubens, and on and on. At this point in my travels, I had recently been through the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris. If you’ve been to any major national museum, you know the drill. I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, I get it. Biblical allusions, yada yada. Greek and/or Roman myth, I know I know. Portrait of someone I recognize from the money, OLD HAT.” It’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate the artistic value of each piece, but it gets a bit samey  after a while.


I was adamant that Guernica surpassed them all. Guernica was, as Lawrence L. Langer asserted, the first true art of atrocity. I cannot even begin to summarize the importance – artistically, culturally, politically – of Guernica. So I won’t. Because, really, that’s not what I sat down to write about today.

At the Museo del Prado, I found a Dali to break the monotony*, then it was back to the usual vanilla brilliance of pictures-you-really-wish-were-of-Dorian-Gray. I began to fancy myself a burgeoning proclaimer of been there, done that, bought the souvenir snow globe. I was 24 and arrogant.

But art has a way of knocking you down a peg or off a cliff.

I wandered into what seemed at first like a tiny wing of the museum. I had learned that sometimes they keep art films in secret compartments such as this. (It was an alcove like this where I saw Un Chien Andalou, at the Tate Modern, I think.)

Yet in this tiny wing were an arrangement of fourteen paintings that I ended up a long time with. No one else came in while I was there. Must have been a Tuesday morning.

My morning with Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings easily remains the most deeply moving and profound experience I have ever had with art. There is just something at once so fantastic and so essentially human at work in these pieces. They are once both surreal and real; both intensely personal and terrifyingly universal.

The Three Fates

I’m about to borrow heavily from Wikipedia for some background here, but Goya was “regarded both as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns.” It’s a fascination I’ve since realized I’ve had my entire life: people overwhelmed by an era of transition. It’s why I love Mad Men, the Lost Generation, and the whole saga of Richard II and Henry IV (or, if you prefer, Aerys II and Robert Baratheon).

After an early career of patronage by the Spanish crown, the Peninsular War of 1808-1814, “the internal turmoil of the changing Spanish government,” and a late gotta-pay-the-bills stint of painting commissioned portraits, Goya, at the age of 72 and going deaf, took a country house “with the idea of isolating himself.”

A Pilgrimage to San Isidro

It was there that he created his Black Paintings:

Goya developed an embittered attitude toward mankind. He had a first-hand and acute awareness of panic, terror, fear and hysteria. He had survived two near-fatal illnesses, and grew increasingly anxious and impatient in fear of relapse. The combination of these factors is thought to have led to his production of the fourteen works known collectively as the Black Paintings. Using oil paints and working directly on the walls of his dining and sitting rooms, Goya created works with dark, disturbing themes. The paintings were not commissioned and were not meant to leave his home. It is likely that the artist never intended the works for public exhibition: “…these paintings are as close to being hermetically private as any that have ever been produced in the history of Western art.”**

L: Saturn Devouring His Child; R: Two Old Men

This is all from Wikipedia, but I read the same in essence upon a museum placard and in the little booklet I immediately purchased from a vending machine just outside the wing. Surely, I realized afterwards, these paintings must have a remarkable effect on the daily gallery visitors if the Prado thought to provide €3 information booklets right there. I could not be the only one fraught with the impulse to immediately claims these works, unable to wait until the gift shop to somehow make a part of them mine.

The titles given them are essentially basic descriptions. To me, they lack the impact. Above, is that two old men? Or Cronus with death whispering in his ear? Or was Goya, now going deaf, reflecting on the frustrations of his old age? And Saturn Devouring his Child shows such contrast with a glorified work of an Old Master it’s as if some late-Romantic debate ended in flipped over tables, smashed glasses and a bar-room brawl.

Witches’ Sabbath (the Great He-Goat)

As much as knowing the context of the Black Paintings seems to add to my appreciation of them, it is by no means essential. The paintings captured me the moment I saw them. As with Guernica’s sheer size, presentation is the key. The paintings’ arrangement as a collection is a significant part of the impact. Each painting alone is haunting in a way that the word has become too over-used to do justice, but together they just… wow.

Guernica might have been literally breath-taking, but the Black Paintings stunned me… and almost shamed me. Where Guernica stood as testament to the horrors other people are capable of, the Black Paintings point to something deeper.

Perhaps they were so slyly asserting that I, too, am capable of horrific things. They capture atrocity, but in a far more indefinable and deeply rooted sense. Picasso created Guernica so as many people as possible could see it and learn from it. I like to imagine Goya created the Black Paintings in contemplation of the atrocities within himself, whether in his soul, his potential, or his memories.

The Cudgel Fight

Something about that connected with me and I’ve never been able to forget it. Perhaps this is all too difficult to put into words because that is the way of truly great art. Art is an abstraction of things too real and too powerful to properly comprehend. It cannot be expressed in simple or clear terms. It cannot be quantified or explained away. It cannot be expressed in numbers or facts. It cannot be delineated into mere names or places or even into language. To do so is to miss its core purpose, its je ne sais quoi… its duende… its element of the sublime.

old men
Two Old Men Eating Soup

That was something I understood intellectually but could never truly appreciate. And the realization came so unexpectedly, too. It came in a moment inside an art gallery, I know. I should have been expecting this. But I wasn’t. This made me realize that for all my life up to that moment I had approached art as a vessel of history or place: as a bucket-list item.

And Art cares not for your bucket list.

Fantastic Vision


*Possibly the douchiest phrase I have ever written. Apologies.

**as cited from Wikipedia (I am now citing citations cited on Wikipedia. Through the looking-glass, people, RIGHT THROUGH IT.): Licht, Fred. Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art. Universe Books, 1979. p 179.


spanish wanderings










pueblo ingles

Ah, finally some free time, for the first time this week. This week has been amazing. I don´t have a lot of time to really write, so this will be short. Pueblo Ingles has been a blast, and I whole-heartedly recommend it to everyone. Spending the entire day talking to people from all over the world is surreal, and I feel bad that I cannot think of a more interesting way to describe it. Not only have I learned so much about other parts of the world, but spending an hour with a new person all day every day forces you to really try to describe yourself. You realize that there are so many things about your life and your home that you end up repeating and thus thinking about in ways that you never normally do. I feel like I´ve described Vancouver, Canada, the Olympics, my job, my family, and my travels in ways that I´ve never even thought about before. I´m sure it´s the same for the other people here, too. I´ve only known all of them for less than a week, but it feels like months. This is like all the experiences of summer camp crammed into one week. I don´t know what else to say that wouldn´t degenerate into describing each individual that I´ve met, but there are over 50 of them and I would have to talk about each one. Maybe later! Anyway, I have realized how much I do miss home, but also how incredibly important it is that I see the world. This has given me new confidence and a new determination to see as much as possible and talk to as many people as possible and learn about their lives. *sigh* Je suis prets

espagne, so far…

So I’ve been in Madrid for three nights now, but it’s flown by. The first night I flew in, but hadn’t had my hostel booked, so there was one that I looked up on the internet, that looked like it had free beds. After I got off my flight and got into town on the metro, I realized that the station I needed to get off at was closed for construction or something (what is this, Vancouver?), so I tried a bus, and by this time it was about midnight. That only confused me more, so I finally just got a taxi, and actually got to the hostel at about 1 am. I didn’t really start to panic until I actually got to lie down in bed and suddenly realized, “wow, I was so close to being stranded in downtown Madrid in the middle of the night.” Alas, my resourcefulness won out. Anyway, the next day I made it to the hostel I had booked. It is lovely; an 18th century building, with lovely mosaic tiles on the inside of the common room. I’ve posted a picture on facebook. There, I met up with Nicole, from Chicago, who is going to Pueblo Ingles with me. We had an easy night, going out for dinner and pretty much taking it easy. The next day (yesterday), we did a walking tour of the city, which I highly recommend. I did one in Paris as well, and they are great for getting your feet on the ground (literally, I guess) in a new city. We walked through Plaza Mayor for dinner, and then did a pub crawl. We met lots of crazy, crazy people. A group from (we think) South America, a group from the Netherlands, a guy from Leeds, and, coincidentally, the three German guys that were also in my hostel in Paris. What a mad, mad, mad, mad world. They had flown in yesterday, and their flight arrived just after the accident. Apparently, they had to circle the skies for several hours, waiting to land. Crazy. I can’t believe that. A lot of people here have been talking about it in disbelief. I’m going to go google it now. Anyway, today, we have the meeting luncheon for Pueblo Ingles, then who knows!

off to spain

I’m leaving Paris today, and am off to Spain. I knows it’s been a week, but I feel like I’ve been in Paris forever. I don’t know if it’s in a good way or not… hm. Anyway, I did like Paris, but it’s PARIS. You expect so much, you know? It was really cool, and I will elaborate later, but not quite that ‘*sigh* Paris…’ I was expecting. Oh well, I had fun. On to MADRID!