The wow of Bilbao

In a fight, Madrid beats Barcelona. That’s my take. I’ve been to both Spanish cities twice now — I returned this week from the capital, Madrid — and conclude that Madrid is the real charmer, the metropolis of less sprawl, less dazzle, less tourists. If it has perhaps fewer bucket-list attractions — despite the marvelous Prado and its trove of Goyas and El Grecos, and Picasso’s overwhelming “Guernica” at the Reina Sofía — it compensates in sheer street-level charisma.   

Madrid is about its distinct, vibrant, supremely walkable barrios, humming with old-world quirks and character. Tapas, flamenco, doggies, blue-chip ham that’s cured for years, wonderful locals, seductive atmosphere. There’s something more intimate, more personal, more special about Madrid compared to big chest-thumping Barcelona. Both are world-class — I do love my Gaudí — but I could live in Madrid.

On another high note, one of my trip’s tippy-top joys was a two-day jaunt to Bilbao, far north in hilly Basque Country. If you know Bilbao, a bustling bayside city of 350,000, it’s probably because of the famous Guggenheim art museum, which is celebrating 25 years as a ridiculously successful tourist magnet.

The Guggenheim, designed with playful splendor by architect Frank Gehry, is a shimmering shrine for modern art, from Serra and Rothko to Warhol and Bourgeois. It’s a succinctly curated spread of visual greatest hits, a tantalizing survey that’s intelligently to the point. You leave filled, not fatigued. 

Naturally the Guggenheim’s star is Gehry’s woozy vessel for the art — all shiny, warped grandeur — which is not only gorgeous, but mind-boggling. How does he conjure such elaborate beauty? (Er, genius.) And how in the world was it actually built — by elves and sorcerers? It’s all so breathtaking, a fun, lavish, almost Escherian modern marvel that vaults gawkers into fits of selfie euphoria. 

Here’s a few more angles:

Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider teetering on the museum waterfront.
Inside the museum, Richard Serra’s extraordinary space-bending steel sculptures.

And some shots of Bilbao and Madrid:

Madrid flamenco. So much boot-stomping, hand-clapping, sweat-flying drama. Operatically physical.
Madrid
Bilbao
Old Bilbao
Old Bilbao
Halloweeners in Madrid (a rare sight)
Street-art dog, Madrid
Real dog, Madrid

Bark! Bark! (Shush!)

Whenever the dog senses someone is at the front door he explodes in an ear-shattering commotion of vocal violence and door-clawing destruction. Deafness commences and paint is scraped off in neat vertical lines by furious, and improbably artistic, paws. 

At these times, the pup is something of a monster, a fleecy, compact gremlin with the screeching pipes of an F-16 taking off. The transformation from hound to hellion is startling, obnoxious, and comprehensively annoying.

Paint peeled off with house-guarding gusto

Cubby is a good dog. Cubby is a bad dog. He is both — say, 94.2% good, 3% bad, and the rest is murky amorality. But, Jesus, he is loud

His lightning-jag meltdowns — crack! — upend your equilibrium with the sharp jolt of a car crash. They scare the holy crap out of you. And that just pisses you off more.

It’s not unlike a child throwing a tantrum, but those horrible scenes are strictly selfish displays — look at me, gimme me what I want! — whereas what we have here are exhibitions of the dog’s innate sense of protecting his home and humans.

Maybe he gets something out of it — a shudder of heroism, a surge of purpose — though I doubt it’s a conscious ego grab. And for that I reserve steadfast respect. He has integrity.

Still, the outbursts are grating and hair-raising. Imagine a swarm of bees loosed in your living room at 150 decibels, and instead of buzzing, it’s bark-yapping. (Bark-rapping — now that would be something else entirely.) Voices are never raised at Cubby, until he goes batshit for the poor, unwitting FedEx guy. 

In a semi-controlled roar we chastise the dog: Cubby! No! Stop! Shush! And my stand-by: Shut the HELL up! (Throw in another expletive for spice, and accuracy.)

He understands none of it. The dog yelps away, scratching the door, bounding  from chair to couch, having a rousing old time. Or maybe he’s scared, or chasing attention. I visited a couple of dog-expert sites and they were oddly lame and unhelpful. (Although they did say that yelling at the dog is counterproductive. Whoops.)

Thing is, Cubby has no intention of attacking whoever is visiting, be it the Jehovah’s Witnesses or a friendly guest. When the door opens, he stops barking, tail wagging wildly, muzzle madly sniffing. It seems he just wants to mark his territory with the sonic boom of a trusty guard dog. Considering his size, this is both sweet and sad.

Of course Cubby most of the time is chill, adoring and delightfully docile. Belly rubs are his drug of choice. His joyous, jumpy greetings lift you up. You should see the old boy sleeping, nostrils fluttering, legs kicking. It kinda cracks your heart. Silence.

The beast at rest

Getting to the meat of Buenos Aires

I think I got swindled in the land of steaks. Here I am in Buenos Aires, which bulges with unrepentant carnivores who adore their burgers, steaks and sausages, and I thought I’d try the quintessential meat experience at legendary parrilla, or grill, Don Julio. No meat maven, I’ve only been to a steakhouse maybe twice in my life (that’s including the Sizzler). Perhaps I fell victim to culinary naïveté. 

The place and service were impeccable, if a bit frenzied, and I loved where they sat me and how I was treated in the classy, rustic setting. I ordered the basic ribeye, a side of mashed potatoes and one glass of Malbec wine. I swallowed it down. 

What I choked on was the check, which came to $155 US — for three items, pre-tip. It was my second night in Argentina and I hadn’t figured out the exchange rate and the check came in pesos, so I really couldn’t tell what I was paying until I examined my debit card statement back at the hotel. Was that a $125 steak, I keep wondering. Or a $50 glass of wine? Or, erg, $75 mashed potatoes? (Dummy that I am, I didn’t keep my receipt. I rarely do.)

Despite being slightly miffed — the meal wasn’t that great — I’m over it, and the mishap is but a faint bruise on a smashing trip. 

A metropolis of unvarnished beauty and unfailing hospitality, slathered in eye-popping street art and graffiti, teeming with leashed dogs that provide stereophonic barking and plagues of poop, Buenos Aires is a great cobblestoned colonial melange of Spanish, French and Italian — a splash of old New Orleans — that’s exhilarating in its swirling Euro-diversity. (For all that, I have to say how perplexing, and distressing, it is that in six days here I have literally seen only two Black people.)

There’s time left on the journey, but for now these are some snapshots, beginning with the offending but delicious $teak:

Doggedly loving Buenos Aires

My hotel’s neighborhood echoes with the piercing sound of dogs barking their heads off. These are happy hounds, some of the zillions scampering about Buenos Aires, a city smitten with its canines, as everyone enjoys telling this shameless dog lover who fawns over any pup that crosses his path.

And here, that path is peppered with poop. My leafy, boutiquey hood of Palermo challenges you with a minefield of feces, much of which bears the imprint of hapless sneakers. Dog walkers, and they are legion, are regular scat scofflaws, ignoring rules that you pick up your pooch’s poop. What is this, Paris?

But it’s OK. I’m just delighting in the dogs — so many, of such varied breeds! — that stroll in packs of five or more with professional dog walkers, a bona fide career in this metropolis of 15 million humans. It’s winter now in Argentina, and this week temperatures hover around 55 degrees F, so lots of the critters sport sweaters, making them even more charming, and dapper. 

Dog parks are everywhere it seems. Even on paid walking tours, I lag behind to watch packs of gamboling, barking, ball-chasing, humping and jumping mutts. (How is it such small yappy dogs are so brazen with their gigantic peers?)

I’ve been in the beautiful capital city three days, and already it’s a dog’s life.

In praise of small pleasures

Stay away. We’re contagious. First my nephew caught Covid, then I did. Now my brother has it. Next up: the dog. 

This too shall pass, this rottenness, and I’m happy that the virus, for now, is behind me. It’s just one small blessing in muddled times, a jagged slab of flotsam to hug while the ship sinks.

There are other things. Like Elif Batuman’s new novel, “Either/Or,” which I’ve plugged here before briefly. It’s one of few passing pleasures right now, be it a startling observation about love or a suave turn of phrase that knocks me dizzy. 

Or a jab of insight glinting with wry misanthropy: 

“Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood this now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable.” 

Or any number of absurdist gems: 

“I hadn’t a clear mental picture of his new girlfriend, Lara, and realized that I had almost expected her to look blurry.”

But what’s a small delight to me may be imperceptible to you. 

Unless you’re traveling abroad and you’ve just learned that the U.S. has lifted its Covid testing requirements to return to the States — a major hassle deleted from an already stressful travel climate. I recently had to take the test in Portugal and Italy to get back home and the logistics were near-traumatic. 

So rejoice for that minor miracle. And why not the same for Monkey 47, a richly aromatic, botanically fierce, impishly named gin that I’ve rediscovered and is well worth the price. Even the gin-averse extol its ample virtues. It may be the best gin on the shelf, a smooth bracer for rough days.

What else is keeping me warm, now, when the skies are dark? The crack and screech of Brandi Carlile’s voice on her song “Broken Horses.” The zesty mazeman noodles at Ani Ramen House. Penélope Cruz’s febrile, heartrending performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s stirring melodrama “Parallel Mothers.” My unquenchable wanderlust. Bongos. That woman at the cafe. Books, mountains of them.

The dog. 

The dog. 

The dog.

Covid chronicles, part 2

I’m in the clutches of Covid, as I wrote upon my discovery two days ago, and my symptoms, from a light wheeze to a drippy schnoz, are getting cute on me. Just when it feels like they are receding, they jack-in-the-box back up, all flailing arms and googly eyes, heckling me with a mighty, Ha!  

So I thought it wise that I ordered a two-pack of DayQuil and NyQuil “liquicaps” for cold and flu stuff, from headaches to sneezing. It arrived yesterday and I promptly popped some DayQuil, which doesn’t contain the depressant effect of the sleepy NyQuil caps, I’m guessing.

Ha! again, because the DayQuil failed me like a two-bit placebo. My chest is still heavy, head thrums, throat sizzles, sinuses swell. This is why I rarely bother with so-called cold medicines, those blister packs of impotence, those doses of disappointment.

Compounding things, I look beastly. I’m brushing the Mickey Rourke phase. I’m sallow, splotchy, puffy. My eyes are poached eggs. And I have a zit on my cheek that could pass for a siamese twin.

I’m at home, isolating for at least a few more days. It’s a lonely spot, a kind of plush solitary confinement where complaining has no place, because, for one, no one can hear me. The pharmaceuticals might not work, but life continues mostly uninterrupted. I have my books, TV, computer, phone, food and a reservoir of self-pity. The dog looks at me and just shakes his head.

Being sick is never a Disney pleasure cruise. It’s more like “The Exorcist.” Since I started this post, I took the NyQuil half of the gel caps — it’s now past midnight — and the result seems preordained. I feel no better. I feel the same shade of blech. And I had high hopes for this one, with its shimmery emerald hue suggesting a soothing shot of absinthe. 

But no. The absinthe is absent. The NyQuil hasn’t made me drowsy and for some reason my ears feel like they’re stuffed with gauze, which means I have a brand-new symptom: deafness. 

Three more days of this, but of course it could drag on. I’ve quit the ‘Quils and will coast on bladder-bulging volumes of water and isn’t that the oldest home remedy in the book when you’re sick — fluids, more fluids. I think I saw that on “Little House on the Prairie” when Pa or a tween Laura Ingalls Wilder caught a chill. They drank like whale sharks. 

For now, that’s me. Bound for bloat on the good ship Covid. Glub, glub.

But I digress

Another installment of haphazard thought doodles, six hors d’oeuvres that I’m too lazy to whip into full meals. They’re presented numerically, but that’s just for looks. Rest assured, each item is equally trivial. 

1. In a thud of disappointment, I put down a book today that I had great hopes for — I hate that. Brandon Taylor’s story collection “Filthy Animals” just won the prestigious Story Prize for best book of short stories, so I snatched it up, cracked it, and eventually let out a blustery sigh of resignation, thinking, Pshaw. Not dreadful but not great, Taylor’s sexy social realism traces the romantic exploits of young LGBTQ+ couples, which is no longer novel yet still refreshing. His writing is spare and precise, but it’s also facile and shallow, sanded to a sterile remove. Physical descriptions trump psychological and emotional depth. Taylor’s stories have been compared to the light and prickly millennial sexcapades of Sally Rooney. Fair enough. But she’s sharper, cuts deeper. Has fangs. 

2. Cubby the über-pooch is doing fine, thank you, and he’s watching me as I type this, so things are sort of meta. I look at him back and see that his fuzzy Ewok face has striking human attributes. Like his eyelashes, which I rarely notice, are almost as luxuriant as Tammy Faye Bakker’s big, fake, bat-wing lashes. And his lower lip is like a little man’s with black lipstick. And his bottom teeth are just like tiny baby teeth. OK, now I’m starting to get creeped out.

3. Not creeping me out are the warm sentiments I received on my recent birthday, especially the nice words from one of my dearest exes, who wrote, “Our time together is one of my favorite chapters in life, for sure.” For three and a half years we had a blast, traveling Europe — Paris, Italy, Vienna, Istanbul, Greece — going to concerts, movies and plays, carousing and canoodling, and I’m thankful she’s still in my orbit. We were sweet and snarky. Here’s how she signed off: “Write me back, asshole! And have a very Happy Birthday.” Aww.

4. After quitting “Filthy Animals,” I grabbed the even more acclaimed “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” a collection of three memoirs by late Danish author Tove Ditlevsen, which comes wreathed in panting praise and strewn with confetti. Written from 1967-71 and embraced by a new generation of readers and critics, the memoirs, “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency,” have been hailed a masterpiece, “the product of a terrifying talent.” Having just started the book, my opinion of it is at best embryonic — the writing is stupendous — yet I’ve tweezed a piercing line from the early pages: “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.” That both chills and cheers me.

5. Once when I was at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a young girl was selling sunscreen on the roadside. I asked her how much and she gave me an absurdly high price. I blurted, “You’re crazy!” She hissed back, “You crazy!” Just two weeks ago in Rome, I approached a taxi driver and told him the address to my hotel. “Forty euro,” he said, as if he wasn’t trying to blatantly fleece me by a full 25 euro. “You’re crazy,” I scoffed, to which he replied, “You’re crazy!” I really need to come up with a new line.

6. The latch on the back gate has broken, so the fence no longer makes a catching noise, it just sort of swooshes shut. That means you can’t tell if someone is coming or going. A ghost might as well be walking in. Or a serial killer.

The trip is going swell, and I haven’t even left yet

Just yesterday, Argentina lifted its Covid test requirements to enter the country. That had me high-fiving the heavens, until I realized it’s not that big a deal, just the removal of a minor headache on the to-do list of travel planning. Still, I’m very happy, as it’s one less document hassle, one less trip to the pharmacy and one less molestation of my mucus membranes. 

Even more exciting is my finding a flight to Buenos Aires in July for $200 cheaper than the flight I almost bought. And I’ve also realized the time difference between here and Argentina is a piffling two hours, which should mean minimal to zero jet lag. These serial boons bode well for a trip that was hatched just days ago. What next? I get bumped to First Class with my own personal masseuse?  

That’s all good news for this pessimist (aka: a frequently disappointed idealist), who tends to see the glass not half-full, but smashed to pieces on the floor after accidentally bumping it with a clumsy elbow, the half-empty contents gone splash. July is three months off, and a lot can happen. The world walks on rickety stilts, and banana peels abound.

For now, I’ll keep planning for the nine-day trip, while life cartwheels forth. Outside, birds tootle like madmen and the sun beats down with self-satisfied ardor. The dog grumbles at the plumber. I play drums to an old-school roster that includes Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and Metallica’s “Sad But True,” with B-sides of Black Crowes and Beck. 

I finally saw “Licorice Pizza” — Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming, frustrating mess (it’s a big shaggy dog licking you all over the face), led by the seductively quirky Alana Haim — and shut off the Will Smith tennis-dad vehicle “King Richard” when it failed to transcend ingratiating, made-for-TV pablum. 

I’m beguiled by the snappy, scrappy Netflix sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” whose 22-minute episodes I dip into like greasy finger snacks. And in the spirit of Argentina, I might, just maybe, watch the goopy 1997 musical “Evita,” starring Madonna as Eva Perón. 

(Fun facts: The director of “Evita,” Alan Parker, was a master genre-hopper: “Fame,” “Pink Floyd — The Wall,” “Midnight Express,” “Angel Heart,” “The Commitments,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Angela’s Ashes,” and more. I once interviewed him. He was a mensch. Then I was assigned to review his new movie, “The Life of David Gale.” I gave it one star.)

But back to Buenos Aires, because that’s what really has me in its clutches. More good news on that front: I cinched a seat for in-demand steakhouse Don Julio, which is rated #34 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I probably eat steak four times a decade, and since it’s an Argentine thing, I’m definitely tucking in. My chest may implode. I don’t care.

I’m sure I’ll eat a mess of foods I don’t normally eat, as I recently did in Portugal (veal, pork sausage) and Italy (beef cheek, suckling pig). I like to do what the locals do. I feel all authentic — and often horribly guilty.

To me, that’s the point of travel. Tasting the new (an entire cobra in Hanoi), witnessing the exotic (billowing funeral pyres in Kathmandu), grazing danger (being detained by Hezbollah in Beirut), meeting cool people (all those faces!).

Buenos Aires is sure to offer some of that. Places rarely fail me. And things are going well already. That thumping you hear is me frantically knocking wood.

Bird balm

My good friend Tiva just bought her young daughter a pet parakeet. It’s blue-green with a sloped yellow head and small enough to perch on the girl’s slight shoulder. Tiva texted a photo:

“You see a cute birdie,” I texted back. “I see dinner.”

This sentiment is more pressing when she tells me the tweetie thingy’s name: Pickles Billabong. (Pickles Billabong!) Naturally, I demanded to know who cursed the poor creature with this name, which is straight out of Dickens or Dr. Seuss at their most baroque, or most high. Her daughter, of course, is the culprit. 

“She came up with the name by looking at a list of bodies of water (river, brook, etc.) because the bird is a kind of aquamarine color and a billabong is a pond that is created when a river changes course. Pickles is because the bird is shaped like a pickle,” Tiva explains. I am impressed. 

“The bird is her best friend,” she adds, and I don’t know if I should smile or sob. 

She goes on to say that the daughter and her twin sister are having a turbulent time during Covid — they’re not sick, just bored and longing — and so Pickles serves as a kind of therapy animal. It’s the Prozac parakeet. 

Birds. Indeed. They’re the one pet, besides a rhino and a manatee, I never had growing up. I stuck to dogs, rats and cats, with the occasional fish, salamander and turtle thrown into the mix. 

No birds, and I can only guess we skipped them because our friends had parakeets and they were awful. They didn’t really do anything that’s anthropomorphically charming, like dogs, which are half-human anyway. There was no fetch or leg humping. I mean, really.

The birds seemed stuck in a poo-encrusted cage, bopping around, whistling occasionally, cocking their robotic heads. When they got out they flew all over the house, perching high up on the curtains to avoid human clutches, and were generally an avian pain in the ass. I desperately wanted to open a window and watch them flap away.

Not so now. I hope Pickles Billabong thrives as a bright, animated companion, although, according to experts, parakeets can live 10 to 20 years. On that note, I immediately start thinking about the best sauce for a tiny, braised bird. And what are the best sides — carrots, potatoes, pet rabbit? 

But this is somewhat serious. The girls are in a needy space. Covid has cut a hole in so many lives, and kids especially are confused and adrift. They wanted a friend, exotic, potentially chatty, therapeutic — some thera-keet. The bird then is a balm, sweet, attentive, pretty, and other things I’m sure. They do have a dog, but it’s more Tiva’s baby than the children’s. We’ll see how this whole thing flies.

Meanwhile, I wonder: Does the dog look up at old Pickles and go, “Yum, yum”? Good dog. 

Summer’s roar and pour

The sounds of summer: little girls shrieking in the park; the ice cream truck’s old-timey jingle-jangle; the living room fan’s sighing thrum; the glassy clank of the ice dispenser; the dog’s whistling nostrils as he naps to cool off.

Meanwhile, the sky is about to explode. 

Cool Whip clouds froth and darken, snuffing the sun with enveloping shadow. Then: thunder snaps and growls like splitting wood, and plump raindrops slap hard surfaces. 

It’s 90 degrees and, like that, it’s pouring and roaring. The sounds of summer. 

Only an hour ago I was walking in woolly humidity — the kind of goop that makes the small of your back immediately pool with sweat — under partly cloudy skies, typical summer climes on the East Coast. Which means, wear smart shoes and pack an umbrella.

No one cares that it kissed 100 degrees yesterday. Cloudbursts and thunderstorms are coming — have arrived — and while climate change is partly to blame, this is rather normal atmospheric behavior here and now.

I am so happy. Rain douses the heat, and temperatures can drop 20 degrees in less than an hour. Summer, foiled again! Lightning, so dazzling a sight, rakes bleak skies, and thunder makes Wagnerian drama.  

But they’re fickle, these wet, boisterous storms, with fitful, stop-start rhythms. Fooled into thinking one has passed, I jump at the chance to walk the dog.  

It’s hot as hell. The sun blazes — until it doesn’t. Shade suddenly blankets everything. Rumbles and cracks, those sounds of summer, augur trouble.

We get soaked.