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

Life, in no particular order

1. I don’t do dragons. I think they’re silly. For all their fiery tantrums and wing-flapping fury, I can’t take them seriously. Humans ride on their scaly backs like they’re horsies and fly through the sky. I crack up whenever I see that. 

So needless to say I’m not watching HBO’s “House of the Dragon” or Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” big ticket fantasy orgies that by turns bore and baffle me. I don’t even know if “Rings of Power” features dragons — halitosis-impaired Smaug looms large in Tolkien’s Hobbit-verse — but I also don’t do elves or wizards, Orcs or even swords, so I’m pretty much locked out of those good times. 

But I’m not a complete dragon-phobe. My favorite dragon movie is easily “Reign of Fire,” starring Christian Bale and a bald Matthew McConaughey as gnarly post-apocalyptic dragon slayers. If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s a blast. McConaughey chews on a big fat cigar throughout. There’s fire and volcanic sludge and dragons all over the place. It’s also pretty grim. And nobody rides a dragon.

2. My brother and his wife just got back from Madrid — precisely where I am headed 20 days from now. No conspiracies, no subtext, we just happened to agree that Spain’s capital is the place to be this month, this year, right now.

What’s great is that I sent the lovely couple on a sort of expedition to scope the city, suss out all the hot tapas bars and cocktail bars, the most electric neighborhoods, what sights to see and what to skip. 

And they delivered resoundingly, finding me a better hotel in a livelier area, several hip restaurants and bars, a shrine to Goya, and a slew of invaluable practicalities. Teamwork! High five! Madrid is famous for its blaring all-night carousing. You still hear people banging bongos in the street at five in the morning. I land on Halloween. I hope it’s batshit. 

3. The ongoing saga of my misadventures in sneaker shopping — the subject of a prior post — is finally winding down. I spent the summer agonizing over what shoes to get to replace my moldered, moth-eaten collection of casual kicks. 

Halt. Mere minutes ago, after I wrote that paragraph, I ordered the final pair of sneakers I will order this year. (I hope.) Just as I was getting comfortable with some slick new Cole Haans, I stumbled on a pair of rare New Balance sneaks that I fell for instantly. Now what? I put the Cole Haans back in their box (for the moment) and clicked “Place My Order” on the New Balance. 

Which means I’ve now, since July, bought seven pairs of sneakers, an unholy sum that has me and my Visa doing barfy loop-the-loops. What else: I got another pair of New Balance, two pairs of Italian-made Oliver Cabells, a cheap pair of white Adidas Stan Smiths, and some Asics that I promptly returned. Incidentally, one pair of the Oliver Cabell shoes are all but unwearable, causing oozing blisters at each step. And it’s too late to return them. My Visa is writhing.

The indulgence is appalling. I’m no sneaker-head. I don’t collect footwear. I am not Imelda Marcos. I just need a fresh fleet of shoes to replenish the worn and rejected. If the latest New Balance are good, I will return the Cole Haans. That will mean I will own only five new pairs of sneakers. One of those causes blisters. So that means four new pairs. Not so dramatic after all. But still: really?

4. Next to Michael Mann’s cop thriller “Heat 2,” a brilliant, blistering, book-form sequel to his 1995 crime movie masterpiece “Heat,” with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino among other badasses, the best book I read this summer was Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” — sticky auto-fiction that giddily pinballs through its meandering idiosyncrasies. This jagged, brainy book functions with the itchy buzz of life. It’s hilarious. Awkward. Wincing. Wonderful. Yeah, life.

Narrated by a 30-ish Heti, it’s aptly described as “part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part vivid exploration of the artistic and sexual impulse.” It happily recalls the sui generis first-person fictions of Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill and Elif Batuman, currently my favorite writers. They kind of drop you mid-thought into their lives, then roll on from there with chatty, funny, unembarrassed realism. The works revel in their mundanity, which becomes a kind of magnificence.

Heti’s 2012 novel was named one of 15 “remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write in the 21st century” by The New York Times. A bold but clear choice I wholly endorse. Heti has a new novel, “Pure Colour,” that I wasn’t bonkers about, but you might find worth a peek. For now, “How Should a Person Be?” is what I’m bellowing about from the mountaintop. (Me. Megaphone. A towering crag.)  

5. If you want to know something about me, read this tart and telling passage from Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel “The Hero of This Book”:

“Myself, I loathe having my picture taken. I have for as long as I can remember, even in the old days when you could go weeks without somebody trying. In all group shots I am not pictured. It’s beyond vanity and in the realm of superstition. I don’t like people looking at me. I don’t like being the center of attention except under very specific conditions. … I will not stop for a photo. I will not look at myself in a mirror for you. I will not watch myself pass in a plane-glass window.”

There. Now you know a bit more about me. Also, I’m not big on dragons. 

Autumn ecstasy, briefly

Summer is officially dead. Yes!

Yesterday, the first day of fall, landed with a beautiful bang — low 70s, intermittent cloudbursts, followed by the gauzy autumnal light that streaks so nicely through the clouds and on breeze-blown trees. I almost wept. Today’s forecast: sunshine and 63 degrees. The soundtrack: rustling leaves. Be still my beating heart.  

I banish sweat and sun, beach parties, barbecues and Birkenstocks. People moan about seasonal depression right about now. I get that in the spring; setting the clock forward is a ritual of exquisite distress. It was George Harrison who sang that euphoric earworm of misguided seasonal optimism, “Here Comes the Sun.” Damn him. 

Harrison, in my book, is inviolable. Then there are the real musical scofflaws, whose seemingly every tune is a cloying summer anthem, trilling about sand, surf, girls, cars and other frolicsome “fun.” That’s why the Beach Boys are the worst band ever.

Fall is when I shop for clothing, like a trio of chilly-ready shirts and a Bond-worthy waxed jacked from Barbour (on sale, natch). They’re perfect for my annual fall journey, this one to Spain happening the day before that quintessential fall-iday, Halloween. Face it: Halloween beats Easter, July 4th and Labor Day in any back alley brawl. 

I fall for fall. I embrace shorter days, cool weather, scattered leaves and natty scarves, while spurning the obnoxiousness of football and cutesy orgies of pumpkin-flavored confections. I read today there are people who suffer “autumnal existential dread.” The article said: “The melancholy we feel is a form of grief, mourning the lost sunlight, the ease of summertime, and the greenery that abounds in the warm weather.” Boo-hoo.

I pity you not. In fact I kick up my heels and do a leprechaun jig to the staccato rhythm of my own gleeful chuckles. Fall is here. And guess what? Winter, that frosty front of misery for most, is right around the corner. Bring it on. I’ve got the jacket for it. 

Paradise.

Rewards of the return visit

Friends, those kooks, occasionally wonder why I often return to places I’ve already traveled to instead of going somewhere new and horizon-expanding. The answers are simple and numerous. One, obviously, is that I’ve fallen for a city or country and the days I visited were but a tantalizing taste. I want more. To really get under the skin of a place. So I go back.

(It should be said that last week I was enjoying my first journey to Buenos Aires — my first time in South America — so I still seek the exotic and uncharted.)

To return to a destination is also to refresh the original experiences that made it special and to caulk the holes of crumbling memory. Right now I’m considering a revisit to Madrid, Spain, where I went like 20 years ago. That trip is a fond haze.

Besides Picasso’s gobsmacking “Guernica” and the gems of the Prado Museum — I’m specially partial to the wackadoodle Bosch triptych — I remember only a convivial Irish pub where I met some fun locals and a whiplashing green rollercoaster on the city outskirts. It didn’t even seem to be part of an amusement park, just this stand-alone adrenaline machine amid the trees. Anyway, it was a blast. 

So I’m mulling Madrid for my fall trip, with a three-day excursion north to Bilbao, which is famous mainly for its warped and woozy Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim art museum but has, since the museum’s opening in 1997, blossomed with attractions and an arty, edgy personality all its own.

Guggenheim Bilbao

I’ve yearned to go to Bilbao for at least 15 years, but you don’t just go directly to the city, you typically go through a hub like Barcelona or Madrid then trek north by train to Spain’s autonomous and beautiful Basque Country.

Thus I’m piggybacking a new place with a place I’ve been before, but both should be rejuvenating and illuminating, since, as I said, my memories of Madrid are a scintillating smudge. 

This happens. I went to Rome in March and even though I had been there twice before, it was changed as much as I’d changed in the intervening years. Same with my January visit to Lisbon. I recognized much of the city, but it was also strikingly novel, a whole new world. It’s about layers: each visit peels back exciting ones, those you didn’t see or didn’t have time for the first go around. Discovery is fathomless.

And this is from someone who journals copiously and snaps photos like a paparazzo. But those mementos are static, mere documents, like a map or a postcard. Throbbing, breathing life is the aim, so, yeah, it’s time to go back.

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.

Winkless at 35,000 feet

Right now it’s 104 degrees at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, which seems appropriate considering the facility’s infernal namesake. I have arrived from the East Coast, where it was 74 at 10 a.m. — it will hit 94 — and I am connecting to a flight that will take me to the land of 54 degrees, for it is winter in Buenos Aires, my latest destination on my quest to see as much of the world as I can before it blows up.

Hours later, I write this in the dark on a punishing nine-hour redeye during that weird interval when the pilot douses the cabin lights so his human cargo can go sleepy time. I’m a jet-plane insomniac so that trick ain’t working. Instead I atrophy in my seat, reading a bit, maybe watching a few minutes of a movie (or eavesdropping on what others are watching — almost uniform tripe), but mostly fiddling my brain’s thumbs and sneaking the occasional mini bottle of scotch that I smuggled aboard. (Contraband. I rule.)

Of course, as always, the guy next to me is comatose, swaddled in a blue airline blankie, a rivulet of drool squiggling down his chin — paradise. And there I’ll be when we disembark, sleep-deprived, pissed-off, testy, tetchy, impatient — and singing glory hallelujah I’m in South America, my first time on the continent! Bloodshot eyeballs, bewhiskered, frowzy hair — who cares. The miracle of modern aeronautics has delivered me someplace new and far, uncharted and exciting. I have no idea what I’m getting myself into.

And that’s the gist of it. No matter how physically miserable I am right now — there’s six hours left on the flight and I’ll be burning untold calories fidgeting, not to mention enduring fearsome temblors of turbulence — I still have much to look forward to, lots of which I’ll probably share here. 

Meanwhile, I have a funny novel to finish, some hooch to furtively sip and a few episodes of “Rick and Morty” to watch. Things could be a hell of a lot worse.

Argentina, here we come (gulp)

The plane is set to depart Sunday at 2:09 p.m. local time, and by 2:49 p.m. I plan to have a scotch resting on my drop-down tray next to my trusty laptop or a scintillating paperback, my carry-on tucked overhead, seat reclined and the fat, brushing butts and sharp, errant elbows of fellow fussing passengers over and done and in their seats, preferably nowhere near me.

Grrr.

Air travel, the great triathlon, the great grumble-thon. Packing, getting to the airport — in an Uber, no less, with those ubiquitous pine trees dangling from the rearview that reek of urinal cakes — boarding the plane sheep-like, the scrum of seating, and all the fun, head-imploding minutiae in between. (Security — fuck yeah!) As a blanket complaint, it couldn’t be more cliché. Deal.

I’m soaring from the East Coast to a layover in Houston, then off to Buenos Aires for nine days, which seems a little excessive but at this point I’m kind of stuck. (Note to self: check out Montevideo in nearby Uruguay, or ride a horsey with some dusty Argentinian gauchos. Eat steak. Mounds of it. I really don’t know.)

Dress appropriately. This one’s tricky. It will be 90 degrees at my departure and 53 degrees at my arrival in South America, where it is currently winter below the equator. I’ll wear jeans and a t-shirt and carry a mid-weight jacket on the plane. When I arrive in Buenos Aires I’ll figure out what to unpack and put on. A cinch.

I’m the fourth most neurotic traveler on the globe, and so of course I’m bitten with anxiety about what’s in store in a city, a country, a continent, I’ve never been to. Will I be dazzled? Will I have fun? Will my many plans pan out? Will I get robbed and beaten in a taxi cab?

My myriad trips always work out fine or better despite my weak-kneed worries. And of course I’m already scheming the trip after this, my annual late-October journey. I was leaning toward Budapest, where I’ve never been, and Krakow, where I have been and loved. Now I’m considering Madrid, where I’ve been, and Bilbao and San Sebastián in Basque Country, which are new to me.

But first things first. I have Buenos Aires to explore and get lost in yet. Museums and mausoleums; graffiti and galleries; tango and tours; all within sweeping European influence tangled with Latin passion and grandeur. A mad melange.

And before that, the flight. Oh, god, muzzle the chatterboxes, in my row or any row. Or the bewhiskered guy next to me who plays video games for 10 hours straight. Or, heaven forfend, the shrieking infant, diapered spawn of the devil. 

I can do this. I always do. Excuse me, flight attendant, I need a tall cocktail of one part gin, two parts exasperation, and a splash of fizzy rage. Gee, thanks. And I wash it all down with one big Xanax. And from there we’ll see how things go.

My bet: swimmingly. Absolutely swimmingly.

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.

Culture in the time of Covid

My Covid’s gone and I feel strong as an ox, even though I barely know what an ox is. A big cow? Paul Bunyan’s interspecies BFF? Actually, I just looked it up. An ox is a “castrated bull used as a draft animal.” So let’s scratch the whole ox analogy entirely. 

Point is, I’m back — non-contagious, symptom-free, fit as a fiddle. (I don’t know what that means either. Skip it.) It took about five days to vanquish the virus, and it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. It was like a mild cold, but without mucus violently erupting from my lungs. This was a dry cough, little hacks, as if an infant was smoking a cigarillo.

As hoped, I got a lot of reading done during my convalescence. I wrapped up “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford’s extraordinary, bittersweet novel about life, love and letdowns, and started three more books, all highly acclaimed and released in the past few weeks.

Alas, two of them tanked. Those would be Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece” and Mieko Kawakami’s “All the Lovers in the Night.” 

I’m not sure what critics are going on about with Smith. They go bananas for her Seasonal Quartet novels — I failed miserably to warm up to two of them — and seem to regard the new book as the prosaic sublime. I read 175 pages of “Companion Piece” and surrendered with a mere 50 left. She’s a slog, oblique, flirting willfully with incoherence. I wasn’t having fun. I was having a migraine.

I enjoyed Japanese super-author Kawakami’s earlier novels, the shrewd and touching “Heaven” and “Breasts and Eggs,” which sounds like a particularly provocative breakfast dish. But her latest, though not totally displeasing, never takes off. It’s slow going … going nowhere.

But I hit pay dirt with “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s sequel to “The Idiot,” tracing the turbulent interior life of a female college student who’s trying to figure it all out. It’s at once wildly funny and erudite, catchy and sparkling, and that’s about all I can ask for in a book. Bonus: the author’s name is Elif.

For someone isolating with time to burn, I watched very little in the way of shows and movies. I did stay abreast of the series “Hacks” (hilarious), “Top Chef” (harrowing) and “Barry” (hilarious and harrowing). And I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into “Irma Vep,” the great Olivier Assayas’ dramedy about a vamp, vampires and the insanity of making movies.

Meanwhile, everybody and their easily-scared tweens are bingeing Netflix’s gimmicky genre mash “Stranger Things.” I preferred the show when it was called “Scooby-Doo.”

I also got to anticipate my July journey to Buenos Aires as I was spread out, aching and sniffling with dramatic moans of self-pity. It’s something to look forward to, and, from a piece I read recently, that’s not only a good thing, it’s a healthy thing: “Having something to look forward to boosts your mood and lowers your stress. It can increase motivation, optimism and patience and decrease irritability.” Huh.

Not quite a Covid cure, but it can’t hurt. So much so that I started looking forward to my annual October trip, leap-frogging the July trip I haven’t even taken yet.

I’m thinking Budapest, a European joint I have yet to visit. Or perhaps a return to Krakow. Or Berlin. I’ll have to see what Covid is up to in those places. I might be cured, but the tenacious bug, mean and mercurial, still has the world in its gooey grip.