Across Iberia by Slow Train

[26 April 2011]

By Matthew Asprey

The Daily Pain

This is probably a good point in my travel narrative to mention the occasional challenges of my diet. In Madrid an American college student at my hostel was thrilled to discover I was a vegetarian.

“Me, too!” she said. “And I’m having such a hard time here. I’ve eaten nothing but codfish.”

“Right. Well, I’m not that kind of vegetarian,” I said. “I’m a vegan.”

“Oh, wow. Why?”

The old question. Sometimes telling people you’re a vegan is as weird as announcing you’re a Scientologist.

“Well, it’s not necessary for me to eat meat and dairy and eggs. So I don’t.”

“How long have you done that?”

“Ten years.”

She looked at me skeptically. “Seriously, what do you eat?”

Well, I had been all around the world and had always managed to eat vegan. This time in Madrid, for instance, where it’s hard to find any traditional dish that does not contain ham, I ate at some of the numerous mediocre Indian restaurants south of our hostel near the Tirso de Molina. I ate good felafels and udon noodle soup and excellent Thai green curry off the Paseo del Prado. There are sometimes moments of frustration while travelling as a vegan, but I’ve rarely been deprived of nutrition or enjoyment of my food.

Clare and I were rolling through Spain and France, surveying big cities whose bohemian glory days were far in the mythical past. It was not the first time I’d been to Madrid, Barcelona, or Paris. I loved each of them for their energy and cosmopolitan conflux. They were by no means cheap cities—living in any of the three was probably comparable to living in Sydney—but it was nice to pass through, catch up with old friends and places, and be able to find a veggie burger when the mood struck.

That week the streets of Madrid were awash with early spring rain. Our fellow backpackers—never cohering into anything like a crew worthy of a name—were American college kids on a weekend break from their less-than-demanding studies in the Netherlands. Sitting on the floor of the hostel dorm with cheap bottles of supermarket wine, they told us of their weekly city hopping around Europe. Their itineraries were entirely determined by the cheap deals offered by budget airlines. One weekend it was Prague, the next Istanbul, the next Madrid. It was a whirlwind.

“What do you think we should do in this city?” a creative writing student asked.

“Go to the Prado,” I said.

“What’s the Prado?”

“The best art museum in Madrid,” I said. “Maybe in all of Europe.”

“Oh, right. Actually we really want to find good paella.”

Me? As usual, I was on the prowl for good jazz. At midnight one Saturday I walked to the Calle de las Huertas. Café Populart, like seemingly every bar and restaurant in Madrid’s centre, was packed with people. I had to wait five minutes to get inside. A queue to get into a jazz club? That was surely a good sign.

Once inside I discovered that the latin band’s groove was going nowhere and the beer was five euros a glass. I walked further down Huertas to another run of jook joints near the fine Comida Vegetariana buffet. The DJ at the Cotton Club was spinning dance music to an empty room. There was no music at the Trocha Bar. But at La Fidula, beyond the bar with its tikis and 100 dusty bottles of grappa and scotch and vermouth, there was a dark room hosting a trio called Vandara. The band consisted of a long-bearded and turbaned drummer-percussionist-singer, a fiddle player, and an acoustic guitarist. The music synthesized Indian and Moroccan music with jazz: tabla and Arabic scales and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’. It thumped along. The audience demanded two encores.

Our hostel lacked secure lockers and clean sheets, so Clare and I moved to a hotel north of Callao Square. Apart from the aggressive street prostitutes (“spss! spss!”) the nearby strip of the Gran Vía is not quite the grungy wild area I remember. I’m convinced the final triumph of gentrification in any neighbourhood is the arrival of a Le Pain Quotidien, a franchise whose name I like to mistranslate as ‘The Daily Pain’. For some reason inner-city Dolce & Gabbana-clad yuppies like to eat in a simulacrum of a rustic French kitchen. Let’s pretend we’re on a farm! Rusty bread making equipment is nailed to the wall. You get small portions of expensive food served on breadboards. Still, it’s one of the few places in Madrid that offers soy milk lattes, albeit in a soup bowl.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a Le Pain Quotidien near our former and now completely unaffordable digs in the expensive Inner West of Sydney. Back home, according to a 28 March article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Fringe Prices Out of Reach, by Simon Johanson, “even the last bastion of cheap housing—new suburbs on city fringes—[is] moving beyond the reach of most first home buyers.”

Hence our global prowl.

The Vegan at the Bullfight

Back in 2008 I’d been accosted by a bearded guy in the Plaça de Sant Jaume in Barcelona. I was handed a petition to ban bullfighting.

“Will you sign?”

“Of course, I agree with you,” I said. “I’m a vegan. But I’m also a tourist. Isn’t this something for the Spanish to decide for themselves?”

He straightened up. “Fuck the Spanish, hombre, I’m Catalan!”

I signed the petition. Loaded with 180,000 signatures, it went to the Parliament of Catalonia and in 2010 bullfighting was banned throughout the autonomous region.

So why, three years later, was I lining up outside the Las Ventas bullring in Madrid? You may be surprised a committed vegan would attend a bullfight rather than protest outside the plaza des toros in the nude. Of course I was against the sport. Indeed, practically everybody I spoke to—meat-eaters included—was horrified by bullfighting and opposed to it on moral grounds. My defence is that I prefer to deepen my understanding of animal rights through observation and experience, even if this meant paying €14.80 for a ticket.

The bullfight at Las Ventas was a novillada, which means it was fought by apprentice matadors (novelliros). The bulls are not necessarily as old or large as the ones fought by full matadors. But in structure and every other factor it was identical to a normal corrida de toros. Three cuadrillas fought two bulls each in alternation. A cuadrilla consists of a torero (or matador), two picadors, and three banderilleros plus a mozo de espadas (in charge of the swords). The novilleros that day were Sergio Blanco, Gómez Del Pilar, and Adrián de Torres.

It was a sunny but cold spring afternoon. I went inside the plaza de toros and hired a cushion from a stall. Inside the ring attendants were smoothing down the sand and making concentric white circles with paint (the sections from inside out are called medios, tercios, and tablas). My seat was under the sun just three or four rows back from the ringside. A seat is really just a small marked section of a curving narrow concrete wall. The cushion was a good idea. The distance between the rows is small; a tallish American woman behind me was doing her best not to poke me in the back with her knees. She was from Philadelphia. I asked her why she had decided to come to the bullfight.

“Oh, I read The Sun Also Rises a few years ago…”

To be fair, tourists seemed to make up a small part of the crowd. Most of the spectators were Spaniards. The male-female ratio was roughly even. Many young women had turned up, and also children. The attendance at this early season novillada was low. Maybe a fifth of the seats were occupied.

By the time the bullfight started the sun was dropping just below the edge of the roof. My feet grew cold in my boots. There was a paseo of all the participants to commence the proceedings, a salute to whoever was presiding in the presidente’s box. The bullfight is a strange phenomenon because in nearly every respect the sport—or whatever it should be called—does not seem to have changed much in hundreds of years.

The one non-traditional element is that the picadors’ horses are now dressed in a protective mat (a peto) that prevents their disembowelment when the bulls charge. It’s been that way since about 1928. The matador’s gold sequinned traje de luces is a traditional 18th century costume. I was wondering whether there would be deafening pop music on the sound system as at an Australian rugby league match. Instead there were two traditional brass bands in the stands. I recognised the traditional fanfare. Hugo Friedhofer had used it in his main title music to One Eyed Jacks (1961).

Pondering Meaty Topics

The first bull came out to be fought by Sergio Blanco. This was the moment when the violence of the spectacle made the deepest impression on me. Because it’s a ritual slaughter performed six times I became accustomed to what was going to happen. The bull spends 15-minutes in the ring. If the matador has not killed him by the end of that time the bull is removed and slaughtered outside. The banderilleros use their large pink capes to attract the bull and get it running from one end of the ring to the other. They duck behind screens to avoid being gored. They use their capes to bring the bulls in close to their bodies for veronicas. The closer and more daringly they can draw the bull, the louder the applause.

The bull’s main suffering comes from the two spearings into its back muscles by either of the two picadors on their horses. The bull tries to attack the horse with his horns (which is not really possible due to the padding) while the picador digs in. After those two spearings blood starts to flow down the bull’s back and flanks. I was close to the spearing during the first fight. The next and probably milder pain comes from the attachment of three pairs of banderillas, which are brightly decorated harpooned sticks. The banderilleros must draw the bull into a charge, reach over and above the horns with both arms to hook each of the banderillas into the bull’s shoulders, and then dodge the horns.

Finally the matador uses the muleta, which is a much smaller cape than used by the banderilleros, to draw the bull in for a series of progressively close passes. After a set number of these, which are designed to demonstrate the matador’s bravery and willingness to put himself within inches of real danger, the matador fetches a sword. He draws the bull for a charge in which he will stab the bull deeply through the back of the neck and avoid a goring by the horns at the last moment. If this is done perfectly the sword should pierce the bull’s aorta and kill him pretty instantly. This rarely is done perfectly and certainly did not happen for any of the bulls in this novillada.

The crowd was not blood-thirsty. It was interested in the displays of bravery by the matador and his team. In fact, the fight is judged less successful the bloodier and more prolonged the killing of the animal. The first fight was despairing because it took a long time to kill the bull. The first stab didn’t enter the bull’s neck deeply enough. The second stab didn’t kill him, either. Basically the banderilleros had to jointly wear down the wounded bull, confuse him with cape swirls, and finally deliver a series of attempted coups de grâce with a knife to the back of the neck.

Anyway, the ritual continued. Only the fifth of the six duels was particularly exciting because Gómez Del Pilar was lifted between the horns, narrowly escaping a cornada through the belly, and thrown at least two metres into the air. He landed face down and then got straight back up. After that he continued to fight with sand on his face and clothes, drawing the bull in very close without displaying fear. This led to a reasonably clean kill and a huge response from the small crowd, a waving of white handkerchiefs. Gómez del Pilar paraded around the ring.

I walked out of the plaza de toros into the metro station and headed back to my hotel. I thought about what I’d seen. If a bullfight is not mere theatrics it’s a display of some courage on the part of the matador; it’s not really sadistic in that the satisfaction of the spectators does not derive from the prolonging of the bull’s suffering; nevertheless, it’s indefensible by my standards because it causes unnecessary pain and death for a sentient animal.

On the other hand, lots of frankly unnecessary activities cause suffering and/or death for animals and aren’t the subject of such passionate debate. I can’t see how bullfighting is any more violent and pointless than, say, big game sport-fishing. That’s not really about eating for survival, even if the fishermen will probably eat their catch. And for the record, the slain bulls are used for meat, too.

Why stop there? The production of meat and dairy products is equally unnecessary. There’s nothing essential in animal products that cannot be found in plants. Really, if you buy a cheeseburger at McDonald’s or walk around in a pair of leather shoes or even eat an ice-cream, opposition to bullfighting is pure sentimentalism. The life of a beef or dairy cow involves far more suffering than the life of a four or five year old bull raised to be tortured for 15 minutes in a ring.

What meat and dairy eating bullfighting opponents must hate is the undisguised visceral spectacle of the bullfight. It’s an aesthetic reaction of disgust rather than a logically consistent stance against animal cruelty. Factory farming puts a convenient screen between people and the animals they exploit for food and clothes. This screen is provided to allow people to disengage from the need to confront the ethical questions of their diet.

The violence of the bullfight is not screened, and the spectators do not pretend they are not watching an act of violence. This archaic sport emerged from a peasant society that had close proximity to the animals it ate and used for labour. That kind of rustic proximity does not exist now for most people in the West—not even for the customers at Le Pain Quotidien.

Riding the Rails Across Spain

“I’d like to put in a word for…old-fashioned travel of all kinds. Not only old-fashioned trains but old boats and barges and gondolas and canoes, ox-carts…anything that takes long enough to give you a chance to see where you’re going before you get there….”

  —Orson Welles, 1955

Rather than take the three hour express train from Madrid to Barcelona, Clare and I decided to buy tickets for the overnight slow train. It cost €44, about a third of the express price. The train was to leave Atocha station at 10.50PM and arrive at 8AM. We opted not to spend an extra 15 euros on a bed in a sleeper car. Instead we would spend the night in a six seat cabin. The train wound up being so late that our fare would be refunded in full.

The cold rain had made the Madrid streets glisten like black obsidian. We had our final Madrid meal at a not-very-cheap Indian restaurant between Callao and our hotel. I enjoyed my daal, but Clare left the restaurant with an uneasy stomach.

As the train chugged east by night across the Iberian Peninsula I scrolled through the old time radio shows I’d loaded onto my iPod months ago. I settled on a 1952 episode of Orson Welles’ Lives of Harry Lime, ‘Man of Mystery’, hogwash that formed the basis of Welles’ film Mr Arkadin (1955). It’s an excellent bizarre movie that makes more or less sense depending on which of the many versions you watch. The story is Eric Ambleresque: the naive English or American traveller embroiled in European corruption. Welles had acted in the 1942 adaptation of Ambler’s Journey Into Fear. He and Joseph Cotton famously reunited for Graham Greene’s The Third Man, also in this tradition.

In Arkadin a sleazy American is hired to prepare a confidential report on the early history of an amnesiac Armenian or Georgian billionaire. This becomes a disorientating investigation across postwar Europe and beyond, with quick dissolve transit between Spain, Cannes, Morocco, Munich, Amsterdam, Acapulco, Paris… such city-hopping was probably much like Welles’ life at the time, shooting footage here, hustling for money there. Right now, after months prowling the globe by long-haul bus or slow rail or fast plane, I sometimes felt like I was living inside one of the more confusing versions of Mr Arkadin. It was getting to the point where I would wake up and momentarily forget where the hell I was.

The important thing was to have constants no matter the locale: four hours writing each morning at my netbook, a Flashman paperback in my backpack, jazz on my iPod. Everything else was adventure.

I dozed in my train seat and woke with an aching neck. I was stuck next to an air conditioning unit which exhaled cigarette smoke all night. An elderly lady in our cabin was the ideal overnight train traveller. She sat down in her seat, wrapped herself in a brown overcoat, and simply hibernated. She didn’t even take off her glasses. Another guy in a soccer jersey was not such a fine travel companion. At 4AM he decided to play a bouncy pop song through a tinny mobile phone speaker—a song that should in theory barely entertain a 12-year-old—while everybody else was trying to sleep.

At midnight Clare lost her dinner. After that she was unable to consider another Indian meal, not even the fare at my old Barcelona favourite El Harrison Ford. It’s a cheap restaurant better known as the Moti Mahal off Sant Pau. The menu facing the street proudly displays a photo of a well-fed and contented Harrison Ford and Calista Flockheart with the waiters.

“I really don’t want to eat Indian food,” said Clare.

“What’s good enough for Harrison…”

“No way.”

The Search for Stolchlickoff

Avinguda del Paral·lel is a street moving northwest from Plaça de la Carbonera on the Barcelona waterfront. La Rambla moves northeast from the waterfront, creating a piece of pie between the two big avenues. Within that area you find the Arab and Indian neighbourhoods of Barcelona, the two century old absinthe bar Marsella, streets of hustling prostitutes and mobile phone shops, shadowy alleys full of good restaurants and greasy spoons and bars.

Last time in Barcelona, in 2008, I visited Elephant Books on Crue dels Molers just off Paral·lel. The place was run by an eccentric American guy with a white beard. It was a cavernous English language bookshop. When I’d turned up on a rainy day there seemed to be a power blackout, but maybe that was just the normal lighting. Every book was €3 or less, and the owner bought any English book for €0.60. I guess this wasn’t a smart business strategy, because the bookshop has since disappeared.

That time I’d hung out with a girl from Belgium who worked at a hostel. She was broke. The hostel provided her accommodation and meals, so she would not starve, but she had just three euros in her pocket for the next six days. We wandered the streets off Paral·lel and stepped into a supermarket. She bought a bottle of Stolchlickoff vodka, product of Spain. I guess if you glanced at the red label while drunk or in possession of a very short attention span you might think you were getting either Stolichnaya or Smirnoff—or maybe a mixture of each. “Whoever heard of Spanish vodka?” I asked her. But it was exactly €3.

If I found the vodka undrinkable, I liked the name enough to use it for an open-ended series of short autobiographical stories,  Tales from the Stolchlickoff Scrapbooks.

Naturally the first thing I did in Paral·lel was search for a bottle as a souvenir. I wandered into a few dozen Paral·lel convenience stores. I found such vodkas as Karlova, Moskovskaya, Yurinka, Porthos, Kabekoff, Kremlyovskaya, Wyborowa, Larios, Tovaritch,  Rusalka, Rushkinoff, Blackjack, Ursus, Voditxka, Zubrowka, Gorbatschow, Sobieska, Koranov, Danzka, Mikanoff (the party island?), Marskoff (as in “Let me take this…”?), KoolRoff (it sure will, you old dog!) and Rachmaninoff. The last was German vodka with a logo better suited to a hair metal band than a Romantic composer. But there was no Stolchlickoff to be found, and no bottle of vodka for less than €3.89.

“It’s the gentrification of Paral·lel!” I said to Clare. “There’ll be a Daily Pain here next!”

A Late Night Bull Session with the Guerrillas of Paral·lel

I was sitting in the common room of our Barcelona hostel one afternoon picking ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ on the resident banged-up classical guitar. A German guy named Hans came over with his own guitar and joined me. He requested we duet on ‘Rocky Racoon’. Okay! Now somewhere in the black mountain hills of Dakota…

Hans was 20-years-old. He had dirty blonde hair (“an unintentional Beiber cut—I was there first”) and a lazy eye: you never knew if he was looking at you. He’d been on the road in Italy and France for six months. He busked with a guitar to help fund his trip. On a good day he made €20 or €30 on the street. In Barcelona he’d been playing out on La Rambla, cautiously, because he didn’t have a busker’s licence. He knew the Weill-Brecht canon. He collected folk songs. He was particularly interested in Turkish war songs. He knew one about Gallipoli.

Hans told me that in Italy a beggar came up to him and advised him to beg rather than busk because it was more lucrative. “But I like playing,” Hans said. “Of course, George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London said that begging contributes just as little to society as most jobs.” He took out a notebook and wrote down my email address. “Ignore my pretentious moleskin notebook. It was a present. It’s not because I want to be like Hemingway.”

I poured myself a glass of orange juice. “Don’t worry about it. The days of coming to Europe to write in a good café on the Place St-Michel are over. All the hip kids now write in the Barcelona Kentucky Fried Chicken to be like Roberto Bolaño.”

Hans and I sat up all night trading songs back and forth. We ran through Dylan tunes: ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘Santa Fe’, and ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, a great backpacking song. I played him late Dylan songs, ‘Love Sick’ and ‘Nettie Moore’, neither of which he’d heard before. He played me ‘Billy’ from the Pat Garrett soundtrack. A French guy was not a Dylan fan but lit up with joy when I offered to play Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Annie Amie de Sucettes’.

Two American girls were drinking €0.66 red wine which tasted like water mixed with wine-ish cordial. They had just finished a stint studying in Greece. They had abandoned whatever they were supposed to be studying and participated in the production of a student film.

“There was this dream sequence,” Jenny said. “And the actors were supposed to fight in togas.”

“But we didn’t have togas,” said Elena. “So we bought these colourful ladies’ robes at the market. It probably looked pretty weird.”

“Why didn’t you just use a few old sheets?” said Clare.

“Hmm,” said Elena. “We didn’t think of that.”

“What was your role in the production?” I said to Jenny.

“Ah, director,” she said. “One of three.”

A Whirl Through Paris

Clare and I could afford just four nights in Paris. The rates for hostel beds are twice the cost of Barcelona, and for that you get threadbare carpet, dingy corridors, and tiny double beds. But it is Paris.

For information about the realities of living in the city I emailed my long-time Australian friend Jade Maitre, who lived in the 15th Arrondissement for nearly two years with her French husband. In 2007 Jade started the travel website Gadabout Paris with her friend Michelle Rogers. She explains: “We decided to specialise in offbeat, authentic experiences in Paris. We ended up covering all sorts of great topics that were often ignored by the usual tourist traps, such as Paris on a shoestring, vegetarian Paris, erotic Paris, street art and subversive events such as the annual White Party.”

Jade says her favourite places in Paris include Abbesses, “at the base of the Butte at Montmartre. If you’re on top of the hill around Place Terte or heading up the funiculaire, there are tourist traps everywhere, people trying to sell you things. But if you head down past the old vineyard and the Agile Lapin, round Avenue Junot or past the windmills, ending up at Abbesses, you’ll see a wonderful, beautifully picturesque and lively part of Paris that is also very magical - if you look out, some of the old houses there still have the “follies”, mythical type carvings and crazy architectural designs.”

I asked Jade if Paris was a viable city for expatriates in the creative arts.

“I don’t think “viable” if you are a person of very little means,” she said. “I imagine you need a minimum for rents (which were reasonably high when I was there, and are apparently even higher now) and everything is in Euros, so it can be pricey. Of course there are lots of free things to do and cheap places to eat if you’re on a shoestring, but with a relatively high rate of unemployment and more rigid workplace than in Australia, it could be difficult to find work to pay for things. On the plus side, there is amazing inspiration at every turn, and there is a high value places on culture and cultural activities in France.”

Clare and I would have stayed longer in Paris but it was not possible on our budget. We boarded a bus for Amsterdam en route to the Caucasus. Time again to hard nose the highway and continue the prowl.

Published at: