Love Letter: Madrid’s Pedestrian Streets

Madrid’s heart — her epicenter, undisputed city nucleus — is the plaza at Puerta del Sol. Couriers once traveled Europe to deliver the world’s news here at the Casa de Correos. A sidewalk plaque marks the plaza as the nation’s kilometer zero. City addresses begin here, as do measurements for Spain’s grid of radial roads.

From Puerta del Sol branches a network of pedestrian streets. The biggest head north: Calles Preciados and Carmen side by side to the Callao plaza, Montera northeast to Gran Vía, where it morphs to Fuencarral for mysterious reasons of its own and remains car-free almost to the Tribunal metro. Westerly walkers will find Calle Arenal, which leads to the palace. The easterly Plaza del Ángel does not start precisely at Sol and is also not entirely car free, but still counts; it morphs into Calle de las Huertas, and can be hiked east all the way to the Prado.

Puerta del Sol facing north to Preciados on Constitution Day

Puerta del Sol facing north to Preciados on Constitution Day, 2016

More than three kilometers, all told, if one throws in a few additional here-and-there blocks scattered in the central city labyrinth.

‘Fantastic Pedestrian Life!’ blogged I after my summer, 2016 move-in, but also wondered how long I would remain impressed. Certainly, the pedestrian streets teemed in July, when a tourist or native could stroll in warm daylight at 21:30. But winter would bring freezing temperatures, occasional snow, sunsets before 18:00. Things were likely to settle down.

Autumn came, my first in the city. Tourists now strolled Sol in sweaters, down vests, fingers stuffed in pockets, shoulders hunched in fall gusts. Squealing children chased drifting brown leaves on Plaza España. Then December, colder than any I remembered in San Francisco. One frosty morning I counted only a handful of fellow pedestrians on a nearly deserted Calle Arenal, and felt confident: the off-season had arrived. Madrid would hibernate.

But Madrid refused. Or, more accurately, it conceded to winter far less ground than expected, and conceded it only occasionally, like a fighter who astonishes an adversary not by eluding a blow but by shrugging it off. The pedestrian streets were quieter now, unquestionably, Huertas especially, but any rumor of afternoon sun could bring back the crowds. On December 6 I threaded an astonished path through a Calle Preciados throng denser than any seen in July. The 6th turned out to be Constitution Day, a holiday, a one-off, but Madrid seemed to find many excuses for lesser but still similar one-offs on dry January and February afternoons. I thought often of walking Fuencarral with a GoPro strapped to my head, to have a video to show disbelievers: Would you look at these Madrid crowds! In February! At 9°C!

Then spring came, and the feeble ‘off-season’ had ended. By summer I wondered if the whole planet hoped to converge on the city. Humanity poured in: from Barajas airport’s four terminals, from the rail platforms of Puerta de Atocha, from bus bays at Avenida de America, from freeways. Peregrinos may march here overland through Casa de Campo, for all I know. Visitors queue for tickets at the Prado and Royal Palace, snap selfies at Puerta de Alcalá, but — if able-bodied — inevitably find their way to the pedestrian streets, too, to join the procession.

Preciados, Carmen, Montera and Fuencarral seem to jam first, then Arenal, and Huertas last. On peak days the mass may feel unsatisfied with streets designated as car-free, conspire to appropriate others. Fuencarral accepts autos at the intersection of Hernán Cortés; the pedestrian army tourniquets itself there onto narrow sidewalks, or tries to; the Tribunal station-bound walker either accepts a glacial pace or steps treacherously into traffic. Gran Vía now sports double-wide sidewalks, thanks to a 2018 makeover; the year before, I twice descended to subway platforms to wait for a 3 metro, rather than brave sidewalk-blanketing masses in the mere five hundred meter Gran Vía walk from Plaza España to Callao.

I came to see the fluid, ever-changing central-city-wide procession as a triumph, an improvisational parade celebrating victory in a battle that parade members had fought and won without knowledge. Modern life would not rob the twenty-first century human of some essential pleasures that are wholesome, ancient and free. He would not wither sickly in a velvet-handcuffed cocoon of video games, Netflix streams, porn downloads, or be penned into meager street fractions not consumed by the car. No; she would get out in the sun and open air and use healthy limbs to walk freely for pleasure among others of her species, as did and as had her fellows and primogenitors on the Arbat, Charles Bridge, Kärntner Straße, the banks of the Seine. Big Brother hadn’t won, at least not yet.

* * * * *

One afternoon on Preciados I noticed that everyone in sight looked younger than me.

This was in early autumn of 2016, a few months after I’d arrived in Spain. The descriptions that follow are inexact; I don’t remember everything described, not after more than two years, have permitted myself to flesh out some details. I know that I was still busy with settling-in chores in those days: back-and-forth with the international mover, a hunt for a storage locker. I might have spent the morning on phone calls and online research, had finally let blue skies and bright sun tempt me into a stroll outdoors. I likely stepped off the metro at Callao, ascended to the plaza fronting the Corte Inglés that photographers visit for shots of the Schweppes building, and it was as I navigated a diplomatic path south among the cheerful pedestrian armies that this memory begins, because on this day in this place my roving eyes could find no face my senior.

I continued south toward Sol, among couples, singles, slow-stepping family groups. Hopefully I scanned the kinetoscopic array of unrecognized faces flowing toward, near, beside, and around me, searching for gray hair, wrinkles, a stoop; the colossal scope of their unknown-to-me lives seeming to arc up to intersect with mine for our seconds within eye shot of each other before they passed, disappeared in the flowing crowd, likely never to be seen by me again. Chicos and chicas on the prowl, undoubtedly, jaunty in reproductive cycle full bloom, muscled, black-haired, ivory-toothed, swaggering; a hijab’d Muslim mom, sad-eyed, beside glued-to-móvil hubby; coal-skinned manteros, Europe’s underdogs, in threadbare t-shirts; a grim-faced busker, perhaps — unsmiling, in off-stage mode — toting an accordion.

Wasn’t anyone here older than me? Certainly I saw elders on the pedestrian grid often enough. But not today.

The crowd slowed as it approached Sol, tourniquet-clotting near the mouth of the Plaza, shuffling on millipede legs. I looked at a little girl riding above the crowd on Daddy’s shoulders, leaning over his head like a pillion rider, pudgy infant fingers curled in his black beard.

I was old. She certainly would have judged me so; in this crowd, so would have most others. The young now occasionally offered me their seats on the metro. I wasn’t planning to live to 120, or close to it. Statistically, indisputably, however young I felt: most of my life was over.

Suddenly, not unpleasantly, I beheld my own triviality. The world had never needed me for anything. It permitted me to exist on its surface as one sentient organism among billions. I’d had my turn with youth, as these surrounding multitudes now took theirs. But that youth had passed; eventually, my life would, too. In death I would soon enough be anonymous, unknown — a series of database records, low-res archived .pdfs of past passports, drivers’ licenses — as I was now anonymous and unknown in this distant European city I had chosen as home. I didn’t matter. In the long term, no one did.

Sol. The crowd dispersed, diffusing onto the broad plaza like molecules of dye in water. I saw the fountains, Carlos III statue, Tio Pepe sign. I walked aimlessly, among tourists, idlers, cliquing teens; past guide touts, sorrowful gypsies offering rosemary twigs, costumed animal character actors (a panda, perhaps, or Elmo; waddling ponderously, offering hugs); aware by then that the moment would be important for me, drinking in sights and sounds.

Life. By the plaza’s west fountain a separate crowd thronged five deep around a street performer. Curiously I stared over the heads of the fluid, milling crowd, glimpsed the star’s head as he gyrated furiously about his self-made stage, expert, mad, confident, regaling his audience with shouts, jokes, dares. Only the best and the bravest buskers dared impromptu comedy or magic acts. He was good, had to be; look at the crowd! The blanket or basket he had set out for tips likely brimmed with euro notes. Mothers would press coins into their children’s fingers, beam as their young waddled solemnly to the blanket to pitch in their share. How fat might be the busker’s haul, for a few hours work! He could live Riley’s life, take his act to Barcelona, Paris, Rome. The world was his oyster.

Life. Near the Carlos III statue a band — a Mariachi group, I think, regulars at Sol, in black Charro jackets — played for a smaller crowd, a tune simultaneously sprightly and sad, with violins, bright horns. Behind them a derelict shuffled precariously across the plaza on ragged shoes, filthy, wild-haired, muttering to himself through scabbed lips. Little older than thirty, already on the way out. Had he been molested, beaten, abandoned in youth, or simply doomed by bad choices and bad DNA? Soon it wouldn’t matter. Savage life would devour him, pull him into non-existence as a rip current might drag a sick child into the remorseless sea, might administer a merciful anodyne only in a sleepy fog preceding death. The flesh scarred in his tragic life would stink as it decomposed, as a frugal and incurious nature reclaimed its molecules for other uses. Soon he would be a database record, too, an archive of European IDs, arrest reports, institutionalization records.

Life. The late afternoon sun bathed the bustling, buzzing plaza in warm amber shades; sunset wasn’t far away. I raised my hand, stared at the age-weathered skin as I flexed my fingers. This I had. Life offered no proof of heaven, hell, reincarnation, afterlife, or even meaning, but I had this, certainly, and had it still: Consciousness. Awareness. My chance to exist.

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Ximena of Barquisimeto, Venezuela

Lucky ol’ me meets many people in Madrid: moved-to-the-big-city Spaniards from Extremadura, Andalucia, Asturias; EU-wandering Erasmus students; watchful-eye-on-Brexit Brits; young Auxiliares de Conversación, often from the States; expats for hauls long and short, from Australia, China, Bulgaria, hither, yon, beyond.

They talk to me. (The fools!) Some chats are guarded, surface-y. Others far less so. New conocidos share perspectives, tell stories: impressive stories, often, of childhoods far more wide-ranging than my own, of hardships endured in disintegrating countries.

A shame, I have often thought, that their stories don’t have a platform, that others can’t hear them, too.

I can share this one. Ximena worked as a Venezuela journalist during the Hugo Chávez regime before deciding that life in her native Barquisimeto had become untenable. She sought asylum in Spain, lived for seven months in a Madrid refugee center before striking out on her own. She was wise to leave when she did; I see her as one of the lucky ones.

Ximena and I have parsed sentences at each other in intercambios for a year or so. I asked if I could interview her. She agreed.

The resulting video, in Spanish:

(Which I suggest watching at high resolution, if you can.)

My inexact translation to English:

Like me, Ximena blogs; unlike me, she also tweets. She has a page at Venezuelan Press, and contributed to a book, El exilio venezolano.

I judge my angloparlante accent in this video to be one of the thickest yet heard in Spain. Sorry, folks! Spanish speakers may wince while listening. I did.

* * * * *

Conozco a mucha gente en Madrid: españoles trasladados a la gran ciudad de Extremadura, Andalucia, Asturias; británicos (con ojos vigilantes en Brexit), UE-errante estudiantes de Erasmus, joven Auxiliares de Conversación, frequentemente del EEUU, expatriados aquí por plazos cortos y largos de Australia, China, Bulgaria, de puntos cercanos y lejanos.

Me hablan. (¡Los tontos!) Algunas charlas son vigiladas, superficiales. Otros, mucho menos. Los nuevos conocidos comparten perspectivas, cuentan historias: historias impresionantes, a menudo, de la infancia mucho más amplia que la mía, de las dificultades sufridas en los paises en desintegración.

Una vergüenza, a menudo he pensado, que sus historias no tienen una plataforma, que otros no pueden escucharlas también.

Esta la puedo compartir. Ximena trabajó como periodista en Venezuela durante el régimen de Hugo Chávez antes de decidir que la vida en su Barquisimeto natal se había vuelto insostenible. Buscó asilo en España, vivió durante siete meses en un centro de refugiados de Madrid antes de irse por su cuenta. Fue sabia al salir de Venezuela cuando lo hizo; la veo como una de las afortunadas.

Ximena y yo hemos charlado en intercambios por un año, más o menos. Le pregunté si podía entrevistarla.

El video, en español:

(Que sugiero ver en alta resolución, si puedes.)

Mi traducción inexacto al inglés:

Como yo, Ximena escribe en un blog. A diferencia de mí, ella también ‘tweets.’ Tiena una página en Venezuela Press, y contribuyó a un libro, El exilio venezolano.

Juzgo que mi acento angloparlante en este video es uno de los más espesos que se han escuchado en España. ¡Lo siento, amigos! Los hispanohablantes pueden estremecerse mientras escuchan. Yo si.

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A Bigger Picture

5,300 years ago, this doomed man ate a last meal on the mountain glaciers of today’s Northern Italy. He may have struggled to grasp food. He was right-handed, ate despite a fresh, deep gash that reached to the bone of that hand, perhaps sustained in a brawl in the valley. He might have climbed the mountain to flee enemies.

Ötzi, we call him today. He was about forty-five, trim, gap-toothed, heavily-tattooed, bore a copper ax that may have marked him as a tribal leader. On the glacier he dined last on ibex meat, einkorn wheat, bracken, fat.

Ötzi the Iceman portrait; CC-BY-SA-3.0-by-Thilo-Parg

Ötzi the Iceman portrait; photo CC-BY-SA-3.0-by-Thilo-Parg

He had minutes to live. An enemy shot him from behind half an hour after he ate. The arrowhead pierced an artery. Ötzi bled to death, fifteen centuries before Hammurabi issued his code of law, three thousand years before Alexander the Great claimed Persia. He died on the ice that preserved his remains for the next five millenia. He is the world’s best-preserved mummy.

Why tell you about him?

I’ve felt since summer that I’ve figured something out. It’s not anything mystical; I don’t walk around hugging strangers, still get mad at robocalls. Maybe I’ve been dense; maybe most of you figured it out long ago. But I hadn’t, and it’s important, at least to me, and if I can explain it maybe I can help someone else figure it out too.

Bear with me. Please. I don’t know how to explain it quickly. I have to tell it in pieces, try to tie them together at the end.

* * * * *

The Geologic Time Spiral, is what USGS calls the illustration below. Click here to see it full size. Feel free to stare at it for awhile. I have. Four and a half billion years in a single .png, from planetary birth to skyscraper-dwelling present.

USGS Geologic Time Spiral

USGS Geologic Time Spiral

I stumbled into the Time Spiral about ten years ago, while hunting for a visual to show students at the Los Angeles Tar Pits. “Slick,” I thought, and peered at the little pictures of fishies and dinosaurs and cave people, and tried to memorize the difference between ‘Quaternary’ and ‘Jurassic,’ so the kids would think that their field trip guide knew his stuff. Pretty soon I forgot about it. I had classes to teach, TransitPeople trips to lead and plan.

This summer I remembered the graphic and decided to study it longer. It was important, I decided; it had something to tell me, and maybe I could get the Something if I stared at the graphic long enough. I pulled the .png into a photo editor and made it into a Linux start-up screen, and sweet-talked myself to linger on the pictures and words and numbers every time I logged in, not to memorize ‘Quaternary’ or ‘Jurassic’ but to get something, a big picture. To let it sink in.

It did. Or started to.

3 BILLION YEARS AGO EARLIEST ORGANIC STRUCTURES, the poster says. See the little round empanada thingie at 2 BILLION YEARS AGO? A eukaryote, I think. Global life hadn’t gotten much farther than cells with nuclei at that point, two and a half billion years after planetary birth. A notch up from bacteria. The critters don’t start to proliferate on the time spiral until CAMBRIAN PERIOD and the dashed 542 M.Y AGO line.

Before the Cambrian, for nearly nine tenths of its four-and-a-half billion year history, the world was mostly free of visible life. Oh, you had bacteria, and the eukaryotes, and eventually weird, flat, brainless huggers-of-the-ocean-floor Charnia and Dickinsonia. But nothing like what we regard as ‘life’ today. The land was barren. No plants on earth. No animals. At the start of the Cambrian, the planet didn’t even have a breathable-by-humans atmosphere.

Think about the scale of time involved.

Where do you want to peg the starting line for human civilization? Debateable, I know, but I’ll use Uruk, ancient city of Mesopotamia, founded about 4,000 BCE. Six thousand years of recorded human civilization. A nice round number. My grade school ancient history book started with Mesopotamia.

Fire up a calculator, make some comparisons.

How many of those six thousand year, practically-all-of-recorded-human-history blocks could you fit into the four billion years of the mostly lifeless pre-Cambrian?

Fundamentalist numerophones among you, cover your eyes: 666,666. Two thirds of a million. The first time block is to the second what the weight of an average American adult is to seven and a half Eiffel Towers, what a single meter is to a 400+ mile trek from Baltimore to Boston. That practically-all-of-recorded-human-history block amounts to less than 2/10,000th of one percent of the eons when the earth did its planetary thing without oxygen, plants, animals: a mostly blank slate, a fresh-gelatin-in-a-petri-dish kind of world.

Which isn’t news, of course; which the profs have tried to explain, many times. The football field analogy, the tip-of-a-human-hand analogy, the all-of-life-in-an-hour analogy. It’s too huge, we can’t bend our brains around the comparison.

In the millions of years after the Cambrian, awareness evolved.

“One and a half walnuts” describes the brain size of an ampelosaurus, an eight thousand kilo dinosaur that roamed Spain seventy million years ago. A plant-eating machine, as big as a tow truck, about as smart. I can’t credit it with anything I would recognize as feeling or thought; I presume that it foraged, mated, lay eggs, perished without awareness of its inhabited world, without consciousness, emotion, memory.

But would I dismiss a mammal’s life experience so off-handedly? The internet offers innumerable videos that suggest animal emotion: a dog lobbying for seconds, a cow distraught for a newborn calf, the brutal mating saga of lions. Experts debate: are animals conscious? Will a nightmare of her cubs’ past slaughter ever disturb an aging lioness’ sleep?

55 mya: the first primates. 8 mya: gorillas. 4 mya: australopithecines walked upright on the African savannah. Slowly, effortfully, painfully, we evolved, developed the intellect and technology to insulate our vulnerable bodies from merciless nature, developed the mind to become human.

Replica of Chauvet cave paintings

Replica of Chauvet cave paintings

2 mya homo habilis split rocks, wielded stone tools. 1 mya homo erectus controlled fire, built wooden huts a half million years later. 400,000 kya: homo heidelbergensis hunted with spears. Long-distance trade at 140,000 kya (we homo sapiens were around by then); 30,000 kya — twenty-four thousand years before Mesopotamia — the Chauvet cave paintings.

No one knows how many of our ancestors peopled prehistoric earth. Ten to thirty thousand may have lived when homo sapiens emerged; millions, by Ötzi’s time. I try to picture daily life in the prehistoric millenia, recoil in horror at what I imagine. To abide in the shadow of hunger and want from infancy to infirmity, driven to stalk game across rocky slopes on aching, bloody foot soles, with only animal skins to protect vulnerable bare skin in freezing winter. Always with the reproductive urge intact, so that our benumbed progenitors would bring forth suffering new life into the cruel world. Injuries today easily mended — a fracture, a cracked tooth — might doom their victims to years of constant pain.

From their hundreds of thousands of years of suffering emerged the astoundingly complex spectrum of life we know today. The debt we owe to our cold, starving, injured, unremembered prehistoric ancestors is immeasurable if we value our (admittedly, often still miserable) lives at all. Because it was not just the paraphernalia of modern life that emerged — smartphones, duplexes, heaters, broadband, traffic, skyscrapers — but our modern human capacity to think and feel on the figurative terrestrial stages made by these human-constructed paraphernalia, to take their existence for granted, to accept set-dressed stage as life, reality, the world.

Consider the fictional life slices below: random vignettes, the last excepted, pulled out of a figurative hat. Consider their dependence on paraphernalia and social customs, how the paraphernalia and customs comprise environment, mark boundaries.

Her blind date was waiting at the bar, as promised, sporting belly and wrinkles at least thirty pounds and fifteen years north of his online dating profile. A classic kittenfisher.

Oh, yuck. Could she bail? No; he’d already spotted her.

Lisa forced a weak smile, aware of his greedy eyes on her torso as she approached the bar from the pub door, already mulling an exit strategy. She should have Skyped the SOB first. Internet dating could be so depressing. She’d never get married.

(21st century paraphernalia: bar, internet, dating app, mating rituals, buildings, photos.)

The cubicle barrier shook as Jim staggered into it, twenty minutes late, stinking of weed. Paul muted his support call, glared at his coworker.

“Would you watch out?!”

Jim only blinked at him fuzzily, clothes disheveled, brown droplets of a morning frappe glistening in his beard. Paul turned back to his support call, stifling pity, disgust. Jim had to be the worst CSR on the planet. How desperate could management get? He ought to short the company stock.

(21st century paraphernalia: cubicles, customer support departments, buildings, telephone)

Ötzi huddled under the mountain outcrop and tried again to make fire, trapping the fire stone under the bloody right hand crippled by the boy’s dagger, chopping away with the flint striker clutched in his left. But it was hopeless. He was right handed, couldn’t strike properly with his left. He’d never get a good spark, not here, and even if he did he wouldn’t be able to move his hands nimbly enough to nurse fire in the tinder at this altitude.

Grimly, he returned the fire tools to the pouch. He stepped away from the outcrop and gazed to the wooded valley far below, watching for movement under the valley tree line and on the jagged, bare rock between the valley and his summit.

The brothers would be coming for him. They wouldn’t forgive him for killing the boy. With arrows he could defend himself — could ambush the brothers, perhaps kill all three, if he caught them in the open on the bare slope and could control the bow string with his maimed hand — but he had only two arrows in his quiver and without fire couldn’t heat birch tar to finish more, to glue the fletchings to the arrow or the arrowheads to the shaft. He would have to retreat.

(Ancient Chalcolithic age paraphernalia: fire starting, arrow making)

A half-dozen more century-spanning examples, in short form, plucked from the millions afforded by the human experience:

– a sunny summer skate under the beachfront palms, ear buds in, popping fingers to the latest on Spotify

– nervous, set-jawed, a rookie pilot takes the helm of a steamboat in Mark Twain-era Mississippi

– muttering a quiet prayer while tearing open the registered letter with the test results

– wide-eyed children watch soldiers nail a bloodied activist to a crucifix in first-century Judea

– a boy’s crush on a nun in the Middle Ages

– killing time at the airport departure gate with smartphone videodocs on hoarders and fat shaming

“Is life an illusion?” a metaphysician may ask, amidst talk of quarks, quantum mechanics, string theory. I can contribute no opinion, but note how indisputably — obviously, transparently — invention and custom mold our life experience, as the set dresser’s chairs, table and ice box transform a bare theatre stage to Willy Loman’s kitchen. A child unravels an elaborately patterned sweater, stares wonderingly at a handful of yarn, goggles at the understanding that the sweater was never anything more.

Holocene Epoch population curve

Holocene Epoch population curve

And all of it so shockingly new, in the greater scheme of things! The graph above shows our world’s homo sapiens population for the twelve thousand years of our current Holocene Epoch. Physicist Stephen Hawking described our species as a chemical scum; I marvel at how decisively and rapidly the scum has expanded, spurred by brain volume, opposable thumbs, bipedalism, speech capacity, how our species now dominates and threatens its host.

Whimsically, without evidence, I wonder if we might be the point of it all.

Or part of the point. Our mind: individually, collectively.

* * * * *

He had food left. His hand had kept him up most of the night; he needed strength. Ötzi ate, staring steadily at the distant valley as he chewed goat meat, watching for the approach of his enemies. When he finished he turned to the trail that traversed the mountain pass and began to trudge away from the valley that had been his kingdom, that he had ruled for a hundred moons. He would meet traders eventually. If he had to, he could barter the ax. A final indignity.

The sun emerged from cloud cover, shone bright on the bare, jagged gray rocks and the ice sheets flanking the mountain trail. Ötzi hiked on. Moodily he reflected on a dream message The One had offered the night before, a fleeting clarity in his fitful sleep.

The brothers might drive him from the valley he had ruled, The One had said; Ötzi might be forced to trade his tools for food in foreign lands, even the ax, symbol of his rule. But his life would be remembered: not for a dozen moons, not for a hundred, but for tens of thousands, for as long as humankind dwelled on soil; would be pondered by tribes beyond all imagining of people today. The brothers may have stripped his kingdom, but The One would bestow immortality. The world would never forget that Ötzi had lived.

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Madrid Impressions: Round Six

Two years in Spain! I roam Madrid in my geezerly way, drift obliviously into the photo frames of selfie-snapping newlyweds, scour farmacia shelves for good ol’ American Geritol. Locals chat with me, especially when I suffer senior moments in big metro stations. I notice stuff, despite dotage, post these occasional comminiqués.


¡Muy bien aquí! The World Health Organization ranks Spain seventh on the planet for overall efficiency. Red Staters who see me as desperately in need of a brain transplant may hope that surgeons bolt in my shiny new cerebrum here: for organ transplants, Spain ranks number one on terra firma.

Carlos III statue at Puerta del Sol

Carlos III statue at Puerta del Sol

Health care is universal, free, valid EU-wide. Spaniards who complain lustily of governmental failings have only spoken well — or, at worst, indifferently — of their nation’s health care. A patient may wait to see a doc for inessential service, but can expect prompt attention for anything critical. Those who don’t want to wait at all can pony up for private health plans, available for far fewer Benjamins than equivalent plans in the U.S.

Not a EU citizen? Hot for a visa? You’ll need a no-deductible health plan, as explained in my ‘going expat’ post.

On to a weakness:


I grew accustomed in San Francisco to hearing lusty complaints about the Bay Area tech industry. The monied wunderkind coders drove up rents, outbid poets and musicians for Hashbury flats, sent artists packing. Protesters have blocked the private shuttle buses that ferry tech employees from the city to corporate HQ on the peninsula. “A bunch of spoiled brats,” huffed one long-timer.

With that said:

The companies employing these “spoiled brats” are free market world leaders. Eyeball the online directory, count the household names. Who strong-arms international consumers to compute, network, bank, search, stream, shop or ride share with these outfits? Why aren’t these consumers flipping doubloons to competitors on their own side of the planet? The unregulated excesses of some American companies may menace civilization, but give credit where credit is due: Americans know how to do free enterprise. I took this environment for granted in the U.S., now see problems in a society that doesn’t so successfully breed entrepreneurs.

A local AI engineer hopes to stay in Spain, but laments that gigs in Stockholm and Berlin are more plentiful and pay far more. He might have to move to work, like the continent-wanderers described in my Round Three post. Spain’s biggest employing sector is now tourism, but tourism jobs often don’t pay. The local media groan about tourist-swamped streets in Barcelona, but offer no economic alternative.

In Retiro Park

In Retiro Park

I see too much of Spain in the trials of one local job seeker. She is bright, responsible, amiable, boasts native-level English fluency, and has sights trained on employment with only one prospective employer: the government. No matter that the sometimes brutal oposiciones exams may be offered only once a year, or even every two years. No matter that higher-ups are suspected of flunking test takers for nitpicky reasons if swamped with applicants. A government job is a career. Tia Hispania won’t pink slip funcionarios with the next stock market plunge, won’t arm-twist workers into speed-up or unpaid overtime. One may plan, and plan safely: for family, home, retirement.


The OECD Better Life Index ranks the U.S. first for income, and Spain twentieth. Sample comparisons at payscale and salaryexpert suggest a larger gap than the slight difference my eyeballs report in walks around different Madrid neighborhoods. Potential long-haul U.S.A.-to-Spain expats should stare hard at money matters before signing papers at the consulate.


The lower-is-better GINI index for income inequality is 34 for Spain, 47 for the U.S. “Two class society” was one Spaniard’s take on eight months in New York. If an Antebellum plantation owner lit stogies with C-bills while his ninety-slave slaves slept in hovels, how much would you really learn about plantation wealth by averaging income? Beverly Hills felt richer to me than Madrid’s Salamanca district, but parts of L.A.’s South Central felt a lot poorer than Madrid’s Vallecas, and far more dangerous.

OECD Better Life also says that Americans spend 19% of their gross adjusted disposable income on housing, vs. 22% in Spain. Nationwide, I wouldn’t be surprised. (The thirty-six country strong OECD employs 2,500 and issues 250 new titles yearly. A writes-in-his-underwear blogger isn’t in much of a position to argue.) But in Manhattan? In L.A.?

I have lived long-term in Los Angeles, San Francisco and now Madrid, trust seat-of-the-pants comparisons I can make while comparing rentals on Idealista in Spain to Craigslist in the U.S. To me, L.A. and Bay Area rentals look at least fifty percent pricier.

Others’ mileage may vary. A real estate broker once told me that newcomers’ opinion of a locale often depends on what neighborhood they land in. San Pedro, South Park, Van Nuys and Los Feliz all belong to “Greater Los Angeles,” but could be hundreds of miles apart, for all that their look-and-feel have in common.

I lived on the residential blocks near McLaren Park in San Francisco, but thought of the mile of Mission Street between Geneva and Silver as my city-centric nabe. I shopped here, sipped lattes at the late, great Mama’s Art Cafe, sorted through junk mail at the post office, renewed my transit pass at Walgreen’s … and, especially, waited on these blocks for plodding buses that seem Stone Age primitive beside what I ride daily in Madrid.

Edificio España and Gran Vía

Edificio España and Gran Vía

My equivalent nabe in Madrid includes five metro stations serving six subway lines between the Gran Vía station on Gran Vía and the Argüelles station on Calle Princesa. (Gran Vía morphs into Princesa at Plaza España). Fire up Street View, compare my corners of San Francisco and Madrid. My day-to-day Spain experiences are on much plusher turf than that left behind. I might see Madrid differently if I’d moved from, say, S.F.’s Marina district to a bad block in Usera.


Much cheaper in Europe. Some Americans come to the Old World for college, decide not to go back. (But: fifteen of THE’s top twenty world universities are in the U.S.).


An Argentine attorney told me how porteños can grease bureaucratic skids in Buenos Aires. To pull quotes from my 2015 post:

“Let’s say I need a permit from a government agency to do something,” she said. “I visit the agency. ‘Oh, you need to fill out this form, and that form, and this other form, and this stack of forms, too, and wait a year. Then you might get your permit, if you’ve done everything right. Or you might not.’

“Well, maybe I don’t want to fill out all those forms and wait a year. So I find someone else who knows a faster way. He’ll charge me. It’ll cost more money, but at least I get the permit, and can get on with my work. That’s how things are done here.”

The good news: two years in country have offered no personal encounters with such shenanigans. The bad: several locals assure me that this is only because clueless extranjero Tim doesn’t know where to look. Spain offers similar under the table shortcuts, say they, although no one defended them. One drew an analogy to extra cost priority boarding at the airport.


Burger flippers and gas station jockeys do not expect paid vacation in the U.S. They would if they flipped and jockeyed here. Check out online comparisons, here and here.

Security guards and baristas join big-buck execs in hieing off to coastal cool in August, a big month for vacations here.

“Which means I have to budget for paid vacation when contemplating new hires,” a U.S. entrepreneur might tell me, and direct me back to ‘Private Sector Issues,’ above.


I know an expat who lost a sitting-on-the-table smartphone to a crook in a Madrid eatery, and another convinced that a pickpocket nipped a móvil out of a front pants pocket in the metro. Locals also have warned me of a few dodgy areas in distant city outskirts.

That said: by my Yank standards for a major metropolis, Madrid feels remarkably safe. The sense of safety likely encourages the young to party and club hop into the wee hours, which may explain a blogger’s ‘city that never sleeps’ award to Madrid. The meetup schedule here routinely lists weekend event start times after 10:00 p.m. I marvel at the size of late night sidewalk crowds.

The OECD Better Life index puts much stock in homicide stats, as even citizens disillusioned with their local gendarmes will call in bleeding corpses. Eurostat pegs Madrid’s homicide rate at .6 per 100K, roughly 6.5 and 12 times lower, respectively, than the figures I calc for New York City and Los Angeles.

Estanque Grande, Retiro Park

Estanque Grande, Retiro Park

One local who matured in the worst years of Madrid’s opiate epidemic told me that he was bullied as a teenager for refusing heroin. That is the only story I have heard here that compares to the often horrifying crime and violence that surrounded the young I once worked with in Central Los Angeles. A couple of volunteer stints here suggest that Madrid’s coming-of-age for its unwealthy young is much gentler.


How I would love to write that an unbeholden mainstream Spanish press ponders America’s lack of responsibility-taking for the Iraq war, or the surreal size and cost of the U.S. military! Alas, no can do. With one significant exception, I expect mainstream reporting of U.S.-related affairs in Spain to track similar reporting in the other-than-Fox-News U.S. media.

The exception: Israel. I didn’t keep a log and am too lazy to attempt one now, but noticed more coverage here of the Trump embassy move to Jerusalem, and of the 2018 Gaza protests.

(Less consequentially, I also noted more coverage of The Shove. Spaniards think of Montenegro as a neighbor, not a head scratcher on a geography quiz.)

As for Spain’s news about itself: I don’t know Spain or Spanish well enough to confidently ID subterfuges I would spot in the U.S. Reporters without Borders pegs Spain at the thirty-first spot for press freedom worldwide, fourteen places ahead of the U.S.

(I presume that many American readers are surprised to learn that Spain offers universal health care, guaranteed vacations and cheap tuition.)


A mostly-bad-news Pew report on current global views of the U.S. includes an interesting tidbit: a full sixty-three percent of those surveyed worldwide said they’d rather see the globe led by the U.S. than by China.

Said tidbit reminded me of a chat here with a left-leaning Spaniard. He has never visited the U.S., knows it only for its reputation, but can appraise that reputation with a detachment that a born-and-raised like me can’t manage. He didn’t feel personally disgraced by the Iraq war or news of CIA secret prisons, anymore than he would feel disgraced by China’s treatment of the Uighurs or Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Bad behavior by a superpower; what else is new?


“If I have to choose between Russia, China and the United States,” said he, “I choose the United States.”

My two years in Europe suggest that resigned alignments of this type may be commonplace. Three-fourths of the world’s humans are not citizens of China, the U.S. or Russia. Their countries may be better or worse places to live, but are relatively powerless. Realpolitik requires unpleasant choices. The U.S. invaded Iraq, but hasn’t been accused of systematically censoring the internet, appointing a president for life, permitting murder of its own journalists, poisoning renegades abroad. If you have to line up with someone, whom do you choose?


That interested me, and that I hadn’t known about while living in the U.S.:

() “La Movida Madrileña” refers to a libertine punk-flavored counterculture that flourished in 80s Madrid after dictator Franco’s death. Spiked hair, studded leather jackets, leotard tights, drugs, sex. Madrid’s mayor appears to wink at drug use in a famous rock concert salutation, although a few locals have told me that the idiomatic language in this ‘¡Rockeros!’ address can be interpreted in different ways.

Pessimists may not expect such unrestrained hedonism to turn out well. I gather that it didn’t: a heroin epidemic descended on Madrid. Wide-eyed little ones watched addicts spike needles into veins in grimy alleys, on metro seats; they retained the dark memories, have shared them with me as adults at intercambios. Today’s touristy, colorful Malasaña was once a hellhole of junkies and prostitutes. Enrique Urquijo of the movida’s iconic Los Secretos was found dead of a heroin overdose on a Malasaña doorstep.

()  The Basque Separatist group ETA killed hundreds in terror attacks after the dictatorship. Several natives have named fear of ETA terrorism as the worst aspect of childhoods in Madrid.

In 1997, ETA went too far: it kidnapped junior Spain politician Miguel Ángel Blanco and threatened to assassinate him unless Spain transferred ETA prisoners to Basque Country. Protests spread; ETA killed him anyway.

A shocked, indignant Spain lost its fear of ETA, and thronged the streets in nationwide manos blancas demonstrations that sounded ETA’s death knell. ETA supporters realized that they couldn’t win with violence. A Madrid native told me that she sees the ETA era in “before” and “after” manos blancas terms.

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Modding my Android Smartphone

Vodafone knows where I am. My cellular service provider knows now, yesterday, tomorrow, whenever or wherever my smartphone-with-a-Vodafone-SIM is turned on, unless I swaddle the handset in aluminum foil. I am a trackable man.

I trade the privacy I took for granted in youth for technological tools that my youthful self never imagined. I am resigned to the trade-off, but don’t want to sacrifice more than I must. Vodafone has to track me. Google doesn’t. Most app makers don’t.

TWRP custom recovery menu

TWRP custom recovery menu

Hence, the measures described in this post. I modified my smartphone to install a hybrid version of the Android operating system, and populated said hybrid with apps acquired from F-Droid, an alternative to Google Play. I am no longer signed in to Google when the móvil is on; Google no longer tracks my every planetary step as I shop, stroll, panhandle, battle other retirees for the remote control at the seniors center. Most F-Droid apps install without requesting any special permissions; they don’t snoop on me, either.

This set-up respects my privacy, but is relatively feeble; I hobble along without powerful household name apps that most install through Google Play. Fortunately, modding permits me the best of both worlds: when I need it, I can quickly restore a separate copy of the Android OS that includes a Google sign-in, and full access to Play apps. I do what I need to do with these apps while Big Brother’d, then restore the F-Droid set-up to regain my privacy.

Swapping between F-Droid and Play Store versions is more troublesome than an OS swap on a “dual boot” PC, but still takes less than five minutes, and can be done anywhere — in the gym, bus, coffee shop, in the casket before the lid closes — without a computer.

TWRP Nandroid restore menu

TWRP Nandroid restore menu

Might there be a ‘catch,’ wonder you?

Yes, unfortunately. ‘Catches,’ plural. Big ones.

() Everything about this process is messier, riskier and murkier than the “install Linux” post of 2016. Many Android handsets can’t be modded, at least not by amateurs. The remainder are modded with device-specific steps, and you will be very lucky to find a write-up that is merely inadequate, that would pull an irritable ‘D’ from a sleepy prof in a J.C. comp class. If you are less lucky, you will have to dumpster dive for tips in online fora peopled by teenie modders with Guy-Hawkes-in-a-hoodie avatars, and deduce meaning from comments like U STOOP Y U NO ADB TWRP FLASH MY ROM DUHHHHH.

Credible expertise is rare, elusive (and certainly won’t be found here); online sages often disagree about what can and can’t be done successfully. The Android modder machete-slashes a grim path through hostile wilderness.

() I haven’t finished trying to scare you away. Rotten docs sabotage modding efforts; you may fail, brick the phone, render it unusable. F-Droid apps are updated less frequently than apps from Google Play; I regard them as less secure, perhaps unfairly. Your modded phone may not run Android Pay. (Although online wags disagree about this, too.) If you replace the phone’s Android variant with one of your own choosing, it may more poorly control the smartphone’s camera.

() I have never owned an iPhone, can offer no tips. Sorry.

() You may choose to care less about privacy matters, for reasons to be described at write-up end.

On to nuts and bolts. I again judge gory details to be too dull and geeky to be included inline, and banish them to a separate .pdf:

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Transit vs Car: Four More Points

Yet another post! Despite an implied battening-down-of-hatches in 2015.

I’m sorry. I still lived stateside in 2015. My perspective has changed.

For now, four more bright red subheads:


My ’14/’15 tourist treks showed me the chasm between transit West Coast and transit West Europe. Two years of Spain residency have clubbed me over the head with it. I realize now that I never saw the mobility big picture while living stateside.

Madrid Metro at Plaza España station in Madrid, Spain

Madrid Metro at Plaza España station in Madrid, Spain

If you care, think, talk, write or vote on or about transit-related issues in California, you ought to know how horribly the state transit grid sizes up next to what I ride daily in Spain. That does not mean I think that envy-struck Golden Staters should wave hasty wands over every big buck transit pitch on the ballot, particularly if said pitch promises to siphon funds from now-essential California bus service.

(Remember: the U.S. could build four TransAtlantic tunnels yearly with the shocking 600+ billion flushed annually for a Cold War military, even though the current Prez is seriously suspected of being a de facto stooge of the original Cold War enemy. I couldn’t make up anything so ludicrous.)

It means only that the comparison matters. Transit works here as it never worked in L.A. or S.F.

On to specific, occasionally repetitive examples, all easily corroborated with online maps and service schedules. Regular readers have watched my eyes open in related posts past.

Inter-city rail: I could get up from the keyboard now, ride the metro to Madrid-Atocha or Madrid-Chamberi, and soon board a high speed train for Barcelona, Sevilla, Salamanca, Malaga, Valencia, and other cities across Spain. (Although not to some points north and west.) Barcelona is about as far from Madrid as San Francisco is from Los Angeles. Barcelona-Madrid service frequency aboard 150+ mph high speed AVE: hourly. Travel time: 2.5 to 3.1 hours.

California may have operational high speed rail late in the next decade. What it has today is the Coast Starlight. San Francisco – Los Angeles service frequency: one train a day! Travel time: 11 hours.

Urban rail: I live less than a block from a Madrid subway entrance, feel mildly scandalized if I have to wait more than five minutes for a train, weekdays and weekends. The metro grid blankets the central city, usually requires me to walk only a few blocks to my destination. If I yen to roam farther afield, I turn to the fast, brawny Cercanías commuter rail system, which links to the metro at more than two dozen stations and offers ten to twenty minute headways on most of the grid.

Cercanías commuter rail at Madrid Atocha station in Spain

Cercanías commuter rail at Madrid Atocha station in Spain

The Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area metro grids, in contrast, are like skinny lines stenciled on the sprawling flank of an auto-dependent whale. (The BART map compensates with a Japanese Shunga-like exaggeration of the grid’s relationship to underlying terrain.) One may commute by metro to city centers, yes, and to the relatively few acres proximate to subway stations. If you want to go elsewhere, you’ll transfer to something slower.

California commuter rail? It exists, but as more of a white collar rush hour shuttle than as a transit artery, with sometimes laughably infrequent mid-day headways. Slow, low-capacity light rail lines rate star transit billing in California, although such lines often putter along in city traffic. (Especially in San Francisco.)

Bus: When I recall my California straphanging days, I most frequently picture myself in a bus: chugging through downtown L.A. on a 51/52 after a TransitPeople trip, steeling myself for a forty-five minute wagon ride on a jammed 29 or 43 in S.F. Here, I can offer no comparison. Two years in Spain haven’t yet motivated me to explore the city bus grid, although Madrileños describe it as excellent. I can go everywhere on the choo-choo.

Image: I believe that San Franciscans are thought reasonable for living without personal cars, especially in the era of shared-ride-by-smartphone. In Los Angeles, I often felt stigmatized as a straphanger, TransitPeople and personal convictions notwithstanding. I couldn’t help noting the poverty of many fellow L.A. bus riders, the proportion of (much loathed) Transit TV ads dedicated to debt relief.

In Madrid, in contrast, I know three car-free U.S. expat millionaires who rely on city transit services without hesitation. Everyone uses transit here: third generation gatos, tourists, communists toting fliers to Tirso de Molina, buttoned-down funcionarios, Franco-sentimentalizing conservatives. I sniff no trace of stigma. Personal cars in city limits are widely viewed as burdensome, albatrosses, unworthy consumers of time, effort, money.

* * * * *

Not all comparisons favor Spain. Expect serious crowding on some Madrid Metro lines at peak hours. BART offers more generous seats. Hollywood/Highland and other Los Angeles metro stations boast spectacular artwork. San Francisco hosts the touristy Cable Cars and Market Street Railway, and offers great Dolores Park views on the J line. I know of no Madrid equivalent to Los Angeles Rapid Buses. Further: some Madrileños — lifelong Spaniards, mind you, with a native’s perspective on how decisions get made — assure me that I can thank the country’s powerful construction lobby for the breadth of transit services. I don’t want to inadvertently suggest a wine-and-roses public sector on this side of the Atlantic.

Madrid-Barcelona high-speed Renfe AVE train at station in Zaragoza, Spain

Madrid-Barcelona high-speed Renfe AVE train at station in Zaragoza, Spain

But, with those qualifications out of the way: if debating transit-vs-car issues in California, please pause to reflect on how abominably S.F. and L.A. transit compare to what I take for granted in Spain. Someone who says that “public transit can’t work” or that “no one uses public transit” either lies deliberately or hasn’t traveled, or both.

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for similarly blunt comparisons from the mainstream American press. (Now ranked forty-fifth in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom index, behind Burkina Faso and Romania.) I never worked as a staff reporter, don’t know how these things work, but a lifetime as a news consumer has taught me that the U.S. media is in no hurry to publicize the superiorities of life overseas. “Let’s encourage our coveted entrepreneurs and educated, law-abiding professionals to jump ship, so we’ll have more room for Newt, Rush, Diamond and Silk.” Apparently not.


By American standards, Madrid is ancient. The ninth century Muslim Walls still stand near La Almudena Cathedral. Felipe II moved the capital here in 1561, more than a half-century before America’s Plymouth colony.

Long-ago developed urban center = population masses dwelling in city acres that never anticipated the personal car. Mouse around in Google Maps, call up Street View in Madrid’s Latina, Chueca, Malasaña, Lavapies. Eager to berth a SUV on one of those skinny streets? Madrid needs a serious, grown-up, no BS transit grid, unless city leaders decide to evict millions, raze the capital, sell off most of the urban land area to the Irvine Company.

Contrast ancient Madrid to greater Los Angeles. Founded by Andalucía native Felipe de Neve and a few dozen duped pobladores in 1781, sure, but the population didn’t boom until the twentieth century, and the boom accompanied — was joined at the hip to, shared vital organs with — the sale-to-the-masses of the affordable personal car, the gutting of the Pacific Electric grid notwithstanding.

Cookie-cutter communities in the San Fernando Valley, Inland Empire, Orange County. Same deal in the Bay Area suburbs. Blocks and blocks, miles and miles of tract homes, each with driveway, lawn, back yard. Suburbia. The American dream.

If I want to see a complete truth, I have to acknowledge how appealing this living-large-on-the-land lifestyle can look to some Europeans. You get your own yard, for gardening, pets, barbecue, for your kids to play in. Space between your house and the next house over, so you don’t have to listen to your neighbor’s thumping bass or woodworking tools. Access to big box shopping centers, with free parking for all, everything-under-the-sun U.S. of A. supermarkets.

Never mind if auto-centric development can doom major urban centers to Houston-style homeliness. Never mind if environmentalists judge it as unsustainable, reckless, if it plunders the commons, steals from the unborn. Stare stonily past the iconic ‘space required to transport 60 people’ poster, that shows how rapaciously auto-dependent development devours resources.

YOU get more. The Number One you look out for. You don’t make do in an eco-friendly cubby hole while Al Gore sprawls in a nine bath, sixty-five hundred square foot Montecito mansion. Reckless, short-sighted real estate development is more egalitarian, at least in this case, helps narrow the gap. He gets to live profligately. Free market capitalism lets you live profligately, too.

(Although not with a Montecito zip code.)

A Cercanías sightseeing ride through Madrid’s afueras shows me kilometer after kilometer of high-rise residential development: some of it ritzy, some of it run-down, but much of it straight out of a Transit Oriented Development textbook. I haven’t knocked on doors to conduct surveys, but my decades of personal experience in transit-centric homes assure me that at least a few of those TOD dwellers are privately miserable, thanks to proximity-to-neighbors issues that wouldn’t plague them in sprawling ‘burbs.


Should Tom Trekker journey by car, transit, bike or weary bunions to job, market, pharmacy, Flat Earth conference, Tinder assignation? I expect Tom to choose selfishly. How much does the train cost? How often does it run? Can he park? Is there a toll? How much is gas?

Like that. A civic-minded Tom may opt for his transit pass in a toss-up choice between transit modes, but not if the choice would cost him a lot. Some committed environmentalists will sacrifice more, but I presume that they are rare, statistically insignificant. As travelers, we act collectively like acre-feet of water released on a slope. We go where the slope lets us go.

C-5 Cercanías arrives at Embajadores station in Madrid, Spain

C-5 Cercanías arrives at Embajadores station in Madrid, Spain

Put Tom in Los Angeles. He lives in Culver City, just nabbed a swing shift gig at the Lakewood Marketplace, thirty miles southeast. The after-work drive might take a half-hour. Tom leans green, fires up Moovit to investigate transit alternatives.

Moovit has ’em, all right: Tom may gird loins for a transit ride of TWO AND A HALF HOURS each way, with transfers and plenty of walking.

Tom’s going to CarMax. Or he’ll Uber, or quit, or move. A crooked P.R. writer could paint his choice as a knock against public transit as a transit mode. It wouldn’t be. He would travel as poured on the slope, as city infrastructure encouraged him to travel.

In the New York Times, I read of Koch Brothers efforts to kill U.S. public transit projects. In the Economist, I read of declining transit ridership, with a focus on U.S. cities. Forgive me for connecting dots, particularly if I reflect on last century’s Great Transportation Conspiracy.

Age has taught me to pay more attention to such corollaries. Shaft, cheat and sabotage your adversary behind the scenes, bat innocent eyelashes while publicly pronouncing her proposal as unrealistic, misguided.

Shared ride is a different story. Uber undoubtedly siphons off gobs of transit riders without bottom dealing, controversies notwithstanding. I also open interested eyes as others point to an autonomous vehicle (AV) revolution on the horizon. “By 2030,” opines the BCG consultancy, as quoted in another Economist article, “a quarter of passenger miles travelled on America’s roads will be in shared, self-driving electric vehicles, reducing the number of cars on city streets by 60%, emissions by 80% and road accidents by 90%.”

“I hope they’re right,” thought I, as I read, and then edited myself: “In much of the U.S., something like that will have to be right.” What else are some growing, auto-dependent U.S. cities going to do? They didn’t expand around a brawny transit infrastructure, a la Stockholm or Copenhagen. They sprawled with the car, painted themselves into a corner. Shared-ride AVs or else.


The world-class, powerhouse Madrid transit infrastructure coexists with endless clogged lanes of honking, smoking, particulate-spewing cars, cars, cars. Madrid makes room for them on traffic arteries, but not gracefully. Central Madrid wasn’t made for them. On some of those twisting, narrow central city streets, every car can feel like an intrusion. Conversation pauses as it approaches — noisily, on brick-paved streets — waits for it to pass, continues after it goes away.

It’s easy to wave a toy wand from a little blog soapbox, decry problems uneasily fixed in the real world. I presume that Madrid provides a livelihood to merchants who would face bankruptcy without an auto trade, who know where political bodies are buried and how to push power levers, who may be happy to leave a pol alone if the pol leaves them alone.

The real-world maneuvering must be plenty tough, but I feel confident in judging it as worthwhile. Nearly anything that these ill-suited-for-the-auto European cities can do to restrict traffic may be for the better, especially if said cities can attract tourists or hope reasonably for urban renewal.

* * * * *

7/26/2018: Two eenie-weenie style edits.

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openSUSE Tumbleweed: a Linux Distro review

I chronicled my Windows-to-Linux transition in early 2016, posted a mid-2017 update, today describe adoption of a new-to-me Linux variant.

Two warnings! This post is:

() Inexcusably geeky. Inexcusably! I had something to say in 2016 and 2017, today only wallow shamelessly in a long-dormant computer nerd’s streak rekindled by the switch from Windows.

Other geeks may read my ravings with interest. No one else will. I am not a computer writer, have no business pitching the blog 4×4 into the bush for a wild-eyed hobbyist detour. No editor would accept this.

openSUSE Linux gecko | CC-BY-SA 3.0,

openSUSE Linux gecko | CC-BY-SA 3.0,

() Potentially dangerous. Casual new Linux tinkerers should be shooed away posthaste from the variant to be described, may monkey wrench functional machinery, tempt rage, bankruptcy! madness! death!

Fellow nerds may be curious anyway. So were ancient Greek mariners, about those sweetly-crooning sirens in Odyssey. Read on! You’ve been warned.

* * * * *

Since Windows NT begot Windows 2000 and Windows 2000 begot Windows XP, I have dreamed of freedom from the operating system release cycle. I understood the “why” of the release cycle. Software developers couldn’t kick powerful new features out the door willy-nilly; they had to test, tune, package, test again, fuss over scripts to transition clueless hunt-and-peckers from superseded Platform A to latest-and-greatest Platform B.

The “what” rankled. I didn’t want to buy another box, another license, a new disc, another bloated manual. As Windows matured, I bitterly suspected Redmond of issuing new editions largely to extort license fee income from defenseless users.

Might there be an alternative? What if I could install an OS once, only once, and thereafter let the binary thing nurture itself online; consume patches and upgrades as needed; sip, feed and excrete without regularly demanding new licenses, boxes and disks from weary ol’ Tim? Did I dream idly? Might such an OS exist?

Not in the Windows world, and I saw no hope from Cupertino, either; MacOS users trudged from Lion to Yosemite to Sierra, as I had slogged from NT to XP to 7. Most free Linux “distros” also evolved via the release cycle model.

(Which should have told me plenty. A whole lot of plenty. I risk getting ahead of myself.)

But: the anarchic Linux world also offered a few tantalizing exceptions: “rolling release” distros. I read details of these hybrids, blinked, rubbed disbelieving eyes. My dream made real!

The user might install a “rolling release” distro once, only once. The OS could thereafter slurp limitlessly from an online fountain of youth, forever make itself fresh, current, up to date, whole. A rolling release is versionless.

Reddit contributors claimed that Arch Linux rollers installed in 2008 and 2010 still tickety-tocked smoothly in 2016. These did not limp along on patch-swaddled last legs, like an obsolete Windows install in the twilight of an extended support cycle. No: the 2008 Arch install had rejuvenated itself time and time again, could declare itself equal to an Arch install downloaded and configured this morning. It may continue to emit that new OS smell in 2025, 2030, beyond.

I studied, prowled Linux bulletin boards, identified rolling distros, compared. I could try Gentoo, which powers Nasdaq (or did in 2011), but glimpsed signs of a fading star. Arch is certainly the best known roller, but is notoriously opaque to newcomers, won’t install without mechanicking. Worse, for me: Arch seemed far more willing to frisbee bleeding edge software to users without adequate testing. Variants Antergos and Manjaro would be easier to use, but hadn’t been around that long, at least by my standards.

I turned to openSUSE Tumbleweed. A post by openSUSE chair Richard Brown averred that Tumbleweed tested far more thoroughly than Arch or Gentoo, thanks to the Open Build Service. I contemplated praise from Linux writers J.A. Watson and Swapnil Bhartiya, judged the praise as credible. No less a light than Linux Foundation fellow Greg Kroah-Hartman had conjured up the Tumbleweed model. How wrong could I go? And I felt like tinkering.

I bid adieu to the already-excellent Linux Mint distro, installed Tumbleweed in the summer of ’17, write with my verdict a year later.

Do I like it?

I do! Very much! I hunt and peck these very words on a computer directed by Tumbleweed.

Should I have adopted it in the first place?

Probably not. openSUSE, sure. The Tumbleweed rolling distro, well …

Do I recommend it to most other users? To Linux newcomers?



Only to enthusiasts. If you enjoy computer configuration and can cope with inevitable related bumps and scrapes, join me as I plunge into the gory details:

* * * * *

The Tumbleweed distro is issued in snapshots. Subscribers to the online open-suse factory mailing list receive automated messages declaring issuance of snapshot 20180626, or 20181030, or, if all goes well, 20850105. Each snapshot incorporates whatever whiz-bang software cleared testing after the release of the predecessor snapshot days earlier.

Users may see seven snapshots in a week, or three, or, rarely, none. It depends. One may ignore their issuance, compute merrily along with a snapshot from months before, but may not always compute safely; the fresh snapshots also tend to security concerns.

How does one upgrade a snapshot? As I write in mid 2018: via one occult command, and one command only, issued from the root user terminal prompt:

zypper dup

Will Tumbleweed harangue the new user to use this command, and this command only? No! Worse: the freshly-installed Tumbleweed OS is likely to include a cute icon in the system tray, brightly informing the clueless newbie that XX updates are available for download.

The newbie is supposed to ignore this cute icon. (And may finally be abetted in this ignoring by a long overdue distro change, according to a recent post on the support forum.) The icon would invoke changes afield of the sacroscant zypper dup, could monkey wrench Tumbleweed’s innards. He is just supposed to know that, as one knows how to squirm, lick lips, drool.

The user willing to overlook this idiosyncrasy shall greet an otherwise first rate, state-of-the-art Linux operating system. Eventually she shall want to invoke the almighty zypper dup, to see if anything has changed since installation.

Usually, something has. A lot of somethings. Rolling releases like Tumbleweed strive to offer the latest and greatest. If program author A tweaks two lines of code to issue version of her pride and joy, superseding version, you’re going to get it after it clears testing, whether you needed or not.

I judged my old Linux Mint installation to be busy if it downloaded a half dozen patches in a day. A single zypper dup may announce availability of hundreds of new packages, editions, kernels, patches. If you’ve let the computer sit for a month, ‘hundreds’ may swell to ‘thousands.’

Everything new, current, up-to-date. I run the latest and greatest Linux kernel, or close to it; the latest and greatest browsers, email clients, office suites, utilities. I don’t download programs from hither and yon, as in my Windows days; my software is tested, verified, hails straight from the openSUSE repositories. I compute more safely.

Tumbleweed feels zippy, polished, expert, tight, more so than Linux Mint, far more so than Windows 7. The above-mentioned repositories host most everything I could hope to install while using any Linux distro. I have escaped the release cycle, as I dreamed, and have done so aboard one of Linux’s most professional, respected distros.

What’s not to like?

Two negatives, one trivial, one not trivial at all.

() Zypper dup can consume thirty minutes, even with an SSD.

And the potential deal breaker:

() On five occasions since my summer-of-2017 adoption of Tumbleweed, zypper dup either Chernobyled my computer or rendered some essential program inoperable.

Get that, please, grok it; put it in your pipe, smoke it. Innocent, unsuspecting moi ran zypper dup to update like a good Tumbleweeder, as a Windows user would update on Patch Tuesday, and found myself afterward with an unusable machine. Zypper dup had blackjacked my box, without warning, through no fault of my own.

(The culprit in two of the five Chernobyls was Tumbleweed’s temperamental relationship with the proprietary Nvidia graphics card driver, warned about in the J.A. Watson article. I could have swapped cards, or used the open-source driver. The other three blow-ups had nothing to do with Nvidia.)

So life goes with a rolling distro. Self-reliance is presumed, a frontier spirit. New point releases are fine tuned, fretted about, fussed over, presented on sparkling silver cloche platters. Additions to rolling distros are heaved brusquely over transoms. No one forced me to compute alongside the experts who run rollers. They can fix the occasional mess made by a Tumbleweed or Arch update. I’m supposed to be able to fix it, too.

So far, I have managed. An update that KOs my computer invariably KOs others. The experts gripe, on the mailing list and in the openSUSE forums; they troubleshoot, offer tips, solutions. I keep Clonezilla disk image back-ups of my Tumbleweed installation, can fall back on an older snapshot until the problem is fixed.

The bittersweet result: I may be free of the operating system release cycle, but have spent far more time fussing over my rolling distro than I ever would have fussed to upgrade from point release A to point release B. openSUSE impresses, but I probably should have (sigh …) adopted their point release distro Leap instead, or stood pat with Mint. (Although I’ll likely Tumble from here on in, now that I’ve hacked my way through the worst of the Tumbleweed learning curve.)

If also tempted by the Tumbleweed bleeding edge: Dost thou know how to make and restore a disk image, either via the fabulous free Clonezilla or a commercial equivalent? Canst thou partition a disk, and, perhaps, fix a broken boot loader? I’ll dare to name these skills as entry bars for Tumbleweed adoption, especially the first one. I figured out how to do this stuff, still judge my knowledge as barely adequate to drive Tumbleweed daily. (Although one can install the Tumbleweed ISO in a virtual machine, fiddle to one’s heart’s content.)

* * * * *

Mostly nerd-only notes:

() I’ve got lots of ram, installed Tumbleweed without swap in a single ext4 partition, immediately disabled Snapper. Clonezilla likes ext4, hasn’t played well with the default btrfs file format.

() I installed the Nvidia driver “the hard way,” was unimpressed by experiments with the Tumbleweed Nvidia repository and DKMS.

() Expect freely-given expert advice in the user forums, a strong openSUSE plus.

() Thank you, openSUSErs Simon Lees, Doug DeMaio, Jimmy Berry and unknown others, for graciously fielding my ignoramus questions at the annual conference this May in Prague.

() Amiable openSUSE chair Richard Brown told me at this conference that Greg Kroah-Hartman gets credit for that fat Weltschmerz of a distro name: Tumbleweed. Think about it. It doesn’t roll; it tumbles, like a rusty TV clattering off the back of a dump truck. What opinion does its own inventor hold of that which tumbles? Did he call it a TumbleDiamond, or a TumbleBlossom? Success despite pessimism!

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Mugged in Guatemala City

Before I saw the mugger’s knife, I noticed his shirt: a roll-your-own-logo tee, the kind you’d order online as a gift with a relative’s favorite hokey catchphrase. Official Olympic Beer Drinking Team. Duct Tape Ph.D. I’m With Stupid. That kind of shirt.

An English catchphrase on the shirt, even though he mugged me in Guatemala City. Something senseless, something about cigarettes. Maybe he’d worn it on purpose. You want to roll tourists, you can wear a weird shirt, lure in their eyeballs until they’re too close to get away.

It was early afternoon on May 4, already too hot for me. I was sweaty, tired, had just tramped north on 7A Avenida from the archaeology museum, hoped only to get around the big Boulevar Liberación traffic interchange to continue east to my hotel. My smartphone map had shown me a pedestrian walkway behind the Tecún Umán monument. I’d taken the walkway on the way to the museum, had noted — uncomfortably, more presciently than I knew — that a forty meter stretch under the eucalyptus trees was isolated from traffic. But how else was I going to get around that big interchange? And this part of Guatemala City was supposed to be safe. Wasn’t it?

An online photo shows where it happened. See the beige fence behind the monument? Where it dips into the eucalyptus trees on the left? That’s where he got me.

I think I’d just passed the last beige fence section in the photo when I saw him, a crew-cut, thickset twenty-something, hiking up the walkway toward me. With that shirt. I remember trying to stare at it without being obvious, wondering what it meant and why anyone would want to print that ridiculous sentence about cigarettes.

Then he pulled the knife.

A fixed-blade knife, like a bowie, but with a shorter blade. Maybe four inches. The police report said he threatened to kill me. That part wasn’t right. He didn’t have to. I knew why he had it.

I sized up my options. They weren’t good.

I could turn, run, try to get back to traffic and eyewitnesses on 7A Avenida. They were a long way back now. Retirees rarely outrun twenty somethings.

I could resist. He had the knife and at least thirty years on me.

He held the knife at shoulder height to get me to look at it. He stepped closer.

* * * * *

Guatemala exists, functions, abides; simultaneously, it crumbles, collapses, caves in on itself. Its people industriously erect new girders on the national superstructure, even as the beams of stories below crack, rupture, collapse. The country reminded me of a former D.A. I once knew who worked in sales while recovering from a nervous breakdown. To meet the man was to see both the D.A. and the breakdown: an orator’s stage presence accompanied by twitches, trembling.

Chicken Bus in Guatemala City / CC BY-NC 2.0 by Catherine Todd

Chicken Bus in Guatemala City traffic / CC BY-NC 2.0 by Catherine Todd

Corruption infests all levels of Guatemala’s government, a charity worker told me; she gestured at storefronts as we rode through the outskirts of Antigua, opined that most proprietors pay rent to gangs. The gangs also prey on the operators of the public transit “chicken buses,” at least in Guatemala City. Two long-timers in country had warned me away from these buses (which is why the mugger caught me on foot). Some rode safely for years, they said, but gangs had gunned down drivers, held up riders at gunpoint.

How does one travel in the capital, if fearful of walking or using public transit? One may drive. Or ride cabs, or Uber. Before my mugging, I had tramped wearily past endless homely Guatemala City blocks gridlocked with rumbling, smoking, honking cars, cars, cars: cars like fortresses, with windshields and side windows tinted dark, nearly black, foiling the view of a potential thief or gun man. “If you live in Guatemala,” a businessman would tell me, on the plane ride back to Madrid, “you learn how to stay safe.” I had enjoyed a few blocks of Zone 10’s Zona Viva and the park-like campus around Museo Popol Vuh, but otherwise judged the city to be as cute as an abscess, largely thanks to the traffic.

“Child labor is a fact of life in Guatemala,” guides will say, to steel visitors for what they will see and not change. As a Los Angeles school teacher, I chose seven year olds as crayon monitors, listened to their giddy hopes for visits from Santa. In Guatemala, I saw children that young pace between fuming exhausts on gridlocked traffic lanes, selling lottery tickets, fruit, candy. Working. Twenty-three percent of Guatemalans live in extreme poverty; almost half the population is under nineteen.

Why do natives risk life and limb to emigrate to the U.S.? Visit. You’ll see.

* * * * *

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala / CC by 2.0 by Tatiana Travelways

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala / CC by 2.0 by Tatiana Travelways

Guatemala still offers sights worth seeing, its malignant infrastructure notwithstanding. The waters in the shot above belong to Lake Atitlán: a half-day drive from Guatemala City, spectacular, described as safe. It too is in the process of collapsing, thanks to serious, inadequately addressed pollution issues, but I judged the pollution to be largely invisible to sightseers. I smelled no untoward odors, saw no floating debris.

Picturesque hamlets dot the shores of the volcano-ringed lake, and a tourist can comfortably visit most in a single day via a boat ferry. Three-wheeled tuk-tuks noisily ply the narrow roads, bussing riders for a few quetzales. Camera-toting Europeans stroll alongside young Guatemaltecas in bright Mayan dress.

Each shoreside town offers a different vibe. Little San Juan struck me as the prettiest. I stayed in Panajachel, dubbed “Gringotenango” for its population of pale-faced tourists. San Marcos could have been transported by time machine from a sixties hippy commune; a visiting baby boomer may wax nostalgic here over a carob-fruit smoothie, under a cafe bulletin board advertising yoga classes, crystal healing.

Hours closer to Guatemala City is another tourist hub: Antigua, a centuries-old capital of Spain’s empire in the Americas. Antigua is flat, cobblestoned, home to the eighteenth century Convento Santa Clara, the Templo Santa Teresa de Jesus, Cerro de la Cruz, a charming Plaza Mayor. In Atitlán, I mostly met tourists visiting from the Old World; in Antigua, I met more Americans, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps because I took a Bay Area expat’s (excellent) tip to dine at vegetarian Samsara. Cuisine that appeals to one Yankee may appeal to others.

Some Guatemala visitors hop aboard short, cheap Avianca or Tag shuttle flights from Guatemala City to Flores, then ride north to admire the ruins of ancient Tikal. Others are partial to Livingston and the Rio Dulce. Visit either and you’ll know more than I do: I saw only the capital, Antigua, Atitlán and the roads between.

Tuk Tuks in San Pedro / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Clark & Kim Kays

Tuk Tuks in San Pedro, Lake Atitlán / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Clark & Kim Kays

You could go! Avoid Guatemala City, book private transport from the airport to Atitlán, Antigua or whatever site you decide to visit first. Approach ATMs with care, and read up on their use first on online Guatemala travel forums. The European tourists seemed happy to be vacationing in Guatemala, although a few griped about their hotel accommodations. I met no other crime victims.

* * * * *

The mugger got my smartphone first, accepted it with his left hand as his right held the knife close to my midsection. Then he wanted something else, and despite my shock and fear I managed to register a moment of fleeting, bitter irony.

“Los paños!” he had just demanded.

Los what?!

Paño meant cloth; what was he talking about?! I goggled at him helplessly. For almost two years I had battled daily with español as an expat in Madrid. How horribly fitting that my inadequate Spanish might now get me knifed.

“Los paños!” he insisted again, but must have judged my incomprehension as sincere, and changed tack. He seemed to be in a morbidly cheerful mood. Did my bewilderment amuse him? Or was he pleased to have stumbled into a likely crime of opportunity, to have bagged an elderly tourist?

“Tu dinero!” he demanded. I pulled out my wallet. “Todo, todo!” I opened the billfold, grabbed all the quetzales, handed them over.

And then it ended. He said something stern about staying put, walked off. Dazedly, so did I. I felt as I might have felt if spattered with mud from a passing truck while en route to a wedding in a tuxedo. Something bad had happened, something unexpected; I couldn’t travel back in time to make it right; I had to adjust.

Could I find my hotel without my smartphone? I reached Calle Montúfar, squinted uncertainly east toward the distant skyscrapers of Zone 10. At least he’d mugged me close to the hotel. If I could just find the plaza; that would be close enough; I’d recognize buildings.

I settled into the hike, flanked again by lanes of the city’s interminable traffic, as hot and sweaty as I’d felt before the mugging, and now dazed, too. Instinctively I reached for my smartphone to check the mapping app, had to remind myself why the pocket was empty.

* * * * *

My childhood trips to San Francisco’s Playland-at-the-Beach amusement park almost always included a go on the Devil’s Wheel: a circular platform, perhaps seven meters wide, surrounded by bumper cushions. A dozen kids might rush onto the platform at the start of a turn; we picked our spots on the polished wood, braced our little fingers. The wheel began to rotate, picked up speed, spun faster, faster; we squealed as it spun us into the bumpers. Sometimes only a single victor remained sitting at the end of the turn; often, there were none.

My trip to Guatemala reminded me of that wheel. No challenge seems to more frustrate humankind than good government. Study some health metrics — from Transparency International, Reporters Without Borders, the Economist Democracy Index and the OECD — and you may conclude that only a handful of countries have achieved anything like it: Scandinavian countries especially, Switzerland, New Zealand, a few others. The rest flounder for a grip on various spots on the wheel. If they are as close to the edge as Guatemala, life conspires constantly to make matters worse.

Scores of online travel forum threads report ATM fraud in Guatemala; some suggest darkly that bank insiders have played a role. Experts describe organized crime networks within branches of Guatemalan government. Consider the implications. Any society needs and should produce citizens who are honest, bright and stable enough to make core institutions function: utilities, banks, hospitals, providers-of-essentials, government itself. What happens when individuals in this rank take a shaft-or-be-shafted attitude: grab the bribe now, get rich while the dirty money is available, let society take care of itself?

“Nothing good,” is the answer, and the crumbling invites more of the same. Leaders can’t demand a clean slate, have to play with the chips left over by administrations, decrees, lucky and unlucky breaks past. Guatemala can’t call Deliveroo for a cheerier twentieth century CV (hold the CIA coup, the Rios Montt dictatorship) or a sunnier set of vital stats.

* * * * *

The Guatemala City cops wore powder blue uniform polo shirts. They sat across the table from the hotel security chief and me, two athletic twenty-somethings, asked polite questions. When had it happened? Where? What did he steal?

Going through the motions, I thought. Where did I think I’d been mugged, exactly? Oslo? Zurich? What miracles did I expect them to perform for a tourist leaving the country in a day in a city where gangs gunned down bus drivers? But: I was entitled to make the report, and perhaps too they felt privately grateful to sit for awhile in a quiet, ritzy, air-conditioned hotel conference room, away from the heat and scorching sun. They asked more questions, took notes.

I thanked them, returned to my room. I stared dourly out at the city skyline from the picture window and tried to size up where I stood, a mugging victim in the computer age.

I hadn’t lost much. I had left my dSLR in Madrid, thanks to Guatemala’s crime rep, had also safely stored passport and some vital ID and bank cards before venturing outdoors that morning. The six hundred stolen quetzales came to under seventy euros. The cellular sim card was a prepaid from Guatemala telecom Claro, picked up at an airport kiosk. I would have chucked it on the plane anyway.

The main loss was the smartphone. One of the cops had asked about Android Device Manager. I’d answered simply that I didn’t have it, rather than tell the long story about the switch to F-Droid, why I’d rather lose a phone than be tracked worldwide. But now I had to accept the downside: I couldn’t use Device Manager to erase the phone from afar. Any personal data in /sdcard was in the wild.

Still not much. I regard smartphones warily, avoid them for log-ins, email, banking, shopping. But I’d copied .pdfs of my passport and Spanish ID onto /sdcard. In the wild now.

Then I remembered a .pdf’d itinerary on /sdcard, with emergency contact information for a relative and a friend. Would a crook contact them with an “Urgent-I’m-in-the-hospital-please-wire-$10,000” scam?

Better be safe. I rode the elevator to the hotel lounge, asked to use a computer, logged into a junk e-mail account to send heads’ up messages to the friend and relative in question. A lounge host lingered solicitously. Could he get me anything to drink?

We chatted. He was about thirty, regally dressed in a starched white tunic, fit for Buckingham Palace. We started in Spanish, but his English turned out to be excellent, as good as I’d heard at the hotel.

“You must have lived abroad.” He smiled self-consciously; yes, he had; eight childhood years in New England with his family. I thought of asking about the return to Guatemala, checked myself. Perhaps a sore point. Too personal.

He asked politely about Madrid. I spoke enthusiastically of my adopted home, described some of the hurdles of the visa application process. I offered details, too many. He must have realized that I assumed that he wanted to get out of Guatemala. He blinked, flustered, looked at me in confusion.

* * * * *

In Madrid, I showed the Guatemala police report to a few regulars at the intercambio I host at the VIPs Velázquez — our home restaurant now, cool, plush, soft lit, tucked under the Calle Velázquez oaks in the El Viso ward, one of the city’s toniest. Some clucked sympathetically. No one was surprised.

“Isn’t the crime like that in all the Latin American countries?” one Spaniard wondered sadly. Look at Venezuela. Horrible problems. Of course, people wanted to leave. Why, half the waiters in central Madrid now had to be from Caracas! Twenty years ago they’d all come from Buenos Aires. Had I heard of the corralito in Argentina? The bank run?

No, nothing that bad now in Spain. I shouldn’t misunderstand, the financial crisis had been terrible, terrible … but no, nothing like that. And Madrid was a relatively safe city. Not all parts, not the Cañada Real, but who went there? Drug users.

The chat moved to other matters, the usual intercambio fare: summer heat in Córdoba (46 Celsius sometimes!), dealing with accents (Andalusia, the Canaries, the American South), what was my candid personal opinion as a native English speaker of the Vaughan Method? Be blunt!  (No idea; sorry.) The meeting ended. Participants drifted off. I set out on my usual shortcut to the Gregorio Marañón metro station, in no hurry (The trains ran every four minutes.), listening to a Spanish radio interview through ear buds as I strolled through the lengthening shadows of early evening in spring. I felt fortunate.

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USA in the Rear View

“But why did you leave the United States?”

Madrileños must ask me that question at least once a week. Some sound mystified. Isn’t the United States richer than Spain? Don’t Americans get to walk the streets they know from all the big American movies, TV shows? Of course, they’ve heard of how terrible Trump is, but isn’t he a product of the “Fox News” America they’ve read about? California isn’t “Fox News” America, is it?

“It’s a long story,” I usually answer, and now often change the subject. I feel self-conscious. I didn’t really “leave,” not while retaining U.S. citizenship. Spain let me live in-country long term. I arrived less than two years ago. Not that big a deal.

But, with that said: I haven’t visited the U.S. since my Iberia one-way touched down at Madrid Barajas in 2016, and don’t plan to return. I deflect questions because I don’t know how to explain that perspective to Spaniards. I’ll try now.

* * * * *

America portrays itself. So does Spain. So must other countries. In news feeds, headlines, video clips, talk shows, advertising, comedy skits, movie trailers, in its tireless onslaught of mainstream print and broadcast media, America paints its own fluid portrait. It tells its people what it is.

Since the Dubya presidency, 9/11, the Iraq War and the Snowden revelations, I have found America’s self-portrait to be freakishly at odds with the America I see with my own lyin’ eyes. The explanation of the U.S. military’s cost and role seems especially surreal, hallucinatory.


() America’s self-portrait now includes the admission that the Iraq War was a “mistake.” “Ill-advised,” a politician or a pundit might say. “If we’d known then what we know now, of course, we would have done things differently.” The admission inspires no public soul-searching; rather, it is usually granted quickly, uncomfortably, like a wager in a lost bet. A few may dare to speak of their past war support with self-deprecating humor, as one might rue payment of full list price for a washing machine the day before the half-off sale. Whoopsy Doodle! Guess we goofed. These things happen.

Consider the dimensions of the “mistake”:

The war cost a quarter to nearly a half million American and Iraqi lives — the approximate populations of Reno and Buffalo on the low side, or of Atlanta, Miami or Long Beach on the high side. I chaperoned grade schoolers on field trips to Long Beach, struggle to imagine a city peopled by only the dead: hundreds of thousands of bloody, lifeless corpses from Belmont Shore to Compton College, draped from the rails of the Queen Mary, rotting next to Shark Lagoon. Some Iraq body counts are higher still, reach into seven figures. Hundreds of thousand more suffered permanent injury, lost limbs, eyes, ears, senses.

The war also cost over three trillion dollars: an incomprehensibly vast sum, more than one and a half times the value of all farmland in the continental United States, nearly six times the value of taxable real estate in New York City and Washington D.C. combined. What if U.S. leaders had instead invested funds on behalf of their constituents, as did Norway with its surplus oil revenue? Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is today worth more than a trillion, or almost two hundred thousand dollars of saved wealth for every Norse citizen.

The absence of public responsibility for the “mistake” seems phantasmagoric, dreamlike. The national self-portrait included endless imagery of the horrors of ISIL, but little about the obvious, fundamental role of the war in ISIL’s growth. Politicians who portrayed themselves as centurions of the balance sheet in debt ceiling debates had little to say about their cheerleading for the pointless three trillion dollar invasion.

() Americans consuming the national self-portrait may believe their nation to be defended by a shamefully feeble military. Oft-quoted voices suggest as much. Many Americans believe the military to be under-funded. Ted Cruz has referred to it as debilitated, tragically anemic; Marco Rubio said the military has been weakened, eviscerated. John McCain threatened to shut down the government to get more military spending. A voter may picture troops toting rusty Springfields in tattered battledress, dumpster diving for food, grimly readying rocks and spears to hurl at the freedom-hating hordes poised to invade American beaches.

How does this debilitated, anemic, weakened, eviscerated military compare with others?

Visit or, run some numbers.

The U.S. military is the largest and most powerful on the planet. By far. The U.S. military budget is three times bigger than China’s, more than thirteen times bigger than Russia’s. The U.S. military budget in a single year could pay for four TransAtlantic tunnels, or four international space stations, or four hundred Burj Khalifas. In a single year.

I’m old enough to remember the justification for this colossal tumor on the balance sheet: the Cold War. Sputnik. “We will bury you.” The Cuban Missile Crisis. But the Cold War ended more than a quarter century ago. Putin has said that the U.S. is “probably the world’s sole superpower.”

It’s hard to explain to Europeans how freakish and suffocating it felt to take in this media self-portrait while living on American soil: in the planet’s fourth biggest country, flanked by two great oceans, where only thirty percent of the citizens hold passports. 2 + 2 didn’t equal 4 anymore, couldn’t, wasn’t allowed to.

I also wasn’t supposed to feel personal shame. Collateral Murder, drone strikes on wedding parties, secret prisons, Guantanamo Bay, torture. All mistakes! Whoopsy Doodle! Just mistakes, like Iraq.

In 2016, as a sick dog will eat grass to induce nausea, America sent a deity to the White House: Shiva, Hindu god of destruction. Shiva has worked 24/7 ever since: battering institutions and alliances, debasing the presidency, firing the competent, promoting stooges. Part of the mainstream media’s self-portrait has evolved since: Everything is Shiva’s fault! If only America had elected Dubya’s brother Jeb, or Marco Rubio! All might be well again. Look! Here’s Dubya on the Ellen show! He must be a cool guy, if Ellen would interview him.

My history books tell me that the hallucinatory distortions I see in the U.S. self-portrait aren’t new, aren’t unprecedented. The Chinese press still doesn’t look honestly at the legacy of past leader Mao Zedong, who killed tens of millions in the Great Leap Forward. Beijing media also didn’t shut down in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre; post-massacre reporters must have found something safe to write and talk about, some way to look edgy and bold without stepping on the wrong toes. Stalin imprisoned biologists who opposed pseudo-scientific Lysenkoism; Nazis burned Einstein’s books, championed a nonsensical Aryan Physics alternative. Same old same old; same pattern. 2 + 2 = 4 when the evening news announces permission for the public to count on its fingers. Not before.

I left a country with important virtues. Americans — the people, not the government — are often friendly, egalitarian, self-reliant. I miss the brave optimism of many families I met as a teacher in Los Angeles’ inner city, feel only gratitude and respect for the volunteers, teachers and supporters I knew through TransitPeople and before. A too-common U.S. it’s-good-if-it-makes-money mindset may threaten the whole planet, but many American businesses also won global leadership fair and square, on their own merits. My volunteer stints in Madrid schools show strengths in the U.S. educational system. Look at world university rankings.

With that said:

I am a retired school teacher with no role or voice in American affairs. I may recognize Trump as a symptom of a sick country, but can’t heal that sickness. I feel sympathy for old friends, colleagues and students, but haven’t looked back.

My last straw may have been the 2015 U.S. airstrike against the Kunduz Doctors Without Borders hospital. If in Spain: you may complain about political corruption, bullfighting, the monarchy. Fine; you’re a voter, are entitled to your opinions.

A few questions, though: Does Madrid bomb hospitals? Does Madrid run secret prisons, kill innocents with drones at wedding parties? Does the Spanish press give ink and airtime to politicians and pundits who claim that militarism thousands of miles from the Iberian Peninsula is necessary to “protect Spanish freedoms?” Is your country globally regarded as the greatest threat to world peace? And was I really so odd for judging the U.S.’ self-portrait as frighteningly surreal, for wanting to again live in a 2 + 2 = 4 world?

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EEUU en el Espejo Retrovisor

(¡Mi primera traducción sin ayuda! Espere errores y no se decepcionará. Todos los enlaces son para páginas en inglés.)

“¿Pero porque te fuiste de Estados Unidos?”

Los madrileños deben hacerme esa pregunta al menos una vez a la semana. Algunos parecen mistificados. ¿No es Estados Unidos más rico de España? ¿Los estadounidenses no pueden caminar por las calles que conocen de todas las grandes peliculas? Por supuesto, han oido de los horrores de Trump, ¿pero no es Trump un producto de “Fox News America?” California no es “Fox News America,” ¿verdad?

“Es una historia larga,” a menudo contesto, y ahora frecuentemente cambio de tema. Me siento cohibido. Realmente no “me fui,” no mientras conservaba la ciudadania EEUU. España me permitió vivir en el país a largo plazo. No es un gran cosa.

Pero, con eso dijo: no he visitado Estados Unidos desde la llegada de mi vuelto en Madrid en 2016, y no tengo planes de regresar. Evito las preguntas porque no sé como explicar esa perspectiva a los españoles. Lo intentaré ahora.

* * * * *

Estados Unidos se retrata a sí mismo. España también, al igual que otros países. En noticias, titulares, videos, programas de entrevista y debate, anuncios, comedias, tráilers de películas, en su diluvio incansable de medios convencionales, Estados Unidos pinta su propio retrato fluido. Le dice a su gente lo que es.

Desde la presidencia de G.W. Bush, 9/11, la guerra en Irak y las revelaciones Snowden, he pensado que este autorretrato está extrañamente en desacuerdo con el país que puedo ver con mis propios ojos. Las explicaciónes de los gastos y el papel de las fuerzas militares parecen especialmente surrealista, alucinante.


() El autorretrato de Estados Unidos ahora incluye la admisión de que la guerra de Irak fue un “error.” “Mal aconsejado,” un politico o una analista podría decir. “Si hubiéramos sabido en aquel tiempo lo que sabemos ahora, por supuesto, nos habríamos comportado diferentemente.” La admisión no inspira un examen de conciencia público; no, generalmente está otorgado rapidamente, incómodamente, como dinero en una apuesta perdida. Algunos podrían atreverse a hablar de su apoyo pasado con humor autodespreciativo, ya que uno podría lamentar el pago del precio de lista completo de una lavadora el día antes de la venta a mitad de precio. ¡Oh oh! ¡Mala mía! Estas cosas pasan.

Considere las dimensiones del “error:”

Entre un cuarto y medio millón estadounidenses y iraquíes murieron en la guerra — cifras aproximadamente igual con la poblacion de Granada o Gijón por la estimación baja y con la poblacion de Murcia o Málaga (o Long Beach en Estados Unidos) por la estimación alta. Dirigí excursiones para niños en Long Beach, y lucho por imaginar una ciudad poblada sólo por muertos: cientos de miles de cadáveres sangrientos y sin vida desde Belmont Shore a Compton College, cubiertos por los rieles del barco Queen Mary, pudriéndose al lado del tanque de tiburones en el aquario. Algunos recuentos de cadáveres son aún más altos, alcanzan a las siete cifras. Cientos de miles más sufrieron lesiones permanente: extremidades perdidas, la pérdida de ojos, oídos, sentidos.

La guerra tambíen costó más de tres trillones de dólares: una suma incomprensiblemente vasta, más de 1.5 veces el valor de las tierra agrícolas en Estados Unidos continental, casi seis veces el valor de las propiedades gravables en las ciudades de Nueva York y Washington D.C. conjunto. ¿Que habría pasado si los lideres hubieran invertido estos fondos por cuenta de sus ciudadanos, como Noruega con su excedente de rentas petrolera? Hoy el fondo soberano de inversión de Noruega tiene un valor de más de un trillon de dólares, o casi doscientos mil dólares de riqueza ahorrado por cada ciudadano nórdico.

La ausencia de responsibilidad pública por el “error” parece fantasmagórica, onírica. El autorretrato nacional incluía imágenes interminables de los horrores del EIIL, pero poco sobre el papel obvio y fundamental de la guerra en el crecimiento del EIIL. Los politicos que se presentaron a sí mismos como centuriones del balance financiero en debates sobre la deuda pública tuvieron poco que decir sobre su animo por la guerra sin punta de tres trillones.

() Los estadounidenses que consumen el autorretrato nacional podría creer que su nación esta defendida por una fuerza militar verzonzosamente débil. Las voces citados sugieren eso. Muchas estadounidenses creen que su fuerza militar está subfinanciado. El político Ted Cruz se ha referido a ella como debilitada, trágicamente anémica; otro, Marco Rubio, ha dicho que ella ha sido atenuada, eviscerada. El senador John McCain amenazó cerrar el gobierno para obtener más gasto militar. Un votante podría imaginar tropas cargando viejos rifles oxidados en vestidos de batalla andrajosos, buscando comida en basureros, preparando sombríamente rocas y lanzas para lanzar contra las hordas a punto de invadir las playas estadounidenses.

¿Cómo se compara esta fuerza debilitada, anémica, atenuada y eviscerada con otras?

Visita o, haz algunas comparaciones.

La fuerza militar de Estados Unidos es la más grande y poderoso del planeta. Por mucho. El presupuesto militar de EEUU es tres veces mayor que el de China, más de trece veces mayor que el de Rusia. El presupesto militar de EEUU en un solo año podría pagar cuatro túneles transatlánticos, o cuatro estaciones espaciales internacionales, o cuatrocientos Burj Khalifas. En un solo año.

Tengo edad suficiente para recordar la justificación de este tumor colosal en el balance financiero: la Guerra Fría. Sputnik. “Te enterraremos.” La crisis de los misiles cubanos. Pero la Guerra Fría terminó hace más de un cuarto de siglo. Putin ha dicho que EEUU es “probablemente la única superpotencia del mundo.”

Es dificil explicar a los europeos lo raro y sofocante que se sentía absorbar este autorretrato mientras vivía en el suelo estadounidense: en el cuarto país más grande del planeta, flanqueado por dos grandes océanos, donde solo el treinta por ciento de los ciudadanos tienen pasaportes. 2 + 2 ya no eran 4, no se podían, no se les permitía.

Tampoco tenía permiso para sentir vergüenza. Collateral Murder, ataques drones en fiestas de bodas, prisiones ocultados, Guantanamo Bay, tortura. ¡Solo errores! ¡Mala mía! Solo errores, como Irak.

En 2016, como un perro enfermo comerá hierba para inducir náuseas, Estados Unidos envió a un deidad a la Casa Blanca: Shiva, dios hindu de destrucción. Shiva ha sido trabajando 24/7 desde entonces: golpeando instituciones y alianzas, degradando la presidencia, despidiendo a los competentes, promoviendo a los paniaguados. Parte del autorretrato nacional ha evolucionado: ¡todo es la culpa de Shiva! ¡Ojala que los votantes hubieran elegido Jeb Bush (el hermano de Dubya), o Marco Rubio! ¡Todo sería bien otra vez! Mira: Dubya apareció en la programa de televisión de Ellen! Él debe ser un tío súper, no?

Mis libros de historia me dicen que las distorsiones alucinatorias que veo en el autorretrato estadounidense no son nuevas, no faltan precedentes. La prensa china aún no mira honestamente al legado del pasado líder Mao Zedong, quien mató a decenas de millones en el Gran Salto Adelante. La prensa de Beijing también no cerró después la masacre en la Plaza de Tiananmen; los reporteros deben haber encontrado maneras en que podrían parecer audaz y independiente sin cruzando líneas rojas ocultas. Stalin encarceló a biólogos que se oponían al Lysenkoism pseudoscientifico; los Nazis quemaron los libros de Einstein, abogaron una “Fisica Aria” absurda. La misma pauta. 2 + 2 = 4 cuando las noticias de la tarde anuncian permiso para que el público cuente consus dedos. No antes.

Dejé un país con virtudes importantes. Los estadounidenses — la gente, no el gobierno — a menudo son amistosos, igualitarios, aufosuficientes. Extraño el valiente optimismo de muchas familias que conocí como maestro en el casco urbano de Los Angeles, siento solo gratitud y respeto por los voluntarios, maestros y partidarios que conocí a través de TransitPeople y antes. Un mentalidad demasiado común que ‘es bueno si hace dinero‘ puede amenazar al planeta entero, pero muchas empresas estadounidenses ganaron el liderazgo de manera justa, por sus propios méritos. Mis estancias de voluntariado en las escuelas de Madrid muestran fortalezas en el sistema educativo en California. Mira las clasificaciones universitarias mundiales.

Con esto dijo:

Soy un maestro jubilado, sin voz ni papel en los asuntos estadounidenses. Puedo reconocer a Trump como un síntoma de un país enfermo, pero no puedo curar esta enfermidad. Siento simpatía por los viejos amigos, colegas y estudiantes, pero no he mirado hacia atrás.

Mi gota que colmó el vaso podría haber sido el ataque aéreo EEUU en 2015 contra el hospital Médecins Sans Frontiéres en Kunduz. Si esta en España: puede quejarse de corrupción politica, los toros, la monarquía, otros asuntos. Bien; eres un votante, tienes derecho a tu opinión.

Pero unas preguntas: ¿Madrid bombardea hospitales? ¿Madrid maneja prisiones secretas, mata inocentes con drones en fiestas de boda? ¿La prensa en España da tinta y tiempo de transmisión a politicos y eruditos que reclaman que militarismo a miles de kilómetros afuera de la Península Ibérica es necesario para “proteger las libertades españoles?” ¿El mundo vea su país como la mayor amenaza para la paz mundial? ¿Y era realmente tan extraño por juzgar este autorretrato come espantosamente surrealista, por querer vivir otra vez en un mundo de 2 + 2 = 4?

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