Lands of the Setting Sun: ¡Yeísmo!

Long Way Back

You’ve got to love Ibn Battouta. A Moorish explorer, he made it all the way to the Philippines, served briefly as a minister in the Maldives, and fought in the Battle of Gibraltar, spent the overwhelming majority of his life abroad, and when he wrote it all down, he made sure to let the reader know he wasn’t having any fun. The man abhorred any culture with topless women. On the other hand, he is on the 5dh coin.

Ibn Battouta Airport was on the windward side of the point of Cape Spartel, in howling wind, and accessible only by a dirt road, though that may soon change. Tangier was neglected under the bad king Hassan II, but it’s experiencing a revival under his son Mohammed VI. It’s still a messy place, but it’s also the fastest growing city on the African continent. This king is popular enough to have his picture in every room in the country, and every kiosk at Ibn Battouta.

This isn't the actual photo. I didn't think to take one at the airport.

First thing I did was get my mom some tea. As soon attendant at the cafe poured it, I picked up the paper cup, rapidly scalding my hand, but keeping my composure long enough to return to the counter and get a second cup for insulation. What I liked most about TNG (besides being one of the few remaining airports where you walk onto the tarmac) was the airline employees. All Moroccan, all pretty girls, all wearing djellabas, the traditional hooded robe of the Moors. We’d seen people wearing them around; it was a bit like seeing a Native American in full shaman gear walking down 42nd Street, except that here it was normal. I stopped in a tiny souvenir shop looking for a flag and they had it: giant, thick and woolen, a real flag like those getting shredded by the wind outside. You could have used it as a blanket. I ponyed up my last 40dh and packed it into my suitcase with the others.

Our flight plan resulted in a two-hour layover at Madrid Barajas, which was creepily identical to Heathrow, built in a style consisting mainly of glass and chrome which my mom likened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

“Would you be interested in watching all of Terry Gilliam’s films?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “there’s an insanity risk.”

I grabbed as much food as humanly possible from Medas, mostly ham, and devoured it as quickly as possible before queueing for the connecting flight. “So what are the differences between Castillian and South American Spanish?”

Annoyed by Britons who seem to think anything south of the Potomac is “South America,” I turned around to see a girl of about 15 travelling with her brother. “New World Spanish lacks distinción. There’s no th-sound, though that’s also the case in some parts of Spain.”

“That’s right,” she said approvingly. For the next two hours on the plane, I would catch her staring at me several seats ahead, then pretending she wasn’t, trying not to grin.

But now we were in England, and we had two hours to get to our hotel near Heathrow, catch a bus to the Picadilly Line, thence to the Northern Line, and get off at Camden Town. From there, we made a beeline for Regent’s Park, briefly got lost in some mud, and arrived at the Regent’s Canal. We barely made it, and not only because my mom couldn’t stop laughing at “Cockfosters.” I’d simply forgotten how huge London is.

I’d first heard about this restaurant from David Mitchell’s Back Story. Feng Shang Princess is a fancy Chinese restaurant on a double-decker canal boat, and though Mitchell walked by it all the time, he had never gone in. I was worried it would just be a novelty restaurant but the food was terrific. We were particularly taken by the crispy chicken in mango curry sauce. My mom decided that even though her birthday was in April, this would be my present. A £60 dinner at a restaurant on a boat, from a book, in London.


I never ate the chorizo. It got seized at customs in Los Angeles. You’re not allowed to bring ham in here.

Lands of the Setting Sun: The Garden of Earthly Delights

Unknown man at the Royal Palace

I was going to like Madrid no matter what. I fit in, spoke the language, liked the food well enough, and nobody looked at me funny for wearing a tie on vacation. I also liked it more because I arrived ready to hate the place.

Spanish companies– engineers mostly– do a lot of business in Los Angeles, and all of them are based in Madrid. I’d spent my childhood looking at pictures of their headquarters: soulless glass towers on barren modern streets. I later discovered that that is a new area of Madrid north of the old city– a sort of Castillian Courbevoie.

If Barcelona was Chilly, Madrid was well into the next ice age, a fact my mom and I discovered as soon as we went out the front door at Atocha station. A mile high and 200 miles inland, the city is subject to Europe’s hottest summers and Spain’s coldest winters. During our stay, the temperature hovered around -1º C, and it was only December. But who cares? I love the cold.

Madrid was also unimaginably crowded. It’s the size of Chicago, but instead of a grid, the entire city radiates out from the Plaza del Sol, where we got off the subway to find our hotel, which I understood to be on the Plaza Mayor. Struggling through packed sidewalks, we found ourselves in a vast rectangular marketplace, awkwardly placed in the medieval cityscape in 1576, and just as impassable as the city streets.

As it turned out, our hotel was on the Plaza Santa Cruz, a block away. We checked in and immediately I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was half-asleep and terrified of missing our dinner reservation, but got straightened out and we went to Sobrino de Botín, the world’s oldest restaurant and haunt of several historical figures. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, which is not the best of signs, but I got a picture of dessert:


Briefly getting lost in the winding streets, we returned to the hotel and, still suffering from jet-lag, attempted to sleep. It would have been easier if there hadn’t been dozens of drunken men singing in the plaza until 4 AM.

The next day, Mom and I took a stroll around the city, and everything looked oddly familiar. “This looks just like West London,” I said. “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” said my mom, who had never been to London. That isn’t a coincidence: in the mid-19th century, Queen Isabella II had all of Madrid rebuilt in classic Victorian style, with big townhouses and rigidly landscaped parks. Atocha Station was built during this time. Isabella’s reign was very similar to Queen Victoria’s, except that she was overthrown in 1868, replaced by an Italian King, who was replaced by a republic, who was finally replaced by Isabella’s son. It’s worth mentioning that all of this happened in the span of eight years. Spain had four civil wars in the span of a single century.

After visiting the outside of the palace, we took the subway to El Retiro, the massive park on the east side of the city. El Retiro was a welcome relief from the claustrophobia of the rest of the city; it’s a popular place for joggers and dogs, and every few meters there’s a massive monument to some element of Spanish history, a queen or an admiral or the War on Terror. It’s an excellent way to memorialize great national figures; Washington DC could learn a lesson from this place.

From here we had planned to visit the Prado museum, but it wasn’t open yet, so we repaired to the Reina Sofía, a newer museum named ostentatiously after the current Queen, and home to many of the great cubist works, culminating in Picasso’s massive Guernica. In addition to the paintings, the museum was full of articles and books from the early 1900s, detailing the birth of the cubist movement, including Picasso’s early sketches, The Dream and Lie of Franco, which seems to have inspired Guernica. I liked The Dream and Lie better. It was seeing these that made my mom a little weepy, but we were just getting started.

“Are you getting tired?” I asked my mom as we had lunch in a café with a door that kept blowing open.

“We have to see the Prado,” she said.

“I know,” I said, “I just need a little break. After a second coke I was ready to take it on.

All I knew about the Prado was that it had the works of Francisco Goya, but upon entering I discovered that that was but a footnote. My mom was overwhelmed. Fra Angelico? Bosch? Velazquez? All here. I’d seen hundreds of these paintings in my high school art textbook, but my mom had majored in fine art. She later told me, “I’ve been looking at these paintings my entire life and never thought I’d see them in person.” While I struggled to comprehend the massive c.1500 prog rock album cover that was The Garden of Earthly Delights, she stared longingly at the modestly-sized self-portrait of Albrecht Dürer.

“I had a crush on Albrecht Dürer,” my mom said. “I used to carry a wallet-sized version of this painting in my pocket.” My mom’s emotional roller coaster was just beginning.

Later that afternoon, I ran into some Norwegian girls who were also visiting for Christmas break. After a pleasant chat, they took the subway going the other way and I realized I’d forgotten to ask what they were doing that night. It wouldn’t have mattered. I was asleep before dinnertime.