"I Am A Self-Made Man!"
Madrid at 9am is Manhattan at 6am. The Spanish capital is rubbing its sleepy eyes, cafés are rolling up their corrugated metal doors. Octogenarian couples walk arm-in-arm, in that boxy shuffle that only old couples do well. This morning I sat in a local café and ordered the traditional Spanish café con leche, a kind of thin cappuccino, and a bocadillo, a baguette filled with butter and stringy, chewy ham. I pondered my evening and my seeming inate ability while traveling to meet comically deplorable characters. Rarely do I meet someone so repulsive as to request of them that I may take notes so that I miss nothing when I write about them later...
Sitting in the very posh bar of my very posh hotel in my very un-posh backpacker clothing, I sipped a coffee and read a book about Belgian King Leopold´s 19th-century genocidal misadventure in the Congo. I´d hoped to finish the book while traveling in Africa, but the dense and often emotional nature of the book required more attention than I was able to give while bungy-jumping, driving, and photographing lions killing fresh prey (see blog post from 9 Feb entitled "Grace Under Pressure, Sort Of...").
A man with stained yellow teeth and no visible eyelashes approached. "May I join you," he asked without waiting for a reply. "I am Belgian and you are reading about the birth of my country." He pulled up a bar stool and called a waitress over. "Vodka. Coke. Four cubes of ice," he said in English to the Spanish waitress. "Four cubes," he emphasized in English. She returned moments later with his iced vodka-Coke. Into his glass full of more cubes than four, he tucked his puffy tobacco-stained fingers. "You heard me say four?" he asked with no hint of recognition that the waitress didn´t speak English. He extracted the offending surplus ice cubes and deposited them on her tray. Bewildered and somewhat embarrassed, the waitress left me alone with "Cerdo" (not his real name, but for those of you that speak Spanish, the perfect alias for this man).
"So what do you do?" asked Cerdo. Finding a literarily comic opportunity in this otherwise entirely interminable moment, I replied that I was researching Belgian atrocities in the Congo and writing a book about travel. "But," Cerdo warned with limitless condescencion, "you must in your reading and writing learn to separate fantasy from reality."
"Really?" Icountered. "But this book seems to have been well-documented?" In fact, the documentation of terror in Adam Hochshild´s King Leopold´s Ghost of the crimes committed is akin to the documentation by the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis of their victims´fates. Cerdo scoffed. I changed the subject.
"So what do you do?"
"Me?" He smiled a dirty yellow Chesire-cat smile. "I own companies in 22 countries. I travel constantly." I stared at him blankly.
"Maybe you think I´m arrogant?" I again stared at him blankly.
"You are a very interesting person," he offered. "May I invite you to dinner tonight?" I hesitated just long enough to let him know that I was about to lie.
"I am meeting some old friends tonight." My lie was a half-truth; I´d been planning to meet the family in Madrid with whom I´d lived years earlier, but I was not due to meet them until later in the week. My chronically guilty conscience gave me a rare pass on this little white lie. Fatefully, I added that the family had children and I´d best meet them very soon before the children were put to bed.
"Perfect!" he said. "They have children. They will return home early. You can meet me at midnight." He winked at me. I uncomfortably demurred, assuring him that my old friends were party animals. He offered me his mobile phone. "Call them from my phone. You can make your plans from my phone because the call is free. I own the phone company. Ten years now I´ve owned it."
"Wow," I said without any facial expression, "you are very fortunate."
"The internet, too. I saw that trend coming." I again stared blankly at him and got up to leave, thanking him for paying for my coffee. "I am a self-made man." Funny, I thought as I put my books back into my handbag, me too! I am a self-made woman!
As quickly as is not noticeably rude, I rushed out of the hotel bar and into another bar, where I soothed my frayed nerves with a glass of sweet sangria and crispy olives. I tucked my nose deep, deep into my book, with the intention of avoiding any further human contact for the remainder of the evening.
Stay tuned for my adventure at the Arab bathhouse with a one-legged man and a girl who while changing into a bikini, showed off her strategically-placed "Hello Kitty" tattoo. I´ll leave you to draw the conclusions on the meaning of the latter; this is a family blog!