Sunday, July 24, 2011

Viva Madrid!


The reader may have noted that the continuing confessions of a traveling music teacher have been leaning heavily to the side of “music teacher” and been light on the “traveling.” The armchair traveler cozying in for a flight to another land without the airport lines or mosquitos may have been disappointed to encounter yet another lecture on an esoteric teaching approach. But thought I’ve been in Spain a week, I haven’t wholly been here. Madrid has been out the window on the daily commute on Carretera A-6, but there’s neither been the real nor psychological time to do little more than look at it from a moving car.

But the night of flamenco helped me touch base with this city, which like Salzburg, has been a home of sorts, a touchstone during the last 21 years. It was actually in Salzburg that I first met so many of these Madrileño vibrant music teachers—Sofía, Luz, Fernando, Polo, Mariana, Leo. But it has been Madrid where the bulk of these friendships have been formed and re-formed. It has been fascinating and inspiring to see the various forks in the road we all have taken in the two decades we’ve known each other and a great pleasure to gather yet again around the table at El Meson and keep the stories and laughter flowing.

And so Madrid. A poster in the Plaza Mayor says something to the effect of, “Madrid has no beaches, no river, no astounding architecture, no world-famous historical monuments—why do tourists come here?” And concludes that it is the people, the vibrant energy in the street and the animated chatter of the folks dining for three hours at the open-air cafes and indoor tapas bars. I’m pleased to report that the Spanish tradition of sitting for hours just talking with folks at the table lives on, though I can’t help but note that even the face-to-face social genius of the Spanish is starting to wilt and suffer a bit from the rampant mobile phones. Now a conversation can be—and is—interrupted by a phone call and a lull in the conversation finds people with heads-down checking their text messages.

Madrid is an enormous city and after all these years, I recognize each of its neighborhoods, but couldn’t easily guide you from one to another. It recently constructed four skyscrapers that earn their name, standing out so arrogantly on the flat plain scraping the sky, the cousin of the Rincon Tower in San Francisco that still make me mad every time I see it. I have little routines in Madrid— a stroll in Plaza Mayor, usually stopping in the store where I replenish the Spanish berets (gorras) I keep losing, a trip to the CD store Finac, occasionally a re-visit to the Prado Museum or walk in Parque Retiro. And most important of all, eating some pimientos de padrón.

This dish from Galicia is both a culinary delight and a game of Russian Roulette. These tiny peppers, cooked in oil and salted just right, are mostly mild. But in every batch, there hides one or two (or occasionally more) truly hot “picante” peppers, one of which once sent me away from the table and walking around for 20 minutes trying to outrun the pain on my tongue. In my last dinner in Madrid on this trip, I finally found a restaurant that served them. They were delicious. And every one of them mild, making me feel both relieved and cheated.

It was also amazing to be in this tapas bar without a single person smoking and no cigarette butts below the bar. This is simply a miracle. That one can go into a Madrid tapas bar or flamenco club or jazz club (or equally, go into a pub in Ireland, Scotland or England) with no smoke is something no one could have imagined a mere ten years ago. This is living proof of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory. That an idea could gather so much momentum and power that it completely turned around a smoking habit so ingrained in these cultures is simply extraordinary. If it could happen with smoking, why not with racism, corporate greed, harmful educational policies? Why did the smoking thing so completely convince whole cultures to change their ways? What was the secret of that success? This could be worthy of a study on the off chance that we can apply its secrets to things that cause even more harm than cigarettes.

Speaking of which, we had to take a different route to the airport because there was a demonstration in Madrid that closed some streets. Sofia began explaining the phenomena of “Los Indignados,” people inspired by a little book written by a German author to express their indignation at business-as-usual politics, corruption, greed and more. Though I have to both read the book and follow the movement to say something intelligent about it, the general idea appealed to me greatly. Haven’t I been outraged by certain actions in my little community and spoken out against them? Yes, I have.

I was in Spain at the outbreak of the Iraq War many years back and joined in a demonstration in the streets with people of all ages and classes. I was electrified and inspired by the energy in the air. While so many in the U.S. had shamelessly agreed to “go get ‘em,” fed by the government lies and neither the gumption nor the habit to question, here people were indeed expressing an appropriate indignation. So it didn’t surprise me to hear that Los Indignados had been camping in the Puerta del Sol for months on end to make their voices heard. My kind of people.

As W.H. Auden said, “All I have is my voice to undo the folded lie” and if we don’t use that voice, the lies proceed unchecked. The health of a culture can be measured by the habit of questioning, the courage to speak out and the sense to join voices together. The problem with politics is that while it is vital to speak out against harmful practices, a life spent in reaction to bad things is not yet complete. As well as speaking out against, we must also speak for something, to show and to live the good things. At the same time we undo the folded lie, we also stand for the spoken and felt truth. But good things and truth can be damped down or shut away if citizens are not vigilant and fierce enough to protect them. We need to be savvy in both politics and culture.

So hooray to Madrid for continuing to produce an outspoken citizenry and protect its vibrant culture, to all of Spain for its rich festival life, local character, passionate music, gazpacho, potatas bravas and pimientos de padrón. From the arid plains and hot sun, I’m heading back to the wet fog, rolling San Francisco hills and the waters of the Pacific.

It was some six weeks ago that I began the drive across the wide open spaces of the West, hiked the wooded paths of the Grand Tetons and stopped at Mt. Rushmore and the Corn Palace, arrived at sunsets over Lake Michigan and daily swims in the back lake, roamed through the streets of Verona enjoying sidewalk cafes and open-air opera, walked through the cobbled streets of Salzburg with SF School students and biked through the lush, green fields, bought the piano music of Federico Mompou in a Madrid music store, heard flamenco and ate pimientos de padrón. All the while sharing with some 800 teachers from around the world the little piece of good things that I have found in this endlessly delightful approach to teaching music, bringing people together and celebrating life that the Orff Schulwerk can be 

It has been a glorious, intense and gratifying time. Here in the Newark Airport, some 15 minutes from the New Jersey home of my childhood, I await the next plane to take me back to my beloved San Francisco, my home of homes.

And of course, the next Orff Course begins on Monday. Olé!

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