I just linked up with a really cool travel website called Matador Network. They are featuring my illustration piece, "The Differences Between Spain and The United States," right now, and you can check those out here.
Sometime after I finished college, a borrowed paperback of Dharma Bums turned me into a Beatnik junkie. It sent me on a literary scavenger hunt through San Francisco. If Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac so much as sneezed somewhere, I wanted to find it.
I think deep down, I thought these spots were magical, though it sounds crazy to write those words down now.
I don't really smoke weed anymore, so consequentially, I don't think these spots are actually magical now. But I do think there's something special about the space that an artist inhabited, whether its Elvis' Graceland, or John Steinbeck's Salinas. You get to see and connect with that physical space that shaped their world view (and in turn, that book that you love to curl up with).
As someone who loves these spaces, I'm always sad to see one go. And right now, one is in danger: the house of author and social critic James Baldwin, which a real estate firm wants to convert into a lot of 18 high-end condominiums. Not only would it erase a beautiful relic of French and American literature, it would also rob us of the chance to get to know Baldwin better, to see - and connect with - the house and town that he loved, as he saw it.
Check out my Vice article about the house of James Baldwin in Saint Paul de Vence, and why it would be such a tragedy to lose it. You can find that here.
The election was over. I was laying in bed, woken up by morning talkers and footsteps outside my Malasaña window. I rolled over to check the news on my phone, but then I thought twice. I didn't know the results of the election yet and I didn't want to know.
My head tucked deep into my pillow, I projected the coming day on the white ceiling above me. I saw two paths. One would make me breath a sigh of relief.
I had no idea what the other would feel like. I decided to believe that Hillary Clinton was going to be president in that moment - not because I knew it to be true.
I just didn't have to work that day and wanted to sleep in till noon.
I started to drift off, when my girlfriend rolled over and said: "Trump is winning." Then she went back to sleep.
I couldn't go back to sleep because I was scared. Not just for my country - but yeah, that was part of it. Admittedly, my worries were more selfish: how was it going to affect me as an American abroad? Because no matter your political affiliation, being an American abroad has taken on a whole new meaning.
If I was anonymous - just some dude at a hostel - I could tell people I'm Canadian. The two accents aren't so different. I've met people in Vancouver who sound like they are from California. I would probably get away with it.
But my life isn't transient here in Spain. I work at a school. My job depends on my being American. It is part of my identity here, even part of my job. At work I'm American Matt, all knoweth ambassador from the land of Golden State warriors, the Statue of Liberty, and cheese burgers.
It's not that I'm ashamed of my Americanism. Sure, I disagree with half the voters in my country, but that's democracy for you. It's just hard to have your country's problems on the tip of the world's tongue.
At first, I tried to shirk my cross-cultural responsibilities. One of my teachers put me on the spot in front of a bunch of 5th graders - "So, Trump, huh?" I just ignored her and started playing hangman on the chalkboard. Grieving publicly in front of a bunch of children was not something I was ready for.
But since then, I've had no choice but to accept my role as American ambassador. And not just with the kids at my school either. I have two checklists of European friends in my head: the ones I've talked to about the election, and the ones I haven't seen yet.
I don't have many answers to the big questions, and I've been asked them all. Hilariously, some people just ask me, "What is going on in America," as if I knew. Guys, I'm a San Francisco liberal, who has lived in Spain for the last year, and actually believes what he reads in The New York Times. If metropolitan American millennials had their heads in the clouds, I was somewhere on Mars when I heard the news.
But I couldn't stay on the red planet long.
I was pulled back down to Earth by political discussions over brunch with Spanish friends. By late night, drunken arguments with Italians. The gym teacher I only see in the coffee line at work even gave me his two cents.
My roommates, the guys I teach business English to, my Spanish tutor; since the election news broke, everyone has an opinion about Trump. Some tell me it will good for Europe to have an American isolationist in office. Others can barely say his name, like he's Lord Voldemort or something. Some think its America's turn to have an asshole in office. Others just say, "I'm so sorry."
Whatever they say - whether I agree with them or not - it's difficult to have Trump be a topic of small talk.
But as an American abroad - whether I like it or not - that's apart of my identity now too.
Recently I wrote an article for Vice about watching the election from Spain. I spoke with a bunch of Republicans living here in Madrid. In a phone interview, one girl told me it was rough being a Republican in Spain. She found most Europeans to be liberal, and because of that, she usually just kept her opinions to herself.
She said it was easier that way.
I interviewed those expats because I wanted to understand what it felt like to have your political affiliations under a microscope.
I never thought I'd be combing those interview notes for coping mechanisms.
I'm starting to cut my teeth at hard news again, first time in years! Had to work out a few kinks - some in my reporting, and some in my back - but I'm happy with the way my new Vice article came out!
The article is about watching the US election from Madrid, but it's also about the power that expat voters possess (did you know there are 2.9 million of us?). With as many as ten hotly contested senate seats, this massive group could change the course of the election!
If only there was a way to know how they were going to vote!
You can check that out here:
I have some more stuff coming down the pipeline too, so stay tuned!
My girlfriend speaks very good Spanish, a skill that has very few downsides. Besides it being a trusty survival tool - for those that don't know me, we live in Madrid, Spain - speaking Spanish enriches her life in many other ways. She can speak to 427 million more people than those who only speak english. She can watch Almodovar movies without the subtitles or read Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
There is only one downside that I can see: her boyfriend is a non Spanish-speaking freelance journalist.
If we were living in the United States, this would not be a problem. I could interview most anybody with professionalism, extract pertinent truths and subtle insights, all the while juggling the article's fragile narrative.
In Spain however, I'm like a baby with a tape recorder.
Still, I've found my way around the pacifier, mostly by looking for sources that speak english. Sometimes, however, a Spanish speaking source is just to good to pass up.
Just such a scenario happened recently. I had been working on a story for almost seven months, and after a few shots in the dark, I was able to get in contact with a very good source.
There were two caveats to this good news: one, he wanted to conduct the interview in Spanish. Two, he lived in the ancient port city of Cadiz, about a four and a half hour train ride from my home in Spain's capital.
If interviewing someone in Spanish is difficult, doing it over the phone is Mt. Everest.
Which is why I was standing over my girlfriend on a Sunday morning. She was wrapped from her head to toes in white sheets, so calm and innocent, only her face exposed like a nun.
I, of course, was trying to bribe that saintly figure with coffee and bylines.
She sleepily conducted the Skype interview like a seasoned perodista, me hovering over her helplessly like a medical intern observing a surgery. If I thought I understood Spanish ok before the interview, the rapid-fire monologue squawking out of my laptop speakers made me think different.
When the interview was over, we both breathed a sigh of relief.
But as anyone who has conducted an interview before knows, we weren't out of the woods yet: the recording still needed to be transcribed. She might have been ready to topple this beastly chore had she had a proper night sleep.
So we did all the stuff Americans do when they procrastinate. We went shopping, ate ice-cream, drank beer in the sun.
But eventually the sun waned. Like the monster in "Stranger Things," the interview had to be confronted. This time I bribed her with iced coffee, which was just the coffee from this morning, chilled in the refrigerator and garnished with ice-cubes.
But when I hit play on my phone and played the recorded interview, the flurry of words that spilled out were too fast to comprehend.
We spent almost an hour trying to slow it down to an audible speed. We tried Garage Band, and QuickTime; no luck. As a last ditch effort, I put the recording into Traktor, a DJ program for filling dance floors, not editing a journalistic conversation.
Amazingly, it worked! Sometimes the wrong tool is just the fix you need.
It wasn't without its quirks however.
While slowing it down made his words mostly comprehendible, it also had an unintended side-effect: dropping the pitch of his voice like a lean fueled, Texas hip-hop track.
That and every-time she missed something - even with the slower speed, this happened often - and we had to rewind the track, a digital, vinyl scratch would screech, as if Dj Khaled were on the beat.
Sounds cool when you are remixing a Drake song - not so cool for our purposes. The fact that she went through that cacophony for me was pretty touching.
Some want their partners to make dinner for them, and some want flowers. Others want to be serenaded by guitar and to be taken on extravagant, tropical get-aways.
But you know are a journalist when you are romanced by an interview transcription.
If you liked what you read, check out my last post about finding a Piso in Madrid!
I'm sipping coffee on the couch, the setting sun spilling into room like orange juice on the floor.
The coffee is to wake me up from a light siesta, brought on by someone playing guitar in the plaza below.
Unfortunately, I wasn't napping out of relaxation. In fact, the couch, the balcony, the soft roar of people drinking and eating in the plaza below. None of that is mine.
I'm just crashing with a friend.
I was napping out of exhaustion from looking for a balcony to call my own.
I've found a few, but not all of them fit perfectly into my day-dream.
At one apartment, me and about fifteen other piso hunters - piso is spanish for flat - were crowded around one such balcony. Unfortunately, instead of opening up to a bustling, Spanish plaza, down below lay...well, a dump.
Me and another dude looked out at the plastic bottles and broken furniture below, still considering it as an option.
It's amazing what you can justify if its a good location.
But that was early in the hunt, the first place I saw. I was six days younger then, a lifetime in the piso search. At night, I used to dream of friends, puppies, and the occasional zombie apocolypse.
Now I dream of big living rooms and close metros, and my nightmares consist of roommates who put empty containers back in the refrigerator.
When I meet someone, I don't care about the normal stuff anymore, where they work or what kind of music they like. I just want to know how much their deposit was, and how far they have to walk for the nearest grocery store.
I was in a friend's room the other day, head cocked and chin held in deep thought, not listening to a word anyone was saying. I was just calculating square meters against the price of the room.
The friend noticed and decided to give me a tour (the bathroom was a little small, but the big bedroom windows let in a ton of natural light).
It occupies the totality of my mind, not just because I must have a roof over my head. Looking for a place to live isn't just about survival.
It's much more subconscious than that, more like a hippy-dippy, vision board than a straight-forward shopping list. Do I see myself writing my novel at that desk, or having an afternoon coffee with that roommate.
With piso hunting, there is the reality and there is the dream. Some things are non-negotiable, and some you can budge on.
But a place that feels right - in that new-aged,intangible way - is worth waiting for.
And at least I have a balcony to nap by in the mean time.
If you like what you read, check out this illustrated list of the differences between Spain and the United States. You can see that here.
When I got home from a long day at work, my roommates were in costume, Chris as a bumble bee, and Jason a mismatch of overall-shorts, pink shirt and farmers hat.
It was not halloween.
I remember Jason being in a makeshift dress for some reason. But when I asked Chris, he said cowboy for sure.
In defense of my memory, Jason's past pranks often had him wearing dresses. That just didn't happen to be true of this particular prank involving a lost I-phone, which Jason and Chris were to get back to some poor, unfortunate soul.
'Something tells me theres a catch,' I thought, as Chris stood there in his bee outfit.
The catch was in the details. They were going to get the phone back to the owner, that much was clear. But after all that work, didn't they deserve a little compensation?
Jason nodded his head in agreement.
"Ok, so you are ransoming their iPhone," I asked.
I didn't even ask how the costumes fit in to their scheme.
Jason then handed me a long list of demands. I looked down at the list: on the list was a 12 pack of Sierra Nevada, a pineapple pizza, and much, much more.
The fact that I can't remember all the items on this list will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I also can't remember if Chris handed me the creepy, felt penguin costume, or if I insisted that I wear it. I'd like to say it was the former, but it was most likely the latter.
I went into my room and I put it on over my work clothes. It covered my whole body, including my face.
Jason was very pleased with how creepy I looked.
I wish I could have been in that car when the iphone owner pulled up. Can you imagine what was going through their heads when they parked in front of a dark house on 48th avenue, surrounded by a man in a bumble bee costume and a metro-sexual cowboy.
Not to mention the scary penguin staring down from the upstairs window.
They got a story, we got a pizza.
When I first moved in with them, I thought Chris was behind these silly pranks. But after watching and participating in a couple, I started to notice that behind everyone of Chris' pranks was Jason's quiet smirk.
As I watched his pranks develop further, I started to notice something else about Jason. For every joke he played, a good deed would follow. One night he was holding a girls iphone ransom, and the next, he was picking me up from the hospital.
He even woke me up when a fire somehow caught on our back porch, which was located right next to my room.
It is actually within the realm of possibility that Jason Zumbo saved my life.
Some jokes make you laugh in the moment, but you forget the punchline later on. Others you don't get until later, maybe in bed or if they are really good, in the shower the next morning.
But I think I will be figuring out Jason Zumbo's jokes for the rest of my life.
Whether or not I ever get the punchline, one thing is for sure.
San Francisco just got a lot less funny.
My girlfriend waved goodbye as the escalator pulled her upwards until she disappeared into the Madrid terminal. I felt my jeans for a tissue, finding nothing but a boarding pass and an expired Spanish visa.
While tears in your passport are much more valuable than stamps, the crying had to stop before airport security. I wasn't out of Spain yet, and communicating in Spanish to scary guards is rough, even without sobs and a runny nose.
The next thirteen hours would be a transition, from one country to another. I spent the last nine months in Spain learning a new language and culture. Now I had to relearn the old habits, which were packed away in my mind like dusty boxes in an attic.
As I stood in line at security, an elderly Spanish couple snuck-up behind me and cut me in line. The American in me was highly offended, which gave me hope. If I was pissed about being cut in airport security, than I was remembering my cultural heritage faster than I thought I would.
In the United States, it doesn't matter if you are waiting for a punch in the face, the line is a sacred ritual, and your spot hotly coveted.
Spain's version of the line is less rigid, leaving wiggle room for advancement. Cutting seems to be acceptable as long as it's done with absent-minded intention: walk up, avoid eye contact, and take a quiet step ahead of your competition.
I would have said something, but they had executed the maneuver perfectly, leaving me no choice but to congratulate them on their seamless technique.
I walked through the rope labyrinth, put my bag on the conveyor belt, and walked through the arched x-ray. The Spanish couple waited anxiously at the conveyor belt a couple feet ahead of me.
We had gotten off on the wrong foot, but if anything was going to bring us together, it was the anxiety of getting in trouble for not putting our toothpaste into clear, plastic bags.
We watched our luggage closely, as if staring could change the outcome, our suitcases rolling through the rubber streamers like a drive-through car wash.
Mine emerged fine. Theirs were not so lucky.
They watched in horror as a tiny metal arm appeared, like something out of a science fiction novel, pushing their bags into the hands of a uniformed woman.
I did what anyone would do in that situation. I took my things out of my blue bin, happy it wasn't me. The uniformed woman was yelling at the old Spanish couple,'Is this your bag? Is this your bag?' They stared back at them blankly.
I knew that look.
I wore it on my face daily; at the bank, at the super market, on the subway. Recognizing that look was as easy as spotting my reflection.
Or maybe that's just what you get for doing cutsies.
I found my seat in coach next to two Americans. It was an aisle seat, which - besides worst case scenarios - carries more responsibility than sitting by the emergency exit. You are the gatekeeper between the stranger in seat 'B' and...well, pretty much everything: bathroom breaks, stretching, etc.
I could give access or take it away, making me the coach equivalent to president of a three seat America.
We hit the sky, and soon into the flight, my constituents turned on their TVs and started shoving food into their mouths. Just fork to mouth, fork to mouth, repeat.
It was disgusting, sure. Crumbs flying, lips smacking, blank eyes staring deep into tiny screens, as if they contained juicy secrets.
But if I'm being honest, I was happy with this vulgar display. It validated me. After a long day of speaking Spanish, I would often look forward to going home and eating my dinner in front of the computer.
Shovel, watch Netflix, repeat.
While lobbing food into your face is a pleasurable activity, for the viewer it's fairly disturbing. The chewing sound alone was enough to make me want to revoke their cabin rights for at least an hour.
Still, it alleviated some of my eating shame. I didn't personally have bad table manners.
I was just being American.
High in the sky, some where over the Atlantic, I started to regret my choice of cut-off shorts.
The cabin seemed to be a few degrees above a well-stocked, industrial refrigerator, and on top of that, my personal air vent was blasting a steady, arctic stream across my exposed thighs.
So I asked the American to my left,"Hey man, is my air conditioning on?"
The man stopped shoveling his food for a second and peaked up at the panel and then back at me.
"Nah man, yours isn't on." The shoveling commenced a second after the sentence left his lips.
"Ah, well it's super cold in here..." I continued.
He sighed and looked at me like I was asking him to do my taxes, reached up to his vent and moved it slightly.
"Since yours isn't on, I went ahead and moved my vent a little bit so it isn't hitting you so much."
Then he commenced shoveling.
Private property is everything in a three seat America.
When I got off the plane, I ran into the Americans again after passport control.
"We have to stop running into each other like this," they said.
'I feel like that's going to be impossible, at least for the next two months,' I thought to myself.
Be sure to check out my last post, an ongoing series of illustrations depicting the differences of Spain and the United States. You can check that out here.
Check back often for more travel musings, burrito reviews, and attempted honesty.
Writing is kind of like a game of telephone. Things get lost in the process, meanings misinterpreted. In Stephen King's book "On Writing," he asked the reader, "What is writing? Writing is telepathy." If that's true, it makes since that your original intentions sometimes turn into purple-monkey-dishwasher.
Last week, my column got a lot of attention from various communities in Spain; American expats, Spanish locals, etc. I've been getting a lot of feedback about the piece, and the more I hear about it, the more I realize that something got lost in translation between my keyboard and some readers.
If you didn't see the piece, it was an illustration essay about the differences between Spain and America. Most of the comments were appreciative, but there was a sizable group that thought I was complaining about Spain.
Which was not what I was trying to do at all.
It’s fitting that the word alien gets thrown around when talking about immigrants. Because the truth is, in navigating another culture, it’s pretty easy to feel like a big green Martian. Things you think are universal get flipped, and the second you think you get it, a new confusion arises.
I get it. That’s just travel.
And truthfully, many of those differences are the reasons that so many Americans and I can’t seem to leave Spain. I like café con leche and canas. I like mixing eating and partying, and that clubs don’t close at 2 am. I like inexpensive doctors and high-speed trains.
Still, as good as things are, I still miss things from home, the good and the bad. I miss silly Bay Area slang like “cutty,” hearing Drake blasting from passing cars, and walking into literally any bar and buying an IPA.
It doesn’t mean that I need to embrace the culture here anymore than I have. It doesn’t mean that I expect everywhere around the world to be like America.
It doesn’t even mean that the stuff back home is any better (though I will never concede that a Madrid Burrito is better than California one).
It just means I know where I come from. As long that doesn’t close me off from experiencing Spain, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
That would be the end of the column except for we are missing a vital character in this plot: the local people. Wherever you’re a foreigner, whether it’s bustling Beijing or beautiful Paris, your cultural comparisons impact the locals, whether you were just venting or not.
Back in San Francisco, I used to get so irritated with visiting New Yorkers; all they could talk about was the Big Apple! That was so crazy to me! Why not learn about a new place instead of comparing it to a place you already know and love?
But I get it now. I don’t think they compared everything to home because they thought it was better.
Maybe that was just their way of taking things in.
Tune in every Friday for more missed connections and thoughtful, cultural ramblings.
: Cultura (N)
A couple years ago I spent two months backpacking around Europe. About halfway through the trip, I met some friends in Biarritz, an Atlantic beach town in the south of France.
My friends were camping in the sand somewhere outside of town, and I was in a hostel close to the train station. Illegal camping didn't seem like a good idea when they pitched it to me. But it sounded way better when I was hoofing it back to my hostel in the middle of the night.
On that highway, the wind howling around me, I got hit with a strange craving. Maybe it was just habit. Back in the states, after a night of heavy drinking, my friends and I would always eat off our hangover at the local diner.
Or maybe I was homesick.
For whatever reason, as I walked alone on the side of the road, the Atlantic ocean roaring below me, I couldn't hear the waves, or the cars that blew past me. All I could think about was an American diner breakfast; eggs, hashbrowns, unlimited coffee. The works.
Fast forward a couple years later, when I moved to Spain. This time my homesickness emerged with an obsession with Bruce Springsteen. I would walk around Madrid, "Born in the USA" blasting in my headphones, proud that no one on the sidewalk would know or care about the words that I sang.
It didn't matter that the song was satirical, a criticism of America's invasion of Vietnam. It was the chorus that I was interested in, and I sang it without irony, at whatever volume pleased me.
There was something about being in Spain that made me want to capture my Americanism, what ever that was or meant.
It sort of felt like...well, maybe I could explain it with a story like...
Ok, so it's sort of hard to put in words. So I'm going to have to draw out my feelings this time.
Tune in next week for more home sickness, cultural understanding, and expat glee.
Click here for some older musings.
All art and writing done by Matt St. John
If you want to feel super American, check out Sturgil Simpson covering Nirvana here.
EDIT: This post got a lot more attention than I expected, so thanks for reading! That said, I feel that I must mention that many readers are claiming that there is at least one good burrito spot in Madrid and that is Tierra, Burrito Bar. I totally agree too, it's pretty great! Feel free to prove me wrong about other burrito spots in Spain. The way I see it, that's a win-win situation ;).