You Will Take This Mini Road Trip: Microstates Edition

Dashing through Liechtenstein, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino in a MINI Cooper, listening to the Immaculate Collection and eating gummy bears on a week-long race to catch a flight to Malta is a great idea that you have had and now you have to follow through because you have told everybody you are doing it.

Dashing through Liechtenstein, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino in a MINI Cooper, listening to the Immaculate Collection and eating gummy bears on a week-long race to catch a flight to Malta is a great idea that you have had and now you have to follow through because you have told everybody that you are doing it. 

You need:

– One (1) MINI Cooper, preferably red. Preferably.

– One (1) GPS thing.

– Zero (0) paper maps because see above.

– One (1) non-refundable, non-changeable airplane ticket to Malta, per person.

– One (1) pretty hefty rental deposit forfeited if you bring back the car late.

Your red (!) MINI comes with an American sorority girl-voiced GPS which you promptly name ‘Heather’. She has a little bit of vocal fry and can’t really pronounce foreign things but she doesn’t care. She plows through de-vowelled Slavic words with the careless confidence of, well, an American college girl. Which is actually why you call her Heather, because of that one time that you met an American exchange student who said she was “fluent” in Spanish but she spoke it like a Minion, and her name was Heather.

ANYWAY. The MINI Cooper has no booth space really but you don’t need booth space because you are sophisticated and unencumbered by practicality. Heather guides you out of the city and you nip through rush hour traffic and towards Liechtenstein without any bloodshed. You are in a red MINI Cooper and you all look so cool, cruising in your red MINI Cooper among everybody else in their boring cars and shrieking to ‘Chandelier’ in your MINI Cooper which is red.

Congratulations, you have made it to the Austrian border! You stop to buy that highway vignette sticker and you stick it on the windshield and suddenly the car won’t start. It just sits there blinking like a moron. It leaves you stranded there on the side of fucking nowhere and you swear like a movie prostitute and you try to open the bonnet, which takes you twenty minutes because nothing in this ridiculous car is intuitive. Nothing. The warning light flashing on the dashboard is designed by an abstract expressionist, so there is no human way to interpret what is wrong. Is the car hot? Is the car thirsty? Who knows?

You hate the hateful MINI Cooper.

You swallow the remnants of gay pride still held among the car occupants and you phone your closest heterosexual male friend, literally begging for advice. No, it’s not the petrol (I mean, honestly). Yes, you guess it could be the oil. No, you don’t understand the blinking light. Can he come over to Austria and have a look? (He can’t.)

And then someone touches something and the engine starts again for no fathomable reason and you floor it just in case it fails again. You have wasted a lot of time and you are now resentful and fearful of the MINI Cooper in equal measure.

Congratulations, you have made it to Liechtenstein! It is very wet and it looks as if a fistful of houses had been dropped on a  Swiss valley, which is basically Liechtenstein. You drive through Vaduz in a nanosecond. You blink and you miss the castle (there’s a castle). You take the stupid MINI Cooper up the hills and you park it where Heather tells you. You eat horse for dinner.

It’s the morning after, and you wake up to a gorgeous green and grey view of the Alps outside your window. You are refreshed and in a wonderful mood as you zoom across Switzerland on your way to Andorra, and just as the memory of the previous day’s technological meltdown starts to fade, Heather begins to display an abyss of pure nothingness where France should be.

Your GPS has deleted France.

You get completely lost in France. It rains furiously and you cannot find the highway. The back windshield wiper stops working. You run out of gummy bears. You would cry but you are the only one in the car who can speak French and you have to keep your shit together and ask for directions from people with regional accents.

But zipping through the French mountains in the MINI is a beautiful sensory experience, so it doesn’t matter so much that you don’t know where you are, that you may be driving backwards towards Estonia for all you know, and you have added like four extra hours of driving time by the time you make it to your night stop in Montpellier, and when you crash the car against a roundabout curb it doesn’t even leave a mark, so there may be a God after all, albeit one that clearly dislikes you.

Congratulations, you have made it to Andorra! Andorra is the best. It feels like home to you (because you are a Spaniard) with everyone speaking Spanish and street signs in Catalan and everyone being from across the border. Heather comes alive again, splendidly versed in Andorra’s every nook and cranny. She doesn’t know what Paris is, but she will find you every parking lot in Andorra La Vella. You will take what you can get. Also you will buy blue swimming trunks because you have forgotten yours back home and there is no sales tax in Andorra.

You back up through the Côte d’Azur and onto Monaco, listening to Madonna. Congratulations, you have made it to Monaco! Monaco is ridiculous but also nice — essentially if you can imagine a tacky monstrosity that’s also somewhat understated at the same time, that’s Monaco. You eat burgers by the bay at night.

The next day you are off to San Marino and it becomes your favourite part of the trip, down the Italian Riviera through Sanremo and across the bootstraps onto the Oldest Republic In The World. Congratulations, you have made it to San Marino! It’s all castles and peaks and more tightly wound roads, and you will have the best of times with the Italian language and counting cinquecenti and eating pizza and piadine for two days until it’s time to go. You will not want to go.

Heather is in a good mood and freestyles her way back up Austria, driving you head-first into Germany and a colossal traffic jam. Fuck you, Heather, you say with a mouthful of gummy bears. Heather doesn’t listen. Heather doesn’t care.

You make it home just in time to return the car, have a shower, a sleep, and hop onto the flight to Malta.

You will miss the red MINI Cooper. You will think of Heather. You will occasionally wonder who has got them both now, what other major European countries she has wiped off the map.

It will take you ages to burn off the gummy bears.

Three Things You Need To Know About Paige

I got to photograph writer Paige M. J. Erickson for her upcoming novel, This Magnificent Fear. This was my favourite kind of photo shoot– she was a great sport, as versatile as a photography subject as she is as a writer; and we spent most of the session laughing, talking and bouncing thoughts off each other.

“I write in the hope that you will also see the strangers who surround you, and offer them a merciful view.” (Paige M. J. Erickson)

I got to photograph writer Paige M. J. Erickson for her upcoming novel, This Magnificent Fear. This was my favourite kind of photo shoot– she was a great sport, as versatile as a photography subject as she is as a writer; and we spent most of the session laughing, talking and bouncing thoughts off each other.

There are three things you need to know about Paige:

1.- She is a master of the nonfiction travel micro-story. A good pop song works its magic in three minutes, give or take — and so do Paige’s four-paragraph vignettes of Central European city corners, Balkan bus rides, and her ongoing love affair with Istanbul.

2.- She is the author of one of my favourite internet things of all time. I love, love re-reading it every once in a while, and I smile without fail.

3.- Her stories are published thrice-weekly at The Nice Thing About Strangers.

Go explore.

A (Mini) Love Story

Have I ever been in love? Yes. I have been in love three times in 34 years, and also maybe more, and once I may have been in love with a very small car.

Have I ever been in love? Yes.

How many times have I been in love? Maybe three, and maybe more.

The truth is that it depends on what we talk about when we talk about love. it’s not that the question has no answer, it’s that it has infinite ones depending on how the light hits it. I have been in love three times in 34 years, and also maybe more, and once I may have been in love with a very small car.

It was a cream-coloured Morris Mini 1000 that belonged to my mother. When she was a single girl in the late 1960s she would use it to dart around Madrid and when she married my father it ended up plonked on our street in Almagro. On my favourite Sundays I went down with a big bucket of soapy water and washed it. They let me sit inside and needed moderate to severe threats to get me out.

It had black race stripes on the bonnet and yellow fog lights in the front grille. On the back, my mother had added a Playboy bunny sticker (when we were old enough to ask her about it she looked aghast for a few seconds. She had no idea it was a Playboy bunny; she just thought it looked cute. “Although that explains a few things”, she trailed off in a half-whisper).  It looked so cute and tiny and so bad at the same time with its accidental porn sticker and there was no other car exactly like it anywhere else in the world.

My brothers didn’t seem to care very much about it; they liked big cars, sporty cars, and this one looked like a toy; if asked, my father would occasionally say he loved the way it drove (I am told by those who know that the classic Minis moved like insanely fun go-karts) but otherwise ignored it; even my mother didn’t seem to pay it much attention. I often asked her questions about it and she always responded fondly but unattached. She didn’t drive it for years. I think for her it was just, well, a car she was happy to have owned once upon a time, in a different lifetime when she took care of hundreds of people aboard DC-10s rather than three noisy boys and a husband at home. But just as I loved the little flakes of that other lifetime of hers casually falling off her daily conversation — talking about theatres in Manhattan and earthquakes in Mexico while we peeled potatoes for dinner — I also loved her Mini, our Mini, and I don’t think I have ever truly moved on.

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 6.11.39 PMMy working definition of love involves forests and trees. Specifically, one particular pine tree in a garden back in the village, to which I kept coming back day in, day out, for a long time. It was a bit secluded and surrounded by a tiny sort of moat that filled up when it rained, and one day when I was maybe seven I found it and decided it was going to be my tree. And to my tree I went nearly every day I spent in the village, sometimes in the morning, sometimes after lunch when the Castilian summer heat was deadly and everyone was having a siesta, just to read or to listen to music, or to daydream and imagine things.

So I saw that tree, and because I saw it, I loved it. And because I loved it, I cannot unsee it. It will remain seen, by me and others like me who love it, amidst the rest of the garden, which I liked but didn’t love. To love is to see. To love is to distinguish, to bracket, someone or something, and hail them — and then if they respond you’re happy.

And so to me our Mini wasn’t a car, but more like a family pet. I would greet it every day on my way to school, and again on my way back, and I made it a rule of sorts that if I crossed paths with another Mini on the streets it would be a very good and lucky day. If I was with my parents and we were heading in the opposite direction, I made them wait while I run to it to say hello; it seemed rude not to. Like the object of love, I forgave it for everything — for the black seats that would get so hot in summer that the flesh would melt off your thighs; for the cramps and contortions from fitting a family of five; for the noise; for how messy it always seemed to be — but I couldn’t forgive it for leaving. And if that’s not love, then I don’t know what love is.

We took it to the village and parked it in the courtyard, and there it stayed among the much bigger cars of the neighbours, and still I washed it when I could and I greeted it always, and it never moved from its spot and it slowly got rusty. Minis, I am told, die of rust. Ours, I am told, had practically dissolved by the end, when my parents had it shipped off in the back of a flatbed truck because it was in such poor shape it couldn’t even be driven to the scrapyard. I was at school in Norway and when they told me about it during our fortnightly phone call I said that I understood, and I did, and that it was the only thing to do, and it was. Afterwards I went to my bed and cried. And cried, and cried, for a car I had never driven, and I would never drive; for a car like no other, that I had loved like no other seemed to have.

I told my roommates I was crying because I was homesick.

That summer, my mother told me the scrapyard paid them 5000 pesetas. Thirty euros, give or take. She looked mortified. She had grown to see it as my car, she said, because of how much I had loved it over the years. That made me happy, knowing that at least emotionally it had been passed on to me.

But I never gave it a name. It was a fucking car.

Aranjuez, or Adventures With ABBA On Vinyl

Aranjuez is a village less than an hour south of Madrid, where old-age Spanish royals kept summer palaces and people grew strawberries and asparagus. I know it as the place where things from my childhood go to die.

My family has a summer / weekend place in the centre of town, where my mother grew up. On Friday evenings we loaded my father’s car with more things any family of five could possibly make use of for a fortnight, let alone a couple of days, and dashed off down the highway around the Vicente Calderón football stadium, zig-zagging along the Tajo river with baskets between our legs. And all the way I would listen to my walkman — always a worn, beaten ABBA cassette clinging to structural integrity by the thinnest of threads.

In a remarkably short time even for an 11-year old gay boy, I had made my family so nauseously sick of ABBA that I was only allowed to listen to them through headphones. At low volume. Preferably inside a vault.

I didn’t mind because I was always wearing headphones and listening to ABBA. I listened to many other things, but ABBA made me the happiest by far, and so I kept coming back to them. And for many years I didn’t know why, because these were times well before that awful Mamma Mia film and nobody was playing their music anywhere. I only really found out about them because I used to hide from the world in record stores and once I went into the VIPS store in Serrano and they were playing Take A Chance On Me, and it was the most joyful thing I had ever heard; I was too shy to speak to a salesperson so I just meandered through the aisles pretending to browse for CDs and listening to half of what turned out to be their greatest hits compilation. And because this was 1992 and I was eleven and I had no money, I had to wait for months until Christmas rolled around to get my first ABBA record.

IMG_1365
Not these. These are fridge magnets.

Now I know why ABBA shut out the bad noise from outside better than anything else. When I was younger I was sad nearly all the time and all the edges were rough and jagged, and at the end of each day I would take a deep breath and while in bed, or while taking the dog for a walk, I would put on my headphones and listen to four Swedes, one Norwegian-born, and so many times it felt like it was the only thing I had that was right. I daydreamed of a life with lines that were smooth and simple, with soft waves instead of edges, and there you go — that’s (Almost) Every ABBA Song. Even towards the end when they got introspective and cranky at each other and wrote songs about murder.

For years, every time I would pass by a record store I would go in and search for old ABBA records. I was luckiest at flea markets, and after my parents got me a turntable one year for Christmas, the only vinyls I ever bought were theirs. I had a few really old singles – a copy of Knowing Me, Knowing You that I found in Paris and I had to hide from my mother because the sleeve looked so beat up and dirty she would have made me throw it away on family health grounds. My favourite was an original copy of their 1975 album, which in an astonishing display of creativity they have titled ABBA and which had the old cursive band logo before they did the bit with the inverted B.

Which leads me to Aranjuez. Where things from my childhood go to die. My stories always have a point.

My parents, like most parents out there, appear to suffer from a sort of crippling, neurotic guilt about disposing of their kids’ stuff when they move out. It’s just stuff taking up a lot of space! goes the head; it’s the delicate, caducous life force of our bond of love! says the heart, and in the confusion they end up throwing your stuffed bear into an incinerator and holding on to your old vaccine records. My folks have found the perfect way to deal with the fate of childhood mementos in four magic words:

“It is in Aranjuez.”

Your guitar which you played since you were five until you left the country is in Aranjuez. Your old books which you bought with your pocket money are in Aranjuez. Your stuffed bear was thrown into an incinerator but your vinyls are in Aranjuez.

I haven’t been to their summer place in many years, but last time I was there I could swear I saw none of those things. Between you and I, I don’t think they are in Aranjuez at all. In fairness, they may be – my parents have an astonishing, Harry Potter-like ability to manifest long-lost items no other mortal would be capable of even conceiving (It’s just that they are almost always very odd things to keep, such as last time when they handed me my old psychological evaluations from primary school and I really should have never read those).

Anyway. Better not to dig too deep into Aranjuez and all it represents. Now I am an adult and I am having a great time roaming for ABBA vinyls once again. Some things just aren’t meant to be listened to in digital.

Yesterday I went to the record store to pick a copy of The Visitors. Their best album, as an album. The man at the counter pointed at the box set with all nine studio albums on vinyl. It’s much cheaper, he said, and easier. I said I wanted to buy them one by one, bit by bit, like I did when I was little – and I thought, back when edges were jagged and I saved all my pocket money for soft waves.

He smiled, handed me my record, and said, “That’s the best way to do it.”

The Stranger

©g.torres

“In the midst of winter, I found there was within me an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there is something stronger -something better, pushing right back”

Albert Camus, L’Étranger

So I Think

© g.torres

I think there are too many people in art school.

I think I waste too much time looking at art, listening to art and talking about art. I invest too much time in art. There’s too much art.

I think everyone who wants to ever amount to anything should go to business school.

I don’t watch enough television. There are far too few social networks and I don’t upload enough information to them, and when I do I retain too many privacy rights.

I haven’t done enough yet to expand the power base of corporations the world over.

I think, as a rule, people should work more hours for less money and not have so much free time.

Too many people have too much healthcare.

I need to focus on what matters.

Continue reading “So I Think”