The Desperate Artist and an Armenian King

Of all the curiosities of the History of Madrid, my favorite by far tells of how this city back in the 14th Century became the capital of Armenia.  That’s right.  That country east of Turkey whose current capital is Erevan, I bet you didn’t know that, was under foreign control back then and its leader, Leon V, was being held prisoner in Palestine.  King of Castile Juan I took pity on him and paid his ransom.  Then he had him brought back to Spain where he granted the fallen leader lordship over three cities, Andújar, Villareal (now Ciudad Real) and Madrid, the last would be his residence and temprary capital.  The year was 1383.  It would be nearly two hundred years before Madrid would even be named capital of Spain and some 620 years before parliament would confirm Madrid as the government center of the nation, but there you had it; an exiled monarch from an ancient but war-torn distant land going into the Madrid’s old city castle and saying, “Thanks, I think I’ll stay here for a while.”

       That, naturally, was not a big hit with the locals.  People like to be conferred with before they let some foreigner take control of their land.  As a rule.  Juan V, realizing that maybe he had overstepped his boundaries as a ruler promised the people of Madrid that the tlittle part about the capital would only be effective while Leon was alive.  Then the city would return to Spanish hands.   Disgruntled but encouraged that it was not a permament change, the residentsput up with the new situation. 

       To be fair, apparently Leon never claimed the throne and did what we could to befriend his new subjects, but he was never entirely accepted, and I imagine few inhabitants invited him for a few beers and tapas down at the local taverns.   A few years later, he departed for Paris and…died…at some point.  The reason for my vagueness is that the sources don’t seem to coincide.  I have, to date: 1390, 1391 and 1393 as possible RIP years. Who knows.  That fact is he is no longer around and his lordship of Madrid appears to have had little lasting effect on the city as there is not an unusually high number of Armenian restaurants here, nor does the local dialect include any Armenian terms for peach or pillow, but there is a street which honors his name in the classic Madrid district of Carabanchel.  Most tourists would not go there if they did no have a reason to go, nor did they normally have a reason.  But if you want to get the feel of a classic working class neighborhood, cross the river and get lost in its endless streets.      

         I wrote that much.  I wrote that much and got that far.  What a way to introduce Carabanchel, by talking about an obscure moment in this city’s history which, though fun to read about, had nothing to do with that part of town.  I used to live in Carabanchel.  Lower Carabanchel, which is not the same as Upper Carabanchel which people from that part claim is the real Carabanchel.  People always bicker over those things as if they really matter.  I guess if I was from Upper Carabanchel it would be matter to me, but since I lived in Lower Carabanchel, I think it’s inane. 

          It’s a sprawling neighborhood which starts on the western banks of the Manzanares River and spreads upward and westward to the edge of the city.  Carabanchel was a great neighborhood to live in.  Modest and vibrant, it is one of Madrid’s oldest an most beloved areas not for its beauty and upscale nature but for its everydayness, the land of the common man, as depicted in numerous movies and books. 

          Carabanchel started out as a separate part of Madrid.  It probably gets its name from the rocky terrain which was ideal for growing chickpeas.  For many centuries, some of Madrid’s wealthy families had land and summer homes there because the climate was cooler.  But it was always considered the outskirts of the capital, which explains why that district has so many cemeteries, the most of any in the city.  I used to live right next to one, walled like the city Jericho.  Recently they have built one of Madrid’s fanciest funeral homes there.  It looks like a hotel, but the kind which evokes the jingle of the famous Roach Motel commercials, “where people check in but they don’t check out.”

         That’s really harsh, isn’t it?  Anyway, Carabanchel grew rapidly in about a hundred years ago, and continued to expand in the years following the Civil War when there was a flight from the country in search of a job and new opportunity in the capital.   Many buildings were thrown up and designed in humble conditions by today’s standards.  The place I lived in for three years had no air-conditioning (ha, ha, ha) and, this was more distressing, no central heating – Madrid can get cold in the winter, I tell you – and we had to share the rent with about 600 cockroaches.  But it was a great neighborhood, I tell you, and I loved it.  I am not sure the feeling was mutual.  I just noticed recently that during those years, precisely the time I was there, Carabanchel suffered a population de cent of massive proportions, going from 240,000 in 1989 to 210,000 in 1995.   That’s a 12.5% drop in six years.  Was it me?

        Back then, it was still mostly lived in by Spaniards.  But since then, there has been a big explosion of immigration, and now they form about 24% of the entire population there making it one of the city’s most culturally diverse districts. 

       I had to take a break from my research.  It had been one of the best summers I could remember but the days still cooked up by late afternoon, afternoon when it was late, and late it was afternoon.  I called Scott to see if he finally had a chance to get together.  It seemed ridiculous that so many weeks had gone by and we still hadn’t had a chance to get together, but that always seem to happen.  People I know always come to Madrid for weeks on end and we make all sorts of promises that never materialize.  Maybe they should stay for shorter periods of time. 

         The phone hadn’t even rung before the line was interrupted saying the phone was turned off and that I should try again later.  Sure.  That’s what they always say.  Sounds courteous but what they want is for us to call again and pay.  I called again with the same result.  I don’t know I did that but it made sense at the time.  It doesn’t now.  So I called his aparto-hotel but they didn’t put me through because they said that Scott had checked out the evening before saying he had to return to the United States. 

          He was gone.  That was strange.  It made no sense at all.  He hadn’t even call.  That was possible, it was possible.  That…was…possible.  Scott didn’t always call when he came and went.  He just appeared at times.  The woman who told me this had little more to add probably because she really didn’t know anything else.  She said he was supposed to be there for another week, but that he suddenly had to go.  It was probably more information than she should have given, from a professional standpoint, but that was all right by me.  I think she felt she was being helpful.

         Which she was.

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