No speakers part of the pain in Spain

Living in Europe can be challenging. I'm sure living in Afghanistan would be harder, but I've never lived in Afghanistan, so I can't speak to the set of issues that comes with living there. I can, however, discuss living in Europe. More specifically, living in Spain, because I'm there now, visiting my girlfriend for a month.

Current obstacles in my daily existence include the following:

  • No central heat.

  • A bed made of two twin beds squashed together, complete with a centrally located 4-inch gap.

  • No microwave.

  • Three flights of stairs that look like they were carved from the inside of the mountains of Mordor by a sadistic great-grandfather of Gimli the Dwarf.

  • No garbage disposal.

  • A toilet that requires one to turn on a valve before one who has used that toilet can flush that toilet.

  • No Internet, no television and no way for the aforementioned girlfriend and I to get out of each other's way.

  • But the thing I'm missing most? Music. There's no way for me to listen to MGMT the way I like, which is loud, out in the open and with room to dance. (In case I have a need to do so, which, believe it or not, I sometimes have.) I've learned one thing about Europe, though: There's always a solution. It's just that it usually involves a compromise. When one is faced with a high-maintenance toilet, he drinks less water. When one doesn't have a decent set of speakers, he uses headphones. It might mean less dancing, but his sanity will probably remain intact.

    As others and I -- but mostly I -- have documented, I've led a nomadic existence. I've lived in places I never thought I would, and I've lived in lots of them. Along the way, I've had to figure out how I could get on with my life without ending it. I've found that the best method is to make whatever domicile is my current one as much like home as I can. Thankfully, it's not a tall order. As anyone who has been inside my house can attest, I'm not a proponent of knickknackery. What I need to make my house a home is a bed, a laptop and a way to get music to whichever part of my brain is responsible for my love of the Ting Tings.

    Once, when I was stuck in a Chicago hospital bed courtesy of Austin Croshere's right knee, I had my mother go to a Best Buy to buy the Bose notebook speakers I thought would help ease my stay. I was in the hospital for all of nine days.

    I don't throw out the brand of those speakers to foreshadow a launch into a spiel about amp wattage or brands of receivers. I am no true audiophile. You'll never catch me singing the praises of vinyl; I rip my CDs at a measly 128 kbps; and I have never had a subscription to Crutchfield magazine. The stereo setup that gets me through Kansas days is nothing more than a decent receiver and two similarly middle-class speakers.

    My only requirement of those speakers, or of any that deliver the music I love, is that they have the capacity to make my music loud ... without it sounding like my laptop is about to break up like an incoming meteor. I don't analyze sound quality much beyond "Can I still understand Julian Casablancas if the green bars on my computer screen are lit up all the way to the right?"

    If one were a Sudanese refugee or even a citizen of the central Asian country I mentioned earlier, this column would be hard to digest. First, I complained about Europe. Bad form, most would say. To detractors who might take issue with my comments, I would recommend a yearlong stay on the continent, preferably in a Mediterranean country where the citizens are always prepared to cast a suspicious, sidelong glance in the direction of passing Americans. Nonetheless, this isn't a war zone.

    Second, I wrote that the thing that makes my home seem homey is speakers capable of producing loud music. I didn't write about a wife, a child or even a favorite pillow -- one that smells like a familiar mixture of Pantene and hard water. Computer speakers are hardly a sentimental item.

    (As I look back at the above sentence, I realize how effeminate the word "Pantene" is. I need to investigate a switch to a more manly shampoo.)

    I understand that my need for music conveyance may seem unimportant, but I'm not going to take it back. Music helps me live. It provides continuity -- something that has been sorely lacking in my life to this point. When I push a jack into my laptop, it doesn't matter if I'm in Phoenix, Athens or Cedar City, Utah. Art Alexakis' voice sounds the same in every one of those places. I need that sameness.

    I'm in Barcelona for another three weeks. If I used the past as a guide, I would go out and buy a set of medium-priced computer speakers, blow them out and leave them behind -- something I've done four times already, in Spain alone. But this time is different. This time there's another human -- one with blonde hair and breasts and limited patience for Muse played at high volumes -- roaming around my tiny Spanish apartment.

    Living in Europe has taught me one skill more than any other: adaptability. That's not to say that I'm Zorba the Greek; I'm prone to the occasional freak-out when something doesn't go as planned. But in this case, I think I've done OK. The situation: I'm living in a tiny apartment; I'm sharing that apartment with another human being; and I have a semi-job writing about music. I also have a set of Altec Lansing noise-canceling headphones I bought at a Micro Center in Minneapolis almost three years ago. Problem solved, with a compromise. The headphones do cut down on opportunities for dancing. But there's an upside. In the history of male-female relationships, no man has ever had a better excuse for carving out some personal time to listen to music than "Sorry, babe, it's my job."

    When I look back at this period in Spain, I'll probably see myself reaching down for that pesky valve by the toilet, my face inches from the grimy seat as I curse Spanish plumbing. I might think about our bed and how it has forced me to relearn how to sleep in the fetal position. I might also reminisce about trips to the gym brought on more by the ulterior motive of a decent shower than by a need to stay in shape.

    I won't think of my laptop and a set of noise-canceling earphones. That is how it should be, because the way the music gets to me isn't the point. The music itself is the point. The chance to listen to Cut Copy's "In Ghost Colours" is what will help me deal with all the annoying things I'll remember about my apartment. How it gets into my ears isn't that important.

    This spoiled American will survive his time in Barcelona. Music will help, however it gets to him, and in more ways than one. Because if he thinks he needs a little alone time once in a while, imagine the girl who has to deal with someone who complains so much.

    Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and at mysocalledcareer@gmail.com. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is now available in paperback -- can be found here. With his brother, he co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."