Events: Madrid -- Arrival
Saturday, August 04, 2001
Madrid. My first extended stay in a foreign culture (ignoring for the moment 16 months in L.A.).
Me: ready for change after 40+ years in the States. I'd been to London a few times, been to Ireland twice. Fun, adventure, all that. And for a while I thought I'd like to live in the U.K., but there never seemed to be a way to carry it off.
A year and a half ago, sitting at my desk at work one midwinter New England morning, I opened the paper to find air fares on sale to locations all over Europe. Cheap. And in that moment, Madrid caught my eye.
Why? A fine question. I'd studied Spanish in 7th and 8th grade -- and to say that I'm using the word 'studied' liberally insults the word 'liberally' -- when it was not cool to pay attention. Learned essentially nothing. And found that, as the years went by, I felt a growing disappointment about that. Found myself wishing I could speak something other than English, think in something other than English. See the world from a foreign perspective, breathe foreign air. Wake up in a flat in a European city, see what that felt like.
That's part of why. Another, more important, part: the sister of my best friend's wife lives in Madrid, an American woman married to a Spanish attorney, in Madrid for 17 years. A long time, long enough to see the country go through drastic changes in the wake of Franco's demise, to witness democracy taking root. I had a connection.
Hopped an overnight flight via London, reached Madrid on a Thursday in mid-February, around noon. Caught a bus into the city from the airport (local traffic featuring an unbelievable number of motorcycles and motor scooters, most of their drivers acting like they thought the traffic laws didn't apply to them), then a taxi to the hotel. Dragged my sorry, tired ass up to my teensy little room.
On impulse, turned on the TV -- cable, with channels from around Europe: Germany, France, Italy, and of course Spain. Switched to a Spanish channel. Saw an ad featuring a lovely woman. Naked, swimming gracefully underwater, holding a bottle of drinking water (a bit redundant, that, given where she was). Shut the TV off, lay down, passed out for a while.
I didn't realize it then, but when I woke up I was home.
Sunday, August 05, 2001
The last sentence in that last entry? Not completely accurate. On the other hand, not an exaggeration either.
I woke up alone in a small hotel room in an unfamiliar city. Tired, knowing little of the language. Late afternoon, mid-February.
If you glance at a map of Europe, something you may notice is the mess made by unknown persons when they drew up the time-zones. In the States, it's fairly straightforward -- the demarcations run north and south in mostly logical fashion. Whoever did the zone work here in Europe must have been heavily into the absinthe, producing delineations that loop all over the place in wild, comically erratic style. With the result that though Madrid is actually a bit to the west of London (if my memory serves me), it's an hour ahead. Which means the sun rises later, sets later. So the mornings start slowly, gather steam at a more leisurely pace than in the States, and the evenings stretch themselves out, the extra hours of natural light making the days seem longer, more expansive.
That first day, post-nap: I managed to get myself up out the door slightly before 6 p.m. The hotel lay situated two blocks from la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, the center of Madrid, a crossing point for Metro lines, bus routes and other traffic trying to force its way through the streets at the city's core. I wandered through narrow pedestrian ways that led me down to Sol, in the middle of the gathering rivers of people heading home after the work day. The sun had slipped down toward the western horizon, great slanting shadows alternated with shafts of brilliant evening light beneath a February sky at once blue and golden, studded with dramatic clouds. All around the plaza loom multi-storied buildings of classic old Spanish architecture, most windows opening onto small balcones. A large statue of King Carlos III on horseback juts skyward on the north side of the plaza, flanked by two large fountains. Across several lanes of blacktop from all that, on the plaza's south side, stands the building which now houses the municipal government -- a structure that functioned as a center of detention and torture during the Franco dictatorship, then nicknamed La Casa de los Gritos, 'the house of screams.'
I found myself in the middle of all this, a scene with entirely different energy from what I was used to, filled with sunlight, sound, people streaming through in all directions. One of a group of teenage kids making their way through the Plaza managed to grab a pigeon, tossing it up into the sky (after pulling out a fistful of feathers) where it joined the explosion upward of its buddies as they fled the young humans.
The people passing through the rush-hour version of the plaza pretty much covered the entire spectrum of western hemisphere types -- all the various hispanic looks, along with faces and bodies that appeared to come from points all over Europe. Some would have appeared right at home in the States, others far less so.
I'm not sure how to describe the effect on me of what felt like a torrent of sensory input except to say my senses and my heart felt full to the point of overflowing.
Do I lapse into purple prose here, over-romanticizing my first lengthy hit of Madrid? What the hell. It's love -- it merits some overwriting.
Tuesday, August 07, 2001
Sunday night in Madrid. Early August. I'd always heard about August being vacation month in Europe, but never got what that actually meant until I arrived here July 31st of last year. Literally, half the city leaves until September. Many, many stores close -- some for a week or two, some for the entire month. Traffic lightens, thins out. The burg quiets down, life adopts a slower pace. I like it.
The days are often hot, the air usually cools off during the night so that the mornings are nice and fresh. Most of the time it's not humid. After years of life in New York City, the Hudson Valley and Boston, this is almost paradise.
I didn't used to mind summer in the above-mentioned locales. It was the advent of global-warming style warm seasons that did me in, starting in '87 or '88, when Boston suffered through a succession of summers featuring brutal, intense heat waves. They wore me out. Having spent large portions of my younger years in upstate New York, I'd always felt attracted to the north country -- after those first global-warming summers, I began absolutely craving the north. The idea of going anywhere warm and southern became inconceivable. When vacations arrived, I fled to northern New England, the U.K., Ireland. Until I finally managed to purchase a house in Vermont, just outside the Northeast Kingdom. Fifteen or so miles northeast of Montpelier, an hour's drive along two-lane roads to the Canadian border. Me, out in the country. Looking for somewhere not likely to heat up. (Pause for snorting laughter.)
The first snowfalls arrived in October. A half-inch, an inch, two inches of startlingly early winter precipitation. The snow didn't last long, but it didn't have to -- those days were the demarcation line. November brought weeks of cold, damp, cloudy weather, featuring men with guns everywhere, observing various hunting seasons. One or the other might not have seemed so remarkable. The combination -- together with the termination of all warm-weather activity (in part 'cause of the weather, in part because of the abundance of men with guns looking to use them) -- caught my attention. December showed up, tremendously beautiful -- bringing the holidays, bringing Christmas lights to the long, dark nights. And during that lovely month the snow began falling for real. In January and February, it came down every 2-3 days, with accumulations of anywhere from several inches to a foot or 18 inches. By the end of February, the roads had shrunk to narrow white passages flanked by mountainous banks of snow and ice.
As I've said, in earlier years I lived in parts of upstate New York that experienced serious winter. Long, dark, snowbound months that didn't yield until April or May. Something about that winter in Vermont affected me differently -- the difference probably being me, and the fact of being there solo.
And when I made the crossing to Madrid in the middle of that February, as silly as it may sound, the earth moved. Winter set me up, Madrid knocked me down.
Not a bad combo, that, considering where it left me. (In Madrid.)