Sat Mar 9 2013
The subway isn’t too crowded at mid-afternoon, but it’s busy enough that there are no free seats. We all shuffle around the metal posts, angling for a handhold. Our bodies sway as one whenever the car stops and starts.
At Antón Martín, a white-haired couple comes on, looks around, and settles for leaning against the wall. A woman in her 30s notices them and stands, offering her chair. When the older woman shakes her head, the younger woman gestures to insist. The older woman declines once more, this time with a wave of her hand. Her husband smiles at the younger woman, who nods and retakes her seat.
Courtesy, pride. Youth, maturity. All of this passes in a matter of seconds. Then it’s on to the next stop. We shuffle and sway.
We wait in line to enter the small Egyptian temple that sits in the middle of Madrid. (A gift from one country to another, says the official story. A pity purchase during poor economic times, says the rumor mill.) Beside us, sandstone arches rise out of the water. Scattered around the pond, a group of students sketches.
Inside the temple, there’s more waiting. The old passageways are so narrow, only a few people can pass at a time. In line behind us is an American family with a Midwestern accent. “Meep,” says the older son. “Meep,” echoes the younger son. “Meep. Meep. Meep, meep. Meep, meep. Meep meep meepmeep MEEEEEEP!”
The parents scowl and tell the kids to hush. Andy and I turn to each other and share a silent laugh.
An autumn stroll through Buen Retiro park. It’s a quiet way to close out our trip. My choice. My favorite place.
We walk past the lake, through the twisting green paths, down to the Palacio de Cristal. There’s barely enough sun — but barely enough is better than none — and dim rainbows glisten off every pane of glass. We circle the pond, stepping around teenagers who hang about as confidently and unconcerned as the cats.
From here we will go back. Back to the subway, to the hotel, to the States. But for now, the leaves are changing, and the air is cool and damp. I’ve never seen Retiro like this before. I wish I knew it better. I wish I knew it year-round.
But barely enough is better than none. I soak it in.
Tue Feb 12 2013
Red velvet. Gold trim. House lights. Orchestra pit. We’re in the middle of Las Ramblas, but we may as well be in a whole other world. Outside, the streets of Barcelona swell with warm voices, warm bodies — but that’s all on the other side of these walls. In here, it’s hushed conversation and cool elegance.
Suddenly the lights dim. The music swells. We take our seats. Eyes rivet to the stage. The Man of La Mancha galumphs out from behind the curtain. Dulcinea glides out on pale pink slippers, sweet and light and twirling like cotton candy.
In the dark, I finally allow myself a few tears. Frustration ebbs from invisible wounds, making room for something else besides sorrow and self-pity. The holes inside me fill with wonder — at the moment, at the dance. We are Americans in a famous Spanish theater, watching Americans dance a famous Spanish story. We are so privileged, and so alive.
Tue Jan 22 2013
Between the “new” Pantheon-like palace and the old deteriorated citadel, there is a sandy plaza where you can buy popsicles and beers and look out over Granada. People sit in twos and threes along the low stone wall, savoring their refreshments and resting their feet — for the Alhambra is a vast beauty, and to know her, you must walk her.
As these humble visitors flip through the map, or click to hear the next chapter of the audio guide, a young ginger tomcat saunters out of the bushes nearby. He sits directly in front of them and waits for his handout. Demands a bite with his feline stare. This is his home, after all, and though you have paid admission, you have not gotten his permission.
The heart of Madrid is a park, a pond, a statue. Retiro. Through its veins run skateboarders, tourists, buskers, rowers, photographers, artists, teenagers — and a handful of immigrants selling knockoff purses, DVDs, and jewelry.
Then there are the cats.
You might not see them in the summer, when it’s hot and crowded, loud and full of feet. But on a cool cloudy day, they will creep around the marble columns and slink between the stone figures, as at home in the monument as your beloved pet is when keeping you company in the kitchen.
And just as your kitten may hide in the laundry or under the bed, these Retiro cats have their own cozy spots. They disappear into hedgerows, slip into drainage gutters. They are the ones who live here, not you. They are stray, but not lost.
Thu Jan 3 2013
A sunny day stroll through Plaça de Catalunya. The square anchors one end of Las Ramblas, so it flows with citizens and tourists, to-ing and fro-ing, talking and shopping. Beneath a ponderous blocky sculpture, pigeons ring around a pond. As I stoop down to snap a photo from a different angle, a large seagull swoops down and attacks a gray pigeon standing off by itself. Beak on wing, squawking, gnawing. I’m horrified by the bird-on-bird violence, relieved when the seagull flies off. But then the mangled pigeon flops forward into the pool. I walk away, not wanting to see it struggle and drown.
Thu Dec 20 2012
Step off the Metro. Blast of heat, humidity, traffic, voices. Far off, maybe the drone of surf. In, out, in, out. Slurping at shore.
Cross the busy street. Flip flops slap against pavement. Thunk against sand.
Pass through the skateboarding exhibition. Giant half-pipe with speakers mounted up top. Neck craned to watch leaps, turns, stunts. Music blares. People all around, watching wide-eyed, cheering wide-mouthed. Ooh-ing and aah-ing. Energy vibrates through bones, saturated like sweat on skin.
Claim a small patch of soft sand, fine and pale yellow. Snap out a towel. Empty pockets. Glance around. Men strut, play volleyball, flirt. Women saunter topless, lie back baking, flirt. Eyes closed but lifted to the sun.
Wade into blue-green water. Waves swirling around ankles. Sea swallowing feet. Breaststroke out. Paddle in place. Breaststroke back.
Breathe deep, yearn for space. Everywhere, people. On the beach, in the water. Pressing close, bumping into each other, changing course, repeating. A new definition of crowded.
Only one body is welcome nearby. She chats, smiles, laughs. Her black hair bobs on the water. Clings to her neck and bare shoulders. Her white teeth light up the world in any language.
Wrong Metro stop. Longer walk. Fingers dip into pockets, hiding from the chilly breeze. Sun shining without heat. Skies a quiet, moody blue.
Windows dark, doors locked. No food, no drinks, no skateboarding. No towels, no strutting men, no topless women. Two brave souls in wetsuits ride the waves. Otherwise, no one. A new definition of desolate.
Cuff pants, peel off socks, tiptoe to water’s edge. The frigid Mediterranean says hello. Squeal of shock and joy, tinged with disappointment. Course wet sand sticks to skin, burrows between toes.
Walk away. Leave this beach to the birds.