far too much writing, far too many photos

I look at the calendar, I see it’s the last day of January. I can’t imagine where the weeks have all gone — it was just Christmastime.

In recent days, I’ve experienced some strange things with people both online and in here in the 3-D world, things that have left me feeling a little tired and off-balance. Such, sometimes, is life — i’ll get over myself. I’ll have to — I’ve too often found myself in a kind of state of mind that doesn’t help me at all, and I’m no fan of suffering. I’ve also been spending far too much time planted on my adorable butt in front of the computer — just another of way vegging out in front of a telly, though I at least manage a little productivity now and then when seated at the laptop. Not something I can usually say when the tube is on and squawking away.

Got a decent 40 winks last night, after a night or two of fitful sleep. But in its wake, I find myself feeling a little foggy, my teeny brain nowhere near high-functioning mode. Dragged myself out from under the covers, pulled on clothes, stumbled out to a local morning joint for a cup of espresso and something to eat. Then a second espresso. Wandered home only marginally more awake, two jolts of caffeine barely making a dent in my mental mists.

People streamed by on the way to work, mothers brought children to the door of a local school. The bell of a neighborhood church rang a few times. Delivery people passed, pushing handcarts piled high with produce or containers of milk. Sunlight slowly found its way down local streets, morning air found its way in and out of my lungs. Simple elements of daily life — when I notice them I feel more present, a little more at ease.

Made a fast trip into the center to pick up some groceries I can’t usually get here in the barrio. Walked along absorbing a.m. sounds and sights. Returned home via the Metro, remembering the first times I stood on Metro platforms, trains sweeping into stations, people from all over the Spanish-speaking world standing around me waiting to push their way into a car, travel to other parts of the city. Seven years ago next month.

Arrived home, tossed groceries into cabinets, turned on computer, got what passes as a workday underway.

I look at the calendar, I see it’s the last day of January. I can’t imagine where the weeks have all gone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This morning in the city center (far too early):

España, te quiero.

Empty streets — a cold, overcast Sunday morning, Madrid

España, te quiero.

Saturday morning, streets slowly filling up with Spaniards out shopping, sidewalks crowded with people carrying bags, newspapers, the air alive with the sound of voices, footsteps on cement and asphalt. Me out in the middle of it, hands stuffed in pockets, the air genuinely cold for the first time all season, feeling just a bit like winter in Vermont.

I go in and out of stores and the nearest centro comercial (a nice walk of seven or eight minutes instead of the one or two minute walk it used to be, now that the doors at the closest mercado are shut and locked — the building supposedly closed for rehabbing, but given the lack complete absence of activity it may be that place has simply given up the ghost, the stallkeepers ushered out to the street and left to find a new venue.

I visit a butcher, a bakery, a huge, beautiful produce stall run by a family who have gotten to know my face and just today began addressing me with the familiar tu instead of the more formal usted. When I step back into the cold air, I’m carrying several bags of purchases. The hike home takes me past a small neighborhood bar, one of the hundreds that abound in this part of the city. I decide to stop inside, take a breather. I enter, stand at the bar, drop my bags and ask for a cañ, a small pony glass of beer, maybe four or five ounces worth. The barkeep gets my order, sets it in front of me, then goes to get a small plate of food to go with it, the local equivalent of the popcorn, peanuts or corn nuts that joints in the States might toss in front of you. Here it could be some patatas bravas or some pieces of cooked ham mixed with a few small pieces of potato, or maybe some olives. Could be anything — what you wind up with is the luck of the draw. The barkeep returns, sets a small white plate in front of me. A small white plate bearing a bunch of tiny breaded tentacles. Octopus tentacles? Could be — grossly underfed octopus, maybe. Taken from a poor, baby octopus that should have been thrown back when he or she who caught it saw how diminutive and sad it was.

I ate one. Not bad. Tried a second. A little rubbery. My mouth didn’t mind, but my brain began doing unpleasant things with the idea of what I was eating. I tried a third, managed to get it down, but could tell if I tried any more I might find myself experiencing a sudden bout of reverse parastalsis. Pushed the plate away, finished up my teensy glass of beer. Paid up, said so long, headed back out in midday Saturday, cold streets bright with sunlight and hopping with people out taking care of life.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Overheard recently, from two different conversations:

1) During an exchange between two well-dressed thirty-something women:
“I just struggle with the idea of buying clothes from a supermarket.”

2) Said by an attractive 30ish woman wearing goth/aspiring-vampire clothes and make-up, during a conversation about lifestyles as reflected in one’s diet:
“I didn’t sink to the underworld to become a vegetarian.”

España, te quiero.

For a week now, the mornings have dawned gray, dark, cool. And though evening daylight is now lasting longer, the a.m. sun is dragging its tired ass above the morning horizon late, darkness not giving way to light until close to eight o’clock. Good conditions for sleeping, at least for me, but after two or three days the continued gray gets to me. All last week, from Monday on — gray, dark mornings. Until Saturday brought clear skies, lifting my spirits like I would be hard-pressed to describe.

All week long, the local weather types predicted the arrival of a cold wave for the weekend — repeated, emphatic warnings of hard winter conditions. All day long, Monday through Friday. And what happens? Saturday arrives with sunshine, mild temperatures, the air carrying a hint of springtime.

As in many places, there is real concern here in Spain about this season’s lack of true winter conditions, going far beyond the concern for cold-weather businesses suffering from near total lack of snow — in the north, where reservoirs were never built because rainfall had always been reliably plentiful, precipitation has decreased notably, to the point that some communities have imposed limitations on the use of water and expressions of nervousness about long-term climactic change has become normal to see in the media. I understand all the concern. But I will confess that after five gray, chilly days, I had no problem with the arrival of something more springlike, dry and mild

Sunday: mostly gray. News still claiming winter was on the way, with nothing concrete to show for all the warnings. During the nighttime hours, the mercury crept down to lower levels, forcing me to turn on the heat for a little while, only the second time I’ve had to that so far.

And then yesterday morning: chilly and gray again, mist hanging in the air, dampening sidewalks. During the day, finally, snow began falling north and west of Madrid. And continued falling, news people expressing relief and filling up hours of air time with reports from snowy villages and highways. No snow here in the city, though, as has become customary in these years of gradual warming. Chilly, but no snow. And strangely, the clouds cleared here midafternoon, despite continued storm conditions north and west. But as soon as the late afternoon sun slipped down behind buildings, the flat took on a nasty chill. A wintry chill.

This morning, when I stumbled into one of the local wake-up joints, for the first time that I can remember the tube was off. The radio was on, music played. Maybe they’d grown sick of the constant weather babble. Don’t know for sure and didn’t ask, I needed caffeine and couldn’t formulate coherent questions until later. And by the time I could, my thoughts had turned to other things.

But I won’t bore you with them. Not this time around, anyway.

España, te quiero.

Slaughter in the plaza — filming a cop show on a gray January morning in
la Plaza de Chueca, Madrid

España, te quiero.

There are times when I purposely arrive at language class early, when the small classroom is empty and quiet — early enough that I can sit for a while, thinking and writing. I did that last Thursday evening and found myself remembering friends and loved ones from years past — individuals who were featured players in my small existence for a while, playing a part, however big or small, that had an impact. Remembering and wondering where they are now, how they’re doing, if they’re alive or have checked out and returned to the Great Whatever.

For instance: Henry, a pal from kindergarten. A kid with a friendly face, who wore owlish, black-framed glasses. The first guy I remember who felt like a real friend, someone who genuinely seemed to care on any given day how I was. We spent a lot of time together in class and in the playground, hung out quite a bit outside of school. Until, several months into the school year, he disappeared. Without warning. His family suddenly picked up and moved to Brooklyn, I never saw him or heard from him again. I remember going to his house, ringing the doorbell, hearing it echo hollowly inside, absorbing the first permanent disappearance of someone important that I’d ever experienced.

Someone else: Patty. A year younger than me, and in a way my first girlfriend, though in the sweetest, most innocent way. For something like twelve months, my sixth grade year, we spent big quantities of time together — mostly at her house on weekends, mostly talking, listening to music or the radio. We simply liked each other, enjoyed spending time together — kind of amazing when I think about it now, given that I was an insecure little pudgeball and she was a bona fide cutie. There was no sex, none of the visible signs of heated-up adolescent love — just tranquil togetherness, a quality that seems golden in retrospect. Other girls played a part in my life in those years, but none of them like this, no relationships that were as simple, tender and stress-free.

And where is she now? No idea.

Rick: a friend from elementary school and junior high, someone with whom I passed thousands of hours of idle goofiness, between playground, school lunchtimes and countless afternoons at his house. Smart, funny, a little weird. Played trombone. Contact waned in high school as we found ourselves traveling in different circles, but the few times that we spoke I found myself talking with someone I liked, an interesting person, genuine and likeable.

Years later, during a two-year span spent in N.Y.C. — during my one and only marriage — an acquaintance from high school lived down the street. One weekend, out of the blue, he mentioned Rick was visiting — an announcement that left me momentarily speechless (this acquaintance knew of my past connection with his houseguest, mentioned nothing about it until this passing remark). He seemed strangely reluctant to allow me access to Rick, the only contact I managed was a phone call, a conversation of a few minutes that felt great. And that was it — the acquaintance made no effort to include me in anything that would have provided 3-D time with an old friend, the weekend passed, that was that.

I’ve had no contact with Rick since then — wherever he is, I hope he’s happy, well, and still a little weird.

[to be continued]

España, te quiero.

Front window, religious articles shop — near la Plaza Mayor, Madrid

España, te quiero.

Yesterday morning brought low, gray skies, the world outside looking dark and sleepy. So dark, so sleepy that I was amazed to see my bedside clock reading 8:30 when I opened my eyes. (Oops!) The first eight-hour stretch of quality sleep in several days — a kind of decadence I could learn to live with.

Dragged my body out of bed, into the shower, then out to the gym for a session of sweaty torture. Afterward, back outside, the air had taken a colder turn, feeling more like a morning in early January, while existence in the barrio had finally returned to its normal, busy, weekday self, the holidays at long last over, life moving on.

Changed clothes, bought a paper, found a local morning joint for some caffeine and chow. Tried to ignore front page news stories about the seeming failure of the peace process with ETA, the stoppage of oil pipelines to Germany and Poland by Belarus, blah blah blah. Hard to do with the place’s TV tuned to morning newscasts, talking heads painting the same unappealing pictures. Buried my face in more innocuous articles, sipped at coffee, nibbled at a croissant. Slowly began to feel vaguely human.

The day’s big event: the evening’s return to classes, rebooting my ongoing struggle to drag my Spanish to a reasonably functional level. A good class, turned out — intimate, just me and the 30ish French guy who’s been a classmate since early November. Us and Eva, the instructor — intelligent, good-humored, distractingly cute — who gave us a rigorous language workout.

This morning: gray once more, and chilly. With the added bonus of no running water — it having been shut off sometime during the night by anonymous city workers looking to disrupt existence. No shower, no shave, no heat for the flat. Until around nine, anyway, when a friendly fanfare of moaning, vibrating pipes announced the return to normalcy. Clothes immediately flew into the washer, the day got underway.

Midweek, one more Wednesday — normal, nothing exceptional, but feeling just fine.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mannequin in doorway to funky haircutting joint –
the barrio of Chueca, Madrid:

España, te quiero.

The Christmas season had its wind-up here this past weekend with the arrival of los Reyes Magos, the Three Kings (once called Little Christmas stateside), and the final blast of gift-giving, family dinners, streets clogged with people out making holiday fun.

Friday: the second Christmas Eve, essentially, the city abustle during the day with people out getting ready for the evening, running in and out of shops picking up food and last-minute gift buys, not to mention beginning the January sales frenzy. This barrio being a party area, happy carousers were around all night long (some setting off the occasional yuletide explosion, cherry bombs, ashcans and their muscular cousins being part of the Christmas experience around here), quieting down as dawn approached. When I stumbled out for caffeine and something to eat around ten, I found the neighborhood quiet, everything closed except the newsstand in the plaza and a neighborhood coffee joint a couple of blocks from here, where at least half the clientele looked as if they were recovering from a long, hard night of combat.

Sunday wrapped it up, the streets once more alive with people, bars/taverns/restaurants packed, the festivities again stretching well into the wee hours. The last explosion happened somewhere around 5:30 or 6 a.m., set off by a group of drunken, shouting knuckleheads in the street below, after which everything settled down. But when I emerged Monday morning, I didn’t find the workday version of the neighborhood in progress — I found streets nicely alive with people, animated groups moving along sidewalks, window-shopping, eateries and coffee joints busy with people in day-off clothes, not work outfits. An extra 24-hour span of holiday time, like Boxing Day, maybe.

The crew working on the outside of this building did not take the day off, however. Sometime during the morning, they arrived outside my bedroom window and with them came the pounding, grinding racket of hammers and ceramic saws as they began laying down tiles along outside windowsills. They worked at holiday speed, taking the entire workday to move along the length of three windows, making for joyful hours inside — a ten-hour stretch of lowered windowshades and earplugs. But it passed. And at the end of a day, I looked out and saw nice-looking, brick-colored, glazed tiles where sad expanses of crumbled concrete had been. Far as I can tell, they haven’t done anything else to this stretch of building front — they’re executing one task at a time. Given the size of the structure, it could be months before they’ll finish restoring the facade. Ah, well — it’ll be pretty when they’re done.

España, te quiero.

Tuesday — found myself awake and up far too early, in keeping with the previous two weeks. Got packing done with plenty of time to spare, likewise with straightening out the house. Walked down the hill around noon to give some groceries that needed to be used to my 84-year-old downhill neighbor, Mo, and his live-in sweetie, Barb. He’s been experiencing aches and pains of late, especially in a part of his body that a surgeon wants to have a go at (with no guarantee of any kind that it will help). Mo said he’s been contemplating getting a second opinion, his expression slightly timorous as he talked about it, a strange look to see on the face of someone normally so sure of himself, so independent.

As I walked back up the snow-covered road a short time later, carrying a near-dead potted snapdragon plant Barb had been taking care of for me (did okay until the last few days, when it suddenly began to droop, looking like it might be ready to call it quits, make the trip to the great greenhouse in the sky), a car passed, slowed, stopped. The taxi-service driver, I saw, who’d be taking me to the airport later on — stopping by to let me know she’d be there on time, and also, it turned out, needing to get out of her house, where she lived with her parents, both deeply into Alzheimers. We talked, her airedale wagged its whole body as it sniffed my hand, the driver took off to find some lunch.

Two hours later she was back, we began a long, leisurely ride to the airport, a drive that included a detour through dirt roads to the west of Montpelier (an Enrique Iglesias CD, of all things, playing, volume set high), where she showed me homes of people she knew, scenes of family history (her family having roots deep enough that a local road bears their name), and stopped to say hello to a donkey in a yard, the animal recognizing her immediately, sauntering over to the fence and talking to her in donkey-speak. Big animal, its winter coat thick and fuzzy.

From there, the airport in Burlington, the wait to board the plane. (An announcement made via the in-house PA system, mid-wait: “Someone left their Shea Body Butter at the security checkpoint. Please come to security to claim your…” — here they drew the words out comically, as if enjoying the moment far too much — “Shea… Body… Butter.”) Not the kind of announcement you’d hear in a major airport. In teeny Burlington International, however, you might.

A fast flight to Philly. Then more waiting. Then the flight to Madrid. A long flight, me trapped in my window seat by a heavyset Spanish woman who slept most of the way. (Note: to any who might consider flying U.S. Air from Philadelphia to Madrid -– the two times that I’ve taken that flight in recent months, I have experienced the two worst examples of airline food that I’ve ever had the misfortune to choke down. The in-flight crew were good people, but the chow? Deadly. Be warned.)

And then Madrid. Soft January sunlight, Spanish being spoken all around. And when I entered this flat, I experienced a feeling I would be hard-pressed to describe. That of being home, maybe, or of being in what currently feels like home. Unlocked the door, walked in, dropped my bags, slipped into the loo for a fast whiz, immediately went back out and found a neighborhood joint for an espresso and something to eat.

Streets busy with weekday activity, normal life going on. Simple things, with a surprising power to comfort and satisfy.

Back in the city. For now.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lottery ticket vendor on a chilly January morning, Madrid

España, te quiero.

Friday morning: the thermometer outside the dining window read 10° F (-10° C). Somewhere during the previous days, genuine winter had crept in — finally making its presence felt after weeks of complaints from Vermonters about unnervingly mild temperatures.

Saturday morning: snow began falling during the wee hours, continued as daylight replaced darkness, rendering everything white, quiet. Traffic strangely light on local roads, as if everyone had glanced out the window, seen what was happening, crawled back into bed. Montpelier, usually nicely busy on the first morning of the weekend, lay tranquil. Nearly-empty streets lay draped in thin, polite sheets of fresh snow, holiday decorations looking newly perked-up. People slowly appeared, by midday the pace had picked up. A couple of local hangabouts — heavyset, dentally challenged types who often occupy streetside benches for hours at a time, smoking, saying hello to passersby — were in place, on duty, ignoring cold and snow apart from the concession of a winter coat (left wide open).

Sunday -– left the house as the rising sun cleared the ridge of mountains to the east. Snow still fell, despite sunlight and blue sky, producing rainbows: one full out arch south of the sun, extending from white ground well up into blue sky, one vertical band of three colors north of the sun, one shaft of bright white light extending out from the top and bottom of the sun’s disc. Snowdogs, putting on a year-end show. Drove into town, got sweaty at the gym, retreated to a cafe with wifi. Cranked the laptop, met up virtual-fashion with someone lovely from the other side of the pond (a particular someone currently bringing happiness to my boring little life) and went dancing. All that while the 3-D me sat in a booth sipping tea. Fun.

Monday, New Year’s Day — sky gray, everything not covered with tan, brown, black, muted green. The wee hours brought sleet, freezing rain. I’d left my car outside the garage, when I went out I found a big ice sculpture parked in the driveway. Morning temperatures hovered just under the freezing mark, cold enough to prolong the freezing rain until everything was covered with a sheet of thin ice, the world looking glazed with sugar. Afternoon temperatures hovered just above freezing — warm enough to melt snow, producing mist (snow ghosts, some call them), then fog that rose from the valley, enveloping the house, eliminating all visibility. Everything quiet, nothing moving. Like being a big sensory deprivation chamber.

Yesterday, January 2. Wrote the new year’s first checks, adapting to writing 2007 with no problem. Amazing. When darkness fell, the nearly-full moon rose over white countryside, the scene bright enough that long shadows from bare trees slanted across snow-covered terrain.

Something strange: normally after three or four days of being back stateside, my body adusts to the time difference, I gradually stop waking up at hideously early hours. Not this time around — during the last fifteen days, my system has refused to capitulate, remaining stubbornly on Madrid time, waking me up at 4 a.m. every single stinking morning, me having to give up and get out of bed, knowing shuteye is finished for the night. Good thing I’ll be back in Madrid tomorrow.

As I write this, brilliant sunshine pours in the windows, the sound of dripping snowmelt is loud in the eaves. I catch a taxi to the airport in a little over an hour, hop a flight first to Philly, then to Spain. A return that will come as a relief for two reasons: high-speed internet and sleep.

More once back on Spanish soil.

Be well.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

January, northern Vermont:

España, te echo de menos.

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