Alive in Spain

A travel diary

Archive for the month “November, 2013”

Madrid: An Interlude

I had expected the temperature would get warmer as I travelled south. But late fall or winter has overtaken Spain, north and south. Cold fills the streets and seeps through windows and doorways, like a phantom. No place is safe from the chill.

My Somió Neighborhood

My Somió Neighborhood

I reluctantly left the pastoral neighborhood of Somió in Gijón after having spent an entire month there. I had fallen in love with it — the trees and mountain trails, the ocean, the magpies, snails, mules, livestock, sidrerías and bakeries, fresh produce and seafood at the local markets, and of course, the kindness of the people.

Downtown Somió

Downtown Somió

But once a city girl, always a city girl. Confronting crowds and noise as I stepped outside the Atocha train station in Madrid was second nature. It was like ending one great novel and starting another. Although I didn’t want the first book to end, the next book captured me from the first page. I found myself fully immersed in that other world.

Perhaps I didn’t pick the best weekend to spend in Madrid. I arrived to a cold and rainy city on the eleventh day of a garbage strike. Mountains of garbage overflowed beyond trash cans. Fall leaves and refuse intermingled in sidewalks. Dog waste seeped from plastic bags accidentally mashed by pedestrians or bicycles. My landlady apologized and promised Madrid is a clean city. As strange as it may sound, the garbage didn’t faze me. Madrid was Madrid and better than I’d heard. Having grown up in New York City, being in a metropolis seemed natural, and the multiethnic neighborhoods of Lavapies and La Latina, its people, stores, and restaurants of many different colors, flavors, and nationalities energized me.

The first thing I did the evening I arrived was look for a place to eat. It made no sense to buy groceries, as I’d done in Gijón, since I was just there for a weekend. There were tapas bars, Arab restaurants, Chinese takeout, and Sushi. So many restaurants from which to choose. Tired and excited, I settled on Indian takeaway, a good book, and a warm bath.

Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstroke, outside Reina Sofía

Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke, outside Reina Sofía

The next day I set out to the Reina Sofía. Everyone had told me “You have to go to El Prado.” But having limited time, I opted for the museum that had the painting I most wanted to see: Picasso’s Guernica. I was not disappointed. No picture could have ever prepared me for the experience of seeing it live. Breathtaking! I was also fascinated seeing the various studies Picasso painted in preparation for the main work and the photos of the painting process. I liked seeing how at times he changed his mind about one particular image or another. The rest of the museum, of course, was also great fun. I saw paintings by Chagall, Dalí, Miró, and many others. I love modern art, and there was plenty of it. To think I had considered skipping Madrid.

Making New Friends at the Museum

Making New Friends at the Museum

To satisfy the foodie in me, my landlady suggested Mercado de San Miguel. Once a food market, it’s now an upscale food court with stalls selling all sorts of Spanish food and drink. The difficulty was choosing what to eat. I wanted one of everything! I started with a sea urchin that proved somewhat disappointing, especially given the price. It had some sort of sauce that covered the taste of the actual urchin. I did, however, enjoy seeing just how much the shell reminded me of chestnuts. After seeing chestnut-lined streets almost every day in Gijón, it brought welcomed memories. I moved to another stall with better food and friendlier service. I had fried calamari tentacles (my favorite part) and a grilled whole sardine. This time, the food was delicious and the attendant was friendly. He asked whether I wanted him to remove the sardine’s head and innards. I wanted it whole. “Are you sure? There are people who don’t like it that way.” “Segura” (I’m sure). The fish took a long while to cook, and since the crowds hadn’t formed yet, we talked for a while. Once the fish was done, he handed it to me saying “if it’s not fully cooked, let me know and I’ll put it back on the grill.” I found a table by a window away from the draft wafting through the the doors. I ate the sardine (cooked to perfection) as I watched people on the streets fight with their umbrellas then quickly fill the Mercado.

Sea Urchin Shell

Sea Urchin Shell

Friend Calamari Tentacles

Fried Calamari Tentacles

Monday morning, the garbage strike had ended and the streets were considerably cleaner. As I walked to Atocha to catch a train to Granada, I mentally planned what I would do when I return to Madrid before heading back to the U.S. I’ll only have one day.


Vacas, Vacas, Books, and Vacas!

In an effort to travel light, I packed only one book for this trip — a difficult feat for a writer and a decision over which I agonized. The first thing I usually pack for trips is a selection of books, but I was preparing for various climates (summer clothes, fall clothes, winter clothes) with only a knapsack and a carry-on suitcase. It became like the game where you are asked, if you were on a deserted island, what one book would you like to have? Boy! That’s a tough one. One week into the trip, I was salivating at the mere mention of books. True, I could get ebooks on my iPad, but it’s just not the same. I pined. I passed the used bookstore in Toledo with a pang knowing I couldn’t put more things in my bags.

In Galicia, I finally lightened my load a bit after giving my aunt and uncle their gifts. As a treat, I bought a novel and went “home” with a smile on my face and a book in my hand. It was a thick and enjoyable novel, which I savored like the finest dark chocolate. But, it only served as an appetizer. I needed more. One week later, in Gijón, I stopped by the central bookstore and bought two poetry books. TWO POETRY BOOKS! One is a book by Angel González, a poet from Asturias who, I was sad to find out, died in 2008. I would have loved to meet him! The other is an anthology of the Generation of 1927 (Antología del Grupo Poético de 1927), including, of course, poems by Federico García Lorca. image

Lorca has been a favorite from the first time I read him. Rereading him in Spain was as exciting as kissing a lover for the first time, and as comforting as greeting my husband each morning while half awake. I have since finished the novel and hope I can find the sequel, since it’s part of a trilogy. It’s not the type of book I would normally read — a bit of word candy — nevertheless, I enjoyed it. And now I have two poetry books, plus one has poems by García Lorca!

As those of you who are Facebook friends with me know, aside from my love of words, I am obsessed with nature, and there’s lots of it here: trees, fruit, slugs, snails, butterflies, horses, and cows. Yesterday, as I walked through my neighborhood, I came across a group of honey-colored cows in a field and immediately thought of Lorca’s “Vaca” (“Cow”).


It’s not one of the poems in my new anthology, but it is one I analyzed in detail two or three years ago as part of an independent study I did with my former professor and good friend Will Hochman, and one I keep coming back to. I wasn’t able to find a good English translation on the internet, and my bilingual version of A Poet in New York (edited by BU’s own Christopher Maurer) is at home in the U.S.

I hope you can enjoy the poem in Spanish. If not, I would urge you to get a GOOD translation of Lorca’s work. He is wonderful.


Se tendió la vaca herida;
árboles y arroyos trepaban por sus cuernos.
Su hocico sangraba en el cielo.

Su hocico de abejas
bajo el bigote lento de la baba.
Un alarido blanco puso en pie la mañana.

Las vacas muertas y las vivas,
rubor de luz o miel de establo,
balaban con los ojos entornados.

Que se enteren las raíces
y aquel niño que afila su navaja
de que ya se pueden comer la vaca.

Arriba palidecen
luces y yugulares.
Cuatro pezuñas tiemblan en el aire.

Que se entere la luna
y esa noche de rocas amarillas:
que ya se fue la vaca de ceniza.
Que ya se fue balando
por el derribo de los cielos yertos
donde meriendan muerte los borrachos.

— Federico García Lorca


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