Archive for April, 2009


How can I put this…

One of many sculptures in Retiro Park. It has a secret.

Sitting in Retiro Park on my last afternoon in Madrid, all I could think about was how I wouldn’t be able to write about the city in any way that does it justice, how I wouldn’t be able to avoid a string of cliché adjectives so overused they’ve lost meaning, so I simply wouldn’t bother.

But as the street music in the park grew louder and the new April sun tightened its grip on me, I sat there soaking in the feeling you get only from the blinding energy and violent color that pump through a living city, the feeling of numbing bliss you get when traveling that convinces you for the moment that you’ll never feel it again, never be able to describe it, never truly understand what it was.

I figured this had to be worth an attempt of at least a few sentences.

So, for me, Madrid is Retiro Park – laying in the sweet, sticky grass on a Friday afternoon as a warm breeze sends a blizzard of white petals spinning and dancing through the trees. It’s a pink ice cream cone on Saturday, it’s spending a few hours letting the sun—finally free from its winter cell—heat me, cover me, wrap me up for the first time this year.

It’s standing in El Tigre, a packed, grimy tapas bar—the floor covered in wadded napkins and cigarette butts—eating hot croquetas and drinking beer amid the loud voices of hungry Spaniards just released from a week of work. My shoes stick to the floor and my shirt sticks to my back and I feel warmly welcomed to Spain.

It’s moving up the stairs of the metro station with a hot, crushing crowd of other Sunday morning shoppers on their way to El Rastro market and hearing the street music before I’ve even emerged from below ground, when all I can see is a cloudless sky and all I can hear is energy, voices, and rhythm. Seven Spanish men are there—two guitars, two accordions, a giant bass cello, a saxophone, and one just dancing, who moves and shakes as though he’d never even learned to walk before he was using his legs to dance. They play and sing and shout and sway and effortlessly fill the bodies and hearts of the crowd with a tick, an itch, a beating euphoria.

It’s laying on the little bed of our cheap 8th floor Gran Via hotel room for an evening nap, the sky turning from blue to orange to purple to black out the window as I listen to the hushed breathing of the lovely person next to me and the distant, excited clamor of the traffic below.

It’s sitting in a peaceful square in La Chueca on Sunday evening, drinking cheap cans of San Miguel on a bench as the sun sinks behind the buildings and everyone around raises their drink and bids a quiet farewell to another weekend.

It’s sitting in Retiro Park, yet again, on Sunday, that last afternoon, thinking this is too much life, too much energy and color and humanity and love to know what to do with. We lay among the giant pillars of the monument behind the lake, the sun pressing insistently on our faces, our necks, our bare feet. Blue and white boats slide across the water with each lazy stretch of an oar. People watch a big group of drummers with djembes as together they push a solid moving sound high above us all.  They pound their drums faster and louder and the beat shakes with such a force that the air itself seems to be moving, and you hear it and you feel it and everything becomes part of you and you’re blind and you’re dizzy and you’re happy and you have seen Madrid.


View from the Top

the view from our chalet

They say dreams are more vivid at high altitudes.

To me that sounds like a load of crap, but my subconscious confirmed it recently when I spent a week in the Swiss Alps. After seven months living in the center of a major European city and traveling once a month to other major European cities, I was looking forward to a week in the mountains away from concrete, traffic and metros, in a place where I could raise myself  above cluttered streets and a cluttered mind.

What I found there in those mountains – aside from the most grandiose landscape I’ve ever seen – was indeed a higher level of consciousness and a more extreme range of emotions than I’ve reached in a long time; and it left me tired, despondent and agitated. All week, instead of floating around in my usual and comfortable mass of vague ideas, questions and worries, I found myself either digging for any kind of thought at all in my hollow icy cave of a brain, or desperately trying to flee an avalanche of inexplicable anxieties.

To be clear, it was definitely a relaxing week with little cause for stress – which is perhaps why I was so unnerved by the snowball fight going on inside my head. I was in Verbier on a ski holiday with my adoptive family, and I passed the time playing in the snow, looking after the kids in our chalet, eating good food, sitting by the fire, and reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. All in all, a very nice way to spend seven days.

Though, being a California girl who’s always followed heat like a house cat moving across the carpet with the afternoon sun, I did feel out of my element in the snow. I tried snowboarding a few times on the baby slopes, and the cold, harsh reminder that I am and will forever be a big sissy hit me as hard as my ass hit the piste. Somehow I thought I’d be able to do it, but I’m just too scared to relinquish any amount of control and really go for it. I finally gave up (hating myself all the more) when the unhygienic Swiss lift operator who didn’t speak English grabbed hold of me for the third or fourth time to offer a boost on the drag lift, and I lost my balance and control and the thing ripped that plastic flying saucer from my crotch yet again. I lay there as that infuriating Swiss mountain boy stood over me shaking his shaggy head with pity that humiliates you in the way that only pity from such a lowly creature can.

We did spend one of the mornings at the village’s indoor swimming pool instead of the baby slopes, and I was able to enjoy water in the state of matter in which I feel much more comfortable, much more natural, much more – if you will – fluid. I closed my eyes, submerged myself, and there, swimming in that dingy community lap pool far past its prime, with the mountains gazing down on me like wise elders, my mind reached a quiet equilibrium. I let my body sail effortlessly through the water as my thoughts balanced calmly between the two opposing forces of all or nothing that challenged me the whole week.

That night I had a dream that looked and felt more real than the conscious world had seemed all week. I was flying. I steadily propelled myself forward using the same strength and ease with which I swim. I’d never been so convinced of coasting naturally through the clouds. When I woke up I thought how odd it is – how poetic – that somehow being higher in the physical, geographical sense means we are lifted up and pushed not only toward the sky, but toward our own elevated subconscious – that misty, clouded place that is always so far out of reach.

I appreciate the mountains for all their inspiring grandeur and humbling might, and bow to their power of challenging me physically, mentally and emotionally while on what was supposed to be a relaxing holiday; but ultimately, I think I’m better off down here, at sea level, where I can swim happily in the steady ebb and flow of my mind.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
April 2009
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