El albergue

El albergue

Friday, October 29, 2010

Some change

Somehow, the seasons are changing; right under my nose, it seems.  When we got here in late August, it was hotter ‘n’ blazes – you kind of felt scorched if you stayed out in the sun too long.  All of a sudden though, it’s switched to autumn.  Right now, I’m sitting in my room, listening to that particularly soothing sound of rain falling all around the building and to the somewhat testy sound of the wind rushing around the roof and across the windows.  It’s a good time to be inside, to feel cozy, to smell whatever it is that Señora Maria is cooking in the kitchen. 

Earlier this afternoon I went for a walk through El Retiro.  Before, the park was filled with the vibrant green of summer, the busy noise of hundreds of people enjoying days of leisure in the delicious shade of trees nodding gently in the breeze.  Now, there are still a lot of people, but not as many, and those that are there tend to seek out the sunnier spots and shun those cooler areas most frequented during the warmer months.  Many of the trees maintain their differing shades of green still, but the tints of summer are slowly fading into more muted tones of brown, occasionally brightened by a splash of orange or brilliant yellow.  The leaves are beginning to float to the sidewalk, covering the ground in a crisp mantle that crunches with every step.  Before, the sky was a clear blue, highlighted by brightness of the sun.  Now, the sky is darker, slightly ominous in keeping with the slight bite of the air, and looking up from the pathway, the treetops tower against a ponderous background of steely grey clouds.  It’s really quite beautiful; very different, but beautiful in that very difference I guess. 

So now, Madrid is settling softly down through the cushions of autumn to the cold of winter.  I know that when winter comes, it too will be beautiful in its own singular way, but right now, I want to enjoy a little the passing period of fall.  I want to enjoy the colors, the crisp air, the chill without the cold.  I want to take time to watch the clouds scud across the skies, to watch the leaves flutter to the ground.  I want to enjoy Madrid as it is right now, a metropolis in transition, full of the essence of fall.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

All right, I'll say it...I love you!

There’s been something gradually growing on the horizon of my consciousness for the past few weeks, a love that I was only half expecting, a love that has somehow surprised me now that I recognize its existence.  The object of my love?  Madrid.  Yes, I love Madrid. I first began to realize the existence of this affection when we went to Paris.  Yes, Paris is amazing, and I really enjoyed my time there, and I would go back again in a heartbeat, but I literally felt a sense of relief when we were getting on the plane back to Madrid.  It wasn’t just that I was going to be able to understand the people around me again, but more that I was going back to that lovely town, my home away from home, Madrid. 

The second instance that drove home how much I love this city is a dream I had the other night.  For some reason, in my dream, I had to go home during November – it was awful!  I kept trying to figure out how I could get back and stay for the full amount of time that I had been planning on, but somehow it just wasn’t working out.  Madrid had been taken away from me!  And ever since I woke up from that, I’ve been realizing more and more why I like this place so much.

1. El Retiro, of course!  That place is definitely one of my favorites in all of Madrid – it’s so beautiful and peaceful – although I visited the Casa de Campo this weekend, and it’s now hard on the heels of El Retiro.  Both places are filled with trees, benches, crowds of people taking advantage of the good weather, and plenty of lovely spots to sit down and read a good book.  Although, Casa de Campo is by far the larger of the two, as it’s more like a campground/wilderness-ish area, and it also has an amusement park and zoo.  I took a delightful turn around the lake there on Saturday, taking pleasure in the crisp autumn air and the happy splashing of school children out for a rowing excursion, and I look forward to going back sometime soon (before the heralded cold of winter comes).

2. People watching.  There are so many different types of people wandering around great big city – young, old, business-like, touristy, fashionable, loud, quiet, happy, somber, and everything in between.  Hair styles are different, the trendy ones at least – for some reason, a lot of the young guys seem to think that short hair in front goes perfectly with a handful of or fewer dreadlocks in the back.  Oh!  I’m pretty sure that I saw my first toupee in use today when I was on the metro…kind of cool, but pretty creepy.

3. Taking walks through the streets.  There’s so much to see downtown, with pedestrians thronging every sidewalk and vehicles pouring through every street, shops open for business at all hours and little bars and cafes constantly inviting entrance.  On Friday, I went out for a few hours, mostly just walking along, people watching, and taking in the sights and sounds.  It was relaxing.  Of course, near the end there I was pretty famished, which brings me to the next thing I love about Madrid…..

4. The food!!!  Or at least, my host mom’s food…Seriously, she cooks amazing food all the time.  Like today for example: delicious fried potatoes with the perfect amount of salt, garlic red bell pepper, and an amazing joint of baked lamb.  Mmm.  The lamb was full of flavor, tender, juicy, and the outside was just a tad bit crispy.  This was of course accompanied by the requisite chunk of bread, which worked perfectly to sop up some of the garlic olive oil that the bell peppers were in.  Or the other day when she made us some veggie paella – to die for!  Outside of Maria’s cooking though, there are those lovely little things called tapas, and a wide variety of delectable little pastries, sweet and savory!

5. Friends.  I’ve met a lot of really cool people here, although to be honest, most of them are international students like me…ah well, the people are always one of the make-or-break points, right?  I love it when I make friends who just organize a day outside, playing beach volleyball in the polideportivo downtown and throwing in a picnic and an outing to the heladería to pick up some delicious ice cream.  I also love meeting random people in random ways, like the guy who joined us yesterday when we were playing volleyball – nobody had met him before, but hey, why not? 

6. Street performers.  Coming from a small town, I never grew up with seeing people on the street corners, in the parks, or wherever with their crazy costumes, magic shows, and musical instruments.  I like it.  It’s fun hearing accordions in El Retiro, watching performance artists en Puerta de Sol, and listening to snatches of jazz tunes being played on a trumpet in the metro station.  Of course, not all of the performers are that great, like one older woman who insists on singing karaoke in one metro station fairly frequently, but then you also have the really good ones like the three piece string quartet I saw in Sol the other night, and the somewhat random ones like the hippy playing some strange homemade instrument that defies description.

There are tons of other little things that I love about Madrid, but these six are some that I like the most.  Isn’t that always the way of love though?  It’s not a set list of six points that completes the reasons for loving, but one to which new points are always being added, each day a new experience and a new reason to love…Madrid, I love you!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

An oddity: the monastic palace

El Escorial: the chosen living place of King Felipe II, the Prudent, who reigned from 1556 to 1598.  Built in San Lorenzo de El Escorial in honor of said saint, who was martyred on a giant grill during Roman times.  Built to house the über spiritual Felipe and his family.  Built in an odd combination of palace and monastery, royal glory and monastic austerity.  Sequestered in the peaceful quiet of the mountains just north of Madrid, this interesting residence overlooks a sweeping panorama, placed the king above his subjects both literally and figuratively. 

The imposing walls sweep up from a stern courtyard on two sides and on the other two from a sliver of garden that crowns the very edge of the hilltop.  Crowning the various towers that quietly adorn the roof is the cupola of the basilica within the monastery, a reminder that the church reigns supreme over all life within the walls.  There are other reminders of the church throughout the building, from the hundreds of religious paintings to the private rooms adjacent to the quarters of the king and queen that connected them to the basilica and allowed them to attend mass without leaving their own rooms.  The halls and rooms are, for the most part, rather small, with low ceilings and an economy of windows.  Even the rooms where the king met with courtiers are not exceedingly large or magnificent.  One of the largest and most decorated rooms is the Hall of Battles, with vaulted and delicately painted ceiling and a full panel of windows that line one of the walls covered in murals depicting important military victories during Felipe’s reign.  This hall is a sort of history class in and of itself, teaching the viewer a bit about the conquests of the Spanish army while walking its length in open-eyed silence. 

Perhaps the single place in El Escorial that most strongly demonstrates the presence of royalty is the Pantheon of Kings, the burial place of the kings and queens from Carlos I to modern days.  This circular room beneath the basilica, beautifully constructed of marble of various colors, displays the coffins of the rulers of Spain for more than 400 years.  There are a few exceptions of sovereigns who have been buried in other places, but these number in a small minority.  Interestingly enough, this near continuous interment of royal bodies has brought the country to a question of debate:  There are only two more coffins available, which will be filled once the bodies of the father and mother of the current king, Juan Carlos I, have finished decomposing in another location…so where will Juan Carlos be buried?  There is no space for him to be buried with his forefathers.  There is still a fair amount of space in the nearby Pantheon of Princes, but those tombs are for the offspring of kings, not kings themselves.  So where will today’s king and queen be buried when they die?  Who knows?

By far the most majestic area of El Escorial is the basilica, as makes sense, given Felipe II’s supreme devotion to his faith.  Inside, the magnificently frescoed ceiling is held up by towering walls of smooth stone and hangs over an incredible altarpiece that rises from the floor in tier upon tier of painting masterpieces and golden sculptures.  It’s austere and serene, quiet in a sort of ponderous dignity and majesty. Outside, the architecture echoes the feeling of simple dignity, with clean lines that bespeak both power and calm, dominating the complex as a whole.

By far the most beautiful area is the gardens.  From the windows above, intricate designs show up in the calm green of the shrubbery, and from the ground, quiet fountains bubble in the middle of sedate hedges backed by an absolutely gorgeous view – the hills bow their verdant heads at the feet of the palace, giving way to the rolling plane on which the metropolis of Madrid is just visible.  The sun shines gently on the grounds, chasing away the chill that comes from spending the day inside thick stone walls. 

And there you have it, El Escorial, the place from which Felipe II spearheaded the Counter Reformation, from which he directed a country in the middle of its literary Golden Age, from which he commanded the Spanish Armada to sail against England, from which he controlled a veritable empire spanning the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, all the while devoting a large portion of his time to the observance of the Catholic faith in his own basilica and monastery.  Retired and peaceful, it is indeed an oddity in its own fashion, the home of kings, the resting place of kings, a monastic palace, and a palatial monastery.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Snapshots of Paris

Late afternoon on Thursday, the Madrid metro:
I’ve been running around like a chicken with its head cut off.  I had to wait in line at the printing station on campus for 20 minutes to pick up the boarding passes I printed off online in the computer lab upstairs, then I had to run to the grocery store down the street to pick up lunch, then I just missed the train and had to wait impatiently for the next one, then once I got to the apartment building I had to run around like a crazy woman to finish all my packing and somehow fit two big bags of food that Señora María packed for Marisol and me to take on our trip to Paris.  I don’t have a whole lot of time to get to the airport and go through security (I don’t yet know that the flight will be delayed over an hour, giving me extra time), so I feel a little flurried right now, but I guess there’s not much I can do to make the metro go faster.  *sigh*  The woman standing next to me is asking me which stop she needs to get off on if she’s going to terminal 1…I think her calm and friendly wordiness will help calm me down, so here’s to making conversation with strangers on the metro!

Late-ish Thursday night, the hostel in Paris:
We finally made it to our hostel, after a bus ride from the airport that lasted over an hour and a half and the adventure to figuring out how to work the Paris metro system.  We’ve hammered out the room situation at the front desk and rented our sheets and towels, and now we’re up in our rooms…not quite top notch, but we were trying to find the cheapest place near the town center…..  Marisol and I have two really friendly Malaysian roommates who arrived earlier in the day and staked their claim on the lower bunks, so we’re chatting with them as we stow our bags and settle in a little before heading out to explore the surrounding streets for a tad.

Noon-ish on Friday, the Louvre:
We’ve just seen the Mona Lisa!  It was actually pretty small….and surrounded as it was in a huge room filled with paintings that I thought were more beautiful, impressive to the eye, etc, I had to wonder – why is it that this single small painting is one of the single most famous paintings in the world?  Apparently, Da Vinci said that it was his best work, and that’s why it’s so famous.  It is lovely, with perfect detail, but why does he consider it his best when he has so many others that seem to me to be more beautiful?  Ah well, I’m no art major, so I really have no answer, I just form part of the crowd of humanity paying homage every day to this small painting and the artistic genius that it embodies. 

Shortly after:
It seems that my contemplative pace isn’t suited to the tastes of my companions, who like to move along through the exhibits with a livelier step, so they’ve gone on ahead.  I’ll just call them on our cell phones when I’m done to see where they are so we can meet back up……

Around 3 on Friday, the Louvre:
I’ve been wandering around by myself, a solitary sailor floating on the waves of humanity that flow through the halls of this giant palace-turned museum, but now I’m getting hungry and decide that it would probably be a good idea to join back up with the girls.  I turn on my cell phone and realize that it only gets reception in Spain.  Crap. We didn’t set up a meeting place or time since we were relying on our phones.  Crap.  So basically, I’m stuck.  Crap.  This place is gorgeous, but how in the world do I meet back up with my group.  Crap.  Luckily for me, the information desk is extremely helpful and calls the number I give them (my friends have a different server than me, so their phones work), and I’m able to talk with the girls and figure out where they are.  Thank God!

5-ish on Friday, Champs-Élysées:
The Arc de Triomphe is huge!  It dominates this part of what I think the French might call “the most beautiful street in the world,” towering over the traffic that perpetually circles the round-about and vying with the tall stores on either side for preeminence.  It’s covered in names that I’m pretty sure are the names of battles that the French have won in the past, or at least that’s the kind of thing I would expect to be on a monument with such a name as this one has.  Even more interesting, we’ve stumbled across some sort of military ceremony that fills the ground in the middle of the arch, complete with a band, honor guard, large bouquets of flowers, and an impressive array of flags belonging presumably to the different sections of the French army, although oddly enough we spy an American flag in there among the rest.

Friday evening, next to our hostel:
Trying to decide on what to eat for dinner, we’ve fixed upon the little Chinese restaurant right door to where we’re staying.  The menu looked good when we went by earlier, so we step in and follow the owner of the place over to a little table in the corner.  He’s the cutest little old man, friendly and chatty in his own way.  We get our food, and it’s delicious!  I have a curry vermicelli dish, which he says is a really good Singapore chow mein, or something like that, and he speaks the truth – it really is quite delicious.  I’m serious.  Delicious.  The other girls have ordered kung pow chicken, so he’s constantly coming back to our table to refill our water pitcher, each time with an endearing nod of the head and some small comment.  He’s definitely getting a tip.

Saturday morning, walking up the street to Versailles:
The buildings all around us are quite impressive to look at, with imposing architecture, stately windows, and immaculate shrubberies, but we can see the impossibly huge and ornate Versailles growing larger as we get closer, leaving all the rest in the shadows of its magnificence.

Saturday afternoon, Versailles:
We have to stop and take a rest on some of the benches in one of the innumerable rooms.  We’re nearing the end, and our feet are tired.  We are in one of the less crowded areas, so we sit and listen to the free audio guide we picked up at the entrance, learning little odds and ends of information about this particular room.  Once the recording is done, we remain seated for a little while, comparing this room to what we have seen in the chapel, in the Hall of Mirrors, in the King’s Bedroom, in the rooms of state, in the Queen’s Bedroom.  It’s not quite as ornate, but it would still be something else to live in. 

Friday evening, Versailles:
The fountain show is over, so entrance to the gardens is now free.  Yes.  I love free stuff.  We walk through the turn stall into an exquisitely landscaped world planned out to demonstrate the wealth of the French monarchy and all the beauty that it could command.  The flowers seem to be wild at first glance, then you look a little more closely and realize just how carefully they have been placed within the curling fleur-de-lis design of the low shrubs.  Looking down from the giant open area just behind the building, you can see the rest of the grounds laid out in a sweeping expanse of ponds, canals, pathways, and above all trees.  It looks like a veritable forest out there.  Hiding somewhere is Marie Antoinette’s estate, with her own farm and gardens, but I think it would take a good 20 minutes to walk there.  We mean to go visit that area, but instead we decide to relax near the boats tied up around the canal and watch the day fade on the horizon.  It’s beautiful.  Fall is in the air, and the sun is coloring the skies soft hues of orange that peek out from the surrounding treetops.

Friday night, the Eiffel Tower:
As we were walking up to the Eiffel Tower, we thought we were in the middle of some fireworks show – there were tons of blue lights flying up into the sky and floating down to earth in lazy arcs, fierce and happy little sparks.  What it turned out to be was a random little light-up toy that the street vendors were trying to sell to all the tourists.  Their tacticts of demonstration seem to work too, since the three girls I’m with have all bought one and are now laughing hysterically at themselves as they try to figure out how to use them.  I laugh on the sidelines, watching the show as they run around, the river Seine on one side and the beautifully lit Eiffel Tower on the other.

Sunday morning, Moulin Rouge:
We’ve just come from a little flea market we found in the northern part of the central city, and now we’re outside the famous Moulin Rouge.  It looks kind of funny, a bright red building with a bright red windmill on top in the middle of a thoroughly modern street filled with thoroughly modern buildings various shades of gray and neutral tones.  The girls are having a ton of fun taking pictures on what I’m assuming is a metro vent, their scarves and hair blowing around their heads and their smiles wide with nonstop giggles.

Sunday afternoon, just outside Notre Dame:
This cathedral is really quite impressive.  Huge.  Beautiful.  Filled with detail.  And that’s just the outside.  The inside is gorgeous.  It’s filled with artwork, stained glass windows, and gilded chandeliers and such perfectly placed on the imposing stone walls and towering columns to create an amazingly majestic atmosphere.  It’s filled with sightseers, but the ethereal music wafting through the cavernous space fills everyone with a sense of awe and respect.  Outside, the crowd is a little more boisterous, a troupe of break-dancers performs to the delight of the every passerby, and little children fill the air with happy sounds as they play on the seesaws near the bench where we’re eating our sandwiches.

Late Sunday afternoon, a little park in Paris:
When we saw that one of the metro stops was named “Bastille,” I assumed that it was next to the actual Bastille, so I convinced the girls to stop there and see this famous fortress-prison….which was apparently demolished before the 1900s.  So instead of some huge stone edifice, we came out of the metro to see an opera house and a completely modern roundabout with a monument in the middle commemorating the French Revolution.  Luckily, it wasn’t a bust, since after wandering around the surrounding streets for a little bit, we found this charming little park filled to overflowing with people.  The French seem to all come out before dinner and congregate in droves – the grass was completely covered with bodies.  We found a little spot on the grass, and now we’re enjoying the sunshine on our backs and the throngs of people all around us.  We’re people watching, looking up at the square of buildings surrounding us, and trying to figure out if the group next to us is doing some sort of book reading.  It’s quite relaxing.

Sunday evening, the Eiffel Tower:
We’re on top of the Eiffel Tower!  Granted, the wind is more than a bit nippy, but the view is gorgeous.  The city spreads out below us in shimmering light, main thoroughfares forming strong currents that pull along the more dimly lit side streets and outline the face of the metropolis.  The Seine curves away from beneath the tower, flowing silently out into the ocean of humanity that surrounds us. 

Monday afternoon, the airplane taking us back to Madrid:
Our weekend in Paris is over.  There’s so much that we didn’t get to see.  And yet there’s so much that we did manage to fit in during our few days in the city.  Did I enjoy it?  Yes.  Would I go back again?  Yes.  I’m reading Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and come across a passage that makes me smile – it makes me think of everything I’ve seen in Paris and the role it has always played in the world.  It’s the perfect ending to a wonderful weekend, a thought that caps off the whole experience:
“Of bounds and limits, Paris has none…Paris does more than lay down the law; it lays down the fashion; Paris does more than lay down the fashion; it lays down the routine.  Paris can be stupid if it likes; sometimes it indulges in this luxury, and the whole universe is stupid along with it.  Then Paris wakes up, rubs its eyes, and says, “Am I ever stupid!” and bursts out laughing in the face of mankind.  What a marvel, this city!”

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Durn feet

I seem to have developed the most annoying habit lately of kicking steps.  Sometimes it results in nothing more than a stubbed toe and a little precarious teetering, but just as often it seems to involve sprawling awkwardly about and looking like I’m going through a gangly growth spurt again.  I’m not sure if it’s just because my mind wanders and my feet somehow forget that the next step is going to be the exact same distance away as the last one, or if it’s my body trying to speed up the emergence of a mutant second toenail that has been holding a months-long coup as it tries to kick out the one that was there first.  (To those of you who have a strangely irrational fear of feet, sorry about that, but it’s been quite the bother being ashamed to wear open-toed shoes.) 

It started one school day last week.  Marisol and I were walking up the steps that lead out of the train station close to campus, when all of a sudden, I was flailing my arms to avoid landing flat on my face in front of the crowd of other students on their way to class.  (Straighten up quickly!  Glance around to make sure no one has noticed!  Assume an overtly nonchalant air to mask embarrassment….) Again, while walking up the stairs from the basement library behind two classmates, I all of a sudden had to fling out my hand to steady myself as my toe yet again caught the edge of a step, and ended up with my hand on her rear end.  (Ah!  Sorry!  My bad!  I don’t understand what’s up with my feet……) I guess I could say that at least all this kicking of steps helped break in my new ballerina flats a little bit faster……

So I started thinking a lot more about lifting my feet as I went up stairs, trying to evade another encounter between my toes and the unforgiving surface of the steps, but it kind of slipped my mind on Saturday morning when Marisol and I were racing through the metro to try to make it to the early train out to Salamanca.  We were really close on time, so we were literally running up the escalators, when all of a sudden, my feet forgot again.  Yep, I sprawled right there next to a rather surprised woman with a shopping bag who called out “¡Cuidado!” as I somehow scrambled back into the upright position and tried to catch up with Marisol, who was ahead of me.  Unfortunately, I kind of pulled something in the side of my foot this time, given the greater than normal speed of the incident.  And we were planning on spending the whole day sightseeing in Salamanca!  Well, despite our heroic running, we didn’t quite make it in time, so after asking the recommendations of the ticket clerk, we bought tickets to Ávila, the hometown of Saint Teresa and San Jaun de la Cruz.  We wander around the station for a little while (well, Marisol walked and I kind of limped), waiting for our train to arrive, and once we got on there, oh it felt good to stretch out my leg and let my foot rest. 

To be honest, once we got walking and my ankle got nice and loosened up, the day was pretty good, and I was able to enjoy trekking around the old section of Ávila.  It was stiff whenever we got up from any sitting spell though and occasionally rebuked me with slight tinges if I stepped funny, so I tried to take care of it.  I took full advantage of handrails as we went up and down the precipitous steps of the city wall and looked out over the city below.  (Look at that groovy church over there!  Everyone is so little from up here…) I was careful when clambering down into the wild blackberry bushes by the river.  (I told you there weren’t any rattlesnakes, Marisol…)  I gave it the delightful refreshment of the cool wind when I took off my shoes at the lookout point that gave us a view of nearly all the Old Town.  (It’s so pretty!  If only there weren’t two giant cranes doing construction in the middle of all those quaint little streets…Hey!  I think I see a bride and groom taking wedding pictures on the lawn by the wall!) I rested it in the peaceful quiet of the chapel in Saint Teresa’s church, built on the site of the home where she was raised.  (This tour group we happened upon is rather informative, but wait!  Shhh.  Here comes someone to pray.)  I gently stretched it while perusing the museum displays in the sepulchral tunnels underneath the church.  (This would be quite nice, but why do the lights keep turning off?!)  I gave it a breather for a minute in the exhibit on the Vettons, the Iron-Age inhabitants of the region (They made giant statues of bulls?!  Cool!)

By the time we were ready to head, home, I could barely tell that I had strained my foot earlier, and I hadn’t tripped on any more steps that day, so I celebrated with a delightful chocolate-covered churro from a stand that we came across on our way back to the train station.  (Mmmm, so good.) I managed to get on the train without hurting myself, and with our feet up on the footrests in front of us, we watched the beautiful skyline as the sun set behind the hills and illuminated the scattered clouds above with brilliant hues of pink and orange.  Or, at least, we watched as best we could around the woman in front of the window, a thin, bespectacled lady with a prominent upper lip who was in the middle of destroying her very hammy sandwich. 

We arrived home to a slightly confused Señora María, who took a little while to understand that we hadn’t ended up going to Salamanca at all like we had told her.  Once we chatted for a little bit though and cleared up the whole mystery, she led us to the kitchen and fed us yet another delicious meal (oh happiness…).  Soon enough, I was saying goodnight and putting my foot to bed.  Now hopefully I don’t go kicking any more steps any time soon….