Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spain 1: Me encanta Madrid.

“Going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” – Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”

Hallway of the Reina Sofia.

No, I didn't get away from myself ~ but I did get away from Morocco for awhile this summer. Five nights at a yoga/reiki retreat in Andalucia, followed by four nights in Madrid. I traveled solo, purposefully. A quiet, restful break from the rigors of Peace Corps life. (insert sarcastic smirk here).

Seriously, I needed the break. And it was nice to find I can still butcher Spanish as badly as I currently butcher Arabic.

Madrid was everything I wanted in a vacation. I walked and walked the historic streets of the city center. I would meander around a bit in the morning, find a place to sit and have an iced latte while reading the International Herald Tribune/El Pais, then head off to a museum, passing majestic churches and historic buildings on the way.

I wore makeup and a tank top and a knee-length skirt, and was not bothered once in four days. I got a pedicure. I read five books* ~ in fact, I had to restock and was grateful to find a bookstore with some English selections. I bought street art, and postcards, and souvenirs for my host family, and some Morocco-appropriate tops for only 6 euros each. I snacked on tapas and calamari, and splurged my last night on a seafood paella.

And I will admit that for some reason I indulged in a daily habit of Oreo McFlurries at the nearest McDonald's. Y'all know how I feel about chains, what they do to our eating habits, our economies, our environment. And yet, it felt oddly ... comforting.

When I tired of walking or needed a break from the museum, I stopped at an outdoor cafe and sipped a glass (or two!) of very cold, very crisp white wine. I did this several times a day. Retox, I liked to call it, giggling to myself behind the pages of my book.

(Those of you who can enjoy any of these small luxuries at any time have no idea how lovely it was to revisit a world where they are so readily available.)

My main purpose in choosing Madrid (besides the inexpensive flight from Marrakech) was to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting Museo del Prado. And it was just as quietly spectacular as you might imagine. Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Carravagio, Titian, Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" ... and so much more. My favorite: Rubens' version of "The Three Graces," beautiful women drawn with such tender love even when they're "of an age." Spent the better part of a day at the Prado and still didn't see Bellini, Botticelli ... I guess I'll just have to return.

But, to me, the real gem of Madrid turned out to be the Reina Sofia, Madrid's modern art museum. Famous for being the home of "Guernica," Picasso's giant statement on the horrors of war, the Spanish Civil War in particular. It's enormous, overwhelming. But that wasn't the half of it. The Reina Sofia was without a doubt the best museum I (an amateur appreciator, to be sure) have ever visited. A sizeable collection of Picassos, of course, as well as Dali, and the usual modern masters (Duchamp, Rothko, Lichtenstein, Calder). But just so full of works by people I'd never heard of, that mesmerized me by content rather than name. Painting and film and sculpture and installation. I had to leave for lunch and come back, and again for a snack (and, yes, some more wine) before returning to love it some more. And I'm not a museum person, really. That's how great it was.

My third highlight was accidentally discovering the Royal Botanical Gardens, a 20-acre stretch next to the Prado, ill-advertised and hidden by a marble and iron fence, giant yews beyond. I smelled it first, damp humusy fertile earth that almost made me cry with homesickness for my own garden. (Well, actually, it did make me cry.) Another morning spent wandering through plots of yuccas and rosemarys and grasses and sculpted privet and meandering thymes. I wished I could've slept in there, in that damp earth smell.

Madrid. I miss it. I slept well in a private room (24 euros/night) the size of a closet but with the luxury of a ceiling fan, in a hostel where not until I arrived did I realize the proprietor was of Moroccan heritage. He didn't understand a word I said in Arabic; whether that was because of my language-butchering or because he never learned the language of his origins, I never determined.

I'm posting just a few photos here, and yoga photos farther down; many more are available on my Flickr site.

I was afraid that in returning to my dusty Moroccan village, I would lose all the calming benefits of my vacation. I needn’t have worried. Same old ups and downs here (up = crowds of kids running to greet me every time I turn a corner, my favorite transit driver telling me how much my Arabic has improved; down = crowds of young men trying constantly to get my attention, Berber women telling me I really can't speak Arabic very well, can I?)

Mostly, though, it’s been ups. The dar chebab reopens today, inchallah. I look forward to moving ahead and finally getting some work done. And to booking a flight home in December, my next getaway.

Street musician outside the Prado.

Picasso's "Woman in a Garden," with the giant "Guernica" in the background.

Sculpture outside the Reina Sofia.

One of my favorite finds at the Reina Sofia, a 1937 piece by photographer Jose Renau photograph: "Shedding her outer layer of superstition and misery, from the immemorial slave there emerged THE WOMAN capable of active participation in the making of the future"

One of many beautiful churches.

Mercado de San Miguel ~ the Williams Sonoma of mercados. Wine bar, organic nuts in bulk, fruit and veggies lovingly cradled in (recycled paper?) nests rather than dumped into plastic crates as I'm used to.

Graffiti at an alleyway cafe.

Nebraskans, can you imagine a Ministry of Agriculture building as majestic as this one?

Street art purchased in the park across from the Prado.

Toilet paper art sculpture in Plaza Mayor.

I loved this prominent PSA campaign spread across Madrid:
"Shit sack: Plastic bags jeopardize the lives of many animal species."

* Books read in Spain.
1. Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World, Mary Pipher
2. Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, Natalie Goldberg (third read?)
3. Unaccustomed Earth: Stories, Jhumpa Lahiri
4. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (and just as it takes him halfway through the book to get to Spain, it took me equally as long to realize I've read this one before. But such a delight to actually read Hemingway in Spain!)
5. The Best American Short Stories 1999, Amy Tan, editor


Rachel said...

I've read two other Lahiri books and really enjoyed them. How was the one you read? Do you still have it? Your blog was great - it made me feel all nostalgic for something I've never seen :-)

Melissa said...

Ah, I love to hear that Madrid was so lovely. Sounds like you got recharged. Thinking of you very much today!