Peregrinations

The swifts are back, to surf the canyons between the apartment buildings. I’d been waiting for them and waiting for them, taking comfort from the idea of their long flight from Africa and eventual return to Madrid. Yes, the future’s uncertain, but the swifts’ peregrination is a constant, one of the world’s mysterious mechanisms.

They operate independently of us, above the fray.

A few weeks ago, I saw a single dark speck flung out against the sky and got excited — and then, nothing. Until this morning. Now I keep the window open, the better to hear their wild, comforting weep-weep.

We take our nature where we can find it, here in the city.


On Saturday, our grocery shopping finished, we made our way home past probably a dozen restaurants, each of them with its interior empty and its sidewalk tables full (sitting outside being perhaps the biggest Madrileño concession to Europe’s 4th Covid wave).

Contrary to what I thought when I first got here, not all Madrid hole-in-the-walls are worth stopping for, no matter how picturesque they might look. A plate of potato chips with slices of second-rate ham draped atop it tastes about as good as you’d expect. Croquetas, bits of this-and-that bound together by bechamel sauce and breaded and fried, taste (to my mind at least; a sacrilege to admit) a little like fried baby food.

But at two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, everyone was at the cafes. Families with kids whose plastic toys were spread across the white tablecloth. Older couples, groups of friends. A warm spring weekend in a European city is a joy to behold. As we walked past restaurant after restaurant, I realized I hadn’t experienced that sight in Madrid, even though in July I’ll have been here two years. Last spring, my first, was pretty much of a wash, because of La Cuarentena.

Halfway between our apartment and the bakery, there’s a corner restaurant with a blue-and-white tiled facade, too humble to be listed in any guidebook as far as I know. Its chalkboard menu runs heavily to mushrooms and looks intriguing, but usually there aren’t any tables free when we walk past. This past Saturday, I stopped to peek at the case just inside the door, where the day’s mushrooms are displayed on plates.

Morels! Morels must be foraged for, not farmed. I’ve looked for them in the mountains of North Carolina with my sister-in-law: we found three. But here they were, enough to be heaped on a plate — and there was an empty table on the sidewalk. I set to work with my Spanish of a three-year-old.

Was there a free table?

The waiter pulled out a notepad and frowned at his penciled scrawl.

— Reservations, he said.

—For what time? I countered. We just want something to pick at, we just need half an hour.

He relented, repairing the table’s wobble with a wedge of wine cork shoved beneath one leg. The morels came in a homely brown terracotta dish, in a paprika-laced sauce, and as we sopped it up with bread, I considered their mushroom-ness: What had the trees they’d grown beneath looked like? Who was the mushroom hunter that foraged them? (I imagined an older gent who’d guarded his foraging site for 50 years). And just how had they gotten from there to here?

They were delicious —but we almost didn’t get them. Before I talked to the waiter, I looked up the word for morels in Google Translate, always a bad idea, and then asked for a portion of them (morilla). He looked puzzled and said another similar-sounding word (morcilla). — ¡Si! I said in relief. While we were waiting for our order, I kept looking at the menu written on the chalkboard and realized we were were about to get a plate of blood sausage.

He might’ve been irritated by the change in our order but morels cost a whole lot more than blood sausages do.


An election has been called for the Community of Madrid for May 4; campaigning started Sunday. Politics here is filled with acrimony and strife, usually pitting Madrid’s ruling party against the national government. (It’s a good thing I can’t understand much of what’s going on, since I have my hands full with my own country’s bitter divisions.)

On Monday, the Community of Madrid announced new health zone closures. This is the Community’s so-called surgical response to rising Covid cases, the idea being … actually, I don’t know what the idea is, really. Our little health zone was closed back in October for six weeks, and the fact that we were only supposed to leave the zone for work or school or to go to the doctor was supposed to lower the numbers. Since everyone walked in and out of the zone as they pleased, you can imagine how helpful this was.

Our cases are again some of the highest in the Community, but cases are even higher in the zone 6 blocks away from us, so it has been closed, along with the area where both my Spanish school and doctor’s office are.

Yesterday, I spent hours walking in and out of both confined areas, completely unaware of any of that. The main thoroughfare I took has been plastered with banners for the current president of the Community’s campaign.

Its motto?

“Freedom.”

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