Swift(ly): August 31

This year, I swore I’d notice the actual moment in August when the swifts, a fixture of the Madrid sky since spring, hightailed it back to Africa. And then, just like I always do, I missed it. One morning, the swifts’ peep and playful tumble met me when I stepped out on our balcony; the next time I thought to think about them, they’d been gone for weeks.

This, then, is how loss works. You have something — and then you don’t. But the slipstream, quicksilver moment when it actually slips through your fingers is impossible to register or measure. Human beings just aren’t hardwired that way. Maybe it would be unbearable, that knowledge that precious things leave us. Or maybe we’re just clueless.

And now, the swifts are gone. They won’t be back until next year. I appreciated them while they were around but now that they’re gone it feels like not enough.

I thought this was just about birds and the change of seasons, tiny, daily things, but it turns out maybe it’s about something else as well. At first I thought that something else was Covid but maybe it’s not.

Loss accrues, in ways big and small that writers far more eloquent than I have laid out.


Today the war that began when my college sophomore was a baby I pushed in a stroller has ended. So much loss in that 20-year meantime, so many 20-year-olds shipped off to Afghanistan, so much business-as-usual.

Dreamscape

Half a lifetime ago, that night in May when the curfew ended and young people partied in the streets, El Pais published photographs of the bacchanal of heaving bodies congregated in Sol, Madrid’s center. One of which showed a joyous young woman up on somebody’s shoulders: beverage cup in one hand, white, green and black Corte Ingles (Spain’s largest department store chain) plastic shopping bag in the other.

M thought this was hilarious. Had she been coming home from shopping and been spontaneously swept up in the celebrations? Had Corte Ingles arranged this perfect product placement?

The truth was probably more prosaic: people tend to save their Corte bags and use them over and over.

Today’s estimated high is supposed to be 108F/42C. This morning, he and I left the house at 7, hoping to get at least something of a walk in before it became impossible to consider such a thing. We headed straight for the park, figuring it would be cooler under the plane trees.

It was. You could feel the slight, barely-there coolness to the air from a block away. Inside the park, the sprinklers were on. It was still comfortable — relatively speaking — in the shade. Off somewhere, someone was singing.

We know that sound by now — it means the night has been killed, well and truly, as Hemingway would’ve put it (his quote being: Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night) with a botellón (“big bottle”) of public drinking with at least a dozen of your most intimate friends.

By the time we looped around the park, the sun was up and the young people were trudging up the hill and homeward with — you guessed it — Corte Ingles bags in hand.

— Of course! M said. Now I get it. How can you carry a bottle and blanket without your Corte bag?


Translation:: “Madrid empty, but you, full.” Note also that the burger being advertised contains provolone cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

We’ve gone through gallons of iced Earl Grey tea this week. Lots of tomatoes, lots of melon. Five kilo bags of cocktail ice, close enough to my favorite ice in the world, from Sonic. Last night, we ate dinner at 9:45. We live here now, in a way we couldn’t have imagined two years ago.

When we moved here, I actually transferred the stack of unread books on my bedside shelf.

The “to-be-read stack,” augmented with a few borrowed from a neighbor.

Until this week, they remained that way. But over the past few days, I finished For Whom the Bell Tolls and Fountains of Silence and started Travelling Light, Dandelion Wine, and Trouble No Man. (I can’t decide which one I want to settle down with.)

Maybe that’s accomplishment enough, for weather like this.

August

The buskers haven’t packed it in and the construction workers are still on the clock, but you can tell it’s August in Madrid: half the little shops are cerrado por vacaciones, their rolled-down security grilles giving the streets a semi-abandoned feel. When I woke up this morning it felt Sunday quiet, State of Alarm lockdown quiet, not like a regular Monday.

Our portera has gone home to her pueblo for a few weeks; the door to our building stays tightly closed. The elevator sits at our floor between the time I step out of it and the next time I need it: we might be the only people left in the building.

And that could make a pretty good Spanish indie horror movie: What happens to the only person left in their apartment building in August, during the languorous heat, when their empty city turns strange? (In fact, a very sweet Spanish indie movie, not horror, called La Virgen de Agosto, was filmed in Madrid several summers ago).

Until today, I wondered if it had been a mistake to go away in July. So many people we know have left town — it’s hard not to feel abandoned. But today, staying put didn’t seem half bad. Madrid in August has the same celebratory feeling as Atlanta on a snow day. Time shifts slightly; regular rules don’t necessarily apply. And August in Madrid lasts a month, not just a couple of days.

The past few mornings there has been an unexpected bite to the air. Sunday, when I got out before eight a.m. to take advantage of it, the only people in the park were me, a few dog walkers, and half a dozen or so young people gathered around a park bench. The (empty) quart of Mahou beer and (also empty) pre-mixed liter of tinto de verano on the park bench said it all, as if the way they swayed on their feet didn’t. They’d been up all night.

On one hand, you could say, well, there’s a reason for the Delta variant numbers right there. But on the other, maybe they’re seeing in August, the shank of the summer, as it should be acknowledged. August — when the city belongs to the young and broke and the rest of us all take long siestas and sleep late and get things done slowly, if at all.

Passionate Spectator

… for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.

Baudelaire

Years from now, if anybody asks me what I loved most about Spain, I may very well say — six a.m. on a Madrid summer morning. Six a.m. on a Madrid summer morning, when the mercury in the thermometer plunged 30 degrees (F) while I was sleeping. Six a.m., when I step out of our inadequately air-conditioned bedroom into the un-airconditioned hallway and can feel yesterday’s heat, held in the wooden floorboards, in the soles of my bare feet.

Six a.m. on a morning at the end of July, when, out on the terrace, the gradually lightening sky is a dusky velvet ombre; when the swifts arrive from wherever they spend the dark hours; when the chill in the air is almost enough to raise goosebumps.

I’d like to say I get out for a walk at this hour — but I don’t. For one thing, if you didn’t walk home from dinner until 10:00 p.m. the night before, you’re going to need a couple of cups of coffee to get you up and moving. (Here, I want to insert trivia about how much coffee the Spanish drink but it turns out each person only drinks 9.92 lbs a year. The Finnish, at number one, drink 26.45 lbs a year.)

It’s usually between 8:30 and 9:00 before I make it down to the street. While still pleasant, the day already has a bite to it: the heat’s coiled, waiting to strike. The porteros y porteras are fruitlessly mopping the sidewalk in front of their respective buildings. The lady who runs the beauty shop — and it’s a beauty shop, not a hair salon, its patrons all elderly ladies — passes the shoebox-sized sidrería, whose proprietor stands in the doorway.

Coming in? he asks.

Later, later.

A silver-haired man sits at a cafe table with his coffee and a folded newspaper (a newspaper, even now, with its news that was already obsolete by the time it was printed!). — The vaccination, a younger guy stops to tell a woman, the second one. A little further on, an elderly woman with two canes makes her slow way somewhere with her Spanish-style fan protruding from one front pocket of her dressy slacks.

And me? I’m right behind a worker whose t-shirt says los quesos de mi vida.

The cheeses of my life. It wouldn’t work as an advertising slogan back home, but it has such a ring to it, in Spanish.

Medio Gas*

*Half-throttle.

The morning we left Madrid for Catalunya, it became permissible for the first time in almost a year to go without a mask outdoors. By the time we returned, curfews had just been re-instituted in Barcelona. Spain is in the midst of its fifth Covid wave. This isn’t like the last one; hospitals aren’t saturated. But are we standing on a railroad track, playing chicken with a locomotive lumbering straight for us? Only time will tell — I hope not.

By traveling in July, we — like a good portion of Spain — may have jumped the gun. Traditionally, Madrileños plan their escape from the heat-beleaguered city for August. But this year, travel between provinces wasn’t even allowed until June. Who knows what August may bring? Seize the day is the watchword of summer.

All of which means that the Mediterranean’s a shimmering mirage in the rearview. What’s left?

August in Madrid, when life slows to medio gas (half-throttle) and half the shops are closed. August, when only mad dogs and Englishmen venture out in the midday sun. August, when one’s chief aim is to stay as cool as one can as much as one can; to always choose the shady side of the street; to only wait for streetlights to change in the tiny strip of shadow cast by the light poles. To wear wide-legged flow-y pants or dresses resembling burnooses.

Back home, summer heat was just something one passed through quickly, on the way from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned building.

Here, it’s our boon companion. It’s stronger than us. And — who knows? Maybe that’s the way things should be.

Signs of Life

  • Our nearest grocery store, open 24 hours a day pre-Pandemic (which, over the past 14 months, has gone from being not open at all to only being open 11:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m., then 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m., then 7:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.), is now open 24 hours.
  • There are tourists! In Madrid! Standing on the street corners! Studying maps! And the new regulations, which allow travel into Spain (from some countries) with proof of vaccination, don’t even go into effect until tomorrow.
  • As I write this, I can hear a roller-bag being pulled down the street, the once familiar music of Sunday, when Madrileños who escaped the city for the weekend return home.
  • We’re now free to drive out of the region of Madrid. Last Sunday we rented a car and went hiking in an area that lies on the border of the Comunidad de Madrid. Such a simple thing, to drive past the sign that said Castilla y León, just because we could. But to do so completely without anxiety — huge.
  • I don’t know when we last walked through Sol, Madrid’s symbolic center, on a Saturday night. Possibly not for 14 months. Last night all of Madrid seemed to be strolling across Sol’s plaza: families with unhappy teens in tow, older couples holding hands, lovebirds eating ice cream, roving gangs of 20-somethings (one group including a woman in Flamenco garb who clicked castanets as she went).

It would be untruthful to say this feels completely like that old carefree normal, our Before. It’s something else, something new, something that wears masks and uses gel and follows (or chafes at) rules, that lives with a faint shadow, an ever-present but soft hum behind things: will this, can this, last?

Impossible to know, of course, just as it’s impossible to know what life will feel like, long-term, lived in the presence of shadows.

But in the meantime, the ladies of Madrid pull their fans from their purses as they sit on the sidewalk terrazas, a sure sign summer has come. Picotas, the smaller, more flavorful cherries native only to the Valle de Jerte, have arrived in at least a few fruterías. Sometimes in the earliest morning, when I walk out on the balcony, the night-cooled air smells of cinnamon. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know, I just breathe it in.

And overhead, the swifts. Tumbling, swerving, cartwheeling joyously, inhabiting this moment, now.

The Long and Winding Road

First, of course, starting in January were the Facebook posts from the U.S., a trickle, then a flood: vaccinated! (I was such a late FB adopter that my friends list is more curated than most, which allows me to avoid both the fray and anti-vaccine posts.)

Then one friend here went home to England; another was able to get vaccinated at the military base in Cadiz. Then another, who assists in a school, suddenly got her summons. The rest of us told ourselves we weren’t envious. It wasn’t like getting a vaccine was going change anything. We’d still be wearing masks, we’d still be being careful. Until this week, we couldn’t even drive out of Madrid, whether we were vaccinated or not.

El Pais has been very thorough in totting up the vaccinated: first, first-responders and those in the nursing homes; then those eighty and above, which seemed to take months. Then those above 70; then those above 60. Use of AstraZeneca was halted; then it was restarted. Maybe. Honestly, I stopped keeping track.

Then, this past Monday, I was floored to read that people under 50 would start getting vaccinated in June. June? June was only two weeks away! Forget patience. I wanted my shot.

The instructions were that we’d receive a text from Salud Madrid when our time came. I was comfortable with this — in theory. But public health itself is a foreign-enough concept for an American (sadly) without factoring in the (mindblowing) idea that every single person in Spain was going to get a text — and an appointment, and a covid vaccine — from a governmental agency. I’d only gone to my assigned health center once, a year and a half ago. Was I really in the system? And did I really understand what I thought I understood? (I ask myself this multiple times a day, and even in my sleep.) No one we knew under 75 had gotten a text yet, but then again, at 56, I was the oldest of my small sample of Madrid.

Oh ye of little faith!

Only two hours of doubt — and, then, just like that, the text summoning me for my first dose was in my inbox.

The mass-vaccination site I’d been called to was in the auditorium of the hospital just north of us. Brand-new in 1936, Hospital Cliníco San Carlos was the front lines in the fighting for Madrid during the Civil War, when opposing forces fought hall-to-hall inside the building. The hospital was rebuilt after the war; the land just northwest of it is still scarred by mine craters.

My way there took me past the churros stand in front of the hospital; past lottery ticket and Kleenex vendors; past the hospital morgue; past smokers, both hospital staff and visitors, standing beneath the no smoking allowed sign.

My view, after I walked out of the building, was of the far off mountains.

Done.

Spain’s numbers:

According to the latest Health Ministry report, 38.6% of the population has received at least one vaccine dose, representing 15.5 million people.

Quiero Fiesta

Two Saturdays ago, I woke up to a dawn broken by singing. This sounds much more picturesque than it actually was. But at the sound, I carried my cup of coffee onto the terrace and leaned my elbows on the railing to enjoy it.

Two Saturdays ago was also the next-to-the-last Saturday of Madrid’s curfew. For months we’ve had to be off the streets between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Since dinner usually starts about 9:30, this can really cramp a Madrileño’s style. When I looked down into the narrow canyon of the street at 6:30, the singer, who’d clearly waited out the curfew out somewhere and was finally on her way home — stood in the middle of the street, arms outstretched.

A young woman with a lovely voice, she was also what is southern-colloquially known as snot-slinging drunk. Yo quiero fiesta! she belted out operatically and then started to make her wavering way up the street. Turns out, she lives in the apartment building across the street from us: it took her two or three minutes to fit her key into the lock of the lobby door.

The Lord God looks after fools and children.

Last Saturday was the final curfew. The national State of Alarm, which allowed restriction of movement (and is the reason we haven’t left the Madrid province in months), was set to expire at 12:00 a.m. Sunday. Newspapers were referring the hour between 11:00 p.m., when you had to get home, and 12 a.m., when the curfew stopped and you could go back out again as La Hora Fantasma (The Ghost Hour).

The future of the Asturian restaurant that opened on our street a month ago looked grim — until they built a terrace in front of the restaurant, replacing parked cars with cafe tables being a new Covid-era city policy. Now the restaurant does a booming business. On Saturday night, promptly on the dot of 11:00, a group of young guys stood up from their table and started down the street, singing about buena suerte. A cascade of fireworks went off in the distance.

Of course, just because the State of Alarm is over doesn’t mean Covid is. Although things seem to be trending the right direction. The 80-year-olds are finally vaccinated; the 70-year-olds, too.

“People 59 years old and less. Born in 1962 and later. Appointments will be made progressively by age, beginning with those of 59.”

Backstory, In More Ways Than One

Looking back on it, writing poetry was probably my entry point into writing, period. I wrote my first poem in 6th grade; I then set poems aside as one of life’s “childish things” and began writing short stories in college. (Poetry didn’t sell, “they” said, not mentioning that short stories don’t, either.) After a hiatus of 25 years, I circled back. I’m not sure what kind of poet you’d call me. Probably a shy one.

Tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 5, 8 p.m. ET), I’ll read my poem “Metamorphism” as part of the online celebration for the pre-publication of Wayfinding: Poetry Celebrating America’s Parks and Public Lands.

“Metamorphism” had its catalyst in a hike M, Older Daughter, Younger Daughter, and I made from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back, way back (2014) when Younger Daughter was 8, Elder, 12, and I was nearing 50. I wrote an essay about the hike soon after but never did anything with it.

Seven years on, my hips aren’t what they were. It’s hard to know how that hike would sit with me now. Elder Daughter is a college freshman a country away from us; Younger hardly remembers that hike but knows more hiking-lore than M and I ever did.

Time.

It seems like a good time to dust off that backstory.


According to National Park Service surveys, the average visit to Grand Canyon National Park lasts six to seven hours. The average amount of time visitors spend looking at the Canyon itself is 17 minutes, a paltry blink of the eye when juxtaposed with the fact that the Vishnu Schist formation at its bottom is almost 1849 million years old.  The crumbling Kaibab sandstone outside El Tovar Hotel’s sprawling porches at the top is, at a mere 525 – 270 million years old, positively youthful in comparison. 

But no matter how brief a visit you make to the Canyon, it’s impossible to look on it and remain unaware of the majesty of time, whether it’s geologic or more human in scale.  The shuttle buses that ferry visitors from viewpoint to viewpoint along the South Rim are surprisingly punctual (the 7 a.m. Hiker’s Express we took to the South Kaibab Trailhead drew up to the curb at Bright Angel Lodge at 7:01), but the South Rim mostly runs on what visitors sometimes wryly call “Canyon Time.”  Yes, service could be a little more prompt in the El Tovar Dining Room sometimes, but really, what’s your hurry?  As long as you can catch sunrise from the rim, when the silence of the canyon rings like a bell, you’re golden.  Unlike the rest of us, the Canyon doesn’t punch a timeclock. 

By the time we lugged our backpacks up the stairs of our motel room on the rim the night before we started off, it had been five years since I first showed A and P pictures of the cabins at Phantom Ranch.  P was eight now, A, twelve.  As a family, we had hiked hundreds of miles.  With each hike, we had experienced the ways our national parks truly are, as Wallace Stegner put it, “our best idea.”  At Kennesaw Mountain, we had learned the significance of the scallop shell tied to the backpack of a man on the trail (an indication he had hiked El Camino de Santiago in Spain).  In Great Smoky Mountain National Park, I’d admired the fortitude of a couple who packed three days’ of dirty diapers down from the top of Mt. LeConte.  We had seen pristine parks and parks in danger of being loved to death.  A and P had learned to keep themselves hydrated and Leave No Trace.  M and I had learned about teamwork, and to keep up morale.  We had also learned — practically despite of ourselves — something about time.  An eight-year-old will always ask how long until we get there?  In the end, as long as you put one foot in front of the other, you will.   

The night before we set off, the yawning majesty of the canyon 50 feet away from the motel room made it hard for me to sleep.  In some ways, I’d spent the past 12 years preoccupied with safety.  While pregnant I’d done research on the safest crib, the safest car seat, the safest car. A and P’s pajamas were fire-resistant; our kitchen cabinets had been carefully child-proofed when they were younger. Most of the parents we knew seldom let their children play in their front yards because something bad might happen. What had we gotten ourselves into? 

But in the end, hiking breaks things down into their smallest increments.  Success depends simply on putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again. Earlier, we had decided we would periodically evaluate how we (by that M and I mainly meant the kids) felt as we walked. What percent did P feel, I asked as we got off the shuttle at the South Kaibab Trailhead the next morning. 120 percent! she replied.  We waved ahead a group of older hikers who seemed far too cheerful for the early hour.  After asking another hiker to take a commemorative photograph, we adjusted our backpacks one final time, and set off.  The bottom of the canyon was a long way down. 

Throughout the morning, we walked. We drank water.  We ate our salty snacks. We walked some more.  The color of the dust changed as we moved downward through one type of rock formation into the next. Know The Canyon’s History, Study Rocks Made By Time was a mnemonic that would help us remember the different layers, a sunburned river runner on the way down to the river with a client told us during one of our breaks. We walked from shadow into sun. The girls perched on a shelf of reddish rock to watch a uphill mule train pass, the riders who had spent the night before at Phantom Ranch all simultaneously clutching for their saddle horns as their mounts swung around the hairpin turn. When we stopped for lunch, we huddled in the shade cast by the composting toilet at the Tip-off with a group of pink t-shirt-clad women who looked to be in their fifties, who’d met when their children started preschool.  They’d been making hikes “like this” — in Bryce, to Havasupai Falls — for the past six years.

Later, we lingered over our first glimpse of the Colorado, revived by the glint of malachite green far below that bore a tiny raft around a bend.  We caught sight of the Black Bridge over the river being traversed by tiny bright specks— the pink ladies we’d shared lunch with! Slowly but surely, we walked and walked and walked — into Canyon Time. 

We had been assigned Cabin 10, flanked by soaring rock and the tumble of Bright Angel Creek on one side and the hitching post where pack mule trains unload supplies on the other.  After we deposited our packs and stored our snacks in the provided food safe, we returned to the Canteen, where, aside from an occasional foray down to the creek, we would spend the afternoon in the dappled shade, listening to the stories told by fellow hikers.   One couple, retired two weeks before, was making a leisurely trip from rim to rim. One group had had their last visit thwarted by the governmental shutdown the previous fall.  Another group consisted of three generations, including an older man we had seen laboring on the trail as we descended, who muttered that this trip to the bottom would be his last one.  Those who gathered underneath the cottonwood trees, whether mule riders or hikers, had two things in common: everyone was overjoyed to be where they were, and when they stood up, their sore muscles protested.  Most of us, M observed, were walking a little bit like ducks.    

  

Later that evening, after a hearty supper of Hiker’s Stew, cornbread, chocolate cake and — miracle of miracles!—fresh salad, we all headed to the nearby outdoor amphitheater for the nightly ranger-led talk. The light faded from the sky; the shadowed canyon walls were drained of their rosy hue. A tiny twinkle far above us on the rim indicated the location of the Yavapai Geology Museum, where telescopes make it easier to glimpse Bright Angel Creek far below.   Up top, visitors were congregating on the porches of El Tovar to gasp over the sunset.  The buses full of tired tour-goers were headed back to Vegas. 

But all that felt very far away.  Earlier, A’s legs had carried her swiftly down South Kaibab Trail.  Later in the afternoon, P had crouched over a dam she’d constructed in Bright Angel Creek.

Somehow, putting one foot in front of the other, we had come to an oasis.  Here, communication with the outside world required a pay phone (the Instagram-savvy girls had never seen such a thing).  Here, our bodies fell into older, less complicated rhythms:  later that night we would fall asleep before nine p.m.. We’d awake the next morning before sunrise, refreshed.  

Life is full of sweet spots like this, when everything is exactly as it should be, although we’re often too distracted, too hurried, and too fearful to recognize them for what they are when they occur.  We might, in fact, live in a world that’s almost inimical to recognition of them. And how many of us are any good at carving out the space in which things like serendipity or mindfulness can even occur?

One doesn’t need to travel all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to find that sort of space, of course. But somehow, in the Canyon’s vast reaches — because of its very vastness — it is able to remind us how beautiful time is, no matter how tiny and inconsequential the granules of it might initially seem to be.     

That night, a ranger strode to the front of the outdoor amphitheater.  Introducing herself as Mandy, she stooped to light a lamp.  After she finished her talk, that same lamp would cast just enough light to show us the way back to our home for the night, which was also not-home.

Only one percent of all visitors to Grand Canyon National Park ever visit Phantom Ranch, Mandy said by way of introduction.  What did that make all of us?

Nuts, a voice called out in the darkness, and we all laughed, rueful but proud.

El Día del Libro/World Book Day

Today is International Day of the Book. Who knew? Certainly not us Americans, unless something changed since I left the States a year and a half ago. But here in Spain, people really celebrate el Día del Libro. This might be because Spanish people love festivities in general. It could be because the celebration was the idea of a Spanish writer, as a way to honor Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, who died on April 23. (So did Shakespeare.) It could be because April 23 is St. George’s Day; Saint George/Sant Jordi is the patron saint of Catalunya; the day is marked by giving gifts of roses and books.

It wasn’t until I saw a woman carrying a single rose down the street today that I remembered what day it was.

Monument to Spanish author Juan Valera. His character “Pepita Jimenez” sits at his feet, book open on her lap.

In 2014,  Madrid had 16 books stores per 100K people, more than NY (10), Paris (9), and London (4). A few weeks ago, I set out to count how many bookstores there were just in our tiny neighborhood, but I gave up after I got to eight.

Street art by Primo Banksy; tribute to poet Federico García Lorca.

I’m off to buy books. Happy World Book Day.