El Puente

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8 a.m. Constitution Day 2019, the view from our terrace. Everybody’s still sleeping. 

Madrid is a city of over 3 million (if you include its suburbs, over 6 million) and for me, one of its loveliest characteristics is the way it luxuriates in holidays. Today is Constitution Day; Monday, the Day of the Immaculate Conception (it refers to the Virgin Mary’s conception, not Jesus’s, for those of you, like me, who didn’t know).  A long weekend like this creates what’s known here  as un puente – a bridge.  In the past, whenever holidays happened to fall midweek, it was customary to also take off any days that fell between it and the weekend, creating un puente.  After the Spanish financial crisis, many holidays were moved to Mondays or Fridays, but the habit of calling the long weekend a puente remains.

This morning, the quiet in our Madrid neighborhood is as thick and enveloping as the best feather duvet. You can literally wrap yourself up in itThe narrow elevator in our building, which usually stutters to life at 7:00, either an early-shift worker leaving or a diligent jogger, sits silent.  I’ve only heard one persiana, as the metal shutters  one rolls down over their windows are called, being hauled up, instead of the usual early-morning rattling chorus.  This is the sort of quiet that only comes to Atlanta on Christmas , or a gloriously unexpected snow day.

Today also marks the beginning of our sixth month here.  Six months!  Not much, in the long and short of it, but humans, it seems, are amazingly adaptable.  Whether they plan to or not, they settle in.

Yesterday, I sat for a grueling 2 hour Spanish exam — spoken, written, listening — to see if the language school where I take classes would let me press on to the next level, B1, with a new crop of hung-over youngsters and  tourists who dabble  for a week or two and then disappear and the friend from A2 that I cling to like a port in a storm.

The Imperative will be the death of me, indirect object pronouns are a most terrible pitfall, but I have to admit I enjoyed pretending the examiner was a shopkeeper and I, a customer who needed clothes for a party.

I’ve never been so proud of a score of 77 in my life.

I  went from there to the pharmacy, where I butchered Spanish like a bull in a china shop (como un toro en una farmacia?) But I got what I needed, and the pharmacist even smiled.

El Puente.  The Bridge.  Maybe that’s the stage after You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know and Words Fail — The Bridge.  Things are in flux, we are betwixt and between, neither here nor there, but the view from up here is lovely, and, this morning, tranquility rings though life like a bell.

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The pundits, who about as often as you’d expect are expats themselves, have concluded that relocation to a foreign country means not only travel from here to there, known and unknown, and familiar and strange.  It also requires emotional travel  — through a series of distinct stages that actually aren’t all that different, once you really start thinking about it, from Kubler-Ross’s famous stages of grief.

Except that grief’s first stage — Denial — is replaced with the expat’s Honeymoon. (Which one could argue might just be a more positive sort of denial itself.)

During your Honeymoon, a thrill runs down your spine whenever you spot a local strolling down a busy city street with a baguette under their arm (extra points if they’re tearing hunks from it as they go).  Indecipherable packaging for unknown products in the grocery store can entertain you for hours. The old men bellied up to the bar on the corner who drink beer at 8 in the morning are exotic, not to mention picturesque. Even the sound of sirens, so evocative of the foreign films you saw at 20, makes you happy.

Time passes, about six months, according to the experts. If this were grief you were coming to terms with, you’d be moving into Anger and Depression.  The expat version: Frustration. Baguettes serve as the jaunty scaffolding for every canvas shopping bag simply because people here have  to go shopping —and buy bread — every single day.  Otherwise, your baguette will be stale, and besides, your kitchen can’t hold more than a day’s worth of groceries.  In this stage, you’ve stopped noticing the way everybody gathers at the sidewalk cafes, only that everybody who does so is smoking, no matter the tobacco pouches sitting on the wrought iron tables in front of them are printed with photos of cancerous mouths and the words Fumar Mata (Smoking Kills).

Next stage.  Grief requires Bargaining, but the expat has already rocketed ahead and reached — Acceptance.  You’re no longer disappointed when you wake up to yesterday’s rock-hard bread.  It doesn’t bother you that you can’t eat dinner in a restaurant until after 8:30, or that the shop where you buy your baguette is closed whenever you have time to go there.

It is what it is  is grief’s final stage, but the expat gets a bonus, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow:  Assimilation.  Now, you don’t even get hungry until ten o’clock at night anymore.  You too nibble the end of your baguette as you stride down the street to stave off hunger. You’ve taken up smoking!

It’s a neat exercise, a pretty enough picture (though I’d argue that very few expats ever reach assimilation). But five months in, five months gone from home, I’d divvy things up otherwise, from a first stage of You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know to Words Fail and then to — what?

It’s too early to say.  I haven’t gotten there yet. Words, in fact, fail me.  At the beginning, in my honeymoon phase, I not only figured a year of Spanish taken over 30 years ago would get me farther than it realistically could, I also thought if I applied myself diligently, I could crack the code.

Of what?

Everything.

I’m of two minds about the whole endeavor.  Which endeavor?  This, these bytes and bits and blogs.  These words. Because instead of bloodshed these days, we seem to have come to a sort of wordshed,  a gout, a spill, a fountain, from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the granulated to the broadest brush.

You should keep a blog, people would say while I was busy packing up there in preparation for here.  I’ve spent four months thinking why?  A blog and five bucks will buy you a latte.  What is there left to say about being a stranger in a strange land that hasn’t been said 5 billion times before, from Baedeker to Hemingway to Rick Steves?

Nevertheless, the impulse remains — to describe. The jamón sits in the shop window at full extension, vegetarian nightmare, a Rockette’s kick.  The cypresses are spears in the park, narrowly European.  The old man with his cane comes into the frutería heaped high — in summer you eat tomatoes and now you eat what God put into the ground to be eaten.  They’ve come!  he says joyfully,  waving his cane toward the bins of chestnuts in benediction.

I’m from a much younger country, our chestnuts disappeared in the 1920s.  I don’t even know how you eat them!  I’ll  never know enough about this country to tell any story beyond that of the typical expat — but then again, maybe, if I’m lucky, I can snap a few good photos along the way, and try my best, to describe things.

 

Words Fail

Beautiful

I don’t remember exactly when during our tenure living south of Interstate 20 the passionate debate about Confederate Avenue first became so — well, passionate — but I do remember the first time I ran across the street name.

We’d been living in Atlanta for about nine months and I was house-hunting. I came across a listing for a house in southeast Atlanta on Confederate Avenue, and though the better story would be that I elected not to take a look at it because of the name of the street it sat on, the reality was that I passed it by because it had trey ceilings in its living room.

Confederate Avenue.

For years, whenever something really bad happened in the wide world, people in Grant and Ormewood Parks, the neighborhoods Confederate runs through, would use the Nextdoor online forum to debate whether or not the name should be changed. “Considerate Avenue” was suggested as a replacement. So was “United Avenue,” referring more to Atlanta’s soccer team, the Atlanta United, than to any meeting of the minds about a potential name change or even for the need for one.

The online debate would ebb, and it would flow. Occasionally, when I took a walk through the neighborhood, I’d notice that one of the street signs would be spraypainted out. Once, a home-made sign — “Considerate Ave” — had been duct-taped over the more official one.

Then, Charlottesville happened. Sentiment that the street name should be changed, while still not unanimous, grew. Discussions about it became more organized and jumped off-line and into real life.

After meetings, after listening sessions, after straw polls taken over new name ideas, after A.P. wire stories were picked up and nationally run, the Atlanta City Council voted unanimously this past October that the name of Confederate Avenue should be changed to United Avenue.

Confederate Avenue, so named because it ran in front of the Confederate Soldiers’ Home built in 1900. Dig a little deeper, and you discover that construction of the Home, one of Henry W. Grady’s pet projects, may have been at least in part a sop thrown to disaffected rural farmers who felt that the urban “silk-hats” in Atlanta didn’t have their interests at heart. If those farmers, many of whom were veterans, (because the Civil War was, above all, “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”) became too disgruntled, they might form a third political party, which in turn might allow the Republican party — whom newly-franchised African-Americans might vote for — to influence, if not, throw, elections.

There’s a story behind every story.

Dig deeper still and you learn that the Old Soldiers’ Home cornerstone contained “Confederate currency, some minie balls, letters from Jefferson and Varina Davis… and a copy of Lee’s plans on how to use blacks in the war.”

This morning, intent on the music spilling from my earbuds and the to-do list running through my head, I walked past an idling City of Atlanta Public Works truck and just happened to look up.

Y’all putting up the new street signs? I blurted out, surprised.

Yes, one of the workers said.  Cautiously, it seemed to me, or was I reading into things?

—I’m so happy to see them! I said.  Full of pride in my adopted city, I was.

—It’s a beautiful day in Atlanta, the worker said, smiling, a beautiful day.

It was in fact a gray day, one promising rain, but I agreed wholeheartedly, and the two of us grinned at each other, and then I walked on.

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Pubs, Fall Version

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My story, “Dirty South,” is now out in the spring/fall issue (volume 38.2) of Mid-American Review!  Though it’s not available online, single issue copies are available for purchase here.

All of us were all from somewhere else.

Although more and more often, the somewhere else we were from hardly existed. It had been swallowed up. By what? We hardly even knew ourselves. All the same, that somewhere else was still our template.

There had been cul-de-sacs there, we thought (a dim memory), and newspapers tossed onto lawns at four o’clock each afternoon, by a boy older than us who had had a good bike and a pitcher’s squint.

There had been nothing to do.

There had been sprinklers.

We had rushed from that somewhere else to this place, and on our way we’d sped past billboards advertising things that were just up the road, and eroded red-clay gullies, and mare’s nests of barbed wire and discarded tires. All knit together by a green tangle of vegetation that had gotten out of hand.

The lumpy green blanket of kudzu that covered everything was our birthright. We had read our James Dickey back at Georgia and Auburn and Tech and Alabama, and we knew about the land we’d inherited. We knew it was a falsehood, that if you opened your windows at night (a thing none of us had done since we had lived in the unair-conditioned somewhere else of our childhoods), you could hear it growing. It was a falsehood that its broad, handed leaves smelled of the Kool-aid we hadn’t drunk since then either. Or that in the dark it sent questing fingers over the blacktop of county-maintained roads.

We knew all these things. But none of us had ever seen what lay underneath it.

Pubs, Summer Version

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My story “Sunshine” has just gone live at Failbetter.com, which has a lovely layout and  the hands-down best tagline of the literary web:

Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.  —Beckett

“Sunshine” is set in the Rio Grande Valley, circa about 2012, which was the last time I was down there.  I’d probably have to write a different story if I used the Valley as a setting right now — borders conjure up different things now than they did  just five years ago.  I’m glad I caught it at the moment I did.

Taking care. It seems like such an innocuous statement. Take care, Glory had said before Tina hung up this morning. Tina is taking care of things for now, down in the Valley. Take care. Such an acquisitive phrase, as if care is something you have to reach out and grab.

Glory calls twice a day. Once, for the real report relayed by Tina, and once, when she talks to their mother. How is she eating? Sleeping? Is the weather nice? Glory seems to have forgotten the wind incessantly rustling the palm trees, the sky so pale it has stopped being blue. Mami is taking care, greedily, with both hands, because care, as it turns out, is something the world only stingily parcels out.

Blink and You’ll Miss It

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Twenty years ago, about two weeks after The Husband and I moved to Atlanta, I set off one afternoon in search of the closest Baskin-Robbins (his favorite birthday cake:  ice cream).  This was harder back then than you’d think .  For one thing, the car I drove  was over 34 years old, a Ford with a metal dashboard that could be hosed off after you wrecked it, which wasn’t that unlikely, considering that the brake pedal had to be mashed a good 75 feet before I actually wanted to come to a stop.  (And yes, Fords were colloquially described as “Fix or Repair Daily” for a reason.)

For another thing, finding places was  different order of business back in 1998.  I’m sure I used the phone book to look up addresses of Baskin-Robbins stores, am positive I used a paper map to plot my route there.  What I knew about Atlanta geography at that point could’ve fit in a thimble, but I knew Memorial Drive— it wasn’t far from our apartment in Little Five Points.

Memorial was then, and is now, the east-west four-lane  running roughly from downtown Atlanta eastward to Stone Mountain.  Memorial rather than the Fair Street it  started its life as, maybe because of a great plan never seen to fruition to create memorials to veterans of the Spanish-American and Great War all along its length, or maybe because much of  the Battle of Atlanta had been fought over and around its high ridges.  My sentiments the first time I drove it? That it was one of the most blighted streetscapes I’d ever had the opportunity to  set foot on.

For the past two-plus years, I’ve driven it, mostly on auto-pilot, to and from work, thankfully against traffic.  Like so many things about Atlanta I despised when I first moved here, I’ve grown some affection for it (although not for the light at Memorial and Moreland which is always out-of-sync).

Ground zero for tremendous amounts of development, Memorial Drive is a liminal space these days, part old Atlanta, part new,  the new gaining the upper hand every day that passes.

Blink and you’ll miss it.

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Moreland and Memorial

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Maynard Terrace and Memorial, in the convenience store parking lot.

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—How long you had your stand here? —Bout 12 years.  —People buy stuff?  —’Course.  I wouldn’t be sitting out here if they didn’t. 

 

 

 

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Abandoned apartment complex, Memorial and Moreland.

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You can’t keep a good kudzu patch down.

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Yard Art.

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Wyatt’s, Maynard Terrace and Memorial

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Franken-Pine Cell Tower, Candler and Memorial

 

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Signs of the times.

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Memorial at the Beltline:  The future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades.