Old Chestnuts

Anyone who loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books knows by now that like so much else from our childhood, those books, and that liking, have suffered a sea change.

Propaganda for an America that never actually existed in the first place, it’s hard now to read the Little House books in the spirit in which they were intended. (In what spirit were they intended?). It feels a little suspect to admit liking them, and probably will feel more so as time passes, but here’s the thing, or a thing: Wilder was really good at talking about food.

Thursday, Thanksgiving, is just a regular day here in Madrid, but I was able to snag canned pumpkin and cranberries at the American-food chain store last week (everything else on its shelves is either candy, cereal, or bbq sauce, which speaks volumes about America). Because the girls are still in the U.S. having their own peculiar versions of the holiday, our Thursday will just be the two of us. Maybe I’ll use that canned pumpkin — maybe I just won’t bother.

The plot of The Long Winter, the Laura Ingalls Wilder book that was always my favorite, basically boils down to this: it snows a whole lot, the trains with their carloads of supplies can’t get through, and for most of the book, Laura and her family grind flour in their coffee grinder and twist hay into kindling in order to survive.

Survive they do, of course, because The Long Winter is a kid’s book after all. By May the snow that blocked the train has melted, and Pa arrives home from the train station with the Christmas barrel sent from back east six months before.

“Now I wonder what this can be?” Pa said, as he lifted from the very bottom of the barrel something bulky and lumpy that was wrapped around and around with thick brown paper.

“Je-ru-salem crickets!” he exclaimed. “If it isn’t our Christmas turkey, still frozen solid.”

He held the great turkey up where all could see. “And fat! Fifteen pounds or I miss my guess.” And as he let the mass of brown paper fall, it thumped on the floor and out of it rolled several cranberries.

Carrie shrieked with delight. Mary clasped her hands and said “Oh, my!” But Ma asked, “Did the groceries come for the stores?”

“Yes, sugar and flour and dried fruit and meat — oh, everything anyone needs,” Pa answered.

“Well then, Mr. Boast, you bring Mrs. Boast day after tomorrow,” Ma said. “Come as early as you can and we will celebrate the springtime with a Christmas dinner.”

In a few hours, the Madrid government decides whether to keep our health zone, already pretend locked-down since mid-October, locked down for two more weeks. Every morning I wake to ominous shared FB posts from health care workers in the States, the sorts of posts that thankfully dwindled during the summer.

The idea of a raincheck becomes more and more attractive, particularly the way Laura Ingalls Wilder describes it:

And as they sang, the fear and the suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music. Spring had come. The sun was shining warm, the winds were soft, and the green grass growing.

The Realm of Magic

At ten in the morning, when I walk to Spanish class, Madrid is just waking up (it’ll continue this leisurely process until about 9 p.m.). Porteros y porteras pensively mop the sidewalks in front of their buildings, even if it’s cloudy and the skies might crack open in a few hours. At ten, the cafes are divided between those who drink coffee and those who drink beer. The high school students jostle on the street in packs, smoking cigarettes, a sight that never fails to appall me. Elegant young women, dressed to the nines, agilely wend their way through the traffic on their Vespas. There are lines, to remind that these aren’t normal times: in front of the health office, the unemployment office, the covid-test laboratory, the bakery that currently only lets in people one at a time.

This morning, as I walked, I decided Spanish class might be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and also that I don’t want to do it anymore.

That I can consider learning a language that difficult shows what an exceptionally easy life I’ve had. (Or maybe how bad at languages I am.) But the thing is, most things that are very very hard, like going through childbirth or watching someone you love die, either take place fairly quickly or you somehow manage to extract yourself from, mentally, out of self-preservation. But learning a language just goes on and on and on, unless you’re a baby. A 50+ year-old brain is not as malleable as a college student’s, and by 50, being wrong all the time stings more. Besides, when you’re the only student in a class, the situation in which I currently find myself, it’s impossible to detach. The whole point is not to — to be present.

In order to get the sort of discount that allows a person to be able to take language classes for over a year, I pay for my classes in “packages.” And now, as the year draws to a close and covid cases ramp up, just one more class and I’ll have used up my current package. It would be so easy — to just pull the plug on on the whole endeavour.

This was an enjoyable fantasy to indulge in. No more telling someone “I needed the exorcism” when what I really meant was I needed the exercise. No more attempting to debate bullfighting or write a rhyming poem. No more being the recipient of rolled eyes, whether from the beggar who called me perra (bitch) or the man who asked me where the Chino was (Chino is colloquial racist slang for the equivalent of the Dollar Store) only for me to answer that I hadn’t seen anyone from China while I was standing there, but many Chinese students took classes in the building behind me.

An eon ago, when I was first being introduced to the subjunctive mood, a teacher attempted to explain it thusly: you use it to talk about things that aren’t factual, to discuss things that, rather, exist in some realm of not-sureness, of unknowingness, of magic.

This left three-fourths of the class even more bewildered than before.

But — desires are in the realm of magic, likewise emotions, negative opinions and giving advice. Agreement is fact, disagreement — the realm of magic.

If you believe something, it’s fact; if you don’t, you just pop it into that vague, unknowable realm of magic. As I walked to class, I imagined a future without Spanish class. I’d just speak in very simple sentences, since connectors confound me. I’d never use the imperative. I’ll avoid that realm of magic like the plague, constructing my sentences only with positive opinions. I’ll never ever make suggestions!

I was feeling good about this plan when I walked into the classroom.

My current teacher, R, who’s really a philosophy professor except there’s more work for Spanish teachers than philosophers these days, asked about my weekend and waited patiently through my strangely-worded response. He played a radio interview and I attempted to guess what the hell people were talking about. He played me a song by a famous Spanish musician and explained its metaphors; I wrote a new stanza for it. I tried to make jokes; he smiled — I think, I hope — underneath his mask.

One class down, one more to go, I thought after I said good-bye.

But R had done what good teachers do, pushing open the door to understanding just a tiny bit more, just wide enough that I could catch a glimpse of the realm of magic that lies beyond the threshold, and I realized that (after a break) —I’d probably be back.

Never say die.

Hide and Seek

El Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s most gracious park, is Europe with a capitol E, as you’d expect it to be: stately with monuments and gridded promenades, clotted with tourists and buskers. El Retiro is a Madrid must-see, as vouchsafed by the guidebooks. Peacocks stalk its southeast quadrant; confectionary fin de siecle apartment buildings overlook it.

But the L-shaped park I tend to think of proprietarily as mine, El Parque de Oeste, is to the west of all that, and otherwise. Before it became a park in the 1890s, it was a landfill. During the Spanish Civil War, it was Madrid’s front lines. Afterward, the gardeners tasked with transforming it from denuded wasteland back into greenspace had to keep a weather-eye out for unexploded ordnance.

El Retiro belongs to the world; Parque de Oeste belongs to the neighborhood, to dogwalkers being walked by lithe galician greyhounds and pensive construction workers nursing midmorning bottles of beer and all the college students who smoke and court there.

Parque del Oeste is dotted with statues.

Franco’s grandson was the model for the child in one of them;

another is still pocked by bullet holes.

Three of the 20 machine gun bunkers built in the 1930s still sit in a shadowy, piney section of the park, beside a scattering of picnic tables.

A while back, I read that a battle-scarred stone had been placed a stone’s throw from the hindquarters of one of the equestrian statues, as if the bunkers weren’t mute testimony enough to the battle fought there. I looked for it on my next walk, circling the horse statues at opposite ends of the park, but couldn’t find it.

This morning, I was thinking of foliage, not of the fallen.

And there it was. No commentary, no plaque. Just trees, and falling leaves.

Now What?

The past week has felt like an excruciatingly slow version of a choose-your-own adventure, from a Montaña Rusa — aka a “Russian Mountain,” aka a rollercoaster — to a fugue state to interminable to a nail-biter to the twilight zone. Last Wednesday through Saturday we watched more CNN than we had in the past year and a half. This would also turn out to be roughly same amount of time it would take me to get hooked on Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalists’ twitter feeds, after years of disinterest in the medium. Every night we clicked off CNN and staggered off to bed, slept restlessly if at all, woke at 3 a.m. and staggered back out to the living room to click it back on. We’re too old for this.

Saturday, it was supposed to rain, so to distract ourselves we booked tickets at a German Expressionism exhibit at the Thyssen Museum and then took a long walk, looping from the museum district through the picturesque barrios of Huertas-Cortes and La Latina and then back home — and the election finally was called. They were dancing in the streets in Philly, in New York, in Atlanta: here in Madrid, it seemed like more people were staring at their phones as they walked past us, but maybe that was just my imagination.

Since then, Spain has gone back into its own problems. At the micro level, our health zone has been confined two more weeks — and the residents themselves are criticizing the government for its lack of enforcement of the rules.

Starting November 23, travelers from 60 countries will need to have PCR tests done within 72 hours before they enter Spain, so now we know what we’ll be trying to accomplish on New Year’s Eve in Georgia.

I knew intellectually that all the dark clouds of uncertainty massed overhead wouldn’t vanish, post U.S. election, so why my surprise to find they’re still up there? It’s human nature, I guess, just as it’s also human nature to think ahead or behind. Damn it, it takes work, to sit still in this present moment, this not-knowing.

Madrid underwent a building boom in the late 19th century; it was all the rage to give the cornices of buildings swirled neoclassical embellishments. I’ve come to love the serene gaze of the faces that peep down on me as I try to stay in the here and now, with my errands here and there, from panadería to frutería to farmacia. They’ve seen so much, these neoclassical beauties, through dark days and fair ones, from civil war to dictatorship to democracy, from Spanish ‘flu to Covid— and so calmly.

El Trompo/The Spinning Top

Puto means exactly what you think it does.

For the past three days now, I’ve had a snippet of a Simon and Garfunkel song running through my mind:

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Except I keep mentally replacing nation with world. Because the world’s eyes really are turned toward the United States right now, with an outward gaze and engagement it would serve the spinning top of my homeland well to adopt.

On Sunday, El Pais started things off with a lovely little civics lesson on the Electoral College and listed what time — in Spanish time every single state’s polls would close. Since then, every single story on its Spanish-language landing page has centered on the election. For the time being, COVID has been completely erased from its pages. Are hospitals overwhelmed? Are cases rising or falling? Are things more or less dire? I have no idea, except in the tiniest micro-sense: The confinimiento of the Guzman el Bueno health zone hasn’t lessened cases at all.

This of course is not surprising: it hasn’t been enforced at all, either. I thought we weren’t supposed to leave the neighborhood, I told my Spanish teacher.

That’s because you’re not Spanish, he responded. This is right before one of my previous teachers, the one who loves rap and America, stuck his head into the classroom to tell me a certain candidate is a certain Spanish curse word.


Meanwhile, things grind on across the Atlantic. As I write this, Trump has only 463 more votes than Biden in the state of Georgia — the state that only once in my voting lifetime has gone to a Democratic candidate.

My lonely gaze is so fastened on America that I have a twitch in my left eye.

The Long Strange Road

Voting in Atlanta, 2016

On Election Day, 1968, things were different.

Or maybe not. The summer before, the Democratic National Convention had been convulsed by violence. All over America, people were lying down in front of buses of draftees, and weeping, weeping. Weeping with rage, with grief, from tear gas. But I was a four-year-old in Madison, WI; I knew none of that.

That November afternoon, my mother took me and my younger brother with her when she went to vote. The sun sets early this time of year in the Midwest and the polling place was some sort of institutional space I’d only seen before in daylight. My view was a forest of pants legs. I sweltered inside my winter coat, my knitted hat, my scarf, my mittens as we waited, edged forward, waited again.

Once we got to it, the voting booth was a private space, hardly big enough to hold the three of us and my brother’s stroller. My mother drew closed the curtain that clattered on its rings and lifted me to see the strange mechanism of the levers.

Would it be too much — to say there was something about the process that felt mysterious and almost holy?

Todos los Santos

One of the big debates earlier this week this week was whether or not those of us in the (theoretically) confined neighborhoods of Madrid would be able to visit the cemeteries this weekend. All Saints Day is a national holiday throughout Spain, and its celebration yesterday and today is one of the reasons Madrid and the two adjacent autonomous regions closed their borders to travel over the 3-day weekend.* Traditionally, All Saints is the day you visit the graves of your loved ones— to tidy up, to bring flowers, to remember.

Some sources said yes we could go to the cemeteries, some said no. At that point, I just threw up my hands and said who knows? and have been keeping my own counsel (this applies not just to the weekend but to the confinement in general).

The chestnut roasters appeared on the street corners this weekend; the leaves are starting to turn. We are moving toward the quiet still point of the year. This morning, we honored the day with a wander through the Cementerio de La Almudena, Madrid’s necropolis of 5 million dead.

*Well, the other two regions closed their borders until after the next 3-day weekend, a week from today. At the last minute Madrid decided to close theirs just this weekend and next weekend, but keep them open in between. Confused yet? The only thing I know for sure is that there’s a curfew between midnight and six a.m.

Fall Pubs

My first Madrid pub! So very pleased to appear in Madrid No Frills. Begun with a mission “to give a voice to all those wonderful places, people and stories that all other Madrid blogs ignored” Madrid No Frills now takes on some of Madrid’s thorniest issues with passion and love for this changing, complicated city.

A flower stand that beckons to passers-by with its array of colourful bouquets and a churros kiosk redolent with frying oil both jockey for position on the sidewalk in front of hospitals San Carlos and Fundación Jiménez Díaz in Moncloa. A milling throng of people, both whole and hurt, indicates the presence of a bustling urban medical facility nearby.

But a short walk up the service road between the two hospitals takes you far away from the sound of traffic and sirens. There, one of the feral cats that is a fixture of the area emerges from the bushes to lead you to a high flat vantage point overlooking wasteland.

Hyper-local: Day 3

This is not the door to our apartment building.

This morning, I left the neighborhood to go to Spanish class. I had my letter of permission ready to go — but as it turned out, I didn’t need it. Either I’m extraordinarily good at missing checkpoints or they don’t exist.

I suspect the latter. Though Madrid’s health services has posted a template permission-to-leave-the-area letter on its website and various politicos are at this very moment discussing whether or not those of us in the confinement zones will be allowed to leave our zones to visit the cemeteries on All Soul’s Day (November 2), life in the street is the same as it ever was.

Given 2020’s general lack of predictability and follow through, I’d say this is pretty much par for the course.*

*Not that I’m complaining.

Hyper-local: Day 2

So far, our confinamiento perimetral seems to be mainly on the honor system. This morning, I walked the boundary streets and sticking to them rather than just heading down to the park took self-discipline: nobody official was checking anything. Maybe all the people crossing the street from allowable to unallowed were going to work, school, or the doctor… or maybe not.

The usual suspects — tottery old people with their chicas at the ready at their elbows to steady them, dog walkers towing spanish greyhounds and west highland terriers (two of Madrid’s favorite breeds), the hale and hearty carrying barras of bread under their arms — were out taking their morning constitutionals.

One thing that stopping to snap pictures highlighted was how close people stand next to each other. There may have been many epidemiological failures in Spain — but the fact is, this also is a convivial culture.

Usually about ten a.m., students from the nearby universities travel into the neighborhood in huge packs to sit together at the sidewalk cafes to play cards, roll cigarettes, and down a mid-morning beer. Right now, that group is largely absent — but I did catch two businessmen on their mid-morning coffee break.

Stopping to take photos also reminded me how many things I can buy in a few block’s radius of our apartment, from cookies to coffee pots to chestnuts to bookbinding supplies.

Plus hams. Just think how many hams hang inside shops just in Madrid alone. (Note both the ham-drip catchers and the “covid eradication station.”