I had been pierced by grief. I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t feel it at first. Then slow trickles of pain and tears careered towards enormous pain and lots of tears and then nothing. I sat. I couldn’t write. I would go do things in Madrid and as soon as I got out into the sunlight my grief would begin to subside. The sky over Spain has such depth to it. When it is blue – as it has been since I have been here – there are so many different hues of blue. The winter light enhancing the magic of the blue sky. Madrid has long been my favourite city but I have never visited it alone before and it has been difficult to find people to engage with. Perhaps I should have stayed at a hostel instead of my small basement apartment. My apartment is just on the outskirts of the city. It is a walk to everywhere but I have been enjoying the numbness the walks bring to my head and to my heart and allowing the winter sun to warm me. Back in my basement apartment, my bedroom has a window where I can see people’s legs moving by. I feel like Laverne without a Shirley. Other times I feel like Shirley and Nina is my Laverne, all bossy but not quite as uncouth as she would have viewed Laverne. It is quiet here and comfortable. Certainly it is the most comfortable bed I have slept in since I last slept on mine on 15 January this year.
I have followed Nina in Madrid and I have done my own things in Madrid. I will soon be done with Nina and then be on my own again. I face that day with happiness and fear. Like the last day of high-school. The security and friendship of Nina – not to mention her leading the way on this trip – will be missed. On the weekend I left Nina back in the apartment and spent the weekend as a Madrilena. I spent my weekend as the people of Madrid do.
It started Saturday morning, after breakfast at about 10:30. I left my place and headed up the hill through a couple of different small neighbourhoods and worked my way to the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s biggest plaza, surrounded on all four sides by what looks to be the same building, with arch shaped door ways on entrances in all four corners and on the east and west sides. The Christmas market has been set up and stalls line one side of the plaza like mini-streets, selling food, Christmas hats and stockings, gifts and pieces for the home Nativity scene. You can buy your individual pieces and make your scene as big and interesting or as small and intimate as you want. The have intricate little pieces, like baskets you can put on the wall on one side of the stable, Joseph’s tools where he obviously worked right up until Mary went into labour. I guess some people add to their home nativity sets with a new piece each year. After dodging the tourists, the tourists on segways, the tourists following a person carrying an umbrella, the buskers, the weirdly dressed, the wedding party – actually I stop to take a quick photo of them – I head up the crowded Puerta del Sol. If I had thought the Plaza was crowded – I truly was mad.
In the Puerto del Sol, there are even more people, heading off to shop, out to eat, lining up to buy lottery tickets. The line at the main ticket box stretches the whole ways across the plaza and you have to find a chink in the line to get across it. Other lottery sellers line the edges of the plaza, sitting cheek-by-jowl next to their displays of lottery tickets. Calling to everyone that passes. The women who try to press rosemary into your had before asking for money are here too, harassing everyone that passes. I go to Vodapone to recharge my sim with money so that I can access data – especially important when I need directions. Vodaphone is also packed and a 45 minute wait ensues to do something that takes less than five minutes. I sit in the upstairs section waiting for my number to be called. It is hot and we all wave ourselves with vodaphone advertising pamphets in an effort to keep cool. It is a good vantage point to see the plaza below. Two young women walk about, their voluptuous bodies in skimpier-than-skimpy Santa Claus type costumes. Yet they wear wings on their back that say I heart Madrid. I ponder over their purpose. A large buck, possibly a tourist, wears a loin cloth and Native American head-dress and flexes his muscles at the passing parade. There are a few robots – I’m thinking Titus Andronicus – a few angry bird type things and other dressed up buskers, all who charge to take a photo with them. Finally I am out and back on the streets. I go shopping, to look not to buy and then head for some afternoon tapas. I pass a young sporting team all wearing Australian track-suits. They are some sort of Australian football team. I can’t resist and give them an “oi, oi, oi” as I pass, much to their delight and amusement.
Where to for tapas? There is the Mercado St Miguel, back on the other side of the Plaza Mayor. Inside there are little stands selling different tapas dishes. It is very touristy but I stop for one. The tapas in Madrid have been hit with the fusion stick and they are not all that bad. One appeared to be a spring roll but inside it had some morcilla sausage (blood sausage) and a spicy thin sausage, salchichon. The taste is amazing. I then head down the Cava Baja, the street that takes me back out to my basement flat. This street is full of Spanish people. It is off the main tourist tracks so you don’t get as many touristas down here, the tapas are cheaper and the staff more friendly and fast. I stop at two of my favourite places before heading home for the siesta.
Later that night I venture back up to Plaza Mayor before dinner. The Christmas lights have been turned on and it looks fantastic. All the usual suspects of touts selling things you don’t need are there. There is one selling small horns to children. I could kill that one if I could find him. As prams are pushed past me with a shrill plastic honk on the small horn. The Spanish are all either ending their day by having their very late afternoon tea or starting their night with pre-dinner drinks and tapas. Tonight I am on Spanish time and enter a restaurant that has been recommended to me, close to where I am staying. The place is packed and there are people ahead of me waiting for seats. The woman behind the bar tells me that as I am on my own, I can have my food at the bar and stay with her. “I will look after you”, she says. Although I had to stand it was a great place to eat dinner. I could see the comings and goings of the patrons, the ham being sliced at the back of the bar and hear as many different conversations as I could manage to understand. Mainly words and actions but it was a fun evening.
Sunday mornings brings the flea market to Madrid. El Rastro – the rat- is the biggest market in Madrid. It is known as the rat as that is where the fleas live. El Rastro main parade is down a very long street, but there are off-shoots into other streets. Most of the antique and second had dealers open their shops and put things out on the street as well. Some of the off-shoot streets specialise in particular wars, paintings, magazine, books, etc. This market is a living organism in its own right. Sometimes the crowd actually stops as there is no-where to go. A human traffic jam. In this market you could almost find anything you want. There is the usual market fare of t-shirts, hats, hippy clothes, jewellery but you can see some amazing old stuff in the side streets. All year, I have been on the hunt for a butter dish – but that’s another story – and I was certain I would find one here in El Rastro. I didn’t but after a quick rest-stop and sustenance it is off over to Retiro for the Sunday afternoon paseo.
The Retiro is a huge park behind the Prado. Madrileno families love the Retiro, especially on a Sunday afternoon. The playgrounds are full of children, prams are being pushed and row boats full of teenagers mucking about and lovers fill the lake. Elderly Spaniards walk hand in hand. I visited the Retiro on both my previous visits plus another time. The first we walked around with relatives, eating the peppitas, sun flower seeds, and spitting the husks onto the ground. The second with Robert and joseph where we spent most of our time in the playgrounds. Another time, my sister Mary and I nursed slight hangovers from over-indulging in one sangria too many in several of Madrid’s bars on a quick weekend trip to Madrid when we were in Europe. Today the park was a welcome respite after the crush and heat of the flea market. I walked alone, smiling up at the blue sky, laughing at the kids, feeling the piercing pain of grief ease. The trees helped me by celebrating the end of autumn and the beginning of winter with their red, orange and yellow leaves.