Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thursday in Seville: The air soft as that of Seville in April (el aire suave como la de Sevilla en abril)

"People in Seville are a bit strange."

So confided Gabriela a week ago, when we lingered over tapas at her fashionable local haunt in Madrid. I didn't quite know how to take the remark, whether to heed it seriously or chalk it up to the usual regional prejudices.

Thus I came to Seville not knowing what to expect other than the sights for which it is known: the third largest Cathedral in Spain; the extant Moorish architecture; and the numerous buildings of historical interest. So far, I have not been able to detect the strangeness that Gabriela spoke of, other than the southern accent (often difficult to understand) and a local dialect that includes words and expressions peculiar to Andalusia. Indeed, people have been unfailing kind and exceptionally hospitable, as I have learned over the last two days of the conference.

I have attended academic conferences all over the U.S., the U.K., and Canada; never have I experienced the sort of generosity on display here. The Spanish organizers hover anxiously and work into the wee hours, caring for the needs of participants and speakers alike. I found myself embarrassed by the effusive introduction to my keynote address, and it was humbling to see the international reach of my scholarship. The talk was warmly received, and I was able to exhale after a nervous morning of anticipation.

An interesting factoid: the University of Seville is housed in the old tobacco factory that comprises the setting for Bizet's Carmen. A moat surrounds the university, originally intended to protect the tobacco from theft. Some of the administrative offices are now in former prison cells (no comment).

Even in these tough economic times, the EU still provides handsome funding by North American standards. We were taken to lunch yesterday, and every session is followed by a break for food: pastries and excellent strong Spanish coffee in the morning; dolces (little sweets) and more coffee mid-day; and tapas in the afternoon. God forbid we should go without food for more than two hours. Last night we heard a concert by a very good early music ensemble that presented a range of Spanish and English songs; tonight we will have a lavish conference dinner at a local restaurant beginning at 9.00 p.m., early for these parts.

The only aspect I have found disappointing over the last two days is the quality of some of the papers. If nothing else, this experience has reinforced my appreciation for the American university system: as much as we grouse about the excesses, we do provide an exceptional education. Quite simply, we demand a kind of intellectual engagement and depth that is unparalleled. My uncle just forwarded a piece from the BBC with the latest rankings of universities in the world: all of the top ten are in the U.S., as are most of the one hundred on the list. I see why.

By 2.00 p.m., I was done, having sat through sessions since 9.30. I walked over to the Puerto de Jerez, just a block from the university, to meet Matilde Romero, the mother of Blanca Ramos, the minister of culture in Madrid. Through Gabriela's generosity, I had introductions to both women: Matilde is her aunt, and Blanca is her cousin. Blanca arranged for me to meet her mother, the scion of an ancient Spanish family with deep ties to nobility going back to the fifteenth century. I was nervous about the meeting. Señora Romero does not speak English, and I was embarrassed about the sad state of my Spanish. Surprisingly, we managed very well. Regal and enormously self-possessed, she displayed exquisite Spanish manners. Being from an ancient family, she spoke a pure, clearly enunciated Castilian, and my ear adjusted quickly. I understood nearly everything, and after a bit of sherry, I relaxed and remembered more verb forms and vocabulary. I'm sure to Señora Romero's refined ear, my Spanish was shocking, but she gently corrected me and, when necessary, supplied vocabulary.

Señora Romero loves Seville dearly, and we walked for an hour in the historic area around the university as she lectured with pride on the buildings and the history. We then stopped at one of those fabulous little tapas bars secreted away in an alley, the sort of place only locals know about, and we had delicious dry sherry as an appertivo, followed by two tapas, a tortilla of eggs and potato, and open-faced sandwiches with a tomato spread, topped by the excellent local tuna (atun). We resumed our stroll and then stopped for coffee and a shared dolce, a slice of chocolate cake that I liked very much but which Señora Romero dismissed as ordinario. We said our good-byes at 4.30, me thanking her effusively before returning to the hotel for a rest before the conference dinner tonight.

I feel extraordinarily fortunate having met someone from a distinguished old family, the sort of Sevillians who normally do not consort with outsiders. And for this, I have Gabriela to thank--even if she does think people in Seville are a bit "strange."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 8 in Vejer de la Frontera: They that sleep, catch no fish (Los sue duermen, atrapar ningún pez)

"You can have a dry sherry after you've gutted several sardines."

I looked down at the bowl of fresh sardines, thought about that glass of Jerez, overcame my revulsion, and reached in for one of the silvery little fish. I snapped off the head as Nikki had shown me, sliding my fingernail along the belly to open it. The spine and guts lift out easily if the fish is very fresh, as these were. The first two were challenging--I've never gutted fish with my fingers before--but I quickly got the hang of it. My initial queasiness rapidly disappeared.

Task done, I earned my reward, and Nikki and I sat down to enjoy the sherry with a little snack of sardines macerated in sherry vinegar and a bit of garlic before proceeding to the rest of our afternoon of cooking.

The intrepid Roger had met me at 8.00 a.m., and we drove southward beyond Cadiz toward Barbate, a small fishing village known for the tuna that is caught in the waters between Spain and Morocco. There we rendezvoused with Nikki, a local chef, who took me to the local fish market, where I was something of a curiosity: not many tourists come to these parts. We wandered through the stalls, Nikki humorously sparring with the sellers about the quality of the fish, and poking at fruits and vegetables expertly like an old Mediterranean grandmother. She's actually fairly young, and like many people in Spain, learning to survive in a broken economy through innovation; those who can't develop marketable skills (such as teaching cooking classes to foreigners) join the ranks of the unemployed. I was told that roughly 40-45% of young people in southernmost Spain cannot find work.

Before leaving Barbate, I walked briefly on the beach of velvety sand. The Atlantic here is bluer than what we see from the East Coast, and on a cloudless day, one can glimpse Morocco across the water. We then drove up a steep winding road to Vejer de la Frontera, a stunning whitewashed town of cobblestone streets and Moorish-influenced buildings. The sky was a blinding blue, the temperature perfect, and the strong breeze scented by lemon and orange trees. Perfection yet again.

We unpacked groceries at the house that doubles as a dwelling for Nikki's business partner and the cooking school; shortly thereafter, I found myself gutting sardines. We cooked and chatted easily for several hours, moving in the leisurely but efficient manner that seems to characterize much Spanish life. I learned that gazpacho as we normally make it--a cold chunky soup--is a touristy invention and not at all what people in the south of Spain consume. Instead, one presses the tomatoes and vegetables through a sieve to release the juice, creating a gourmet version of V-8. This is drunk as an accompaniment to a big afternoon lunch. We then moved on to make a salsa verde that would dress our fish; we also prepared for dessert an orange and almond torte, a simple combination of boiled orange (run through a blender), eggs, ground almonds, a bit of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of baking power. Then I was taught how to pack a whole fish in salt. We took the gorgeous sea bass Nikki had bought in Barbate, cleaned it, and put it atop a bed of sea salt. More is packed around the fish, with only the eye and the gill fin showing to check for doneness. Asparagus was prepared for roasting, and little prawns boiled in water to have with a dipping sauce.

Around 2.30 we sat down for our glorious meal: you can see some of our feast in the photo. Everything was superb, and the fish a revelation. The salt seals in the juice, resulting in some of the best fish I have ever eaten. Of course, the fact it had been caught early that morning helped too. The salsa verde was splendid--I could eat it by spoonfuls--and the orange/almond torte tasty without being overly rich or sweet. This sort of food is more to my liking than the meat-heavy diet of Madrid.

Roger met us at 4.30. I said good-bye to Nikki and agreed to Roger's suggestion of another hike. Glutted yet again, I needed the exercise. We drove to Medina Sidonia, another stunning little town nestled on a hilltop. It's one of those places of which there are many in southern Spain, with the fingerprint of various cultures everywhere evident. Roman walls and part of a road still exist, as do Moorish gates. Even the Gothic church has Moorish decorations interspersed among the saints and side chapels. We climbed the bell tower, a hearty workout, so I could see the plains below, a vista that unfolded for miles. Roger dragged me into a local bakery--and I mean dragged--and despite my protestations against more food, insisted I try a mouthful of a delicacy made only in this town, a pastry filled with an unusual blend of almond paste, cloves, and cilantro. It was admittedly delicious. I have been struck by how much local customs still dominate these small towns and villages, many of which feature pastries or recipes unique to their food history.

From Medina Sidonia, Roger drove me back to Seville. We parted, good friends after two days of nattering about everything from cuisine to politics to literature, and I waddled back to my room, content and sated. Tomorrow, la conferencia!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Day 7 in Seville: A farm without a pig has no owner (Una finca sin un cerdo no tiene dueño)

This morning I was met by Roger, my guide for the next two days. English by birth, he has spent the last 25 years in Spain and rattles away in Southern-inflected Spanish like a native (an accent, incidentally, I find much harder to follow than the Castilian of Madrid). Outgoing and knowledgeable, he was the perfect anodyne to the gloom of the last couple of days. While there are certain benefits to traveling alone--no need to negotiate schedules or preferences--lacking companionship for long stretches is often trying, especially during this period of my life. So Roger's jolly good nature was most welcome.

We drove to a farm that raises the much-coveted Iberian pig. The journey was beautiful, and the day stunning, simply perfect (or as the Spanish say, perfecto). Roger and I hiked around the farm, looking at the piglets and the mature pigs, encountering on our way a few stray horses who came over to greet us. An old grey gelding took a shine to me and followed us for a stretch. The pigs roam free in large fenced fields--no ghastly industrial farming here--and gorge naturally on acorns in fall, a diet that accounts for the distinctive flavor of the meat. Afterwards we drove to Jabugo, a town famous all over Spain for the processing and curing of the pork. We had a glass of dry sherry in the bar/reception area and, of course, a small plate of the ham to sample. It is sliced so thin as to be almost translucent, and I found this particular ham a far cry from the more salty but still delicious version I had tasted in Madrid. Roger explained how the buttery sweetness indicates a finer quality, a difference I easily detected. We then donned plastic robes and entered the plant. The manager described the curing of the meat, which takes three years from start to finish. As we moved from one floor to another, I saw and smelled the ham in its various stages of processing. Periodically he would insert a large plastic toothpick into the meat and then have me smell it to appreciate the subtle variations in bouquet; by the time we got to the three-year-old ham, the fragrance was fully developed. I learned about the mites that attack the ham, and the careful but natural methods used to stave off infestation. Just before the hams are shipped out, they are cleaned and then brushed liberally with safflower oil. Olive oil, I was told, would compromise the flavor of the meat.

While it was a bit unnerving walking beneath hundreds of ham legs suspended from the ceiling, I certainly appreciated the traditional artisanal techniques and their history. Roger informed me that the Celts first introduced the curing of ham, and their methods were further developed by the Romans after the conquest of Gaulle. I also learned that proper Iberian ham actually lowers cholesterol because of the omega oils and nutrients derived from the ingestion of acorns. Fascinating stuff. When I first saw Iberian ham for sale in Madrid--even of the lesser quality--I gasped at the price. Now I understand the cost given the intensive labor that goes into cultivating the meat over three years. The expense also explains why it's served like a condiment: a few paper-thin slices on bread or atop a cooked dish, almost like shaved truffles.

After we finished, Roger took me to a restaurant owned by some friends in Aracena, a lovely town southwest of Seville. We asked for small portions--I warned Roger I couldn't manage the usual Spanish helpings--but dish after dish came out of the kitchen. The food ranged from fresh goat cheese to eggs with wild mushrooms (and topped with thin slices of the famed ham) to roasted string beans to a secreto of ham, a rich, fatty cut of meat, which was accompanied by artichoke hearts. Fresh strawberries emerged, followed by a fabulous chestnut ice cream. Even though I ate gingerly, I was still sated. We had sampled perhaps seven dishes by the end of the meal.

Roger suggested a hike up a nearby hill to see a thirteenth-century Gothic church, and I was grateful for the exercise. The town of Aracena beckoned below, as did rolling countryside topped by a sky of brilliant blue, the sort of intense color one rarely sees outside of the Mediterranean (or California on a smog-free day). Perfecto.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day 6 in Cordoba: Life is four days (La vida es cuartro días)

As I sit watching the countryside from the window of my high-speed train, I've been reflecting on the tumult of the last year. A friend said to me on e-mail that she thought this trip would mark a turning point in my life, and I believe she is right. Day by day, my confidence grows as I navigate around Spain successfully by myself, perhaps auguring well for other, more metaphorical, journeys.

* * * * *

The landscape between Madrid and Cordoba reminds me of Central California; it looks very much like what one sees when driving north on Highway 5. The topography makes me appreciate (in a way history books never did) why the Spanish settled California. I wonder too if that accounts for my ease here: everything, the weather, the light, even the language bring me back to my Angeleno roots.

As we approach Cordoba, I'm starting to see haciendas with horses. The area immediately around Cordoba is known for breeding Andalusians; indeed, if I can make arrangements, I'd like to visit a farm tomorrow. I also notice that trees and plants are beginning to flower.

* * * * * * *

This trip has been nothing if not an emotional roller coaster: the eager anticipation of my train trip disintegrated into wrenching loneliness as I wandered the streets of Cordoba. The city is certainly worth a visit, and the famous cathedral cum mosque, the mezquita, is breathtaking, but that fact alone may have induced my despair. As I marveled at this striking blend of Catholic and Islamic cultures, I, of course, thought of Rod and how much he would have enjoyed this moment. We shared a geeky passion for history, and we complemented each other's curiosity, with me assessing art and Rod analyzing how things worked.

My gloom deepened over the afternoon. From the mezquita, I walked across the bridge to the fourteenth-century Tower of La Calahorra, where one takes a hokey if nonetheless entertaining audio-visual tour of the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian cultures that once comprised Cordoba. The audio commentary was heavy-handed and, I expect, utopian in its depiction of a golden age of intellectual and cultural harmony. By mid-afternoon, I was finished. Tired and fighting a sinus infection, I attempted to wind my way through the maze of streets comprising the old district of Cordoba, but ended up walking in circles for two hours. I asked for help to little avail, and taxis ignored my attempts to flag them down, even those advertising that they were libre. By the time I reached the hotel, I was blubbering and causing consternation among the staff.

My room at the Palacio de Bailio is truly five-star, and a long soak in a freestanding bathtub improved my spirits, as did a nap. I thought about ordering room service, but I forced myself to put on slacks and a pretty blouse, brush my hair, and apply a little lipstick. I went down to the tapas bar, hoping to find someone to chat with over a light dinner, but the bar was empty except for Alberto, the half-French/half-Spanish bartender. I took a deep breath and sat down. Alberto, like many bartenders, is something of a philosopher, and over the ensuing two hours we exchanged confidences in the manner of strangers who know they will never see each other again. I learned of his disastrous marriage; he learned of my strange history. Before I left, Alberto grasped one of my hands, leaned forward, and said, "Señora Deborah, la vida es cuatro días: be happy," words I will try to take to heart for the remainder of this trip.

Day 5 in Madrid: Until we meet again (Hasta nos encontramos otra vez) )

I awakened with a mild sore throat and sniffles, little wonder given my jet-lagged body and crazy hours. Half of Madrid sounds like a tubercular ward at the moment, and even though I edge nervously away from audible hacking and sneezing, one can only do so much. The last thing I wanted to do was get up at the crack of dawn and dash down to the Atocha station to catch the high-speed train to Toledo. So I didn't. Instead I slept in, answered e-mails, and hand-washed some laundry. I'm crazy about Spain, and I will return. Next time I'll see Toledo.

I thought about spending a quiet day reading and napping, but the gorgeous weather beckoned, and I dressed and headed out, stopping at a typical coffee bar for a quick snack. There are no seats: one simply places the order, stands by a tall table, knocks back the coffee and roll, and then leaves. It's the sort of place frequented by Madrileños, not tourists, since the staff speak only Spanish. I'm finding that even my halting conversational abilities hold me in good stead. Several times British tourists, overhearing me converse with waiters, have asked for help placing orders (and why do most Brits refuse to learn even a few basic phrases?).

I walked to the Casa de Lope de Vega, the home where the famous dramatist lived and wrote for many years until the died in his mid-seventies. The house is located in the Literary District, a terrific neighborhood chockablock with bookstores, antique shops, and literary sites. I had a tough time navigating my way despite the use of a map, and I learned in the interim that many Spaniards are as ignorant of their cultural history as we are of ours. Such is contemporary life. When I asked for directions, no one seemed to know its location; one man expressed wonder that Lope's home even existed. A delivery guy finally helped me out--I figured he probably better than anyone knew his way around the neighborhood--and I arrived ten minutes late for the tour, having walked around in circles for nearly an hour. The Spanish, though, are very laid back about lateness, and the guide was typically relaxed ("no se preocupe!"). The home is quite beautiful and filled with period antiques from the National Museum and books from the National Library. I was especially moved by Lope's study, where he wrote hundreds of plays and poems, including such famous works as Fuente Ovejuna. Some scholars claim he produced over 1,000 scripts, a number I find unbelievable. After the tour, the guide spent some time with me alone. The Spanish, like other European cultures, have enormous reverence for learning, and when the guide discovered my profession, she was more than happy to spend 20 minutes fielding my questions (in rapidly delivered Spanish--I had to slow her down several times). I was fascinated to learn that Lope, despite his prolific output, made little money from playwriting. Evidently playwrights did not profit from writing for the commercial stage in the manner of English dramatists, and even his nice home was the result of patronage, not wages. There is quite a cottage industry here of specialists intent on identifying plays (often published anonymously) by Lope.

I found a little tapas bar on a side street and ate a simple snack before proceeding to the Museo de Sofia Reina, except that I never actually arrived: I was sidetracked by an exhibit on the Ballets Russes at CaixaForum, a strikingly handsome modern art gallery sponsored by one of the largest banks in Spain. Admission is free, and the show is superlative. I tried to imagine Bank of America or Citibank doing something equivalent, perhaps an exhibit on French surrealism (thematically appropriate given the U.S. banking industry of late), but I would expect hell to freeze over first. I know a bit about the Ballets Russes, but I learned much more from this smashing show. The costumes, programs, mock-ups of sets, and film clips were all fascinating, and I was thoroughly delighted.

Indeed, so perfect was my outing that I decided to call it quits: why mess with perfection? For a theatre geek like myself, having Lope de Vega and the Ballets Russes together in one afternoon was sheer bliss. So I hiked back to the hotel, grabbed my laptop, and went to a cafe in the Plaza Mayor, where I worked for a couple of hours and enjoyed the waning sun. Around 7.00 I realized I hadn't had a decent meal since Gabriela fed me two days ago--I've been grazing on the run--and my clothes are becoming alarmingly loose. Too much walking and not enough calories. Most of the restaurants around the Plaza Mayor are tourist traps, but I found a small place that looked inviting. I decided to take a chance, and I order the prix fixe dinner, a real bargain: 14 euros got me three courses and a glass of decent red wine. The food was, to my astonishment, excellent despite the touristy location. I started with a nice garlicky vegetable soup, followed by pork. Originally I wanted the salmon, but the waiter advocated for the pork, and I'm glad I assented. Succulent and tender, it burst with flavor, nothing like the tasteless meat we have at home. Dessert was a nice chocolate confection, but I could only manage a couple of bites; indeed, I ended up leaving a goodly portion of my entree as well. Spanish portions are just too damn big.

So now I'm packing for my trip down to Cordoba tomorrow and hoping my sore throat and sniffles abate. I will be very sorry to leave Madrid, a city that has seduced me utterly. Gabriela is urging me to consider renting an apartment for a month, and I am very tempted to do so, perhaps in May or June of 2013, before it gets too hot. As the radicals said to me when we were out carousing, one can always dream, right?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Day 4 in Madrid: Little by little the appetite appears (Poquito a poquito viene el apetito)

After a late breakfast, I walked over to the area around the palace, exploring that neighborhood and some of the official buildings. At 1.00 I hiked back to Gabriela's flat, and we went up the street to El Mollete, considered to be the best tapas bar in Madrid. Frequented by Francis Ford Coppolla, Jim Jarmusch, and Gwynneth Paltrow, it has become very chic with the international set. El Mollete is small--perhaps 40 can be shoehorned into the space--and was still empty when we first arrived. Tomas the proprietor greeted Gabriela with open arms and saluted me with kisses on both cheeks, as did his wife Ursula.

The food was as good as Gabriela promised, although the portions seemed larger (and more expensive) than what I've encountered so far. We started with an avocado salad and then moved on to the classic potato and egg dish beloved of Spaniards. Gabriela is on a crazy diet of lentils and meat, trying desperately to shed the weight that often creeps up on chefs. Even so, she couldn't resist: "For two months, no potatoes!" She attacked the dish with the desperation of the starving. This particular tapa differs from a tortilla de patata: one fries potatoes and then tosses on top a couple of eggs prepared over easy. Paprika is sprinkled on liberally, as is a light dressing made up of parsley, sherry vinegar, and a bit of garlic--just to cut the oiliness. It's simple peasant food but absolutely delicious, the sort of meal to make when one has a cold or the blues.

Gabriela generously offered to put me in touch with family in Seville and called a cousin on my behalf when we returned to her flat. She is also calling ahead to a well-known restaurant in Toledo for me to visit tomorrow. Armed with referrals, I kissed her good-bye in the traditional Spanish manner and set off for the Prado museum. I hope to see Gabriela this summer in the States. There's a good chance she will go to the C.I.A. in Napa Valley to do classes and demonstrations; if so, she has promised to stop off in D.C. to spend a few days and perhaps do more classes for José Andrés Puerta, the well-known chef who owns Jaleo and Oyamel, among other restaurants. It turns out he trained some years back with Gabriela.

I had a pleasant hike over to the Prado--the gorgeous weather continues unabated--where I spent a couple of hours looking at Spanish paintings by Goya and Velasquez. I left the museum unimpressed, the same perverse reaction I had to the Hermitage. For the most part, I don't like big national museums (although I adore the Met in NYC), which I find overwhelming and cold. After a couple of hours I go into sensory overload: too many paintings, too many rooms, too many high ceilings, and too many people. In my current frame of mind, I'm not enjoying the Spanish propensity for grim religious art. All those dark canvases and tortured, writhing bodies! At least the Italians paint a chubby Christ child framed geometrically against an intense blue sky and neoclassical buildings. It's pretty, if nothing else, and right now pretty will do me just fine. I much preferred the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, and I should have opted today for something smaller with a more modern collection, knowing of my dislike of large institutional museums. Ah well. All my life I've heard about the Prado, so I wanted to give it a chance.

I returned to my hotel to rest, and now I will walk over to the Mercado San Miguel to grab something light before turning in. Tonight I will not be a gato, given that I plan on going to Toledo for the day tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Day 3 in Madrid: One needs friends, even in hell (uno necessita a amigos incluso en el inferno)

Before leaving the States, I had arranged to do a cooking class with Gabriela Llamas, a well-known chef and authority on the history of Spanish food. I thoroughly embarrassed myself by oversleeping (see the previous post) and then waking to a call from the front desk informing me that Gabriela was waiting downstairs. Mortified, I flew out of bed, somewhat worse for wear, threw on jeans and a sweater, and ran downstairs, sputtering apologies and explanations. Gabriela was nonplussed and amused. "You will turn into a Madrid gato, if you don't watch out," she joked, using the slang that best expresses the propensity of the city's residents to prowl the bars and streets until all hours.

As we left the hotel, Gabriela sized up my sorry state and declared that I needed some caffeine "or you will die." We walked to a traditional coffee bar where I had cafe con leche and churros, and I did indeed feel better. We then hiked over to an old-fashioned market and selected various ingredients for the lunch we would cook together. Gabriela lives in a wonderful neighborhood near the Convent of the Barefoot Nuns (Monasterios de las Descalzas Reales), also close to the palace, where she keeps a flat and, two blocks away, another space that she uses for cooking demonstrations and classes. Beautifully outfitted with a great kitchen and study, it has additional office space on the second level. We got to work around 11.00 a.m., and I staggered back to my hotel--Madrileños clearly do not believe in restraint--at 6.00 p.m., glutted and happy.

We made a "historical" Spanish meal comprised of a chicken in an almond and saffron sauce (it's mentioned in Don Quixote), pan-roasted vegetables, and rice. Dessert was the most intriguing of all, a chocolate mousse prepared with olive oil, not butter or cream. I was skeptical, but it turned out to be delicious and much lighter than the traditional French version (and much healthier). Gabriela explained this variation on mousse was invented by Sephardic Jews who were not permitted to mix dairy with meat; indeed, as she lectured throughout the cooking demonstration, I learned an enormous amount about the intermingling of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian culinary customs through the centuries.

We sat down to enjoy our meal with a light crisp white wine and talked for hours. We discovered a shared affinity for food, history, art, literature, and culture, and Gabriela regaled me with stories of her wild and fascinating family, ranging from a 90-year-old aunt (still going strong), who refused to marry, preferring instead to gamble and invest her way around the world, to her brother-in-law Ruggero Raimondi, the opera singer. We liked each other so much that we agreed to meet up again tomorrow. I plan to take Gabriela and her mother in the afternoon for tapas at the famous bar up the street from her flat. Francis Ford Coppola goes there whenever he is in town, and the chef is supposed to be a total character (as if there is anything else in Madrid).

Walking home I passed through the Plaza del Sol and stopped to listen to a jazz ensemble. The weather, now sunny and mild, reminded me of L.A., and I realized that happiness unexpectedly had me in its embrace. Yesterday I fled in tears from a room of religious paintings in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, where a picture of the risen Christ by Bramantino reminded me of Rod in his final hours, so eerily similar was the waxen complexion, the starved frame, and the unseeing eyes. I wept uncontrollably in the ladies room to the consternation of several Spanish women, one of whom offered to fetch a doctor until I explained my dilemma in halting Spanish. "Ah, qué pena," they murmured, bobbing their heads in sympathy. This afternoon I realized that new friends, new experiences, and a new life await me, thanks to crazy radicals, a worldly chef, and chicken in almond-saffron sauce.

Day 2 in Madrid: From Madrid to Heaven (de Madrid al cielo)

So how did I end up weaving back to my hotel at 2.00 a.m. with a bunch of Spanish radicals? For the answer to that question, dear reader, you will have to wait until the end of this post. My day began innocuously enough: an acceptable (although not great) buffet breakfast at the hotel; then hopping a bus to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, a superb collection of Western art assembled by German aristocrats with strong ties to Spain. The museum is fairly new, with terrific light and open spaces, and the paintings are mounted perfectly. The collection is just big enough to be impressive (I recognized any number of canvases from old art history books) without being overwhelming. It was a very enjoyable way to pass several hours.

Later in the afternoon, I hopped another bus to look at the Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple that was actually donated to Spain (and not seized) in 1968 in gratitude for their assistance on archaeological digs. It's strange to see an Egyptian temple in the middle of a traditional Spanish plaza. Not only can one go inside but also get quite close to the hieroglyphs, which are translated and well lit. Afterwards I watched Spaniards walk their dogs in the waning afternoon sun, a pleasant sight.

Finally, I went back to the hotel and rested a bit before venturing out to eat at the Posada de la Villa, a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor and recommended by the hotel manager. Unbelievably, an inn or restaurant has stood on that site since 1642. The maitre d' and waiter were extremely courteous, ushering me to a nice table on the second floor and hovering throughout the meal. They seemed troubled that I was eating alone--perhaps Spanish gallantry--and sent over various goodies from the kitchen for me to sample, which were all wonderful: olives, excellent bread, a dry sherry, and a goat cheese croquette. I ordered asparagus for a starter and lamb, the house specialty, for the main course. Both were superb although prepared in what to an American palate seems a very old-fashioned manner: the asparagus cooked thoroughly and served with a homemade mayonnaise, and the lamb slow roasted for hours, falling apart and swimming in its own succulent juices. The waiter fussed over me, bringing extra juice from the kitchen when he saw how much I liked the lamb and treating me to chocolates and a rose (!!!) at the end of the meal. He urged me to eat more food, acting like an anxious Jewish mother. It was very sweet.

Afterwards I wandered over to the Mercado de San Miguel, an old historic covered marketplace that was refurbished and updated a couple of years ago. It houses kiosks serving oysters, tapas, Spanish wines, chocolates, and caviar on toast in addition to gorgeous fresh fruit. The market is a great favorite with locals and tourists, and at night it's brimming with people from every walk of life. I chatted for an hour with a pleasant English couple who had just flown in a few hours earlier from Newcastle.

And then, on my way back through the Plaza Mayor, I met up with the free-spirited radicals, or, more properly, I should say that they adopted me. They caught me gazing with pity at the number of homeless people who at night crawl into cardboard boxes along the periphery of the plaza. The nights are still cold in Madrid, and I shivered just looking at the threadbare conditions under which too many Spaniards now live. Charo, the spirited female in the group, inveighed against the right-wing political policies that created these conditions, and somehow--I'm still not sure how this happened--I was swept along to a working-class bar off the Plaza Sol (the site of frequent demonstrations), where the conversation veered wildly from politics to girlfriends in Miami to the challenges of conjugating irregular Spanish verbs. Lazaro, a seventy-year-old, talked about his Cuban-American girlfriend in Miami ("my wife and me, we've been married for 45 years--we're like brothers--do you know what I mean?"), while Jorge, a French teacher, instructed me in the crazy past preterite form of nacer, and in the meantime Charo carried on about the Spanish government. The waiters, who knew everyone in the group, fueled the tumult by sending over periodic rounds of tapas and wine, and I suspect they showed political solidarity by not charging for anything. I felt rather like the Owen Wilson character in Midnight in Paris, who finds himself inexplicably scooped up by famous writers and artists from the 1920s, only in my case it seemed more like 1968. The sensation of temporal dislocation was only reinforced by an invitation to join everyone on Thursday night for a demonstration against the Franco regime. I couldn't get a straight answer as to why Franco--who died in 1975--still warrants what the Spanish call a manifestación, but I nonetheless found the impulse weirdly charming, if a bit strange. Between jet lag and too much wine, so sorry was my state by 2.00 a.m. that I would have found plausible the suggestion to demonstrate against Genghis Khan, never mind Franco.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Day 1 in Madrid: Each person knows where his shoe hurts (Cada uno sabe dónde le aprieta el zapato)

This is the first post I've written since May, when Rod and I still had a ray of hope he might live for another year or two. That clearly did not happen, and the past eight months have been hellacious, to say the least.

It was with great trepidation that I ventured to Spain on my own. Several months ago, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at the upcoming SEDERI conference in Seville, and I decided to combine business with pleasure, making this the first significant break I've had in nearly two years. At this point, the best I can report is that I survived the first day and had moments of enjoyment amidst the aching memories of the many wonderful trips Rod and I took through the years. Several times I found myself turning automatically to Rod to share some impression before realizing that I am indeed alone. The memories I create on this trip will be solely mine.

The good news is that Spain has so far proven as delightful as its reputation. The people are lovely, a winning combination of genuine warmth and good manners. I have encountered nothing but kindness. Perhaps one of the advantages of being a middle-aged woman traveling alone is that people seem unusually solicitous.

My flight arrived early on Monday morning, due to a strong tail wind that not only pushed us well ahead of schedule but bounced the plane around as though it were a basketball being dribbled in mid-air. It was not a fun flight, to put it mildly. On the up side, it was unusually empty, which made for quiet in the cabin: no screaming children, no overwrought flight attendants, and no overweight or unwashed passengers spilling over into one's seat. I dropped my bags at the Hotel Petit Palace Posada del Peine, which is right off Plaza Mayor. The hotel is not quite as nice as I expected, but the staff are very accommodating, the rooms are clean, and the location is ideal. I went off in search of coffee and explored the area around the Plaza Mayor. There is a very good tourist office run by the Spanish government that offers tours and helpful advice. Then I went in search of some decent walking shoes since my current pair have been pounded into uselessness by two years of intensive use.

Shopping is plentiful in Madrid, and the stores show little sign of the recession. Winter sales are on, and Spaniards throng the shops, looking for bargains. I had heard from various people that Spain is no longer the "deal" it once was, but my initial impression has been otherwise: food, snacks, and food are vastly reasonable by the standards of other European capitals. Someone coming from an expensive city like London, Moscow, or even Washington, D.C. should find Spain extraordinarily cheap. A decent glass of house wine can be had for 1.50 euros, around $2.00, a price simply unheard of in D.C. where the most undrinkable rotgut costs $6.00-7.00. The same is true for food: a nice bocadillo with jambon is two or three euros depending on the quality of the ham. Tapas bars often serve free food, even if one orders a cheap glass of wine. I don't quite grasp the economics of it, although the taxi driver who brought me into town from the airport said that most people do not earn good salaries compared to the rest of the European Union. So I suppose everything is scaled accordingly.

I spent an hour in the afternoon on the Plaza Mayor, soaking up the sun and sipping a very good (and, of course, cheap) coffee. It is cold in the morning but by mid-day the weather is glorious, in the sixties and sunny. At 4.00 I convened with three other English-speakers in front of the tourist center to take a government-sponsored walking tour, which was excellent. We walked to various historic sites around the city center, ending with a tour of several famous literary landmarks, including spots where Cervantes and other Golden Age writers had lived. I did not know that the original house of Lope de Vega still stands, and I am hoping to arrange a tour tomorrow or Friday: no more than ten people can go through because of its delicate condition.

Tired by 6.00 p.m., I decided to forego the usual Spanish custom of dining at 10.00 p.m. I found a tapas bar off Calle Mayor that served decent, home-cooked fare, the sort of cooking mama might make for her brood. I ordered a glass of rioja and roasted chicken and vegetables, not understanding that first I would be given a free tapas of bread and little sausages nor that the portion would be enormous--a plate covered with half a chicken and piled up with potatoes, onions, and red peppers. Despite my appetite, I could only get through half. And then I was given a shot of some milky house liqueur, standard for anyone ordering food. I waddled out having spent 8 euros--and I had ordered one of the most expensive items on the menu. By then exhausted, I returned to the hotel, showered again, and read for a bit before sleeping for 10 hours.

Monday, March 5, 2012

St. Michael's

So many have written of terminal illness with compassion and insight that the following entries will undoubtedly prove vapid by comparison. As I begin this phase of my blog, I interrogate my motives. Why do we write about impending death, our own or that of our loved ones? To commemorate? To record? To make sense of our feelings? To grapple with what is the most difficult part of life, our departure from it?

At this point, I am not entirely certain why I have chosen to share my thought about Rod's impending death; perhaps that will become more clear to me over time.

This weekend I sit in our sailboat, moored behind the Maritime Museum in St. Michael's. Rod naps in the berth across from me, worn out from an afternoon of boat-making demonstrations and museum displays of oystering on the Chesapeake Bay. Never will he admit to exhaustion or discomfort: raised by colonial parents in South Africa and educated in British-style prep schools, he will straighten his back and push back the discomfort. Only the skin drawn ever more tightly across a face already too thin or the cords tightening along his neck betray the enormous effort.

Gently I take his arm and suggest we return to the boat; if he resists, afraid of inconveniencing our friends, then I plead my own tired constitution, giving him a way out.

Rod sleeps heavily, even though it is only 4.00 in the afternoon, his body grabbing futilely at rest to stave off the cancer. As for me, I wanted nothing more than to sleep when I first learned of Rod's diagnosis, a way to escape what I couldn't accept. I slept, I cried, and I stared numbly into a future without Rod, facing the realization that I will be widowed in my fifties and therefore in all likelihood without him for decades to come. The trips we imagined, the grandchildren we envisioned, the pleasures we anticipated will not happen.

I want to nap like Rod, and I want to lose myself in long, unbroken stretches of sleep, twelve or even fifteen hours, glutting myself on the luxury of unconsciousness. I am lucky, though if I get six hours. This is the price I pay for living when my husband is dying: my body, still healthy and functioning, refuses sleep, that harbinger of death, that "mock death," as many have called it. It wants activity, stimulation, food, hard work, reminders of the life I am condemned to live without Rod.