...halved by light and dark...

Location: Madrid, Spain

I love eating Golden Delicious apples with peanut butter. I shop too much, drive an old car, and save my Starbucks money for traveling. Disillusioned women writers are my inspiration, especially Sylvia Plath and Sara Teasdale. I adore used book stores and fleamarkets.


Some of My Pozuelo Students

Me with Germán and Julian

Guillermo, Cristina (Germán´s girlfriend), me, Julian, Germán

We met in La Latina last Sunday evening for drinks and tapas. That part of the city was full of young people relaxing in sidewalk cafés, drinking tinto de verano around wicker tables, soaking up the evening heat.


The View from the Moroccan Streets

At the train station, a sign in Arabic and French

The Jewish Quarter - most streets are this size or narrower.

Rugs hung near the old palace

Sara, Brynn, and I eating dinner in the market Friday night


A Glimpse of La Medina

On the second train to Marrakech, broiling in the hallway

My monkey wanted my earring

The royal tombs

Deep inside the market, Saturday night


Willie Wonka Moments

The tazi brings us into Medina, the old city that comprises the heart of Marrakech, but stopped when the road becomes too narrow for the old tan Mercedes. Shouldering our bags, we set out through the winding nameless alleys, corner piled on dust-orange corner the way the market vendors pile their leather bags and gaudy brass earrings and shoes of every color. It is nearly 9.00 and the sun has just set. Finally, we submit to be led by a child who has been following us, offering to lead us wherever we need to go. This is neither the first nor the last of what Sara calls Willa Wonka moments - from the movie, when Willie Wonka trips going up the stairs and says "Ta-dah!" as if he meant to do that. We are three girls in Morocco for the weekend, and we have many Willie Wonka moments.

La Medina is quite small, and we understand most of it within one day. At least, we understand the more famous parts, the streets surrounding the ancient palace and royal tombs and olive gardens, although the streets of the Jewish quarter remain a mystery. We had a guide in the Jewish quarter, meaning a man who led us to a particular spice shop where we looked at the barrels of cinnamon and anise and tumeric and cadamon, white powdered clay and blocks of ambergris, saffron in a large crumbling red pile. The owner poured us hot weak mint tea, gave us mini facials with the clay, and showed us pictures of his year-old son. We bought clay and ambergris, and the sweet scent of the amber stayed on our arms all through the long afternoon.

All the signs at the palace and tombs are bilingual French and Arabic, and we did not remember to bring the guidebook, so we wander through guessing ages and histories and significance. Brynn takes pictures of cats and I take pictures of flowers, just as we had in Portugal.

During the day, the main plaza is surprisingly empty and small, but in the evening the spaces cover themselves with dried fruit carts and henna-painting women and long skinny steel tables and spice carts and children begging and white-aproned waiters calling for you to come to their restaurants. Our favorites are the orange carts, where for a mere 3 dirham (30 Euro pennies), we can drink a glass of thick freshly-squeezed juice. Three more dirhams buy us a bowl of thick soup which we eat with wooden spoons across a metal table from a changing array of Moroccan families and Korean tourists.

Saturday evening, Brynn and I need to change more Euro so we stopped in a big hotel to ask where we can go. The older men we ask says he can help us, and from his pocket he pulls 500 dirham for Brynn. For my 400 dirham, he unlocks the ice cream chest just inside the door and pays me in frozen bills and coins. Ta dah!

The market spreads out on all sides of the plaza, on all levels and corners. Through a shoe-filled walkway, down three steps or up twelve, turn right or go straight, walk past the beckoning shop keeper´s arm. We are called the Spice Girls and Victoria. It takes a poker face to walk through, and if the men make you laugh they have a chance. Everything is a game - the call and response, the simultaneous flirting and bargaining, the final price. We play the game until we are exhausted and our brains stuffed with sensory impressions and we stumble through the now-familiar alleys to our hostel.

Our plane leaves at 3.10 Sunday afternoon and, since it is a small airline, there is only one flight. The first train gets in at 2.00 and we dash to the street for a taxi, not waiting for the second train. In a mixture of Spanish and English words with French pronunciation, we bed the driver to go quickly. Boarding has just closed when we arrive, but we beg to be let on; passport control lines are agonizingly slow and I must wait for the officer to reqrite my name more legibly; security is mercifully lax and I slip past with my water, perfume, and grapes; we run in slippery flipflops up the ramp and to the right. The plane is not yet there. We collapse panting, grateful, relieved, giggly and shaky from adreneline, surprised. It is our last and greatest Willie Wonka moment - ta dah!


Some pictures! (new ones hopefully soon)

John, Brynn, and Eric in a monastery-turned-pasteleria in Lisbon

Lisbon seen from the Castilo de San Jorge, including the Golden Gate Bridge imitation

The view of Evora, Portugal, from the original castle wall


La Playa de los Muertos

The current is strong in this small bay, pulling from deep into the Mediterranean Sea. It is named the Beach of the Dead because the current pulls drowned bodies here. The water pulls them, sad and lonely, through its blue and turquoise shades, and lays them on the pebbled shore. Here they lie, perhaps sheltered by the great porous rocks at the southern end of the beach, until a mountain traveller glaces over the cliff edge and spots them far below. At such a height, people are small and the turquoise breakers are a thin strip before the vast hazy blue.

We are here on a much more frivolous errand, having been drawn to the sea by the prospect of sunshine and a long weekend. May 1 is Spain´s Constitution Day, and a large portion of Madrid´s population flocks out of the city on holiday. We are five: John, Leanna, Brynn, Agnieszka, and I, and we snugly fill John´s car.

After Comunidad de Madrid ends, we enter brief farmland and then the mountains, green and winding. Then, coming down onto the rolling land, a desert. They film westerns here, raising wooden store fronts against the mountains, when the southwest U.S. is too far away. Fields of stubby cacti grow straggling out of their rows. The houses are mostly low white stucco, or dusty red to match the hills.

At the very tip of Spain, we stop at Cabo de Gata, joking about Morocco. Can you see land? I think I can, that low shadow in the haze. The beach is littered and narrow, so we move up to San José - small and white built on hills near the curving water. Hippies sell homemade skirts and wooden jewelry along the edge of the beach. One man, crouched near a table, played a wooden recorder. They are skinny, dreadlocked, smiling at the tourists. In the early morning, the sound of their drums floats up from the beach to wake me.

This beach, la Playa de Genovéses, is long and covered with seashell fragments. Agnieszka and I climb the hill at the tip of the beach, and on three sides can watch the sea´s changing shades of blue. At night, we drink wine under the shallow blue sky.

On Saturday, after la Playa de los Muertos, we drive the seven hours back. Back over the desert, the bouldered mountains, the green fields to the city of Madrid, where no picture or description can keep the sound of the waves in our ears.


Early Morning

I am the sheen of sunshine upon the grass,
I am the depth of the distant train,
The red of the knuckle-rough bricks.
I am the song of the bird you can´t see
In the tree that you can.


Thoughts from the Plaza de Francia, Las Rozas, España

We have all gotten off the bus, unexpectedly, but without being told. On a hill, the 625A has failed. It will not move forward, only backward, coasting in short slides until the driver slams on the brakes. A line of cars gathers on the hill behind us, easing around one by one into the opposite lane.

The sun is hot. The 629 comes and most people board it. Wherever the 629 goes, it´s not where I need to be. We loiter, a dozen of us strung along in the dappled shade of the budding trees. We are a 40-something woman in capris, a mechanic in navy blue, a teacher in pink. The driver is on the phone. Two police cars pass but do not stop to help, and traffic flows intermittenly around us. The driver is packing his grey backpack, gathering the money, shutting down the ticket machine.

At the top of the hill, a bus stops, the LS line. The drivers confer, explain. The first driver boards the LS bus and we follow, flashing our receipts and bus passes to prove we paid. He is a short man, timid, stoop-shouldered, who accepts each proof with a quiet "Pasa." In starting, the new bus squeals and we hold our breath - will this one die too? But no, everything is well. We continue home.


perhaps now, a sense of place

The worst part about the house is the stairs. Four flights´ worth, each cut in half with a landing, which forms eight small staircases piled on top of each other. You can judge where a person is in the house by those stairs - six quick steps, a pause to spin 180· on the landing, then six more quick steps to the next floor. The steps are our Morse code, tapping out the steps of each journey.

But that´s not what I meant to say about the stairs; forgive my Shandeism. The worst part is that they´re marble, an ivory shade with faint pinks and greys swirled in. They´re slippery, with hard edges. It hurts to fall on them.

I live with a single mother (Cristina, 45) and her two kids (Maria, 14; Miguel, 11). I live here in exchange for speaking English with all three; Cristina´s English is quite fluent, but she´s anxious to make it flawless. The situation is almost an au pair arrangement, but I pretend it´s not. A maid comes once a week to clean, and my only responsibility is to teach the kids English. We watch movies in English, listen to American pop songs, plaster the kitchen with Post-It notes. Toaster, towel, paper towel, fork, tray, spices, broom. Maria goes to school in England next fall and will need these words. Or Miguel and I "race" down the treacherous stairs - he moves a step for every answer he knows, and I move a step for every answer he doesn´t. What is the present simple? What is the past continuous? Ask me a question using "how."

The house itself is very nice; by Spanish standards, wealthy. It´s a four-bedroom rowhouse, the third of six on a quiet cul-de-sac. It faces six identical brick houses. They have varying specimans of ivy, potted trees, dogs. There is no room for grass in front, and a manicured park in place of backyards. My friend John once compared this street, these houses, to a quaint British lane. Inside, the house is a combination of modern and Spanish. The marble floors, the grey and white kitchen with red curtains, the dark spare dining room furniture, skylights in the slanted attic ceiling - all modern. The occasional Moroccan-print rug, the history and philosophy books upstairs, the ironed teeshirts, the bottles of olive oil by the stove - all Spanish.

Paradoxically, the house´s greatest advantage and disadvantage is its distance from the city. Twenty minutes by car if the traffic is good, or half an hour by bus. And this gets me only to the very edge, the NW corner, where I join the crowds of jostled Madrileños (residents of Madrid) on the metro. I suppose that´s the trade-off I get for watching the stars gather strength in the evening over the low mountains.


Semana Santa

The car is almost as old as we are. It´s a round-shouldered black ´87 Golf, and we name it Suerte, meaning Luck. If she survives until the summer, she will become Dame Suerte. We talk to her a lot, encouraging, praising, patting the dashboard to coax her up the hills.
"We" is composed of three: John, Brynn, and I. Brynn and I met in January and hit it off, and go out together every weekend. John we met a few weeks ago, and the car is his latest purchase. We are all 23, still new enough in the world to feel the scars of university days, still reckless and curious and undecided. We will spend Semana Santa, Holy Week, in Portugal.
Suerte is loaded with bread, sandwich meat, beach towels, coats, magazines, bottled ice tea. The Spanish countryside is flat, and grows increasingly green as we move away from the center of the country; just into Portugal, the landscape becomes hilly. Brynn leans out the window to take pitures of the hills, the sheep, the farmhouses, and all the castles. She takes hundreds of pictures of the castles, and I take nearly as many of the flowers.
Our first stop: Évora. Just inside the Portugal border, the town used to be contained within the massive walls of a fortress; recently, modern apartments and a factory have spilled outside the walls. We see a temple to Diana (presumably, as the guide book tells us, the best preserved temple in Iberia), the edge of a castle, peacocks. When it rains, we duck into a mirror-walled café and order wine, and a nearby shop attendant cheerfully assures us that this is the worst place on earth.
We make it to Lisbon on Monday evening, after 9 hours on the road and €13 in toll money. However, being impetuous, we have not made sleeping arrangements. Rather than paying for an expensive hotel room or crashing in a pay-by-the-hour hotel, we take the car to a campground and sleep there. Not the most comfortable, but it´s safe and the showers are hot.
In Lisbon, Eric is our tour guide. I knew him in college, and he is spending a year abroad for his master´s degree. He is thrilled to show us the city.
The first day: St. George´s castle. Impressively large, with a great view of the city and the bay and the Golden Gate imitation bridge strung across the water. All around the foot of the castle, the city has spread its white-walled houses. We climb steps to the different levels on the ramparts, and wonder at the usage of various stone discs and blocks set in one corner of the large hall. With neither ceiling nor decorations, it´s sometimes hard to picture the castle rooms in their original context.
We see several cathedrals and Brynn, who grew up Catholic, explains some of the rituals. We see the place of the Carnation Revolution, where solders, called up to shoot at the citizens, instead put red carnations into the barrels of their rifles. We see statues of kings on horseback, and a modern art museum, and the tomb of Vasco de Gama, and a watchtower from which priests would bless the outbound ships. We eat fresh cod in a sidewalk café, and cinnamon-crusted pastries in a former monestary. Eric remembers every date, every story, every battle and king.
I love Lisbon. It feels smaller, older, quieter than Madrid. Spain and Portugal lost their dictators at the same time (late 1970s), but thirty years have not been sufficient to restore Portugal´s economy. The nation hasn´t forgotten its peasant roots; the tiled walls and cobblestone streets echo them.
On Wednesday, as it rains, we say goodbye to Eric and drive to Porto Covo, a town along southern Portugal´s coast. John chose it randomly, since it was easily accessible and near the ocean. It was near the ocean - close enough to walk there in five minutes. We rent rooms from an old man who has portioned up his home - bedrooms for the tourists, kitchen for him - and spends the days playing cards with a friend. Both men are wizened, deeply tanned, cheerfully chattering to each other or us in Portuguese. We respond in a mixture of Spanish and English, or smile confusedly.
Mostly, it rains. We play cards and take long naps and read. Thursday morning, in a patch of welcome sunshine, we go to the beach. I wander barefoot along the beach, see a black sandcrab, watch the incoming tide wash away the prints my feet have left between the rocks. When the rain begins again, we take refuge in a wood-beamed restaurant at the top of the hill. The soil is sandy, but plants still grow - rubbery carpets and deep red blooms and green mats of leaves that crawl up the cliff beside the ocean.
On Friday, we leave. Suerte, by this time, is full of bread crumbs and toll receipts and sand. We stop briefly in Merida, a Spanish town that boasts some Roman artifacts: a temple, two theaters, a couple houses. But we are lackadaisical about the town, whether from overload or tiredness or an eagerness to be home. And so we drive on, skimming ahead of the weekend traffic like the foam on the waves we´ve been watching. We reach Madrid in the evening. Tomorrow, and the next day and the next, there will be time enough to look at the pictures.