Saturday, December 31, 2011

from Seville: New Year's Eve

Outside, the thank-goodness-it's-Friday-and-not-just-any-Friday joviality continued nearly all night long. We’re on the fourth floor of our Madrid hotel and so the sound does not keep us awake. And, in fact, I probably never jet lagged my way out of Europe time because the sleep cycle clicked in for me instantly here.

Still, Ed and I have a habit of being awake at some part of each night, often, as this time, watching a snippet of one thing or another – on this night of a woman teaching her cat to walk on a leash, gratis the New York Times.

One reason to love being away is that the day’s schedule shifts around so much for us then. Ed tends toward a whimsical pace even back home, but when we’re away, our time becomes a fantasy of hours. Eating, hiking, reading, playing, sleeping – they’re all interchangeable. Nothing has to be.

But this Saturday morning we did have to be somewhere – at the train station, by noon. Our backpacks are light – you learn to go lighter each trip, remembering awkward moments of lifting and heaving on previous ones. The day is gloriously bright. Madrid appears very forgiving now. Gentle and still. Like Manhattan on holiday.

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Lacking chaos, it becomes very dignified. Almost staid.

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And blissfully quiet.


We head back toward the Prado. I want to walk to the train station through the Botanical Gardens there, but we can’t. There’s only one entrance/exit. So I console myself with camera glimpses from the outside.

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We’re at the station now. The trains – oh the trains of Europe!


335 miles in 2.25 hours. One stop along the way.

Lovely and comfortable and smooth.  I watch the family across the aisle...


...but mostly, I watch the escape from the city (modern housing blocks in Spanish cities are so often like this: irregular rather than boxy, colorful)...


...into the vast, beautiful open spaces. If you had no knowledge of Spain’s agriculture, you would learn from the train ride that olives are a big deal here.


A very big deal.


But as we get closer to Andalucía, the slate green of olive trees gives way to the deep green of oranges leaves. We’re south alright. In less than two and a half hours, we’ve changed climates.

New Year’s Eve in Seville. It just worked out this way. We’ll be hopping around Andalucía – no more than three days in any one place. Seville is merely a good starting point. And, for us, it’s good to get the biggest cities out of the way first. We lose patience with them quickly. The longing for a slower paces overcomes us. And so we begin here, Seville, the capital of Andalucía.


Seville. Beautiful, colorful Seville.

Our tiny hotel is a gem (the Alminar) and it’s just two minutes from the Cathedral—the focal point of the old center. But no one can direct us to it. There, go there. We go there. Nothing. Maybe down that street. Not there either. We wander around like this for a while, never minding one bit, because the street scenes are so beguiling, so captivating, as here, too, life spills out onto the pavement. Usually around bars, cafes and restaurants.

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And so we go, up one narrow alley, down the next.

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Ah, the Alminar Hotel.  Finally identified... here it is:

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We leave our packs at the hotel and set out again. Around the cathedral, inside the cathedral, moving from one square to the next, reading a little on this place, forgetting to do so on another...

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...and we continue in this way until I say stop! Lunch break. For me. Ed has eaten an excessive breakfast (don’t let him loose at buffets: he eats enough for the day and refuses meals thereafter). But I’m used to this odd pattern of meals and nonmeals. I have a wonderful salad and a glass of wine...

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...and we both indulge ourselves in a protracted period of people watching. You could never tire of it. We never tire of it, Ed and I.



And then we walk again (and we're not the only ones)...

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...through the old Jewish quarter, getting lost there – yes, of course, that’s what you’re supposed to do...

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...emerging once again by the Cathedral.


It’s nearly 11 p.m. as I post this now and I’m breaking from my posting habits just to put this up before midnight. We haven’t eaten supper yet and I’m not quite sure where we'll be for that, or if we’ll be outdoors at midnight. The air turns a chilly 40 then. But this is the time to open the welcoming Cava from Madrid and drink a toast. Ed looks at me half indulgently, half scornfully, but always, always kindly. Here it is – my toast to Ocean readers – Happy New Year to all. May you have a good one.

from Madrid: getting started

Have you noticed that trips, even well planned, too well planned trips often start off with a bit of a rock and tumble? It’s as if you needed a test: prove that you’re worthy. Prove that you can smile at the little annoyances!

We are in Madrid. I’m not a huge fan of the city, but it’s not really the fault of Madrid. I have a history of false starts here. Nearly all past visits have had a tinge of the unfortunate. Indeed, the very first time I took my daughters to Europe, we landed first in Madrid. My youngest, then five, ate a Spanish burger and got violently ill for the next 48 hours. Welcome to Europe. Thanks, Nebraska Cafeteria.

Ed says – you can’t be happy. You don’t like Madrid. I respond – I am super happy to be here. Happiness is complicated.

The flight into the city is beautiful. You don’t quite think of mountains when you think of Madrid and yet, they are not that far from the plain in Spain where, in fact, there is at present no rain.


The bus into the city is cheap (but crowded!), the walk from the stop is quite majestic and not too long...


...the hotel, the Regina, seems fine, too.

I booked a Christmas special rate. You receive welcoming treats as part of the package. A bottle of Cava, fruits, sweets. [Actually, a superb deal. In addition to Cava and goodies, you get a full breakfast buffet, free Internet, etc etc. All for 105 E. Pretty much what you expect to pay for Econolodge in Escanaba, except it’s Madrid and it’s not Econolodge.]

There aren’t treats in the room when we arrive and we feel obliged to wait for them. You don’t want to disappoint the gift giver and not be there when it’s delivered.

Stupid idea. The gift giver forgot and we waste an hour of sunshine waiting for a Cava that neither of us at the moment is even inclined to drink.

Next testy element: in my zealous over-prepared approach to travel, I become convinced that we should have in hand tickets for tomorrow’s train to Seville. The Internet ought to help with this, but I got burnt purchasing rail tickets for the Polish trains online, only to find them one third less at the ticket agent’s at the station. But in our one afternoon and evening in Madirid, do we really want to loop away from the sights, down toward the station? No. I say we go to the nearby department store, El Corte Ingles, where a friendly agent can and will sell us rail seats.

Off we go into a chilly forty degree sunshine, toward Plaza Mayor.

Oh my, where did all the people come from? The entire country of Spain has emptied her population onto the historic center of Madrid.  Of course. It’s a holiday week-end and people are out and about in the way that they always will be, if given lovely and welcoming communal spaces where they can congregate.

There must have been a thousand street vendors and performers, pandering mostly to kids, but not only.


The pedestrian-only squares are cluttered with booths – left over holiday markets, but selling really just about anything. Very popular are these wigs. People appear to be wearing them to make a New Year’s statement.


We make (push?) our way through crowds of sales shoppers at the El Corte Ingles...


...then wait for a good while at the travel desk, only to be told at the last minute that there will be a 10% fee to purchase tickets there. Us? Pay and an extra 10 Euro? Forget it. Off we go to the train station, pausing briefly at the Mayor, just for a glance, up at the burnt orange, balconied buildings...


...and all around, where street theater and street sales dominate the vast rectangular space.

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In the end, it’s good to get away from the central city crowds. We follow a commercial road toward the station and it isn’t an especially beautiful street, but if you look this way and that, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with vignettes of a quieter Madrid.

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...all against a late afternoon brilliant blue sky.


I’ve been going on the transatlantic flight breakfast and I say to Ed that it’s time for me to pause at a counter for a shot and a bite.


Perfect. A macchiato and a cookie.


By the time we buy our tickets, it is nearly 6. The sun has disappeared, faded away. It’s still around forty, but I’m glad I have my jacket. A sunless forty can feel nippy. We walk up the wide, tree lined Paseo del Prado...

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...not really intending to stop at the museum on this brief run through Madrid, but we see a line, a very long line and any Pole my age will get in line if she sees one, asking only after what it’s for. Except this one’s obvious. The Prado has free entry in the weekday evening hours (6 -8). How utterly lovely! Our fortunes have spun around and the rest of the evening is one foggy blissful dream.

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It’s about a half hour wait as the line moves slowly, what with security check and crowd control measures, but oh, is it worth it! I’d just been reading the latest New Yorker on the plane – with a review of "Velazquez and the Surrender of Breda," and now here I am standing before that very painting and Las Maninas too (this was taken before I was told that photography was not permitted. Who knew. No signs.)...


Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Rubens, room after room of great masters.

And now we are really spent. Ed’s threatening to fall asleep on the spot and I have to admit, I’ve pushed us around just a tad too much on too little rest and protein. We make our way toward the center again and at the first crowded tapas bar/restaurant, we pause. Delicious mussels and a heavenly salad, dripping with this year's fruity olive oil...


...and now we’re feeling jovial indeed, but you can’t just stop at one tapas place. We pass another, raucous, crowded corner bar and eatery...

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...with a big paella pot on the counter.
What kind? Ed asks
Chicken and seafood.

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We eat this as well and now we are satiated, walking, tottering from tiredness and good eating, making our way back to the hotel, past holiday lights and holiday crowds, on a good roll now, happy indeed.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

in transit

Someone asked me recently if I travel alone frequently. The answer -- oh yes, very much so. True, these days I sometimes (often?) have a travel companion at my side, but let me qualify that: said person – Ed – is, in travel, a presence, but a quiet presence. Nose in book or paper or computer, mind set on preoccupation du jour, we are often compatible in silence, tracking each other, sometimes engaging, but oftentimes only at the margins.

We have been lucky on this trip. Air France is packed (as always), so much so that we both got the coveted business upgrade. I had a chance to stretch in a reclining position and it was sublime. I’m good now for the two dozen sardine trips I’m likely to make in years ahead – I had my fill of pleasure on this one flight.

In Paris now, but only at the airport.

...writing because we’re both on our computers and so it seems right. In a few minutes we’ll be in flight again, reading.


Thursday, December 29, 2011


There isn’t a day here, at the farmette, when I am not paying attention to the weather. And the sky. It becomes a habit, much like evening blogging has become a habit and starting the day with a cup of espresso and ending it with a glass of wine are, too, very comfortable habits.

Of course, on days that I travel, weather is a necessary preoccupation. It creates expectations – of possible delays if it’s stormy, of smooth transitions if it’s not. So I’ve been tracking it. Good for Madison at the time of departure (this afternoon). Okay in Detroit – the point of connection. Drizzly but decent in Paris – another connection. And glorious in Madrid where we finally disembark and leave the world of airports and airplanes. And glorious, too, at points thereafter.

We’re heading for Andalucía – an autonomous region of southern Spain. The skies seem blue there right now and I want that – to take walks under deeply blue skies, but I’ll keep in my pocket that image of my Midwest corner, where one minute, as I step outside of the farmhouse, I see this...


...and a few minutes later, as I pull the garbage can to the road, in the same spot, I see this:


It makes you feel dizzy and happy just to see that sky.

Of course, leaving for a place that has a habit of enduring blue skies in disproportionately large doses adds to a giddiness today. Still, I raise my cup of frothy espresso to that Midwestern sky. And I look forward to our return to it some weeks from now.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

a race you know you’re going to lose

Unwarranted optimism. It really was not realistic to expect to finish grading 91 exams and 40 papers in five days, but I tried.

So, we’re leaving tomorrow and I’ll have to take work with me. Bummer.

Well no, really, not bummer at all. I’m delighted.

We’re traveling light, Ed and I. Computers, papers, yes, that. And little else. Backpacks, because there’ll be a lot of walking from one place to the next, from train station to b&b, from one end of town to another.

Where to? Oh, up up and away. Tomorrow we’re catching one flight, then the next and then still another. By Friday we’ll be there.

Today? The usual last minute nonsense. But the sky around us – ah, that was quite pretty.


In the evening, we emptied out the refrigerator and put it into a salad. With cheese puffs on the side. Which Isis decided were worth a crunch. Or two.

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But no more. The cat likes novelty. Two nibbles and he’s done. It’s not new anymore.


Isis, you’re so predictably difficult.
He’s going to miss us... Ed says.
He’ll have the cat sitter!
Yes, but...

A parent’s remorse at leaving the kids. It never goes away.

Back to work.

I’ll try to write en route tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

scrambling attend to things. Meetings, lunches – all good, though all taking me away from where I need to be: grading exams.

Still, in all honesty, I welcome the interruptions. The run up State Street...


...through the Capitol, seeing for the first (and last) time the state Christmas tree...

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...straight to Graze, where I can get the lunch of my dreams (salad, this one with warm beets and goat cheese)...


...then back to campus, more meetings, good meetings.

And finally, home again. I’m ready for a late afternoon coffee, but Paul’s café is keeping irregular hours these weeks and we arrive to locked doors.

No matter. We both now jump into the errand mode – cat litter for the cat sitters (we’re leaving the day after the next), a beard trim for Ed, the thises and thats which make lists long.

Then home once more.

DSC09781 reheated chili again. To exams and grading and somewhere in the background the noise of PBS, droning rhythmically, hour after hour while I read exams, until I can read no more.