There are two universal truths about train stations. One, the bathrooms are disgusting and terrifying, and two, they are the weirdest cross section of humanity, existing entirely in a liminal place between going and coming.
I arrived in Madrid’s Atocha Station after a four airports, one and a half days in New York City, two cabs, a sleepless 9 hour flight over the ocean, and one train ride. Dragging my oversized suitcase through the train station, pulling all 50 pounds of it over a turnstile while commuters behind me sighed and groaned, it occurred to me why people backpack through Europe and not giant rolly bag through Europe. I angrily stashed my bag in a locker and promised I’d return to it when it learned it’s lesson. In the bathroom, all dripping wet and clogged toilets with broken doors, I pulled a perfectly curated bag of necessary supplies out of my all purpose camera and day bag. Dry shampoo, febreeze for my day two clothes, deodorant, face wipes, moisturizer, mascara, preparing myself for a much anticipated date with Madrid, and hoping the city would forgive my slight funk.
Atocha is magnificent. There is a pond and trees and walls of enormous glass windows that are unfathomably giant, even standing underneath them - but beyond a single door was the incredible city of Madrid, the place I’d dreamed of for years and worked to get to for days. I wanted so much to see everything, and all I could do was plop myself in a corner with some yogurt and a half-eaten granola bar.
There was nothing I hadn’t planned for. I had maps and bandaids, dry shampoo in carry on size, lists of European doctors who took my health insurance, and directions to the American consulate. It turns out, though, that no amount of lists or bags of cosmetics can prepare you for either the first look at your jet-lagged face and unwashed hair in a train station bathroom or the feeling of realizing you didn’t once think about your actual arrival or those anxiety demons that sometimes creep up from beyond.
And so I sat in a corner with my yogurt, feeling all at once overwhelmed and anxious and guilty and ridiculous while I tried to make up my mind as to where to go or what to do, while I ran through a hundred Spanish phrases, while I fiddled with wifi on my phone so I could update my facebook status to trick everyone into thinking I wasn’t horrified.
There’s an undeniable thrill in the motion of just going, in the fight, in the momentary panic and confusion. We travel between here and there and wrongfully assume simply the act of going is the middle ground. It’s not. The middle ground is the transient place, a bus terminal, airport, or train station, the place where we make a conscious decision to go out into the world to seek something new when we’re good and ready. Going and going until we are exhausted is not impressive, but knowing when to stop and when to go takes skill.
I’m learning to love the transient place in which I currently reside, where the destination isn’t clear and a decision hasn’t been reached. The planner lacks a plan, and it is perhaps serving me well. For years, my personal and professional life has been a constant string of taking cabs to busses to planes hoping it would eventually get me to an ill defined place I wanted to be. And realizing I’m not ready to be there, that all I want to do is eat my yogurt in the corner, has been remarkably liberating.
When I was ready, I finished my quasi-breakfast. I never got the wifi to work. I meandered around, told the newspaper man I didn’t want one, took some pictures, and then a deep breath. And out the door I went. The wrong door, leading to a way that was in no way pedestrian friendly, down a road and between a few cabs, but a door nonetheless.
The city forgave my funk and my unkempt hair, forgave me for being a mess, for staring wide eyed at buildings as I wandered around with no clear idea as to how traffic worked. The city forgave me for not knowing and not understanding, rewarded me for taking the risk when I was ready.
When I found access to wifi, I wrote the first thing that came to mind -
After a not-so-pleasant overnight flight where no amount of ambien could quell the anxiety from the serious turbulence, I landed in Madrid at 8:30 in the morning. With my giant bag that I thought wasn’t that heavy until I had to tote it all over Madrid, I caught a train to Atocha knowing they had locker storage until I could meet up with my friends that evening.
Even though it was just the train station, Atocha is beautiful. I spent probably 30 minutes just wondering around it, partially because it’s huge, but partially because it’s magnificent. We spend so much time and effort making buildings that are transient locations so gorgeous, and that is endlessly fascinating to me. It was also the site of the 2004 subway bombings, and there’s a nice memorial to the people who were killed during that tragedy.
After checking my bag (in my bad, broken Spanish) and losing a quick 40 pounds, I found my way out of the train station and over to the plaza in front of the Reina Sophia museum, where I watched a huge group of school kids in little red hats pour out of the building on a field trip, a dad play a game of futbol with his son, who used their bags and sweatshirts to set up a goal, and two women chase their dog with a cone on it’s head. The museum was closed that day, so I explored on foot – stopping for a café con leche and tortilla – which, in Spain, is like a crustless quiche filled with potato and onion, not the flat flour wrap of Latin America.
Eventually I found myself strolling through an open air book market on the edge of Parque Del Retiro, where I paid 5 euro for an old Spanish map. The whole thing was delightful and wonderful, and old men were gathered to talk smack and young people rode their bikes. It’s only a block (uphill) in length, so I meandered up and explored some more, somehow ending up at the Prado Museum. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of renaissance portraits so the Prado wasn’t really my thing, but it was really neat to see Las Meninas in real life. My favorite Spanish teacher in high school used classic Spanish art to teach us vocabulary, so many of the paintings there were by artists I’d studied many years ago. Aside from that, it was kind of an ‘eh’ moment for me, though it’s entirely possible I’m just not cultured enough.
By this point it was around 3pm, and having not slept and flown across the sea, I was exhausted, not showered, and generally feeling icky. I picked up my bag and caught the metro to my friend’s apartment – clutching the tiny piece of paper with her address the entire time. Without a cell phone and with very limited Spanish, I was terrified of getting lost, though I did anyway. Eventually I asked a non-threatening woman and a baby and she pointed me in the right way, though I only understood about half of what she said.
Shana and I then headed out for a quick tour of Madrid and cañas, where we walked around some cute neighborhoods and saw Plaza del Toros. Though the idea of bullfighting makes me uncomfortable, the building itself is undeniably beautiful, being heavily influenced my middle eastern architecture.
Cañas are the best thing in the world, and I hereby move that we bring them to the United States. They are tiny, cheap, beers, about ¾ of a pint, served with some mysterious set of snacks to be determined by the whim of the bar or restaurant. In my time in Madrid the following things were served with our drinks – olives, pickles, ham, tiny chocolate with cats on it, corn nuts, peanuts, fried eggs, toasted bread with cheese on it, and potatoes covered in cheese.
This is the plaza where we had our second round of cañas! There’s also an amazing mural here that I didn’t get a picture of.
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