November 25, 2012 – The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plain
Arriving to Spain is like touching down on the terrain of some newer planet. A modern planet and a more relaxed world. Italy had felt old, still restless. Unsettled and discontent. As if it were trying to attain the glory it had lost, to cling to all the greatness it still holds. Spain doesn’t feel that way to me. Maybe it’s because I can understand the national language. Maybe the relaxing is only in my posture, in the release of the straining to hear, to listen, to know.
Maybe it’s because I brought no expectations over the border with me. It’s not exactly like coming home, but it is like meeting a good friend for the first time and knowing the days together will be enjoyable.
That said, I have no real clear picture of what Spain is, only faded-edged images of mountainsides and trees taken from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and stories of Toreadors and red-eyed, frightened, angry sword-pricked bulls. I know of the Conquistadors who bullied their way across the Americas, erected monstrous churches, and left their language to the subsequent generations. And that’s about it.
As the ferry eases into port Russell Watson’s Barcelona coincidentally, serendipitously, appropriately starts playing through my earpieces. I smile and shake my head. Spain! I never in my life thought I’d be listening to this song in the real place. The wind is a gentle breeze. The bells are ringing out. They’re calling us together. Guiding us forever. Wish my dream would never go away. Never go away. Never go away. Barcelona. Barcelona! It’s a space-world place with buildings like rocket ships and flight control towers and strange half circle sculptures.
I only stay in Barcelona one night, that’s all the time I have. In the morning, I admire just enough of the statues in the plaza near my hostel to give me the illusion that I saw something of the city. Then I’m off to the Barcelona Sants station where I climb on a bus that’s going to take me the 379 miles west and north to Bilbao.
I settle in for the seven hour trip. I’ve got music, snacks, a book, and a window seat. We drive through towns with names like Zaragoza, Logrono, and Vitoria. We pass countryside that reminds me of Joshua Tree National Park, dusty border towns of Mexico, parts of barren Peru and even some of the Texas panhandle. It’s dry land, sparse land, decorated sporadically with spots of fertility in the midst of nothing. There are old Spanish plantations, vineyards, solar farms, wind turbines. It feels like everywhere and nowhere at all. I love it.
The man sitting next to me, traveling with two women who I assume are his wife and mother, has ignored the fact that I’m listening to music and occasionally makes some light conversation. They’re from Argentina traveling to Bilbao to visit his son who is there studying Visual Arts. It’s their first time to Europe and the man is amazed by the harsh, barren, hard nature of the land.
“But aren’t parts of Argentina like this too?” I ask.
He concedes that there are, but we both stare out at the landscape because it’s captivating and austerely beautiful. The whole world is the same, I think. The whole world is completely different.
A bit of silence settles and I’ve turned my music back up when he says, “A history lesson?”
I turn the music off and fold my hands in my lap. “Okay.”
“Napoleon, you know of Napoleon Bonaparte?” I nod (thank goodness I do). “France is just above us,” he says. “Napoleon came down from France and marched through this part of Spain on his way to attack Portugal.” I look out the window at the wasteland. I bet that was one logistical mess. The man continues to tell me that because of Napoleon’s conquest of Spain Argentina rallied up enough gumption to stage a revolt and secured their independence from Spain. He includes dates and events that I don’t write down, that don’t sink into my forever memory. Now here he is, this man and his family, in this country that had been a heavy handed ruler over his, but whose conquest and influence enables him in this day to come so far from home and still speak the same language.
It’s a short history lesson with good visuals.
For the rest of the trip, I’m thinking about armies traveling across countries in all kinds of weather, on horseback, on foot, and for subduing and conquering purposes. I’m glad to be on a bus.
In Bilbao, my seatmate and I bid each other safe travels and happy days.
I’m gathering my things while he’s hugging his son. While the women take turns hugging the son and my seatmate stands nearby with his hand on his son’s shoulder.
I swing my bag into place against my back, give a last glance backward to make sure I haven’t forgotten
anything, wave an unseen goodbye to the man and head to my hostel. I’ve got approximately one hour to get there before the end of check-in time. The confirmation instructions had warned that once check in time had expired there was no checking in at all. So I’m hurrying up. I’m a mile and a half away and thinking it’ll be easier to walk it than to figure out how to use and pay for the transit system. If I book it, I can make it there in twenty minutes. If I take my time, I’ll still have a buffer. This distance is nothing and a leg stretch sounds nice. Ten minutes later, it starts to rain. Soft, hesitant, big drops. “Please hold off just a little longer,” I tell the sky. It’s Spanish rain. I’ve been collecting rain experiences all along the way. Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Croatia, Italy, now Spain. “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” I intone in my best Eliza Doolittle voice. And then I’m singing the words (not just in my head) in time with my rapid steps. I only have to ask for directions and totally retrace my steps once.
I’m wondering if an hour for a mile and a half was really enough. But then I arrive to the La Salve Bridge and cross under Daniel Buren’s L’Arc Rouge and know I’m close.
Two flights in my bridge descent, I see her.
The very reason I’ve come to this place.
I stop, gasping for breath, cursing my windedness, and leaning too far over the railing in exaltation. I could leave now. I’ve seen what I came to see. All the rest, anything else is just a bonus.
“You’re beautiful,” I tell the spider.
But I have no time for a real conversation, I’ve got twelve minutes to get checked in before I’ll find myself sleeping at the legs of the giant bronze and steel arachnid.
Only slightly less out of breath than a few minutes previously, I stumble up to the door to my hostel, press my nose up against the glass and wave at the girl behind the desk. She buzzes me in.
“Are you Amanda?” she asks.
“We were so worried about you! We tried to get ahold of you to find out where you were and when you’d arrive.”
Worried? I feel as if she’s waited up all night for me, yet it’s only just shy of 8:00. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. I’d marked a tentative five o’clock arrival time on my online reservation form. I hadn’t realized the Spanish took these check in times so seriously. “The bus took a little longer than I’d thought.”
“We called your mom,” she goes on. “You should call and let her know you made it safely.”
Oh lord, they called my mom. “I’ll call her right away.”
The girl gives me the tour, shows me my third-story bunk bed and locker, and then leaves me to get settled in. I call my mom and let her know I’m safe and where I’m supposed to be, grateful she’s not inclined towards panic and hasn’t spent her hours imagining worst case scenarios.
Once that’s all squared away, my stomach tells me that it will be thinking up worst case scenarios for me if I don’t feed it soon.
A few doors away from my two night home is a little pub called Crazy Horse. They have a salad on menu and that’s good enough for me. I sink into one of the outdoor patio chairs and look up to find that I’m right across the river from Maman.
“I’m having dinner with Maman,” I say. Probably out loud. “I’m having dinner with you,” I tell her in a low voice.
And sure enough, that’s the truth.
Here I am. There she is.