My parents are incredibly easy to host. They help around the house, spend loads of time with Z and are happy to sit in the sun coming through our windows and read. They also clean up after me and a kitchen when I'm cooking is not a pretty site. So why was I so wiped out near the end of their 2 week visit? Did I have a virus that was trying to take hold but couldn't quite defeat my immune system? Was my body exhausted by the dynamic of being the child "taking care" of the parents? Though we've been on vacations together and see each other fairly often, I realized it was never for this amount of time and never in my own house. It was a great visit, but I couldn't bring myself to write and hardly took a photo. By the time I saw them off at Heathrow, I was ready for a vacation.
The English school system only takes 5 weeks off during the summer, the term running through mid-July, but they seem to make up for it with breaks during the year and we had a week off at the end of October. C was more than ready to take a hiatus from the minor shipwreck at work and Easy Jet accommodated our budget by offering round trip flights to Spain for $150. I picked Z up from school on a Thursday and we hopped on the train that runs from St. Albans directly to Gatwick Airport. Chris simply walked a few blocks from work, boarded the same train and we were in Madrid a few hours later. BTW, if you have the option to fly into Gatwick when you come to visit us (!), it's a much less complicated place than Heathrow.
Spain is where I came out of my creative stupor. And though I was finishing up an earlier piece, I simply couldn't publish that while I was being bitten by the highly infectious Iberian Bug of Happiness.
After night one near the airport we took a taxi to La Latina district, the old part of Madrid, criss-crossed with narrow streets, cafés, cobble-stoned squares, and heaving with Castillian-lisping humanity. When I told our Air B&B hostess that we had stayed near the airport the night before because we had arrived so late at 11:00, she just chuckled and said bluntly, "That's not late in Spain."
From the apartment we wandered, no destination in mind, looking to feel how this new placed worked. We stumbled onto a vegetarian restaurant around 2:00 when we were starving and the rest of Madrid was just sitting down for a normal lunch. Z wasn't as enamored of Spanish tofu as he is of Trader Joe's tofu, but he managed to down a few buckwheat noodles. We naively ordered water to drink while everyone around us was drinking wine, by the bottle no less. We didn't think we could tolerate drinking mid-day and functioning a few hours later, but then we came to understand the real utility of The Siesta.
It took us precisely half a day to settle into Spanish time. C and I were more than willing to spend the afternoon dozing and reading, Z was just happy to have us all together and agreeably lay his head on the pillow for at least an hour, though his eyes never closed. By the time we ventured out again around 8, the rain had stopped, the dusk of evening was looking blue and we were walking along old stone streets flanked with iron balconies and grand wooden doors that could have accommodated an elephant. When the alley gave way to a square we entered, mouth gaping and salivating at the same time, the Mercado de San Miguel. Normally I don't enjoy moving amongst a tide of humanity, but what was on display was so magical we couldn't help but join the crush. Imagine all manner of food, particularly fish, pig and cheese, cured, pickled, brined, aged, smoked, salted, baked and roasted. Now arrange all this food into eye-tantalizing combinations and make the portions small enough eat in two bites. Offer a glass of Spanish wine to complement the anchovies or chorizzo, and you might have a picture of what this place was like. Sometimes I think humanity's most impressive accomplishment since emerging from slime is the engineering of machines, buildings and whole cities. But then I think what people have created with food is even more astounding. Partially because every time I see something that delights the eyes and taste buds I feel elevated mentally in the same way an elevator takes me physically.
The next day we didn't visit The Prado Museum. We didn't go inside palaces or to a bull fight or a flamenco dance. We sought out the best playground in the city and when the adults got bored we all rented a row boat to paddle around the artificial lake of the Parque del Retiro. As C and Z rowed, I used Google Maps to locate a nearby tapas bar and, based on a few stranger's reviews, we headed there for an early lunch at 1:30. We didn't hesitate this time to order wine, though it impeded our attempts to understand the menu. I looked up the main ingredients hoping to avoid squid, octopus or testicles. I stayed safe with what I knew to be cheese and goat though surprised when I got goat cheese rather than cheese AND goat. But have you ever bitten into something and thought, "Life at this moment is so perfect! I'm so glad to be alive!"? I don't know what they feed the goats in this country but the combination of lightly toasted bread drizzled with a mildly spiced honey, topped with a thick round slab of Spanish goat cheese was so good and the cold white wine was just then causing a tingle in my forehead that I seriously felt infected by happiness. I was sick with it. So sick that even my husband and child were perfect in every way.
We spent only 2 days in Madrid and the infection persisted. I was most feverish during the evening hours when there was great warmth within the crowds. Everyone was out in the largely pedestrian streets, in the cafes, walking and laughing and talking a hundred miles an hour. Even though I didn't know anybody I felt a part of them. We smiled a lot as we attempted to communicate in our limited Spanish. We were just another family in a city that loves family and loves real food. And that's what our vacation was turning out to be. Not a tour but a minor transformation from our early to bed, early to rise, cloudy, blustery English lives to a relaxed integration into our surroundings with a bonus culinary bonanza . We never ate dinner before 9 and thankfully Z was happy to color and work on his numbers while we sipped beer or wine or sangria and people watched. But it was chilly in Madrid and so on the third day we pointed ourselves south and set off in search of 12 more degrees.
Erratum: To those of you who subscribe to this blog, I want to apologize for my previous atrocious spelling mistake. I do know the difference between "thrown" and "throne" though apparently I can't see it even after 50 proof reads. I attribute it to not having grown up under a monarchy and Spelling, after History, being my second worst subject.