Bulldogs And My Grandmother’s Ghost
By Elizabeth Cutright
To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it.”
Freya Stark, Bagdad (1929)
I missed my grandmother intensely – in that moment as I stood at an upright table in a coffee shop off Calle Toledo, Madrid – I was hit with a wall of emotion. Two older ladies to my left were having a classic bitch session – the spanish wafting over me in a slow, steady stream with all the inflection and accent I’ve grown up with but rarely hear outside family gatherings. On the streets I’d been seeing elderly ladies walking arm and arm and they look so much like the woman I grew up with, that I felt like I was encountering her ghost at every corner and crosswalk. The wish she she could be with me, sharing my croissant and telling me stories about Chile, sprung up strong and true and in that moment I was struck by the injustice of it all: how could we not have had this opportunity, this chance to share this country of our most elemental origins? In truth, I hadn’t expected this…to come to Spain and find my grandmother.
Sitting on a crowded plane waiting to take off across the Atlantic, I was hit with my usual travel induced panic attack: what in the hell I was thinking when I put this in motion 2 1/2 months ago, I wondered. Sure, I’d been coming off a bad case of the blues so you could say I wasn’t maybe thinking all that clearly. But what about everyone else in my life? All those people who cheered me on and insisted it was a good idea to travel a quarter of the way around the world all by myself! Where were they now? Snug in their beds while I was strung out in limbo. It was looking rather grim.
But I knew the self doubt was par of the course. I’ve experienced it on every solo adventure I’ve ever taken: first day in Tel Aviv, first night in Dublin, first visit to Chile. Usually I get over it rather quickly, but there’s always that moment – when the initial hoops have been jumped through and I’m actually on the plane – that pause and peace amidst the droning jet engines allows a bit of self doubt to slip in.
I hadn’t completely shaken the feeling the next morning. Sitting in the lobby/breakfast bar area of the Hotel Plaza Mayor (http://www.h-plazamayor.com/) – it’s inviting brick and tile walls set off by shiny parquet floors and red, straight back chairs – I felt a bit removed from everything, like I was watching a movie of my life instead of living it. Even though a little voice whispered – this is exactly the woman I am supposed to be, the lone traveler, the adventurer – I still couldn’t ignore the fact that sometimes independence is not wholly comfortable; there’s always that tiny tinge of melancholy loneliness. Oddly enough, the strains of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” buzzing out from the lobby speakers did not do much to lighten my mood. (A Wham fail!)
But I won’t lie. Seasoned traveler that I am, transcontinental flights still throw me for a loop. I felt inhuman when I arrived. The trip went surprising well – all connects were made without effort. Layovers went by quickly, and I was surprised at how simple it was to catch the metro at the Madrid airport and make all the transfers to the Plaza Mayor. When I exited the metro station and emerged into the bright, Spanish sun, I felt caught up in a dream. I was so sleep deprived that I ended up walking around in circles, dodging cars and businessmen on their way to work. I think I walked right by the hotel more than once before I really saw it
But one long hot shower and short nap later, I was on the move. It was mid afternoon, and I knew that it was imperative that I get some fresh air. So I laced up my walking shoes, slapped on makeup and put on a presentable face for the world.
After my croissant, I walked down to the botanical gardens (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g187514-d313716-Reviews-Royal_Botanic_Garden_Real_Jardin_Botanico-Madrid.html) before exploring the Plaza Mayor. Although I’d completely missed the early morning rain, the cobbled square was slippery under my feet. The photo ops were bountiful. Across the crisp, post-storm air I could smell freshly baking bread, and I wandered in and out of tourist traps while the sound of a lone Cello player wisped and smoked around my feet.
I ended the day’s adventures in a small square a few blocks away from the plaza. After wandering up and down serpentine alleys lined with colorful doors, street art and enticing little restaurants, I settled on a deserted coffee shop for my afternoon snack. Wrapped up in my wool pullover and sipping a supremely divine Cafe con Leche, I let myself savor the moment. Cocooned and cozy, despite the chill of the Fall evening. Sitting serenely at a little table, in a quiet corner off the main streets of the city, I felt as if a blanket of contentment had wrapped itself around me. Of all the sights and sounds in this great old city, one that I’m sure I’ll remember is watching a proud , rhinestone-adorned black and white bulldog trotting along side his owner, helpfully carrying a pack of cigarettes in his mouth. That would have definitely made my grandmother smile!