An unexpected day in Madrid

May 14, 2006 in It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (0)


After flying all day and all night, and arriving at Madrid’s Atocha Train Station at 8:30am the last thing I wanted to hear from the ticket guy was that my reservation wasn’t actually confirmed and the trains to Zaragoza were sold out.
No sweat, I thought. I’ll call the folks from Guidewire Group and get to the bottom of this.
That’s when I found out that my cell phone wasn’t working.

I would have panicked, but I was too exhausted.
Thankfully Stephen Wildstrom (a long-time pal and stellar journalist from Business Week) was on the same flight as I. We’d shared a taxi to the train station and he was still talking with a ticket agent – one who looked a bit more helpful than the surly fellow I had encountered. I wandered over, and put on my best “damsel in distress can’t you help me look.”
Whether that was the clincher or this guy was just more adept with the ticketing system I don’t know. I don’t really care, because all that mattered was that he took my credit card and confirmed me on the 5:00pm train.
“Looks like you get a day in Madrid,” Steve said. “You should go to the Prado.”
I didn’t have a map. My Spanish is … well … let’s say at this point in my trip I wasn’t feeling very confident with my language skills. (Something that by week’s end would turn out changing nicely, but not at the point of this story.) And of course my cell phone didn’t work.
Bottom line – I was in a town where I had no direction, no way to communicate with anyone I did know, and was rendered largely mute by the language barrier.
I love a good adventure.
And so I went. Prado, here I come.
I said good-bye to Steve (he was on the 9:40a train) , stashed my bags in a locker (cool security luggage locker set-up at Atocha station, and easy to use too) and went for a walk.
I figured it was too early for the museum, besides I wasn’t quite sure where it was.
Crossing the street and ducking up a side alley, I found myself at the gates of what appeared to be a sizeable park. It was Madrid’s botanical gardens. A meander through the trees with a brief stop to watch some kids playing futbol (that’s soccer to you American folk) was just the thing to help clear my brain from airplane air.
Out of the park I walked, down a street, another turn of the corner and I found myself at the doors of the Prado.
I love when aimless wandering ends up fitting with a plan.
There’s nothing quite like getting to a museum as soon as it opens – no lines, no crowds. With the place almost empty I spent quite a lot of time soaking in the saturated hues of The Prado’s extensive Francisco de Goya collection. Gallery after gallery of gothic images – aristocrats, royalty and a panoply of deeply graphic religious images.
I avoided spending too much time with the latter – it’s bad enough when the eyes of these canvases follow you, add to that a penetrating guilt-laden glare and in many cases expressions of sheer pain and it’s downright creepy.
The portraits were what captivated me most – these images of real people whose social station (or perhaps pure ego) led them to commission larger-than-life canvases of their likeness. Who were they, really? What were they actually thinking as they posed for these images to be created? When their sitting ended, what did they do? Where did they go? Mostly, though, I thought about what they were trying to say with the images created. The choice of setting, clothing, position and expression – all of these things were chosen carefully for images of this nature.
I recently read an essay published in Vanity Fair that referred to the “… identical moist-lipped, fleshy, Teutonic pie face” images of 18th century aristocracy that seemed almost carbon copied from one canvas to the next. (It’s in the June issue if you’re interested in reading it. Entitled “Another Feitelberg Against the War”, the author was the winner of the magazine’s second annual essay-writing contest.)
While meandering the galleries and reviewing painting after painting this article stuck in my mind. Barring those images where the subject either glared with anger or seethed with projected guilt, I saw a distinct pattern of vacant stares.
In this Vanity Fair essay, the writer (Deirdre Sullivan) talks about the vapid nature of today’s “youth” (which she seems to categorize as those in their 30s and downward). Pointing to this generation’s lack of any real direction or purpose and the dearth of any true goal or aspiration, she paints a rather disappointing (and accurate, I’m afraid) picture of the generation that currently sits closest to taking the reins for America’s future.
During the rest of the day I found myself in a rather unusual space to mull this point over. Being alone in Madrid, and having only a basic level of communication capability with those around me, I spent a lot time watching those around me. Granted, I couldn’t be certain of the conversations being had as I was only picking up parts of the sentences, but the the intensity with which people engaged in conversation and the topics – politics, war, education – seemed to me to have a level of intellectual importance that are often lacking when one wanders similar sorts of spots (cafes and the like) around the United States.
Now I realize I’m making a broad-sweeping comment here. After all, those with whom I socialize and the places I generally go are rife with deeply interesting people and conversations about things that definitely go beyond the inane into topics of importance.
The images of those paintings – the ones with the vapid eyes and spooky disposition – were those of aristocracy, the entitled class. And as I looked around these cafes and streets in Madrid and then thought about similar locations in the US I realized that with our role as the most powerful country in the world it made sense that those fleshy-lipped, vacant stares had shifted to the West, changed out of their elegant aristocratic garb into the Levi-laden, Gap-infused, Starbucks swilling population of the United States.
But I tried not to focus too hard on this depressing thought. I was, after all, lazing in the Castillian sunshine at cafe after cafe, eating super food and swilling some of the best coffee ever.
Time ticked by and the hour came when it was time to head for my train. I said good-bye to this lovely part of Madrid, wended my way back to Atocha station, boarded my train and dozed off as we passed through the verdant Spanish countryside.
And so my Spanish adventure began.


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