A Letter from Madrid

By Saturday morning the sun had come out in Madrid, where we were staying at the Hotel Reina Victoria in the center of town. Around the plaza and on the sidewalks the cafe owners had already pulled out their tables. Tourists and workers were stopping for their first cup of coffee. As I began to write I was given courage and comfort that we are nestled in the Barrio de las Letras, home to Lope de Vega, Cervantes y Quevedo.

The Barrio de las Letras

My days began with an hour and a half scribbling in my notebooks at breakfast. As I came downstairs Walter would be all ready to leave for the film school. He had two and a half full days of lectures to give and, while he loves the speaking, thinking and people, he would be tired by Sunday.

WSM thinking about what to say next

The hotel restaurant is a destination unto itself and through the early morning quickly fills with hotel guests, tourists, city residents, and business folk meeting and breaking bread together as they plan out the day ahead. At 10.30 a.m the music, though still easy listening, gets turned up 4 decibels to remind us all this is a happy place. The three young people beside me all start out their breakfast with a full bowl of pineapple and a tall glass of orange juice. I think how disciplined they are until the second arrives, scrambled eggs and pancakes with syrup. They are young.

Choosing breakfast

On my first morning after breakfast, I left the hotel and turned left, down a one-car-width cobbled street, knowing that three lefts would bring me past the Teatro de la Comedia and the National Teatro Real, which is performing a play by Virginia Wolf, and back into the Plaza St. Martin. The streets were quiet and not all the shops were open. Deliveries were being made. A man stood in the middle of the street speaking on his cell phone while leaning on a roll away bag full of medical equipment. A young man scooted by, propelling himself with one foot on his dolly which was stacked high with boxes of supplies. Older, maybe than me, women walked slowly with crumpled shopping bags only half full. Some were pulling their reluctant toy dogs along with them. The poorer women come out early and are alone. It is the middle-class women who have time for companionship and coffee.

We have not been in Spain for 53 years and, as we drove in from the airport on Thursday afternoon, it was strange to look around and not recognize anything from that time. But the dry scrubby landscape reminded me of the drive into the city of Buenos Aires from that airport in their summer time. Entering the city I become aware of the influence of Spain, as strong as any Parisian or Italian, on Buenos Aires and am suddenly homesick for that city.

When the first evening’s session came to a close a group of ten of us, some from the school and some professionals and academics from Barcelona, returned to the hotel. Gathered around a long table we were quickly served with a series of small plate tapas and glasses of rioja. We began to unwind and explore each other’s lives. Riccardo is a sound designer, now living in Barcelona, and was the one who drove us back from the school into the city. He is from Argentina. He is a grandparent like us, his little Otto lives in Berlin, while our David is in Buenos Aires, where Ricardo comes from. Our grandsons are born on the same day and we are full of simpatico laughter as we talk about our comrades in film, our grandchildren, and struggles with each other’s languages. He assures me that the tiny little fish balls he is offering me are a type of Jaws and it takes us all a while to understand he means shark!
“You must come to Argentina again and see us there.” I say. His face turns serious and he quietly replies, “I will never go back.”
“When did you leave?”
“1974.” And he looks at me with deep sadness as I take in what he is saying. He left, fled, during the troubles.
“There are many Argentines here in Madrid and in Barcelona.” He repeats, “I will never go back. Here in Spain the dictatorship was forty years, in Argentina only seven but the results were very similar.”

Slowly it dawns on me, or do I suddenly come to understand and accept something I have known all along, that the displacement of peoples, one tribe for another, by one government for another, a nation overtaking another, is a constant occurrence. That the sweeping push of power that flows over and through continents, brushing peoples down and away, always crushing many even as a few can rise, survive and thrive, is ever with us. The big questions are found in the smallest of gestures and remain for us all. Who will help the other? Who shares the open hand and gives from the heart?

That first evening a taxi was waiting outside of the hotel to take me to the film school. The driver spoke little English but had a picture of his three year old son on his phone. We talked of sons and grandsons. After over twenty minutes driving through and out of the city he stopped at the address he had been given but we were both unsure. That building looked very closed up. I got out of the taxi and rang the buzzer on the locked door. Soon an elderly guard came out and looked at my instructions. Luckily the young driver had waited and talked with the guard before he held the door open again and gestured for me to get back into the taxi. We drove further on and around a corner to the ECAM. A woman leaned out of a window and told him where I needed to be. He opened the door again and I gave him my hand. I really am too tall for taxis. I was grateful for his kindness as he pointed the way forward, where I should, and he could not, go. I thanked him in shy Spanish and with a smile. He held onto my hand for a moment longer and looked at my face with a masculine appreciation. Whatever happens next, I am grateful.

Photographs of WSM from the ECAM staff and twitter feed

WSM and some ECAM Staff at the close of the seminar

This is the end – my friend