No one can hug or kiss us hello or goodbye when we arrive or depart from an airport gate unless they hold a boarding pass. We have however been given the
extraordinary privilege of bearing witness to the barefoot woman in front us in need of a pedicure as we patiently wait to throw our hands over our head for a full body scan. Can TSA tell I’m not wearing underwear? Cause I just don’t know anymore. Thanks shoe bomber.
I had never flown or rode a train much when I went to study abroad in Spain. It was 1994 and it wasn’t the sexiest time to be in Spain, La Movida Madrileña wasn’t anywhere I could see but there were plenty of heroin addicts using or selling Kleenex in the underground metro.
Politically, the swing from fascist to fabulous had already happened. Felipe Gonzalez was winding up his tenure as prime minister. Elections would be held in less than two years and there was a sense of socialist fatigue amongst many Spaniards. At the time, Jose Maria Aznar of the Peoples Party was the candidate who would eventually become prime minister of Spain. I found this hard to believe as the Peoples Party, despite being “democratic”, was Christian with ties to a little authoritarian man whose bones are still buried in the Valley of the Fallen. This may not seem like a big deal but if you consider that the current prime minister, hunky Pedro Sanchez wants to exhume those bones and turn the monument into a site for reconciliation, it is clear that Spain has long struggled with its dictatorial past. But as with many ruling parties, the socialists stayed at the fiesta too long, drank all the booze and threw up so a compassionate view for Aznar did materialize.
It also helped that there was an attempt on his life. ETA, those crazy Basques separatists (I blame their oversized craniums and language that’s obsessed with letters x and k),tried blowing him up while he was in an armored car close to Madrid’s Chamartin train station, the same station where I excitedly met my boyfriend who had arrived from Paris to live with me. And back then I was allowed to meet him on the platform and passionately smack him on the lips! It was adorable! Thanks terrorists.
Terrorism has been around forever but for an entire generation, 9/11 certainly eclipsed all past airline hijackings, kidnappings and bombs set off in public places. In California, I only experienced what I saw on television. That changed in Madrid one early morning exiting the metro stop. As I walked down a wide cobblestone street that connected the Puerta del Sol to the Plaza del Callao, I saw something very foreign. I was on my way to teach English to a very nice but customarily very tardy Spanish banker who chain smoked. There was charred car was in my path. It looked as if its shape was being held together by ashes. It was abandoned like a flyer, a wrapper or change that fell out of your purse or pant pocket.
I remember feeling how empty the streets were. Madrid usually wakes up late and while it was desolate now, within a couple of hours there would be crowds of people shopping, working, eating, sightseeing and pickpocketing unsuspecting tourists in this particular area. Staring at the car, I wondered if any Madrileño would be as taken aback as I was. I found out later the ETA terrorist organization was responsible and had I arrived earlier; I would have been caught in the explosion which would have definitely sent me and my long black Gap dress flying over Madrid.
I continued to feel safe in Madrid despite this. Maybe it had something to do with not being sent flying over Madrid or perhaps I was just a naive 20 year old who had no problem walking the streets alone at Midnight to get air when I was tired of studying in my apartment all day or taking public transit at all hours. I never once felt threatened by anyone, not even the heroin addicts where menacing. Although one time, I did see a guy injecting it into his thigh area, pants completely down, penis and balls hanging out. That was as shocking to see.
The worst I really experienced was cat calling but upon reminiscing, it was really harmless and funny, especially when the Spaniard was really old and viagra wasn’t a thing yet.
In the last decade, as a promise to myself I’ve been visiting Spain more often. I even got around to visiting the old school where I studied Spanish Literature. It was located in Alcalå de Henares, a sleepy little town where Cervantes was born and Mario Vargas Llosa received the prize named after Mr. Don Quixote himself. I chose to live in Madrid and commute, taking the bus or a Cercanias train. I would catch the train line from the Atocha, the largest train station in Madrid, at the end of the Paseo del Prado and across the street from the Modern Art Museum, the Reina Sofia. It was one of the routes bombed in 2004, a coordinated attack known as 11-M which took the lives of 192 people and injured 2000. Like 9/11, the London bombing and Paris attacks 11-M yielded massive casualties so tragic it further fed into this need to feel safe, to feel protected and further weaponize a sense of security.
In 1992, a lush indoor exotic garden was installed in the what used to be Atocha’s old wrought iron style concourse where people originally boarded trains from. It was pristine when I first visited it as a student. The palm trees
reminded me of how far away I was from home as these tall trees were considered exotic. Perhaps it’s that many of the trains you board in Atocha lead you to the region of Andalusia, one step closer to Northern Africa. If anything, the landscaping chosen was not native to Madrid, a city on a meseta, a plane that is neither tropical or desert. I remember being in awe because like many of the similar train station concourses you find in Europe, its high ceiling architecture harkens back to time that I never knew because California was just a baby land.
In the summer of 2012, jet lagged to full hilt, I dragged myself out of bed and took a long walk to Atocha to see the 11-M memorial of names and condolences spiraled across a long cylinder like monument. Upon arrival, I felt like I did when witnessing the changes to airports after the 9/11 attacks. The station was closed off at various points to ticket holders, subsequently the layout felt awkward. I returned to my old concourse to look at my beautiful lush garden where warm steam would be let off every few minutes to keep it vital. No longer new, there where areas along its sides that where overrun with cafe’s with seating cordoned off by makeshift barricades. Spanish fast food “autoservicios” where present unlike in my student days where fast food was limited only to McDonald’s and Burger King in select parts of Madrid. The only place to eat in this area back in 1994 was a bar restaurant perched up above the concourse, resembling a French Colonial outpost where rich landowning ex-patriots surveyed the land sipping on a fully loaded drink. As a lowly substitute ESL teacher and Spanish literature student on a tight budget, I used to look at it with big sad brown eyes as eating there was out of the question. Sadly my Shangri-La was now closed only available for parties or events. Why bother? The party was over. Thanks al-Qaeda cell.
Despite my dismay to see it aged as I had with two children, a husband and no career, the Atocha train stations heart was still beating, still functioning as a necessary thoroughfare for the four cardinal directions. There are many more places to eat inside the functional part of station including a diversity of ethnic foods which were non existent in my student days when Spain was still opening itself up to the rest of the world having just accomplished the 1992 World Expo in Seville and Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
I was still feeling mournfully nostalgic. Walking through the station provoked a sense of sadness, past days of youth where the world didn’t feel so dangerous. It seems like the attacks have gotten larger and involve a multitude of people from who are just trying live their life. It isn’t only about targeting politicians or journalists that an organization has a vendetta against. It’s random commuters, a new crop of foreign girls studying the Golden age of Spanish literature. It reminded me of how the dangerous evolution of warfare knows no boundaries. And today as I revisit this, it doesn’t seem to be getting any better, the violence keeps ticking forward to what countries like mine are doing; using this as an excuse to become more nationalistic.
The truth is that no one is safe and yet we all have to keep walking, taking trains and grabbing coffee to stay awake as I needed to after my last Atocha visit.
Sleepy and hazy, I walked across the street which takes a bit of an effort as the train station is a monster and the streets that surround it are distant and huge. I got to El Brillante, a cafe is known for its calamari sandwiches. As I sat at the counter, I ordered a cafe corto and looked at all the pictures of their menu items plastered on the yellowy walls. It was a little early for fried calamari so I ordered churros instead. The waiter, an older gentleman in a white short sleeved unbuttoned work shirt wearing a Virgin metal necklace took my order from behind the stainless steel counter. When he brought me my drink and as I silently poured sugar into my coffee, I must have had a frown on my face because he looked at me and humorously gave me strong land of Castile command. “Sonrie guapa!” Smile pretty…smile indeed. Leave it to a Spaniard, a more than likely gruff old guy who looks like he dunked his head in pomade to give me sound advice. I bet he’s seen plenty.