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Madrid to Pamplona

The year is 1939, and here I am, a 5’3″ frame standing tall at thirty-seven years old. This is the hotel lobby of the rest of my life. I consider my choice of footwear. I think my heels too high and mighty for negotiating the cobble stone streets of Madrid. Graceful entrances being requisite for both paupers and royalty, I pause and absorb the temporary palace.  The lobby of my old world hotel is modern day Times Square stunning. Ah, these Europeans and their ancient sense of style…they instinctively know how to wear hats. See, this is the end of the year that I have learned to pack a pair of sensible shoes. I smile as I remember my father’s love of lists, and lists that form parable poems. Tucked into his eagle eyed book of Boy Scout knowledge the Six P’s, “Proper preparedness prevents piss poor performance.” My mental thanks are made to my father’s Jimmy Stewart wrapped in Elvis voice, and place his memory back into the inner pocket of my recently London-fogged overcoat, before falling into a trance of purpose.


My trip to Spain has three fine tipped points, a trifecta of the most holy sort. The first motivation was to experience the running of the bulls in Pamplona. I had recently been swept up in a running of good souls and I wondered how that would look with real one ton beasts chasing after the screaming, bloodied masses. How deliciously frivolous a notion, coupled with a schedule for my sojourn featuring no mandatory itinerary, I come into central focus. The second motive for coming to this ancient place is my true and paramount cause: to see the unveiling of my favorite Hieronymus Bosch painting in the Museo del Prado. The Garden of Earthly Delights would be hung for the world later that night in my newly arrived Madrid. It is a wonder to consider the etymology of the word museum. I wish to be there to see the awe and stunned eyes as the world looks upon Edison-lit existence in a 500 year old painting. The third reason, you ask? Why, to hole up in my hotel room and write it all down. The Dutch truly are masters.

The piece I intend to visit is an oil painting upon three panels, a triptych. The larger center portion forms the body, while the two folding side panels form the wings. In churches they are traditionally altar pieces, but this one  was not intended for a house of God. This painting was commissioned by a son of man. A humanist the benefactor, he is painted into the picture, as well as the artist. How secular and divine.


My fugue is interrupted when an eager valet pulls me out of my thoughts, gently taking me by the arm. He clearly enjoys his work, placing the bags so carefully and honestly upon the brass luggage cart. There are no false pretenses. He’s not embarrassed by his square job and doesn’t feel the need to explain he’s actually studying to be Galileo at the University. All eye contact is appropriate, for this I am grateful. My obligation to the front desk clerk having been met, we make our way up to anywhere but the thirteenth floor, in a mirrored infinity elevator.

At the end of the hallway processional, my key turns the thousandth door. The room is more window than wood, with a stunning view of the city. There are more steeples than domiciled rooftops. These are a faithful, spice route people. They have much disposable gold in their ocean faring treasure chests. The valet’s gorgeous black eyes seem worried by my contemplative silence, so I place a smile, instead of a tip, in his large, supple hand. I explain to him in fluent Spanish, that I am merely a foolish American who speaks not a word of Spanish, but I do my research well enough to know in Spain, tipping is a travel misguided myth. I see him considering slipping his native tongue through my ruby slipper lips, so I gesture towards the door. The decision is made to call my memory of him Alberto, even though I saw his name was Paolo on his perfectly placed name tag. No, your character is named Alberto, my cherubic, subservient little darling, I think. He stumbles a little on his way out the door. They always do.


I remove all my traveling clothes and run a claw-footed bath. Naked is how one should be at nearly all times when in Spain. I enjoy this personal rule, as it keeps my suitcase light. As I wait for the cleansing waters to be hot and deep enough, my body willingly gives in to the invitation being made by the over-sized bed. I am unsure of which level of Abraham Maslow’s pyramid  I am currently dangling my feet off of while I lick at life’s gifts so bountifully given, but I am quite sure I don’t give a damn.


The dip in the porcelain pool is all I want it to be, but no more than I need. The maid had meticulously cleaned the tub after the last weary traveler. I can’t stand a filthy anything, no sloppy seconds. The toiletries are perfectly scented to not overwhelm, not too sudsy or basic. They are as elegant and utilitarian as the room itself. Old World charm never gets old, neither do the sensibilities. I admire those who have the wherewithal to consider hot springs.

A light, white cotton suit of armor is chosen to shield my bronze skin from the impending tumult of the day. It perfectly accompanies my low key, low heeled Mary Jane’s. Never wear heels to dodge bulls, ride a train, or tour any large attraction. The wrong shoes worn during any endeavor is a recipe for misery. I pack my small leather bag for the day. Wallet, keys, pens, ink well, Kodachrome camera, notebook, and all my dreams, with no consideration for this place in time. The neatly packed bag is then lashed to my side. I am ready. It is almost nine in the morning, and I can feel the ground rumbling. I wonder if Paul Simon has been born yet. My little black dress is hanging on the closet door, already fantasizing about our evening. The bejeweled mules on the floor beneath the frock click once for yes, and twice for no…and wink at me for knowing how to wear them.


The train ride will be dusty. They always manage to be. The magnetic tracks must attract the dirt of the world as it glides along so effortlessly. The most beautiful things are often surrounded by grime. This is a truth the world over, be it applied to people or cities. As I choose my window seat, and gaze out my well chosen window, I laugh, more than a little cockney touch of Eliza Doolittle. It is a perfectly sunny day. There is no Rain in Spain this day to speak of. Not on the plain, not on the train, nope, no Lerner and Loewe rain drops for this Fair Lady who is no longer waiting for life to happen.  We pull away from Atocha terminal.  I do not have a sad goodbye to wave longingly at. This is a journey full of hello. I begin to doze, cross legged, considering our three hour away destination. I am accustomed to travelling in a northerly direction. Barcelona is just too far east of reasonable to consider visiting this day, or any other.


Upon arrival, Pamplona was just as I had imagined, wise and foolish at the same time. The older a person, place, or thing gets, the less slack you give it for sophomoric behavior. Then, there is a point when you learn the phrase “can’t help it.” This is the beginning of accommodation and forgiveness. I decide to love you for a day, sweet Pamplona, and make my way to my watering hole.


My friend, Therese, owns a bar in Pamplona with her dead husband. In English, the name of the establishment translates to, “The Bitter End.” I say she owns it with him, because she will not let his ghost ascend. He is there, in every way, in her every day. She speaks to him, because she knows the conversation from memory. The man is a year gone, and his memory is a better spouse in death than he was in life. I realize this is how she must face the day, her way of surviving to raise her children. She is the reverend mother in a speak easy convent. Her remaining life  will be spent married to her newly canonized saint. He, a heavenly Abelard, to her forever-bound-to-him Heloise. Poor earthly woman.


Therese has prepared the private balcony for me to view the running, as promised. The third floor geranium rimmed perch contains a metal table and chair. An unneeded oil lamp, pitcher of water, bottle of bourbon, and a singular glass are the place settings. I kiss her on the cheek and assure her I am ready for the charging of the powerful beasts, and yes, I very deliberately choose to witness it alone. My world begins rumbling, but this time it is real. I see the reinforced doors and brace for impact as I sit in my welcoming chair. The bourbons spreads warm across my tongue Sangria is a cheap myth for tourists. I smile at that thought, knock back another shot, and watch as reputations precede themselves.

The bulls begin their foot race. It is a tsunami of blood and ignorance. Every man for himself, becoming dog eat dog, trampled by the bulls in the China shop of the world. The sheer futility of it baffles me. The crunching of bones so willingly given. Why do we behave in such a way? These questions rage through the streets in a torrent of roses, broken glass, and blood.

When the hell storm is over, the dust clouds parted like the Red Sea for Moses, I have my answer. The smiles on the faces of the grazed, scratched, but virtually unscathed townspeople delivering the truth. No one’s head served by Salome upon a charger. The point was not the thrill of the carnage, or the absurdity of such unevenly balanced scales. Twas man verses his own beastly nature. The point was surviving it. Not just surviving it, but joining together in the streets and laughing about it, with the promise of never doing that bullshit again. The point was having the tale to tell…

My explanations made, revelation tax paid, and tab more than settled, I kiss my trusted, perennial friend. I will be back, I promise her, and it won’t be to consider sociology. I am ready for the three hour ride back to Madrid. The point of the journey is never the destination. I do not tire of trains, even with the risk of wreckage.


Late afternoon is glad I am back safely in the hotel room. The time arrives for the second bath of the day, but this one is terribly needed. Nothing leaves you feeling grimier than a train ride, unless it’s a train ride from Pamplona after absorbing the rising dirt of the running of the bulls. Ah, this is my newly washed utopia. I shave everything, even things that don’t need shaving. My Cherokee lineage leaves me conveniently smooth in critical places.

My lotion bottle pours forth the heaviest fabric I shall wear this evening. The black see-through everything dress is a barely there wrap around. My unmentionables know how to keep little lacy secrets. I curl my hair, but leave the tendrils unpinned, to float freely through the air. They haunt the places I have been. Every man I have ever loved, knows this of me, and appreciates the sentiment.

When the woman in the mirror seems perfect, I call for a taxi, then immediately recant my request. These high heels are only a four block walk from the museum. I shall make the pilgrimage on my own two feet, choosing my path of my own volition. I descend through the palace hotel and make my way through the lobby courtesans, into the warm, luscious evening.


The gardens surrounding the pink stone building are ideal. The Metropolitan Museum is a sister to this place. Someone loves these grounds unconditionally. Things adored in such a way always thrive. I notice from a distance there are mandevilla vines creeping up the cornerstones. I approach them before negotiating the main entrance. The blooms were so inviting from a distance. They had bothered to look lovely from far away, after all.


My eyes are ready for the main attraction. I make my way to the main gallery, with the help of a smiling docent, entering the room just before the velvet veil is released. I am center stage and have just enough time to take in one breath, before the curator tugs the golden ropes, as gasps cascade down champagne glasses.

There is a collective stunned silence, then applause, as though there was something new orbiting the sun. I exhale silent, awestruck words. As the folding doors of the triptych closed, I saw something I was unprepared to see. The outer cabinet contained a scene, but it was not the earthly purgatory, heaven, or hell housed within the cosmic box. The doors closed and the outside revealed Creation. The rumors about the work were true. As the gates to The Garden of Earthly Delights are opened, it is the observer who becomes a clean canvas. I must find my hotel again and spill wisdom filled ink onto well seeded paper. Bulls and Bosch. No, I shall not be making my way towards Barcelona.


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