Madrid, like London, like New York, like Beijing, has the pulse of a big city, and maybe that was why it didn't stick for me. Somehow Madrid felt more real in fiction, as in Leaving the Atocha Station, and while I'm still torn about the book, the image of Madrid, Museo Prado, the world that the narrator resided in somehow felt more immediate than the real thing.
I know the reason for this is because I'm a passing tourist, and being responsible for three Chinese family members probably doesn't help. The most I can do is book Airbnbs. All I can remember are the walks. Day 1. Walking to the Royal Palace, walking to lunch, walking through the park, walking home to paella dinner. Day 2. The next day, rinse, repeat, walking to the museum, walking to lunch (the suckling pig restaurant), walking to different places to shop, walking home, walking out for dinner. Lei Lei has a fitbit-like thing that calculate our steps, and she would occasionally jab “we’ve walked over 20,000 in one day.
Day 3 began with a train toward the south of Spain, and if I were traveling by myself, the moment would have probably peaked with the rows of olive trees, white houses with orange tiles, and arid landscape that looks like a painting you’ve seen in a museum. Traveling with family meant instead having an entire compartment’s polite quiet interrupted by argument between my aunt and cousin in harsh whispers sparked from one conflict to the next, until it touched on everything from filial expectations, generational differences, to the modern Chinese woman. What felt like stereotypes of the Chinese story in my ear was to her, something that is missing from the national conversation. “I wish I could write about it,” she said.
In Seville we wade through a labyrinth of alleyways, standing tables, and cafes. The sky is lower in southern Spain, and the sun hotter, sometimes my ears are blocked from the altitude. Day four and five, We do tourist things — flamenco, the cathedral, the Alcazar where they filmed Game of Thrones, the bullfight ring, and celebrated my birthday. All tourist things. All stereotypes. Yet all moving, especially the flamenco, where the dancers dance with their jawbone, and their bodies (steps, claps) make conversation. They were gorgeous. Postcard-worthy stunning indeed.
Airbnb turned to be a major blessing. Instead of two hotel rooms and monster fees, there’s something about four women in one household. There’s no privacy, never silence, and by the third day, we’ve learned to evade Spain’s tough rules about eating at 3PM and 9PM by eating a later lunch out, and cooking a vegetarian only dinner. Shopping for food, cooking, and eating together may be the most joyful part of the trip.
Day six, the Airbnb in Cordoba is magic. Cordoba itself is part magic. It’s a sleepy tourist old city with not many sights. This worried me at first. I felt guilty about not planning enough for my mom and aunt to see more. But by the seventh day we were all a bit wore from walking. We spent the day playing cards and sitting around. There’s a rooftop here that overlooks the town with a stunning view of great mosque. The collision of civilization meeting in one view, and there’s nothing better than spending time in silence here.
I feel zen here, watching the clouds gather from the mountain edges, watching the sun rise and fall. This town has seen much more than I, and I am no more than a visitor in the speck of its timeline. Its grandeur and history humbles, and to be able to feel the history underneath my feet at a time of modernity is precious. In the old city of Spain, I can’t help but to think of Beijing, and wishing that I knew my country better, and that my country would help to know itself better.