Friday, March 15, 2013

M-11, Atocha and my Madrid-Alcala Commute

I arrived to Madrid just as Felipe Gonzalez was winding up his tenure as Prime minister of the Spanish government. Elections would be held a year later in 1996 and there was truly a sense of Socialist (PSOE) fatigue amongst the many Spaniards I spoke to. At the time, Jose Maria Aznar  of the Popular Party was the candidate that was to eventually become the next prime minister of Spain. I remember there was a more compassionate view of the conservative party candidate as an attempt on his life was taken by ETA while driving in an amoured car around the Chamartin train station, the same station I went to pick my boyfriend when he flew into Paris then took a train to live with me in Madrid. Aznar wasn't prime minister yet but with all the scandals plaguing the PSOE party after so years of majority rule in Parliment, it was time for a shift.

One early morning as I exited the Gran Via metro stop and walked down the wide cobblestone street along the well beaten tourist shopping area in central Madrid, I saw something that felt more foreign than anything I had ever experienced while living on another continent. I was on my way to teach English to a very nice but customarily very tardy Spanish banker who chain smoked. An insinerated charred car was in my path. It looked as if it was unassumingly left there by whomever. The moment I took in this image, I suddenly could feel how empty the streets were. Madrid usually wakes up later and as I knew it was desolate now, within a couple of hours there would be crowds of people shopping, working, eating, sightseeing and pitpocketig unsuspecting tourists. Staring at the car, I wondered if they'd be as taken aback as I was. I found out later that not suprisingly the ETA terrorist organization was responsible and had I arrived an hour sooner; I would have been caught in the explosion which would have defintely sent me and my long black Gap dress flying over Madrid.
Post card to my cousin regarding ETA attack. Circa 1995
The irony of all this is that I continued to feel safe in Madrid despite these types of occurences. As a 20 year old, I walked the streets alone at Midnight to get air when I was tired of studying in my apartment all day, took public transit at all hours and never once felt threatened by anyone. Granted during this time, I experienced Spanish Men, young and old to be misogynistic cat calling jack asses but it was always harmless and hey, American men can be just as alluring as a Duncan Hines cake box with their own come on's so to each his own. 

Ten years prior to the 2004 Madrid bombing, known as M-11 which took the lives of 191 people and injured 2000, I took one of the Cercanias commuter train routes that was bombed. I commuted back and forth to Alcala de Henares, where I was beginning my Spanish Literature studies at its University temporarily living in the dorms at the Complutense University in Madrid.

Gap dress in question
I started my day by taking the metro to the Atocha Renfe station. And at the station I would board the red and white renfe train to Alcala, a sleepy little town where Cervantes was born and Mario Vargas Llosa received his a namesake writers prize that very year. 

The Atocha Renfe is the largest train station in Madrid and it is at the end of the Paseo del Prado and across the street from the Modern Art Museum- The Reina Sofia. In 1992, a lush indoor exotic garden  was installed in what used to be the old wrought iron style concourse where people originally boarded  trains from. It was pristine when I first visited it in 1994 and the palm trees reminded me of how far away I was from home as these tall trees were considered exotic or at the very least not Madrileno. The region of Andalucia, maybe, but definitely not native to this city that was not tropical nor looked like a desert. I was in awe of this particular part of the Atocha train station as like many of the similar but functional train station concourses you find in Europe, its indoor high ceiling architecture is harkening back to time where as Americans we were just in our infancy. And this defintely didn't look like California where I had spent most of my 20 years before flying across the United States and coming overseas.

It was diferrent in the summer of 2012.  Jet lagged to full hilt, I dragged myself out of bed and took a long walk to the station on my way to see the M-11 memorial of spiral names and condolences in 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 in all its bustle was closed off at various points to only those with tickets so its layout felt awkward. I headed to the 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 the sides of the concourse that had become inhabited by cafe's with seating cordoned off by makeshift low rising gates. Wine tasting shops for tourists and Spanish fast food "autoservicios" where ominously present unlike back in the day where fast food was limited to only Mcdonalds and Burger King in  select parts of Madrid. The only place to eat in this area back in 1994 was a beautiful bar restaurant perched up above the concourse. It resembled a Colonial French outpost where rich landowning expatriots surveyed their land and drank cool fully loaded drinks. As a lowly substitute ESL teacher and Literature student on a tight budget, I looked with big sad brown eyes as eating there was out of the question. Sadly my shangrila was now closed and dilapitated, available to be rented for parties or events.But despite my dismay to see it older, and more internally wounded, The Atocha train station is  still alive and well- still functioning as a neccesary thoroughfare for the four cardinal directions. There are many more places to eat inside the functional part of station including diffrent ethnic foods which was non existent in my days of living here. There are many affordable clothing, accessory and electronic stores to shop from and the metro stop once you arrive from your train destination has several lines to get you anywhere in Madrid.

I was a little saddened though. Walking through the station provoked a sense of mourning for my past days of innocent youth full of promise and the fact that our world feels a little more dangerous. We were gruesomely attacked and so were the Spanish, despite the many ETA acts of terrorism they have experienced over time. M-11 was an overwhelmingly tragic day and like 9-11 it involved a multitude of people from all corners of life. Not just targeted politicians or journalists that an organization has a vendetta against. It was random commuters, even foreign girls like me going to study the Golden age of Spanish literature. It reminded me of how the dangerous evolution of warfare has no boundaries even in supposed civilized countries. No one is safe and yet we all have to keep walking, taking trains and grabbing a couple of coffees to stay awake as I needed to after all this pondering.

In my reflective state, sleepy and hazy I walked across the street which takes a bit of effort as the Atocha train station is a monster and the streets that surround it are distant and huge. I got to El Brillante a cafe where calamari bocadillos are king. As I sat at the counter, I ordered my cafe corto and looked at all the pictures of their menu items plastered on their yellowy walls. It was a little early for fried calamari so I ordered churros instead. Still fried but just sweet instead. The waiter, an older gentleman in a white short sleeved unbuttoned work shirt wearing a necklace with a virgin metal on it took my order from behind the stainless steel counter. When he brought me my drink and as I was silently pouring sugar into my coffee, I must have had a frown on my face because he looked at me and humoursly gave me strong land of castile command. "Sonrie guapa!" Smile indeed. Life goes on and as this week the Spainsh honor the departed during their turbulent economic times, they more than anyone show their will to live life as they always have.

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