The small windows along the curved wall are like lenses made of pure blue sky. Outside, it seems peaceful. Inside the plane, it is quiet, but I cannot sleep. I am tired enough, and it’s not that I am too excited, although I am excited about travelling to Spain. It’s more that I’m trying to get my mind to adjust to being so far above land, or is it sea? Either way, it feels unreal. I peer across to the windows. They show me an impossibly vast sky and a few white fluffs of clouds, and there’s a bright white section of wing. It is disconcertingly cartoonish. As I gaze out, I also start to notice the quiet voices of passengers around me. The murmur of voices makes me remember I am tired. I think – I’m in a gigantic machine and if anyone can see it from the earth or the sea below, we will look like a tiny dot, far up in the sky. Floating in this thought, I begin to doze.
My dad worked for a lot of years in the Timex factory in Dundee. He was an ‘auto setter’: a skilled, well paid engineering job. I went inside the factory once or twice when I was a child. I remember a row of huge grey machines, like metal elephants. Each machine manufactured tiny watch parts. There was a microscope to check the quality of the mass-produced parts.
My dad hated being stuck in that factory, with the gigantic machines droning on and on. Sometimes, he would hide in the toilets and read The Scotsman newspaper. Since leaving school, he wanted to be an artist, but his parents told him to get a real job. So, he took an engineering apprenticeship in the Caledon shipyard, and then he sailed across the world in a Merchant Navy ship, as a Junior Marine Engineering Officer. When he returned to Dundee, he became trapped in the Timex factory until he was in his 40s.
When he at last escaped, he went to art college, became an art technician and lecturer, and he exhibited his own paintings internationally. In a few of his large abstract canvases, he embedded elements from his earlier life, including Timex clocking-in cards, half hidden beneath thick green and brown paint. I thought they looked like something ancient, lost at the bottom of the sea.
“Honey” said Isobel’s voice gently.
Hmm, I thought. Food.
“Honey, were landing.”
As we glided through the night streets in a taxi, Madrid seemed vast and old and vaguely like the inside of an Opera House. I’ve never been in an Opera House, nor have I been in Madrid, but I’ve seen pictures. Anyway, it seemed an appropriate kind of thought as we were looking out for the Lotus Opera House Hotel. The taxi driver dropped us in a large square. He gestured and muttered vaguely towards something and then drove away. We stood with our bags looking at each other and then around the square. There was a Lotus Opera House, but no obvious hotel. Couples and individuals were dotted around the square at polite distances from one another, all in T shirts, all with healthy brown skin, and relaxed. I felt tired, awkward, and pink.
After a few minutes of wandering and spotting the nearby Royal Palace of Madrid and a large fountain, Isobel phoned her oldest son Steven and his partner Maria, and they arrived soon after, and helped us to find our hotel. This find would have been unlikely without their help. We stared up in wonder at a tiny plaque, about 7 feet up on the wooden hotel door. It was the only sign that it was our hotel. Apparently, Steven and Maria’s hotel, just down the street from ours, had a similarly discreet plaque. I wondered if the smaller hotels in Spain did not want to be found. Or maybe it was just a Madrid thing.
The first chance for the four of us to relax in Madrid was that night, sitting at an outside table of a small restaurant near our hotel. It was comfortably warm and the paella, thinly sliced ham, and other food we ate was delicious. I gazed around as people walked by in the square and along the wide pavements. No cold, no rain, no aggro. I said: I want to live here.
Maria said: “Wait until tomorrow when it is very hot. You may not want to live here then.”
I nodded but I foolishly thought I’m not scared of a little heat.
Back at the hotel, we went up to our room in a tiny lift made of wrought ironwork in an art deco style. The windows we passed by in the narrow stairwell were made of stained glass.
Our room was superbly air conditioned, further lulling me into thinking: heat, what heat?
The following morning, we strolled out into noticeably hotter streets. It wasn’t roasting yet, but the air held the promise of an oven slowly being turned up. We revisited the fountain and wandered through an ornate garden to the royal palace. Our timing was good. From one far end of the vast bright courtyard in front of the palace, a long row of trotting horses and brightly dressed soldiers appeared. There was also a carriage pulled by four horses, looking like a prop from a Cinderella movie. Most entertaining of all was a little man following a tiny yellow van which crept along after the parade, and sprayed disinfectant. The little man used a shovel to scoop up all the pungent commentary left on the ground by the horses.
We met up with Maria and Steven at two little tables outside a small cafe. Confident bright-eyed sparrows flew down on to the tables, looking for crumbs.
As our day continued, the heat outside seemed to be turned up and up. I walked around snapping photographs of pastel-coloured buildings and long, mysterious lanes. My eyes quickly became dazzled by the increasing brilliance of the sunlight. The muggy heat hugged us tightly like an inappropriate stranger.
Under the canvas roof of a large restaurant near the palace, we sat around a table – Isobel, Steven, and Maria, and several of Isobel’s relatives, who had come into Madrid to see us. Isobel’s Auntie Sheila spoke to me about my new job as a support worker, but I couldn’t remember at first what my job involved. It could have been the intense heat that made me think – maybe, I was a small Sumo wrestler? If that was true, I couldn’t imagine sumo wrestling in the heat of Madrid. Merely walking around was a big enough challenge.
Later, the train to Zaragoza took me, Isobel, Steven, and Maria across a fast and fascinating 300 kilometres. Whilst the others dozed, I stuck my nose to the window like a child and stared out at endless patches of sandy brown and olive green. We flew along the rails. Often, small towns and villages appeared and disappeared, nestling in little valleys. At a few other points, I pressed my nose harder against the window, when I noticed an ancient castle on a far hilltop. I thought of Don Quixote, and then I immediately thought how little I knew about Spain. Just a few fragments from books, mostly about the Spanish Civil War. There was George Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia (1938), where he wrote about Republican soldiers advancing on then fascist-held Zaragoza. I had also read Ernest Hemingway’s novel: For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), inspired by his reporting from the war. l also read some articles and essays. I remembered that the British spy Kim Philby received an award from Spanish dictator Franco, but at the same time Philby was spying for the Russians and was nearly mixed up in a plot to assassinate Franco.
Other than those bits of history, from far away in time and experience, I knew very little about Spain. I had barely heard of Zaragoza before our trip. On my phone, I looked it up. There’s well over 600,000 people living there. I also looked at photographs of landmarks: great plazas and parks, old churches, Roman ruins. I wondered how much of it we would have time to visit. As you may have guessed, I rarely have a chance to travel abroad. It was just as well I was with Isobel, a much more experienced traveller. I looked at her in the seat beside me. She was fast asleep, eyes tightly closed, like a dormouse.
Zaragoza was much hotter than Madrid. On some days, when we left a café or the entrance to our apartment, it was like someone blowing a gust of very hot air from air bellows into our faces. As we strolled the streets, I tried to protect myself from terminal pinkness with strong suntan lotion. Isobel’s skin tans easily but she was often tired by the heat. Steven and Maria explained to us the best habits for living in such high temperatures. Most places become deserted in the hottest hours of the afternoon. People go to sleep. We quickly realised what a necessary habit that is. I tried to resist going to sleep the first afternoon because I felt it was wasting time. Yet, with the apartment windows open and only the faintest noises from the streets below, I soon dozed off. I dreamt about a church choir I thought I heard and which we later heard every day on the warm breeze at nine in the morning, and at midday, and in the early evening. A gentle sound, so ethereal it seemed designed for dreaming.
Old places and new places blend well in Zaragoza to give a special flavour to the city. Thousands of people eat and drink out on the terraces of a multitude of restaurants and cafes. At weekends, there is more noise and some drunkenness, but mostly it is astonishingly peaceful and the most common sounds are conversations, not often too loud, with frequent bubbles of laughter. The widespread habit of combining alcohol with food and conversation, and the presence of families with children, seems to reduce visible alcohol problems hugely. I have not researched this – it’s just the impression of a visitor, and no doubt in other parts of Spain it is different. I suspect that in the better-known tourist destinations it is very different. All I know is what I saw and heard in the heart of Zaragoza.
We noticed a few homeless people, and we learned a little about the high unemployment, which made it feel a bit more like Scotland, and it also reminded me I was only a tourist looking at the surface of things.
From the window of our apartment, we could see ruins of a Roman wall, carefully preserved. Beside it, there’s a large lead statue of Gaius Julius Caesar Augusta. I found out later that the statue was a gift from one dictator to another in 1941: from Italy’s Mussolini to Spain’s Franco.
Following directions from Steven, we visited an excavated Roman amphitheatre at the Museo del Teatro de Caesaraugusta. Under a vast canopy, we wandered around new platforms which criss-crossed the ancient stone seats. In this place, large crowds had listened to speeches and plays over 2000 years ago.
Later that evening, we sat in a small restaurant which kindly opened just for our group. We met Maria’s parents, and although we knew very little Spanish, it is amazing how far ‘si’ and ‘gracias’ and a little sign language can go, especially when it was accompanied by translations back and forth by Steven and Maria. Steven’s fluency in speaking Spanish often led to our eyes almost popping out of our heads. With Maria’s encouragement, Isobel became much more disciplined than I was to try to learn Spanish. Every few seconds she repeated some newly learned phrase, like: “el hombre come manzanas’ (the man eats apples). My vocabulary grew at a slower rate. I did however manage to ask in a café for ‘potatos jamon’ (ham crisps). They were really good.
We visited other restaurants, including one called the Baobab Restaurant. It is one of many good vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Zaragoza. We also went to the Didola, where Steven is the chef. Thanks to the owner, our meal was free. I had a lamb sandwich, and Maria and Isobel shared quesadillas, a kind of tortilla, with vegan fillings and one of Steven’s culinary inventions: triple cooked chips. We sat outside under a dark blue sky at the back of the restaurant. Again, at the other tables, everyone was happy and there were relaxed families with children. This is all later at night. Again: no rain, no cold, no aggro.
One morning, I woke up early and went for a short walk by myself along cool, narrow lanes and across a quiet stone square. I came across the Museo Pablo Gargallo. I had only a few euros in my pocket, so I was glad to find out that entry is free. I waited until a group of children with disabilities and their teachers had gone in first. One teacher, a tall, elegant woman with long dark hair, sat on a bench, with her students sitting in front of her, and she spoke passionately to them. I didn’t understand a word, but I felt that she was a born storyteller by the way she looked from face to face, smiling and nodding, and I noticed how intensely each child was listening to her. Only good storytellers command so much attention, I thought. And there was a kindness in her eyes that is internationally clear. Steven and Maria also have that look in their eyes. And Isobel, of course.
Although the building holding the museum dates back to 1659, subsequent renovations and the addition of a second floor give it a look of a much newer place. It only became a museum in 1985. There are dozens of sculptures made from sheet copper, iron, brass and lead, and prints, drawings and jewellery. Pablo Gargallo lived from 1881 to 1934. The mix of classical and avant-garde styles reflect the artists’ changing influences, from Rodin to Picasso. In fact, Picasso was a friend, and there is a bust of him.
We stayed just a few days in Spain, long enough to see wonders and make us want to see more. Even a few warm showers, quiet thunder and lightning one night felt welcoming. The great buildings we had the time to visit, like the Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, were too large to see properly with just one visit. I wandered around, excitedly taking pictures, and going Wow, and taking more pictures. Also impressive was a huge park: the Parque Grande Jose Antonio Labordeta, where the four of us walked a mile or two in scorching heat, but we still only saw part of the park, including fountains and rows of roses. We spotted dozens of park benches which were taped off as if they were crime scenes, but it was just wet paint drying from an art project. Each bench was brightly painted with a different design. This was of interest to us as Isobel’s younger son Alan is a skilled street artist. I should have taken more photographs there but by then we were melting and keen to get to the shade of a café.
Far too soon, we had to say our goodbyes and we were back on a plane. This time, I sat right next to the window. The blue sky dazzled, and I could see land below becoming more and more like a fading atlas. Broad motorways became thin lines. Mountains and hills became flat grey and green blobs. I watched wisps of white cloud floating above a deep blue sea which became a glossy picture of itself. Again, a white segment of the plane’s wing looked too close and clear to be real. The voices of other passengers in the plane muttering away made me feel sleepy. I dozed off, thinking of an old shop in Zaragoza which sold cakes. Mind blowing cakes! There was wood panelling all around the inside of the shop and tall mirrors with ornate writing.
On my writing desk at home, I have long had three glass paperweights. One is blue, with a swirl of silverish glass within; another has turquoise and white waves, with four inverted teardrops exploding upwards; and the other paperweight has a little green plant with a small globe of glass on top, like a raindrop. Sometimes, I find myself remembering the paperweights are there and looking at them, as if for the first time. Light hits their surfaces pleasantly. Each of these objects was made by someone, perhaps someone who took a long time and a lot of skill to make it. Like everything we make, each object is silently holding the story of it’s past.
My eyes flicker open. The plane is the same as it was. People are talking and someone is laughing, and there’s the same row of little windows and the blue sky beyond. The plane seems as ordinary as a bus and as amazing as that endless sky. I think of the hundreds of photographs I made of just some of the things we saw in Madrid and Zaragoza. I think of the photos I took of Isobel with Steven and Maria. Pictures with stories inside them. I let myself nod off to sleep again beside Isobel, the two of us tired but happy, resting far up in the sky in a gigantic machine.