I'm pretty sure that's spanish
I am lying next to my sleeping six-year-old son in an impossibly firm bed in a Madrid Airbnb, where we are visiting friends for nine days. He insists that I sleep with him here, and I insist that he show me that he can fall asleep before I will come in and sleep with him, and that often excites him so much that he can’t fall asleep. He is exerting himself here in a tremendous way, without his usual regulatory systems on hand. So am I. On the road, we are just trying to be generous to one another. It is easiest to do this in our sleep.
You can hear the university students outside on the street. Tonight, they are rapping along to something, which makes me feel so very old. They are constantly waiting in long lines for things we cannot discern. A night club? A sneaker sale? No way to know. They don’t seem to mind the waiting, they just drink and smoke and laugh. And really, where do they have to go?
Tonight, at ten or eleven pm, my son dictated a ten-question trivia round to me, after being inspired by our friends at dinner. Some of the questions, like “is an orca a) a whale, b) a dolphin, or c) a fish?” are quite sophisticated (I’m not allowed to tell people the answers, but this one is a shocker.) Others, like “are skeletons a) gross, b) cool, or c) all of the above?” and “do people like to sleep with the lights on or off?” reveal the limited understanding of his Kindergarten-sized brain. If you are someone who sleeps with the lights on, I have concerns, but you can rest assured that both answers are acceptable to my kid.
We started this journey a week ago, beginning the long, strained, march of social stratification that is always present on airplanes but especially pronounced on an international flight. Each section of the plane gets increasingly less comfortable, and the fortunate ones peel off to their pods and champagne, as you follow them longingly with your eyes and imagine their lives—how they probably never have to fold laundry. Unbelievably, we are some of the more fortunate ones, and our section is not separated by pods but is still quite nice. A man in a sweater vest and a a suit sits across from us, which is surely a sign of the opulence of this particular part of the plane, Europe, or both. He is already visibly annoyed at the young people who are distracting him from his paper. We settle in and check out the entertainment selection, discover that our seats have foot rests! My daughter snuggles up with the complimentary blanket while a baby screams bloody murder a few rows back, and sweater vest casts his judgement towards the back of the plane, turns to me, and says “this is the life.”
We arrive full of adrenaline but spend the next three nights collectively waking at 2am and staying up for hours. There is no sound but our own collective whining. My daughter falls asleep while waiting for a cronut (pronounced cro-nut) at a cafe.
There are so many parks in Madrid. And most of them are within spitting distance of a bar. For brief moments, we drink beer while we watch our children play. We imagine, our children would be better rested and maybe wear tiny sweater vests and we would spend huge swaths of time sitting and drinking beers while they played, without arguments about who was going to get the left swing. The lack of zoning laws prohibiting bars next to playgrounds in this country feels like an enormous kindness. But also, there are apparently no accessibility laws, no ADA. I haven’t been in a single elevator that could fit a wheelchair. Two sides…coin.
I promised my self that I would take a selfie with the first person who complemented me on my Spanish and send it to my Spanish tutor, Lourdes. No one has complemented me on my Spanish.
By day three we are thawing a bit. On the recommendation of my brother, I brave the crowds and take my daughter to the Reina Sofia Museum to see Picasso’s Guernica. It is breathtaking. We talk about war, protest, abstract art, and search for the additional images Picasso hid. She wants to stay looking at it for a good 15 minutes, longer than I have ever sustained focus on a single painting. I tell her about Dali and she wants to locate all of his paintings. I google “melting clocks spanish translation” and ask a guard, who I think tells me I can find those in another museum. When I ask her later what she thinks Picasso was trying to say about war when he painted it, she answers, “War is bad. And a bull could be hidden in a horse.” We eat at the fancy museum cafe, and I insist that they seat us in the majestic greenhouse, though the woman warns that it is “mas formal.” We split a hamburger and try to stay low-pro. It is too hot for sweater vests, but there are many three-piece suits.
Every time I speak in Spanish I am proud, but it’s listening to the responses that is hard. I am so happy that I have been understood and then so instantly devastated that this person is answering to quickly and complexly and all that I can make out is “ok?”
All of these old, beautiful buildings are filled with modern art. This sculpture, installed in an enormous glass conservatory, shaped like a Greek cross, is made of cardboard and a substance that might be bird shit. It is pretty dope.
Now everyone is their normal selves. Imperfect, but not absolute shit shows. We take a gondola to a park on a hill and the kids drag branches out of the forest to make some kind of devil worship pyre. When it’s time to go back on the gondola, my son wonders if we can’t just find our way home another way, walking down the hill towards the city and seeing what comes. I almost choke up with pride—this is how I prefer to travel. We scramble down the hill, there are barren trees and black-and-white magpies and brightly colored joggers. “You actually never know what you’re going to see next,” he says with satisfaction.
Our friend’s daughter is seven, and at lunch she pulls out a chapter book and begins reading to herself. She has to be reminded to stop and eat. I think, with delight and a tinge of sadness, that this is our immediate future. Our friend makes my son a crown out of the yellow flowers that we gathered on the walk. When we finally give up on walking, he dons his flower crown on the subway ride home. I pick tiny yellow petals out of his hair for the rest of the day.
I have always loved traveling, as, among many other things, an escape from my life. Recently, a lot of the time, when I’m not marching around my block trying to gather myself after my children tear themselves, each other, or me, apart, I have started to really like my life. This is strange. And it doesn’t make traveling less exciting. But it does make me ready to go home, less pitying of myself that I will eventually have to call it. Writing it down, what we have done, though at times emotionally harrowing, sounds pretty sweet. We have one more rainy day here.
I drank many, many glasses of wine, ordered only by color. I bought a neon green sweatshirt with a slice of pizza on it. I spoke Spanish, but only in the present tense. I climbed 160 stairs to the top of a castle tower with two small children and did not panic. I treated a waiter to a Negroni. I physically restrained my child in a very public place, while he got whatever he needed to get out, which I think just needs to happen sometimes but is awful nonetheless, as very well-behaved children quietly played a soccer game around us. I lost an earring. I ruminated. I called my sister. I started a good book. I gathered too many souvenirs. I bought an extra suitcase so that I could bring them home.
P.S. An additional message for you, dictated from a six-year-old:
“Max Milton Wheeler Korn wrote his own name. It’s really nice here.”
Playoff Basketball Time is upon us! Rejoice! Regular family screen-time patterns are on hold until June. Time to learn or relearn the roster or your team or ‘chosen’ basketball family, stock up on Spindrifts, and let the good times roll. If you like NBA basketball and haven’t watched the short, silly, highly nerdy internet show ALL CAPS NBA, it makes me very happy. Let’s go Celtics…
What a sweet and agonizing and uplifting and redeeming description of your adventures/misadventures in Spain thanks so much for your honesty love, Paul and Zayde Paul
Sarah, what an engaging and uplifting narrative from Spain that I’m reading on a dreary, cold, even snowy (!) day here in Portland, Oregon.
Your writing on such a range of topics means a great deal to me, none more appealing that this account of traveling with a young son.
Sharron and I both adore traveling, too, even with kids, and we spent years in India with our two sons. I’m happy to read Max’s P.S. that “it’s nice here” because that’s how ours reflect back on their decade living abroad in Britain and Asia. I’m sure that when Max is their age(near 60 now) he will be grateful that you’re giving him an experience that he’ll never forget, so Go, Sarah!
Love, DD (Dennis Dalton)