Spain Early days 098Finding a new identity is an interesting process.

Over the last few months we have dismantled our life in Canada piece by piece and now find ourselves born anew as Madridleños – people of Madrid. But this new identity does not yet fit us. It’s itchy, scratchy, a little uncomfortable: we are Europeans, but we are not Spanish; in our new language we are less fluent even than toddlers, we fumble simple adult tasks because we cannot nuance and finesse our understanding of adverts, packaging, or critical documents; we are unfamiliar with our neighbourhood, unable to find our way back to the cafés we like or landmarks we encounter.  In short, our lives are fluid. They shift unpredictably beneath our feet and we are not yet quite sure of who we might  become in this new country.

So it is a small relief in the midst of all this uncertainty to discover and reclaim one part of myself, the part that loves the calm introspective space provided by nature. Retiro and the Rockies, so very different from one another – the one a mannered, manicured park in the heart of a bustling city, the other a wild untamed wilderness – but both but both providing mental sanctuary in a busy world.

Retiro is how we start our day in Madrid. Jon and I wake early and around 7 a.m. we set out along deserted streets for the 50 minute hike to Jon’s place of work. Within minutes are in El Parque Retiro, the 350 acre park in the heart of one of the oldest barrios in Madrid. Retiro means retreat in Spanish and the park was originally built as a retreat  for the Spanish Royal Family in 1561 in the grounds of the church of San Jeronimo. Over the years, under the direction of various kings and queens the grounds were landscaped and the gardens formalised. Grand buildings (now often used for exhibitions) and statues were added. At one time there was even a zoo.

The park became a public space in 1886 at the time Queen Isabella was deposed in ‘The Glorious Revolution’ and has been claimed by the Madrileños as their own.  All that history. Europe is full of history, everywhere you turn. But history is not where I am at so early in the morning. I am too busy watching the small details of  life in the park.

Spain Early days 078At that time of day no one is around and the many feral cats have the place to themselves. These feral cats look unusually sleek and well-fed unlike others I have seen in Spain. We see them scooting like silent shadows across the paths in front of us and watching us furtively from under hedges and behind statues. They are out in force in the evenings as Jon walks home from walk, but at the time I am retracing my steps just an hour later all the cats have vanished, probably because the dog-walkers are out in force, and I am left wondering where they all hide out for the day. Their place is taken by chirring, croooing groups of huge pigeons so fat they can barely waddle along the pathways to peck at the bread that a triad of older women bring for them each day. And just this morning I watched an old man feeding the birds. He was standing in the middle of a small ampitheatre, arms outstretched, with pigeons at his feet and sparrows landing on both hands to feed.

And it transpires that our arrival in Spain coincided almost exactly with the arrival of spring and the attendant spring-cleaning activities in the park! Retiro looked rather shabby and down at heel on our first morning walk but over the last two weeks, an entire army of park staff have moved in and every day I have watched as they have raked dead leaves out of hedges, laid turf, trimmed topiary, cut out dead branches, cleaned out the waterways, rototilled the beds, swept away a winter’s accumulation of city grime and begun planting . The place is looking quite spiffy now and nature  and the sunshine, has responded in kind. The blossom trees are in full bloom, delicate almond blossoms and the triumphant heralds of the magnolia buds. There is a haze of green appearing on many of the deciduous trees and the birds are everywhere – seemingly unfazed by the quantity of feral cats! There are magpies like a plague and blackbirds, sparrows, white ducks and mallards and something I have yet to see, a bird that twitters and chirps melodically making the whole park sound like spring. And yesterday I saw a beautiful bright green bird with a red head that I suspect is some kind of woodpecker digging away in the dirt. And later in the year, when it is warmer, there will be parakeets although, like raccoons, they are an invasive species and regarded by the city as a pest.


And somehow, even though the weather has been cool and blustery most days, the sky above Retiro is  almost always blue giving me a small link to Calgary and a way to find my identity.

Spain Early days 126

Don’t see many of these in Calgary though!

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