Sunday, April 21, 2013

Suddenly

I was on the verge of posting my promised second entry on Semana Santa in Linares. I edited and worked out the kinks on the train ride back from a long-weekend trip up north to Palencia. But then--two enormous things have happened; suddenly. (And I punctuate that strangely because in reality that is how they have been punctuated, incredibly strangely.) Semana Santa will have to wait.

Since the beginning of winter, my Linarense friends have been warning me that northern Andalucia has only two seasons: broiling and freezing. As a Bostonian born and bred, I admit that I brushed them off. In Boston, your reward for surviving the long, dark cold is glorious warmth, an overabundance of flowers and blue spring sky, and ducklings at the Public Garden. Spring means a gradual transition between harsh grays and lush greens. It's logical; it provides continuity. Spring, between winter and summer, makes sense.

Which is part of why I struggled this past Tuesday morning, and all through this week. It's true, they warned me, but I didn't believe them. All through January, February, March, up until as recently as two weeks ago, the sky was grey and dripping. I needed a heater almost constantly to avoid shivering in my drafty apartment. I wore two pairs of socks to bed under two blankets. The trees were bare, the ground barren.

Then, after Easter, I got sick--horribly stomach-bug-bronchitis-10-days-of-antibiotics sick--and when I managed to emerge from my apartment and return to an approximation of my former routine, the smallest signs of change had begun to appear. I noticed buds on the trees in the plaza. On the train up north, the fields were a neon, almost noxious, green, full of new growth. My weekend at "home" in Castilla y Leon with my friend Hannah featured coffee in sudden, absurdly warm sunshine; picnics in the park; and my first sunburn of 2013... And then, back in Andalucia, I returned to a world altered.

The first thing we noticed when we got off the train in Linares was that everyone was wearing flip flops and t-shirts. We stripped off our sweaters waiting for the bus, and when it came the air conditioning was on. Dropping my suitcase in my apartment before my weekly flamenco lesson, I saw that the trees in the plaza were in full leaf, that kind of deep, shady green that seems like it's always been there. "This is some 'I Dream of Jeannie' sh*t," I said to Hannah. "You know, *blink blink* and pop! flowers in the gardens; pop! leaves on the trees."

I had my lesson (more on the amazing time I am having learning to sing flamenco in a future entry), and then strolled the usual 15 minutes back to my apartment. The strange feeling of having walked in on the middle of summer persisted; the twilight was that special purple that characterizes late evening in July. In Plaza Colon, one of the nicer plazas in town, palm trees shaded playing children in the fading light, teenagers in short shorts gossiping and chewing gum and flirting, old couples sitting on benches enjoying the breeze. Trees flowering a lurid shade of magenta bent their heads downward, heavy with blossoms. The scene was absolutely free of any hint of spring. I texted Hannah again: "I feel like I've been Rip Van Winkled, slept for 100 years and woken up in the middle of summer. I feel like I missed something."

It was an important sentiment to hold onto, because when I got home and signed onto the internet, the first thing I saw was my friend Maya, in Boston, posting: "Boston people: STAY AWAY FROM THE COPLEY SQUARE AREA. There have been two explosions at Boylston and Exeter, down by the Marathon finish line." Reading that sentence, I felt an echo from an hour before-- that feeling that I had skipped over something important and arrived in a profoundly unexpected place, one I had to struggle to understand.

That was beginning of a long, awful several days for many people, in Boston and around the world. Maya sent me the news feed she was following, and I lay on my bed, eyes glued to the computer, for some 6 hours. I felt lost, unable to process this sudden turn of events. I read some paragraphs repeatedly, trying to find a way in to understanding. But I just couldn't seem to believe the terrible things I was reading about what is supposed to be one of the happiest, most positive, most festive days of the year in a city that so many people (myself included) presumed without question would be free of violence of this kind.

For me, the most unsettling part was the idea that the happiest time, crossing the finish line-- a place that another writer on another blog called "the site of the most human potential"-- could be so suddenly altered. I had taken for granted the natural transition of winter to spring to summer; we as Bostonians had all taken for granted the easy logic of safety and order during one of our most hallowed days. But there was nothing logical about how easily this bubble of security, the one we all carry around with us that allows us to go about our lives without fear, could be so suddenly burst, nor about the perpetrators' desire to inflict such suffering (physical or psychological) on innocent people. Nothing made sense about going away for a weekend up north or for an hour to a flamenco lesson and coming back to a world that looked so profoundly different. I thought back to my "I Dream of Jeannie" comment, which now seemed weeks earlier. I wished I could *blink blink* this away, too. In my enormous, empty apartment I felt very alone and very far from home.

The next day I got out of bed with some difficulty, having slept perhaps 3 hours, feeling like a heartsick, shaken zombie. I went to school dreading having to put on a happy face, although surprisingly my hours of teaching that day were the easiest, providing something else to think about. The day was incongruously bright with that same strange mid-summer sunshine, its accompanying chirping birds and lush greenery. Around me, people went grocery shopping, drank coffee, talked to neighbors-- another normal day. Between classes, I checked for updates, found my eyes welling up at descriptions of the victims and the injured, the paramount importance of Patriots Day in New England life, and the kindness of strangers in the face of such sudden upheaval. A few teachers offered kind words. The rest were unaware.

I came home, went straight back to my news feed, and found a post from a fellow expat in China. Somehow, his words managed to echo my own thoughts, and it was a comfort. 

"Today I’m sitting in a virtual corner, all alone in my Chinese office," he wrote. "I’m surrounded by nice people (very nice people, I fact), but they don’t get it. They can’t get it. None of them are from Boston. Hell, none of them are even Americans. The few quiet words that they offered when I first arrived were nice, but they barely helped. Not since my first days after moving here, when I didn't know anybody in this huge megacity, have I ever felt so isolated. What I really want are some Bostonians to commiserate with, to hug."
"Exactly," I thought.

The next days were still difficult, but sleep and time heal many things. I was lucky-- no one I knew was injured (or worse) in the bombings-- and as Boston held vigils, I started to move toward healing, too, across the ocean. I napped, I talked with friends, I discovered a new cafe in the old town behind my house. Its umbrella-shaded terrace seemed the perfect place for a mid-day beer and a tapa of bull's tail in savory brown sauce (it may sound bizarre, but actually it's quite delicious!) Sitting on the bleached brick streets, watching the light mid-day traffic roll by, I soaked in the contrast of orange tree leaves against the sky. I watched a man lean his bold red Vespa against the brown stone of the house next door at an angle so perfectly picturesque that it almost hurt-- and felt peace for the first time in days.

But then Friday morning: chaos again. A friend had arrived for a weekend visit, but I could hardly leave my room and tear my eyes away from the news coverage. It was almost too intense, too bizarre, to be believed. Police chases snaked through what amounts to my childhood, tearing down Mount Auburn street, where I waited for the bus to Harvard Square in my bored and rebellious high school days; past the Town Diner (still my favorite in Massachusetts), where I've eaten dozens of eggs over leisurely Sunday brunches. I watched with horror as the media set up camp at Arsenal Mall, the site of many back-to-school shopping sprees. How could it be possible that the suburban streets five minutes from my childhood home could so suddenly become a war zone, transformed with the same surreal abruptness that had heralded this strange Linares summer?

With relief, Friday night brought some closure. My tired eyes stayed open until 3 am, waiting for the all-clear call, having to know how this was going to end. I fell asleep breathing a sigh of relief along with my fellow Bostonians, imagining our exhalations making my window panes rattle all night. And this weekend, although the summer has continued to blossom,  the temperature has fallen back a little. The trees are still in full leaf, and that specific summer light persists, but the temperature whispers of spring.

I wish there were an easy moral to this, a neat way to sew up the parallels I see here. But in the search for meaning (in something as enormous as the violence and upheaval Boston experienced this week or as small as a sudden season change) things are rarely so simple. That's as close to a moral as I can find: to hold fast to the small beauties-- the sweaty achievement of a goal, a beer on sunny bleach-bricked streets, a neon-green field full of new growth, or a picture of a city you love-- and to understand that that the logic and continuity of New England spring is an unusual luxury in a world that is most often abruptly unexpected, uneven, inexplicable, unfair. Winter can become summer or the dream a nightmare in an instant-- but (as I watched my city prove from afar but always knew in some part of me) together we can make it to the otherside.


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