Atocha. The old train station, (new and even bigger station behind it, Madrid, Spain.

Getting off the train in Madrid we followed the crowds into the dark city. Our train companions formed a line for taxis, but we crossed the street and miracle of miracles, got on the right bus with backpacks and naked guitar, off at the right stop, and to the right apartment. Perhaps that does not sound miraculous to you, but Winkler-Moreys are notorious for getting lost. It felt like an awesome miracle to us.

The next day we were able to orient ourselves. We entered Eva Duarte Peron Park (yes, that Eva Peron), just as an outdoor aerobics class was beginning. We joined them and it was perfect. The music was Mama Mia en Español, which made me giddy.  We soon found out the class was five days a week, free, and sponsored by the city! The young people who teach the courses are fantastic, and there are always two or three of them for each session. We had people to greet every day and great exercise, just what we needed for three weeks in January in Madrid. My favorite part was when we stretched skyward with our eyes on trees still holding fall leaves. On the last day, of class for us, spring arrived in Madrid (high of 65F) and we worked out in T-shirts and sweated. I was impressed by the lack of security concerns. People piled their coats, and purses on park benches, adding clothing items as we warmed up.

Waiting for class to begin, Eva Duarte Peron Park, Madrid, Spain

At the Casa Árabe, an institution focused on Arab language and culture we took in a temporary exhibit of Palestinian art and their permanent exhibit on the Nile River. The Palestinian exhibit was installed in September for a six-month run. Most of the art was created in 2022.  I read about it before we left Minneapolis.  On October 7th there was talk of taking it down, quickly snuffed after Israel began its onslaught on Gaza. Many of the installations used film.  We watched one in which a young woman learns weaving from her elders. They have no yarn or looms so the instructions are a dance of hands and arms that each woman knows by heart. The young woman wears her hair out and her arms bare. Her elders are covered. Each encounter between old and young ends with a torrent of kisses.

Casa Árabe, Madrid, Spain

In another small film exhibited on the wall, bulldozers and cranes are weapons of mass destruction. A timeline shows the change in a neighborhood over ten years as Israeli bulldozers with US brand names destroy, destroy, and destroy more.

In the Nile River exhibit, we see a river that is the only reason crops grow, and a river that is drying up. River, animals, people. The Casa Árabe, by the way, has the best open bathrooms in the city of Madrid. They also have a bookstore. It was there that I bought a book on Jewish Liberation Theology translated into Spanish.

Women weaving without wool. Palestinian Artist Exhibit, Casa Árabe, Madrid, Spain, January 2024


On January 5, after two days of freezing, we think it’s a good day to go shopping for coats. It is 15 degrees colder in Madrid than in Cádiz where we have been, and we have no winter clothes. There should be those after-Christmas sales going, right? So we head to Corte Ingles, a giant department store/mall, with as many outlets in Madrid as Target’s in Minneapolis. We take the escalator up six floors to the section that has a brand of coat we are familiar with back in Minnesota. The store is packed with people.We pay full price for pricey coats and feel grateful to get out of there alive. The experience was so US/Christmas rush/overpriced that I am jolted when I hear people speaking in Spanish. Where are we? It is only later that we discover we shopped on the biggest and most expensive shopping day in Spain – the day before Three Kings Day, when Spaniards exchange gifts. It is January 7th that prices are slashed.

Three Kings Cakes, Madrid, Spain

On Three Kings Day we walked across the city to buy Mama Mia tickets. We thought the city would be closed, but everything is open and cafes as brimming. We stopped at several places for tea, once for Three Kings Bread, and end up for lunch at a very expensive restaurant, managing to order light and leave with a $50 tab.. We soon learn the trick of restaurants and staying in our budget: go where the young people are, and eat a lot of avocado toast.  As for groceries, after several pricey purchases, we found a fruit and vegetable place that is cheap and good. The woman even sold dried beans. We went there every day, counteracting the high cost of a cup of tea in the big city.

We began our first Sunday with a plan to walk to the Prada Art Museum through Retiro Park. On the way we happened upon a swing dance group, dancing on a platform. Remembering our promise to do things that make us look foolish, we joined them. After one dance David said, OK lets go. I convinced him stay on, reminding him of our promise to be foolish on this trip. Two hours later we retrieve our coats from the park bench. All the swing music was in English We were the only ones singing along—Well Hello Dolly, Looking swell, Dolly, and Stick with me and you’ll never grow old.

Swing dancing, Retiro Park, Madrid. Sunday afternoons.

At the Prada we viewed 17th century nymphs and Jesuses for a senior discount. Naked Rubenesque women, painted by Ruben himself were a lovely self-reflection. Though I am not tall or rich in tresses I do have the amplitude and I am surprised to feel a catch in my throat as I look. Representation in art is powerful.

We began the day cooking black beans we had soaked the night before. Walking through Retiro, eating black licorice, walking past a flock of parrots, talking to our child Emily who was walking to work in New York City,  life was perfect. Idly I asked Dave, “Did you turn off the beans?” He thought he had, but was not sure. We hesitated, then turned around moving as fast as foot traffic would allow. We arrived home to the miracle of perfectly cooked black beans in a pan that had just run dry. Now, in addition to “ Do we have keys, phone,” we stand at in doorway and say, “Is the stove off?”

During our second week of aerobics classes, a woman insisted I go in front of her since I was new. The gesture was so small, yet it stayed with me all day. The feeling of being included. I hope I am an includer. I fear I use shyness not to reach out.

We walked to the Museo de Historia de Madrid. It was free, in a grand building, and told its story primarily in paintings from the 17th to 19th centuries. Some of the paintings were fantastic, showing hundreds of expressive faces in large plazas, illustrating an invasion or triumph.  Most were portraits of kings and generals. There was nothing from before the Reconquista, nothing from the Franco or post-Franco period. There were also few references to the Americas from where minerals and sugar profits flowed through Madrid. Like most US regional museums, wars were the focus, with intimate details of 19th-century battle scenes but nothing from Spain’s Civil War. The pact to forget. The absence of a 20th-century story left the narrative in a strange place, as though missing the punch line.

One day began with yoga and then a breakfast of black beans and eggs, mango and grapes, oats with prunes, and chia seeds. Dave makes a feast every morning. Then to the park for our group class. A woman approached me saying this was her first time. She thought I was a regular! David exchanged greetings with one of the few other men who took the class.

“How are you today?”

“I am well because I come here,” he replied.

One day we did what Madrid does: stay up late. We put on our masks and went to see Mama Mia! I whooped, sang, laughed, cried. I’m a little embarrassed to admit I know the show by heart. Yes, the musical is cheesy but in 2009, when I was acutely feeling that empty nest syndrome, it spoke to me. There is a scene where a middle-aged mother is brushing her adult child’s hair while remembering them,  “Waiting at the bus stop with an absent-minded smile.” That line got me every time. I bought a copy of the movie and played that song whenever I needed a good cry. Seeing it live in Southern Europe was even better. The cringy attitude of Northern Europeans toward Southern Europeans in the Hollywood movie with Meryl Streep was gone.

We walked to the Reina Sofia Modern Art Museum in the rain. They are having a special exhibit on Picasso’s early years and transition to abstraction. I was even more taken by the exhibit about the making of a movie about the assassination of Izsak Rabin. It showed the rise of Netanyahu, then a young right-wing extremist who supported Jewish “settlers,” taking over Palestinian lands. Izsak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Peace Accords, agreeing to return all land subject to settler invasions, to the Palestinians. Rabin was murdered right after giving a speech in which he read a poem whose words are part of the exhibit.

“ Lift your eyes with hope, and not through the rifles’ sights.

Sing a song for love,

And not for wars.

Don’t say ‘The day will come’,

bring on that day!

Because it is not a dream,

And in all city squares

Cheer for peace!”

The Reina Sofia is the one place we go to in Spain in which the Franco era and its aftermath are reflected openly and perceptively. It is a relief to be there.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid

I got medical care in Madrid! We got to the University Hospital plenty early but misunderstood 2nd door to mean 2nd floor, and ended up sitting in a hospital waiting room until we were late. Luckily Spain requires everyone in a hospital to wear a mask. I have a blockage in my right ear. I got prescriptions for steroids and instructions to do what my Grandma Winkler would have us do: sit over a bowl of steaming water with a towel over our heads. Health care is free for Spaniards. We had coffee with a friend of a friend who lives in Madrid who told us she has MS and she gets excellent care. Every prescription by her doctor is paid for, no questions asked.

I do a post on FB about how dogs are mellow in Spain. Every dog has a leash but it is not always held. The biggest thing I notice, as someone who has recently acquired a fear of dogs after a bite, is that they are not hostile toward other people or dogs. These are not protection dogs, they are companions. My friends who are dog lovers had all kinds of theories about my post, which I’m sure hold merit. I was more focused on how the people who own the dogs are more mellow and unafraid in this city of 3 million and how that is reflected in their dogs.  I think about the safety net Spaniards currently have– a social structure easily given, easily removed— the right-wing Partido Popular is trying to do just that, fighting every social policy of the ruling PSOE (Democratic Socialists).   I am sure my US readers can attest to how health care alone is a stressor in their lives. Some people sleep on benches here, Too many, but from a US perspective, not many. Rent subsidies must help. I theorized that these investments in communal welfare, make people more mellow and that cannot help but be reflected in their dogs.

On the second to last day, we needed to visit the Museo de las Americas. I knew I would be disappointed and indeed I was. Luckily entrance was free. You know when a museum begins with a room filled with quotations from conquistadors, — starting with Cristobal Colon—without analysis, that you are in for a whitewash. (On the walls of a nearby school there is a mural that includes Columbus as an inspiring figure. I imagine the students come to this museum. The selection of books in the gift store for children was especially disturbing, with covers that showed racist images of Native Americans and glorious images of conquerors.)

One of Spain’s many paintings used to create racial categories and levels of privilege during the Spanish colonial period in Latin America. Museo de Las Americas, Madrid, Spain

Don’t get me wrong. The museum has a collection of stolen Indigenous artifacts that inspire awe, and you should see them if you can. It also is the home to a couple of dozen paintings of mixed-race families that appear in every Latin American history text, which the Spanish Empire used to construct ever more complex racial categories connected to privilege and oppression. The artifacts of this museum are worthy of a visit. What is missing is an updated analysis. In this Museo created during the Franco era, a little critical race theory wouldn’t hurt. US, Canada, and Spain, same struggle same fight for history that reflects Indigenous and African experiences and voices.

After the Museo de las Americas we attempted to walk to the Casa de Campo park. It was just 1.6 miles away, but we didn’t quite realize it was across four highways and a river. When we survived that onslaught of urbanity it was a delicious shock to find ourselves alone in a landscape of forest, hill, and meadow. We walked half an hour before finding the lake, people, and string of cafes that make the park famous. We had a lovely lunch soaking in the sun. It reminded me of that scene in Mary Poppins where they leave London by popping into a painting of a rural landscape, and find the amusement park that can’t be seen, over the hill.

On January 20, we attend a protest in support of Palestinians, joining tens of thousands in Madrid and millions across the world. It was such a relief to have a way to publicly oppose Israel’s genocidal siege of Gaza. (See Cuatro Cuerpos).

After the protest we walked across Parque Retiro, joining the parade of perusers of 32 permanent used-book stands, through the rose garden still holding blossoms, past dozens of groups holding park corners to practice every kind of dance, sport, meditation, reading, music. We stopped at the Retiro Biblioteca to use the bathroom and soak up the collective atmosphere of a busy library.At the lake, where row boaters remind me of being five, rowing with my dad in Boston’s Jamaica Pond,  a man played a complex and haunting version of Bella Chao on his alto saxophone.  All this collective joy felt like a miracle, but really it was rosy memories and associations inspired by public investment in social goods mixed with sun and trees.

Rowboaters, Madrid, Spain