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Letter from Madrid

I’m at the airport in Brussels, waiting for my flight to Madrid, and I thought I’d catch up with an e-mail. It’s Tuesday, September 14, and it’s about 4 p.m. here. I say this because, although there’s a slight chance I’ll finish this message before my flight boards, it’s unlikely it will be sent for several days. So the contents of this message may be several days old.

I arrived in Paris six days ago and spent a couple nights there. I didn’t do much in Paris that I haven’t done before. Mostly, I just enjoyed being there, sitting in cafes, walking through parks, and so forth. The only new thing I really saw was the museum of the police prefecture, which actually I didn’t find very interesting, aside from an exhibit of some of the firearms used during the Liberation.

I left Friday morning by train for Cologne, Germany, where I planned to visit a friend of mine, Christian, who lives near there. I had planned to spend the morning in Paris, but after speaking to Christian by phone, it seemed like it would work out better with his schedule if I arrived in the mid-afternoon. The rail line between Paris and Cologne is a mostly high-speed line called Thalys, so the trip took less than four hours, with only a few intermediate stops. The trip was uneventful, except for the moment we reached Aachen. German police boarded the train and checked the passports of two dark-skinned men sitting in front of me, and two dark-skinned men sitting directly behind me. The two in front of me looked like business men — older, well dressed, and so forth. The two behind me looked like boys. The two behind me didn’t have passports, and were escorted off the train. It gave everyone in our car something to talk about for the rest of the trip!

Christian met me at the station in Cologne and then drove me to his home in Monheim, which is between Cologne and Duesseldorf. He actually works in Bonn, so I guess Cologne is on his way home from work, which is why he wanted me to come earlier. His hometown is very much a bedroom community of people who work in Cologne, Duesseldorf, or Leverkuesen. He grew up there, and now is living there in his parents house while his parents are working in Argentina. Any of you who have heard me talk about Christian know that my stay there was going to involve a lot of beer, so I got in practice Thursday evening by visiting an Irish pub in Paris for a few hours. He let me know that I had to order the right beer for the city I was in. In Duesseldorf, they brew Alt, so that’s what they drink. In Cologne, they brew and drink Koelsch. I would be frowned upon if I ordered a beer in the wrong city. Those fortunate enough to live in Monheim could order either, when in Monheim, of course. Christian, his wife Nadire, and I went to Duesseldorf Friday evening, and after walking around the old city, we enjoyed several different Alts, first in a cafe along the Rhine, which was very pleasant as the sun was setting, but then also in one of the breweries.

Later that evening, several of Christian’s friends arrived from out of town. They were coming to run the Cologne Marathon on Sunday. Christian decided not to run, citing his weight and laziness as contributing factors. Mostly, the laziness. However, the arrival of additional friends heralded the opening of additional beers, even though his friends were going easy because of the race. They also switched on the TV and went directly to soccer, to watch Second League highlights, which, of course, I didn’t really care about.

Saturday, after we all slept until about noon, we went into Cologne for the afternoon. We saw the Dom, the cathedral in the center of the city, and did some walking through the old center of that city. Then we took a one-hour mini-cruise on the Rhine, to get a better view of the city. Then, of course, we had a few Koelsches, to add to the few we had during the cruise. It was a good thing we took the train into the city, and Nadire had switched to coffee early so she could drive back from the train station. By dinner time, even Christian had had enough drinking for a few hours, and so we stayed in and watched some TV for a few hours, including a movie called Ballerman 6. Then around 11 p.m., Christian and I decided to go out ourselves for a couple beers, somewhere we could walk to, since the marathoners were already in bed. Nadire had read that there was some sort of festival at the fire department, so when Christian and I went outside, we followed the music. Well, what we found was one hell of a party. Apparently, it was a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the Monheim fire department. There was live music, and people were singing and dancing on the tables when we walked in. Christian called Nadire on the mobile phone, and we went back and got her, because this looked like too much fun for her to miss. To drink beer there, they were selling tickets. A beer cost two tickets, and a ticket cost sixty cents. I guess this was some sort of legal loophole where they could sell beer only until 1 a.m., but they could drink it until it ran out. I took twelve euros out of my pocket, plunked it down on the table and said zwanzig (twenty). I think Nadire might have preferred that I hadn’t bought so many tickets, but I pointed out that it was only five beers a piece, since she didn’t want any (I did offer). And the beers were small, so it was really only about three beers, if they had been normal beers. So we drank and sang along and danced a bit, if swaying counts as dancing. Nadire was surprised I knew the lyrics to 99 Luftballons, but as much as it was played on the radio all over the planet, I can’t imagine why! The band was quite good, and I remember I thought that even before even before seven rounds of beers (we got a couple free ones!). We stumbled home around 3 a.m.

We all rolled out of bed pretty late on Sunday morning, and for a while, we were wondering if we were going to make it to Cologne to see Christian’s friends before they crossed the finish line. It didn’t much matter, since we only ended up seeing one of them, the one they thought might not make it, the one who crossed the finish line and immediately bummed a half-smoked cigarette from a woman standing next to him, then started looking for a beer. There was a sea of people, and so it wasn’t a lot of fun to be in the crowd, so we didn’t stay long after the race ended. When we got back to the house, Nadire (who is Turkish) made us all some Turkish coffee, which was awesome; I regret having done whatever mundane task I was doing while she was making it so I could have observed how she did it. That night was a quiet evening at home. Christian’s friends left, I did some laundry and re-packed my bags, we watched a little TV, and we all went to bed quite early.

The next morning, Christian dropped me off at the local train station since he was running late to work and would have time to drive me to Cologne. No problem, since it was only about a four-euro ticket to get from Monheim to Cologne. However, when I got to the platform, I found out that all five ticket vending machines were out of order. The trains to Cologne ran about every fifteen minutes, so I decided to ride without a ticket to the next station, buy a ticket there, and then ride the rest of the way. Of course, that meant I had to skip a train while I was buying a ticket. My next destination was Brussels, Belgium, and I arrived about 40 minutes before a train left, but, as it turned out, there were no seats in second class, and I wasn’t willing to pay the extra money to ride in first class. So I waited another two hours for the following train. That gave me over two hours of wandering around the train station in Cologne, so that I when I left I felt I knew it very well. The ride to Brussels was only about two-and-a-half hours, on the same sort of high-speed train I rode from Paris to Cologne. No one was removed from the train this time.

I didn’t have a hotel reservation in Brussels, so when I got to the train station in Brussels, I went immediately to the tourist office, where a very unfriendly woman told me her computer was down and that I would have to go to the central train station, which apparently was not where I was. I asked her for directions to the central train station, and she said, “Go by train.” Thanks. I thought she meant the subway, but I did find out later I could have taken an express train straight there. So I took the subway there, and it took me forever to find a hotel reservation desk, but it wasn’t the tourist office desk, so I was a little suspicious, but the woman there did help me find a room. Apparently, there was some festival going on in Brussels, and rooms, which are hard enough to come by there on a normal day, were particularly difficult. However, she booked me a small apartment that belonged to a hotel, so I could use the apartment overnight and still have breakfast in the hotel the next morning. It was only a few euros more than I had been planning to spend in Brussels. So it sounded okay. She told me how to get there by tram, but she also told me it would only be about a fifteen minute walk. I decided to walk. About halfway through the walk, I realized it was closer to a half-hour walk, and it started to rain. I pressed on, and arrived there eventually, soaked. The room was okay. It was a studio apartment, with furniture and a fully-equipped kitchen that I didn’t really have a use for. The bathroom had a faint urine smell that I have come to expect from hotels in Paris, but this being my first time in Brussels, I can now lower my expectations. I got out of my wet clothes to take a shower, and I soon discovered the feet of the bed extend several inches from the edge of the bed. I discovered this because I hit one of the feet so hard with my bare foot I screamed. Within a short time, one of my toes was black and swollen, and its neighbors were various shades of blue, purple, and red. My foot hurt horribly, and it still does, but less so.

However, I was determined not to give up on Brussels. I had less than 24 hours, so I got out my map and went out to see the main attractions, both in the evening after arriving, and early the next morning after breakfast, but before I checked out. Fortunately, the sights are all located close together, and I used public transportation to the extent possible to avoid limping around. I did see the city hall, a couple of the cathedrals, the exchange, and the royal palace. I took a lot of pictures in the morning. After I checked out, I went straight to the airport for my flight to Madrid, Spain. It took me a lot less time than I thought it would, and so I had four hours to kill before I could even board the plane. So I can describe just about every square inch of the Brussels airport about as well as the Cologne train station. I did have a meal and a snack there, and I watched planes for an while, and I started this letter, of course. So the time there wasn’t completely wasted.

It’s now early evening Wednesday, September 15, around 7:00 p.m. as I’m finishing up this letter. The flight to Madrid was uneventful. When I arrived, I took the subway directly to my hotel. When I got to the hotel it was after 9 p.m. I was a little upset that the hotel had lost my reservation, but there was still space available, so it worked out in the end. The woman working at the hotel last night didn’t speak any English, and my Spanish is really quite horrible. Oddly, I understood almost every word she said, but I couldn’t conjure up a single complete sentence in response. Fortunately, monosyllables and cognates got me by. My place in Madrid is centrally located. I can see Puerta del Sol from my window. It is simple, just a room with bath. I had a nice dinner last night, and a beer at a bar, and then turned in. This morning, I had breakfast, and have spent most of the day sightseeing and taking pictures. I’ve seen several of the parks and plazas and main streets and royal gardens.

Tonight, I’m supposed to meet a friend of mine, Marlene, for dinner. That’s a little over an hour from now, so I should end the letter here and get myself ready. I hope this letter finds everyone well. Keep in mind that I may not be able to send this letter for several days, so don’t be surprised if the dates don’t seem fresh. I’ll send another update after I arrive in Montpellier next week.