catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 7 :: 2004.03.26 — 2004.04.08


Somewhere in the middle

I’m told Madrid made the American news last week, so you’ve probably heard some of this story.

Last Thursday, March 11th, at 7:30 AM (CET), a series of bombs exploded in a number of train stations in Madrid. The most destructive of these explosions affected two trains approaching Atocha station, Madrid’s central commuter train station and a hub to the city subway system. 202 people were killed, and some 1,800 people were injured.

What you probably didn’t read about was that I was still in bed when the explosions went off. The phone woke me up. My wife, April, got it. Troy, one of the guys we work with, told her there had been an explosion at Atocha. April was watching the TV when I sat down next to her on the couch.

A week later, I’m finding it difficult to call Madrid my home. I don’t really know what I’ve shared with these people I call my neighbors.

Thursday afternoon I managed enough Spanish in El País, one of the regular newspapers, to understand that hundreds of people in Madrid were down at Puerta del Sol giving blood for the injured who were in the hospitals.

I found April making coffee in the kitchen and told her I was thinking about giving blood. She told me to go for it. I only took 15 minutes to reach Puerta del Sol. There weren’t many people on the streets.

A line of people snaked across the plaza like a garden hose, the final destination a tour bus with the words “Donacion de Sangre” written in red letters on the side. I filled out the form and got in line.

Puerta del Sol is the heart of the city. To most, it’s significant because historically it marks important events like the beginning of the Napoleonic wars, geographically because it is Kilometer 0, the point from which all major highways are measured in Spain, and aesthetically because it is stunning, the statue of Charles III charging ahead on his black horse as the focal point and even the statue of the city symbol, the bear and the strawberry tree. To me, however, Puerta del Sol is substantial because, without exception, it is always full of Spanish people. I was reminded again as I scanned faces that I love Madrid because I love her people. Standing in line felt right. I was linked together with everyone else by a common cause: we wanted to give our blood to those who had been injured in the explosions. I waited in line for over 5 hours and never questioned being there.

But even when the cause is noble, 5 hours is a long time. The four or five groups in front of me took turns saving each other’s place in line to go to the cafeteria for lunch. Special edition newspapers that had been printed that afternoon were circulating through the group. The two guys behind me took the opportunity to collect phone numbers from the girls in line behind them. The couple in front of me who arrived holding hands spent the afternoon saying only a few sentences to each other. They were too busy mingling in the crowd. It was as if the people in line with me were protesting the morning’s tragedy by their laughter, by the hum of conversation, by scattering seeds of friendship. The American novel that hid my face from theirs that afternoon seemed thousands of pages thick. I wanted to be at home with these people, but I just couldn’t.

Even with my American novels, the longer I live in Spain, the less I feel like the United States is my home as well. I inevitably feel alienated when I talk to people from where I grew up and realize it’s difficult for them to know what’s going on in the country I’m living in now.

Sunday evening my parents called. Of course, people had been asking them lots of questions about their son being in Madrid, and they were eager to hear what I had to say. I did the best I could. I told them about the explosions, about some people I knew who had lost coworkers or friends who had gotten lucky and decided not to take the train to Atocha that day. I told them about giving blood and about joining the 12 million people in Spain who had protested terrorism on Friday night.

I’m close to my parents, but what my dad said next was one of the moments when I felt we were continents apart, as if we were talking to each other with two tin cans and some string strung across a very large ocean.

My dad told me he had heard about the demonstrations. He had seen it on TV. The news was about growing anti-American sentiment in Spain as a result of Bush’s war against Iraq. He asked me if I felt like people in Madrid were treating me differently because I was an American.

The thought had not crossed my mind. I suppose that in the face of tragedy being an American seemed very insignificant. I was okay, and I know that’s what my parents and everyone else wanted to know. But somehow it seemed unimportant, maybe even selfish, to worry about how I was being treated as an American when so many people in my city, regardless of nationality, had been treated with the least respect, without even the respect for their lives.

As my parents waited on the phone for me to respond, all I could think about was how much I wanted them to understand the loss Madrid had experienced that week. An image from earlier that afternoon came to mind, so I told them about how I had been on the metro when a man got on next to me. He was in a suit and tie, with a briefcase. He was the typical businessman until he turned to look out the window, and I saw that half of his face was missing. I think everyone in that car knew he had been on one of those trains on Thursday morning.

I suppose what I’ve told you so far makes it seem like I have no home. Sometimes there is so much of life here I can’t participate in, yet the life I do share with those around me I can’t translate to the community that makes up my home in the United States. I don’t know. It’s scary to think, but maybe I’m not building a home here.

I do feel like I’m building something, though. Like I said earlier, as I was standing in that line to give blood, I never questioned being there. Thursday at Puerta del Sol was one of the few days where I felt like being completely out-of-place with my blonde hair and blue eyes and my American novel was an advantage because it said to the people around me that I was different from them, clearly not a native of their country, but this city was my home too, and I was grieving alongside them. I felt the need, as they did, to give whatever I could to help, even if that meant my own blood.

I’ll always be connected to the States as well, and I think that’s good. I got e-mails and phone calls last week from lots of people from where I grew up and went to school. These people made it very clear that they care about me. I’ll admit I was disappointed that most of the talk was about being an American in Spain, about political maneuvers, about al Qaeda and the war against Iraq. But now I’m beginning to realize that those e-mails and phone calls are a starting point. They are the point at which I have the responsibility to be somewhat like the guy down on the corner who directs traffic. He sends cars in the right direction. I guess you could say I’m trying to redirect these good things I’ve been given like care and compassion to the people who need it. I’m saying, “Because you care about me, please care about the people here. They’ve been through hell this week.”

In the end, I know I’m working towards something, but I’m not sure it’s home. Maybe I left that possibility behind when I moved to a different country. However, I am here, wherever that might be, even if the closest thing I have to home is between two places, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus