I met a poet today.
Today I really wanted to spend some time getting to know my neighborhood better. I needed an air duster for my computer, and there's a Corte Ingles (the big department store in Madrid--there are tons) that I've never been to at Quevedo (10 minutes away), so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and walk in that direction.
Today is one of those deceptive sunny winter days in Madrid. Looking outside I saw the bright, so-deep-it-looks-fake blue of the sky and the yellow-white sun and I just knew that the temperature on weather.com had to have been wrong this morning. But because this is my third winter here, I don the hat and mittens anyway, just in case. When you walk everywhere, you learn to go ahead and carry everything you might need.
And I did need the hat and mittens. El sol de invierno no calienta--The winter sun doesn't heat up. After ten or twelve minutes in the brisk, clear air, my face buried in the scarf, the wind seeping through my jeans and freezing my thighs (I have leg warmers on my calves, so they feel good), I found the Quevedo Corte Ingles. It took me all of two minutes to find out that this is by far the worst one in Madrid, and they have nothing I need. So, after my first and last failed trip there, it was on to the Corte Ingles that I knew, in my old neighborhood, Arguelles. Another 15-20 minute walk in the cold, and then, AHHHHH, familiarity.
Even though it was very cold (my thighs are still thawing out) it was refreshing to be outside and to walk for an hour or so, and on the way back home I decided to weave through the streets down to my flat and try to learn their names. My goal is to know all the street names and their relation to each other within a 10 block radius by the end of February.
This wandering led me to the Plaza Dos de Mayo, a neat little plaza in the middle of my neighborhood, about 2 blocks from my flat. I noticed the tents and tables as I was approaching and then remembered the sign I had seen in Cafe la Manuela about the arts fair held in the plaza every Saturday morning. The market was disappointing to say the least--about ten tables of old records, old books, cheap jewelry, and used cd's were scattered about the plaza. At one table there was a glass case with antique spoons and matchboxes, and beside it lay some old books, mostly collections of stories and poems, and a few books that looked like they had all come from the same cathedral. While I was looking at a very old copy of the Misa Cotidiana (Ordinary Mass), turning it over in my hands and inspecting the intricate clasp on the binding, I heard a voice behind me.
"Te gusta la poesia, no?" (You like poetry, don't you?)
I nodded without speaking. I wasn't really in the mood to strike up a conversation with one of the vendors. But he continued, "I saw you looking at some of the poetry books, and I have some that are mine if you're interested."
At this point I figured I had to be polite, and I turned to look at the man. He stood about 2 inches shorter than I, had long, scraggly hair under a knit cap, and a thick, mostly grey beard. When he smiled, I saw that some teeth were missing. At this point, my first thought (I'm not proud of it, but it's the truth), was that this was some homeless guy who had wondered in and now was wanting to sell me a poem for a euro or so. Ok, fine. I'm game. Again, I wasn't really in the mood (as if my moods are the center of the universe), but it felt too late to turn back without being rude. I asked as politely as possible, "What do you have?"
As he turned and began digging through his bag on wheels (a.k.a. granny cart), he explained, "The records are mine. I sell them too. But you're interested in poetry." He pulled out a thin book, around 80 pages, with interesting artwork on the front. I opened it so I could feign interest for a few seconds. As I skimmed the table of contents, he spoke again, "They're mine."
"Vale" (OK), I replied, wondering why he felt the need to reiterate that the book was his. I wasn't planning to steal it. It must have been obvious that I didn't understand what he meant, because he took the book out of my hands, turned it over, and pointed to the picture of the poet on the back. And there I saw the same grin, the same scraggly hair, the same thick beard. He was the poet. El poeta.
I stood there and read the first poem and felt him watch my face as I read it, and then the next, and the next. I couldn't put it down. It was wonderful poetry--some of it was a bit difficult to understand as a non-native speaker, but I got most of it through context and I loved the flow and the sound of it. The artwork on each page went perfectly with the poem. As I thought of him watching me read his work right in front of him, I remembered how vulnerable I used to feel after each piano recital, trying to guage whether the compliments people gave were real or just polite.
I had only brought enough money with me for the air duster, so I had to hand the book back and explain that I couldn't buy it today, quickly following that statement by asking if he was going to be in the plaza next Saturday. "Si," he replied, from eleven to six. "Where are you from?"
"Kentucky. De los Montes Apalaches." I explained.
"A-pall-a-chian Moun-tains," he sounded out slowly, in English. He never stopped smiling. I smiled and nodded. I waved and said goodbye as I turned to walk the rest of the way home.
Next week, I think I'll go buy the book.