Pedro Ávila

I found myself alone in Amsterdam, but only long enough to get the crap stuff involved with relocating to another country out of the way: immigration, tax numbers, bank accounts and that sort of necessary garbage. I would deal with finding an apartment when I came back. I didn’t have time to feel the loneliness sink in, to let the demons find out where I was yet. Soon the family showed up and we got started right away: wooden clogs, windmills, whores and hash – BAM! Amsterdam. There were paintings as well. And drinks. Plenty of drinks.

My family moves fast and the road wasn’t far. We were off in the car over dikes (dijks) and dams, headed straight into the middle of Europe. A road trip through Europe – Amsterdam to Madrid, through Germany, Switzerland and France, in two weeks. Would we make it? The questions were many but the doubts were few.

We hadn’t had a family trip like this in…Jesus, I can’t remember. Colorado maybe? Death Valley? I don’t know. The back seat sure seemed smaller though. Flat expanses spread in every direction but up. Before I had left I had made it a point to ask Beeler what Dutch was like.

“A wookie with a head cold,” he’d told me, and his description rang true every time I heard the stuff or just tried to read a road sign.

It’s a small country, and soon things were in German. In Cologne we saw the Dom, the seat of the Catholic Church in Europe, or at least in Germany. It’s too massive to be only one noun and too complicated to be described with adjectives. It’s one of those “show don’t tell” things, but the locale wasn’t right. Most cathedrals are designed to make God bigger and you smaller. I’ve been to Notre Dame and I’ve seen St. Paul’s…this thing, it reminds you of an ashen-colored limbless tree with roots as deep as hell. When I saw it was surrounded by Fuji film and Samsung stores, I figured my initial assertion probably wasn’t far off. The light and dark contrast of concrete and aged stone reminded me of a massive shark with a white belly and dark dorsal side to camouflage it with the only thing available: the sky. Looking through the grey-toned spires at the church is an accident most can’t expect.

“Why is it here,” I heard someone ask. “Jesus, God,” I thought, “isn’t it obvious? Because it didn’t get bombed like everything else in the war,” and that’s pretty much true. You can tell from the horrible architecture of the 60′s and 70′s that is spread everywhere like a fungus you can’t remove.

The next day we drove south, always about an hour ahead of a cold front that threatened some terrible rain. We made it as far as Baden-Baden in the black forest where we visited the ruins of a German castle, sitting atop a hill, as you would expect from a castle. I caught my mother skipping sometimes, obviously in a land of fairy tales all of her own. Sometimes, staring out into the distant hills and imagining who-knows-what, she would whisper things like, “they’re coming, they’re coming!” This too, was expected, knowing Mom’s penchant for the fantastic.

What we didn’t expect between those ancient walls were the sounds carried by the wind. Whooshing, lingering, humming long low notes. A harmony of sadness that reached and retreated like some ancient waltz stuck in the everlasting memory of stone. If I had to give it a name, I would have called those sounds the echoes of lost souls. If I had to.

Too soon, I looked up. In the midst of the cold front that was finally catching up to us after a couple days, embedded in the walls of ancient stone was a harp – a wind harp – that stood 4 meters tall and hung 5 meters above us. Enchanting. We returned the next morning to see it in proper light only to meet head on the front that unleashed its fury there on that mountain. The sounds from the harp didn’t much care about the storm. Those voices have been gone a long time.

The day on the road was spent mostly under the cover of a blanket of fog that would’ve made San Francisco say, “huh – how about that?” We were supposed to have seen the heart of the black forest and some amazing lakes, but about 5 meters in front of us was about all we saw, and it was largely white. Occasionally a car came from out of the white.

So we lost some altitude and headed for an umleitung in Strasbourg, just across the border in France. Mom and Dad were familiar with this territory and guided us on a brief tour of the city with a warmer, more living sort of version of the cathedral in Cologne. The cathedral in Cologne tried hard to be menacing but you could see it coming, and by the time you were at its feet, much of the mystique of the thing was gone. Strasbourg’s spire was different. Shrouded by the ancient village, the canals and the narrow streets, the cathedral jumps out at you suddenly as you round a market.

“Ahh!”, I gasped. Paul gave me a strange look that seemed to warn me not to do that again. But the thing swallows your attention and your gaze in one gulp. Also, the brown-tinted, one-spired cathedral in Strasbourg rose much more gently than the oxidized blue-gray hadean missile in Cologne. It’s earthy color was warm even more so by the blue sky above it, the village that surrounded it, and the accordion and tuba behind me in the square that played to accentuate it. The church bells started ringing and just when I thought the harmonized pipe-organ notes coming from the spire had filled the ancient church to its brim, the bass notes kicked in, deep and ancient against the gallant stones and poured out over the steeple and into the plaza like bubbling marmalade.

Well played, Strasbourg. Well played indeed.

After some time on the road, the day ended in Freiburg, a college town in the south of Germany with almost no available hotels except the best room in the best one, we found. And by sheer dumb luck. Almost immediately we befriended the large German man who runs the restaurant and guest house with a deep German voice, short army hair and a moustache to be envied by the Portuguese. He reminded me of someone’s uncle.

“All the big people, they like this room,” he said. By “big” I assumed he meant famous, since the room was at the top of about 300 steps that groaned and threatened to snap under us and our meager bags. I hinted at it by asking him if all the pictures signed by David Haselhoff and other people you should never have heard of were guests of his. “Yes, many big guests,” he confirmed. Mom was praising the waitress for helping us with our poor German, already charming the hell out of everyone. Mom has oodles of charm.

“Is this your girl?” he asked Dad excitedly, pointing at my mother. One more friend for Mom. Dad did his best while the neurons fired, figuring out intent and compensating for misunderstanding.

“Yes, she’s my WIFE.” The large German didn’t seem phased by the misstep and continued jovially. He gestured at us now, Paul and me. “Dear God, what’s next?” I wondered.

“Are these your…”

“These are the boys, yes.” Dad said, smiling now, cutting him off and finishing the sentence for him, and sparing me from finding out what new way of referring to offspring Uncle Germany was going to conjure. He was definitely somebody’s uncle. By the time we’d finished dinner, he’d given us a bottle of his local wine.

Just after crossing into Switzerland the next day, we stopped by the Rhine falls on our way to Zürich. The falls offered absurdly blue waters the color of glaciers and a matching blue sky to go with it. It looked as though we were starting to get south enough in Europe to have good weather. Zürich was nice too, in fact, and its river shone blue with the same devotion. I like that in a river.

Zürich, as a town, is charming, vibrant, absurdly clean and civilized. Oh, and expensive. WTF, mate? How do you justify EU$200 for a 5 person Mexican dinner? Fortunately, we met Carol, one of Paul’s friends from his former European life. Her hosting skills were equally matched by her impressive ability to speak 6 languages, which is amazing even for a Swiss person. We spent the next day with her as well and she showed us around the Lucerne area, taking us up some steep Swiss Alps for some sweet Swiss sights.

Cows were on every slope with an incline less than 75 degrees, it seemed, and they all had bells on their necks. How they put up with the racket is beyond reason, but I suspect, from their confused nonchalance about it, that they wonder why the sound is always following them everywhere they go.

No matter. I stood, pretty much above it all up there. Not ruling, not ruled, but free of the bullshit and much of the sorrow that some other things in my head might have had to say. I’d like to imagine that the sheer purity of the water in the lake below, the air around the surrounding mountains and the vast spread of space between them diluted whatever evil sometimes festers inside when the lids come down and the lights go out. But I think the truth of it is that there’s just not room enough in a man’s mind for that kind of peace and the ugly thoughts we sometimes have. My line of sight up there, had I been sailing, wouldn’t have been flush with the horizon, but with 737′s. Houses were mostly roofs and mountains were rock, not trees.

I could see it was raining in Zürich, but what of it? The alps were hidden in the fluffy clouds and though it’s summer, the foothills were lined with what, from up here look like tiny Christmas trees with no lights. A farmer smoked his pipe as I passed his impossibly sloped house. He stared blankly as I wondered how he can exist in this place. I envied him for a moment but it passed, turned to admiration and then a memory. Hunger for a new horizon prodded me along. A light alpine breeze bit my teeth and the shock only made me stare harder at what was out there, to me, just peaks in the distance while it rained in Zürich.

Carol took it all in with us. Charming, like her town, she reminded me of how Paul has an unwavering good taste in friends. Good work, Boy.

The next day saw us on the road again. We stopped for lunch in Bern, another city filthy with charm. Incidentally (or perhaps relatively), where one can view the house of Albert Einstein, sit at the desk where he wrote the theory of relativity. You could argue that it’s just a desk like any other but then you’re stating an absolute, aren’t you?

We got to Geneva in time to still have a drink with Mary, a friend from the Poly days, coincidentally a member of the Regan Clan up the street. (Again, the theory of relativity says that from her perspective, there is no coincidence in this fact at all, but then, I’m the one writing this account, aren’t I?)

We collapsed that night, but the next morning went early to Chamonix, to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, a gondola station near the top of Mont Blanc, just over the border in the French Alps. Glorious views of the Swiss-Franco-Italian border surrounded us and the chill of rising 3000 meters almost vertically was thawed by the fantastic sun that decided to show up that day. Good stuff. Eventually we dropped Mary off in Geneva and headed for Lyon, the heart of southern France.

We had lost track of the calendar time for a little bit there, and were pleasantly surprised by the party the French were throwing over their rivers and ancient Roman buildings in Lyon. It’s a little celebration that puts 4th of July to shame – they call it Bastille Day…every heard of it? It was a glorious and civilized celebration and the party included everyone: 2 year-old munchkins, 15 year-old hormone glands, 25 year-old kids (us), 45 year-old kids (Dad) and respectable people (how’s that, Mom?)

We toured the Roman city but had to continue moving … south – always south. Sometimes a little west, but always south. The day was filled with tiny roads through vineyards in the south of France, mostly through places that can’t possibly have much contact with the rest of the world. We trucked it across most of France but tired when we got to Mont de Marsan, where we opted to spend the night. It was like a ghost town where the few inhabitants didn’t realize how absurd their empty town was. Have you ever seen a town completely devoid of people or open anythings at 9 in the evening when the sun hasn’t set, save for the 3 people conversing at a very lively hot dog stand? Not a light was on in the rest of the town, but those 3 were going like it was still Bastille Day. Maybe that’s relative too.

More driving in the rain the next day, but at least it got us to San Sebastian, a city that you think is filled with character and style until you start seeing the mullets and rat tails. They drink kalimotxos, a vile poisonous mix of wine and Coke, of all the goddamn things to mix with wine. A few kalimotxos into the scene, I began to lose control.

“We’ve got to get out of here before they give us all haircuts,” I told Paul. “They run with bulls, these people. Completely unpredictable. They might be coming for us any moment now.”

“Fool! Get a grip on yourself. Dad and I are bald, you shaved your head less than a week ago and Mom might not even mind.” He was probably right. In Amsterdam, she had wanted to get a tattoo on her shoulder of two armadillos with our names on them.

No matter. The city is charming despite the ridiculous haircuts. The tapas bars, or pintxos are tantalizing, but more because it’s frustrating to leave unsatisfied and head someplace else and then repeat this pattern until you’ve had enough to eat. If nothing else, though, it’s an innovative way to drag out the night, which the Spaniards and Basques do with amazing efficacy, even in pouring rain.

Speaking of Basques, the next day gave us the best of Basque Country, or Euskadia. In Gernika we saw an exhibition of Picasso’s sketches for the famous piece of the same name. Silently walking past the sketches with your hands behind your back and your mind on the edge did little to silence the terrible screams of the victims that were bombed to ruble and splinter by Hitler’s senseless trial run for future attacks. That it was done at the behest of Franco for the sake of proving a point to the Basque people is troubling at best but shows, once again how utterly futile it is to eradicate a culture. In a terrible moment of childish vengeance, two lunatics tried to do away with the cultural heart of the Basque people but it turned out that even the throngs of German Luftwaffe planes couldn’t keep up with Franco’s creepy little hand-wringing. As the painting portrays by the very fact that it exists, the two dingbats failed, and even the Tree of Gernika was replanted on it’s peaceful mound. Touching. Paul continued to guide us through the Basque coast roads until we sighted the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Pure magic, mates. Pure magic.

Swirling curves of light and titanium radiated the sunset in directions unfamiliar to my eyes – probably all eyes for all I know. Later in the dark, the sculptures that surround the place came to a still life in a monstrous sort of way that only prompted more and more pictures. In the morning we toured the inside of the absurd building that seems inside out no matter what your perspective is, and we discovered how full of meaningless ramble and self-gratifying architects can be. They’re sort of like writers, but with a budget and the attention of the crowd. Also, it’s conceivable that they drink less.

On the way out, Paul showed us around Getxo, where he’d lived, where he’d surfed and most importantly, where he drank. It was classic. The dour barkeep, even after another two years of drunken American students in Bilbao, knew that my brother liked oranges in the Heffeweissen he kept in the cellar, just for this crowd. As we strolled casually into the empty bar, he nodded at Paul. There was little dialogue. He called him by name, and remembered his friends. His receding hairline betrayed the sharp lines of his Basque face. His sailor’s chin screamed stories long since exaggerated and outdone in screaming hoots of brawls and ales. The area above his lip and below his nose, large and calloused told of the soft voice, the mumbled Euskadian language that under his breath, I mistook for a Spanish I couldn’t understand.

He walked around the bar and opened the door to a hidden cellar where he kept the Weiss bier, long since forgotten but stocked nonetheless, and then he pulled out two orange slices and served us the best goddamn white beer I’ve ever had. I felt like I had earned it, even though Paul was the one who’d done the leg work in a previous life.

With little time left and much on the calendar, we sped south towards Segovia. There were Roman and Moorish ruins to be seen and the show must always go on.

The Moorish castle on which Walt Disney based his own was what you’d expect from a castle that inspired Walt Disney, and a little disappointing when it was revealed that the whole thing had been rebuilt almost from foundation after a fire took out the whole thing in the 20 century, sometime. Takes a lot of the mystique out of a thing like that. Without the age, it’s essentially a tourist building with a pointy top.

The Roman aqueduct is something else entirely. Through stones aged thousands of years, it screams to the incompetence of medieval people who, for their dependence on religion and a mass populace sheltered from education in the name of the power of a few, could not keep a 1000 year-old marvel of engineering working another 1000 years simply by not touching it with their unworthy hands.

On the topic of worth hands, at the base of the Segovian work of Roman origin I performed a feat that, unfortunately for the posterity of humanity, was not captured on film. On my sanity, it happened as I’m about to describe.

The ridiculously-priced camera was wrapped around my wrist instead of my neck, where it should have been, and where it would have certainly perished had I been more sensible. Luckily, it wasn’t, because I’m not. I was descending the granite steps, used by so many people over so long a time.

Look: granite is tough, but lots of feet over lots of time will beat granite any day. It makes it smooth and slippery, like … well, like polished stone. My feet were already on it when it occurred to me that my sandals were smooth rubber and would not have any measurable coefficient of friction when the two surfaces came in contact. There was very little that I could do at that point in time. Hold that thought.

There is an old saying in capoeira, probably one of the oldest that says, albeit in Portuguese “Capoeira doesn’t fall, but when he falls, he falls well.” Thank god for capoeira.

As my feet escaped the ground underneath them, time slowed significantly and I felt aware of almost all 360 of the degrees around me in all three dimensions. I could see where the camera was in my hand, in what direction it was moving, and realized that I could have it avoid the ground by bringing it closer to my chest and landing on the ground with my shoulder instead as my hips began to spin, inciting my body to begin the necessary twist in midair in order to accomplish the maneuver. In what must have been a split second to observers but was several minutes for me, I had to choose between landing on one arm and the camera lens, or the maneuver I ended up choosing, which was to absorb most of the impact not absorbed by my shoulder with both my knees. It hurt, I won’t lie to you, but that only came later, after the adrenaline rush of landing on my knees with the $1500 camera intact, held up in the air like hunted game out of season. My entire volume of blood congealed and thinned in a matter of microseconds, but when I looked at Paul’s face when I was done with my miracle, I couldn’t tell if he was worried, stupefied or simply amazed.

Later he told me he was very amazed and a little stupefied, but not all that worried, which is fine with me. When time came back to normal for me, I let it soak in and dealt with the pain like a man, allowing the night to continue. In the morning we headed to Avila for a family moment that, because of the city’s inherent touristy nature, existed largely in our heads. Oh well, dammit, we tried. And besides, where else are family moments actually had?

By the time we had made it to Madrid, finding our last hotel for the trip became the one and only preoccupation of the moment. We had found the ad for the hotel in a Best Western magazine that looked defunct but in the European summer, anything you can get is lucky, I suppose. On the lookout for the right roads to take in the complicated mess of asphalt that is Madrid, we kept hoping that it came sooner than later. In the distance lay spread a dusty expanse that harbored the airport and beyond, worse.

The outskirts of Madrid, a cross between East L.A., Reno, and Las Vegas on a hazy day is not much of a place to be, much like the aforementioned places. We drove right past Madrid, passed the Barajas Airport and into the Spanish version of Vallejo known as Torrejon. That the streets are paved in Torrejon was a surprise to us, as we pulled off the freeway and into the slumish sort of growth. You could tell the paving was recent, since they haven’t yet put the equipment away. There was dust everywhere on that hot plain. I could easily have been in Brazil or Mexico. More like Mexico. As we pulled into what turned out to be the hotel’s front lot, a truck’s engine was idling somewhere. We realized that we’d found the hotel we’d just spent the last hour searching for and it sat behind a gas station.

A fucking gas station. On the periphery of Madrid. Shady and dusty as any Lovelock, Nevada, which is another place you don’t want to find yourself having to sleep in.

It was a four star hotel, but only according to the plaque on the front of the building. I wasn’t expecting this when Mom had read to us from the guide book, “A comfortable place, ten minutes from the airport.” It didn’t mention it was behind a gas station in the dust bowl of Spain. Our long trip was almost done and we were sitting behind a gas station. Not expected. Not expected at all. But ultimately, fine because that’s how we roll, and more importantly, that’s how we roll together.

Like most of the trip, I guess. The humidity was picking up in the dark and the stars could no longer be seen. A storm was coming, this I knew, but was there any avoiding it?

The next morning I stood at the crowded Barajas terminal in Madrid, waving stupidly at them as they were in line to board their flight home, the flight I would not catch with them. I had always told myself I wouldn’t do this. Feel it, maybe, but not actually sit there like a fool, waving pointlessly at people to whom you’d already given your goodbyes, prolonging the unnecessary pain and still managing to look like an idiot. I felt six again, at the steps of my first grade class, only I was the one watching them on in. This time, I’d stay behind.

They are my family and for all we do together, it’s never enough. I am because of them.

The cool thing to do would’ve been to turn around and go. The goodbye had been said and lingering was pointless – selfish at best. I should’ve just turned around or backed up into the crowd and proceed to tackling the world in front of me. But I felt I wasn’t that strong. I needed more time. And meanwhile, I was all choked up, keeping my distance so that they wouldn’t see the tears I tried to hold back with little success. Slowly, the crowd between us thickened; I got a nod from my brother, and understood. It was time to do what I had to do.

I said goodbye again, almost to myself, backed up into the crowd and moved on to the next thing that needed doing.

Barajas Terminal 1, Gate C46 — Madrid, Spain

Pedro Ávila Pedro Ávila

For a reasonably sane & productive member of society (arguable, but let’s not complicate things), I’m far too mobile and unrooted. I travel quite a bit for a job that is simultaneously my greatest privilege and my worst burden.

So I write. And I write. Travel pieces, political journalism (a stretch from ranting but, still), short stories, poetry and other such riff-raff. I contribute to a handful of publications and will probably just keep going until something gives out, or someone gives in.


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Of smiles and roars