End of term challenges
By Parson Thru
Thursday. Two of my students took me for a surprise breakfast this morning, for the last class of the academic year. It’s an important time in business here: time to round-off current initiatives and finalise plans – time to contemplate the summer’s rest and recuperation.
Maybe we’ll see each other again in September, maybe we won’t. Ojala, que vamos a.
We talked about the King and Queen of Spain’s visit to the UK. We talked about lots of things.
They said I’m retired. That I left my career and now I have time.
“Si.” I reminded them, “Pero no tengo dinero.”
That’s it, really. It seems you can have time or money, but not both. Not for me anyway.
I reminded them that it was hard work getting here.
“Yes.” they countered, “but now you have unlocked the door.”
They have a point. I’ve been here almost two years – teaching for eighteen months.
Yesterday, I finally took Jose’s advice and went to Cercedilla, up in the Sierras. I took the bus from Moncloa for five euros. It’s about an hour’s ride.
I’d done my research over breakfast and tried to remember what Jose had told me almost a year before. There’s an initial walk from the bus stop up Valle de la Fuenfria to the information centre, where you can pick up a map of the trails. It’s about two and a half kilometres up hill.
Standing where the bus dropped me off outside Cercedilla station, the directions seemed less clear. I had an idea it might be across the road and up a steep track, but everything looks different when you’re actually on the spot. I remembered a line on the map following the road out of town, then looping around to the information centre. It looked gentler. Thinking of the noon heat and my foot, I took the road.
My left foot has some kind of injury, probably sustained running for a bus carrying my ridiculously heavy teaching bag. I need it to heal. I’m planning to walk the Camino de Santiago from Porto to Santiago from next week. I thought a short mountain trail would be a good test to see whether it’s worth making the trip.
The road soon got pretty steep and the sun beat down. It’s a while since I’ve done any walking and I was wilting almost straight away. I kept going.
It felt like I’d walked a good distance, but there was no sign of the place. I began to lose trust in memory and judgement. A couple of times, I paused under trees to drink water. After a while, the road flattened a little and the terrain opened out. There was a restaurant opposite with a makeshift car park. People were arriving for lunch.
I stood in the car park in the shade of a tree and ate a Mars Bar.
It was 12 July – my brother’s birthday. I rang my mam. She was in pretty good spirits. She talked about her sister, the last of my maternal aunts, who’s eighty-six and been sick for months. She’s bed-ridden now.
My mam had gone next-door to visit her the day before and told me that she’s weaker; that her memory is failing. At least she recognised her, but she keeps asking how my dad is.
When we spoke about how my mam is, herself, she told me she’d cancelled her hair appointment because of hay fever. The hay fever seems permanent – probably a reaction to all the drugs she’s taking, or a symptom of the condition.
I’ll be visiting her in three weeks. She told me three weeks is a long time.
We gave each other our love and finished the call. She never mentioned David’s birthday. I didn’t raise it – she’s got enough on her plate.
Choosing to stay in the shade a while longer, I ate some crisps and drank some more water. A group of young girls passed, heading up the hill. An older couple walked back towards the village. There was no one else.
I’d lost faith in my directions and decided to walk back to the village – either find the other route, or call the whole thing off and go for a beer and something to eat. Maybe my walking days are over.
I set off down the hill, feeling the ache in my foot with each step. Downhill is harder on the body. After fifteen minutes or so, I saw a bus stop with a seat under a shade tree. I sat down to rest.
I thought about a lot of things: the injury and my lack of fitness; my aunt; my mother’s situation and the possibility I might have to give this life up and go back; the end of free movement. I thought about the forest trails up the hill that I’d set out to walk.
There was a sign opposite bearing the name of the road: Carretera de las Dehesas. I connected my phone to GPS and found where I was on Google Maps.
Carretera de las Dehesas wasn’t Plan B at all, it was Plan A. It was the path I should have been on all the time. I finished the crisps I’d opened earlier and drank some more of the water. A grey-haired man walked past heading away from Cercedilla.
I thought back to the old job. What would I have done in a situation like this?
I could give up. Walk back to the village and get drunk. Easy. Maybe give up on the dream of living and working in Madrid, too. I often mentally rehearse conversations about this selfish existence. If I did go back, at my age, it would be hard to find a decent job – particularly where my mother lives.
Difficulties. Problems. At work, we called them challenges. It sounded more positive. I was always slightly cynical about that.
The grey-haired man had vanished around a corner and on up the hill. I drank another mouthful of water.
It occurred to me that if I was to walk back down that hill, it would be the end of something.
There and then, I decided I had to follow my objectives, working with whatever challenges might come: acknowledging the pain in my foot, nursing it along, but keeping going; making whatever arrangements I need with the school to spend time with my mam whenever necessary. Living there permanently wouldn’t work. We’ve talked about it. She told me to carry on, just as her mother told her to. If I ever find myself in the same position, I need to remember their generosity.
I have to finish what I've started. Work with every challenge, but keep going.
I loosened my left shoe, slung the rucksack on my shoulder and started back up the hill. It took longer than I expected to regain the ground I’d lost. There was no sign of the grey-haired man.
Ten or fifteen minutes beyond the tree in the car park, I saw a Comunidad de Madrid noticeboard showing the route to Santiago de Compostela from Madrid. I was on the Camino. Sure enough there was a milestone close by bearing the scallop shell and the distance to Santiago: 605 kilometres. I took some photos to send to N. Further along, there was a painted yellow arrow on a stone.
A little later, I was distracted by what sounded like a violent argument. A man and a woman were standing by their car in a picnic area with a small child looking on. I almost walked right past the information centre. I couldn’t believe I’d reached it so soon. It looked closed, but there was a sign directing visitors to a window.
A young man came to the window. I asked him for a route-map. He tore one from a thick pad and gave it to me, asking where I was from. He told me it was for the official record.
“De Madrid.” I answered, softening the “d” almost to nothing. “Antes, Inglaterra.”
He showed me the walking routes.
It occurred to me to send N a WhatApp to tell her where I was. She rang back straight away and we chatted. I told her what had happened walking up the hill. Her response reminded me why we are so strong together, even though we follow our separate paths.
I chose one of the forest trails from the map. The route hugged almost the same contour for four kilometres through pine woods. Better for my foot. A group of schoolchildren were coming the other way with their teachers as I set off. One of the teachers had a water-pistol for cooling the kids. She gave me a refreshing squirt as she passed, giggling.
From there on, I was in the forest alone. There wasn’t a soul. I kept stopping to look around me. The pines smelled fresh, even in the heat.
Walking above a small valley, I heard a grunt among the trees. There was nothing to see, so I carried on. A chestnut horse strode up the bank and out into the path. Moments later, a beautiful grey joined it. They were standing right in the middle of the trail in a patch of sunlight.
I wondered how I’d get past them, but waited and took some photos. They were side-by-side, tails swishing, muzzling each other as they lapped water from a small stream. They started along the path, the chestnut leading. I followed them at my own pace, watching them up ahead for a while, but within a few hundred metres they’d vanished into the woods like ghosts.
The final section of the route was along a steep lane into Cercedilla. I couldn’t work out where the centre of the village was, so I checked on Google Maps, sitting in a park.
As I walked along a narrow street, the 684 bus from Madrid passed me and pulled up to let passengers off. I asked if I could get on. The driver told me the pick-up was around the corner to the left. I walked on and found it. Buses were every half hour – the next was at six o’clock.
I spotted the main square and found a table under an umbrella. The camarero told me the kitchen was closed, so I had a cold beer and moved on.
Back opposite the bus stop was a small bar called “Esquina” – “Corner”. It looked basic and honest. There were a couple of old men sitting in the sun, chatting with a younger woman. I stood at the small serving window. The woman walked inside. I asked if there was food. She told me they only served tapas with drinks. I ordered a beer and she gave me a plate of jamon on sliced bread.
After a while, one of the men left; the other soon after. The camarera stayed at the table and we chatted. She spoke quickly, but I could just about follow.
I didn’t see the six o’clock bus pass. I ordered another beer. Four more slices of bread and ham came with it. The next bus was six-thirty.
The camarera asked where I was from and I told her. She told me she was from Romania, which amazed me. She spoke like a local. She told me she’d been living in Spain for fifteen years. I asked if she was from Bucharest and she told me she was from a town in the north. She said it was like Cercedilla.
Thinking about my mother and my family, I asked her if she visited Romania much. She told me she went home four years ago. That was the last time. I told her my mother was on her own and was eighty-two. She replied that her mother and father were younger. He was in his sixties and she was fifty-four. I joked that her mother was a year younger than me.
The noise of bar shutters opening across the road distracted me and I saw it was twenty-five past six.
The camarera went over to the other bar to chat. It seemed a good time to leave. I drank up, grabbed my bag and left. As I passed the window, she was inside waving goodbye. I gave her a grin and waved back.
My foot was stiff and painful walking to the bus stop.
These are the challenges.