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Madrid & The Atocha Station Memorial

I went to Spain at the end of last summer, spending most of the time in Madrid, a fabulous city despite patches of air pollution. There's a large park, Retiro, comparable to Golden Gate Park with gardens, statues, artists and musicians. Madrilenos in large numbers enjoy themselves in Retiro on weekends. There's a statue located in it that doubles as a library lending shelf where people leave books and borrow books. Culture is an important social asset, more than the incidental sideshow it seems in this country. One thing that surprised me was that the larger banks in Madrid have art galleries inside them. I went into one that was showing a photo exhibit of the ways in which the Soviet Union improved its industrial infrastructure after the communist revolution, something probably not to be seen here, and surely not sponsored by a large bank in its business location.

Spain has had a socialist government until the selection of November 2011 which they lost to the conservatives and maybe this influenced the cultural leanings of Spanish life. My host thought it may have, but faulted her local village Communist mayor for not planting flowers in the plaza flower boxes — the Communists think that's a waste of money apparently. With the handicap of the non-Spanish speaker and limited by time, I toured the sites and came to see some nuances of this civilized country — the old world does some things better and smarter than we in the wild and woolly United States.

The Museo National del Prado had outstanding works by Italian and Flemish masters, and the Goyas and El Grecos that you see in your art books. The anthropology museum in Madrid had a global peoples-of-the-world Expo. My host then took me about 25 miles north of Madrid to the huge rectangular living complex built by the enthroned King and from which a large part of the then known world was ruled. Since I don't speak Spanish and don't collect tourist flyers I lost some details, but this is a trip to make. On display there is the crude wooden chair in which servants carried the King down into Madrid when he had pressing business there; it looked damned uncomfortable, no matter how many pillows the servants might have placed under the Royal bum, and it took seven days to make the trip. A King's work wasn't for sissies back then. The brick El Escorial complex is huge and it must have cost an enormous sum to build and maintain. We went walking up steps and down steps into areas that looked untouched since the days the place was lived in. Interesting to see were displays of the tools used for agriculture, cooking, for keeping animals and manufacturing the other goods used in the complex. Eventually we descended large marble stairs into a mausoleum where the royals were all entombed, including babies and children. Supposedly the buildings of the complex were erected directly over the entrance to hell. The mausoleum, cold and filled with strange unfriendly vibes, made me believe this might be. I wanted to pull out one of the containers to see what was really in it. Sawdust? Mummies? Royal bones? Little demons? I'm still thinking about those tombs and the corpses in them; El Escorial was one of the places that made me regret my linguistic and historical inadequacy.

The Atocha Station Memorial in Madrid, on the other hand, conveyed its most important points perfectly, although somewhat on a non-linguistic level, and it made me understand how Europe may be distinguished from the United States. It's got gravitas, it's accepted the wisdom in a philosophical approach, maybe it's more grown up. This was demonstrated to me first by a multi-located exposition on street corners in downtown Madrid of 4x4 photos of Down's Syndrome individuals telling of their hopes and dreams in the most dignified way. The manner in which it was set up meant everyone passing had to view it. I've never seen something like it in the United States; here we insist on our categories in art, ones that constrain subject matter (unless it can be in-your-face shocking). Then my host and I visited the Atocha train station. On March 11, 2004, elements of Al Qaeda bombed the Madrid station, killing 191 people on site along with a special agent who died in the process of arresting the perpetrators. The bombed building was restored and a 4000 square meter covered tropical garden was installed. One looks up at giant leaf plants and down into a pond with turtles. It brings to mind a Hawaiian botannical garden or Jurassic Park; it speaks of life forces and the natural world of green growth.

After the June 4 bombing a special memorial was dedicated that consists of a huge luminous cylinder running from the underground level up to ground. Around the inside of the cylinder are reproduced horizontally a text reproduction of the messages of commiseration that had been left on the bombing site in all languages. As the light changes throughout the day different sections of the concave walls are highlighted. “Wir fuehlen mit euch!” and “It's beyond the human mind to understand it,” and, “Lo siento” (I'm sorry) were a few I noted. The honesty and simplicity of the memorial expresses solidarity in a most elegant way, and sadness, and prompts philosophical consideration while it says nothing directly about aggression or violence. But it places its statement solidly in the path of murderous aggression. Looking up at the walls I found myself wondering how someone might think bombing a train station and murdering citizens randomly could be a means of political communication. It shows a psychology so childishly destructive and purposeless as to be labeled the work of stupid beasts, I thought, or overmedicated insects. In a strange way I'm not sure I can even explain, I found the Atocha Station Memorial one of the most moving things I've ever encountered. It has soul, perhaps the souls of those who died there, and of those who shared intense emotions of compassion in their messages? It is so much more difficult and requiring of intricate hard work to build something, to imagine, and to produce such a monument than it is to blow something up. The Atocha Station Memorial shows such restraint, logic, balance of emotion and thought and aesthetic intelligence that it shouts out by its very existence the difference between civilization and a mind-hollowed savagery. It made me proud, it speaks of a future.

As a 60s kind of person I think how naive those times seem now. Sure, the United States produced the Weather Underground and they blew things up. But not too many people thought that was a good political statement back then. And the Weather Underground bombers did not think that God told them to do it.

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