Over the years, most of my Spanish friends have pointed out that I’m an odd Norteamericano. Aren’t you supposed to be ignorant of history, Miguel, like your compatriots, and care only about the future? Here in Spain you seem to feel right at home in rundown, backward places where nobody goes and everyone has forgotten. What’s so attractive about our ruins, anyway?
I’ve never found an answer. But sometimes a special memory comes to mind from years ago, in Madrid, when I used to explore Malasaña, a decrepit old barrio where nobody went and the 20th century seemed to have left behind. This was before trendy bars and restaurants arrived, before tattoo parlors, beauty salons and chic art galleries transformed the neighborhood. To my foreign eyes and ears, Malasaña seemed quiet. (I mean relatively quiet, in the sense that nowhere in Spain ever seems truly quiet.) During those October afternoons, I loved to wander the streets and to draw. A few trees were beginning to turn color and shed their leaves. The days were getting shorter and colder. Birds of the barrio were preparing for their winter flights to the warmth of Africa, and I was making my own plans to fly back to a winter on the other side of the world.
In the days that remained before leaving Spain, I was trying—and mostly failing—to paint twilight with my watercolors. Almost every afternoon, as daylight dozed off to sleep and streetlights began to wake up, an elderly lady and her little black dog would appear. I made two pencil sketches of them in my book. Then a few days later, I was painting on la Calle Espíritu Santo and heard a croaky voice from the street behind me calling, “Tigre, Tigre, vamos Tigre.” In a moment, the elderly woman hobbled around the corner, her dog following. They stopped at my side. The dog sniffed my boots and sketchbook and allowed me to pet it as the woman examined my watercolor. “His name is Tigre?” I asked. “No. Her name is Tigre,” she replied.
“She’s around fourteen years old. She appears to like you.” I appreciated the woman’s sense of humor. Tigre seemed gentle and could not have weighed more than 3 kilos, so there was little mystery about why she had been given her name. The woman sympathized with my difficulties in painting light, so I showed her the two pencil sketches. “I’m going to paint the scene of this street corner on a canvas, with oils. Would you mind if I included you and Tigre in the composition?” She looked at me square in the eyes. “Would you mind buying me a sandwich?”
We ate our sandwiches and shared a bottle of red wine in a bar down the street. Tigre curled up under the table. The woman told me her name was Liesel and said that I spoke Spanish well. “Are you Italian?” she wondered. I laughed and told her I lived a divided life, a divided heart, partly in California, partly in Spain. I had stayed with friends in Valencia for several months and was spending a few days in Madrid on my way home. But I wanted to talk about her, not about me. “Liesel does not sound to me like a Spanish name.”
“It’s not. I’m German, from Munich. I came to Spain many years ago from France. We lived there, my mother and I, in exile. I was a young girl when we escaped from the Nazis. We found refuge in Narbonne. Have you ever been there?”
“In southern France, yes. In Narbonne, no. How did you come to live in Spain?”
“My future husband, Juanjo, was an exile too, in Narbonne. From the Civil War in Spain. His parents were communists; so was my mother. They were Catholics, we were Jews. Juanjo and I were about the same age, so we grew up together. We shared our childhood in an alien land and we shared hunger. Think of the irony: a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl, both of us children of revolutionaries. By the time we got married, we were both atheists.”
I thought that was funny and felt it was safe to tease her. “How about Tigre? Is she an atheist too?”
“Oh my, yes. Thank god.”
She continued her story. “Many Germans live in Spain, you know. They come here to escape the brutal winters of the North. During the Franco dictatorship, many Spaniards moved to Germany looking for jobs. A useful exchange, I think. But Germans and Spaniards have historically been allies anyway. Because of our common enemy.”
“Your common enemy?”
“Why, the French. Of course.”
I wanted to learn more from her, but Tigre tugged on the leash. “A few weeks before Juanjo died, we found her on the street. A little puppy, abandoned. We loved her very much and she’s been a wonderful companion now that I’m alone. Except that she was not much help to us in organizing the workers. “
We talked awhile longer, but Tigre insisted. I thanked Liesel for chatting with me and she thanked me for our snack. We embraced and said goodbye in front of the bar. It was too dark to draw or to paint on the street, so I returned to my hostal and transformed one of the pencil sketches into the watercolor that appears at the beginning of this post.
Here’s an image of the finished painting. It’s more successful than the watercolors in depicting a twilight in Madrid. But my fondest memory of those days, even more poignant than the light, is my much too brief encounter with Liesel and her Tigre.