Wednesday, January 19, 2011

End of an Era, Redux...

Sotogrande, Spain, January 19th, 2011
I went back to my past, today. At least... I tried.

My stepfather died, in mid-December, approximately 16 months after my mother passed. A few weeks ago, I wrote in my journal that it was “the end of an era.” I am not entirely sure what that means… but when I went back to look for the house where we lived when I was a teenager, I was not only trying to recover something “lost,” I was also leaving something no longer needed behind.

I lived my teenage years in the south of Spain, growing up in a huge enclave where retired Europeans would come to live out their lives with sun, sea and golf. No, it was not exactly a "normal" teenagehood. In some ways, it was the death of my chance to be a "normal" teenager.

Moving to Spain, back then, was the end of something. The end of my hope for having some semblance of a "normal" closure to my childhood. We had already done the "global nomad" thing when I was younger, but when my parents separated (when I was about 10) my mom and I started living a somewhat normal life, in a normal neighborhood, with normal kids as my friends while I went to a normal school. I felt a sense of... hope... that I might still experience the life it seemed to me most other kids were experiencing.

Moving to Spain killed that. I remember sitting in my window, in March, watching the snow melt... in suppose, in tune with my dreams of "normalcy" melting. I remember watching the last things getting loaded onto the moving truck in June... with an inner sigh at the sense that my 12-year old soul would never have a resting place.

When I look back on those moments with the benefit of almost 40 years of hindsight, I see now that I "stopped caring" about life at the tender age of 12. Nothing seemed to have meaning, anymore. Some part of me had resigned itself to the idea that life never turns out the way you want, so I started simply "marking time" till my death. Maybe that sounds overly dramatic... but it was really just a reflection of my belief that if anything good comes your way, it will just be taken away from you, so the only "reasonable" approach to life is "not caring." About people, places, activities, interests and whatever.

So a few days ago, Sarah and I drove up the old main road from Sotogrande to Nueva Andalucia—a stretch of some 40 miles along the Spanish Mediterranean coast, near Gibraltar. We traveled what used to be the main highway; these days it largely serves as a “local access” road for various coastal towns now bypassed by a major freeway.

As we went, I looked for signs. Signs of anything familiar; anything that would remind me of times of old… of times that might offer me a sense that—once upon a time—this was “home,” in a way. Part of me wanted to be able to say “Yes, I belonged here…” perhaps to somehow validate the 7+ years I spent in this foreign land where I "lost" my childhood. But almost nothing looked familiar.

A small stretch of beach, in a cove. I recognized it as a place I'd sometimes go fishing, although it is now ringed by endless rows of largely empty condominiums. Like the condos, the beach was empty. A row of tattered flags suggested... neglect; something forgotten.


When I lived here, I felt empty.

35-odd years later, this place feels empty.

The economic crisis and the real estate decline has hit this part of Spain very hard. The unemployment rate hovers around the 20% mark… if you’re under 30, it’s closer to 40%. If you want to put a frame of reference around that, during the depths of the Great Depression, unemployment reached 25%.

Everywhere you look, there are blocks and blocks of condominiums; thousands of houses… and most of them stand empty. Either, they were never sold in the first place, are currently for sale, or they are owned by someone who only uses them only for a month a year. It leaves you with the impression that you are driving through a ghost town; a cemetery; necropolis.
As we drive along, I recognize so little. Where there once were views of the Mediterranean, there are now views of yet more developments. But there are no people there…

I point to a mountain, off to our left.

I used to hike up there, from time to time,” I say, “It was as if the air up there was not as thick and oppressive.

The air here does feel thick and oppressive… these days, it is laden with the scent of desperation and depression. Those who work are grateful they have a job. Luis-- the security guard at my parents' apartment complex-- has been the security guard there for 35 years. He shrugs and tells me that there used to be four of them, now there are only two, then adds "That's life." But there is something else about the air here… it just feels “heavy,” and it makes me feel slow. It did, back then, too.

As we enter the outskirts of the town of Estepona, I point to a hillock I barely recognize… “For a while we went to school here, in some apartments that weren’t being used.” I realize that I only know where I am because I am visualizing the curves in the road, without the buildings...

School was an odd experience, in this “Bubble Land.”

Although we were living in Spain, we really didn’t live IN Spain. A small group of some 100-odd non-Spanish kids gathered from the swank developments built for retired foreigners and were taught under the English school system. Sure, we learned Spanish, but we had little contact with Spain.

As we pass, the site that once was The English School in Estepona, I wonder at the way you no longer can see the sea. More empty apartment buildings. More luxury hotels that show the marks of decline; peeling stucco walls and tattered flags flying out front. And a mostly empty parking lot. Maybe seven guests are staying in the three hundred rooms.

The contours of the mountains look right. Or, at least, familiar.

The bus at a bus stop still has the word "Portillo" on the side... the same company that ran the public bus system, 35 years ago.

“That used to be a really good restaurant;” I point to a building at the side of the highway, trying to remember the rich flavor of their leg of lamb… but I can’t. I also can’t remember the name of the restaurant—just that the proprietors were a flamboyant Belgian chef and his French-Moroccan wife. I played golf with him, from time to time. Now the building is a sales office for yet another development.

It’s only because I am looking for it that I remember the familiar left-right bend in the road—the surroundings are so vastly different from how they looked, in 1975. The exception is a small stretch where the highway crosses the golf course, and the view to the left is much as it used to be, because the land there had already been fully used. Guadalmina was one of the very first large-scale developments on this part of the coast… and that’s where we lived.

Finding the turnoff presents a challenge—you can turn right, but there is no way to turn left. I find it amusing that they were working on the highway by-pass when I visited my parents more than 20 years ago, and certain parts look like they were just barricaded off, back then, and the project appears more or less left stagnant. The people who now live in our old neighborhood must simply put up with the fact that it’s almost impossible to make a left turn to the “mountain” side of the development… and have been putting up with it, for all these years.

Part of me reflects on the fact that this place is where I learned to "put up with" life. I feel sad at the recognition that "putting up with" reflects my primary philosophy for living since 1973.

Eventually, we manage to find the right series of turns…

As I walked to the school bus in the mornings, I would loop around the 4th green of the local golf course and be able to see if anyone else was waiting for the bus. Usually, nobody was; on most days, I was the only person to be picked up from our development. As we drive the 4th green loop 35 years later, all I can see are houses, apartments and a strip mall.

Our house was on the first fairway, facing the golf course. The huge old eucalyptus trees still grow by the first green. I can’t tell where the house is, exactly, but I can see the two palm trees that stood in our back yard. As we drive around towards what was once our driveway, I miss the house, however. It has been painted yellow (instead of the original white), and the current owners have built a tall wall around it. It is not until we back up and I find the number “495” on the wall that I realize where I am. The palm tree that once stood outside my room is now gone.

Nothing is the same. And yet… everything is.

The aging people passing by on the golf course are the same; the sense of quiet heaviness of a place where the houses are only occupied a few months of the year remains as it always was; the black iron burglar bars on the windows of every house remain the same.

This place was “too old” for me when I was 14; it remains “too old” for me, even at 50. For a moment I think to pause and yell at my mother: “What were you THINKING, to bring a teenager to this place to raise???”

We stop. We stand under the eucalyptus trees by the first green. I feel no echoes of the past reaching out to me. There’s a chain link fence at the edge of the golf course, now. A sign reads “Private Golf Club. No Admittance.”

I consider going back to the car to get my camera. To take a picture… but who would I show it to? The people I once knew here were my parents’ age, and they are long gone. So would the photo be for me? For what? What would it show? What would I be trying to record? What would I be trying to "keep," and why? I realize there is nothing here for me… except the chance to say goodbye to a part of my life I don’t have very many fond memories of.

We stand, for a while. I touch the trunk of one of the trees. It was here, when I lived here. But even it doesn’t feel familiar.

And so, we drive away.

35 years ago I had recurring dreams of walking back towards the house, while a group of people would walk away, in the opposite direction. I am not sure who they were—maybe they were my hopes and dreams of having an “ordinary” life, maybe they were merely imaginary friends created by my teenage soul to keep me company in this hauntingly desolate place. But I would always feel a great sense of loss and sadness, as they walked away, leaving me behind.

As we head back towards the highway, I grow aware that I have “retrieved myself,” and in the process left “something” behind that I clung to—for years and years—even though I no longer needed it. The people who "stole" my childhood are dead. The unrealistic possibility that they could somehow "bring it back" to me has gone... forever. The final threads tying me to a way I once believed my life might turn out have been cut.

This time it is finally I who get to walk away, and the “something” that gets to be left behind… and a long unfinished chapter in my personal Book of Life can be closed… and maybe I can find a way to start something new.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

End of an Era

Soon, Sarah and I head off to the south of Spain.

Whereas that may sound like a lovely thing to do, here during a dark and damp northern winter... this will be-- sadly-- not a vacation or joy ride.

I lived in Spain, when I was a kid. Well, when I was a teenager. After my parents divorced (in Denmark), I moved with my mom to the small town of San Pedro de Alcantara on Spain's Costa del Sol, where we went to live with the new man in her life. In some ways, I'd have to say that I "grew up there," although my life from the time we left Denmark through age 20 involved quite a lot of moving around.

On December 16th, the man I came to know as my stepfather died, at age 92. In some ways, it was surprising that he outlived my mother (who passed in August 2009), but in other ways it seemed like a fitting tribute to his determination to "do his duty," which included taking care of my mom during her latter years.

He was a quiet and frugal man who-- as much as anything-- just wanted people and the world to just leave him alone. Mostly, I shall remember him sitting in his chair with the newspaper, or reading a book. Or eternally muttering at the orange and white cat he took care of, even while constantly complaining about what a "nuisance" it was, and how much he disliked cats.

In that strange way the Universe works, the (by then) ancient cat died just two days after my stepdad, almost as if it realized that its mission in this lifetime had been completed...

And so... I shall return to this strange place where I spent my formative years, this time not to "visit the parents," but to empty and close down the apartment in a place called Sotogrande, which he and my mother shared since the early 1980's, when they sold their large villa and started dividing their time between Spain and Phoenix, AZ.

Once upon a time, I lived in that same apartment complex... back in 1979, the apartments were "inexpensive housing," far away from everything, and it was my first place to live away from home. Back then, the development was new, and it was a little like living in a ghost town: only about 5-6 of the 100+ units were occupied. Somehow... it suited me; I sought solitude in a world I felt terribly out-of-step with... I could go for days and even weeks without seeing or talking to another person, aside from at the grocery or market.

Although I have been back for visits many times, I almost don't recognize the area, anymore. I can find little "pockets" here and there-- the beach I used to walk; a certain view of the rock of Gibraltar from a hillside; the sun on the mountains whose contours seem familiar-- but on the whole, the world seems to have become an increasingly homogenous cluster of strip malls and supermarkets. Perhaps it serves as a reminder that we can never "go back" in life, only forwards.

I expect it may be the last time I set foot in this part of the world... there is no reason to return, save for a few ghosts from times I'd rather forget. No relatives, no friends, no connections, nothing familiar or comforting. Maybe that sounds a bit "dark," but I have spent far too much of my life clinging to the pain of difficult times gone by. Sometimes we hang onto old things (memories, places, people, events) for no other reason than they are "familiar," and there's a measure of "comfort" to be found in sitting inside an uncomfortable and painful familiarity, rather than facing the uncertainty of walking through a doorway to an uncertain future and truly closing a chapter behind us.

Helen Keller once wrote (although this is sometimes attributed to Alexander Graham Bell):

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

An era has quietly come to a close. In a way, I am going to say my goodbyes to this place I have somehow been "part of." Then I shall quietly walk away and blend back into the crowd... leaving behind whatever ghosts may reside there; it's where they belong...

And if I ever return, it will be as a tourist... not as someone connected to the local scene.

And that's OK.
It's time...