April 9, 1998

1:20 p.m. at home
7:30 p.m. in Spain

The train we are traveling on from Madrid to Bilbao, in the Basque region of Spain, has stopped to change engines at a town call Mirando de Ebro. It's my first trip on a European train, so everything pleases me, even the grilled ham and cheese on white bread with Coca-Cola light that was the best choice in the "cafeteria" for late lunch.

Several passengers, all of them men, have gone out to stretch; others are smoking between the cars.

Traveling by bus or train and going to a bus or train station is said to be a good way to get to know a foreign country. Consider this:

On Saturday we had a late-afternoon meal in the old Madrid train station, a traditional glass and ironwork building about five stories high that now contains a simple botanical garden with 70-foot-tall palms. It is warmer inside than out and plants and humans alike are constantly misted - a boon for travelers.

We had spent several hours earlier in the day at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, particularly to see "Guernica" and a wonderful retrospective of work by Esteban Vicente, the much-honored New York School painter who is of Spanish origin and now lives in Bridgehampton.

Refreshed after lunch, we went to a new part of the station to buy tickets for the trip to Bilbao two days later, having been advised that it would be a good idea to book early, especially during Holy Week.

The system seemed a good one. You take a number from a dispenser (like Zabar's) and wait for it to show digitally above one of the ticket windows. The only problem was that the numbers being served when we arrived were 52 to 54. It was about 5 p.m. (17:00), and we drew 371.

When Chris and I travel, we have a lot of working things out to do. We sat among the palms and flowering peace lilies reading our travel literature and trying to make a practical itinerary for visiting Bilbao, with its new Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry, and San Sebastian, which is on the Bay of Biscay near the French border, as well as Segovia and Toledo, in the nine days that were still ahead.

The sky turned dark blue and we realized it was 8:30 p.m. (20:30). Confirming that we were not making some kind of terrible mistake about the procedures, we consoled ourselves with the fact that Madrid stays awake all night.

Spain seems to be on permanent daylight saving time. It grew dark at about 9 p.m. (21:00). Our number finally came up at 10 (22). The only trouble was that Chris, whose high-school-prize Spanish was serving us in good stead, had gone off to the men's room.

Not wanting to risk losing our place in line after a five-hour wait, I tried to make myself understood in English despite the fact that the glass between me and the ticket clerk was three inches thick and the opening in it well above my head. It was no use. From the clerk, I only got an arm and fist raised with a thumb thrust back over the shoulder, as if he were trying to tell me to go to the back of the line or perhaps to go around behind him, which was impossible. I stepped aside.

No one seemed to mind our cutting back into the line when Chris got back, and, after one false start, and the ticket clerk's actually pulling down a shade to close for the night, we made what we hoped would be suitable round-trip reservations.

It was almost 11 (23:00) when we met our new friend Alfred under the clock tower at the Puerta del Sol in the old center of Madrid, where a stone marks the zero kilometer from which all roads radiate, for an obligatory meander into some tapas bars.

As I write, we are now only two-thirds of the way into the first leg of our train trip. We are booked (we think) on a sleeper back to Madrid in two nights.

Now that may be an adventure.