A man on a horse, Plaza Mayor.
There was no rain in Spain on my recent trip, just dry, cool days with intermittent sunshine and lots of personal warmth. I hung out in Madrid a few weekends ago with a good buddy of mine from Bogotá, Roberto, who was in the Spanish capital studying and performing in a stage play. My only other time in Madrid had been en route to Cape Verde back in 2004—a short, 2-day stopover spent mostly scouring the city for Brazilian parties—so this time, it was all about seeing the sights.
Like most of Europe’s former imperial capitals, Madrid has the palaces, the museums, the landscaped gardens. Unlike other capitals (with the exception of Lisbon), Madrid has a flavor and atmosphere transmitted relatively intact to many of its former colonial holdings in Latin America, while itself being transformed and influenced by the millions of Latin American immigrants who have recolonized the metropolis—after living in or visiting Santo Domingo, Bogotá, Quito, Havana, Cartagena, San Juan, and Mexico City, just to name a scant few, I was on familiar territory amongst Madrid’s cobblestone alleyways, arched colonnades, and Arab-inspired interior courtyards.
The sunny side of the street (both).
After a short and restless hop from the States aboard a United Airlines flight actually operated by Aer Lingus (the national airline of Ireland, clover on the tail and all), I got to Spain* tired, but excited about the weekend in a fun city with fun people and having the opportunity to again speak Spanish in a Spanish-speaking society, something I haven’t done since leaving Colombia in 2009 (and Miami still doesn’t count as a Spanish-speaking society).
A 30-minute subway ride later, I had a sparse Iberian breakfast of coffee and a churrito (fried dough stick) before meeting up with my buddy and his stage mates at the cool little garage theater—Garaje Lumière, it was called—near the historic district of La Latina, where I’d be crashing with one of the actresses in the play. After greetings and introductions, I sat at the main entrance of the theater reading and fighting sleep while my friends rehearsed for that night’s opening performance. I tried to make it through until at least nightfall, but after lunch, I crashed, waking up every few hours to work or read. So much for sight-seeing on that first day.
The facade of my temporary digs.
I didn’t awaken until Saturday afternoon, just in time to meet Roberto and friends for paella, the famous Spanish dish made with rice, seafood and other meats, and special seasonings. Num! Drinks and convo in the Plaza de Santa Ana led to scrumptious paella at Marina Ventura, then to more drinks and convo at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Óscar. Compared to the exorbitant prices of everything in São Paulo, enjoying an urbane lifestyle in Madrid is pretty affordable—and 700-euro-a-month rents for refurbished 19th century apartments with two bedrooms and balconies overlooking Spanish plazas calls for serious chin-stroking consideration.
The sun dipped lazily below the horizon after 8pm as it is wont to do in the upper latitudes in spring and summer, and no sight-seeing was done. We did throw Roberto a surprise birthday party, though, and danced to Ne-Yo (not my choice) while imbibing adult beverages (I had Coke).
Sunday, we finally made the rounds of the historical center of Madrid. We didn’t actually go inside anyplace, but we wandered through the vast and crowded Plaza Mayor—prototype for every town square in the Americas from the Guadalupe River to Tierra del Fuego—, past the world’s oldest restaurant, complete with official Guinness Book recognition, across the courtyard of the royal palace, past the labyrinthine royal gardens (we were too lazy to walk back up the steps we would have had to descend to enter the gardens), and finally into El Corte Inglés, a fancy department store with a very necessary coffee shop where I could re-boost my waning energy with a one-euro-fifty-cent coffee that I paid for by credit card.
World’s oldest restaurant.
Cuban bar, before hours.
That night, I saw the final performance of the play—something about corporate secrets and lady torturers and jumper cables attached to gonads—über-experimental and completely in Spanish, so I got like 60% of what they were saying. Afterwards, we congratulated the cast on an amazing performance despite somewhat underwhelming material and everyone else congratulated themselves with alcohol (I had Coke) for the next five hours. Indeed, it was almost 4am when we left the theater and there were pretty much zero food options at that hour (which, back home, is called ‘fore-day-in-the-morning), so we settled for late-night grilled cheese sandwiches.
Question: In this age of globalization and multi-national corporations, why the hell isn’t there an IHOP in Madrid (or Berlin or São Paulo)? They would make a killing!
We woke up at noon on Monday, just in time for me to dash into the shower, pack up my crap, and hightail it down to El Retiro, where Roberto had a picnic planned for all his artistic peeps in celebration of the play and his birthday. Over homemade paella (Thanks, Roberto’s friend’s mom!) and some damn good cake and we lazed about on the grass, laughing about the jumper-cables-to-the-gonads and being serenaded with flamencos and boleros by several of the picnickers—there were at least four acoustic guitars in attendance at the picnic.
Rosa, Ernesto y Roberto conquistan el parque.
Soon, it was time for goodbyes and promises to email and/or call, then I headed with carry-on in tow towards the subway station with zero cash, thinking that I could pay for a ticket by credit card. Nope; the machine wanted the PIN that I never memorized because I never use the debit function of my card. This also meant that I couldn’t get money out of an ATM. And the Brazilian reais I had on me were no good because, at almost 5pm on a Monday afternoon, no banks in the immediate vicinity were open to exchange my cash. And I had no telephone with which to call Roberto or any of my other newly-minted friends for a two-euro loan. I was left to rely solely on the kindness of strangers, and in this case, that meant the subway security guard and the station attendant, who listened to my tale of touristic stupidity with understanding smiles and had pity on my poor cashless soul (an affected “foreign” Spanish accent and pre-printed boarding pass showing an imminent flight departure time helped, no doubt). They printed up a special subway ticket, swore me to secrecy, and sent me on my way with handshakes. Gracias, dudes!
*Important aside: The only major road bump and one of those things that tend to permanently shade your opinion of a place, or at least of a place’s government: suspiciously-long questioning by the immigration officer. The two other (non-black) Americans ahead of me flitted through with a few words and the quick thud of the passport stamper. My mistake, of course, was speaking in Spanish. I was asked about my arriving flight (normal), how long I had planned to stay (normal), and if my trip was business or pleasure (normal), then asked where exactly I was staying in Madrid (strange), then where my letter of invitation was (what?). Apparently, I was supposed to have either pre-booked accommodations at a hotel, or have a letter of invitation issued to me by the friends with whom I was staying (procured at the local police station, no doubt). I’m sure my face said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about” and he asked if it was my first time in Spain. I said no, the I’d been there in 2004, neglecting to mention that I had no hotel reservations even then, and had booked a nice little cheap hotel upon arrival at one of the tourist kiosks in the airport. I said that I’m aware that policies can and do change frequently, but as a U.S. citizen, I’d never heard of having to provide proof of accommodation for entry into the European Union (in fact, it’s NOT required, asshat). In Latin America, Spain already has a reputation for the “funny attitudes” of their immigration officials, and while the international gatekeepers of the U.S. certainly have a propensity for douchebaggery, let’s have a little perspective for chrissakes. You see that eagle on my passport? Stamp my shit and be done with it.
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