Madrid

Wednesday, June 4

I’m on a plane in the sky hurtling at hundreds of miles per hour over the ocean towards New York.

And the best part is, the plane has tons of empty seats. Luxury!

The bus ride to Madrid was a long one that passed through Salamanca. Along the way I watched the terrain transform back into what I remembered from my post-graduation trip, years ago. Rolling hills, scarred, strewn with boulders as though armies of giants had fought there in a time before memory.

As we neared Madrid I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was the giant cross that sits atop the Valley of the Fallen, where I’d gone years ago on my first trip through Spain. With Tina, Greishka, Vivi, Daisy, Sal… I could go on but there are so many names to list; it was a full bus on that Contiki trip. Seeing the cross again was surreal, and for a moment I felt unstuck in time, as though now and then were the same, and not separated by over half a decade. But I was so much younger then. I wish I’d been then who I am now, but such wishes are silliness.

We stopped in the southern station near Atocha, and I gathered my things and entered the subway. I called on my memory — find Alonso Martinez station. What line is this? It reaches Nuevos Ministerios… I can switch there to the 10 and take it down to my station, and walk Calle Sagasta back to U Hostel where I had booked rooms just that morning on the computer in Porto. I had stayed at U Hostel before I left to start the Camino.

I walked with my pack and my walking staff. This is not normal in Madrid. People notice, but they are a bit more like New Yorkers in that they look away and avoid asking questions.

Arriving at the desk at U Hostel, I felt that the face of the receptionist was familiar. Her name tag read Natalia. She saw my staff and asked immediately, in English, if I was there to walk the Camino. I answered in Spanish that I had finished. We continued that way for a bit, her in English and me in Spanish, until she realized I wanted to practice and matched my language choice. When she checked me in and discovered that I’d been there before she told me she remembered me a bit, but that I look different. Probably so. Lost some weight, I told her.

I had a fierce desire to wash my clothing, so I did laundry before leaving to get food at around midnight. A nearby Italian restaurant another girl had recommended was closed, so I meandered back to the burrito place, Tierra, where I’d eaten the night before I left for the Camino. That night I’d tried to order in Spanish but had to fall back on English. Not this time.

I came back, checked Facebook a bit, and went to sleep in my room, where there was a Taiwanese couple and two South Korean guys who wore facial masks before going to sleep. Ain’t in Kansas anymore.

In the morning I woke blissfully late at around 9:30 or 10. Showered, and went downstairs with my staff to ask where there might be a UPS nearby. I’d seen the trucks in the streets sometimes. Natalia searched the internet for one in Madrid without any luck. Instead she directed me to Correos España. When I arrived there they told me the pole was too long to mail.

So I had a choice. Take my chances trying to bring a conspicuously tall wooden staff through the TSA checkpoints, or cut it in half. At the hostel I asked the girls where I might find a hardware store to cut it. Fortunately the maintenance worker overheard me and volunteered to help. I followed him downstairs to the maintenance room, where he cut the staff in half with a small hand-held rotary saw.

I returned to Correos to mail it, and the woman there offered me packing materials to prepare it for shipping. Bubble wrap, paper, and tape. I spent some time wrapping it up nicely and then, when it was done, I decided that surely now it was small enough and friendly enough that TSA wouldn’t object. Currently it’s in the overheard compartment above me. So far so good.

I’ve met more than a few folks who would suggest that I should’ve left it at the cliffs at the end of the world. Which does sound romantic, sure. But you know how sometimes you go home and dig through some old box of a few important keepsakes you saved? And as soon as you hold one, all sorts of memories and feelings come back to you that you’d long forgotten. I don’t believe in magic, but that is close enough. Someday when there are many years between me and my Camino, the staff and the shell and the Compostela will have a chance to work their spells on my foggy mind. Like seeing the stone cross over the Valley of the Fallen.

I went to lunch at a tapas bar called Orio, where I met a sister and brother duo from America, Gina and Linh, of Vietnamese descent. They sat at my table and we talked in English about their trip and mine. They’re in Spain traveling together before heading to Frankfurt for a wedding. Gina has traveled to Madrid often, nearly once each year for several years. For Linh, this is his first time in Europe.

They invited me to walk with them. The day was hot and sunny. I finally made it to Retiro park, which although lovely is difficult to appreciate on such a hot day. Everywhere the madrileñas were treating each open patch of grass like a beach for sunbathing. A bit like New York.

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We made our way to a plaza or two and then to the Palacio Real, where an accordionist was playing, though not the same song that the accordionist I remember from years ago played in that very same spot.

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We wandered to a park with ancient Egyptian structures, donated to Spain. I don’t know the history of why. I’ll have to look it up when I get back.

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Afterwards we left for our separate hostels, planning to reunite in an hour and a half or so at the McDonald’s on Gran Via to meet with a Spanish friend of Gina’s, Oscar, and his nieces and sister. Of that group, Oscar speaks the most English, though the girls are learning. His sister was very excited that I could have real conversations with her in Spanish since she doesn’t understand much English.

At a nearby restaurant we shared a bunch of different raciones, family-style, before bidding them all farewell back on Gran Via.

And then we began our bar-hunt to nowhere! First we went past the Madrid version of a red light district, so Gina could show me the strangeness of an entire block with a prostitute waiting patiently under every tree. And there, at the end of the block, police. I guess there’s some sort of agreement happening there.

We began walking up Fuencarral since I remembered there being restaurants and bars along it nearer to Sagasta. But we detoured to the right so Gina could, very excitedly, show us the gay district. She wanted to stop at the first bar we saw, but looking at the demographics inside Linh and I decided we’d rather not go into a meat market.

So we continued hunting but didn’t really find any lively bars with a good mix of people. To be fair, it was a Tuesday. We also found ourselves in Plaza del Sol, which has now become Vodafone Sol because Money. There we were assaulted by promoters for clubs. At first I was polite to them, but eventually I would just cut them off and keep walking, if I responded at all. Dear bars and clubs in Madrid; if you have three promoters standing outside your establishment, chasing passers-by as aggressively as a lioness chases a gazelle, you only end up chasing us away from a place we might have actually wanted to stop at.

We weren’t looking to stand in line outside a disco, and for some reason we just couldn’t find a simple bar with a good mix of people in it. Finally we began going back up Fuencarral towards Sagasta, but when we were a little more than half way there Linh felt that he was done. I can’t blame him, we’d been bar-hunting for something like two hours. He went back to his hotel. Gina and I continued up to Sagasta, finding that most of the bars I’d remembered were closed. But I knew with certainly that the British pub near my hostel was open, and that the common area of my hostel had a small bar too. We popped into the pub and found it dead, so we went up to the hostel and had beers. After a time we called her a cab out on the street and hugged goodbye.

A bizarre evening, but still fun for the sheer goofiness of it. Struggling to find a bar in Madrid!

I sneaked into my room where everyone was sleeping, and quietly went to bed.

This morning I woke later than the rest, except for the signs of someone new in one of the bunks. She must’ve risen early and gone out. All of us were leaving today except the mystery stranger.

I checked out, but spent some time downstairs choosing photos for the Fisterra post and uploading it. I left to get lunch at the burrito place but found it closed, so I meandered down to the plaza where the Alonso Martínez station is located. I looked at a few of the menus nearby, but in the end I didn’t have it in me to search. So, like a true American, I ate at the nearby Burger King. Hopped on the metro to the airport, checked in, and waited for my flight.

An American at the terminal recognized my shell as a symbol of the Camino. Turns out he’s been in Spain for a long while teaching English. I’d heard that it’s difficult for an American to get an English teaching position in Spain; that they prefer to hire UK citizens. But he said it was very simple. I’ll have to look into it. It’s not the sort of job that gets you closer to a luxurious retirement. But honestly, who cares? I would love to live in Spain.

New York tonight. Many reunions to be had!

-Daniel

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