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My Spanish Heart

In Madrid, the Song of Life

The Casa de Campo at the edge of Madrid.

¡Ah, Madrid! Where to start? After traveling for a month across the south of Spain, I finally have landed in Madrid, the capital, a city where I recognize the names of streets, buildings and parks, a city with memories going back to my early 20s. I saved the best for last. Madrileños are fun, witty and kind. One young man stood in the lobby of an apartment building with me for half an hour helping me find a friend, whose address I thought I knew, but had wrong.

And yes, this is a tapas town. Order a Coca-Cola, caña or vino tinto and you will be presented with a slice of baguette with manchego, a plate of freshly sliced jamón serrano, a pincha de tortilla, olives, potatoes cooked in olive oil with peppers and onions, manchego and chorizo crudites -- the list could go on and on and these are the free ones!

In the old days, if you ordered vino tinto, the waiter would ask, Rioja? That meant, do you want the better wine or the house wine. Nowadays, Ribero del Duero has come of age and the question is, Rioja or Ribero? This is a significant accomplishment for this wine-making region that produces the most expensive wine in all of Spain, Unico, from the Vega Silicia bodegas. My sensibilities are not quite developed to the extent that I could justify paying prices Unico demands, but I did have the good fortune to savor it once at a dinner party and let's just say, I wouldn't turn it down. But I tend toward modest tastes, in general, though I'm happy to be educated!


My little apartment in the neighborhood of Malasaña is modern, well equipped and on the Plaza de San Ildefonso, a place where people gather for café con leche, afternoon lunch, evening drinks, late night who knows what. Whatever it is, it's noisy, often includes loud singing and some nights goes on until 6 a.m. These have to be young people! I do remember seeing the sun come up a few times here, but that was two decades ago, and I no longer have that ambition!

Before arriving in Madrid this time, I kept going back and forth about where to stay: by the Plaza Santa Ana, near my first landing spot, or Malasaña, just off the Gran Vía, where I've nested during every post-sabbatical visit. Malasaña won and I'm happy about that decision. Metro Tribunal, part of Line 1, is just down the street and makes the whole city accessible. There are grocery stores, artisan bread shops, modern gift and clothing shops, old-school bars with napkins tossed on the floor and more sophisticated upscale restaurants with chic decor. The old church on the plaza clangs its bell to mark the time.

I also was torn between staying in a cramped hostal with no amenities except a private bathroom and WiFi (a great bargain) and a livable space with everything I need. After hours of studying Airbnb, I found this apartment, reasonably priced, modern and with a washing machine that also works as a dryer. That is an unusual luxury! And it even has a balcony (which accounts for my familiarity with the noise from the plaza). The most amazing thing about it, though, is the bedroom, closed off from the street with a soundproof door. I kid you not! When you close the door, the room is almost quiet, and the noise that seeps in is so muted, it actually is possible to sleep!


Much has changed in Madrid, of course, but what hasn't wavered are my friends here. They're still welcoming, sensitive, kind, fun, and one of the reasons I so love this city. Back in the late '90s, when I packed my bags and hopped on a plane to start a sabbatical from The Philadelphia Inquirer, I knew no one here. Now, it really does feel like my home away from home. Sure I've had to work on staying up late, as things don't start happening until 8:30 at the earliest, including dinner. But I've adapted!

My second night in Madrid, I was invited to a birthday party where my friends, the musicians, played casually on guitars and the banjo. Later in the evening, a professional dramatic storyteller was coaxed into putting on an impromptu hilarious show and the talented instrumentalists improvised the perfect soundtrack. Everyone laughed a lot and the musicians got a special round of applause. What a night! I 've been to two jazz concerts, a bluegrass music jam, lunches, dinners, a hike in a beautiful park. It's a delight to do things with friends after weeks of solo travel!


There is sadness here, too. I lost a good friend to cancer last fall and I cried when I met up with her husband, also a dear friend. They and their son visited me twice in Philadelphia and I treasure those happy memories. Of the musicians I hosted in my home in 2000, two have died, one of cancer and the other in a tragic bus accident. So like any place where the roots develop, one experiences the many notes, high and low, of the life song.

The high notes bring joy: talents expanding, the families formed and the terrific children born after I left; the wonderful, fun and gifted new spouses. New friends of friends. The song of life in Madrid is rich, like a Mahler symphony.  

On my own, I've walked through the old neighborhood where I lived 20 years ago, discovered the Park Oeste, and tramped through the zoo at the Casa de Campo, another beautiful park at the end of the city. I'm clocking five miles a day on foot and sometimes seven or eight! Ouch!

I want to revisit the Prado Museum, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary. I have some day trips planned; to the walled city of Avila, Cercedilla in the mountains, maybe San Lorenzo de El Escorial, where I spent the New Year's Eve that turned 1997 into 1998. What a solo adventure that turned out to be! Am I blushing?


I haven't even made it to Retiro Park yet, but the Sunday book fair beckons. The Rastro, the world's largest flea market, is another Sunday tradition, but maybe I'll skip that.

I may just spend a "quiet" day in Malasaña, a neighborhood that has become more upscale in the last two decades. It used to be something akin to South Street in Philadelphia, head shops, sex shops, tons of really young people flocking to the streets. Now the main street of the neighborhood, Fuencarral, flaunts endless clothing stores in all price points, from Mango to Foot Locker to Adolfo Dominguez.

Sneakers are huge here. If you read online that people in Spain never wear sneakers and dress more formally, don't believe it. Sneakers are just as popular here as they are in the States. They come in gold, silver, every variation imaginable. And everyone wears them, well not everyone, but they are definitely "in."

Another thing they tell you sometimes is you don't need to tip. Tipping used to be optional and once a cab driver handed a tip back to me. He told me you don't tip drivers in the day, only at night. That is different now. Drivers gladly accept gratuities and I've noticed that waiters and bartenders happily accept them as well. Am I imagining that they now expect it? Still, a 10 percent tip is a good one here, whereas in Philadelphia, 20 percent and even 25 percent is common.  


The winds of political change are beginning to sweep across Spain, as in the rest of the world. The PSOE, the more liberal party, and the PP, the conservative party, dominated the government for decades after Franco. The current prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, is from the PSOE, but an election is scheduled for April 28, where all the seats in what is basically the House and most of the seats in the Senate, are to be voted on. There are now three parties on the right, the PP, which is traditionally conservative, Cuidanos, center right, and Vox on the far right, some would say the extreme far right. Podemos, a group left of the PSOE, has proved less effective than people had hoped when it formed a few years ago. The question of Catalan independence is still roiling the political scene. I don't pretend to have in-depth understanding of the political scene, but I do like to keep up with the contours of what is going on.

While I still have a substantial amount of time left in Madrid, I feel the climax approaching, the days are barely in double digits. I look forward to seeing my family and friends in Philadelphia. I miss them. It is my home, after all. But already I'm thinking about when I'll return to Spain. I've never visited the north, Bilbao, San Sebastián, the now-famous Oviedo, the city Javier Bardem charmed Vicky and Cristina into visiting with him in the Woody Allen movie (Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, 2008). I'm told the city has erected a statue to the filmmaker. I guess I'll just have to go and see for myself! After all, I met Javier Bardem in Philadelphia and had a chance to chat with him. But that's another story for another time.


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