Back to Madrid

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I lived in Madrid for a year in my early 20s. I taught English at a secretarial school and also to executives at Spain’s largest oil company, Repsol.   Mainly I moved there so that I could finally become fluent in Spanish after studying the language my whole life. I have a lot of fond memories of Madrid, its people, its food and its sights so it was a blast to return to the city after so many years with Darold and Dante.

We rented a car and drove the 600+ kilometers to the center of Spain from Barcelona. (Side note – that amount of miles would have taken us 4 full days on Benevento!) On the trip inland it seemed like every hilltop had a castle on it. It’s a sad state of affairs when you get jaded from seeing too many castles. “There’s another one,” Dante would point out. We also passed by the occasional Spanish “toro”- giant black bull billboards, displayed on hilltops, so quintessentially Spanish (and an opportunity to learn the word “cojones”). Madrid is on a plateau and it was pretty chilly when we got to the city. In fact, one night it even snowed briefly!

We stayed in the center of the city, in between Plaza Mayor and Sol. This wasn’t far from where I used to live in Spain, so I took Darold and Dante to see the famous apartment on “Calle de la Reina” off of the Gran Via. The apartment is famous in our family because of how many times they’ve heard the story of how I was almost killed with a knife by a crazy Spanish prostitute. Oh you haven’t heard that story? Sit down, get comfortable – this is a good one.

I was nearing the end of my year-long stay in Madrid and my friend from college, Jorge Couce, came to Madrid. (Jorge has been a good friend of both me and Darold since UCSD, and is now “Uncle Jorge” to Dante.) If my apartment had been on the hotel rating system it would have been a one star. Maybe even a half star. The landlord (a man who smelled worse than any other human being I have ever encountered in my life – to this day) had converted the apartment into three bedrooms (with doors that locked from the inside) and a very tiny kitchen and dining room. We all shared a small bathroom. I lived in one room (with bunk beds) with my friend Angela from the U.K., a Peruvian couple lived in the second bedroom, and a somewhat strange Spanish woman lived in the third bedroom. I don’t actually know what occupation the Spanish woman had but let’s just say she wore some pretty interesting clothing and didn’t work banker’s hours.

One night, Jorge and I came back to the apartment after dinner and we were talking (in English) in the kitchen. The Spanish woman threw open the door of her room and said to us accusingly, “I know you’re talking about me!” (in Spanish). Shocked, we explained to her (now in Spanish; Jorge is fluent) that we hadn’t been talking about her at all, that we had been talking about something entirely different. She was enraged. Her eyes were bloodshot and red as if she’d been rubbing them, her hair was a mess and her feet were bare and very red. This back and forth went on for a while. “You were talking about me!!” “No, honestly, we wouldn’t do that! Please believe us!” we’d protest until she squeezed past us in the small dining room and went into the kitchen area to grab a knife. Jorge yelled, “Run! She’s got a knife!” So I quickly began to make my way toward the front door.

Here’s where I have to explain how the apartment was built. To get to the front door you had to go straight a couple of steps out of the dining area, turn left, go down a hallway, turn left, go another couple of steps, turn right, go down a hallway and then the front door was at the end of that hallway on the left. I started to run but Jorge was quicker than me and was right on my heels. As I came up to the end of each hallway, I was running so fast that I would slam up against the wall, and Jorge would slam up behind me because he was right on my heels. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I was screaming as we slammed our way down each hallway like pinballs toward the door. We fumbled quickly with the front door and got outside. Alas, we weren’t safe yet. We didn’t want her to run after us in the streets so Jorge (quick thinker) quickly sat on the ground, put his foot up against the door jam and pulled on the door handle so that she couldn’t get out the door. Somehow, with superhuman strength the Spanish woman was pulling the door in with one hand and trying to stab us with the knife through the crack of the door with the other hand. Jorge was pulling with all his strength on the door while trying to avoid getting sliced. I think I might have still been screaming. Then we heard a clack! She locked the door and was silent.

Crap! We didn’t even have shoes on! We were worried about my roommate and the Peruvian couple, but also knew that they could lock themselves in their rooms. I couldn’t call Angela because the phone was in the dining area.

Fortunately, my other good friend Emily and her boyfriend Mike were also in Madrid, not far from us.  So we walked (barefoot) over to her hotel (a two star) and slept on the floor. We went back to my apartment the next day and I moved out two weeks early. I told my smelly landlord what happened and he shrugged his shoulders. As I was leaving with my boxes I saw the Spanish woman in the kitchen and she looked at us and said, “hola.” She looked like she was nursing a hangover for the ages.

To this day, Jorge and I have a laugh about that story. Seeing the door again and peering into the lobby was quite a trip. Darold and Dante were not so impressed with my apartment. “That’s it?” they said.

But I digress…our first stop in Madrid was actually the airport so that we could pick up a package sent from the United States at customs. This entailed finding the office (much, much easier said than done) and then figuring out what we needed to do in order to actually take possession of the package. The procedure turned out to be: 1) getting a slip of paper from the main post office, 2) going to customs to get approval to proceed, 3) walk a few miles to a bank to pay the tax, 4) return to customs to confirm payment of the tax, 5) then pick up the package from the post office. I argued to the customs agent that we didn’t need to pay the tax since we were a boat “in transit” and the goods weren’t going to stay in Spain. And guess what? It worked! That was not something we expected, but it allowed us to skip steps three and four. In the end, it only took us half a day to complete this task.

With our errand done, we proceeded to explore the city. Even though the family wasn’t enthralled with my former digs, what they liked better was La Mallorquina, an amazing bakery and café in Sol that is still serving up the best café con leche (Spanish coffee with milk) and palmeras con chocolate (palm-shaped pastries slathered in chocolate) I remember. Sometimes it’s great when things don’t change!

What did change was the post office. I used to mail letters to Darold from Plaza Cibeles, a beautiful building reminiscent of a wedding cake that also happened to be the main post office. No, there was no email back when I lived in Madrid and I made a sojourn to that post office often to send off my love letters. Today it’s been converted into a place of rotating municipal exhibits and you can’t enter inside just to look around. What a shame. The security guard looked at me strange when I asked if we could just look at the post office. He didn’t know what I was talking about. He must have been about three when I was living in Madrid and his only memory is of the building being for municipal functions.

By this time, a problem Darold was having with his eye was becoming an issue. It was swollen as if he had been punched in the face (I swear it wasn’t me) and it was sore as well. So, in addition to exploring the depths of Spanish international mail bureaucracy we were about to delve into its universal healthcare system.

I found a healthcare clinic and we were asked if we had our insurance card. I explained we had international healthcare insurance, and after consulting with a few colleagues, they said “OK” (in Spanish) and told us to wait outside door number six. Wait, that’s it?? I inquired about the lack of bureaucracy and they said they’d bill my insurance company. She did point out that my card said, “Does not guarantee coverage.” I said that we could pay in cash but was told that they do not take cash. I could, she explained, visit a private doctor and pay in cash if I preferred, but at the state medical facility they only take insurance cards. We waited for about 30 minutes and saw the doctor who quickly diagnosed Darold’s problem as just a blocked tear duct. She wrote a prescription for one type of medicine and said we could get the other over the counter. Then we went to the pharmacy and had both filled. For less than 10 Euro! That’s it. We were done. Now let’s see how our insurance company handles the claim….

The next day we took Dante to the Museo del Arte de la Reina Sofa, primarily to see Picasso’s Guernica. We also spent time the following day at the Prado Museum, which is wonderful. It’s laid out so well that you know exactly where to go to see the paintings you came to see. Dante was particularly impressed with Goya’s La Maja Desnuda (The Naked Woman). Hmmmm…I wonder why? We also saw Velazquez, El Greco and one of my favorites – Sorolla. We didn’t have time to visit the Sorolla museum (which is housed in his former home) so it was nice to see a few of his pieces.

We also took time to exploring and eating our way through the city by walking through the Plaza Mayor, Sol, the Gran Via, Paseo del Prado and the plazas near our hotel including the Plaza Santa Ana. We were passing by a beautifully tiled flamenco theater called the Villa Rosa and it suddenly occurred to me that it used to be a discotheque that I used to go to. I asked the woman at the front taking tickets how long it had been a flamenco theater and she said, “years and years.” (That didn’t make me feel old at all. Nope.) She let us take a look inside and it’s as I remembered. Beautifully tiled inside with a dance floor and a long bar. I spend many nights dancing away in there. Usually I’d be wrecked the next day, not because I drank too much but because the Spanish don’t *leave* their apartments to go out at night until 11pm at the very, very earliest. Some clubs don’t even open up until the wee hours of the early morning. Not being a night owl myself, I found this lifestyle a little disconcerting at the time. But I managed.

Our two and a half days was much too short a time to spend in Madrid, but it was still nice to see my old stomping grounds. Dante said he’d come back with me again if I promise to take him to the Prado.

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