Focus

leaving for Madrid

Leaving never ceases to be a harried act, wrapped in a flurry of last-minute energy and motion. I have been conditioned to surround it with such pathos that it could not be otherwise.

Despite my frequent movements and flights and airport transfers and packing and repacking, I persist in committing rudimentary mistakes. On the flight to Portugal in July, I forgot about a bunch of sundry toiletries in my carry-on. This time, I overestimated the advantage the London-Singapore time difference would give me, booked a flight for Wednesday that I realized too late would only arrive late in the British evening. Then I booked an early morning flight from London to Madrid, forgetting that overnight connections to Stansted from Oxford are infrequent, to say the least.

Then I wondered: why do I persist in booking flights at ridiculous hours? When is someone to old to do an all-nighter at the airport for a flight? Judging by my presence at Stansted at 4.30 am, it seems like the answer is ‘not yet’. Worst of all was when I grabbed the wrong suitcase off the Heathrow airport bus at Gloucester Green bus station. I initially thought I’d made the mistake in Heathrow itself and spent a horrified hour planning my route there and back again, which would have cost me at least about four hours in time and £30 in bus fare.

If I were paranoid, I’d say these are all insidious acts of self-sabotage. Maybe I want leaving to be a fraught affair.

*

The silver lining is that the two days in England were so rushed I didn’t quite have time to brood. London gave me the gift of a cheery evening with lovely people, a magical view of St Paul’s against a backdrop of skyscrapers and stars, and an achingly beautiful last day. The sun was brazenly out, and for long moments in a sun-soaked playground in Shoreditch, I felt like a child again. It was difficult to leave.

Oxford was mostly a heroic struggle with packing and dinner proceedings was so characteristic of the group it made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. I was prepared with takeaway from Zheng (I’ve walked into the restaurant so many times in the past three months completely expecting it to be my last time), the boys took about two hours to order Dominoes and then the conversation went hilariously nowhere, very slowly. I had to awkwardly make everyone hug me before I left.

*

Madrid is growing on me. Something – sometimes some things – happen(s) each day to coax me into respect, if not outright appreciation. The way the sky loosens into a breathless shade of blue as the day wears on. The long calles that winds gently around and then through the city centre, chops it up roughly into neighbourhoods, never twisting too drunkenly to be followed with ease. The epidemic of dogs with the accompanying fatal symptom of cuteness overload. The scrupulously modern metro.

Being here is bittersweet, of course. On Saturday, after wrestling my suitcases from the bus stop, through several wrong turns and the gruff directions of a policeman, to my Airbnb room, I took a long walk through my neighbourhood, down to the sprawling park (through that word is inadequate – think Hyde Park). The park was lovely, and unbelievably big. Every time I came to a turn, I could see something down both paths that piqued my curiosity. There was a library, several playgrounds, many fountains and rest areas. An abundance of dogs, and kids on rollerskates or miniature dirt bikes. Couples. I felt tremulously moved, at times, by the beauty of the landscape in front of me, the strange dissociation at being so present and yet miles away, in my head.

After the park, I moved on, down to the centre where the crowd thickens into a moist heat under the afternoon sun. I had my sights set on the river Google Maps assured me drew a line around the city; in my mind I imagined a quiet unfurling of greenery as the city melted away into cool shadows, the river gurgling in the depths. I thought I could sit down, gratefully, on the banks, maybe dip my feet in, fall asleep. I was so exhausted from traveling. I felt like I was going to fall asleep while walking.

Disappointingly, the river was mostly a glorified stream trickling over rocks, two slabs of concrete on either side. The water seemed very clear, to its credit, and so thin you could see every dip and shadow in the rocky river bed.

*

My Airbnb hosts were lovely. They had a cute little apartment, very … Etsy, indie: polaroid-style photos pegged on clothes lines in the long narrow hallway that led to the master bedroom, pop-up 3D cardboard letters spelling out EAT in the kitchen, chalkboard of motivational quotes underneath that, jars of toiletries and woven baskets in the bathroom. They also quit their jobs two years ago to backpack through South America and Asia, as documented in aforementioned Polaroids. They had been to Singapore but the photos of Singapore didn’t make the cut for the Wall, unfortunately.

They broke bread with me on Sunday and I jokingly asked if they had plans to quit their jobs again and go traveling. They said yes, they have been discussing it for the past few months and they will do that within the next year.

*

Also signed up for a bike tour on Sunday morning, which turned out to be such a wonderful decision. Our guide was fantastic, exuberant without being irritating. He was originally from Budapest but have spent years in Italy and France, and his accent was the strangest chameleon, flickering from American to French to British to Italian to Spanish, very cosmopolitan. There were a lot of factoids from him; he really brought the city to life but I can only remember a couple.

  1. In front of the royal palace, there is a garden flanked by rows of marble statues. The guide pointed out that they were particularly ugly statues, as any Italian would immediately observe, because they were originally sculpted to be placed on the palace roof. But a Spanish queen had a dream about the statues falling on her and killing her, so she had them removed to the garden.
  2. Also, apparently descendents of Spanish migrants to Central Europe from 20 generations ago can still return to Spain to claim citizenship.
  3. Madrid is in the wrong time zone, two hours ahead, because one of the kings named Franco wanted to follow French and German times a bunch of centuries ago. So ‘real noon’ in Madrid is actually around 2 pm, which partially explains why Spanish lunches are at 2ish and dinners are so late. This blew my mind a bit.

The guide also introduced us to ‘tinto de verano’, which is red wine mixed with fizzy lemonade and also my current favourite drink. It was, frankly, a great start to Madrid.

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