There is nothing quite so frustrating to a seasoned traveller as the experience of not quite ‘getting’ a place as one passes through. Of course, not every corner of the world into which we wander can make the ‘Top 10’ list, but the skilled traveller (and even more, the skilled travel writer) should be able to find little gems in every city, irrespective of whether s/he falls head over heels for its charms.
And yet, on another weekend-travel-whim to Madrid recently, I found myself, for the first time in a long time, feeling utterly disconnected from the place I had been so looking forward to venturing out into. Here, before continuing, I should list a few disclaimers: I was a sickly girl for my trip, with a bad case of the flu; I only had two full days in the city; my abhorrent Spanish gets me slightly past ‘how are you?’ but not yet up to ‘how about a drink tonight?’; and, as a solo traveller, I found myself more than once without dining companions. For a food fiend like myself, this last point is supremely important, as I found myself stealthily ducking in and out for a quick meal while others labored over multiple courses. In a gastronomically-oriented city like Madrid, where life revolves around eating and drinking, to the point of dictating working hours and even linguistic cues (When does “buenas dias” turn into “buenas tardes“? Once you’re done eating lunch, of course!), such does not a happy traveller make. And I guess when I stack up disclaimers back-to-back like this, it almost seems like Madrid was destined to fail from my own careless planning, poor linguistic skills, stubborn lone-ranger complex, and bad timing.
But there was something else, something more, about the Spanish capital which made it seem, to me, a tougher nut than most to crack. I felt in Madrid like many have told me they feel in Paris: sure it’s beautiful, and the lifestyle appears great, but where is the soul? Almost every other Mediterranean country has the same laid back lifestyle, encompassing long meals, late nights, and (dare I say it) lax work ethic. Many cosmopolitan urban hubs throughout the world offer the same range of nightlife, cuisine, and alternative arts and culture, on rotation 24/7 for the picking. And in many – if not all – other bustling cities I’ve visited, it’s been much easier to meet friendly locals who are willing to take you under their wing, induct you into the fold, and usher you behind the velvet ropes of the off-limits, ‘locals-only’ parts of their city, even just for a weekend. It’s telling, after all, that most ‘locals’ I eventually did meet in Madrid were either Spaniards from other parts, or internationals-cum-locals living and working in the city for a year or two.
Don’t get me wrong: the fact that I did not fall under one of my frequent ‘love this city’ spells while in the Spanish capital does not mean that there weren’t a host of distinct aspects that I adored about it. For instance, near-30 degree, sparklingly sunny days in mid-October! And the tradition of sobremesa – sitting over one’s food and wine for hours upon end in the middle of the day – is nothing short of an ingenious custom. The art in the Reina Sofia museum is breathtaking: in particular, I found the historicity of the works, like the grotesque depictions of Spain under Franco, dumbfounding for their visceral impact. The technically illegal yet widely practiced botillon – literally, drinking bottles (of alcohol) in the streets and on street corners before heading out on the town – is a charming archetype of Spanish sociability. The sprawling grounds of Parque del Buen Retiro rival Central Park as one of the most tranquil, yet ‘lived-in’ and vibrant, urban spaces I have come across in my travels. And joining in with the “15 de octubre” manifestacion – the local incarnation of the “occupy wall street” global movement (initiated, as Spanish folk will tell you, by the 15-M protests in Madrid earlier in the year) – brought home to me the Spanish ‘personality’ if one can speak of such a thing: people of all stripes – hippies and executives, families pushing prams, young lovers, and old timers – singing, chanting, dancing, and banding together in the least violent and apparently most atmospheric of all the global demonstrations.
On my last couple of days, when I met a bevvy of young folks who showed me around and told me stories about why they loved the city, my eyes were slowly peeled open, offering a glimpse behind the smokescreen of the “generic-European-city” vibe that Madrid was bouncing back at my solo attempts to uncover its essence and burrow to its core. In particular, once I had managed to crack Madrid’s surface just a little – like the first teaspoon-tap on a crème brulée’s crust – I began to understand exactly just why it is so hard to make that first breakthrough.
More than one of my new acquaintances explained to me that many (though by no means all) madrileños have one, seldom-evolving group of close friends who they have grown up with and with whom they will likely be friends forever – a so-called pandilla (loosely translated as a ‘gang’). This makes it tough for even other locals to penetrate into already-established cliques, not for a lack of friendliness or affability on the part of madrileños, but rather because they simply do not feel a need to broaden their horizons and go beyond their existing social circles.
Not only this, but Madrid, as the centre of the historical region of Castille, has a history of being berated, chastised and literally and figuratively beaten down by its neighbours in Pays Vasco, Gallicia, and Cataluña. This, I believe, has made madrileños (and, I can only guess, other castellaño-speaking Spaniards) self-conscious of their own cultural identity, and much less prone to proudly brandish it than those – either within their own country or across the Atlantic – who castellaños have historically oppressed. The only ‘real-deal’ madrileña girl I met told me – almost assured me – that, in this 21st century of ours, a large part of her younger generation has become empathetic and even supportive of the Catalonians, Basques and Gallicians, in their loud-and-proud flexing of their “independence” muscle. She seemed to go so far as to say that she respects the beef that these cultural-linguistic minorities have with majority Spain, recognising it as their prerogative. One could by no means call it self-loathing or even historical guilt, but I feel that there is an element of Madrid adopting the guise of shrinking violet to the boastful nationalism and cultural pride of the other major urban centres in Pays Vasco, Gallicia, and Cataluña.
I guess Madrid, in its impenetrability and ‘where’s wally?’-like game of spotting locals amidst a sea of allsorts, is like many other sprawling, cosmopolitan, multicultural, hip-and-happening cities I’ve been to throughout the world. Perhaps this is why I found it hard to swallow: like my home town of Geneva, where 40% of the population is foreign and at first it’s hard to find your way, you really need to take the time – and have the energy – to crack the city’s surface before you can access all the hidden gems it has to offer. Perhaps this is also why, ironically, I left Madrid thinking that, with some work on my Spanish, I could see myself living in this city. It is not just – in fact, barely even – a tourist hub, but an ebbing, breathing, constantly moving, and ‘lived-in’ city which, I’m sure, makes it all-the-more-rewarding of an experience once you perforate its tough exterior. So, while Madrid may not sport the big-ticket tourist eyesores of a Paris, the blown-wide-open hipster ‘underbelly’ of a Berlin, or the gaudiness (pun intended!) of a Barcelona, its liveability and its ‘flavour’ seem to be what attracts throngs upon throngs of foreigners every year – that is, precisely those elusive qualities that are hard to capture on a whirlwind weekend fly-by.
Anyway, who likes a city that gives it all away on the first date? I like a challenge, and I have a feeling that Madrid and I have many more liaisons to come, tending these little seeds of “there’s-something-about-Madrid” until they blossom into a full-blown love affair. That is, if the city will have me back.