Learning to Love

February 2016

My girlfriend’s mum has a friend who (until recently) lived in Madrid. She was once her PhD student in Turin, since turned researcher herself. They are both (as is my girlfriend) intelligent, beautiful, independent and driven.

My girlfriend and her mum had visited this friend many times, often for the Christmas sales (which in Spain drag on well in to February). This year, I tagged along too.

After having seen Granada for the first time in Sep 2014, I went on to Madrid, intending to stay a few nights. The city has some magnificent buildings, exuding past wealth, but the richesse of Spain’s capital has gone the way of its Empire. In the centre, the streets and buildings are dirty and graffiti covers the shutters of closed shops.

The first night I saw the city, I found San Miguel and Mahou in every bar (beer I could find in English pubs) and the streets were full of familiar brands (Zara, McDonalds, H&M..). Compared to the south, I found it lacking in character. The next morning, after a quick spot of tourism, I left unimpressed.

I returned to the city the following spring. A German friend of mine was working on a project there and I caught the train up to see her. We had a few too many (or just enough) glasses of wine, wandering from bar to bar until late. It was a great night but, as before, Madrid didn’t contribute too much to it.

So I was still sceptical when I returned for the sales this year. The biology researcher from Turin had a beautiful apartment with high ceilings and lots of living space and only a few minutes walk from the centre. I had to admit the streets here had more charm but I am stubborn and was reluctant to change my mind too soon.

But this time I stayed long enough to explore more of the city; and had a host to show us the areas with actual Madrilleños. 

One night in particular opened my eyes to a new side of Madrid: we ate in Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant with bar walls, no heating and plastic tables and chairs. The food was exceptional, hearty fare that also achieved (almost as a sleight of hand) rich combinations of flavour. Afterwards, we stopped at a few bars full of locals and soaked up the atmosphere. Life in Madrid suddenly seemed a lot less bland.

One afternoon, I ducked out of shopping and met a Bulgarian woman who I know from her restaurant near Cartagena (where she lives for the summer). Otherwise, based in Madrid since she was young (and having raised a daughter and seen a grandson grow up there too), she is distinctly Spanish.

Walking around the Plaza Mayor (which before seemed out of place in a modern city) with this woman in her fur coat, seeing her bristle with pride to be taking a coffee while surveying the historical square, another part of the city opened up to me. I saw the older Spanish women with their expensive (albeit it quite ugly and unethical) coats, cared for over generations; the solid buildings, a reminder of the country’s strength; the heads held high. Granada and the south still hold sway over my heart. But I was (at last) impressed by Madrid. Not that it ever needed my approval.

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