I’m sitting on the fountain ledge in Puerta del Sol, the grand plaza at the heart of Madrid, where all the winding sidestreets seem to stretch from and lead back toward as the crossroads of the city. If the sun is the center of our solar system, this place is aptly named.
My legs stick out now from the low bench, bag between my legs, and I’m people watching, trying to get the sweat from my back to evaporate without much luck. I strike up a conversation with a young woman beside me, also a backpacker, who appears to be aimlessly resting, too.
“Did you just arrive?” I ask. I have a strange tendency to believe that the people around me and I are all sharing common experiences.
“No,” she replies, and I guess I should be surprised she knows English, too. “I’ve been here a few days. I’m leaving today.”
“Have you been staying in a hostel? Can you recommend one?”
“I stayed with friends. Don’t you have a reservation?”
“No,” I say. “I thought I’d find one when I arrived. I’ve looked up a couple of places. Do you think I’ll have trouble?”
“I wouldn’t go someplace without a reservation,” she says. She excuses herself and leaves the bench. Perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered her.
After a minute, I gather my belongings and start south toward the first hostel on my list: Las Musas. It’s still early. She will be wrong.
The muse motif is apparent upon walking in the door. Nude nymphs line the walls. Poetry and art is abundant. Young people – people younger than me – lounge. They charge their laptops and talk with fellow travelers, or else listen to music while reading a book. Do people actually enjoy multitasking like this?
I catch no one’s interest upon walking inside and float through the crowded room. At 28, I feel old, and invisible, perhaps for the first time in my life.
“Hola,” I say to the man behind the counter. He looks my age. “¿Hablas Ingles?”
“Of course,” he replies.
I have no trouble reserving a bunk in a slowly filling twelve person dorm room. After the paperwork is done and amenities explained, my bags stowed in a locked closet until the room is cleaned, we resort to discussing the heat outside.
“It is Terminator weather out there, man,” the man behind the counter complains. “You walk outside and you melt like the Terminator! But it’s better than last week,” he continued. “Last week it was 40 degrees.”
I accept this information with a nod, and he seems insulted at my lack of… interest? Delight? Shock? What? Our conversation withers. I excuse myself.
It isn’t until I look it up later that I realize 40°C is 115°F.
I always get two haircuts in a year: one in February, the other in August. It is July now but I cannot wait until August. It is too hot to keep my hair long. I wonder what it is like to get a haircut in Madrid.
I pass by the discount haircuts offered at a string of Chinese salons for a more traditional barber closer to town. I want to do this right.
I sit and wait in the shop for an old man to finish his customer, and soon it is my turn.
“Corte regular, por favor.”
He nods and begins to wet my head. Clip, snip. Buzz, scrape. Brush, buff.
It is very much the same in Madrid as it is back home, but with less conversation.
I go next door to the restaurant Botín as soon as the doors open to customers for lunch. It is very early; no respectable citizen of Madrid is prepared to eat so early in the day. But this place, one of the oldest restaurants in the world, is open for the tourists. And I am hungry.
No, I do not have a reservation, lo siento.
Yes, si, I am by myself, solo, gracias.
I am seated in a dim, cool room with no one else and order the house specialty – roast suckling pork. The skin is hard like a shell, impossible to chew through in some places, though the meat of the pig is sweet and tender, falling from my fork, dripping with savory fat. I drink a cool beer with the meat. This is a simple and delicious meal.
A man in a suit is seated at another small table right beside me. I’m aware of the rules of elbow to elbow eating in nice restaurants, but I break down the invisible wall between us and say hello, seeing as how we are both alone and the only two people in the restaurant.
He is a Danish businessman who knows several languages. He eats here whenever he is in Madrid. The company pays for it. I do not say so, but this meal has eaten nearly my entire budget for the day. He does not have any suggestions of where I might visit next. He leaves today.
I finish my meal and pay before he does. Before I go, I take a photo of the stoic yet obliging host who poses beside the light filtering through the glass in the door, beneath the ancient wooden ceiling beams.
A large bottle of water becomes one of the benchmarks of the cost of things in each European city I visit. What costs eighty cents in Lisbon might be nearly five Euro in Paris. Indeed, from one neighborhood to the next in Madrid, the cost of a liter of water varies.
The sunlight is blinding along the Gran Via. On this historic street, one of the largest arterial roads in the city, an ice cold bottle of water – advertised as such, though clearly catering to the Americans as no European I have met cares for very cold water – goes for €2 from one of the street vendors. I happily pay, only to find the same liter (though not as cold) for €1 around the corner in a souvenir shop. I intend to refill this bottle until I get a fair return on my investment.
I stand in the line that wraps around the block for the Royal Palace. I have read that it is free on Tuesdays, and I would like to take advantage. Many others do the same.
The conversation is congenial. Everyone shares where they have been in the city so far, what others should do next. The Dali exhibit at Raina Sofia is impressive. El Parque del Retiro is like another world. We’ve already fallen into the tempo here. Isn’t the siesta wonderful?
Eventually we make it to the entrance. EU passport holders to the right, foreigners to the left. The fee is only waived for EU citizens. Americans must pay. This is not in my budget.
I bid farewell to the folks I stood in line with, and take a picture of the palace through the gates outside. I meander through the streets, conscious of how time is money, too.
I return to Gran Via later that night only to discover that it is probably no longer a place where my literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, would bother having a drink. His old haunt, Museo Chicote, is empty, though in fairness, it is barely nine. American music is blaring across a lonely room, and the neon lights make everything a garish pink. The tapas here is a small bowl of potato chips from a bag. The best beer they serve is Heineken. It costs six Euro. This is a shame.
I head south to Plaza Santa Ana where I know that I can find better food and cheaper drinks. My first stop is Viva Madrid, the oldest bar in town. Old wood, large mirrors and a huge chandelier help create the ambiance – quiet, respectable, but lively, with a full restaurant in the back. I sit at the bar. With nothing to do but eavesdrop and sip Cruzcampo, I overhear two old men at the other end speaking favorably of the old regime, and how things have only gotten worse since Franco. At least, I think that’s what I hear. My Spanish is still coming along. I decide I don’t belong here. I finish my dark beer and leave.
Now I bounce from bar to bar between Huertas and the plaza, ordering beers and eating the free plates of food that are served alongside the alcohol: a large bowl of olives; sliced ham on bread drizzled with oil; a ramekin of baked mac ‘n cheese. The eating is good, and so long as I keep drinking, the plates keep coming. Why stop? A Spanish omelet on toast; a plate of paella; fresh potato salad. I keep going.
I take a break to walk across town and get some air. I pass through the Puerta del Sol once again, full as ever at midnight, and walk up Fuencarral, past Gran Via, still empty. Calle Fuencarral is the dividing line between two neighborhoods. Here, Chueca, the gay friendly part of town to the east, smashes into Malasaña, the bohemian hipster neighborhood to the west. It creates a strange cross-section of the two places: laughing people spill from dive bars while men in drag catcall me from the other side of the street.
After a few twists and turns, I lose direction and become disoriented. I stand on a well-lit corner with four dark roads stretching away from me to collect my bearings. Once I know where I am, I put away the map and phone to just be here and to take in the setting, the characters, the theme of this place. Now, I have transformed from a lost tourist in a new neighborhood to a man with purpose. I am standing here on the corner. This is my job.
And suddenly, oddly, I have become visible to others after feeling like a ghost all day. Stumbling drunks fall forward and crane their necks to lock eyes with me as they pass. Lost souls look back and forth between me and the street signs, wondering if I can provide directions, but think better of approaching me. I have that sensation again of sharing a common experience with these strangers. Everyone who sees me wonders if I am like them.
I role-play a little, imagine becoming a permanent fixture here, looking after the neighborhood. People would know me. I could live here.
I wander now into the Botellón in Dos de Mayo Park, the nightly fiesta where kids and after-hours party people go to wind down, smoke pot, buy cheap beers from the Chinese families winding through the crowd with garbage bags full of ice, and sit around the music makers, singing, listening, laughing.
I buy a can and have a seat on the ledge of the bench, hearing the guitar and watching big roaches scuttle around in the yellow lamp-lit plaza. I swallow the drink and take pictures of the place, the people. I record the sounds. No one notices. I am invisible again. It is time to go.
The streets are emptying, though a few revelers are still heading to the nightclubs. I’m surprised at how far I’ve drifted from the hostel. It takes an hour to return, but I know the way. I wind through the plazas, down the alleys, across neighborhoods and finally into the lobby of Las Musas, up the staircase to the room, my bed. It is only now cooling off in the early morning. Dew is forming on the open windows beside my pillow. The room sounds asleep. I wrap myself in the sheet, and it is enough to keep warm. I hear myself begin to snore as the sky lights outside.