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olivia, and “other places” – month nine

December 8, 2010

Madrid, Mi Corazon

Once I met the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. It was at some sort of cocktail party held in Old Montreal. A bunch of military ships from other countries were all docked at the port, so they decided to have a chic party. The captain liked President George W. Bush. I didn’t. But his travel stories overshadowed all that.

The captain had been to most places that have a considerable harbour and a nearby American base. I asked him which place he found most memorable. “Naples,” he told me, almost instinctively. “I can smell that city way before we reach the docks.” It wasn’t even a scent he particularly liked (“It smells like garbage!”), it was just an impression he couldn’t shake.

Madrid doesn’t stink, but there’s a certain salty quality the air. There’s a palpable energy to the city that makes its way into most flavours, like sweat and cured ham.

On our first night, we thought we were going local by getting dinner at 8pm. Turns out we should have stayed in bed. Madrileños don’t come out to dine until at least 10…on weeknights.

In our time in southern Spain, we figured people siesta-ed because of the hot afternoon sun. But it’s colder in Madrid. Not by much, but they get snow where we don’t. Madrileños siesta so they can have enough oomph to party it up from 10pm to 3am…on a Tuesday.

And they mean it.

It was roughly 11pm when we arrived at La Perejila (tr. “The Parsley”) on the famed Cava Baja strip. The tiny hole-in-the-wall resto was already full of yuppies sipping on beer and wine. Those who ate were slowly munching on entrées: cheese and ham platters, lots of olives and those tiny pickles I’ve come to adore. My husband and I were starved so we actually ordered meals (the Spanish generally eat bigger portions at lunch and tapas for dinner). I had the quail in bean stew and my husband had cumin meatballs. Even the salad had a personality.

We had no choice but to sit at the bar. The tables – all 5 of them – were taken up. Music blared, but it hardly feels like blaring when it’s a selection of Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Bessie Smith and other classic songstresses. The bartender and barmaid looked like they belonged in the same era, especially her with the bright red lips, shaped like a straight-edged angular heart. The cook’s station, if you can call it that, was a little cubby-hole with a tiny stove, a small fridge and fresh herbs hanging by a window that faced an alley. La Perejila doesn’t resemble the other swankier, more modern bistros of Cava Baja, but at 11pm, it was the most lively.

Because we wanted to explore more of Madrid, we left our comfortable perches and began making our way towards the hotel, knowing we’d find other places in between. What we didn’t realize was that thousands of Madrileños were preparing a general 24-hour strike to protest the European Union’s fallen economy. We stopped to watch some of the shows they’d staged at a nearby plaza (I’m not sure what a contortionist has to do with labour strikes, but I’m sure that’s beside the point). When we saw police vans parked near the crowds, we decided to avoid problems by finding a bar.

And it really was quiet for about 10 minutes, until the stroke of midnight. That’s when the crowds started marching, plastering shop windows with protest stickers, and chanting the strike’s slogan. When they passed by our bar, a few protesters got into a scuffle with the owner, who just wanted to close the doors to shield his patrons from the noise. The bar had an alternative exit to a street without any marchers, so we left. Right up until that point, we were actually supporting the cause. But it seems pointless if they’re going to attack small business owners. Utterly pointless.

Back at our hotel, we watched the action on Gran Via from the rooftop. We were in the company of a retired British police officer. When we saw protesters kicking over garbage bins, the officer pointed out the irony of punishing the blue collars.

The next day, many restaurants were closed and the shops that remained open had security guards at the door. Most of the action was at midnight, though. I suppose the protesters preferred to siesta in the light of day.

That night, we went to a restaurant called El Buey (tr. “The Beef”). Their big thing is serving raw beef, which you then cook yourself on a searing-hot terra cotta plate. It’s very unique, and with a touch of the house’s special pepper sauce, it’s just delicious. We were the only people dining as a couple that night. The place was otherwise filled with groups. To my left was a cluster of affluent Germans on their last night in Madrid, to my right was a Spanish family celebrating a birthday.

I don’t know why we started chatting with the Germans. Blame it on the Tinto. It turns out one of them had studied at McGill, like me. Of course, he’d done a BCom where I got a pretty ineffectual BA. Like many people, he had fond memories of Montreal. Some of them intermingled with ladies. Many of them connected to old buildings.

“It reminds me a little of Madrid,” he said.

I agreed. But then I thought that lots of places look like other places. And yet, no place is really like any other place.


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