Livin’ La Vida Buena – Madrid, Spain.
In the rain, the wet cobblestones reflect the glow of the street lamps and the darkening skies above. I am in Lavapiés with my high school friend Chelsie, who lives in a flat in this gritty, bohemian inner-city neighbourhood.
It is my first night in Madrid and I am tired from the day’s journey. It seems that Chelsie too is tired from a hard day’s work. Neither of us say anything. After dropping off my things at her flat, we make our way up the street towards a café for dinner.
I order what I think is an ordinary red wine, but when our drinks come I am presented with a tall glass of red with ice and two slices of lemon. I take a sip and suddenly the sweetest flavour envelopes my palate. “Wha…? This can’t be just red wine!” I exclaim. Chelsie shakes her head as if I wasn’t making any sense. I take another sip to make sure I am not dreaming, and then another. The same intoxicating sensation returns with each little taste. “I can’t believe this Chel, it’s amazing!!” And so begins my passionate love affair with tinto de verano.
Literally “red wine of the summer”, it is a mixture of wine and a fizzy drink called gaseosa, which is often flavoured with lemon. When I find out what it is made of I tell Chelsie that I’ll make my own tinto de verano when I return to the UK. “But you can’t,” she replies. “They don’t sell gaseosa outside Spain.” Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Spain is so addictive: there’s only so much of it that you can bring back home.
The next day we amble around the city centre in search of beautiful plazas and edible delights. Our first stop is the Puerta del Sol, kilometre zero of Madrid and the traditional location for the city’s new year countdowns. As we approach the square we hear commotion coming from the side facing the town hall. With the placards and fluorescent jackets, it doesn’t take long for us to realise that it is a protest rally. But this is no ordinary protest – there are two rappers on a stage backed by some bass music and guitars. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking it was an outdoor concert.
Chelsie laughs. “The Spanish really know how to have a good time… you’d never find this anywhere else!”
Somewhere between Puerta del Sol and the opera house lies the famous Chocolatería San Gines. Here we have a late breakfast of churros con chocolate in an atmospheric setting with mirrors and wall tiles. It´s said that the best hot chocolate should be so thick that the churros can stand in it without any support. So I take a churro and dip it into the chocolate. It doesn’t stand, but as I put it to my mouth my doubts instantly disappear. The chocolate is deliciously thick and sweet, and the churros are soft but crunchy.
In between bites of this heavenly combination, we exchange news about our friends back home. The truth is that we have not seen each other since graduating from high school, so we take our time catching up on recent events. When the churros and chocolate are all gone we ask for the bill and continue our walking tour through the cobbled streets of the old city. Chelsie sighs. “You should see everything when it’s sunny, it’s really beautiful.”
Eventually we reach an archway which leads to the famous Plaza Mayor. This impressive rectangular square, with its trademark balconies, turrets and painted facades, is featured on most postcards of Madrid. An equestrian statue of King Philip III stands at its centre, and a myriad of cafés and restaurants spill out from the surrounding buildings.
After wandering around the arcades of the Plaza Mayor, Chelsie takes me to the nearby Mercado de San Miguel for a light meal of pinchos. It is lunch hour but surprisingly the market is not packed full of people; there are enough diners to make it vibrant but somehow the building retains an air of spaciousness. Chelsie and I position ourselves at a tapas bar and we order a few of the pinchos on display.
I am finally reunited with my favourite pincho, the stuffed piquillo peppers (pimientos piquillos rellenos), and as I nibble at it I can only think of one word: riquísimo. That’s Spanish for “more than delicious”. I try another pincho topped with bacon, brie and asparagus, and wash it down with a glass of red wine.
Satisfied, we continue strolling until we reach Gran Vía, Madrid’s answer to London’s Oxford Street and New York’s Broadway. The avenue is lined with a fine collection of early 20th-century buildings, housing an array of movie theatres and upscale retail outlets.
A few metro stops later, we find ourselves at the Plaza de Colón, with a monument commemorating Christopher Columbus and the most enormous Spanish flag you’ve ever seen. We sit at the foot of an old pedestal and soak up some sun. “Now I really need to buy a pair of sunglasses,” I tell Chelsie. She laughs. In my forgetfulness I had left them back in Hong Kong. “Can we just stay here for a while?” Chelsie asks. “My feet are tired.” And so we recline on the stone for half an hour and watch the enormous flag fluttering in the breeze.
That night we meet up with one of Chelsie’s friends to attend the opening of a new bar in Chueca, a hip neighbourhood popular with the gay community. I’m thankful that I packed a grey button-up shirt and a waistcoat just in case. After some fresh watermelon and tinto de verano at home, we get dressed and head out to take the metro.
It’s true that the Spanish aren’t exactly subtle when it comes to people-watching. On the metro it becomes obvious that there are people staring at Chelsie and I in our relatively fine clothes. “You see that woman over there?” Chelsie whispers. “She was checking you out, and then me, and now she’s looking at someone else.” I try my hardest to conceal a grin. “This would never happen in England!” I whisper back.
Once in Chueca, we wait outside the metro station among a crowd of very well-dressed individuals. When Chelsie’s friend appears we are introduced and I greet her the Spanish way, with a kiss on both cheeks. She motions towards her friend to the right. “This is Carlos.”
Inwardly I desperately want to practice my Spanish but we end up shaking hands and saying nothing. Under the night sky, we make our way to the bar on the opposite side of the square. A tall, suave man in a suit stands guard at the entrance. “Who invited you?” He asks. Chelsie’s friend gives him a name and he hands us each a poker chip, which we exchange at the bar for a free cocktail.
The girls dominate the conversation and both Carlos and I take a back seat. This continues for something like 10 minutes. Having stayed silent for virtually the whole time, Carlos moves towards the bar to get a drink. At this precise moment I decide to pop him a question.
“Carlos, eres de Madrid?” – are you from Madrid?
“No, soy de Valencia.”
Immediately my jaw drops. “Valencia?? Me encanta Valencia!!”
His face lights up with a generous smile. I recount my experiences at Las Fallas in March and proclaim my love for his city. What was initially a simple question turns out to be the best ice breaker I could ever have asked for.
We begin a strange conversation where I speak to him in Spanish and he responds in English. “Por favor, puedes hablar en español. Quiero practicar.” Please, I tell him, you can speak in Spanish. I want to practice. “Pues, quiero practicar mi inglés.” – Yes, but I want to practice my English, he says.
As I stand there, sipping my mojito and conversing in my limited Spanish, I cannot help wishing that I discovered Spain a little earlier. I glance over at Chelsie, who is laughing and joking with a few other friends. With no shortage of good food, good weather and the Spanish zest for life, she has certainly picked the right place to live.