There are two universal truths about train stations. One, the bathrooms are disgusting and terrifying, and two, they are the weirdest cross section of humanity, existing entirely in a liminal place between going and coming.
I arrived in Madrid’s Atocha Station after a four airports, one and a half days in New York City, two cabs, a sleepless 9 hour flight over the ocean, and one train ride. Dragging my oversized suitcase through the train station, pulling all 50 pounds of it over a turnstile while commuters behind me sighed and groaned, it occurred to me why people backpack through Europe and not giant rolly bag through Europe. I angrily stashed my bag in a locker and promised I’d return to it when it learned it’s lesson. In the bathroom, all dripping wet and clogged toilets with broken doors, I pulled a perfectly curated bag of necessary supplies out of my all purpose camera and day bag. Dry shampoo, febreeze for my day two clothes, deodorant, face wipes, moisturizer, mascara, preparing myself for a much anticipated date with Madrid, and hoping the city would forgive my slight funk.
Atocha is magnificent. There is a pond and trees and walls of enormous glass windows that are unfathomably giant, even standing underneath them - but beyond a single door was the incredible city of Madrid, the place I’d dreamed of for years and worked to get to for days. I wanted so much to see everything, and all I could do was plop myself in a corner with some yogurt and a half-eaten granola bar.
There was nothing I hadn’t planned for. I had maps and bandaids, dry shampoo in carry on size, lists of European doctors who took my health insurance, and directions to the American consulate. It turns out, though, that no amount of lists or bags of cosmetics can prepare you for either the first look at your jet-lagged face and unwashed hair in a train station bathroom or the feeling of realizing you didn’t once think about your actual arrival or those anxiety demons that sometimes creep up from beyond.
And so I sat in a corner with my yogurt, feeling all at once overwhelmed and anxious and guilty and ridiculous while I tried to make up my mind as to where to go or what to do, while I ran through a hundred Spanish phrases, while I fiddled with wifi on my phone so I could update my facebook status to trick everyone into thinking I wasn’t horrified.
There’s an undeniable thrill in the motion of just going, in the fight, in the momentary panic and confusion. We travel between here and there and wrongfully assume simply the act of going is the middle ground. It’s not. The middle ground is the transient place, a bus terminal, airport, or train station, the place where we make a conscious decision to go out into the world to seek something new when we’re good and ready. Going and going until we are exhausted is not impressive, but knowing when to stop and when to go takes skill.
I’m learning to love the transient place in which I currently reside, where the destination isn’t clear and a decision hasn’t been reached. The planner lacks a plan, and it is perhaps serving me well. For years, my personal and professional life has been a constant string of taking cabs to busses to planes hoping it would eventually get me to an ill defined place I wanted to be. And realizing I’m not ready to be there, that all I want to do is eat my yogurt in the corner, has been remarkably liberating.
When I was ready, I finished my quasi-breakfast. I never got the wifi to work. I meandered around, told the newspaper man I didn’t want one, took some pictures, and then a deep breath. And out the door I went. The wrong door, leading to a way that was in no way pedestrian friendly, down a road and between a few cabs, but a door nonetheless.
The city forgave my funk and my unkempt hair, forgave me for being a mess, for staring wide eyed at buildings as I wandered around with no clear idea as to how traffic worked. The city forgave me for not knowing and not understanding, rewarded me for taking the risk when I was ready.
When I found access to wifi, I wrote the first thing that came to mind -
When I returned to Madrid, I met Laura at her apartment and we headed over to Templo De Debod - an Egyptian temple smack dab in the middle of Madrid. Spain helped save the temple in the 60s, and later Egypt decided Spain should have it as a gift. So here it is, in a park in Madrid, making us all feel bad about the gift certificate we gave our friend when we could have given them a temple. Sunset at Templo is said to be one of the things you must do before you die and being in Madrid, it seemed awfully silly not to see it.
On the weekends, this place fills to capacity and people actually cheer when the sun goes down. We were blessed with an apparently un-Madrid like sky full of big poofy clouds streaked with orange. The temple sits on top of a hill, and you can look down on Madrid all aglow - including a beautiful view of the royal palace.
From there, we walked over to Plaza de Espana where we posed with the famous statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza - like you do.
Shana and Laura took me through some amazing main parts of Madrid where the nightlife was incredible and people from all walks of life flooded the old cobblestone streets. After dinner and wine (from La Mancha, to celebrate my windmill fighting) at Lateral we headed next door to a Hawaiian themed bar that was the silliest thing any of us have been a part of.
It looked like 1974, sounded like 1997 and had birds just flying around the bar. We ordered one drink, served in a giant volcano. The waiter brought us carnations and leis and so many snacks (including the aforementioned chocolate with cats on it) and we laughed until our faces hurt from the ridiculousness of it all.
As we were walking back to Laura’s after drinking an entire volcano full of things we’re still not quite sure of, I learned the most important phrase in Spanish I would ever learn.
A me meo.
Quite literally, “I’m peeing on myself,” but more figuratively, “I need to find a bathroom now!” There would be no stopping to enjoy the trio of guitars playing “Losing my Religion” in Spanish, or any number of the other beautiful vignettes along the way.
If we could have toasted with our giant volcano of pineapple juice and other mysteries, we would have toasted to the glories of Spain. The entire country had my tiny, poor Spanish speaking heart and I can’t wait to get back.
“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”
“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”
My third day in Spain I took on the windmills. Though I saw them not as giants or enemies, the journey to get there and the hike to see them was as fierce a battle as any. I woke up early that morning and navigated the metro to the bus station on the other side of the city. in my bad Spanish, I bought a bus ticket to Consuegra that didn’t have any information on it. I didn’t know where the bus picked me up or dropped me off, and I only knew what time it left, not what time it returned. Down at the bus slips, I showed each bus driver my ticket and said “Es correcto?” until I found the right bus. And then I sat on the bus nervously for two hours hoping it was indeed correcto, and that I’d get off in the right place. Fortunately, I did. I arrived in the town so early there was nothing going on, no one awake, nothing open. Again, I was totally alone. This time in a small Spanish town in La Mancha, surrounded by buildings a thousand years old, and mountains millions of years older.
I started meandering through the town in an attempt to find a route to the windmills and I eventually came across a seemingly endless flight of stairs to the first two windmills. Though there was another two mile hike to the main set of windmills and the castle, I stopped and caught my breath and enjoyed the incredible view of La Mancha.
And then further up the road, just beyond the ruins, stood los gigantes. Don Quixote’s windmills in all their glory. The wind was so intense I often had to sit down on the ground or brace myself against the windmills to avoid being toppled right over.
On the way back down, I stopped in to this strange, old Spanish church at the start of the stairs. I put a 20 cents in a little automated box to light a battery operated candle. I sat in the church a moment and kept waiting for an old Spanish woman in a black veil to appear crying. The town was empty. With the exception of a French school group in the castle, I saw almost no one. Traveling alone was my windmill, and I’d fought an strange and intense battle against it.
In the afternoon, I headed back to the bus stop and waited for an hour or so before catching the two hour bus back to Madrid. It rained the entire time and I napped one of the best naps I’ve ever had.
Day two in Spain was supposed to be the day I traveled to Consuegra and Toledo in the same day, though I decided I didn’t see everything I wanted to see in Madrid, I was so in love madly, passionately in love with the city, and I’d lost my bus ticket. Do you remember all the (over) planning I did? It all was a lost cause when I left my precious folder with all my precious documents on the plane. That will teach me to be more spontaneous, I guess.
I had only been in Spain a day, and I’d already settled into the low key, laid back attitude of the Spaniards. And I was exhausted. Laura, my friend with whom I was staying in her small European apartment, gave me the key to her apartment with the giant wooden door that featured a small Jesus medallion, and we made loose plans to meet back around 10:30, when she would be done with her evening plans.
I headed to the Reina Sophia museum, which was completely magical. Seeing Guernica, my favorite Picasso painting, was an incredibly moving experience. They don’t let you take pictures, but it’s a massive painting. It’s curated fantastically well, and I could have stood in that room and stared at it for hours.
Instead, though, I saw what I needed to see and left to head to Parque Del Retiro. It was just getting ready to rain, and everything was that beautiful gray color. Contrasted with the bright, spring green hedges, I couldn’t help but feel I was finding my own little secret garden in the city. So much of my trip was spent not only traveling alone, but actually being alone. In gardens, museums, on top of mountains. It was pleasant, eerie, and comforting all at once – but surprisingly never lonely. Everything in the park was magical, and I walked slowly and quietly, the rain drops falling on my skin every now and again. When I met with my friends later that night, I mentioned Retiro and they both sighed. It was, indeed, as magical as I thought – even to locals.
I headed up Gran Via, the main shopping street in Madrid, with intentions of finding a bite to eat. Though I was in a country that is known for their incredible food, I’m historically bad at remembering to eat while traveling. I’ve been known to survive days on hotel muffins. But instead of food, I stumbled upon a giant palace where I noticed people going in. I assumed it was some must-see site and headed in as well to dodge the rain. It was the Palacio del Cibeles, and it was beautiful, had free wi-fi, and an incredible view of Gran Via from the top of a tower that I naturally climbed.
Thanks to twitter, I got in touch with Shana who met me at the Palace, and we strolled down Gran Via and she gave me an incredible tour of this new part of Madrid. We went to Sol, where the origin of all roads in Spain is, Plaza Mayor, El Barrio de la Latina, Marcedo de San Miguel – stopping for tapas and red wine along the way.
At the Market, we ate blue cheese croquettes and drank rioja with an Aussie couple at the communal tables. We had pisto – sautéed veggies and bacon (which, even as long time vegetarian I did not necessarily pick out) served on bread with a fried egg on top. And my personal favorite, thick toasted crusty bread with tomato, caramelized onion, and goat cheese.
In the words of the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, Everything was tapas and nothing hurt.
After a not-so-pleasant overnight flight where no amount of ambien could quell the anxiety from the serious turbulence, I landed in Madrid at 8:30 in the morning. With my giant bag that I thought wasn’t that heavy until I had to tote it all over Madrid, I caught a train to Atocha knowing they had locker storage until I could meet up with my friends that evening.
Even though it was just the train station, Atocha is beautiful. I spent probably 30 minutes just wondering around it, partially because it’s huge, but partially because it’s magnificent. We spend so much time and effort making buildings that are transient locations so gorgeous, and that is endlessly fascinating to me. It was also the site of the 2004 subway bombings, and there’s a nice memorial to the people who were killed during that tragedy.
After checking my bag (in my bad, broken Spanish) and losing a quick 40 pounds, I found my way out of the train station and over to the plaza in front of the Reina Sophia museum, where I watched a huge group of school kids in little red hats pour out of the building on a field trip, a dad play a game of futbol with his son, who used their bags and sweatshirts to set up a goal, and two women chase their dog with a cone on it’s head. The museum was closed that day, so I explored on foot – stopping for a café con leche and tortilla – which, in Spain, is like a crustless quiche filled with potato and onion, not the flat flour wrap of Latin America.
Eventually I found myself strolling through an open air book market on the edge of Parque Del Retiro, where I paid 5 euro for an old Spanish map. The whole thing was delightful and wonderful, and old men were gathered to talk smack and young people rode their bikes. It’s only a block (uphill) in length, so I meandered up and explored some more, somehow ending up at the Prado Museum. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of renaissance portraits so the Prado wasn’t really my thing, but it was really neat to see Las Meninas in real life. My favorite Spanish teacher in high school used classic Spanish art to teach us vocabulary, so many of the paintings there were by artists I’d studied many years ago. Aside from that, it was kind of an ‘eh’ moment for me, though it’s entirely possible I’m just not cultured enough.
By this point it was around 3pm, and having not slept and flown across the sea, I was exhausted, not showered, and generally feeling icky. I picked up my bag and caught the metro to my friend’s apartment – clutching the tiny piece of paper with her address the entire time. Without a cell phone and with very limited Spanish, I was terrified of getting lost, though I did anyway. Eventually I asked a non-threatening woman and a baby and she pointed me in the right way, though I only understood about half of what she said.
Shana and I then headed out for a quick tour of Madrid and cañas, where we walked around some cute neighborhoods and saw Plaza del Toros. Though the idea of bullfighting makes me uncomfortable, the building itself is undeniably beautiful, being heavily influenced my middle eastern architecture.
Cañas are the best thing in the world, and I hereby move that we bring them to the United States. They are tiny, cheap, beers, about ¾ of a pint, served with some mysterious set of snacks to be determined by the whim of the bar or restaurant. In my time in Madrid the following things were served with our drinks – olives, pickles, ham, tiny chocolate with cats on it, corn nuts, peanuts, fried eggs, toasted bread with cheese on it, and potatoes covered in cheese.
This is the plaza where we had our second round of cañas! There’s also an amazing mural here that I didn’t get a picture of.
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