In Madrid, morning eases in slow, lazy.
Even coming into the country is easy- no one so much as glances at my passport, and I waltz out of the airport with only the regret that there is no stamp to commemorate my arrival here in this new place.
The first thing I notice is the color.
After the constant dusty white of Athens, the intangible blues of sea and sky, Madrid’s paint palette is a bit of a shock. Even the descent into the subway is a show of blues, reds and pinks. The onslaught of color could be violent- somehow it isn’t. Madrid is a city on its own time, and as such its relaxed tempo gives space for its appearance to be a little loud, a little wild.
Things ramp up in the afternoon, when it seems everyone is out to lunch… then from 3 to 6 everything shuts down. Restaurants often don’t open their doors until 8, and stay open deep into the night.
As someone who is an early morning person, this takes some getting used to. I’ve been on the road a few weeks by the time I end up in Spain, and I tend to fall into slumps after races. I can tell the combination of solitude and not running is getting to me. Madrid, I realize, is a social city, and would probably be enjoyed in an entirely different way with friends or family.
In an effort to get out of this slump, I walk. Everywhere I can. This is how I see things.
Madrid is dizzingly elegant, yet sufficiently grunge to exist as more city than dream. The ground floor of every building could be anything: a nice restaurant, a dive bar, a sex shop, a bookstore. Above battered doorways are great displays of ornate, incredibly detailed architecture.
Just being here you can tell there is so much culture. So much art, so much history. I feel like I can’t do it justice in a blog post (which is true). I wander through grand museums with names that roll off the tongue, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia. Down a quiet hallway I turn into a room and come face to face with Picasso’s Guernica. A gallery down the hall takes the viewer on a tour of Dali’s art. There are works by Degas and an impressionist painting of Paris I stare at longer than anything. Hours disappear.
Though the framed artwork is worth spending days exploring, there’s another world in the street art on every corner. I walk into an artist’s studio, attracted by the colors splashed across the walls to discover 2 rooms of painted women with checkered behinds bent over mundane chores, like scrubbing the floor or doing dishes. Even the names scrawled above storefronts, in a variety of fonts and languages, take on the personality of the places they describe.
I’ve never been to a city I knew so little about before- which is strange. It makes me wonder how much I know of cities is based on the things I’ve read beforehand. How much is our perception of a place influenced by the things we expect to find there? Coming here with that lack of expectation has freed me to see the city now, today, as I am. I think when we read a lot about a city we associate it with certain ideas and focus mostly on the things we’d hoped to find.
In Madrid, without the lens of previous bias, I see these different pieces of culture layered upon each other. I’m thrilled to be walking the same streets as Hemingway, one of my literary heroes, to browse bookstores highlighting Spanish authors. I head to a place called Desperate Literature because I’ve heard it has books in English. It does, but I end up buying a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Spanish to practice. I love the amount of shifts in language that show up here- while I’m in the bookstore, the owner is having a conversation with a woman and somehow they bounce between Spanish, English and French. A girl at the hostel I’m staying in can speak at least three languages- she’s German, fluent in English and Spanish. Then there’s the partying, the dancing, people are out past dawn… there’s the food culture, traditional Spanish food and the emerging subculture of healthy cafes… I begin to frequent a place called Honest Greens, a gluten free bakery named Celicioso. I’m reminded of New York, but resist the temptation to compare the two because here there’s so much more history in every arena- politics, literature, art…
There is so much here. Madrid is vibrant, rich with life. It feels international, elegantly so.
Christmas is coming, which I’d forgotten- Starbucks is advertising heavily, as always. On a Sunday morning I walk around and the streets are quiet, cold- it’s 37 degrees and raining. I’ve missed winter. I love the shops here, little boutiques lining cobblestone streets and big box stores with bright lights promoting winter coat sales and scarves. Secondhand and vintage shops create colorful reprieves from the grey afternoon. I love the November silence of it, love shedding layers to the bright indoors, sipping coffee bathed in the glow of warm lights while gazing out at the chilly day.
Though my post-marathon legs are tired, I manage an easy four miles through Retiro Park, in leggings and a hoodie (let me remind you we don’t get winter where I live). It is magical to dance through the fall leaves, bitter wind on my breath, watching sunlight on groomed bushes and wild trees. Falling leaves deny the order of gardens. I visit a botanic garden but everything is dead save the sage, which I rub on my fingers to smell, and a handful of lavender, whose fragrance is faint.
I return to these parks several times, breathing in their damp scent. At one end of Retiro there’s a square body of water, at the edge of which sits a small castle-looking structure. The scene looks like a painting. Autumn decorates trees in varying shades of brown and yellow, red and gold. Their leaves shimmer in the afternoon light, and the sky is a blue that looks warm, but is actually rather cold. Trails dip in and out of others, opening up to a playground here, a clearing there. My favorite trail emerges above a cleverly designed garden, with rows of trimmed hedges and marble statues. I come across the park’s famous glass palace, through which sunlight glitters and sparkles. It is beautiful.
The first day I got here I realized I wanted to come back. I could imagine living here.
Visiting doesn’t feel like enough.
The thing about travel is that you dance through all these places and want to see it all, but there is only so much time. The great tragedy of my life is that I will not be able to experience living everywhere. The great beauty is that I’ve gained the opportunity to visit, explore, peek behind the curtain at another new culture, and that is something I am eternally grateful for.