Monday, March 27, 2006

I miss Madrid...

Even though I was only there for thirty hours, I miss it still. This, interestingly enough, was the same amount of time that I had gone without sleep when my plane landed at Barajas airport. A day and a half before, I woke up in Paris. I spent the day saying goodbye to the Left Bank before my brother and I made our way to the Gare du Nord, where we caught the night train to Berlin. Why I had to go to Berlin to catch a plane to Madrid is a good question, and one I’m not sure I have an answer to. Regardless, I would have preferred to sleep in our compartment, but a strange Finnish man who smelled awful and wanted to tell me all manner of stories got on in Bruxelles and kept me awake all the way through Germany. I parted ways with my brother at the Zoo Station and went on to the Ostbahnhof on the east side. I spent that afternoon in a Kreuzberg hipster cafe, trying to kill my weariness with cup after cup of strong coffee and bouncy Europop tunes. This fortified me enough to get to Tegel airport, where I was politely manhandled by security (“You vill spin around, yes? Spin farther, please! Goot! Now you may go!”) and bundled onto my plane. Now, at last, I’ll be able to sleep, I thought. But it wasn’t to be. I was in a curious state: even though I could barely keep my eyes open, I was still too excited to sleep. I was going to Spain, after all, a magic place and the expected climax of my European adventure. For a long time, I’ve imagined Spain the way many Americans imagine Ireland, as an avalon, a place of immeasurable beauty, history, and romance.

So when I stumbled out of the terminal, it was like I was in a dream for two distinct reasons. As wondrous as it all was, I probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind to hail a cab. I remember standing near a lonely curb, thinking, If there was cabs, they’d be around here. But I don’t know. I’m in Spain. Maybe they do it differently. Then I turned to look at oncoming traffic and saw something like fifty taxis coming at me in what seemed to be slow motion. Sweet Jesus, I thought, look at all those cabs! They drifted towards me and it was good they were moving like the road was molasses, since I was standing right in their path. A chorus of car horns erupted around me and then I was surrounded by stocky Spanish men, all of them shouting “Señor! Señor!” This was quite confusing, but soon enough one of them reached out and shook my hand. “Ay Señor!” he cried as he took my bag from me. He led me to his taxi and opened the door for me. “Lo siento, señor, estoy muy cansado...” I explained while he was stuffing my luggage into the trunk. It was a shame he couldn’t hear me, really, since this was the only coherent sentence I would form for quite some time.

The cabbie squeezed into the front seat and asked, “Adonde?

La Plaza del Sol, por favor...” I said, trying not to dwell on the fact that--besides the fact that it was “a few steps” from this landmark--I had no idea where my hotel was.

Que?” the driver called back, as he mashed the gas and sent us hurtling into the night.

Si,” I said, watching the ghostly orangish suburbs snap past our windows.

Que?”, the driver asked again, “La Plaza del Sol?

This was the kind of conversation I could handle. “La Plaza del Sol,” I repeated. I liked the sound of it. I could have carried on like this for the whole ride, just saying the name over and over again, had the driver not finally been able to convey to me that there was no Plaza del Sol in Madrid.

Plaza del Sol o PUERTO del Sol?” he asked, with rare tact for a taxi driver.

I used the rearview mirror to stare into his eyes for a second and then I got it. “Si, si. PUERTO del Sol. Lo siento. Soy Americano. No me comprende nada...

Verdad?” he asked.

Verdad.” I answered. He laughed then, and I laughed too, and we laughed for a long way through the outskirts of town. After awhile, we got off the freeway and started whipping down the wide streets of the city itself. Madrid doesn’t look stereotypically “Spanish”, but I was transfixed regardless. If there is any one word to describe it, that word has to be “alive”. Madrid past midnight is more electric than most places ever become. The avenues were streaks of headlights and the big buildings crowded them close, glowing with neon and ringed by crowds rushing back and forth. My slow mind was astonished. I have lived in New York, I’ve seen New York in all it’s exultation and that’s probably the only thing that can approach the energy running through Madrid at night.

I was well past the point of worrying that I looked silly. I pressed my face right up to the window and stared out at it. It was chaos, but the good kind. There were people everywhere, and every kind of them, too. Tall blonde women and taller African kids, Arabs and East Asians, long-haired boys in soccer jerseys and cute girls in cocktail dresses–it was a great snarl of humanity, noisy and glorious. Madrid is unlike other European capitals. In Madrid, it’s not the architecture that captures your attention, it’s the street life. This isn’t to say that they don’t have their share of spectacular buildings and quaint backroads, it’s just that the people–with their exuberance and their variety and their sheer number–can’t help but upstage all that.

Looming over one of the roads we raced down was a giant neon sign for the Olympics. The very next day, Madrid’s bid to host them would be turned down in favor of London’s. I figured that this would be a good topic for taxi talk, so I ventured to say, “La Olympics. Madrid o no?”. My Spanish was execrable and my pronunciation was worse, but the driver was kind to me.

La Olympics?” he asked, “No me comprende. No hablo ingles.

De nada. Ingles es malo.” I said.

He started to laugh again. “Me gusta. Ingles es malo. Me gusta, Americano...” he said between his giggles.

The closer we got to the center of the city, the thinner the roads became. Here the crowds were so close I was surprised our side mirrors didn’t knock them over. Traffic was heavy and slow, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t even look at the meter. I could have ridden around all night. I had a pocket full of Euros and a bad case of sleep deprivation.

It didn’t come to that, though. Before long, we coasted into a teeming square and he pulled to the curb. “Puerto del Sol,” the driver said and he hopped out to dig my bag out of his trunk.

I went after him with a fistful of bills. He gave me my bag and I handed him all of them. It was a lot of money, but he had driven me a long way and I was too awestruck to calculate a proper tip. “Gracias, Americano,” he said. He clapped me on my back before hurrying back to his cab and taking his place in the endless trail of headlights pouring down the street.

I was standing on a concrete island. All around me, men and women were laughing as they went tottering tipsily past, locals and tourists, young and old, the glamorous and the ordinary. The lights were brighter than the daytime and there was music coming from everywhere. The air was hot, much hotter than the nights I’m used to and I lingered there dumbfounded. This is Spain, this is Spain, I was thinking. There I was, in the heart of the nation of my dreams, and I was suddenly quite emotional. It was so beautiful, more beautiful than I could have guessed.

In that whole long moment, it didn’t matter that I had no idea where my hotel was.