I make my way slowly along the cobbled streets snaking down to Oporto. It’s an explosion of colors and sounds. Bright fabrics hanging from market stalls, elaborately embroidered scarves and blankets, table cloths and intricately painted Spanish abanicos.
Día del San Isidro and the Madrileños are out in force. Crowds mingling, conversing cheerfully and soaking up the spring sunshine. Everywhere my gaze goes there’s something else more tantalizing to hold my interest. Children laughing and playing, gnawing on candy canes and florescent green and orange toffee-covered apples. Playing catch and jumping through skipping ropes.
There are women and men dressed in traditional costume. Poker dot dresses buttoned up to the neck and laced with frilly full petty coats, fanning out above their knees. They have flowers in their hair, which is pulled back austerely with jet black clips. The men wear berets, strategically placed over one eye and flowers in their breast pockets.
A swishing of materials; a clacking of castanets, every now and then they break into dance, stomping their heels on the pavement and circling their partners with smoldering eyes.
In parque San Isidro there is a make-shift fun fare. The sun is shining at last, heating up the icy air. The grass is strewn with people drinking sangria from plastic glasses and nibbling on patatas bravas, meat on skewers, sausage rolls, and sticky popcorn. All the talk of “crisis”seems far away in the face of such an abundant feast.
The Spanish really know how to enjoy themselves and today it’s the patron Saint of Madrid that is responsible for the throngs of people and general merriment. There’s something on offer today for every pallet.
To the left, refrigerated containers bursting full of muscles, crabs, octopus, and other interesting-looking sea creatures. To the right, little stands selling bollas of bread the size of tires, loaded with dried fruits and nuts. The largest paella dish I have ever seen, enough for a banquet of hundreds, is a blend of ingredients – chicken, rabbit, rice, peppers, vegetables and squid. Too big to place on a table, the paellara has a stand of its own.
This is a true slice of a traditional Spanish fiesta. Yet as we wind our way up the narrow streets to La Latina and rest our weary legs in a small plaza next to a softly trickling fountain, we were served tinto de verano (red wine with lemonade) by a smiley, gap-toothed Colombian waiter. That’s what I love about this city. For much as it preserves its glorious Spanish-ness; festivos, bull fighting, flamenco, football, and incessant smoking; there is diversity here.
You hear different languages in the street as you walk around. There are gatherings of international communities, Irish bars and Latin American hangouts. You can escape the constant hardness of the people with a mojito in a Cuban bar off a tucked-away side street. Escape is sometimes necessary here as the Spanish come off as rude; their patience thin for people who don’t know how to order a caña.
You have to shout what you want as loudly and abruptly as possible, with no effort to smile and never saying please. One moment of hesitation will invite a loud huff from the waiter. Before you can say vino tinto, he’ll be at the other side of the bar serving someone else who does understand the system.
This general unhelpfulness is endemic in Madrid and spreads beyond the tavernas. Shop assistants, in the main, are sullen and intolerant. They sling your purchase at you whilst chewing loudly on gum and looking in every direction other than yours, determined not to make eye contact.
Commuters have absolutely no etiquette on the metro, as they squeeze and force and, at times, stomp over you to get a seat on the train. And it is a rare thing for someone to offer help as you struggle up flights of never-ending staircases with an over-sized suitcase.
The argument of Spanish food being the best in the world, for me is wearing thin. I challenge anyone to stand up in defense of a plate of fatty oreja (pig’s ear), ensalada russa (potatoes and frozen vegetable salad, at times even complete with beads of sweat as it’s been in the sun too long) or greasy bowls of potatoes and ketchup accompanied with stale bread.
However, protest as I do, I have to confess that I secretly relish the complementary chunks of bread and salami and salted crisps with slivers of sardines on top in the numerous old man bars. Where everything is thrown on the floor and you feel the crack of peanut shells beneath your feet as you walk in.
I relish the exhaust fumes from traffic heaving through the streets, the grit of the metro and the tired faces that stare listlessly ahead. Street performers that burst into your carriage and opportunistic vendors that cluster outside the entrances selling umbrellas at the vaguest promise of rain, or fans, when the heat starts punishing. The noise, the din, the chaos and the overall human interaction that embodies pure… life.
Ahhh. Give me a city like Madrid any day.