the end

“The journey is sorry for being the cause of distance.”
-Atahualpa Yupanqui; and graffiti on the building next to my apartment

Today, for the first time in more than two years, I woke up in my parents’ house in Massachusetts, knowing that I didn’t have a flight to Madrid awaiting me in the upcoming weeks.

No one can deny the comforts of coming home…the exclamation point-laiden texts from friends upon receiving a message from your “normal” number, the familiarity of the same coffee mugs you’ve caffeinated from for years, the family photos adorning the walls, reminding you that no place, no matter how “right” it feels, will ever replace your roots.

But there’s also that sense of dreamlike fantasy, as if, upon returning to the place of constancy, all of the experiences and growth and changes you’ve undergone since the previous time you lived there, disappear.

While the future is always uncertain, in all likelihood, I will not return to live in Spain. Yes, as a dear friend reminded me via song lyrics, “one always returns to the places where they loved life.”  But there’s a stark difference between living somewhere and returning as a visitor.

“Because Madrid isn’t special at all.  It doesn’t have a great river.  It barely has skyscrapers.  It doesn’t have ruins, nor a beach, nor the sea.  But it has its people, unexpected corners, constant liveliness, and variety.  It’s worth it to get up early—even just once—to live a day in Madrid”
-Anonymous

Yesterday, I walked Madrid’s streets for the last time as a resident (when the customs agent in Barajas asked me if I resided there, it pained me to say no, because although I don’t according to the legal definition of the word residir, I certainly feel like I did).  When I go back to visit, be it in a year or two or five, the guy who works at the corner fruit stand probably won’t be there anymore.  Or maybe the fruit stand won’t be there at all, having been replaced in the interim by a pharmacy or clothing store.  The menus at my favorite restaurants will probably have changed.  My friends will live in different apartments, or different cities altogether.  Those who were dating will be single, those who were single will have children.  The graffiti will be painted over and new words of wisdom will take its place.  Pot holes whose locations I had memorized and could step over with my eyes closed will be fixed, and new ones will catch me by surprise.

But more important than losing familiarity with the employees at neighborhood establishments and the terrain of the local streets, is the fear of losing the intangible things that Madrid gave me: linguistic flexibility, cultural competence, appreciation for spontaneity, comfort in my own skin, life-altering friendships, and confidence in my ability to conquer the world.

Now comes the real challenge.  Not adapting to a new culture across the pond, but rather readapting to my own culture, embracing my own extrañeza and that of those in my own backyard, delicately weaving together the experiences, lessons, smells and sensations that the past two years have given me, with the roots of the previous 22 and the future that awaits.

***

After two years of documenting my life, including trips to foreign lands, adventures in the classroom, Spanish history as seen through food, musings on bilingualism, and love for my adoptive city, it is with this final post that I lay this blog to rest.  I hope that it has served you well, be it as a way to follow my life across the pond, or as inspiration to pack things up and see the world.  If you’re anything like me, doing so will serve as the best tool possible to truly see yourself.

playing tour guide in the city of “irrepressible fizz”

Photo courtesy o Jose Maria Cuellar, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Jose Maria Cuellar, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

“Madrid’s main selling point is the friendly, anarchic energy of its urban culture. Compared to Rome, its history is short and its monuments modest. The city also lacks the grand planning of Vienna or Berlin’s sense of space. What Madrid does have is an irrepressible fizz, with an eclectic architecture that includes medieval alleys and renaissance squares but also art deco skyscrapers and slightly hysterical buildings that resemble Belle Époque Paris on steroids. While its main street is often said to recall New York’s Broadway in all its pre-2000s grungy energy, around the corner there are quiet, village-like corners apparently populated only by old women walking toy dogs. And although it has one of the grandest royal palaces in all Europe, it’s always been a fairly scruffy place and none the worse for it. Nowhere else in Europe quite matches its contradictory mix of big city bustle and quiet provincialism, its combination of old guard Spanish tradition and punkish vibrancy.”

Feargus O’Sullivan

In each of the last three months, I have played the role of tour-guide-extraordinaire to three combinations of visitors from the motherland.  Each set of guests, made up of both friends and family, relied on me to design and execute their itineraries–from sunrise ’til sunset, from sightseeing to dining, from transportation to communication.  All of these visitors combined their trips to Madrid with visits to other Spanish cities, including Barcelona, Seville and Toledo, but I made it my personal responsibility to prove to them that Madrid is número uno, embodying the best that many of the others have to offer.

The thing about the Spanish capital is that, like a fine wine that gets better with age, Madrid gets better with familiarity.  It doesn’t hit you over the head with charm like other European cities, but it drips with quirkiness and regality and magic as long as you know where to look.  Remembering how not-won-over I was during my first visit here as a tourist almost four years ago, I did everything in my power to give my visitors the express version of the Madrid that one knows and loves after living here for some time.  The task of putting together 3-, 5- and 6-day itineraries that capture the city’s essence forced me to think critically about what makes it so special, and what experiences one must have here to be truly aware of its greatness.  I raved to my guests about Madrid’s liveliness, gastronomy and people; its traditions, openness and public transportation; its compactness, diverse neighborhoods, and sense of history.  As they meandered through the bustling avenues of Gran Vía and calle Alcalá, the winding streets of La Latina, the hipster vibe of Malasaña, and the historical heft of Madrid de los Austrias, it appears I was successful in converting them to Team Madrid.

And who could blame them?  What more could one ask for than a city described as possessing an “irrepressible fizz” with a “contradictory mix of big city bustle and quiet provincialism” and a “combination of old guard Spanish tradition and punkish vibrancy?”  Very little, I tell you.  Very little.

San Isidro

Spain may be famous for a handful of stereotypes — among them: football, sun and sangría.  Moving one step higher on the ladder of knowledge, those of us who studied Spanish in high school got a cursory rundown of the major local and national holidays…Semana Santa, La Feria de Abril, Las Fallas, etc.  However, before moving to Madrid, I had never heard of San Isidro, a mid-May festival that celebrates the city’s patron saint, Isidore.

For the holiday, madrileños dress up in traditional local costumes, eat, dance, and listen to music.  Some go to drink from the well where, according to legend, San Isidro miraculously saved his son’s life after he fell in by making the water level rise.  Others watch the festival’s special bullfights, though this year they were canceled due to three consecutive injuries to the bullfighters.  Regardless of what one chooses off of San Isidro’s long menu of ways to celebrate, a good time is usually had by all.

I honored San Isidro 2014 in full chulapa dress, at the traditional Pradera de San Isidro (a grassy area where people gather on this holiday), enjoying the sun, a picnic, some wine, and topping it all off with rosquillas, round pastries covered in merengue (“las de Santa Clara”), almonds (“las francesas”), icing (“las listas”— the smart ones, because wanting extra sugar on top is a smart thing) or plain (“las tontas” — the dumb ones, because why would you pass up sugar when it’s offered to you?).

my big three

While not The Louvre, The Met or even The Guggenheim, Madrid has three top art museums that are usually high up on most tourists’ Must See List: The Prado, The Reina Sofía, and The Thyssen-Bornemisza.

What most tourists typically don’t get the chance to see are the plethora of additional, less famous museums that make up Madrid’s repertoire, such as The Museum of the Americas, The Sorolla Museum, and The Museum of Decorative Art, just to name a few.

And then there are the not-so-touristy and not-so-traditional options, which include the CaixaForum, El Matadero, and the Conde Duque Cultural Center, all of which I’ve had the chance to visit recently.

El Matadero, meaning The Slaughterhouse, was literally just that, but has since been converted into a contemporary arts center.  The sprawling campus offers various spaces holding film screenings, theater performances, art exhibits, libraries, work spaces, and workshops (almost all of which are free), and even two restaurants.  During my visit, I perused an exhibit about the paper scrolls and writing tablets used in ancient Rome; I toured a unique Japanese garden; and I was inspired by an exhibit called We Traders: Swapping Crisis for City, which featured the work of designers, architects, dreamers, movers and shakers in Berlin, Madrid, Lisbon, Turin and Toulouse who are developing creative uses of existing resources to reinvigorate their local economies and communities.  Examples include an artist’s collaborative, an initiative promoting urban agriculture, and a co-housing community.

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The CaixaForum is a cultural center sponsored by the Caixa Bank and located near the big three museums which houses, among other things, internationally-renowned traveling exhibits.  I visited in the fall to catch an enchanting exhibit about George Méliès, the father of movie special effects, and I returned recently to see “Génesis” by Sebastião Salgado, a collection of works by the Brazilian photographer who traveled to all seven continents to document the landscapes, animals, and tribal people who reside beyond the lens of mainstream media.  Next up on my to-see list is Pixar: 25 Years of Animation.  To boot, The CaixaForum is an architecturally intriguing building, with a modern facade featuring its very own vertical garden.

The vertical garden at The Caixa Forum

The vertical garden at The Caixa Forum

The Conde Duque Cultural Center, located in a formar military barracks, is another multipurpose space with exhibits, performances venues, workshops and work spaces.  A recent visit was highlighted by the Madrid: 1910-1935 photography exhibit of “a city in transformation,” capturing the way in which the Spanish capital sought to follow suit with other large European cities’ modernization efforts during the early 20th century.  The photos displayed in the exhibit focused on the changes that were made in architecture, roadways and public transportation.

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As someone who is admittedly less-than-polished when it comes to classic art, an afternoon at the Prado, faced with a collection thousands of paintings and statues and drawings from centuries ago, can be daunting (though undoubtedly worthwhile).  However, these alternative museums with smaller collections and rotating exhibits, have a little something for everyone, and are more accessible to those of us without an art history background.  Yet another reason why there’s more to Madrid than what meets the eye in the guide book.

springtime whimsicality in El Capricho

Spring has sprung a few weeks early here in Madrid (a welcome change after its delayed arrival last year), and the past week has been all about drinks on sidewalk cafés, taking the long way home, and exploring new corners of the city in short sleeves, under the bright blue sky and shining sun.

Saturday afternoon’s destination was Parque de El Capricho (capricho meaning whim or caprice), a beautiful green space located in the northeastern corner of the city.  The park is only open on the weekends and entrance is free, but only a maximum of 1,000 visitors (without food, drinks, bikes or skateboards) are allowed at any one time, maintaining an air of serenity within its gates.

El Capricho was built in the late 18th century by the Dukes of Osuna as an oasis away from the city center and an escape for the best artists, landscapers and intellectuals of the time.  It contains a charming mix of greenery, sculptures, water elements and buildings, though I imagine its beauty will be even more impressive when springtime is in full swing and all of the flora in bloom.  Although the park is an unknown to many madrileños due to its distance from the city center (approximately 40 minutes by metro), this guiri will certainly be back.