Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Day 1 in Madrid: Each person knows where his shoe hurts (Cada uno sabe dónde le aprieta el zapato)

This is the first post I've written since May, when Rod and I still had a ray of hope he might live for another year or two. That clearly did not happen, and the past eight months have been hellacious, to say the least.

It was with great trepidation that I ventured to Spain on my own. Several months ago, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at the upcoming SEDERI conference in Seville, and I decided to combine business with pleasure, making this the first significant break I've had in nearly two years. At this point, the best I can report is that I survived the first day and had moments of enjoyment amidst the aching memories of the many wonderful trips Rod and I took through the years. Several times I found myself turning automatically to Rod to share some impression before realizing that I am indeed alone. The memories I create on this trip will be solely mine.

The good news is that Spain has so far proven as delightful as its reputation. The people are lovely, a winning combination of genuine warmth and good manners. I have encountered nothing but kindness. Perhaps one of the advantages of being a middle-aged woman traveling alone is that people seem unusually solicitous.

My flight arrived early on Monday morning, due to a strong tail wind that not only pushed us well ahead of schedule but bounced the plane around as though it were a basketball being dribbled in mid-air. It was not a fun flight, to put it mildly. On the up side, it was unusually empty, which made for quiet in the cabin: no screaming children, no overwrought flight attendants, and no overweight or unwashed passengers spilling over into one's seat. I dropped my bags at the Hotel Petit Palace Posada del Peine, which is right off Plaza Mayor. The hotel is not quite as nice as I expected, but the staff are very accommodating, the rooms are clean, and the location is ideal. I went off in search of coffee and explored the area around the Plaza Mayor. There is a very good tourist office run by the Spanish government that offers tours and helpful advice. Then I went in search of some decent walking shoes since my current pair have been pounded into uselessness by two years of intensive use.

Shopping is plentiful in Madrid, and the stores show little sign of the recession. Winter sales are on, and Spaniards throng the shops, looking for bargains. I had heard from various people that Spain is no longer the "deal" it once was, but my initial impression has been otherwise: food, snacks, and food are vastly reasonable by the standards of other European capitals. Someone coming from an expensive city like London, Moscow, or even Washington, D.C. should find Spain extraordinarily cheap. A decent glass of house wine can be had for 1.50 euros, around $2.00, a price simply unheard of in D.C. where the most undrinkable rotgut costs $6.00-7.00. The same is true for food: a nice bocadillo with jambon is two or three euros depending on the quality of the ham. Tapas bars often serve free food, even if one orders a cheap glass of wine. I don't quite grasp the economics of it, although the taxi driver who brought me into town from the airport said that most people do not earn good salaries compared to the rest of the European Union. So I suppose everything is scaled accordingly.

I spent an hour in the afternoon on the Plaza Mayor, soaking up the sun and sipping a very good (and, of course, cheap) coffee. It is cold in the morning but by mid-day the weather is glorious, in the sixties and sunny. At 4.00 I convened with three other English-speakers in front of the tourist center to take a government-sponsored walking tour, which was excellent. We walked to various historic sites around the city center, ending with a tour of several famous literary landmarks, including spots where Cervantes and other Golden Age writers had lived. I did not know that the original house of Lope de Vega still stands, and I am hoping to arrange a tour tomorrow or Friday: no more than ten people can go through because of its delicate condition.

Tired by 6.00 p.m., I decided to forego the usual Spanish custom of dining at 10.00 p.m. I found a tapas bar off Calle Mayor that served decent, home-cooked fare, the sort of cooking mama might make for her brood. I ordered a glass of rioja and roasted chicken and vegetables, not understanding that first I would be given a free tapas of bread and little sausages nor that the portion would be enormous--a plate covered with half a chicken and piled up with potatoes, onions, and red peppers. Despite my appetite, I could only get through half. And then I was given a shot of some milky house liqueur, standard for anyone ordering food. I waddled out having spent 8 euros--and I had ordered one of the most expensive items on the menu. By then exhausted, I returned to the hotel, showered again, and read for a bit before sleeping for 10 hours.

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