Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Day 2 in Madrid: From Madrid to Heaven (de Madrid al cielo)

So how did I end up weaving back to my hotel at 2.00 a.m. with a bunch of Spanish radicals? For the answer to that question, dear reader, you will have to wait until the end of this post. My day began innocuously enough: an acceptable (although not great) buffet breakfast at the hotel; then hopping a bus to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, a superb collection of Western art assembled by German aristocrats with strong ties to Spain. The museum is fairly new, with terrific light and open spaces, and the paintings are mounted perfectly. The collection is just big enough to be impressive (I recognized any number of canvases from old art history books) without being overwhelming. It was a very enjoyable way to pass several hours.

Later in the afternoon, I hopped another bus to look at the Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple that was actually donated to Spain (and not seized) in 1968 in gratitude for their assistance on archaeological digs. It's strange to see an Egyptian temple in the middle of a traditional Spanish plaza. Not only can one go inside but also get quite close to the hieroglyphs, which are translated and well lit. Afterwards I watched Spaniards walk their dogs in the waning afternoon sun, a pleasant sight.

Finally, I went back to the hotel and rested a bit before venturing out to eat at the Posada de la Villa, a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor and recommended by the hotel manager. Unbelievably, an inn or restaurant has stood on that site since 1642. The maitre d' and waiter were extremely courteous, ushering me to a nice table on the second floor and hovering throughout the meal. They seemed troubled that I was eating alone--perhaps Spanish gallantry--and sent over various goodies from the kitchen for me to sample, which were all wonderful: olives, excellent bread, a dry sherry, and a goat cheese croquette. I ordered asparagus for a starter and lamb, the house specialty, for the main course. Both were superb although prepared in what to an American palate seems a very old-fashioned manner: the asparagus cooked thoroughly and served with a homemade mayonnaise, and the lamb slow roasted for hours, falling apart and swimming in its own succulent juices. The waiter fussed over me, bringing extra juice from the kitchen when he saw how much I liked the lamb and treating me to chocolates and a rose (!!!) at the end of the meal. He urged me to eat more food, acting like an anxious Jewish mother. It was very sweet.

Afterwards I wandered over to the Mercado de San Miguel, an old historic covered marketplace that was refurbished and updated a couple of years ago. It houses kiosks serving oysters, tapas, Spanish wines, chocolates, and caviar on toast in addition to gorgeous fresh fruit. The market is a great favorite with locals and tourists, and at night it's brimming with people from every walk of life. I chatted for an hour with a pleasant English couple who had just flown in a few hours earlier from Newcastle.

And then, on my way back through the Plaza Mayor, I met up with the free-spirited radicals, or, more properly, I should say that they adopted me. They caught me gazing with pity at the number of homeless people who at night crawl into cardboard boxes along the periphery of the plaza. The nights are still cold in Madrid, and I shivered just looking at the threadbare conditions under which too many Spaniards now live. Charo, the spirited female in the group, inveighed against the right-wing political policies that created these conditions, and somehow--I'm still not sure how this happened--I was swept along to a working-class bar off the Plaza Sol (the site of frequent demonstrations), where the conversation veered wildly from politics to girlfriends in Miami to the challenges of conjugating irregular Spanish verbs. Lazaro, a seventy-year-old, talked about his Cuban-American girlfriend in Miami ("my wife and me, we've been married for 45 years--we're like brothers--do you know what I mean?"), while Jorge, a French teacher, instructed me in the crazy past preterite form of nacer, and in the meantime Charo carried on about the Spanish government. The waiters, who knew everyone in the group, fueled the tumult by sending over periodic rounds of tapas and wine, and I suspect they showed political solidarity by not charging for anything. I felt rather like the Owen Wilson character in Midnight in Paris, who finds himself inexplicably scooped up by famous writers and artists from the 1920s, only in my case it seemed more like 1968. The sensation of temporal dislocation was only reinforced by an invitation to join everyone on Thursday night for a demonstration against the Franco regime. I couldn't get a straight answer as to why Franco--who died in 1975--still warrants what the Spanish call a manifestación, but I nonetheless found the impulse weirdly charming, if a bit strange. Between jet lag and too much wine, so sorry was my state by 2.00 a.m. that I would have found plausible the suggestion to demonstrate against Genghis Khan, never mind Franco.

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