Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day 5 in Madrid: Until we meet again (Hasta nos encontramos otra vez) )

I awakened with a mild sore throat and sniffles, little wonder given my jet-lagged body and crazy hours. Half of Madrid sounds like a tubercular ward at the moment, and even though I edge nervously away from audible hacking and sneezing, one can only do so much. The last thing I wanted to do was get up at the crack of dawn and dash down to the Atocha station to catch the high-speed train to Toledo. So I didn't. Instead I slept in, answered e-mails, and hand-washed some laundry. I'm crazy about Spain, and I will return. Next time I'll see Toledo.

I thought about spending a quiet day reading and napping, but the gorgeous weather beckoned, and I dressed and headed out, stopping at a typical coffee bar for a quick snack. There are no seats: one simply places the order, stands by a tall table, knocks back the coffee and roll, and then leaves. It's the sort of place frequented by MadrileƱos, not tourists, since the staff speak only Spanish. I'm finding that even my halting conversational abilities hold me in good stead. Several times British tourists, overhearing me converse with waiters, have asked for help placing orders (and why do most Brits refuse to learn even a few basic phrases?).

I walked to the Casa de Lope de Vega, the home where the famous dramatist lived and wrote for many years until the died in his mid-seventies. The house is located in the Literary District, a terrific neighborhood chockablock with bookstores, antique shops, and literary sites. I had a tough time navigating my way despite the use of a map, and I learned in the interim that many Spaniards are as ignorant of their cultural history as we are of ours. Such is contemporary life. When I asked for directions, no one seemed to know its location; one man expressed wonder that Lope's home even existed. A delivery guy finally helped me out--I figured he probably better than anyone knew his way around the neighborhood--and I arrived ten minutes late for the tour, having walked around in circles for nearly an hour. The Spanish, though, are very laid back about lateness, and the guide was typically relaxed ("no se preocupe!"). The home is quite beautiful and filled with period antiques from the National Museum and books from the National Library. I was especially moved by Lope's study, where he wrote hundreds of plays and poems, including such famous works as Fuente Ovejuna. Some scholars claim he produced over 1,000 scripts, a number I find unbelievable. After the tour, the guide spent some time with me alone. The Spanish, like other European cultures, have enormous reverence for learning, and when the guide discovered my profession, she was more than happy to spend 20 minutes fielding my questions (in rapidly delivered Spanish--I had to slow her down several times). I was fascinated to learn that Lope, despite his prolific output, made little money from playwriting. Evidently playwrights did not profit from writing for the commercial stage in the manner of English dramatists, and even his nice home was the result of patronage, not wages. There is quite a cottage industry here of specialists intent on identifying plays (often published anonymously) by Lope.

I found a little tapas bar on a side street and ate a simple snack before proceeding to the Museo de Sofia Reina, except that I never actually arrived: I was sidetracked by an exhibit on the Ballets Russes at CaixaForum, a strikingly handsome modern art gallery sponsored by one of the largest banks in Spain. Admission is free, and the show is superlative. I tried to imagine Bank of America or Citibank doing something equivalent, perhaps an exhibit on French surrealism (thematically appropriate given the U.S. banking industry of late), but I would expect hell to freeze over first. I know a bit about the Ballets Russes, but I learned much more from this smashing show. The costumes, programs, mock-ups of sets, and film clips were all fascinating, and I was thoroughly delighted.

Indeed, so perfect was my outing that I decided to call it quits: why mess with perfection? For a theatre geek like myself, having Lope de Vega and the Ballets Russes together in one afternoon was sheer bliss. So I hiked back to the hotel, grabbed my laptop, and went to a cafe in the Plaza Mayor, where I worked for a couple of hours and enjoyed the waning sun. Around 7.00 I realized I hadn't had a decent meal since Gabriela fed me two days ago--I've been grazing on the run--and my clothes are becoming alarmingly loose. Too much walking and not enough calories. Most of the restaurants around the Plaza Mayor are tourist traps, but I found a small place that looked inviting. I decided to take a chance, and I order the prix fixe dinner, a real bargain: 14 euros got me three courses and a glass of decent red wine. The food was, to my astonishment, excellent despite the touristy location. I started with a nice garlicky vegetable soup, followed by pork. Originally I wanted the salmon, but the waiter advocated for the pork, and I'm glad I assented. Succulent and tender, it burst with flavor, nothing like the tasteless meat we have at home. Dessert was a nice chocolate confection, but I could only manage a couple of bites; indeed, I ended up leaving a goodly portion of my entree as well. Spanish portions are just too damn big.

So now I'm packing for my trip down to Cordoba tomorrow and hoping my sore throat and sniffles abate. I will be very sorry to leave Madrid, a city that has seduced me utterly. Gabriela is urging me to consider renting an apartment for a month, and I am very tempted to do so, perhaps in May or June of 2013, before it gets too hot. As the radicals said to me when we were out carousing, one can always dream, right?

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