9 things I learned on my first date with Madrid

Posted by Chloë Lai & filed under Travel.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid (Credit: Chloë Lai)
Plaza Mayor, Madrid (Credit: Chloë Lai)

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You know Madrid: it’s that gorgeous city that struts the line between ancient history and modern flair. It’s also one of the most exciting, enlightening and perspective-changing places I’ve ever been. The things that struck me were both expected and unexpected, which sounds impossible, but if you’ve ever been on a first date with someone you barely know, you’ll understand. I knew I liked flamenco, tapas and warm sunshine… so with that very vague but positive first impression in mind, I said, Yes, Spain! I’d love to get to know you better! and showed up in Madrid ready to fall in love.

And Madrid didn’t hold back. On that very first Wednesday afternoon, I found out that:

9. Supermarket cashiers are FAST. It’s something that won’t show up on TripAdvisor, but WOW. Forget the gorgeous landmarks and museums in this city: this was the first thing that awed me. With movements that were essentially invisible to the naked eye, they kept the endless queues moving so quickly that I found myself still trying to put my wallet away while the next three customers pushed past me to the exit.

Busker in El Retiro park (Credit: Chloë Lai)

Busker in El Retiro park (Credit: Chloë Lai)

8. The buskers are as diverse as they are talented. Besides the highly-anticipated Spanish guitar players, who exceeded every expectation, I saw an incredible range of instruments being played in the streets, from the accordion to the harp. It began to feel like I was living in a Disney cartoon, followed by musical creatures just waiting to burst into song.

7. Everybody walks. There were entire three-generation families strolling around the city until well past 10pm. My friend, who moved to Madrid just two months ago, said that this was a normal part of daily life, that they were probably just out for their after-dinner walk. It seemed a bit late to be dinner-related, except that-

6. The party doesn’t start until 2am. Yes, there are tapas. No, they won’t serve you at 7pm. Apparently, many restaurants don’t open for dinner service until around 8 or 9pm. And good luck if you want to go dancing after your stroll: nightclubs don’t really get going until around 2am.

5. Convenience stores are called ‘chinos’. Not like the pants- like the people from China. No one I spoke to (besides my friend, who’s from Vancouver) seemed to understand why this might be offensive.

4. There is a magical place in the world where Chucky, Bart Simpson and a Minion hang out. This place is called Puerta del Sol (Sun Gate). I cringed when a tourist approached the group of costumed street performers to ask a question, but Chucky quite obligingly pointed him in the right direction with his bloodied (presumably plastic) knife. Across the street from this bizarre trio is also where Spain’s “kilometre zero”, or starting point for early guide books, is. It’s a tiled marker in the sidewalk, and tourist legend has it that if you step on the tile, you will certainly return to Madrid.

Standing at Kilometre Zero in Puerta del Sol (Credit: Caitlin Kantor)

Standing at Kilometre Zero in Puerta del Sol (Credit: Caitlin Kantor)

3. That guy with the big white cloth sack over his shoulder is not Santa. He’s an illegal street salesman. Calling out to pedestrians from subway entrances and sidewalks, he displays his products on a big white sheet on the ground. At the first sign of the cops, he scoops up the four corners of the sheet and disappears into the crowd. (He may have inherited just a bit of North Pole magic though, because over the next 10 days, I never saw him or any of his doppelgängers get caught.)

2. In the 1960s, a horse statue stank up Plaza Mayor. For a long time, people had been complaining of a mysterious, terrible smell in the plaza. Then they moved the statue of King Felipe III and his horse in order to build an underground parking lot. That’s when they discovered that birds had been flying into the horse’s mouth, getting trapped and dying in its metal belly. The mystery of the stench was solved. Thankfully, when they replaced the statue, they filled in the horse’s mouth to prevent that from happening again.

1. People are friendly, and the world is small. I know I say this about every place I visit, but it’s because it strikes me every time. When I got off the plane and realized just how little Spanish I spoke, I panicked. The train ticket vending machine instructions may as well have been written in, well, Spanish. I turned to the gentleman behind me for help. He walked me through it, swapped tickets with me when I accidentally hit the wrong button anyway, and gave me his subway map. Turns out, he was a retired cruise ship doctor who’d been to Vancouver on several occasions. By the time he got off the train, I had memorized the 2 most useful words in the Spanish language: perdón and gracias.

It felt like the start of something beautiful.

About Chloë Lai

Chloë Lai
Chloë is a Vancouver-based writer who has lived and worked on several continents. She has degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing, because it seemed like the best way to emulate James Herriott without becoming a country vet.

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