UNITED STATES—It was Summer Solstice when I arrived and enjoyed the first fruits of accidental tourism. I had been prepared to take my Euros and invest in a ride on the Metro, directly to Madrid, where there no concrete plans yet for a place to stay.
But instead, at the last minute, a Spanish friend in Los Angeles arranged for a livery car from her brother’s business to pick me up. Her mother and a driver were frantically awaiting for me to arrive as I was frantically trying to contact my contact in Madrid. Her mother, for the meantime, decided to take me to their suburb, 50 kilometers north of Madrid till things got sorted out.
The suburbs are not the suburbs we think of in Los Angeles. Though there are satellite, like San Sebastián de los Reyes cities growing up around Madrid, there is a definitive sense that when the perimeter of the city ends, that land is rescinded to the millennial country, and the development where Carmen and Fernando, my hosts, live is surrounded by hills, some covered by dry grass and others dotted by scrub oaks and here and there patches of arable land shaped to the terrain’s contours, the land is surprisingly rustic after centuries of invasions from the Moors and the Romans.
That first morning when I’d sought to vanquish jet lag, Fernando got out of the torn plaid work shirt (“This was my best shirt”) and we all piled into the Renault stick shift. A note about cars in this corner of Europe: they tend to be modestly-sized new models not offered to the American market and they tend to be stick shift. We drove a couple miles in the extremely hot van, which cooled as the rolled-down windows did their job. Fernando and I ruled on the point of not caring about air conditioning.
On our way to the restaurant there was a familiar sight from home, a Shell service station. The gas prices were very low, like 1.30, being sold in liters. Our destination was an eatery, the Posada de Mari in the nearby township of Cabrera. It was an irresistible place, like a snow country lodge, with a lofty peaked ceiling that towered far above our heads and rafters, carefully finished by pine planks. We sat at tables with bright yellow tablecloths. It was, as we say in Mexico, de película. Out of the movies. The patrons were upscale, subdued and genteel; even the kids on one family seemed quiet and reserved. The maitre d’ enthusiastically greeted Carmen and Fernando, but retained an air of professionalism.
Likewise, the beaded waiter with a dark tattoo under his sleeve seemed unburdened by the need to show an expenditure of friendliness. There was pressure from Carmen to get the lunch combo which would include an entree. I opted ensalada rusa. I wasn’t quite sure what ensalada rusa was, but it sounded green and fresh. A pitcher of red wine came to the table. When the ensalada rusa came, it turned out to be potato salad. Afterward, I found out that Carmen had sneakily ordered the entrée.
Swordfish: but it was like no other swordfish ever, having left behind the trappings of its fish origin. The fish was like a slice of ham, and it had a density even greater than ham. This would be the first of many things in Spain that would have a familiar label and then would turn out to be something else altogether.
A funny example was agua mineral (mineral water), the first day I finally was able to join friends in Madrid, that hot overpeopled afternoon by the Gran Vía I had my heart set on bubbly soda water, and they delivered a bottle of flat water. “But it is mineral water,” said the Guatemalan clerk. “Not where I come from.”
To be continued…