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  • Jennifer

...My Old World Spain "Madrid, and Toledo, and the Prado, Oh My!"

Running hurly-burly through busy, noisy, even construction-filled city streets isn’t new to me. Back in my day, this New York City gal banged around the East Village of Manhattan – my proper black Ann Taylor high heels tragically out of place, but effective in running from over-zealous tattoo parlor owners intent on inking me up. I also once hid out in a café in Santiago, Chile – barely dodging water cannons and tear gas outside, the sound of student protesters filling my ears.

Moving on from South American drama, I’ve also gotten caught in a twilight rainstorm in Rome, Italy – the palm trees of The Eternal City bending in that ancient, enchanting wind. I've even tooled around Los Angeles in a lovably clunky old brown Volvo as I battled through a bout of West Coast sunstroke – my LA pal Katie telling me, “Yes, the sun is stronger out here I’m afraid.” I adjusted the car’s seatbelt, so it wouldn’t touch my unbelievably sore, red shoulder.

But there’s nothing quite like sifting through the memories of a city you used to live in, but haven’t seen in twenty years – the intersection (pun intended) of nostalgia, factual accuracies and inaccuracies (sometimes our memories play tricks on us), and a simple awestruck “look how much I’ve lived since then.”

I was a twenty-year-old study abroad student of Madrid, Spain. Today, I am a forty-year-old sales executive and writer. I’ve lived a lot since Madrid. This autumn, I returned to my Spanish roots – a place that helped form me years ago into the person that I am today. Spain sprouted at least a few sturdy branches on my hearty "tree of life." Notably, I used my Spanish language skills honed in Madrid during my economics publishing career in my twenties and thirties, where I traveled extensively to Latin America. I remember my Madrid days fondly – so I was undoubtedly excited to go back.

My sister Wendy, her partner Toni Ann, and I all flew over to visit my twenty-year-old niece, Catria, who is studying abroad in, of all places, Madrid. From start to finish, this trip was MEMORABLE. For those of you who have asked me to recount my “full circle” Spain trip, this blog post is just for you. I humbly offer up my day-by-day descriptions, a la a grand sit-down meal of Spain's most popular dish called paella – chock full of meat, seafood, scrumptious rice, and saffron spices. I hope you enjoy. It's a lot to digest. Forks ready? Here goes.

DAY 1 (SATURDAY, OCTOBER 6): Arrival, or as I like to say… jet lag, airbnb check-in, a lime green bedspread, a REALLY fun and loud plaza below our apartment, in our funky Tribunal district reminiscent of New York City’s Greenwich Village… all topped off with walking through my old fave neighborhood called Sol, and stopping off for tapas, lemon Fanta soda, and “churros y chocolate” conveniently located next to the Joy Eslava theater and her beautiful neon lights. BIG BREATH! THAT WAS A LOT! Catria was an Einstein fiend with her powers of iPhone navigation… she led us through the small cobblestone streets of trendy Sol like a woman on a mission. She ensured that no way would our first night in Spain end without a loud café followed by midnight churros. All hail Lady Einstein.

Our "Airbnb" Room With a View

Our Picasso-Looking Pad... I "Heart" the Bright Art of Spain

My Sol at Night

Reuniting Over Tapas

DAY 2 (SUNDAY, OCTOBER 7): The Rastro, otherwise known as… the open market Wendy THOUGHT she would enjoy, but… we all have our preferences, and Wendy’s proclivity for less crowds and a more relaxed atmosphere was completely understandable. And at least I got the first glimpse of my Spanish Count at the Rastro. Thanks, Toni Ann, for snapping a pic. I have found my man. But thankfully we flew solo to our next stop called “El Retiro.” Madrid’s El Retiro park signifies one of my two favorite moments during this Spain adventure. El Retiro is Madrid’s premiere 350-acre park, and it is absolutely gorgeous. The big blue-green lake with boaters, the fairy-tale glass house, the cute sunning turtles and quacking ducks, and our surprising lotto jackpot, El Retiro reigns supreme. I also can’t forget the truly gasp-worthy splendor of the sculptured gardens as you descend out of the park, and the sweet outdoor café where I enjoyed my first tortilla española in twenty years (brilliant egg and potato sandwich). Ah, the sun of the day was calming. Sidebar… the last time I visited El Retiro, it was autumn 1996, and I was listening to Barbra Streisand on an old-fashioned walkman as I walked all dramatically through the gardens at dusk, dressed in my knee-high brown boots and camel brown dress. Wow!

The Gang at El Retiro... Spain is Known for Beautiful Fountains

The Beautiful Lake at El Retiro

Us at the Magical Crystal House

DAY 3 (MONDAY, OCTOBER 8): Let’s Shop, or better stated… “I spy” Primark department store on Gran Vía, then a French clothing store where we bought the place out with toddler clothes, then a whole lotta walkin’ and talkin’ followed by a whole lotta questions… “Do Spaniards sell birthday cards?” Our conclusion was “no.” And, “Where can I buy some fine calcetines (socks)?” Then, let’s stroll through the Plaza Mayor. We heard their calamari sandwiches are tasty. Then, let’s head home and watch a Whitney Houston documentary on Netflix before heading back out for a 9pm dinner at Rosa Negra, Catria’s fave Mexican restaurant in Madrid. Hey, hey… now we can’t end the night without gelato. OMG!!! We found the BEST gelato place in all of Madrid. All our mouths were watering. I had the neon green manzana (apple) and lovely tan cappuccino. I can’t tell you what anyone else got… I was lost in my own gelato haze… heaven… “Where am I again?”

DAY 4 (TUESDAY, OCTOBER 9): The Prado Museum, also known as… “I never told you a vacation was a rose garden.” Harrumph. By Day 4 of this Spanish adventure, we four had realized that our iPhones, Fitbits, etc., were feeling terribly neglected. Here they had been, this whole time, calculating our “daily steps” which were quite numerically impressive. Our daily activity was such that even ‘80s work-out icon and actress Jane Fonda would be singing our praises. We were walking about 5-6 miles each day! When we finally looked at our newfangled tracking devices, and realized just how much we’d been exercising, I for one thought… “Why aren’t we prouder of ourselves?” Simply put… vacations can be tough. The internal pressure one feels to seek out every fun sight, every good eat, and every ounce of atmospheric charm can be outright emotionally and physically draining. As we weaved our way through El Greco, Goya, Velázquez, and BEYOND impressive shoulder-high portraits of 1600s Spanish royalty, clergyman, and peasants in the Prado museum, I swear somewhere inside ourselves we were thinking… “Dude, my flippin’ feet are KILLING me!!!” Or “Please, for the love of all that is good, I just want to magically understand Spanish, so I don’t have to ask Catria again what’s on the menu at lunch!!!” I hearken back to my best friend in the ninth grade who, quite wisely, said to me as we prepared for a Vermont ski vacation with her family, "How much you wanna bet we're gonna get in one big 'best friends' argument on this vacation. How could we not? We'll be spending every waking minute together for the next seven days!" Her words proved not only true, but a total steadying force. So when the inevitable argument came, we actually laughed. Vacations are about "the good, the bad, and the ugly." Be prepared for the verbal snipe, the awful stink eye, and the puzzling sigh emitted from your loved ones. But, it's all harmless par for the course, and only adds to a vacation's fun. That in mind, the Prado museum was gorgeous… including its surrounding neighborhood with Palacio de Cibeles, the old church, and fountains. Top this all off with a rainy trek that night to Catria’s “simply simpatico” host family in the north of Madrid, our umbrellas holding up our sleepy heads after another jam-packed day in Spain, we slept well that night for sure. But back to dinner… dinner at Catria’s host family’s home was relaxing, refreshing, and filled me with such happiness for Catria and her study abroad experience. There’s that feeling of being young, and having the world at your fingertips… and to know that you have a wonderful host family to support you along the way and help make your experience a positive one, I am getting teary. The gazpacho (Spanish tomato soup) of Calle Julia will forever warm my heart.

As Photos Not Permitted in the Prado... Another One of El Retiro

DAY 5 (WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 10): Calle Benidorm, a.k.a…. another street that warms my heart. Going back to my old neighborhood was quite an experience… flashback to August 1996… I was just a young’un with a love for Romance languages, a love for Spanish culture, and a desire to learn in a foreign land. The mythic stork of “study abroad,” otherwise called Iberia Airlines, dropped me down in Spain, me a little scared and more than a little homesick… and after four months of a whole lotta livin’, assimilatin’, cryin’ over missing my new boyfriend and my new college back home in New York City, I conquered Madrid, grew to love it, met some amazing American and Spanish people… some of whom are still my friends to this day… my Spanish language skills rocked, and I even squeezed in some side trips to France, Portugal, and Italy… And my host family? Dear Maru and Jose, after all these years, I thank you for your kindness, and I treasure that apartment building at lovely Calle Benidorm, 28. Thank you to Wendy and Toni Ann for taking the metro with me to good ol’ Carmen, and walking up that little tree-lined avenue… to a side street that holds so many pleasant, but also IMPORTANT memories for me. Spain strengthened me and showed me that I could truly be resilient and capable in life. To return twenty years later, and feel a gentle breeze inside myself, I love that you can be part of this new memory…”LOOK HOW MUCH I’VE LIVED SINCE THEN.” That phrase is perfect. Oh, and what did we do after? I got DRUNK. Just kidding… we went to a tiny hole-in-the wall restaurant called Alegrías, where I enjoyed my first OFFICIAL alcoholic Fanta de Limón beverage in twenty years. Man, I was Jonesin’ for my “Vodka con Fanta de Limón.” But, just like twenty years ago, either I or the waiter got the order wrong! But instead of mistakenly being served chocolate milk like twenty years ago, this time I was served Tanqueray gin!!! Too funny.

Calle Benidorm... I Remembered My Way Home

My Favorite Drink in Spain... Fanta de Limón

DAY 6 (THURSDAY, OCTOBER 11): Toledo, or… “I swear we’re gonna get up early to make this train.” What time did we make it to Toledo? We took the 3:50pm train, thank you very much. But it was perfect timing… as the morning showers had passed, and all three of us needed those extra hours of sleep. Toledo was magical, and signifies my second favorite moment on this Spain trip. From the second you leave the train, and take a selfie with Toledo’s Medieval knight who’s there to welcome you to his ancient sleepy town, I felt myself breathing deeper. Toledo has pretty mosaic walls, palm trees, and one impressively imposing old brown fortress on a hill. It's a town you “walk up to” from the train station. It’s then a town that allows you to gaze out, and down, at the beautiful brown horizon of Spanish countryside and blue river… your imagination drifts, and you swear that if you squint hard enough, you’ll see all the way to Morocco, North Africa. Toledo was damascene jewelry and knick-knacks… Wendy, now you officially know where I bought you that black and gold fan years ago... Mom, the same goes for you and those teardrop damascene earrings… bought them in Toledo! On this trip, I treated myself to a damascene necklace (my first personal piece of damascene jewelry). I then bought Catria three special things, which I am saving intriguingly for Christmas. It’ll be here soon, Catria! And Toni Ann, I'm so glad that you purchased a damascene ring for yourself. All five of us will now have something special to connect us to this small, beautiful, spiritual town. Toledo's got “spiritual charisma.” It draws you in.

A Medieval Knight Greets You in Toledo

The Colorful Arabic Mosaic Tiles in Toledo

Are My Pants an Optical Illusion... They Blend in with the Mosaics

The Magical View from Toledo

Another Angle

An Ancient Doorway... In a Spiritual Town

DAY 7 (FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12): Our Last Day, where I hate to admit… I was sick! All this walkin’, Spanish talkin’, menu and sign readin’, metro ridin’…. and “blasts” from my dear old past, were clogging up my throat. I sounded like a frog! After watching Spain’s royal Columbus Day festivities on TV, Wendy, Toni Ann, and Catria spent our last full day in Madrid strolling around our neighborhood, taking in every last delectable smell of fresh bread and cigarettes (cough, cough)… and lovely sight of happy Madrileños. They also picked up soup and fruit for me. And what did I do? I watched Robert Redford on Netflix all day… as I ate my soup and fruit. We all then spent our final night on the couch binge-watching Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin on “Grace and Frankie” before I managed to rally one last time, fumbling into proper clothes at 10pm, and forcing myself out into the night with my three amigas... we circled our ‘hood like bloodhounds on a quest for some cultural “shank”… DANG!!! We meandered into a ceviche (raw seafood) place for one last culinary delight. Who knows if we were tired, sad, or excited about our trip back to the US the next morning, but we were eating up as much of Spain as we could… raw, funky-textured fish and all. It only seemed right.

So there we have it. My trip to Spain was like a big hug to an old friend – that old friend being “me.” Twenty years is a long time. But just as Spain conversely “relaxed” and “excited” me twenty years ago, it did the same to me today. The beauty of Madrid was ASTONISHING. I had forgotten just how beautiful the old architecture is. That’s what struck me the most – the black wrought-iron balconies and soft-colored buildings. When you look up at these old Mediterranean structures at night, you want to whisper – “How precious.” They exist on a tiny cobblestone street, in a tiny little neighborhood, just minutes away from Madrid’s big, breezy, more modern boulevard called Gran Vía – which is like New York City’s Broadway. There’s a beauty, and majesty, and joy to Madrid that still exists from 1996. Madrid still represents the best of Europe – this thrills me.

And it was so fun to experience Spain with family members – to recount to them my old memories, meanwhile build new ones with them today. Wendy, Toni Ann, Catria, and I are now forever linked with a baby blue necklace called San Cristóbal. He’s a revered saint in Christianity who protects travelers.

The fact is, I don’t run hurly-burly down city streets anymore. For those of you who know me, you know those days are over. Example – I even bought new flats for Spain, if that’s any indication of this forty-year-old’s dive into “podiatric practicality.” But aside from buying new flats, I WORE them. That’s the real test after all.

I “heart” Madrid. The girl that I once was, I remember you. The woman that I have grown to be, I applaud your choice in footwear. But more than that, I still applaud your resilience and capability. After all these years, I’m still chugging along on this even greater adventure we call “life.” Thankfully, I have San Cristóbal looking out for me.

The Pretty Buildings of Spain... I Love the Balconies and Soft Colors

The Girl That I Once Was... In Spain in 1996

The Study Abroad Ladies... In Spain in 2018

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