Your first encounter with Madrid will not be so much as a ‘date’ than a heady fling, a careless rendezvous in some beautiful park with a bottle of tinto shared under some cooling shade. You will certainly not meet Madrid as with any old date, you will not arrive anxiously 15 minutes early at some nice restaurant, take your seat and kiss her on the cheek when she arrives, you will not drive her home at midnight, kiss her again on the cheek and hope to hear another goodbye.
No, Madrid will take you, she will come to you 15 years too late, when you’re thinking that maybe your friends are right and you should find another love to settle down with. Madrid will put her arms around you, kiss you twice on each cheek, take you by the hand right away, pulling you through her streets and plazas, she will put a flower in her hair as she tells you of her passions and her pains, you will listen to her, admire her, and ultimately, you will fall in love with the energy she exudes, with her heat and her sun-kissed body, and you will fall in love again with her millions of admires who too have taken on the city as their soul.
The first time I found Madrid I was a little cautious, unused to the pulse of the city and the thick crowds of too-ers and frow-ers. I was on edge, afraid that I’d be robbed of all my worldly belongings before even finding a bed to rest on. Madrid seemed so shabby on first sight: dry, chaotic, noisy. But the city can’t lay claim to not an inch of pretension; it is so self-confident, so unconsciously cool that everybody wants to be like her, to imitate her dress, her attitude, her saunter. My first impressions were, as always, premature and vague, but by night’s end I saw the city’s sensuality and carnality; its people seem to converge on the smallest bars specifically in order to be close to one another. By the next day’s end I had been introduced to her formally by a tour guide, and behind her back I was told of her madness and hot-bloodedness, her royal blood and a history of regal family feuding, of rebellion, suspicion, inquisition, blood and war. I could see that the city has not yet come to terms with her recent past, with the civil war that tore it apart, but yet there is still the famous energy of the movida pulsing through the aortal avenues and venal alleyways of the city’s body. La movida, a letting-off of decades of pent-up energy long suppressed by the puritans and patriarchs of Franco’s regime, brought the city into its own, brought youth back into its bars and barrios. The city still exudes this attitude; its mind is open and its heart is never closed. But as the old wounds are bandaged new ones open up a fresh, new lesions scar the city from the Rio Manzaneres to the Parque del Retiro with so many closed shops and so few jobs. And all this after the 2004 bombings which brought the city, so famous for its motion, to a tragic halt. The unluckiest of the madrileños – native and foreign-born – struggle to make ends meet; they lose their homes and their families to find themselves on the street, their stomachs dependent on the whim of a tourists wallet, whether its contents are given freely of freely taken. This too is Madrid, a beautiful city living through ugly times.
I had no compass to guide me in Madrid, no map to show me its cultural topography, but its story is so compelling, is character so conflicting, that you will want to stay to make yourself part of its story and part of its beauty, and because you will eventually want a break from its ceaseless motion, you will find yourself leaving Madrid, and finally you will find yourself nostalgic of those summer days spent sauntering around the city as if you too were a madrileño, because to be a madrileño is to be what everyone wants to be; young in soul and free in mind.