Apologies are perhaps in order. It’s not nice to try to trick our readers, even on April Fool’s Day and even if very few of you fell for our little joke. So we’re sorry for that (if only just a little).
Nor was it good form to slander Europe, especially considering that most of our “complaints” weren’t at all applicable to Madrid. Except the small coffee thing. That is totally true. And it is something we really are struggling to adjust to.
In all other respects, though, we fell for Spain like an old flame.
Typically it takes us several days to recover from overnight flights. We usually step off the plane having had too little sleep to confront too many hours of remaining daylight. And with our flight from New York arriving at 9:00 a.m. Madrid time, which was only 3:00 a.m. according to our internal clocks, we had an exceedingly long day to manage on just a few hours of broken sleep. Moreover, we knew Spaniards customarily stayed up well past our normal bedtime. We figured we had no chance of making it to dinner.
Still a bit bleary, we focused on completing our first task of the day: navigating Madrid’s metro from the airport to our hotel. Fortunately we had done some homework in advance. We knew where we were going and which three trains we needed to take.
We were also prepared for the fact that Europe’s ticket machines don’t accept most American credit cards. So we weren’t terribly surprised when the machine rejected our Chase Sapphire Preferred. Months earlier we had gotten a “Chip and Pin” credit card specifically to deal with Europe’s finicky vending machines. We’re happy to report it worked like a charm.
Tickets in hand, we made way for our hotel hoping to get into our room before the 1:00 p.m. check-in time. Sometimes the travel gods take mercy on weary travelers, and so it was with us that day. Against all odds, we found our room ready when we arrived shortly after 10:00 a.m.
Normally we try to tough out the first day after an overnight flight. We’ll stay up until a normal bedtime hoping to awake the following morning fully adjusted to whatever new time zone we’re in. Not this time. The only thing standing between us and our bed were a couple of bath towels fashioned into swans. They didn’t stand a chance.
Hours later we roused ourselves and discovered something wonderful. We were rested. We were hungry. And we were just in time for a late Spanish lunch.
We grabbed some seats at a nearby café and stared helplessly at our menus. Shannon picked out the word “ensalada” on hers and I spotted “jamon” on mine. We pointed out these items to our server and then waited patiently to discover what we had just ordered.
It was a little like Christmas. Neither one of us got what we expected, but we both enjoyed the surprise.
After lunch we just wandered. We had never been to this city before. We only had the most rudimentary grasp of the language. We didn’t know a single soul for hundreds of miles around. And yet Madrid still felt like home.
Its narrow, bustling streets lined with cafés, its quaint piazzas, its ancient architecture were all absolutely foreign to us and still totally familiar. We took our time drinking it all in, meandering down one crooked street and on to the next. We had no particular destination in mind and that was okay. We were exactly where we wanted to be.
Slowly day slipped into night. Large glasses of wine replaced the tiny cups of coffee sitting before café patrons. And that struck us as a terrific idea. We settled into a small table in a dark but welcoming tavern. A cry of “Hola!” greeted us as we walked through the doors. Unlike with lunch, this time we knew exactly what we wanted: “dos copas de vino tinto, por favor.”
The house red cost a mere €1.60 per glass. We splurged on a spendier vintage and at €2.40 it easily surpassed in quality any wine we typically find in New York City bars selling at four times the price. Compounding the difference with our home city, these wines also came with complimentary croquettes. It seems Spanish bartenders think it uncouth to serve drinks without at least a little food on the side. We couldn’t agree more.
Every time we ordered another drink, our waitress brought us another small plate of food: olives, or nuts, or chorizo with bread. Each plate was what we had previously thought of as a “tapas” sized portion. Just enough for a little taste. The actual tapas came in portions large enough for a light meal. We ordered a couple of those as well.
After a bit too much wine and plenty of food, we motioned for our check. But we weren’t done yet. Along with the bill came two small glasses of a delightful liquor that reminded us of Sambucca, only better. It had the same overtones of anise only more subtle and better balanced with other flavors and a bit of sweetness.
We signaled our approval to our waitress and she rewarded us with another glass of a different “digestive.” This time she placed in front of us a creamy liquor that still had a flavor profile similar to the first. Shannon and I split over which we liked better, but we were in total agreement with the culture that sips wine and dines on small plates late into the night.
By the time we said adios it was nearly midnight. And on our first day in Madrid we had far done more than merely survive until dinner. After a sleepless evening on an airplane, we somehow fell effortlessly into the rhythms of the city. It was almost like we belonged there.