An afternoon in Madrid and other surprises

There are always ideas that unnerve me when I consider taking a trip.  A number of things cropped up on this one, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges ahead of time, trying to plan how to manage them.  One was the trains, which I would be taking on my own.  The other was the language.  When we went to Italy,  I worried for months about how little Italian I understood, and I kept thinking about how badly I spoke French (and how disdainful Parisians often were even when I did try!) and despite the months I spent practicing basic Italian phrases, I felt utterly paralyzed when it came time to ask for something even as simple as a glass of water.  I had the words in my head, I could approximate the accent (well, sort of…I’m pretty sure I speak Italian with a Spanish tint), but I could not get the words to my tongue and out of my mouth.

To avoid that syndrome this time, I gave myself permission to speak Spanish as badly–and as earnestly–as I wished.  I wanted to rely on others as little as possible. I wanted to be brave enough to at least try.

The main worry on this trip was the fact that I would be taking the trains on my own, first from Neal’s mother’s house in Kent, through London and a change of stations, up to York to see my friend Jo.  Then I had to return through a different station, navigate stairs and streets, find the Eurail station, and get to Paris.  In Paris, I would have to change stations again, and the time window was only two hours.  Which theoretically should be enough time to take a cab across the city, but you never know.  I fretted.  I thought about it a lot.

Finally, I knew I would be arriving in Madrid before the rest of my group, and I would have to get to my hotel and check in by myself, with my not-great Spanish.  This, too, made me fret, though I don’t think I even had any scenario in mind except embarrassment.

One thing I knew from navigating the Tube in London, and the train stations in Italy, is that there are a lot of stairs.  A lot of stairs.  There are some escalators, but not in all stations, and not in all areas.  I didn’t want to have to be lugging a heavy suitcase through all those mazes.  My goal was to take only a carry-on size suitcase, and my smallish backpack, and a sturdy, smallish purse I could wear close to my body while looking so touristy.   At least I could give myself that gift ahead of time.

And it turned out, this was a gift. I did end up going up and down hundreds of stairs through those many stations.  Not having a big bag was worth the small sacrifices I made (uh, basically living in the same three t-shirts for nearly two weeks, and they were all misshapen by the end, having been washed by hand in basins across the Camino. In retrospect, I would spend the (more) money to get quick dry tops).


I had assumed that I would take a taxi from Paris Nord to Paris Gard to save confusion and worry.  When I arrived in Paris, relaxed and well fed from the extraordinary day of travel with plenty of leg room and the niceties of tea and biscuits, with the loveliness of an English summer countryside passing by the windows, then the French countryside, and a full meal complete with wine on the EuroStar that I felt brave.  I looked around for the Metro signs and thought, “How hard can it be?”   I knew which train I needed and which direction to go.  I just had to get a Metro ticket.

Well, it turned out that there was no English on the ticket machines, so harder than I expected.  I tried to watch others to see if I could figure it out.  As my anxiety started to mount, I remembered the translator on my phone and I could program it to tell me how to ask for something. When I pulled out the phone, however, it didn’t get a signal.  I started to feel that fretting paralysis rising, but recognized in time that it wouldn’t do me any good.  I joined the queue for tickets and when I got to the window, I greeted the man with a polite “Bon jour. Parlez vous Ingles?”

He said, “I am South African, madam, and I speak Africaans. How may I help you?” He gave me a ticket in two seconds and I was so relieved that I was giddy. I found my train (up stairs, down stairs) and waited.  It was busy and I had to go through a busy tourist station (Bastille), but it was fine, and all the way, I was thinking, hey, I did it!

I still had to find my train in the station, and this particular station was the site of a place where I stubbed my toe so badly that I ended up losing a toenail, but this time, I found the train, the man spoke to me in Spanish, and I relaxed.  Immediately.  I found my sleeper car, made myself comfortable, and in the morning awakened to Spain passing by outside the windows.  I ate breakfast watching fields tumble by in the mist, seeing cows and a man walking down a road in a landscape that looks very like my own….except for the walled medieval city there on the mountaintop.

Which left the last, scary bit—getting from the train station to the hotel, and then checking in without my group and explaining that they would be coming later.  Remember, I had been thinking fretting about this challenge for a couple of months. It took two seconds to walk out of the station, find the taxi line, give the man the address I had written down, and get in the car.  He drove through the morning light in Madrid, listening to the radio and I drank in the sights.   At the hotel, I paid him, he took out my bag, and I went inside, bracing myself to navigate the check in, reviewing the words and names I would need. He spoke English.  He had been expecting me.  The main group had been delayed by plane issues, and I would have time alone. In my room.

I had plenty of time before anyone arrived to…get settled, reoriented, wash underwear and hang it up to dry, take a shower and do my hair, all those things.  Sharyn came and we went to find food, ordered blindly off the menu, which ended up being all right, even if I inadvertently ordered pulpo for us both.   The square was, I think, Santa Ana, where there is a statue of Federico Garcia Lorca, and the bar where Hemingway wrote (also the bar next door, where Hemingway never ate or drank or wrote).

We had a meal and went back and by then I felt brave enough to venture out on my own, so Sharyn went upstairs to rest and I wandered around, seeking a supermarket for yogurt and a transformer for my computer.  The grocery was tiny and I browsed around looking at things, finding no candy but some interesting cookies.  Next door was a bazaar, like a dollar store with everything all jumbled in a dark store with close, crowded aisles and millions of things to buy.  I found demitasse spoons, 6 for 87 cents, and since I’d missed looking for them in England, bought two sets. I also found my transformer for 2 Euros and felt like a big game hunter carrying all my booty back to the hotel. That evening, we went to dinner and got to know each other a tiny bit, but that was really it for Madrid and me.  I liked the wide boulevards. I liked the hotel and the good coffee.  I would like to have seen flamenco.  I would like to have been tourist more, seeing things, but as it is, Madrid is now in my mind lit by early afternoon sunlight, bright and strong, and it is a series of narrow alleyways littered with bars and cafes and small shops.

And sometimes, that too is how it goes.  A day that was meant to be filled with sightseeing is instead spent quietly, taking care of things and wandering around a little neighborhood.  For now, that is Madrid in my mind.

Have you ever spent a lot of time worrying about something ahead of time, only to find it was no big deal?  Or the opposite, had something become a big problem you had not anticipated?

11 thoughts on “An afternoon in Madrid and other surprises

  1. Barbara, I worry so much I don’t travel (except for conference trips to Australia–a commuter flight, really, from NZ,) which is a dreadful paralysis. I read your blogs and I admire your spirit and strength so very much, and envy you those characteristics also.

  2. Jill Q.

    Oh boy. I can think of plenty of both. The second pretty much describes my work life as a secretary. Which explains why I don’t work as a secretary any more. I’m not detail oriented, perfectionist, or organized. I always thought “good enough” only to be corrected later. 🙂
    I lived in Madrid for a year and loved it although it gets a bad rap for not being as historical or beautiful as many Spanish cities (Toledo, Sevilla) and not being as glamorous/interesting as many other European capitals.
    If you go again, you must have churros, although I think they are popular in parts of the Southwest as well. Nothing says Madrid to me like a plate of churros with that think heavy chocolate.
    I speak Italian with a Spanish accent and my parents speak Spanish with an Italian accent since they learned Italian first. Makes things interesting!

  3. Sharyn

    We had churros, Jill! Many churros! Just not that particular day in Madrid. I speak no Spanish at all (learned how to order jamon & queso bocadillos con tomate and uno vino blanco — or uno Alberino, in the region), but speak decent Italian. So I probably spoke Spanish with an Italian accent…didn’t care, as long as I could communicate!

  4. I was surprised to find a language barrier in a few places in the UK – because of the accents. I almost got in a screaming match with a bus driver in one place because I couldn’t understand him. I felt like such a doofus! Was asking if his route went to the bus station. I can’t remember where the confusion came in, but finally he yelled, “YES. I. GO. TO. THE. BUS. STATION!!!” I was the only person on the bus and was a little nervous until we finally arrived.

    Another lady griped at me when she got on a bus where I was already seated. I had no idea she was even griping at me until I asked her to tell me when when a certain stop was coming up and we’d chatted a bit and she figured out I was a tourist. She apologized for fussing at me and told me to enjoy my stay. I *think* maybe I was sitting in a section traditionally reserved for seniors (no signage), but I’m not sure to this day. 🙂

  5. Barbara, I think this is one of the joys of travel, particularly solo travel in foreign countries — you think it’s going to be really hard, but you do it because you have no choice, and then– amazingly– you manage. I always come back from such trips buoyed with confidence that I can do anything. Now when I start to fret over what might be, I try to remind myself of all the times I’ve managed before, and sometimes it even works. LOL

  6. Anne, you know, I have discovered I like traveling alone. I do it a lot here, of course, and I’ve ventured into Canada by myself, arrived in Australia by myself, but this was the first time I managed a whole day and language problems on my own, and I felt the same way. Super Woman!

    And plenty always goes wrong, too. This time, I was stranded twice overnight and had to get a hotel, first in Orlando, then London. Things worked out. They might not always work out the way we want them to, but usually, it’s not a life threatening situation you find yourself in, only dismaying or delaying or disappointing. That’s what I kept telling myself at the Metro station: whatever happens, it will be okay.

    Julie, I laughed so hard at that description and read it to CR. Seriously, there are English accents that are very tough. Northern, Cockney, a couple I don’t know how to name. I have to listen very closely and even then sometimes loose words. The same is true of certain heavy Mississippi accents. My ex had relatives I never understood even the slightest.

    Yvonne, you must come to Colorado. I will keep you safe and give you easy lessons in bravery. (Not that I am brave at all, but I can make Colorado a big treat for you. Come, come!)

    Jill, how lovely that you spent a year there. And believe me–as Sharyn said–we ate churros. They are on my Never Eat list here (except at the Phoenix airport, where they sell an outrageously good one), but in Spain, all bets were off. The best one was chocolate soaked, crispy, hot, sweet….seriously one of the best things I’ve ever tasted in my life. I can’t remember the town. Maybe Sarria.

    One of the things I miss is hearing Spanish, practicing, thinking about sentences in Spanish, deciphering them sometimes, and actually understanding or communicating. So thrilling. It’s such a beautiful language and it feels earthy and real to me. I think it will do good things for my writing to continue to study–and you know, I just like it, so I’m continuing.

  7. SueD

    My dh and I were in Burma in 1987 when we decided to go to a Buddhist mediatation center in Thailand. So, the first trip was on a tiny airplane, then navigating the Bangkok airport and the taxi drivers who will seriously overcharge you if you don’t negotiate ahead of time — all in broken English.

    We had the name of the place written in Thai, and we used that like a holy talisman waving it in front of everyone along the way. I should say, I’m 5′, my husband is 6′ and I do all the leading when we travel. He is directionally challenged and still gets lost going out of a mall. I find this enormously stressful.

    We found the local bus station (not one that tourists ever go to so no one spoke English). After much pointing and misdirection, we got on to a bus where I waved the paper a billion times at the driver and he nodded and pointed to our seats. My husband slept for hours while I fretted, then the bus driver stopped the bus in a town and told us to get off. Huh? He got off too, and stopped a tuktuk driver (a kind of local bus that is a tiny truck which bench seats in the back). The tuktuk driver drove us for 20 minutes, then he stopped and pointed. And we walked, and walked, and walked, all the while having no idea if we were going in the right direction. Periodically, I’d pull out the paper and show it to someone and they’d point and we’d walk some more.

    This is complicated by the fact that in most of Asia, people will tell you something even if they don’t know the correct answer. It’s considered rude to do otherwise. So people could have been saying go north, when really we should have been going south.

    It felt like forever and I worried the entire time, yet we made it safe and sound. It was a lesson in trust and faith. Unfortunately, it’s not a lesson that sticks. I still worry more than I should.

    Also, I only lasted three days at the meditation center. I kept thinking I could be at the beach. My husband still meditates daily, and he goes on week long silent retreats. Me, not so much.

  8. Hmm, lessons in bravery. Sounds tempting 🙂

    And, Anne, you are confidence personified. Really.

  9. Sue, great story. I especially like the understatement in “I find this enormously stressful.”

  10. glee

    I have been extremely lucky in being able to travel to far and mysterious places. I have found that getting lost by myself is very stressful, particularly in countries where I can’t read the signs. However, it is really fun to be lost with a friend. Then it’s an adventure that we share and can share with others. I prefer the adventure to the stress.

  11. Thank you so much, this was very interesting. I was actually born in Madrid ( not telling what year though!) but was moved around europe and finally settled in the UK when I was 7. I dont remember an awful lot of the few years I was in spain, but the smell of spanish food always seems to get me going or something. It’s weird how I dont remember anything except the smells,isn’t it! I even found a whole internet site dedicated to spanish recipe, which gave me great delight and thought I ought to share. Anyway, thank you again. I’ll get my husband to add your website to my rss app…

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