Friday, 15 April 2011

Madrid - Candy Lee, Rod and Me - Final Episode.

And the bad news? It turned out that Candy Lee had the most appalling hangover. Her bravado of the night before had considerably exceeded her capacity for red wine. She had overslept and was suitably contrite and apologetic; nevertheless it was plain to see that she would be indisposed for some considerable time while remedial treatment as applied. It was therefore agreed that we would leave her in peace and come back for her at 14.30. 
Rod and I, relieved at having a resolution to the mystery of the missing American, now turned our attention to revising our respective day-plans. My earlier resolve to take in some high culture, which was not overwhelming to begin with, had somewhat dissipated after the dramatic start to the day. We mulled over our options for a few minutes before coming up with the universal solution to men’s dilemmas – we decided to have a few beers. “We should go to Plaza Mayor”, said Rod. “It’s the ideal place to sit and watch the world go by”. The sun, shining down in its early spring-time splendour, lent its appeal to his proposition and we set off satisfied that we had made the right decision. “Perhaps it’s too early for beer” I said presently, eying the deserted rows of chairs outside the cafes in Plaza Mayor, but we had drunk our fill of coffee so we ordered beer anyway and took grandstand seats. We watched as demonstrators with banners began to gather around a temporary stage at the opposite side of the square and a helicopter passed overhead. After a while they started to play pop music through the loudspeakers and some spectators drifted in. Just nearby a pot-bellied character in a Spiderman costume appeared, placed his plastic shopping bag on some steps and proceeded to wander around in aimless circles as if bored.
About half way through our second glass the music ceased and the speeches began; Spiderman was joined by Mickey Mouse and the two of them began to look more purposeful as tourists appeared with their cameras. By then, however, the unintelligible speeches blaring across the plaza were beginning to grate on our ears so we called for our bill. As we left, Spiderman was taking a break, sitting on a step and smoking a cigarette. I guess he was going to be there for the day. We retreated to a more peaceful (and less expensive) side-street where we found the ideal place to continue our leisurely enjoyment of Madrid. Rod recommended a local speciality, bocadillo calamari, which he remembered savouring on his visit years earlier. He was right again - it was delicious.
But the time had come for us to rendezvous with Candy Lee and she was ready this time, looking as though nothing had happened, bags packed and ready to go. Both she and Rod had to find other accommodation for that night while I, reluctantly, was off to catch the Metro to the airport. I envied them their continuing stay in Madrid for we had only scratched the surface. (Hey! Wasn’t that one of those phrases we had to explain to our Spanish friends back at La Alberca?). Rod had a mind to travel on to San Sebastian before returning to Canada, Candy Lee had to get back to Florida and I to Manchester. Nobody said “See you later!” but we all wanted to.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Madrid - Candy Lee, Rod and Me - Episode 3

Morning came much too soon but Rod was busy in the bathroom, struggling with the loose shower-head, as I stole a little more snooze time. “I’ll pick Candy up and come back for my bag”, he said. “OK. I’ll be in the cafe on the street corner”, I replied, having removed my earplugs and resigned myself to the fact that sleep was over. Down in the street I did what I do best – I bought a big, fat newspaper, ordered coffee and settled into a corner of the cafe. Beyond that, my plan was to offer what assistance I could to resolve the phone dilemma, bid goodbye to my day-tripping companions, then make my leisurely way to the Prado to re-acquaint myself with its treasures. I might, I thought, even call at the tabaqueria across the street for a Gran Canarias cigar to enjoy solo, mid-morning.

It was way past 09.00 when Rod finally appeared – alone. “She’s not there!” he said, mystified. I ordered coffee for both of us while we pondered this unexpected complication. Rod began to elaborate: “The guy at reception doesn’t speak English so he showed me the register. Her name is there but he insists there is a man in that room number.” “That was fast work”, said I, “She was alone when she went in the door last night”. Whether alone or in company, we concluded that she must still be there, so we drank up, consigned our bags for safe keeping to our landlady and her dog and made our way down to the Hostal de Paris – or whatever it was called – to rescue what we could from this fast-dissolving scenario. We felt bad about leaving Katie at the estacion, bewildered and without phone contact, but could think of no other effective course of action.

The reception guy at Hostal de Paris was patient and helpful, once more going through the circular arguments - mainly by gesturing - over Candy’s whereabouts. Standing there, at the desk, I noticed that it was right next to room number 1 and then I had a glimmer of remembrance. Candy had told me, somewhere, sometime in between glasses of red wine, that she had been offered a transfer to another room because hers was right next to reception which was prone to noise and disturbance. I reckoned that, if she was in room number 1, she would certainly have heard us by now. Rod, at once enthused by this new possibility and, at the same time, frustrated by the difficulty of getting the reception guy to understand the concept, was on the point of knocking on every door in the place. We were all spared that indignity by the reception guy himself who, in another flash of inspiration, remembered that, in Hostal Americano, two floors above us, there was an English-speaking receptionist who might be prepared to help out.

We rushed, hopefully, up the stairs where we found a serene, charming young man prepared to oblige us by agreeing to mediate in solving the mystery of the missing American lady. He deserted his post to accompany us back down to Hostal de Paris and explain the dilemma, in Spanish, to his counterpart. “Ah!” said our man at the desk and, after laboriously checking all his booking entries (yet again), picked up the phone and dialled another room number.  We all waited in hope for the magic words senorita Americana to fall from his lips. When he put the phone down he was smiling. The good news first: It was Candy he had spoken to and we were invited to knock at her door...

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Madrid - Candy Lee, Rod and Me - Episode 2

Back at La Alberca we had watched several of our colleagues perform a very funny - but cautionary - enactment of a sketch showing the legendarily skilful pickpockets of Madrid at work. As we walked arm-in-arm late at night through Chueca, however, the atmosphere seemed gay, in both senses of the word, and we were part of the scene – carefree and schedule-free. “I don’t feel threatened at all”, said Candy Lee “Where shall we go now?”  “Let’s walk down to Puerta del Sol”, said Rod, drawing on his previous experience of the City and trumping my very limited ambit. Our walk took us past the sex workers who mingled, seemingly at ease, with the throngs in the streets as they do in parts of Berlin but not, as I noted, in London. We took to wondering how much they charged for their services but none of us dared approach them to ask.

Despite the magnificence of the architecture and the grandeur of the urban space, Puerta del Sol failed to excite us that night so we meandered into the side streets in search of the more intimate, charged atmosphere that we had enjoyed until then. We found ourselves in quiet places, however, where any life was hidden behind closed doors so we decided to return to the buzz of Chueca to continue our search for a desirable watering hole. It proved to be a good decision as the one we found had an air of authenticity and antiquity about it – dark brown wooden floors, furniture and panelled walls - and the wines were advertised in big, white letters on black boards. Like all the best bars it offered a welcoming atmosphere, friendly staff, good food and drink and the all-important ingredient – happy, noisy customers.  We had simple tapas and more excellent red wine while we talked on and on about the week at La Alberca and the characters we had met there. Events began to blur and a fourth bottle was sensibly ruled out in favour of an ‘early’ night on account of the 09.00 rendezvous with Katie at Estacion de Atocha. “I need to get some cash” said Candy. “I can see an ATM just outside the window” I said. When she came back, we drained our glasses and left.

It was while we were walking the few metres to Candy’s hostal that she noticed her phone was missing. We went through the usual rigmarole of questioning her: When did she last use it? Did she leave it on the table in the last bar? Did she have it before we set off for Sol? Did it fall out of her pocket as she put her coat on? These are not easy questions to answer at the best of times but after a bar-crawl they become impossible. We went back to the last two bars, empty now, except for the staff enjoying a nightcap with their colleagues. No, they had not seen her phone – sorry. So, having retraced some of our steps physically, we now tried to visualise the rest. Nobody really wanted to believe it could be so but had the legendary pick-pockets got the better of us after all?  Had there been any close physical encounters with strangers during our perambulations?  We drew a blank; maybe – maybe not.

Still, in the end, a lost phone is a lost phone and Candy’s stoical response was “Don’t worry. I’ll sort it out in the morning”. She was still smiling as we saw her through her street door and bade goodnight.  Rod promised to collect her at 08.30 – just a few hours away – for their busy day to come: an early rendezvous, a trip to Toledo and a phone crisis to resolve. “Best get some sleep, eh, Rod?” I suggested.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Madrid - Candy Lee, Rod and Me - Episode 1

Maybe I had spoken half a dozen times to each of them, Candy Lee and Rod, during the week at the “Pueblo Ingles” but it was enough to form a rudimentary friendship out of which we agreed, on a loose commitment, to hang out together during our outbound transit time in Madrid. Of course there were others that I had warmed to during the week but the coincidence of plans just worked out this way.

Rod and I turned up at the hostal I had booked on my incoming trip. Rod was busking it in true, freewheeling style and had come along in the hope of there being a room for him. The proprietress and her dog greeted us with neither recognition nor any outward show of cordiality. She explained that there was no single room for Rod but, on seeing our disappointment, offered us a family room to share instead. A deal was struck and Rod, graciously insistent that I take the double bed, sat himself on the furthest single, a piece of which promptly clattered to the floor. We didn’t feel inclined to spend time fixing it.

Meanwhile Candy Lee had judiciously booked a room at another hostal, the location of which was a mystery to all three of us. From there she had promised to arrange the evening’s social activity - a demonstration of the Flamenco at a restaurant. During inbound transit she had become enraptured by this art form at the welcoming party, which Rod and I had both missed, so she was intent on setting this right for us that night. Such open enthusiasm can be very contagious.

Rod and I scrubbed up, despite the absence of a plug in the sink and a wall-attachment for the shower head, and made our way to the reception area where a huge, flat-screen TV had appeared since my last visit. (It seems the investment budget had been allocated, this year, to the receptionist at the expense of the guests - perhaps the current European Championship football tournament had some part in that decision.) I led the way down the ancient, worn, wooden stairs and out across the square to the magnificent cerveceria of my previous discovery. I looked for Rod’s approval before allowing myself some satisfaction then we found a table, ordered beer, tuned in to the buzz and awaited joining instructions from Candy Lee.

 Part way through our second round I drew Rod’s attention to the fact that a group of half a dozen water-colourists was seated behind him using his figure as a model. He turned and exchanged smiles to show that no personal space was being invaded - although we still found ourselves paying for our third round. By this time we had admitted to each other that, whilst meeting up with Candy Lee would be fun, the proposed formal entertainment held less appeal. By round number four the water-colourists had packed up and left, after shyly showing us their impressions of Rod’s back. They were, as I suspected, amateurs. Text message contact had finally been established with Candy Lee who told us she had been detained at the shops but promised to get a cab, straight away, to the cerveceria.  We were reassuring ourselves that it must now be too late for the planned entertainment when the beaming Candy Lee arrived - it turned out her hostal was practically next door. We tried to appear disappointed as she explained that she had failed to book the Flamenco restaurant but it was evident that she was unfazed and up for an alternative experience.

I took this second opportunity to show off my local knowledge and led the way, retracing my route of a week earlier, to the next authentic Madrid experience - the wine bar. “How do you know all these places?” asked Candy Lee. I made a knowing, man-about-town gesture and swept us confidently through the door to a central table. The obliging, English-speaking waiter was not on shift this time but the young girl attending soon got our drift as we pointed our way through the menu. We began to discuss a plan for the next day which involved a return trip, via high-speed train, to Toledo. I opted out of this one, since my flight home was to be the following evening and the potential for missing it would create an opportunity for unwanted stress. Also it involved the unlikely event of meeting Katie at the railway station at 09.00. We had no phone contact with Katie and the station was an enormous, unfamiliar complex; but neither of these factors seemed to deter my companions whose commitment to Katie, the exploration of Toledo and, it seemed, the thrill of the high-speed train ride did not waver through two bottles of excellent red wine. When we called for the bill it was not with any intention of retiring. We tipped generously, North American style, then hit the street still hungry for Madrid...

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Solo in Madrid

I suffer from a romantic delusion about international travel. It causes me to imagine, in faded technicolor shades, an immaculately dressed Sean Connery striding through 1960’s airports armed with deadly weapons yet unchallenged by any form of security check. On the plane the hostess openly flirts with him whilst disdaining to notice other passengers. The sun shines down on his exotic destination as he slips into a waiting taxi without having to queue and, before you know it, he is checking in at a flashy, international hotel where, surprisingly, there is no queue. The suave reception manager fawns over him and a uniformed minion whisks his leather suitcase into the walnut-and-glass-panelled lift. Knowingly he scans his luxury suite before buying the minion’s loyalty with an impressively generous tip.
I am not so naive as to have expected so much glamour from my recent Easyjet flight from Manchester to Madrid, but I did still harbour expectations of an exotic experience once arrived in one of Europe’s famously cultural capitals. Nor was I disappointed if, by exotic, we mean intriguing and unfamiliar. I had chosen to stay not at an hotel but an hostal - the difference becoming apparent only when I arrived there.
It was a 19th century apartment building with an original, worn wooden staircase and an early-model elevator retro-fitted in the well. On the 3rd floor, past a couple of lawyers’ offices, was the hostal – a converted apartment which must have been very grand and spacious in its original form. The large, middle-aged lady who opened the door swatted away a small, fluffy, yapping dog before beckoning me into the reception area. She was wearing a black vest, leggings and slippers that looked rather like the dog. With no mutual language between us, she found my name in her book, demanded my passport, then set off down a dark corridor with me and the dog following.
The room, like its owner, was tatty, amply proportioned but clean. The sunlight beamed through French doors which opened onto a balcony on the curved corner of the building. The doors were quadruple-glazed against the noise of traffic from the busy intersection outside. The foreign decor, fixtures and fittings excited my imagination, as I unpacked and changed in anticipation of an evening in beautiful Madrid. Then I noticed the rhythmic sounds of lovemaking from the next room which added a further frisson. The scene was set.
It was Friday evening and, out in the streets, I could feel the workers switching to weekend mode. I wanted to join them but my first priority was to get some earplugs. That done, I made a beeline for a magnificently Spanish-looking cerveceria. It was staffed by imperious professionals who had no inclination to be forgiving of foreigners who could not speak Spanish and, as a consequence, I was presented with a plate of jamon generous enough for a stag party and a glass of beer larger than any other in the bar. Both were delicious but, with no one to share with and feeling a little intimidated, I decided to move on as soon as I decently could. Declining the barman’s offer of a second beer, I picked up the hefty tab and went in search of more Madrid experiences.
I admit to becoming less adventurous as I explored a warren of busy side streets and hesitated before the venues which looked too Spanish. I settled on the one which most resembled a busy, modern wine bar with an international feel. I found a small, corner table and was relieved to be served by a young man who was happy to speak fluent English as he served me a couple of excellent glasses of a Carmenere/Cabernet blend, some very trendy tapas and smoked paprika crisps. As I watched the immigrant vendors plying the tables with roses and gimmicks, however, I realised that a busy bar full of chattering groups of friends is no place to be on one’s own. So I decided to call it a day and get back to my room while I could still remember the way. En route I was, at last, approached by friendly locals - but they were simply offering discounted entry to gay clubs which is not, I believe, a uniquely Spanish experience.
Back in my room, whilst checking for invisible trip-wires and bugging devices, I reflected that Sean Connery probably would, by this stage of the evening, have had a more eventful time. I plugged my ears, drew up the blanket and determined that my return to Madrid would be different: more triumphant, perhaps, and less solitary - certainly.