Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 or What and Who I Will Remember in 16 Years

Sixteen years later, the Museo Chicote looks exactly the same.
All these years later, the Museo Chicote looks exactly the same.

Sixteen years ago, my ex and I took our first overseas trip together – to Spain for the Christmas holiday.

While moving to Madrid is an experience all mine, there are moments when my past and present collide. Strangely, mostly in regards to food.

Walking up Gran Via, I stumble upon the neon sign of Museo Chicote — Madrid’s oldest cocktail bar, a place Hemmingway used to frequent.

I had circled it in our Frommers’ guide and we sought it out upon arrival. Dimly lit and cool in a retro kind of way. They served potato chips with their drinks, scooping them from wooden drawers that looked like library card-catalog files.

Knowing in my bones that I am close to the anonymous third-floor walkup hotel where we stayed for $30 a night – the one with the ridiculously comfortable foam mattress — and having that feeling confirmed when I spy the Nebraska Cafeteria, the name as surprising to me now as it was then.

Shopping for food at El Corte Ingles– like Sears when it carried everything, even houses — but better, higher end.

We picked up smoked salmon, baguettes and wine on our final night in Spain and spread it out for a picnic on our bed at a boutique hotel recently purchased by Best Western. An over-sized room by European standards, with a deep, tiled bathtub and television which ran CNN – creature comforts at the end of 10 days of traveling, most of it while fighting the flu.

It was raining and cold…and truth told, we couldn’t bear to do battle with Spanish restaurants one more time.

Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 – sometimes the seemingly simple act of ordering a meal in a country where you do not speak the language is overwhelming.

For the better part of our trip we wandered the streets of Spain until way past hungry, and when we finally decided upon a restaurant, were often baffled. Do we just sit down? Do we wait to be seated? Do we order at the counter? Do we pay now? Do we pay later? Do we ask for the bill?

What do these words mean on the menu?

We pulled out our translator – a charming and antiquated apparatus by today’s standards – and were met with responses like “spoon of the world.” Useless.

Eventually we found our rhythm, often opting to sit at counters and order tapas – pointing to what we wanted rather than risking another menu fiasco.

I had forgotten about this until a little over three weeks ago, when I arrived in Spain and tripped over myself at restaurants – again uncertain whether to sit or be seated, and often disappointed with what I thought I had ordered. Seems Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 also applies to new expats.

I quickly found myself shopping at the CarreFour for yogurt and thinly sliced cured meats, and picking up figs, tomatoes, melon and salad greens at any one of several produce markets on my street. My classmates marveled at my healthy looking salads, fruit, brown rice and chickpeas.

What I didn’t mention was dinner often consisted of gelato, eaten on the street. That at the end of a 10-hour school day, navigating a restaurant – coupled with the cultural norm that it is highly unusual to eat alone here (“A waiter will bring a glass of wine to a woman eating alone because he pities her,” a friend of a friend told me.) – was often more than I could take on.

It is both humbling and frustrating to experience and to admit — as are many things about being an immigrant.

And I find myself incongruently grateful when sharing a meal with someone who has lived here longer than me — who knows how to wrangle us a bowl of gazpacho for lunch when it is not on the menu.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those awkward meals my ex and I shared 16 years ago. And how all these years later we remember the beautiful food – a simple tortilla Espanola eaten outside of the train station in Sitges, and a feast of fresh crustaceans in Barcelona on Christmas night – but not the disappointments.

And more than that, we remember the quest — the journey, the experiences, the people. The girls in Santa caps who served us tuna sandwiches. The waiter who rescued my ex when he got locked in the restaurant bathroom, who learned English on a kibbutz in Israel and who pointed this Wandering Jewess to the synagogue across the way after dinner.

The what’s and who’s I imagine I will remember in 16 years.

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On The Other End With Open Arms

With heavy bags and a heavy heart, saying goodbye at the airport.
With heavy bags and a heavy heart, saying goodbye at the airport.

I’ve begun this blog what feels like a hundred times. But each time, somewhere along the way, I’ve gotten stuck.

Stuck between here and there. Stuck between Chicago and Madrid. Stuck between continuing to tell my story and just living it — holding something and someone so tender, so intimate, so close to myself. Private.

And yet, it is all part of the story of how I arrived here.

January 2015. I make the decision to move to Madrid. To become certified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and to stay on for a year with a student visa.

“I will never meet anyone now,” I lament to my therapist, and my friend K, referring to my decision. “It would be nice to spend some time with someone though…but not until I buy my ticket, because I am the kind of girl that will stay for love.”

Turns out, I’m not…because I did meet someone, in March, at a memorial for a friend’s mother. But he didn’t reach out to me until a month later –the day after I bought my plane ticket to Madrid.

The synchronicity isn’t lost on either of us.

And so, while our three months together prove to be a great love affair for both of us, it is never in question that I will get on the plane on July 28. It is already written.

We stand at the airport — kissing, crying, holding on to one another, saying goodbye. Watching and waving until I am barely visible in the TSA line. He gives me a final wave, puts his hands into namaste, blows a kiss and leaves — tears streaming down my face. Tears streaming down my face as I write this now.

I settle into my seat on the plane and receive a series of texts and photos from him, sent from the parking lot. Among them, “That was hard to do.” “So hard.” “You will always have a place in my heart.” And, “I hope your trip is a good one and that Madrid is standing there at the other end with open arms.”

Turns out, it is.

It is R. — a friend of a friend who takes me to the ex-pat bookstore, gives me a tour of his neighborhood and meets me the following day when I have a communication breakdown (and emotional meltdown) with Orange Mobil.

It is M. — another friend of a friend who meets me for a walk and pinchos (snacks) on the plaza in her neighborhood.

In Madrid, where new friends were waiting.
In Madrid, where new friends were waiting.

It is N., M. and E — women from my online writing group who live here, two Americans and a Brit, who offer to meet with me, as well as J. — the best friend of one of my Weight Watchers members who calls me several times and invites me to meet for lunch next Sunday.

It is the countless others who touch my life, if only for a moment, helping me to feel at home. My host, M., and flatmate, S., who builds the fan I purchase at Corte Ingles.

J., another customer at the Correos — Spanish Post Office — who helps translate for me. And the four women workers there who see me three days in a row, and who help me finally secure a box for letters — handwritten notes with lovely stamps as was suggested by the man who said “Hasta luego” at the airport — because, yes, we are just that romantic.

“Hasta luego” — see you later, but not “adios,” — goodbye. Mere nuance, the difference recently explained to me. A subtlety that allowed me to leave in spite of love and to remain available to open arms waiting— in Chicago, in Madrid — everywhere.

Siesta

Buying shoes is hard work...definitely earning of a siesta.
Buying shoes is hard work…definitely earning of a siesta.

I have been out all morning. Making my way to Retiro Park. Buying bandages for my feet, an additional converter for my electronics, my first pair of Spanish shoes — Picolinos. Eating gelato. Tracing steps a friend of mine shared via Google maps.

I turn on to Don Ramon de la Cruz, the street where I have been staying. It is 4 p.m. Decidedly quiet. The locals are finishing lunch at outdoor cafes. Grates are pulled down over the entrances of at least half of the shops. Siesta.

I have not quite made this tradition my own. And yet. The universe provides me with a few moments at home…to wash my feet, change my shoes — my Italian leather sandals continuing to rub against my big toes — and put a little sustenance in my body — lamb’s lettuce, a soft boiled egg, goat cheese, fresh figs, a coffee from my moka pot (one of the few “creature comforts” I packed. D rightly insisted I do so).

I will leave again shortly — this time to meet a friend of a friend who I have been introduced to through Facebook, another American, raised in the Midwest, transplanted to California and then Madrid. I am excited to meet her, to explore another neighborhood. And to relish in a few culturally imposed moments of stillness, quiet and rest.