Madrid as a tourist – contemplations of a former “local”

December 27, 2023

I recently visited Madrid.

It was a short trip this time, and I go down there a lot for one reason or another.

But two or three visits ago I started to notice a strange feeling.

I’d go to Madrid, get off the AVE in Atocha, and feel not like I was coming home, but rather like I was a visitor again. A tourist. Sure, I’d spent some time there in the past.

But I was no longer feeling like Madrid was “home”.

Instead, it was a familiar geography filled with new businesses, inhabited by new faces, and haunted with old memories.

madrid palacio real at night

The Madrid vs Barcelona debate – finally solved!

I left Madrid in 2018 to come to Barcelona with Morena.

At that time, we didn’t know how things were going to go, so I was considering the move to be temporary.

This after about 13 years living in Madrid: first in the south (Lucero, Puente de Segovia, Vallecas) then in the north, in Tetuán. I loved Madrid. In fact, I still love it. But it now longer feels like home.

More than five years later, we’re married, Morena’s got a career, and together we’ve got a 30-year mortgage, so I guess Barcelona might be a bit more permanent than I originally thought.

Whenever anybody finds out I’ve lived in both Madrid and Barcelona, they ask: “Which do you like better?”

This is a big question here in Spain. A lot is riding on the Madrid vs Barcelona debate – national identities, tourist money, and foreign investment to name a few.

My answer, what I always tell people, is that I prefer Madrid. With the big caveat that I was there for most of my 20s and early 30s, and (for various reasons) life is more exciting when you’re younger.

That slender ball of hormonal angst and horny post-teenage energy that was Mr Chorizo in his 20s could probably have fallen in love with other cities. I variously considered, back when I was thinking of getting out of the US, going to Paris, or Milan, or Buenos Aires, or Rio de Janeiro.

I knew very little (or really nothing) of any of those places, except that they sounded more exciting than Phoenix, and ended up in Madrid due to a series of accidents, one of which was the fact that I already spoke some Spanish.

But it’s easy to imagine things going differently. The universe may be a vast constellation of atoms bumping into each other at random, and if (for example) a sultry, dark-eyed Brazilian tourist had walked in to the café where I was working back in Arizona and so much as smiled at me, well, I might be writing this from South America right now instead of Europe.

Unfortunately, we had few Brazilian tourists in my stretch of desert outside Phoenix. One thing led to another and here I am – there I was – living in Madrid. And now in Barcelona, visiting Madrid, and feeling like a tourist again.

Madrid as a tourist

Hopping off the AVE, our first stop is Sichuan Kitchen, our favorite Chinese restaurant. We used to go all the way to Usera for this place – they had five or six tables and a tiny kitchen. A few years ago, they moved up to Plaza España and expanded their operation, and now we go every time we’re in town.

After dinner – try the “panceta dos veces cocida”– we walk around to see the Christmas lights. I’m not heavily Christmas-spirited, but something about bright lights floating around the sky on a cold dark night tickles my primate brain in just the right place, and gives me a feeling of something transcendent.

The next morning, we have coffee at HanSo, the hipsterish place on Calle del Pez. When we’re done, Morena catches the train, off to see her friend Xavi defend his doctoral dissertation, and I hit the streets, walking north.

On Calle Fuencarral, nothing much is open yet except the few old-man bars. The Asturian place I used to go to for cheap fried food and abundant sidra is now apparently an Honest Greens.

A lot of the city center has become more luxury or more hipster in my absence. Not that that’s anything new. For how much people complain about declining standards of living, it does certainly seem like the amount of luxury in the world is expanding.

Faces of old friends and exes float by, as Malasaña turns into Colón turns into La Castellana. Memories appear like ghosts, and every corner is haunted.

Emotional Geography of Malasaña

I’m sure my exes would be thrilled to know about the mundane things that now remind me of them. Latina, who I dated on and off for two years? Her memory is now inextricably tied for reasons I cannot quite fathom to line 27 of the bus system. My friends to streets where we once had a chance encounter, or bars where we’d spend the evenings.

Officially I have a plan today: find some steak, donate some blood, and visit some friends who’ve just had a baby.

parque berlin autumn

The friends live in Prosperidad, which is past Avenida de America in the (for me) mostly unexplored areas on the east end of town. So, fortified by another double americano, I wander in that direction.

Mercado de Prosperidad… another market that’s been gourmetified. Outside, Chocolatería San Gines has another branch. With a separate line for Uber Eats and Glovo riders, in case you absolutely need your chocolate con churros home delivered.

Next door there’s a church with a sign saying “Jesus tiene sed de ti”. A bit gross, but whatever.

I get my steak. It’s a thin, disappointing piece of meat, and way overcooked.

But the neighborhood is nice, and the sun is warm.

It’s a few days before Christmas, and Madrid is beautiful.

A few blocks from the steak restaurant, I sit on a bench and text Cassandra.

She and her husband have just had a baby: little Olivia.

She’s 10 days old, tiny, and asleep when I arrive. They take me into the room where she’s curled up, and I’m in awe. I know I’m supposed to comment on the baby’s cuteness, or something, but I can’t be bothered – this kid is a miracle, and cuteness is the least of it.

We sit on the sofa, chatting quietly about the parenthood situation.

After a while the baby wakes up, briefly, and they bring her out to the living room. Stroking her silky hair, I’m quite impressed – perfectly-formed tiny humans popping out of other, regular-sized humans. Amazing!

If the universe is, in fact, nothing but atoms bumping into each other in a mostly empty void, there’s no reason for conscious life to exist. But it does.

I don’t know what you’ve got planned for your 40s and thereafter, but I’m apparently going to be some sort of annoyingly sober health nut and spiritual-or-religious person. This isn’t what I wanted, exactly, but with all that’s happened it seems better than the other options.

I hang out for an hour and then leave the happy couple to their parenting.

I’m off to donate blood.

Up at Hospital de la Paz, the blood donation center is starkly lit and decorated with children’s drawings.

The nice old lady who’s always been there is puttering around when they send me into the office for the donor’s interview. Everything’s fine until the woman signs my donor questionnaire as “Apto para donar” – as she’s putting down her pen she glances at a sticky note on her computer screen. “Wait… did you say you lived in Barcelona?”

She hands me the note: Two recent cases of dengue in Catalonia. Don’t accept blood from travellers.

I guess they don’t even want my blood down here anymore.

“What is dengue, exactly?” I ask.

“A tropical disease”, she says. “Spread by mosquitoes.”

I see about two mosquitoes per year in Barcelona, but rules are rules. I’m a bit disappointed, though. It takes some time and energy to psych myself up to bleed into a bag for half an hour, and this time I’ve done it for nothing.

Oh well. I grab a free bottle of water and head down to Plaza de Castilla.

plaza castilla madrid

Doctoral dilemmas

Back at the hotel that evening, Morena is having some doubts.

She’s just seen her friend receive his doctorate and is regretting not following that path herself.

It’s a classic money-vs-status dilemma: getting a doctoral degree would be pretty high-status, which would make the big Asian family happy. On the other hand, scientists are usually broke – especially here in Spain – and being broke isn’t making anybody happy.

In any case, her corporate career is going pretty well, up in Barcelona. But it’s not important-sounding like a PhD in nanotechnology would be.

We talk about it. I personally think the obsession with degrees is pretty silly. Then again, I often wish I had a degree myself – as a college dropout and borderline-unemployable misfit, I have a long-standing inferiority complex when it comes to people with a “real education”.

On the other hand, if you really think about it, going into a mountain of debt to get some job that’s just going to keep you broke for decades is a terrible life plan.

But Morena’s big disappointed Asian family was expecting her to get a doctorate. And also send money home when they need it – which, on a grad student’s stipend, would have been pretty rough.

Like I said, it’s quite a dilemma.

Back down memory lane

The next day we go to Mercado Mostenses for breakfast. Here’s a market that’s not yet gourmet. There are several Peruvian bars among the food stalls, and sitting at one, we order coffee. They bring the jar of Nescafé and a cup of hot water to our table – an authentic no-frills experience.

I get pan con chicharrones and Morena gets pan con lomo. Hers is basically steak with onion and a bit of soy sauce, mine is pork belly with thick slices of sweet potato. A delicious and hyper-caloric way to start the day.

mercado mostenses madrid

Next we’re off to see my friend Nina, who’s just moved back to town.

We walk south through Sol, the much-overrated Lavapiés, and Embajadores, where I lived briefly in 2006. Those were exciting times – I was writing a novel, dating a tiny (and very annoying) Spanish actress, and having adventures along Madrid’s Camino de Santiago.

The place where I lived is, logically, still there – on top of the Irish pub and the strip club. The big community center run by squatters in La Tabacalera seems to be closed, and under construction. The heroin taxis that used to be a neighborhood institution – taking users to the shanty-towns outside the city to shoot up – are nowhere to be seen.

Gentrification: it’s real, and it’s coming for your dealer.

Brooklyn and Scandinavia

A bit further down, in Delicias, we find Nina.

It’s been a while – about five years – since we last saw each other. In the meantime, she’s been in Brooklyn, wherever that is. Now she’s back in Spain.

“In New York, everyone’s saying that I’m going to find a Spanish husband out here.” she says. “But I’m not even dating. Why is everyone so concerned with my relationship status?”

We have Greek food, and then go sit in the sun at the Matadero. More coffee, because sober lifestyles. Nina’s great.

Later, we’re with Xavi (or, as he’s now known, Dr Xavi) at a cocktail bar. His dissertation defense was the official reason for this trip – I’m just along for the ride.

I sip my alcohol-free beer and look around.

Now that he’s finished his dissertation, Dr Xavi’s moving to Sweden – a country where scientists are (apparently) well-paid and happy.

He seems a bit worried, though: about the cold, and the darkness, and the food up north.

That’s another dilemma Morena and I talk about a lot: living in Spain, we have lower salaries and better weather and food. Generally, a pretty good lifestyle. At what point would we be willing to give that all up and move to Northern Europe to make more money?

We visited Sweden earlier this year, and I was a bit underwhelmed. I wrote about it in my Swedish Utopia article.

But It’s a tough question. And the fact that most of Northern Europe spends their disposable income on holidays in Spain seems to suggest that it’s better to just stay here.

No solutions, only trade-offs.

Thomas Sowell once wrote that there are no solutions, only trade-offs.

The older I get, the more I see it’s true. Much of life is just a series of decisions based on very limited information – and we’re often pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy.

If we are, in fact, just collections of organs held together by collagenous membranes – or atoms held together by their electromagnetic charge – the decision to move to Sweden or not isn’t any easier.

How would my limbic system react to 22 and a half hours of darkness a day? I have no idea. Maybe gaining points in some primate status games would compensate me for the extra darkness, in some way. Or maybe not.

Maybe I should have gone to Brazil, and learned to surf. Then again…

Well, life is full of “maybe I shoulds” and “then agains”. It’s hard to process it all.

But I’m feeling optimistic – and, ordering a second alcohol-free beer, realize I’ve never felt this good at a cocktail bar. It’s office Christmas party season, and people are well-dressed and giddy. The cold night air is full of lights, and we’re in Madrid, which is a great place to be a tourist in.

And if the stars align, who knows? We might end up living here again.

That’s all I’ve got for today.

Have a great holiday season. I’ll see you in the new year.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. If there are any topics you’d like to see here, please let me know. Of course, 2024 is an election year in the US, which should be fun. I’m hoping to stay as far away from that as possible, but I’m sure it’ll slide in here somehow. Also, did you know that you can donate to the cause? Why yes… and by “the cause” I mean buying me coffee, Chinese food and alcohol-free beer so I can sustain myself through the cold Spanish winter. Here’s the donation page. Thanks!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Thanks for the wanderings of you, your mind and body.

    I also like the thought that there are no solutions, sort of gives me hope and also the desire to give up seeking any of them.

    Is a good thing, let's find out.

    Anyhow, hope all progresses in a direction you enjoy and can share..

    So, I also live in Spain, I also noticed that holidays come south as does my income, Thankfully.

    I will stay here until the bitter end enjoying all Spain has and if the bitter end is before mine, I guess I return to what is not my home anymore.

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