The hotel receptionist punches some numbers into the credit card reader.
I scan my card.
I reach out to put in my PIN. But faster than I can move, she snatches the card reader away.
“Wait!” she says. “I have to disinfect it first.”
She wipes it down with a pink microfiber cloth, and hands it back to me. I enter my 4 digits. Accepted.
“We’re doing this for every customer”, she explains.
Hotel room: 55 euros a night.
Welcome back to Madrid.
What to do now?
What does anyone do in Madrid?
Go to bars! And so, leaving my suitcase in the room, I’m off. Off to see the desolation – or lack thereof – in post-covid Madrid.
It’s been a while. I was last here in February, back in the beforetimes.
How innocent we all were, back then.
Anyway, get ready.
It’s time for a…
Bar (and restaurant) crawl through post-covid Madrid
The streets of Malasaña are eerily quiet.
Maybe it’s just a Monday thing. Most of the bars are closed. Calle Fuencarral doesn’t have the usual bustle.
Close to Gran Vía it gets busier, but I’m looking for food, so I turn off before I get there.
First stop in “New Normal” Madrid: El Lugar de Martina.
I order a beer and sit at one of the tables on Plaza de la Luna.
This area is famous for the presence of certain types of sex workers – and it looks like they’ve only gotten bolder since I was last here.
In fact, the’ve moved off the side streets on onto the plaza itself. This sort of thing being mostly legal in Spain, they parade around right in front of a line of police cars. Nobody seems to care.
Besides, they’re wearing masks. Clearly, they’re as worried about the public health as any of us.
Meanwhile, there are only a few customers out here at the bar. One woman gets up to take a phone call, and when she comes back, her table is being overrun by pigeons. They’re eating her potato chips.
Fuera, ¡coño! she shouts, waving her arms.
She sits down, picks up her remaining potato chip, and puts it in her mouth. ¡Malditas palomas!
Artisan beer: 4€.
Chinese lunch at Chuan Yu
Half a block down is one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, Chuan Yu.
Usually, it’s full of college-aged Chinese kids, eating big bowls of noodle soup and drinking some unappetizing green beverage.
Today, it’s completely empty, except for a delivery guy and the people who run the place.
The waiter with the neck tattoos is still here, and seats me at a table in back.
They’ve taken the TV out, which is a pity. Usually there’s a big flatscreen on the wall, playing all the latest music videos.
At my age, this stuff doesn’t just find me anymore.
And the flatscreen at Chuan Yu was always good for a small dose of youthful nonsense. But not in these post-covid times. All that’s left is the empty socket.
So, the waiter having disappeared and no WAP to ogle, I stare at the walls.
After a few minutes, I realize I was supposed to scan a QR code for the menu. But by this time, the waiter is back.
“You still have the spicy beef?”
It comes out in about two minutes. I wonder how they do it. Is there just a bucket of spicy beef in the kitchen, waiting for someone to order it?
It’s not quite as good as it was… or maybe I’m just imagining things. Anyway, I eat it and I’m off.
Spicy beef, white rice, glass of wine: 13.60€.
Walking back up Calle San Bernardo, I stop at a Día supermarket.
Constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, Día is widely known as the worst shopping experience in Spain – and that’s saying a lot.
But today, as soon as I walk in, a woman looks up from counting the till long enough to shout “HAND SANITIZER BEFORE YOU GO ANY FURTHER!”
Am I the only one who thinks using hand sanitizer feels like getting a palmful of jizz? And it happens 4 or 5 times a day.
Just like being a teenager again, I guess. Thanks covid.
Despite all the hygiene theatre at the entrance to the shop, the floor inside is dirty. I pay and leave.
Bottled water: 0,60€.
Warehouse @ The H Club
I’m here to meet Eva and Nacho, two friends from way back.
Eva’s there first, Nacho’s still at work.
We sit down. The place is quickly filling up with college kids.
We’re right down the road from IE Business School, where the global elites send their kids to be snobbish, and presumably to network with other global snobs.
I could probably afford to go there myself, for about 4 hours… but who wants to hang out with snobs?
Eva sighs. “I really need a drink, after today.”
She works at a school that’s starting the new year tomorrow.
“Four teachers tested positive for covid last Friday. Today, they were back at work!”
“Is that the test that says you have it now, or the test that says you had it at some point in the past?”
Like everyone else, I’m suddenly an expert virologist.
“I couldn’t get a really clear answer on that”, she says. “I tested negative, thank god.”
Here comes Nacho.
He sits down, and counts heads at the table of global snobs next to us.
“There are 12 kids there at that table. Weren’t they banning gatherings of over 10 people?”
“Yeah, and apparently nobody cares.”
Beer for me, wine for Eva: 7.50€.
They pay for the rest.
Sightseeing in el Romántico Barrio de Tetuán
The next morning I head north, toward my old barrio.
These days, I live at the beach in Barcelona. And it’s awesome. But for some reason, the streets of Tetuán still have a hold on me. I start to feel a bit giddy as I walk up Bravo Murillo, and see that almost nothing has changed.
Of course, this area doesn’t depend on tourism at all. It’s just houses and shops, a working class area that’s largely ungentrified.
I stop for coffee at a new place, a pizza joint run by some Latin guy.
He makes a good double espresso, and while I’m sitting there, he’s talking to someone from his hometown who’s walked in. They’re reminiscing.
“You remember Gutierrez, the one who sold tennis shoes down at the mall?”
“Yeah. He got killed, you know.”
“Yup. Got killed.”
“Qué tiempos aquellos.”
The conversation goes on and on, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what country they’re talking about. But apparently, it was a pretty exciting place to live back in the 80s and 90s.
Double espresso: 1.30€.
Thick slabs of meat at Mercado de Tetuán
Further up Bravo Murillo is the municipal market where I used to shop for meat and veggies.
It pays to have a good relationship with the people at your local market.
And I’ve spent a lot of time this year wondering how my butchers from back in Madrid were doing.
So that’s one of the goals of this walk: to check on my butchers.
They’ve re-done most of the market and it’s got a giant chain supermarket attached to it now.
But Jose is there in his usual stall, and he’s happy to see me.
We talk about how Catalonia sucks for a while – it’s a madrileño thing – and then I ask about the other butcher, Félix.
“He hit retirement age on February 20th, but figured he’d work a little while longer. When they declared the state of alarm in March, he decided to call it quits.”
“Give him my best wishes.”
We shake hands, and I’m off.
Good times with huge pieces of meat: free.
(Pretty good description of your mom’s social life, actually.)
Lunch at Royal Thai
On the fancier side of La Castellana everything seems the same as always.
Or almost everything.
The big hotels in the area are all closed. They used to host the sports teams when there were international tournaments, and the flight crews stopping over from Barajas.
Now they’re empty, and dark inside.
I stop off at Nouba, a bar in the middle of a little park.
It’s the place where I went on my first date with Morena, and I usually end up back here when I’m in town. This time, the waitress ignores me for 10 minutes, so I have time to read the news.
I read about a truck driver who got drunk and called the police on himself. His plan? Get arrested and force the trucking company to offer him early retirement.
He definitely got arrested. Whether the rest of his plan worked is still unclear.
By now it’s lunch time and I head over to Royal Thai on Avenida de Brasil.
The boss remembers me, even though it’s been forever. He even remembers that whatever I order, I always get extra hot sauce on the side.
I have the spicy chicken and it’s great, as usual.
As I’m paying, it occurs to me that since the last time I was in this Thai restaurant, I’ve been to real Thailand, the country.
I hope to impress Mr Bossman with my worldliness. Perhaps we can bond over our love for Bangkok or the tropical islands of the south.
“So are you from Thailand?” I ask.
“The chef is from Thailand”, he says. “I’m from Granada.”
Menú del día – wine included: 12,50€.
Can’t stop #ponzaning
After lunch I walk down calle Ponzano.
It’s the hottest street in Madrid. Or it was.
It even had its own hashtag. #ponzaning
This time around, almost everything’s a new place…
Some of the restaurants have signs in the windows, dated from March. “Closed until further notice”. Peering through the glass, I see the plants that sit dead in their pots, the stacks of mail that’ve been shoved under the doors. The dust and the decay.
I stop at a place called La Mamona for a gin and tonic.
It’s another new bar. All decor, no substance. Just what the kids want these days.
And maybe I’m being too literal with my translation, but “La Mamona” sounds like what they probably call your mom by the dumpsters outside the bowling alley.
Gin’s not bad though.
Larios 12 and some fancy tonic: 8€.
Dinner at Matcha
A few hours later, I’m back in Tetuán.
Before moving up here, I’d never lived anywhere near a sushi restaurant.
Now I don’t plan to ever live far away from one.
I’m here with Ariana, a friend who’s a doctor and shares my love of salmon rolls. And I’ve got some very pointed questions I’ve been waiting months to ask her.
“So listen, Doc. We had lunch back in February, and you said Coronavirus was nothing to worry about…”
“In fact, you said you’d just come back from a medical conference, with hundreds of doctors, all of whom were completely unworried. How is it that all you highly educated people were so, so wrong?”
“Well,” she says, “We weren’t wrong. We were just misinformed.”
“And we still don’t know jackshit about this virus. I hope we’re able to learn something from this. ‘La ignorancia es atrevida’, as my grandmother used to say… May she rest in peace.”
“It’s been quite a year, huh?”
We order the family platter.
Sushi for two, lots of wine, dessert: 65€.
And once again…
Trying to draw some sort of conclusion from all this
The last stop on my pub crawl is my hotel room, where I’m currently drinking cheap wine out of a paper cup…
And trying to figure out what happened to my adopted home country.
Mostly, I’m trying to imagine what would have happened if the Rona had happened back in the 90s.
You remember the 90s?
Before the internet, before social media, before the “news” became a 24-hour cycle of clickbait crap.
My best guess is that the logarithmic charts of cases and deaths would look about the same, but the global panic would have looked a lot different.
We humans really aren’t designed to worry about every terrible thing that’s happening everywhere on the planet.
But the internet allows us to do just that.
And as much as I love the internet and all the good things it’s created, it also enables toxic assholery on an unbelievable global scale.
Toxic assholery that’s instantaneous, and available to billions.
(I believe “toxic assholery” is what they’re calling your mom in the bathroom at the Amtrak station, by the way.)
But seriously: in the 90s if you wanted to know what your most obnoxious acquaintances from years before were thinking about politics, or pandemics, or anything else, you were shit outta luck.
Now you’re connected to it all the time.
If someone you’ll never meet makes a racist comment 9000 miles away from wherever you’re living, you can easily hear about it the next day, and be outraged.
And if some virus is killing people in your town, you can also follow it on a global 24-hour news cycle. No need to wait for the morning paper to be terrified, or the evening news.
You can be terrified all day, every day. For months.
And I’m not sure of many things in life…
But I’m damn sure that trying to be afraid of or angry about everything that’s happening on the planet is a really, really, really fucking bad idea.
But – exactly like your mom – it’s what everyone’s doing this year.
That’s about all I’ve got for today.
P.S. Please pardon all the jokes about your mom. I’m sure she’s a fine lady. In fact, tell her I’ll save her a paper cup of Rioja if she wants to drop by my hotel room later. Tell her to bring that WAP.
P.P.S. If you want to read more – and at this point I can’t blame you if you don’t – check out Scenes from Spain’s Great Recession, or the Top 5 Spanish Stereotypes. And whatever you do, have fun! Que la vida son dos días…