Summer in Madrid: The Ghost Town

August 8, 2016

Sunday. Madrid. Mid August.

Everybody who can afford it is far away. On a beach somewhere. Searching for relaxation, an escape from the day to day.

And nearly everybody else is at home, blinds drawn against the heat, waiting for nightfall.

My neighborhood is abandoned except for a few cars humming up and down the main drag.

At the bar across the street, a waitress sits alone, staring at her phone. No customers. The sign on the door says they’re closing tomorrow. Two weeks’ vacation.

Perdonen las molestias.

I don’t think anyone will be bothered.

I’m dressed in old grey pants, a polo shirt and a baseball cap, and I’ve just shuffled out of the house and down the street.

There’s a park just a few blocks away, promising shade, some green, and cooler air. If I make it, I can sit on a bench under a canopy of mediterranean pines, and read a book to pass the afternoon.

If don’t make it, well, then I won’t have to worry about paying any more taxes.

Or are the dead also required to send quarterly remittances to Uncle Sam?

madrid in summer the ghost town
Cuatro Torres Business Area, a few blocks up the street.

The Ghost Town

I walk past shuttered bars and restaurants. Cross La Castellana. Barely any traffic. Even the beggars have gone on vacation.

The cowboy in me wants to imagine tumbleweeds blowing across the street. Toothless old men hiding behind the shutters, spitting tobacco and tracking me in the sights of a shotgun.

But no. This is Europe. Nobody chews, nobody’s armed.

And even the temperature isn’t that bad, I have to remind myself. 34 degrees Celsius isn’t even 100 in real degrees. Back home, this would be a brisk spring day, before the real heat kicks in.

I walk past the plaque announcing the Cameroonian embassy: Paix, Travail, Patrie.

Then the Congolese embassy: Justice, Paix, Travail.

Just like people, countries that can afford better are somewhere else.

On the other side of La Castellana, I take a left and walk past the only two open businesses in the neighborhood. The H&M, and Home Burger Bar. Declared one of the top 50 burgers in the world by the Matador Network, as the sign outside explains.

Finally, I make it to the park before the heat strikes me down.

On the benches and under the trees, a few Latin caretakers push withered ancients in wheelchairs. Too old to travel.

Filipina housekeepers sit on benches dangling their flip flops off crossed legs, enjoying their day off.

Three teenagers walk by. Heads down in their mobile screens. From their conversation it would seem that the phones are telling them where to go.

Searching for Pokemons, I guess.

Spending the afternoon in augmented reality… whatever that means.

A youngish couple walks by. Heads down. Text neck. I don’t think they’re searching for Pokemons. I think they’re just boring.

Life in non-augmented reality

I sit down on a bench in the shade and pull out my book. I read William Zinsser’s thoughts on travel writing.

By the time I finish the chapter, I don’t know much more about travel writing, but I’m extremely intimidated by all the great writers out there. And the near-impossibility of ever catching up.

An old man walks by. Skinny arms popping out of a blue polo. Hunchback. He’s talking the whole time to his little black dog. Scolding him.

In the opposite direction, a fat security guard speeds by on an offroad Segway, kicking up dust.

The problem with writing is that it has to be about something, whereas life is about nothing.

You’re born. You do some stuff – probably not enough. You eat. You sleep. And you die.

What’s that about?

Travel writing is the same. And equally frustrating, for me.

I go somewhere. Walk around looking at stuff. Hit the museums. Get tipsy in local bars. Then come home.

What really happened?

I had an experience, but there’s no hook. It’s just more stuff. Happening.

After I finish Zinsser’s chapter on travel writing, I briefly consider starting the next one, on writing a memoir. But that’d be a whole ‘nother can of worms.

My whole life: 33 seasons, and still it’s just a show about nothing.

Nothing is the new something

A girl in little sky-blue shorts walks by, walking a sausage dog. Her boyfriend is holding her hand. His shorts have big pink roses printed on them.

I decide to get up and walk around the park. There are more girls in very short shorts. Some shirtless teenagers playing football. Young mothers with baby carriages.

The French woman with the toy poodle is there. What’s her name? I can’t remember. She’s happy because she’s going back to work in a few weeks. “My surgery almost left me in a wheelchair.” she told me one day. “With so much time off work, I don’t even have money to go out for a drink.”

She’s searching for a boyfriend.

I leave the park. There’s plenty more non-augmented reality out here.

Just outside the gate, mass is getting out at the church. A few dozen people stumble out into the light, rubbing their eyes.

Searching for salvation…

Or just a cool, dark place to spend an hour.

Maybe the kids are onto something with augmented reality.

The end of the story

They say you have to suffer to create. Well, I call bullshit.

I’ve suffered the heat, the boredom and the loneliness of long summers in Madrid. Friends elsewhere. No A/C. No income.

I can’t say it’s been great for my creativity so far.

On the other side of the church, my usual bar is closed. Everything is closed, till the 22nd at least.

I walk on, past another church that’s letting out mass. Past more shuttered restaurants.

Wandering through a ghost town.

Searching for beer.

Thirstily Yours,

Mr Chorizo.

P.S. Travel writing is hard, and this was an attempt at travel writing without actually going anywhere. A trip around the neighborhood. Like it? Hate it? Let me know in the comments.

P.P.S. Okay, it took me a while, but I wrote a sort of memoir. It’s called The Zen of Blogging and it tells the story of how I went from illegal immigrant living in semi-poverty to my current level of James Bondish international playboyhood. Or whatever. You can pick up a copy on Amazon.

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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. This is my second summer here. I’m from the United States, so “vacation,” or “holiday,” doesn’t have quite the same meaning for me. I wonder what they’re going away from.

    Last week, a Spanish friend tried to take me to a selection of “classic Madrid bars.” Most of them were closed for the month. I don’t stand in judgement of their desire to spend time with friends and family, I’m just a guy who went on vacation during tourist off-season.

    Luckily, it just means that most popular spots are easy to get into if you live in the area. I can appreciate business/restaurant owners taking a month off to enjoy life, but a lot of small business owners that Spaniards enjoy will continue to disappear if they don’t adapt to how other Europeans and foreigners do things.

    1. Yeah, well, August is the only time of year they can close without losing a TON of business, so I guess that’s why they do it. Understandable.

      1. Daniel, you Speak and write a very good english. I Am Alfonso From Cuernavaca, Mexico and a I could understand everything. I think you took the coursera Of Daniel Welsh, jeje.
        I learned a new word, tipsy, to be happy with drinks.
        I Am NOW in Mahahual, a beautiful beach Close ti Chetumal and Tulum un Costa Maya México. Thanks for share All your knowledge. I apreciate very much.

        1. Thanks Alfonso! Yes, tipsy is “contentillo” like you feel after a couple of drinks. I’m glad you enjoyed my writing, and hope you have a nice time at the beach.

  2. Hi,

    Very heartwarming (if need be…) post overall despite the sadness that seems to be running through. I think all this is good for the soul if you learn to appreciate it; life is meaningless when looking at a boring routine but on the long run there are so many good things behind and, most importantly, ahead of us.

    1. Yeah, for sure. Anyway, I sometimes exaggerate for greater impact. I’m not really wandering around feeling terrible or anything.

  3. I still like it Daniel. It allows us to learn more about Spain–Madrid specifically at this time of year. Thank you!

  4. I’m new to Madrid and to a job, so that means I’m working all of August while the whole of the university is away. I actually love it – I’m still not used to the crush of people commuting with me or the rush of coffee in the morning. Let’s try to get together soon!

    1. Yeah, Cat, we’ve still got to get together. I was hoping to meet you at Kay’s birthday bash… Anyway, definitely soon!

  5. Hi Daniel!. Thanks for your writting. You always make me smile. I think you’re so crazy and really funny!. But I learn a lot with you. I’m just a learner of English struggling to get the B2. By the way, I hope I haven’t made any huge mistake….

  6. Hi Mr C. Love this. All about nothing – well, about the string of ‘nothing’s that life consists of. just ‘one damn’ thing after another’. What was the exercise – to write just about any given morning or day or hour, whatever? Going to try it. Meanwhile, thanks for making me laugh outloud, yet again. J.

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