A Perfect Evening in Madrid 

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Gran Via , Madrid at sunset
The day had arrived, the evening was beckoning- it was finally time to get ready for my first night out with the Madrid ladies. What should I wear? A dress? Heels? Oh my goodness – decisions, decisions, decisions! You might think that these decisions are trivial (yes, they are!) but this was the equivalent of a first date or a job interview, this was my first night out with five potential friends. When you are friendless in a new a city and your only company for three months (apart from your kids) has been your dog and shopping trolley (my husband was always travelling), this definitely felt like a big step. So, what was i to do? Would a glamorous dress speak volumes about my desperation to be liked – probably – I opted instead for nice pants, a pretty sheer blouse and some stiletto shoes – elegant but with a youthful touch.  Mabel (my new friend) arrived to pick me up impeccably dressed in a cool jumpsuit, multi strapped high sandals adorning her feet and driving a vintage jaguar with a remix of “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell on the stereo. I stepped in and off we sped to the city centre picking up her various glamorous friends along the way.

Our first stop was an old fashioned spanish bar where we sat for a few tapas and wine. I surreptitiously checked my watch – the time was now around 9 pm and this wasn’t even the restaurant for dinner – these girls must have real stamina. I needed to pace myself, I had to get in touch with my inner Viking and drag her reserves of strength to the surface, there would be no yawning tonight, no racing home like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight – no, tonight I would be full steam ahead

Vibrant, beautiful Madrid
At the table I casually revealed a few personal anecdotes (I’ve had a pretty colourful life so I have quite a library to draw from) and these piqued their interest. I needed to make a good impression, the point being to be interesting but not too interesting. Too interesting can also be seen as just plain weird (anyone going on a first date, please take note!) and that is just plain off putting! Well, by this time I had got through my first hour and now it was time to move to our dinner destination, an unassuming Cuban restaurant a block away.

By the time we ordered food it was 10pm (Madrid does not have the same social schedules as any city anywhere else!) and there were now six of us in our very international group – two Spaniards, a Cuban, an Icelandic, a Belgian and me, the Brit. Out came the plates of food but i can’t be certain what they tasted like as they were accompanied by a steady stream of mojitos. A Cuban band then took to the stage, tables got pushed back, loads more people arrived and everyone started dancing. It was all so alive! The mojitos kept coming as did my anecdotes, which were taking on a slightly bluer hue! My husband started sending me texts “Pace yourself” “Don’t let them know who you really are!’,  “Let them get to know you slowly” “Oh dear” was my response “too late for that!’ as my new friends laughed  at my latest joke!

Friendship is the best medicine!
“Let’s go dancing!’ exclaimed Mabel “I know a club!’ A club? an actual nightclub? I hadn’t been to one of those for about a decade! Grown up (rather dull) drinking clubs maybe, but a proper dancing club – no way! We jumped in taxis and off we went.

Now the club was the sort of establishment that i hadn’t graced since the late 80s and had probably hoped never to grace again. It was a very mixed crowd, pretty uncool (who cares!) BUT, there was a dance floor, we were a lively group and we were ready for fun. I didn’t know if I would ever get this opportunity again so I decided to embrace it whole heartedly.

I found a dancing partner in my new friend Helena and off we went, moving and shaking our stuff. Some bits shook rather more than they used to, my body was not quite as fit (dancing is exhausting!) but enthusiasm and an extreme mojito driven sugar surge took care of that!  The other club attendees looked rather drunk and wobbly as they danced in a purposeless way (one must always have a purpose!) but our purpose was clear – we wanted fun and we were having it and nothing would stand in our way – not even the rather lifeless songs the Dj was playing. I took the situation into my own hands and forced him to play some livelier tunes  (by this time the inner Viking had really taken hold) and it injected some well needed life into the dance floor’s amblers (they really needed some direction!). As to us, well we danced, we pranced, we laughed and we danced some more and then it was time to bid farewell.

I was finally dropped at my house at 4am. Leo came down to the door to look at me. “Abigail, it’s 4am! It’s so late! What were you doing?” “Dancing and having fun!” I called back and then wobbled off to bed, finally emerging at 4pm the next day, exhausted but exhilarated. Friends! Dancing! A new life! Nothing could hold me back and this was just the beginning!

Madrid and the Art of Eating 

When I look back to our short but sweet time in Madrid, my most ardent memories involve food. There is no doubt about it, Madrid is food heaven. It was (for the most part) exceptional. The idea of a sad, soggy sandwich, filled with unpalatable rubbery cheese, stuffed unceremoniously into one’s mouth whilst seated at a desk,  was unheard of in Spain.  Lunches were a time to stop, down tools and fill your tummy with healthy delight. Even the cheap little corner cafes with plastic tables and strip lighting, served three course meals that tickled your taste buds and brought pleasure to your belly. I was amazed by their commitment to proper eating.  The Spanish know how to eat. They know how to take pleasure in food.

From what I could see, the Spanish philosophy is to work to live, as opposed to live for work and this coloured everything. At Leo’s work, menus were set before him each lunch time along with a napkin and silver cutlery- so fancy- he couldn’t believe his luck!  The fact is, you just can’t rush a Spaniard at mealtime (don’t even try!) Even the removals men we hired to deliver our furniture  stopped for a TWO HOUR lunch and somehow they got all their work done! They were slightly slower but my goodness, they were so much happier!  I began to wonder how I had ever eaten all those sandwiches from Pret a Manger. My taste buds really needed an upgrade! Actually my whole life ethos needed an upgrade!

Even our local park cafe had proper menus, an impressive wine list, well turned out waiters and good, tasty food. It was a marvel. We became regular weekend visitors, sitting at their courtyard tables surrounded by large, happy, noisy Spanish families taking their time to eat on a Sunday. Yes food and the pleasure of eating became a proper past time.

Looking back to my life in England, I realised that I had really started to entrench myself into a middle years mindset. Dinner out at 8pm, tucked into bed before midnight- it was all rather lack lustre.  I envied my London friends who had the energy to stay out after midnight- I just couldn’t be bothered. It was with this mouldy mindset that I started going out in Madrid. Now in Madrid, if you decide to dine out at 8pm, your dining companions will either be young families with toddlers or octogenarians (possibly older!)  We asked around and everyone told us that we had to start our night no earlier than 9pm and even that was mildly geriatric. So we slowly but surely began to adapt to the Madrid way. Really we had no choice and do you know what, it was so good for the soul! It felt instantly youthening. Slippers be dammed! My middle years needed a great big injection of life and here it was.

The concept of time was changing…. the kids went to bed later and later, our days became longer, we all relaxed and meals became mini events. I can tell you that those six months we lived in Madrid liberated my soul, changed my view of time and made me look at age in a whole new light! My middle years would now be my mid -life awakening! It was time to get out my dancing shoes…and that is just what I did…

 

My favourite food courts in Madrid

1. Mercado de San Miguel www.mercadodesanmiguel.es

This place is amazing! It’s a large food hall stuffed with delicious tapas, sweet treats and drinks. We brought all of our visitors here. It’s worth going before the rush hour of lunch as it gets crowded. Don’t expect a seat – this is a standing place but it’s worth it. The food is delicious and it’s fun and the venue is great looking.

2. Mercado San Anton

www.mercadosananton.com

This food market is in the trendy part of Madrid. It’s calm and gorgeous, with delicious food to eat on site and also to buy. There’s a cool rooftop bar there that’s great to go to for a pre dinner aperitif!

Beautifully displayed satsumas, Mercado San Anton, Madrid
3. Platea

http://www.plateamadrid.com

This amazing venue is a former cinema in Plaza Colon. It’s gorgeous to look at, has a stage for entertainment and has great tapas and wine. It is really worth visiting.

Finally…Friends!

This new life in Madrid had a big friendship sized hole in it. Once the novelty of living abroad had worn off (around one week!) reality set in like cement and it sounded something like this, “Mummy, we don’t have any weekend friends” ” Mummy, weekends are so boring now” “Mummy, do you actually have any friends here? Will you ever have friends?  Will we ever have friends?” Unfortunately answers were in short supply as I felt the same way. That friendship hole needed filling and fast but it was proving quite hard. Where do you start without the language? I suppose it would have been sensible to join one of those “British women abroad- Let’s unite, wave the flag and empower each other!” style clubs, but I’ve never been good at being sensible and joining groups has never suited me – or the group for that matter. I really hoped new friendships would emerge organically. After a few months my hope was stretched as thin as a pair of nylon stockings with holes in them.

My only companions durintg those first months in Madrid
At the school gates I attempted to make small talk with the mothers. It was so small I reclassified it to teeny. Within three minutes they would look at me with pity in their eyes and then continue conversing in Spanish, while I stood there feeling rather foolish. I pretended to be nonchalant. I took up looking at my new iPhone a lot (does twenty times a minute count as a lot?) and pretended to be “busy.” I called my sister, so the mothers could see that I had real humans who wanted to interact with me and I wasn’t a sad and lonely drifter. She answered (about ten times a week!), which was a relief as she hates the phone. The phone became my life line. When I couldn’t call the UK for a few days I felt completely abandoned, although weirdly I could still make calls to my husband. Poor man – I called him ranting and railing. He took to travelling and coming home late.

I was pining so much for home, my friends and my family, that my heart actually hurt. I hadn’t felt this isolated for years and it was unpleasant. It was just me and the dog. My smiles became bigger to mask my tears, although not too big as that would highlight my desperation and make me look like someone to avoid. I needed to keep my new needy character under control and under wraps. I wasn’t sure where brave and courageous Abigail had gone but I prayed she hadn’t abandoned me completely.  I had to see this process in a positive light – it was a metamorphosis and eventually I would emerge refreshed and renewed, like a butterfly breaking free of it’s cocoon. Well one can dream…

By this stage we had moved out of the centre of Madrid and were now living in a beautiful home in the suburbs. It was spacious, gorgeous and had a little pool in the garden with fresh basil and rosemary growing around it and red roses climbing  the walls. The house was idyllic, which did cheer us up.

Each morning, after dropping the kids to school, Skyla and I walked down to the local village high street where I found a perfect restaurant to sit with a cup of cafe con leche whilst enjoying the warmth (from a sad distance) of socialising humans. After about ten visits the owners (it was a family affair) began to talk to me. Two lovely sisters, who didn’t speak English but were hugely kind and warm and their five languages speaking, charming brother- thank god one of those languages was English! This became my morning safe haven. Now we just needed those weekend friends.

My table at El Nuevo Zaguan, Aravaca, Madrid
I discovered the mothers in my son’s class had a what’s app group, where they shared jokes (some looked quite rude!), party plans and homework. Unfortunately it was all in Spanish. That, plus loitering alone at the school gates at pick up, made me feel like an unwatered wallflower, quietly wilting on the side lines.
I was feeling helpless, wishing we could pack up and return to London, when a flurry of activity appeared on my phone. I was struggling to understand it and then a message appeared  -“Do you know what’s going on?” It read. “Do you need help?” It was Mabel, the Spanish mother I had met about a month before. “I have no idea what’s going on !” I responded, relieved yet desperate. “I do need help!”  She decided to take this lost English lady under her wing – I was someone who obviously needed steering in the right direction – she would be my fairy godmother, my guardian angel!

At school pick up, needy no mates finally had someone to talk to.  Mabel introduced me to “the gang” – a gorgeous group of her friends, some of whom spoke perfect English. “Do any of you like going out and drinking wine?” I asked them after about a week- “Because I’m desperate for a girl’s night out and equally desperate for a large glass of wine.” They laughed and a plan was hatched.

Within two weeks I would be going for my first girls’ night out in Madrid!. What would it be like I wondered. What should i wear? Would they like me? Would I like them?  Maybe, just maybe, they would fill that large friendship hole. My excitement began to brew…

Top Pic: Casa de Campo Park, where I spent many hours walking Skyla in quiet contemplation.

 

 

 

 

Muddle and Melodrama in Madrid!

In the first month of our new life in Madrid, my mother in law came to stay from Mexico. At this point we were squashed into a cramped air B and B and Teresa, who is a very decent person, accepted that she would be sleeping on the sofa. She is in her 70s so I was pretty impressed by her resilience! Leo and I had our own teeny room with a teeny bed – you couldn’t move or you fell out, whilst the kids squeezed into a short, skinny bunk bed. Skyla, who has her own bed, was determined to sleep in my mother in law’s and she was equally determined to get her out! Yes, it wasn’t a perfect set up but we muddled through. 

One freezing January morning, as we got ready for school, I put on the kettle for our morning tea and the heating for our cold bones, when suddenly, we found ourselves in total darkness! What? Teresa was in the shower – “Abigail, help, help!” she called out rather helplessly, “I can’t see! What’s happened to the lights?” Oh my god, I actually like my mother in law and needed her alive! I rushed about searching for a torch so I could navigate my way to the electricity panel, wherever that might be? Amazingly I found it and got all the lights back on without blowing us all up. Well done me! We then had to decide between heat and tea. Tea won.

Five more black outs later, I called the landlady, expecting instant help but instead got a lack lustre, “I just don’t know what’s going on. I can’t do anything.” I began to believe this was her canny ploy to control our electricity usage but there was nothing we could do. At least the radio Leo had installed worked! Each morning we sat shivering, listening to BBC Radio 2, eating our buttered toast and warming our tummies with hot tea.

Moving country was beginning to prove harder than we had imagined. I thought back to those last days in London, remembering the enthusiastic good byes “How lucky you all are, what an adventure! I wish we could do it too! You’ll love it!” or “Oh, don’t worry about the kids, kids are so adaptable. They’ll fit in straightaway!” The fact is, adventures feel adventurous because they are damn hard work! When do you ever get a protagonist in an adventure story who just sits back and has a good time? No, he/she has to climb mountains, fight demons, face challenges, shout at a boss – you get the idea. So yes, we were definitely having an adventure and this was the chapter entitled “Drama, Tears, Crisis!” As to the kids being adaptable, well maybe some are but mine certainly were not! Actually, nor were we! I could talk the talk of adventure and I had got us this far but could I walk the walk?

The first week of school the kids raced off excitedly to make new friends. By the second week reality was pounding at our door, “I don’t want to go to school Mummy!” (Anoushka) “I hate it! I don’t want to make new friends!” (Xavier). Teresa and I attempted to console them but they were having none of it. “Why are we here Mummy?” “Why did you make us leave London!” “We will never like it here!” The guilt was settling on my soul like a layer of lead and it did not feel good. I was no better myself. Once I had got them through the school gates, I would join Teresa for a coffee, a moan and a weep. “Oh Teresa, I miss my friends, I want to go home. I can’t speak Spanish!” She tried to make me feel better but only time heals and we are an impatient family.

Teresa had to return to Mexico, Leo was off working across the world and it was now just me and the kids. My daily ritual was to sit in the local cafe, Skyla at my feet, a cafe con leche in one hand and my iphone in the other, posting sad messages underneath pictures of my beverage, to instagram. Thank god my friends (including new IG ones!) sent me words of encouragement. “You can do it Abigail!’ they wrote! “Don’t give up yet! We believe in you!” Their support made all the difference.

Eventually the kids got their first invitation to a party and parents were invited too! It was at an ice skating rink. Leo and I got our hired ice skates on and powered about feeling rather daring, whilst the Spanish parents chatted at the side lines. One Spanish mother lent me her gloves, took a good look at me and after my turns on the rink said, “Abigail, I can take you out. I have time. I can show you Madrid.” I realised that here was a potential friend, a possible life line in this new reality of mine. Finally here was hope and her name was Mabel.

Pic: Skyla looking rather cosy and mildly guilty on Teresa’s blankets. 

Confused in the City

On the fifth day of our new life in Madrid, I went to pick up my children from their school in the suburbs. Off I went by train, along with my little dog Skyla. We were smiled at by passing strangers and my heart filled with joy. Life was good I thought, the Spanish are lovely and they even accept dogs on the train –  just like London! I collected the children and we headed back to the station.  “No, no perro!” The conductor shouted forcefully, pointing at our dog. What? No one had stopped me before. Was he mistaken? We pretended we couldn’t hear him and tried again but the conductor was adamant – we had to leave!

I was concerned but reasoned that a bus would definitely take us. The driver pulled up, saw us and shook his head, “No, no perro!” I implored him in my limited spanish but he drove swiftly off. I will admit that I was beginning to feel some anxiety when two rather cool looking policeman pulled up on their motorbikes. Xavier was dispatched to ask for their help (his Spanish was improving by the minute!) and taking pity on us, they approached another bus driver, but to no avail, rules are rules and they could not be broken!

Our options were thinning fast. We tried hailing a cab, then another, then another –  all had the same response- “No perro!” My worry barometer was creeping up to a new level entitled “freak out time!” but I controlled myself and moved it down to “Let’s call Leo!”. Yes, I thought, he can help us. I called him but got no response, then sent 20 text messages – still silence. So there we were, stuck – two little kids (ages 7 and 9)  our little dog (aged 2 and a half) and me (old enough to know better).

Well, we could either cry, or we could walk to our destination (the English love walking) so that is what we decided to do! Now, to walk, you need a route, but unfortunately it was at that moment I found out that my phone map wouldn’t work. Things weren’t looking good. Xavier, who had now been elevated to Group Captain, was put in charge of asking directions but each time he tried, we were greeted with incredulity (the English – crazy people!) and directed to the station, “No, no metro – el perro” he would tell them, pointing to the dog. “Ah” they responded, continuing to point to the station. One thing was certain- part of our walk would be along the motorway!

Off we trekked, me singing at the top of my lungs (I thought it would cheer our spirits) Xavier joining in loudly and Anoushka prodding me in the sides, attempting to stop me. “It’s so noisy here Anoushka, no one will hear me!’ I shouted over to her, sounding like a jolly Sergeant in World War Two, leading us all to battle. “But Mummy, your singing is terrible, it’s not making me feel any better at all!” she cried, still trying to make me stop, her little elbows feeling sharper and sharper as she dug me in the ribs.

If I show fear, I thought, the kids will panic, so I hid the fear away and on we went. After two hours of motorway marching, which was relatively unpleasant and not something I would recommend, we ended up on a main road and found a cafe. We dragged our tired legs in and tucked into tortilla (the spanish omelette kind) and bread. I washed it down with a small beer for fortification. “It’s ok” I told the kids, “this is all part of our great big adventure.” They did not look at all convinced.

We continued our journey but by now it was getting dark and my mind began to whir – what was I doing? I could feel the panic bubbling up inside me. If only Leo would answer his phone!

We found ourselves in a run down part of town, full of stray cats, when Xavier stopped a sweet looking old lady to ask for directions. Her horrified response encouraged me to try Leo again, and this time he picked up! At that moment a taxi pulled up and beckoned us in. Oh my goodness, the relief – here was a driver who was happy to have Skyla in his car. It was a miracle!

At 8.30 pm we arrived back home. The kids fell into bed, absolutely exhausted. The next day I received a call from the school “Your children are very tired today, is it really true that you took them for a motorway walk for four hours?” “Yes, unfortunately it is” I responded. “Well, try not to do that again please.” “Rest assured” I replied “I will definitely never, ever do that again!”

Footnote: Madrid has no guns or gangs, has a very low crime rate and feels very safe!

Pic: Segovia, Spain – sadly this was not on our walk!

Madrid – those first weeks

So here we were, a family of four plus our little dog Skyla, embarking on our new life in Madrid. I will admit right now that I didn’t speak Spanish. My kids were quite good but not bilingual whilst my husband Leo, being a Mexican educated in England and having lived all over the world, was perfectly bilingual and perfectly adaptable.

Leo can slot right in anywhere with everyone, like Cinderella’s foot into the glass slipper – “Your husband, he is just like my nephew!” people exclaimed excitedly wherever we travelled. “What a great husband you have! Just like a member of my own family!” Yes, Leo was the universal son. And me, what sort of response did I get? This story will give you an idea – when Leo first took me to Mexico, we stayed in  Playa Del Carmen. We were having breakfast when I called over to the waiter, “Excuse me please, would it be possible to have a cup of tea?” “I’m sorry” the waiter replied, “I don’t speak German.” German? What? When did I start speaking German? My husband repeated the question, again in English, “Ah, a tea, you want a cup of tea, why didn’t you tell me?” I couldn’t believe it. How did that happen? It made us laugh but summed up my situation- I’m misunderstood the world over! How on earth was I going to get by in Madrid?

I had hoped that the Spanish would speak English, just like they do at those coastal resorts full of Brits but no, in Madrid they do not. They speak Spanish, as they should. Wishful thinking wasn’t going to get me anywhere!

So there was Leo, with his perfect spanish and adaptable ways, going off to work happily and there was me, with no Spanish and less adaptable ways, left to set up our new life.  All the normal things you take for granted were suddenly achingly difficult. School, shopping, calling for a taxi (that was hellish – would it turn up on time, on the right day even) navigating my way around the city –  it was like climbing a mountain. Spontaneous chat left my life abruptly, to be replaced with weird one minute dialogues and lots of wild arm gestures.

One instance brought the perils of my poor language skills acutely into focus. I had to ask a shop assistant for a replacement toilet seat. I was sure I was using the right words in the right place and I combined them with lots of gestures to make it clearer. She looked at me uncertainly, so I made the gestures more explicit. Her face moved from concern to alarm and I found her hastily guiding me to the bathroom, believing she was averting a brewing disaster!

Yes, not knowing the language of the country you have chosen to live in can prove to be not just difficult, but also humiliating! The kids teased me endlessly, laughing at my accent and incompetence – “Mummy, your Spanish is the same as a toddler!” Thanks kids.

My son, realising the situation was dire and that his mother boss was no longer in control, became our spokesperson. He chatted with taxi drivers, asked for directions and basically took charge – he was not yet eight!  My daughter, aged 9, became my calm confidente and navigator and even my dog seemed to sense the new hierarchy and took to steering me in the right direction. Suddenly I was taking a back seat in my own life – suddenly I was being guided by my dependants! The world had just turned upside down – would it ever be the same again?

 

Pic: Street scene, Chueca, Madrid

Madrid -The Story begins

After three days of travelling by car from London to Spain, we finally arrived at our destination. There was Madrid on the horizon; it was time to open the first page in the opening chapter of our new life.

As we pulled up in front of the air b and b, Xavier, my seven year old, leant out of the window, “Look Mummy, Sex is easy!” he shouted in his booming voice. “What Xavier? Why are you shouting that?” I shouted back to him, “It’s there Mummy, on that sign, the one right next to our apartment! Why does it say that Mummy?” Yes, why indeed. Well there it was in big, bold letters – a sex toy shop, with a huge photograph of a lady sucking suggestively on cherries to illustrate the point. 

Oh no, I thought, why on earth had the owner of the property told us that this was a fun but family friendly area? Her idea of family friendly and mine were obviously quite different! The sex shop just happened to be next to a night club, advertised with a large poster of a bare chested oily man with his hand placed down his underpants. I was beginning to worry but I pushed it aside and thought positive, happy thoughts to cover my brewing inner screams.

After unloading our huge amounts of luggage, we all stepped out to explore the neighbourhood. Right next door was a fruit and vegetable shop, which was a relief, and opposite a shop run by a Chinese family who sold everything you could possibly need in any event whatsoever, and never closed – so that was good too. Just a bit further up the street were some shoe stores and boutiques and then there, nestled between them, was an S & M Dungeon. Yes, dungeon and just in case it wasn’t clear enough, there was a list posted on the door of “services provided” and “special rooms”. This would have been fine if it was in Spanish, but no, there it was, in English. As I pushed my children fast past the door, I noticed the “Leather Club” on the opposite side of the road. “What’s a leather club Mummy?” asked Anoushka, “A club where people go who like cows” I answered – well, you have to get creative in these situations! I turned to Leo, “I thought you said that Madrid was conservative!” I was trying not to screech, “It is! I’ve never been to this area before!” he answered, slightly screechy himself.

Yes, here we were, our first day in Madrid and we were living in the “red light” district, right in the thriving, bustling centre of it. What do you do in a situation like this? Well, you embrace it, that’s what you do. 

It turns out that this little hub was Chueca, the trendiest and hippest part of Madrid and actually, apart from these small, seedy establishments, it was a great area, packed to the brim with coffee shops, cafes, boutiques and bars and cool, stylish people. It certainly wasn’t a family area, but we weren’t going to be there long so we decided to make the most of it. It’s not everyday you get to live next door to a nightclub with a very tall transvestite as a host.  This was all part of the colour of life. These stories would become the pages in our family’s history.

That first night we found a perfect restaurant only two minutes from our apartment. Skyla lay down by my feet and we feasted happily on delicious paella. Sipping on white wine, I sat back, watched my family with quiet pride and took a deep breath – we will be ok, I thought, we can do this; and here began our great big adventure.

Pic: Xavier leaning against a tree, Chueca, Madrid