Things I thought about this morning: three places and a person, in Spain.
In the summer of 2007, my cousin Travis was living in Spain. I went to visit him, partially, and partially I went just to wander around for a month with a backpack and much too little money. I landed in Madrid, and while Travis was off west in Extremadura teaching English to kids at a summer camp, I met his then-girlfriend-now-wife Stine, a Dane studying in Madrid. Travis and Stine met under circumstances from which I could only conclude that my cousin was in fact a James-Bond-esque character living a bracing life of international intrigue.
Stine met me at the Plaza Dos de Mayo, which she said was one of Travis’ favorite spots. She didn’t seem to know why he was so partial to it, but it struck me immediately as one of those places you just want to be. I didn’t know it at the time, but that plaza is actually the centerpiece of the Malasaña neighborhood, a creative and countercultural hub in Madrid, something like New York City’s East Village. I liked it, and I tended to go out of my way to have lunch or beer (always a caña, because I didn’t know how to order a full glass of beer) or coffee there whenever I was in Madrid and didn’t have anything else to do (which was often).
Right off the Plaza was a club Travis took me to one night. The first few times he said the name, I thought he said “La Vida Láctica”, which I translated as “The Lactose Life”. Didn’t seem like a very good name. Actually, the place is called La Via Láctea (The Milky Way), and is a veteran of the hedonistic movida scene that grew up in Malasaña in the decade following the death of General Franco (my fascination with whom being well known to my unfortunate friends and family).
I did not, at the time, feel at home in a club like that. I still don’t.
One painful memory from that night: going up to the bar to order dos chupitos — two shots, of Jack probably, or something equally terrible. I wanted to leave a tip, which was already an uncomfortable proposition because to this day I don’t understand the etiquette of tipping in foreign countries, and since I was feeling self-conscious I fumbled and accidentally flung the coins onto the bar and watched in horror as the very small amount of money (by American tipping standards) bounced off of the lady serving drinks and landed at her feet. She picked up the money and wordlessly gave it back to me. Trying to recover, I wanted to say “no, sorry, I just meant to leave a tip”, but since my bad Spanish was hampered by awkward fright and self-consciousness, I instead said simply “it’s yours” — or probably just “it’s you”, because, again, bad Spanish.
I fled, back to Travis and a few posh London women we were hanging out with for some reason, all of whom were way too cool for me.
Another night, on that same trip, Travis took me to this bar called Begin the Beguine. It was an entirely un-advertised hole in the wall somewhere in the labyrinth of streets between Calle de las Huertas and Calle de Moratín, run by a guy named Tony who remembered my cousin immediately, even though it had been a while since Travis had last visted. Tony’s caipirinhas are the drink of choice there — sugary lemon cocktails served in huge square glasses — and the house tapa is cherries on ice. Tony himself was wearing a tight black-and-white striped shirt like some kind of French caricature, and he only smoked these long, skinny cigarettes that I’d never heard of before.
The doors opened late and closed early, and if you didn’t arrive during that brief window, you were out of luck. For those who did manage to make it in, once the doors closed there was a general feeling of “what happens in Beguine stays in Beguine”. Being a total dork and utterly uncomfortable with myself, I only saw the prevalent substance abuse from a cautious distance. About 5:30 AM, Tony came around and served scrambled eggs to all the patrons who had stuck it out that long; at 6 AM, he politely told us all to get the fuck out, because the trains were running again and we no longer had any excuse for being there. I gathered that such is the usual routine in Madrid clubs, perhaps excepting the free breakfast.
Maybe a week later, Travis and I were hitchhiking westward from Málaga along the southern coast, trying to get to Cádiz. Somewhere just outside of Estepona, we managed to catch a ride with a crazy lady named Ruth, who had two dogs and an old van that had the weirdest transmission system I have ever seen. I let Travis do all the talking, because my Spanish is bad, and because I’d only ever really used it to write essays in school, and writing essays is very different from explaining to crazy ladies named Ruth who we were and where we were going and what we were all about. So, I had lots of time to sit and watch her work the van’s transmission, which was controlled via a row of old-style radio buttons on the dashboard. Ruth apparently made most of her money during the Spain’s festival season, traveling around selling drugs and clothing to hippies. That served her well enough that she could just do whatever during the fall and winter months, which we were heading into.
Ruth and her two dogs dropped us off in Tarifa, where we ate a bunch of fried things for lunch and reflected on the fact that we could see the mountains of Morocco on the horizon. It was one of the more surreal moments of my life, eating lunch with my cousin from East Texas and stopping occasionally to point and say: dude, that’s Africa.