Ángeles told me she’d pick me up at my apartment around 8:15, so when she arrived at 8:05 I was still deciding whether or not to bring another pair of shoes. My journalism teacher lives close by, so I was getting a ride with her to the train station. In just a few hours, we’d arrive in Madrid on the high-velocity trains – the AVE (an acronym for “Alta Velocidad España” and also the word for “bird”), peaking at around 200 km per hour. And “bird” is a good name; riding the train is like flying without leaving the ground. Much more comfortable than an airplane and much faster than a bus, the AVE is the perfect form of travel. President Obama, get on that.
Monday was a holiday in Madrid, for the autonomous community’s patron saint. The metros were full of people enjoying their day off.
Note on the hotel: the rooms were incredibly large, we all had our own twin beds, and every room had a kitchenette with a microwave, stove-top, sink, and lots of drawers stocked with everything but the things I would end up needing. However, we were thoroughly pleased.
Our first stop after the labyrinth of metro stations that led to the hotel was the Palacio Real – just a quick look from the outside to give us at least one landmark we could recognize. The two teachers leading the trip, the aforementioned journalism teacher and a history professor, then set us loose in the city to find lunch. Dazed by the shiny store displays, however, we decided to do a little window shopping first. Finally we ended up at a “doner kebab” – a restaurant serving the typical Turkish meats and falafel. Of course I asked for falafel and found my first madrileño meal to be wonderful.
During the summer, I became quite a fan of soy chai, to put it mildly. However, chai is something yet to be discovered by the majority of Spaniards, and all I can find in Zaragoza is very expensive loose tea. Madrid, on the other hand, is overrun by Starbucks. Every few blocks reveals yet another of the ubiquitous cafés, which I avoid in the U.S. simply because Amherst and Northampton have great little local coffee shops (a shout-out to Rao’s, by far the best coffee shop I’ve found yet), and because I find their chai a bit weak. Regardless, after two months without my favorite beverage, I cracked and shelled out 3,80 € for a soy chai after lunch. We left the store carrying our quintessential coffee cups, feeling very American and very much at home.
Our next idea was to explore Chueca, a nearby neighborhood where we had to meet up with the teachers at 8 o’clock. Hungry after so much walking, we stopped at a pastelería to introduce one friend to the wonderful sweet that is marzipan and to buy something for ourselves. A large, irregularly shaped but incredibly tantalizing loaf of bread caught my eye. I bought a slice – a quarter of it was already gone, so I figured that was how it was sold – and had the best bread so far in Spain (until Thursday night, that is). Madrid’s pan beats Zaragoza any day (but I think we have better ice cream).
After meeting in the Plaza de Chueca, Antonio, the history teacher and a native of Madrid, decided to give us an impromptu tour of another barrio. Walking in what seemed like an aimless path for a while, we stopped in a random plaza and were turned loose to find dinner. Antonio had given vague directions for a great pasta place, so we attempted to follow them. That restaurant evaded us, but we ended up at a tiny Sicilian place with incredible and inexpensive food. My friend who lived in Sicily for a few years as a child couldn’t contain her excitement when she saw arancini, a fried rice ball filled with cheese and spinach, or meat and cheese and vegetables. Having never tried this amazingness, I had to get one – I cannot express my contentment in words. So incredibly good! Followed by a vegetable and mozzarella stromboli, the dinner was probably the best I had in Madrid. Unfortunately we had no idea where we were, and hence couldn’t find the restaurant again if we tried. If anything, the ephemeral quality of the dinner made it even better.
We walked back to the hotel to arrive before our 11 o’clock curfew (the teachers didn’t have to worry about us going clubbing since nothing opens until midnight or later). Of course we weren’t ready to sleep and ended up talking until all hours of the night, forced by the fact that only a third of the school was there to talk to some new people. My roommates were wonderful, and the other students were great as well, and many of my friends were in Madrid anyhow. When the first day ended, we were already well into the second.