It sometimes feels as though I have cuentas pendientes (accounts to settle) with Madrid, but as it happens I left with a saldo positivo (positive balance) in everything other than pecuniary terms. When I came to live here in September 2005 it was a realisation of a long-standing ambition, partly in that I’d wanted to come to Spain in 1999 but thanks to my peculiar psychological make-up I ended up living in Portugal for five years instead, happily at first and then increasingly wishing it was more like Spain. There then followed a one-year hiatus in China (I’d wanted to go to Japan, but qué vas a hacer) reading Gárcia Márquez and feeling impatient for my life to restart. I had picked up a copy of Cien Años de Soledad in San Sebastián in 2001 and finally finished it three and half years later on the beach in Thailand. It too so very long because my edition didn’t have an árbol genealógico (family tree) and given that several generations of characters all have the exact same names there are only so many times you can read the sentence ‘por aquel entonces Rebeca Buendía tenía doce años‘ without seriously fearing for your sanity*.
My hard work on the language stood me in good stead**. I felt extremely content in Madrid and I found it easier than anywhere else I’ve ever lived to make friends and find people to do fun things with. I’d always identified with the unholiness, the foul-
mouthedness of the Spanish. It’s no accident that their swearwords are designed to shock God and the Church. I had gotten hold of a handy little volume called Pardon your Spanish, one of those books which aspire to teach you bad language, and it actually did an excellent job with some superbly phrased insults and some masterfully-translated curses***. I had also been an avid reader of Jueves, the Spanish equivalent of Viz, as well as a long-standing fan of the exuberant melodramas of Pedro Almodóvar. I also loved the fact that they say coño on the news and I really enjoyed trying to make out what gratuitously offensive thing Torrente was saying. All this may sound puerile**** but actually I found the lack of prissiness refreshing after the more, shall we say, tempered temperament of the Portuguese and the fact that in China I hadn’t been able to understand what people were saying (or, so very often, shouting). It was also accompanied by shades of hedonism around alcohol and drugs.
Certainly the Spain and the Spanish I knew were part of the generation influenced by la Movida, who had grown up after the clerico-fascist regime had been rapidly transitioned away from. The proletarian decadence of the 70s and 80s was immortalised in the stunning photos of Alberto García-Alix. The confidence and upfrontness of some Spanish people can grate, like when they are presented with a Colombian and immediately blurt out the one question guaranteed to make them explode with rage*****, or when they think it gleefully original to make slanty eyes gestures at Chinese people. Still, I’ve always quite liked the Spanish insouciance in relation to Portugal. ¿¡Ir a Portugal? Para qué?! Spanish people are apt to think whenever the prospect of visiting their neighbours is mooted, para comprar toallas?! – to buy lace?! From the other side of the border the refrain is ‘de Espanha, nem bons ventos, nem bons casamentos’ – Spain brings neither good winds nor good marriages. Nevertheless there is a long-standing (but not now prominent) movement for Iberismo, the union of the two countries. One notable exponent was the Portuguese novelist José Saramago, who in response to a slight from his own country’s government married a Spanish woman and went to live in Lanzarote. Not that you’d know it from his accent, which remained resolutely and hilariously Lusophone, with no concession made whatsoever to the sounds of Spanish.
Curiously, however, whereas in other countries my desire has meant I’ve wanted to see myself and be accepted as one of Them, I don’t think I felt like that in Madrid. I certainly wanted to fit in but I felt that my foreignness was never an issue. While in Portugal I had always felt a bit like a guest or a novelty, in Madrid strangers happily chatted away to me at bus stops. I was just a fellow human being who happened to have a funny accent and an occasional habit of saying things that didn’t make much sense. I enjoyed telling people I lived in Casa de Campo, a huge park not far from the centre famous for prostitution; Spanish people find that kind of thing titillating, and in any case it was partly true as that was what the Metro stop was called. I have some deathless memories of nights out in Malasaña and La Latina til 6am and tapas bars which turned into shoutalong midnight discos. Ultimately such a schedule was incompatible with the very silly earlybird job I was doing at the time, for which I was paid twice-yearly in actual cacahuetes. Then a Relationship suddenly took me back to London after only four months in Madrid and twelve and half years of what was starting to feel like self-imposed exile from what I was reluctantly beginning to accept was my own country.
Now we’re back for one day and it all feels readily familiar. I remember immediately how and why I liked living here so much. We visit shortly before Christmas 2015 on the way back from Mexico City to Rome. There’s a lot of movement in the centre, and that buzzy chattiness I always used to appreciate. I do notice some changes in the nine years since I
left. After all, in the meantime we’d had a massive global economic crisis, 15M, the rise and possible fall of Podemos, and more recently major terrorist attacks in other European capitals. There are police with guns but we’re used to that because, as I enjoy telling everyone we talk to, We Live In Mexico Now. I don’t feel threatened by the military presence although it strikes me that if I was Middle Eastern maybe I would. There’s a visible increase in the number of homeless people and I notice that the station in Plaza del Sol is now ‘sponsored by Vodafone’. There are more adverts in English, so often the language of exclusivity and exclusion, so it’s encouraging to see a banner hung from the municipal palace reading (in English) ‘Refugees Welcome’. It’s also freezing cold so we seek asylum in a nearby bodegón and gorge on familiar favourites like albóndigas and patatas both brava and alioli. For old times’ sake I have a Ponche Caballero, which comes in a silver bottle, is hideously sweet and has since I first came across it on my first visit to Spain in 1988 always seemed like the world’s naffest drink. Immersed as I still am in el mundo hispanohablante, I find it difficult to speak Italian with our friends Michele, Ivana and Eva, who in any case is only one month old so isn’t yet very conversational******, so we stick with Spanish, which I speak differently now because, as I may have mentioned, We Live In Mexico Now, and also because I’m not and never will be Spanish, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling like I’m very much at home.
* On the very last page it turns out that that was kind of the point of the book.
** I also read the serialisation in La Jornada of the novel that Paco Ignacio Taibo II wrote with Subcomandante Marcos and picked up lots of Mexican slang, all of which would come in handy ten or so years later.
*** My fave bit of filthy vocab: zorrero, a burglar who breaks into your house and shits on the floor.
**** The reader may feel the need to nod at this point. In my defence I would like to point out that I was only, er, 14 years old at the time.
***** I’ve had several Colombian students who had the wherewithal and dignity to point out that while their country may produce cocaine, Spain is the number one country for consuming it.
****** She’s growing up both Italian and Spanish, so that will change.