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Saturday, 01 September 2018

Madrid: The Literary City of Amor

Written by Caleb Gonzalez
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“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed.” – Pico Iyer

Due to the heat wave that has come from North Africa, I feel sweat running down my spine as I walk to my poetry class in Madrid. 1.6 kilometers each way exactly. And every day when I get back to my dorm room, I must change my sweat-drenched shirt. This becomes a cycle. My heat-based study-abroad cycle that doesn’t allow me to experience the city like I want to.

35 degrees Celsius. This is the temperature almost every day.

The heat keeps me indoors as much as possible. Like the rest of my peers, I have a routine. Breakfast: toast with a crushed tomato spread and olive oil, a typical Spanish breakfast. After breakfast, I walk to class almost slipping and falling on the wet cobblestone porch that the groundskeeper of the dormitory seems to be adamant about washing down every single morning (he ignores the water laws of the city due to its serious drought, but that’s none of my business). After class, I walk back to my room, change my shirt, take an ice-cold shower, and nap for the rest of the afternoon. I wake up. Lunch: rice, fish, and a cold glass of water with extra ice. After lunch, I study in my dorm room reading Spanish literature. I eat dinner: more rice, meat, and another cold glass of water with extra ice accompanied by my daily offering of thanks to the heavens for it. I go to bed and repeat the cycle.

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I spend four weeks taking upper-division courses on Spanish poetry, theatre, and short stories at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. I take these courses with language-learning students from the U.S. My classes allow me to observe the heartbreaking poetry of Gloria Fuertes as she discusses the meaning of love and the mix of emotions that it brings to the human soul in her poem “A Veces Quiero Preguntarte Cosas”. Fuertes writes…a veces quise soñar contigo, y cuanto más quería, más soñaba, por tus versos que yo saboreaba, tú el rico de poemas, yo el mendigo. I discover the comedia picaresca of the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega as he connects religion to performance in his play Lo Fingido Verdadero. A controversial play in its time. And during my lunch breaks, I eat Bocadillo sandwiches with cheese in the school cafeteria. And, of course, there’s the daily battle with the heat.

* * * *

During my time at the Universidad Complutense, I decide to take a week-long class that is ironically my last class before I leave this city. It is a class that focuses on how the key sites and monuments of the city are deeply connected to Spanish literature.

“I hear that the teacher is nervous,” some of my classmates say. “He physically shakes when he teaches. The worst. Daniel Santiago Tauler is his name.”

The door opens and a tall thin man with slick black hair and a small birth mark on the left side of his face walks in. He puts his bag down and lowers the room temperature.

He looks at us and we look back at him in silence. He then says, “You guys will see that I’m a bit squirrely when I teach” Students look at each other as Profesor Tauler moves back and forth eventually re-adjusting the room temperature as he speaks. I don’t mind this though. He’s real. He’s honest.

“You may have not noticed,” he begins to say, re-adjusting the room temperature again. “Que Madrid, es una. Ciudad. Literaria.” This is the first time that I hear the city of Madrid being described in this way. A literary city. During class, we do not spend our time reading poetry and short stories or discussing the meaning of literary works written during the Spanish Golden Age. And this is probably why my classmates look confused. Tauler, instead, spends the class period showing us photos of him traveling about the city, and, as he adjusts the room temperature, my classmates look at each other, wondering why they’ve spent their energy in a class like this. I find it fascinating though. Fascinante! A brilliant way to teach, indeed. I can see what Tauler is doing. Enough talk about these literary works. Go see it for yourself!

“Para conocer a Madrid como una ciudad literaria, you must get out and go. And pay close attention,” he says, “the stories are all around you and in the places that you do not think.”

And Tauler is right! After class, I leave everybody behind to nap in their rooms or relax in the swimming pool to complain about the heat, just like I’ve been doing. Tauler’s perspective of Madrid entices me.

I speak Spanish like the people around me but throughout these four weeks, I really haven’t connected to the life of the city like I should. I haven’t had the confidence yet to travel by myself in Spain and to really see Madrid. To leave the circle of study abroad that I’ve been in and truly know the city in an open way.

And so I bear the heat. I take on the North African heat wave. As I walk out of my dorm room, my shirt is instantly soaked in sweat. I’ve seen the best-looking men and women (the people of Spain are quite attractive) walking around in suit jackets giving the middle finger to the heat in this city. I decide – like my Spanish comrades – that I will do the same.

* * * *

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I walk around the city wiping the sweat off my forehead in search of el barrio de las letras, the letters district. I know that the people of the city, los Madrileños, would know this area well. A Spanish man with light hair and blue eyes stands on the corner of a street and smokes his cigarette. I ask him for directions. Taking the cigarette out of his mouth, he approaches me and turns my shoulders to a certain street.

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The letters district is a neighborhood with one-way streets and Spanish balconies with clothes hanging from them. It is an area where Lope de Vega – the Spanish Shakespeare – once lived and wrote his plays during the Golden Age of Spain. Tauler told me about this neighborhood after class. It is a neighborhood familiar to poets like Quevedo and Góngora. An area where it is suspected that Miguel de Cervantes is buried. I get lost on a few streets until I find myself on a small street between two light posts. I look down where I’m standing and see Spanish words printed in gold on the actual street.

¡La belleza! Lo que es no lo sabemos por ahora con certidumbre matemática; quizá no lo sepamos nunca; pero que la belleza es algo, que existe, que palpita en la naturaleza, y que, así como la ola que llega a la playa rompe en espuma…

José Echegaray

(Beauty! We do not know what it is right now with mathematical certainty; and it is possible that we will never know what it is; but beauty is something, that exists, that beats within nature, and that, just like a wave that arrives to the beach shore breaks like foam… - Jose Echegaray)


This is exactly what Tauler said: Once I saw the words, I would know that I’m in the letters district. It is a small area of the city buried within the city. An area that I must seek out and find. People walk by and pass through it every day. As I read the words by Echegaray, I am reminded of the beauty of this city. And as I ponder the beauty of Madrid, I am reminded of the beauty of my own language and the beauty of the people that surround me.


Walking through the letters district, I continue to find poems, phrases, excerpts, and quotes from novels printed in gold letters on the streets. The words are an active part of the city. I stop and read every single word and I go back to read the ones I missed. For some reason, even though the words shine in gold, they are in fact easy to miss.

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And I think about love after reading a question from the famous play Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla…

¡Ah! ¿No es cierto ángel de amor, que en esta apartada orilla más pura la luna brilla y se respira mejor?

Then I find the famous beginning to the most revered novel in all of Spain. Right there. Printed on a street full of pedestrians: En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín, flaco y galgo corredor… Don Quijote de la Mancha – Miguel de Cervantes

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The words became the catalyst to the novel that advanced the idea that people, indeed, were able to exercise their imagination. They didn’t need to hold back. That despite their circumstances, they were still able to hope. They were still able to dream. As I read the words on the street, I too, remember the meaning of hope and the power of an imagination. I stand on the street, observing the words of Cervantes, and I imagine what my future might hold and what it can be. I imagine myself, a writer at his desk.

* * * *

Traveling on the metro, I get off on the Arguelles stop close to the city center and go down to the basement of the nearest Corte Inglés, the department store, passing used and new bookstores. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the 100 Montaditos Bar offers one-euro sangrias. I step up to order.

“Name please,” the cashier says.

I tell him my name and he asks me to spell it.

“Where’s your name from?” he asks.

I’ve gotten used to people not getting my name right in Spain and later asking me questions about it. I gravitate to my default answer. “It’s Arabic.”

The young cashier brings out a few little sandwiches filled with slices of tortilla de patata and fluffy Manchego cheese along with my one-euro maroon colored sangria. Nobody else is in the bar. He takes a seat next to me. “Arabic” he says in Spanish. “De donde eres?”

“United States” I say. “Are you from Madrid?”

“I’m from Galicia. The northwest part of the country. A city called Vigo.” He says extending his hand to me. “I’m Xoel, nice to meet you.”

“Yeah, nice to meet you” I say. “So what do you do? Do you study?” Xoel gets comfortable in his seat.

“No, I moved to Madrid to get a better job. I’m studying at the police academy in Madrid. I wanted to be a police officer but in Galicia, the police academies aren’t the best, so I had to move here.”

He looks at me eager to tell me his story. Xoel’s words become a part of my quest to find the hidden stories of Madrid. This is one of them, and so I listen.

While Xoel is in the police academy he works at the 100 Montaditos Bar in the Arguelles shopping center. He lives with his girlfriend even though he doesn’t get to see her often because he works so much. They are madly in love though.

“At the bars here, you work when they schedule you. The boss just tells you that you need to come in, so you come in. No vacations.”

I ask Xoel if he misses Galicia. I hear that it’s beautiful. Xoel tells me about the tight knit community in the rainy city of Vigo. Vigo (a name that comes from the latin vicus spacorum, meaning small village) was so small that it wasn’t even considered a real village until the 15th century. Because of its growth, though it is a place that happens to be the most populous city in the humid northwest territory, with not one but two languages – Spanish and its main language, Galician. Many of its inhabitants use both languages frequently and interchangeably. It’s a natural – and a quite normal – linguistic practice. I can identify with this. I use Spanish and English interchangeably all the time. Xoel and I are two bilingual citizens. He is not Spanish, nor Galician. He is both. I pay close attention as he tells me about his native city. He shares his aspirations as a future police officer. He’s always had an interest in public service. Xoel’s story is one that I didn’t expect to find drinking sangria in a basement bar. For me, it is a story that becomes part of this literary city. It is a story that becomes a part of me.

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* * * *

I hop on the metro and go to the Royal Palace of Madrid after the sun has set. Instead of inquiring about open tours, instead of taking a hundred photos, I sit close to a man who plays the harp for the people passing by on their bicycles and mopeds and for people like me who have chosen to eat creamy European ice cream in front of the Royal Palace for dinner. I sit under the moonlight and watch three couples hug each other to the sound of the harp. I continue to sit and exist within the life of the city. A city that hears the artful sound of a harpist on a Sunday night. During one of his numbers, I get up and take five euros out of my pocket. I straighten them out. I walk over to his instrument case and place them inside. I nod my head in the spirit of gratitude for having encountered art, a musical story that reminds me of love in yet another unexpected place.

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* * * *

Entering the metro, I find a laminated poem glued to the wall of the subway. I lean in to read it.

José García Nieto’s sonnet to the city of Madrid entitled “Soneto a Madrid” describes a city filled with imagery. A city with a beating heart. Reading the poem, I say each word slowly: fecundas, unánimes, orillas, maravillas, and amor. I reflect, yet again, on what this love sonnet to Madrid has to offer. I am enriched.

The words quien con amor te ha leido, stand out to me the most. García Nieto, who literally speaks to Madrid in his sonnet, says that he who is filled with daily love for Madrid has read it, indeed.

I choose to embrace travel as a way of learning the stories of a place. To notice the literary life around me even when it may not be so obvious. To listen to the untold stories in the bars and shops of the city. To appreciate the ones that are printed on the streets. And to be mindful of the stories that may take on another form of art. To see with new eyes, as Marcel Proust once said. And as I begin to do this, I discover a secret aspect of travel. One that is reserved for the mindful traveler, the receptive traveler, and the one that is willing to be transformed.


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* * * *

Sitting in my dorm room the very next day, I notice the clouds a bit gray. This is an odd sight, even for the people of Madrid, as the city has been under a drought ever since the heat wave arrived. Observing the map of the city, I wonder where I will go next. I suddenly hear an unexpected sound.


I look out my window to notice a measly little rain drop settle within the dry grass. Walking outside with my head up to the skies, I am met with a cold raindrop that smacks my forehead.


After a loud and thunderous growl, the skies release an unexpected downpour of rain. I can tell that this is unexpected because the telediario missed this in its weather report. Not only that, but I can see old Spanish women with head scarves opening the windows of their apartment. Young fathers step out onto their balconies holding their young children to drench themselves in the rain. And I, along with a few Madrileños, stand outside on the cobblestone porch with my head up to the clouds. My shirt is drenched not by my sweat, but by the cold rain. And all the while, I equate this very moment to something of an unexpected yet beautiful solar eclipse.

Even though it is a short period of rain, it is a cold and refreshing one. And I like to imagine that the city of Madrid knows how to love its people back along with a few mindful and receptive travelers that undoubtedly learn to fall in love.


©Caleb Gonzalez

Last modified on Saturday, 01 September 2018