Here is episode two of my podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-2-autumn-in-madrid/id1469809686?i=1000454646534

For the transcript, see below:


October in Madrid has pretty well run its course, and by now I know what that means. The weather has turned on a dime from gorgeous sunny days to bitterly cold rain, and the trees look more decrepit by the hour. Nature is preparing to hibernate, and yet my year is just beginning.

For the fifth time, I made my way to the Mercado Cervantino in Alcalá de Henares. Alcalá de Henares, by the way, is a smallish historical city on the outskirts of Madrid. This was the very first trip I took inside Spain. I had just barely arrived to the country, and I was still in a constant state of mild panic. Not counting university, my move to Spain was my first move away from home. I was convinced that disaster loomed everywhere. Specifically, I had a paranoid fear that somebody was going to steal my wallet, and I would end up homeless on the Spanish streets.

Anyways, I passed the short train ride to Alcalá obsessively checking my pockets and scanning everyone around me, afraid of the strangers, afraid of missing my stop, afraid of everything. But when I got off the train, all the fear left me. Now, I need to preface this description by admitting that my first impressions of Madrid were slightly disappointing. Madrid is a modern city; and to a person trying to escape New York, this is not a mark in its favor. But Alcalá—now here was the true old Spain, the Europe I had been looking for.

The city is home to one of Spain’s most historically important universities, and so it is filled with beautiful old buildings. Soon I noticed the big bushy nests of storks atop these old buildings, which struck me as almost unbelievably quaint and attractive. I elbowed my way through the thick crowds, my hands stuck into my pockets, until I arrived at my goal: the childhood home of Miguel de Cervantes, which is now a museum right in the center of the city.

Standing there, in that admittedly unremarkable piece of architecture, I felt for the first time what I later came to call “European Travel syndrome.” This is the uncanny feeling that something absolutely remote and perhaps even mythical is actually as real as you and me. Cervantes, for example, has been just real in my mind as his creation, Don Quijote. But when you visit the house where he was raised, and imagine him in diapers, crying for milk, being rocked to sleep, the amazing author of the world’s first novel becomes quite a different sort of creature in your mind.

This is one of the great differences between Americans, even cultured Americans, and Europeans. On this side of the Atlantic, history is tangible, visible, and as omnipresent as air, while for Americans learning solely through books and pictures, history is inevitably something quite fantastic, impossibly distant, and irretrievably dead.

Not that Spaniards are immune from the kind of historical romanticizing that we practice at home in Renaissance Fairs, as the Medieval Market of Alcalá proves. Here the vendors wear pseudo-medieval costumes and sell plastic swords and toy shields. Imaginary knights do battle while unlookers eat grilled meat. And so on. The main difference, in fact, is that here the festival takes place in a genuinely medieval city.

This celebration begins around October 9th, the day Cervantes was baptized in 1547. Three days later comes another October fixture, the Día de la Hispanidad, or the national day of Spain. This takes place on October 12, which you may recognize as the day Christopher Columbus landed in the New World. This historical event marked the beginning of the Spanish Golden Age, during which Spain became the most powerful country in the world, dominating half the globe. Interestingly, however, all reference to Columbus has been deliberately removed from the holiday’s official name; and, in my experience, hardly anyone talks about Columbus, positively or negatively, during this holiday. 

Rather, the focus is on a grand military parade through the center of Madrid. Military aircraft fly overhead, trailing colorful smoke, while columns of troops march past followed by rolling tanks. Presiding over this (largely empty) show of military might is the king, Felipe VI, attended by dozens of generals and politicians. The whole thing has a stuffy, conservative air, only lightened by the rather farcical nature of the military demonstration. This year, for example, the parachutist who was supposed to grandly descend from the sky, trailing an enormous Spanish flag, got caught on a streetlight and was knocked unconscious. Two years ago, a fighter pilot crashed and died in Albacete.

Like so many European countries—and, indeed, maybe every country—Spain is caught uncomfortably between is past and its future. It celebrates on Columbus Day, but does not mention Columbus. The country has not been a major military power since God knows when, but they must have a military parade. And though the king has very little real power in the government, he is the central focus of the event. In my experience, most Spaniards gladly accept the holiday and pay little attention to the history, the parade, or the king.

But Spaniards (and tourists) do care about the next event: Tapapiés. This is an annual food festival held every October in one of Madrid’s liveliest neighborhoods, Lavapiés. This year the event goes from the 17th to the 27th, and every year it is the same deal. A restaurant prepares a special tapa—a small plate of food, typically only a few bites—and sells it with a beer for two euros fifty. The streets and bars are usually packed, with a mostly young crowd, and musicians set up here and there to perform. As the night progresses, the results are predictable: you eat too little, drink too much, and spend more money than you ought But it is a good time.

This year, however, was slightly pathetic. For one, nobody could accompany me except my brother, and he’s my roommate. Then, when we arrived, it immediately began to rain—hard. As the weather got worse, we ducked for cover inside a mostly empty Turkish restaurant that was not participating in the event. Just then, we heard a kind of muffled bang, and a crowd of people began running away from the plaza. It didn’t sound anything like a gunshot to me, but several people mentioned a gun and a gunshot as they fled the scene. Meanwhile, I stood in the doorway of the restaurant, and watched.

After the street cleared out, a few men wearing hoods and bandannas around their faces ran up. I recognized them as being rioters. You see, some politicians in Catalonia had just been sentenced to prison for organizing an illegal referendum on the region’s independence, two years ago. Independence movements are one of Spain’s eternal problems, you see, flaring up repeatedly throughout its history, as I am sure I will discuss in another podcast. Here I only wish to say that these men were among the same demographic as the football hooligans who beat up fans of opposing teams, and with about as much brains.

The man in front of me overturned garbage cans into the road, trying vainly to slow down the police, and then ran off. A minute later, he was followed by a column of police in riot gear—with truncheons and clear plastic shields—who paved the way for an entire convoy of armored police vehicles. I assume they were making their way towards Callao, the plaza which was the epicenter of the rioting. I later learned that three officers were injured that night, one of them stabbed. Considering the rain and all this commotion, my brother and I decided to stay in the restaurant and eat a kebab.

The next morning I saw something I had never seen before: the Fiesta de la Transhumancia, or the Transhumance Festival. This is a yearly event. Shepherds take their flocks of sheep and goats down from Asturias on the historical paths set aside by King Alfonso the tenth (so-called “the wise”) in 1273 for their use. One of these paths (called cañadas reales) cuts right through Madrid, and so the shepherds enter in grand array, wearing their traditional garb, singing songs, dancing, playing bagpipes, and leading their sheep from Casa de Campo to the Plaza de Cibeles. The shepherds were charming, but their sheep were exhilerating—a swarming ocean of white fleece. The whole scene could not have looked more out of place in the normally busy intersection.

This, in a nutshell, has been my October in Madrid. Certainly it lacks much of what makes Autumn in New York so charming. This time of year, I particularly miss the extraordinary fall foliage of my home state. But it must be admitted that Madrid has some compensating joys.

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