Last year, on one of our last days of our stay in Madrid, I found a little restaurant just down the street from our apartment that had an interesting menu. I wanted to try it, and finally a night presented itself and we went by. Only to find it closed. There are a lot of little holes in the wall here around Calle Espejo that are like that. Open certain days only, open only late at night, open only for 15 minutes at a time soon to be announced. Between the Spanish expectation that dinner starts at 10 and the weird hours, it’s tough to scrounge a meal anywhere but places that cater to Brits, Germans and Americans. In other words, places that start serving at 7 PM.
Yesterday we were heading down the hill and the little place had a menu out front. We stopped to read it and it looked good. The “menu of the day” was a prix fixe meal of pumpkin soup, mixed salad and Iberian grilled pork shoulder. A meal that sounded really good. While reading it, the waiter stuck his head out the door and handed me a card, telling us that it was an African restaurant, specializing in Sub-Saharan cuisine. Well, that sounded interesting, but it sure didn’t sound particularly African. I took his card, asked him what time they opened and we made plan to return.
So tonight we sat around, My Lovely Wife doing International Herald Tribune crosswords while I tried to recover the disaster I had made out of washing my jeans. These European washers are bizarre, and not particularly self-explanatory. I had done the single load figuring it was a good way to waste a couple of hours (these machines are slow) and as a result of (perhaps) overdosing it with soap, I’d ended up with a huge amount of foam. So much foam that it simply wouldn’t rinse out. So I sat on the floor in the kitchen and ran all kinds of cycles - “centrifugo,” “aclarado,” “vaciado,” “frio,” “60°,” “40°,” etc., etc., etc. Pretty much each ended with the same result – my now very clean blue jeans suspended in a cloud of soap foam. After a few hours of this, I hit on the proper combination - “vaciado,” “frio,” then “centrifugo” - and the foam was gone. It was also now 8:30 and a more respectable time to show up at the restaurant so off we went.
Arriving at the completely empty restaurant the waiter told us we were just a bit early but that it was fine. He gave us a nice table in front of a window and we had a look at the menu. I ordered wine and beer and asked for the menu of the day. Well, menu of the day as it turned out literally meant “day” which meant “not now” so we were faced with having to make an alternative plan with a menu of African specialties most of which we had no idea about. My Lovely Wife had a brief discussion about spiciness and settled on grilled pork with fried plantain. I opted for the stewed beef in roasted peanut sauce. He brought us bread and olives and fell into a conversation with the other waiter who happened to be from Mali. He told us he’d been here 5 years and had become fluent in Spanish during that time. He mentioned his friends in North Carolina and said he very much liked the US. We talked about the food of Mali and how spicy it was and he stated his clear preference for food that makes your head sweat. Dinner came and it was utterly stupendous. The Spanish waiter had brought me a little pot of hot sauce that was blistering, but with an unfamiliar flavor. Some kind of African Chile no doubt. My stew came with a plate of fresh steamed rice and I mixed it with the hot sauce and the peanut stew. Very, very good. My Lovely Wife received 5 grilled pork medallions dripped with a mustard sauce on a bed of plantain chips. Truly, there was nothing not to like on either of our plates.
When we were done, the Mali waiter came back and introduced himself. I asked him about the turmoil in his home country and said that I had read about the ruining of his cultural heritage and in particular the old Islamic texts that were being destroyed by militants. He gave a long response about how crazy the militants were, not only in his country but in all of the Islamic world from Sudan to Afghanistan. He told us that the library in his country was the oldest and most complete of any in Africa and that it was all gone. I told him I thought the whole world had gone crazy and he nodded and shook my hand. We talked a bit about Boston and he expressed his condolences.
The bill came and the waiter’s name turned out to be Jose Jimenez which opened an entirely new avenue of discussion but it was getting late. We paid and left and told them that we’d try to come back. And I think we will.
Nights like this are what makes getting on a plane worthwhile. Having a bit of small world harmony with someone from another country, someone that you can be simpatico with is just worth every bit of the inconvenience of making it happen. We might think the reason we travel is to look at churches or ruins or mountains, but in reality it’s all about broken washing machines, being early at restaurants and discussing African politics in Spanish with a friendly and like minded waiter. It’s all about sitting back 5 years down the road and feeling richer for having made these acquaintances.