Sunday, April 06, 2014

Another day exploring the regular.



Around 8 we went up the hill past Mercado San Miguel and down the other side to Mandela, our absolute favorite restaurant in Madrid. We went 2 or 3 times last year and became fast friends with the staff, spending a lot of time talking about African politics, drinking beer from Mali and listening to music. We went back a couple of days ago to make sure they were still in business and promised to return. Along the way we cut across a plaza and saw a large group men practicing for the upcoming Semana Santa. Each wearing a white headdress like that of a Pharaoh, 25 or so of them were climbing under a large wooden platform topped with a big ring of rebar. With a shout, they lifted it so that some long support beams on the inside would rest on their shoulders. They began to inch forward until they reached the end of the street where the command was given to turn right. Each man started to do a little side step, all in unison until the platform began to head right. I can only imagine how exhausted they will be on the day of the procession, carrying the holy relics from their parish in the parade, concealed in this giant framework of wood. 



The restaurant was made up in two long tables when we arrived – a wedding reception! Jose, our waiter friend offered to set us up in a back room but it was too much like a closet so we demurred and promised to return again. He introduced me to the chef and we had “mucho gustos” all around, Jose promised that our table would be reserved for tomorrow night and so we went on our way. This unfortunate turnaround had the effect of freezing my mind in place – I was so set on eating there that I couldn’t respond by thinking of another place. We started in Plaza Mayor, home to every tourist catering restaurant in this part of the city, but I have to be really desperate to eat there. It’s expensive and formulaic and not very atmospheric. For a change we went out the east side and took a stroll down Las Huertas through a couple of plazas before we were grabbed by one of the guys that try to grab you and get you in their place. “Why not?” was our consensus, grabbing a table on the street. We ordered beer and wine and three tapas and sat and waited, ultimately having to move because of a couple of chain smoking youths. Our food arrived and it was obvious that we’d made a good choice – smoked cod (bacalao) on a crisp slice of bread, more garlic mushrooms and another round of ham croquettes. As we sat the place started to fill up with Spaniards, indicating that we’d hit a local place, always a good sign. The food was excellent and the people watching even better. By my estimate, 75% of the women in Spain smoke while walking. I wish I could convince them to quit. We topped off our dinner with a second round of drinks and a split order of flan, probably the best I’ve ever had. Very mild and nothing like the sweet Mexican version we’re used to.

It was an easy walk home, up and down the hills to our apartment where we had to take the stairs because a young family - mom, grandma and dad with stroller - were using the lift. As I gasped my way to the landing on the third floor an apartment door opened for the folks in the lift and a little rat dog ran out, so glad to see me that he peed all over my right shoe. We puffed our way up to our floor and called it a night.

Being Sunday, it was laundry day and this washer presented yet another challenge. Outside it was actually foggy, so while we were in no hurry to leave, the 90 minutes it ended up taking was more than I had bargained for. Every washer in Europe is different, having different controls and universal symbols for the same things. Most of them have a little drawer for soap and fabric softener, but the purpose from left to right is always different. In Sevilla it was Softener – Soap 1 – Soap 2. In Granada, Soap 1 – Soap 2- Softener. I can’t even remember what it was in Paris or our other place in Madrid but last year I got it wrong and loaded the clothes up with soap and had to run about a hundred “rinse only” cycles to get them clean. So when I went over the machine with Javier, I asked and he said “if there is a little flower, it’s always soap.” He was a bit bothered by the standing water in the draw but didn’t offer an explanation.

So I loaded the thing up and poured my dry soap in the puddle of water and started the thing up. Everything was running charmingly but that little flower icon was bugging me so I sat down and did a web search for the machine manual which of course was nowhere to be found. I did a second search and found an article about a competing machine and confirmed what I’d thought, deep in my rational mind – the flower indicated softener. So before the machine got to that step, I used a dish towel and 20 paper towels to sop up all the wet soap that was sitting in the wrong place. Getting that dry, I was at least assured that the worst thing that would happen would be a load of clothes washed in water only, although I was surprised to see that there was foam in the window. So either some of that soap had snuck in, or I had missed the softening cycle. I sat down on the hard tile floor and watched the rest of the cycle, trying to will the soap foam away.

As it turned out, everything was fine and the clothes were clean. We laid them out on the drying rack, started another load and headed out to El Rastro for Europe’s biggest flea market. 

Visiting that most amazing of bazaars has become an annual ritual for us. We don’t buy much anymore but it is so fun to window shop with the stuff running from socks to rubber tubing to purses to antiques to leather jackets and art. It’s located along three main streets and all the ancillary side streets encompassing perhaps 20 square blocks. And mobbed. This year a square at the bottom of the hill was given over exclusively to young men selling trading cards, soccer here instead of baseball. The walking is hard and the climb back up is tough but what a fun outing. I picked up another Palestina, those Middle Eastern scarves that the young guys wear when throwing rocks at the Israelis and MLW got a very unique pair of yoga tights. All that walking had built up an appetite so we headed back to the place we had lunch yesterday for a second round of those really great melotes that had filled us up on yesterday’s outing.


Now it was time to hunt down Valor for another Sunday tradition, churros con chocolate. Last year we’d found one of the two Valor stores by pure accident, leaving the Corte Ingés department store by the wrong door and heading out to another part of town. Once we’d addressed that error we walked right past Valor and on to our Calle Espejo apartment without ever trying to go back. This time I mapped the way in my mind and finding it was not a problem, even making a stop at the Real Convento de Las Descalvas to see if we could get in. Unfortunately the museum, said to be the finest undiscovered art museum in Europe had reached maximum operating capacity and the woman guarding the door told us to come back early on Tuesday.


Valor actually had non-smoking outside seating so we grabbed a table. Well, perhaps it was non-smoking because it was in the shade and the rest of Spain preferred to be baking in the sun on the other side of the building but in either case we were able to have it both ways for once. Clean air and outdoors. The chocolate was wonderful as were the churros and we committed to a substantial amount of walking to pay for this midday indiscretion.

Continuing up the hill our next goal was Calle Fuencarral, supposedly a chic pedestrian walking street. While walking across Plaza Callao I noticed a tourist with what appeared to be the perfect camera bag. I’d seen him earlier taking pictures while I was eating Churros and I thought he was alone. Subtly putting on my reading glasses, I bent over to try and read the label on the front flap. When I stood up I was face to face with a gray haired woman that was mumbling something. MLW grabbed my arm and steered me off in the other direction. Looking back I saw the woman, the guy with the bag and another guy watching us. Unfortunately they were now between where we were and where we wanted to be so MLW said “let’s turn on the speed” and we skirted past them. But, I wanted to know more so I stopped and said “English?” and told him I wasn’t planning on stealing his bag, much to the relief of his wife. They were Aussies and he had bought the bag in Rio de Janeiro and we had a nice chat about the perfect camera bags before saying our goodbyes and heading off minus an international incident.


Fuencarral lived up to its reputation, a nice shady pedestrian mall lined with all the major boutique brands and other stores selling Chuck Taylors in colors that I’d never knew existed. We went up to the end and back down until we hit a side street that was heading the right way (downhill.) It was interesting how the neighborhood changed, getting seedier and seedier until the bottom where we passed a Starbucks in a very strange location, far off the beaten path, and in what seemed to be a plain neighborhood. A bit of map research explained that we were in the middle of the government zone with the Ministry of Culture on our left and the Ministry of Defense straight ahead. I knew that our friends from Seattle did a better job of demographics that to drop one of their stores in a boring backwater. The side street brought us back out onto Grand Vía close to the Metropolis building where we’d taken photos yesterday. Today, a bride in her gown was doing the “7 Year Itch” thing, standing on a subway grate and letting the air from the trains blow her dress up in great billows. The groom stepped in at one point and they did a fancy backwards kiss for the camera.


Puerta del Sol was mobbed and we couldn’t find the Kilómetro Cero plaque as I had hoped so we took off down Arenal stopping to pose with another street performer, this one dressed as a bear and seated in front of the Madrone tree, acting out the symbol of the city of Madrid. The guy in the suit had the kindest old voice and was very grateful for my donation. Leaving him, back up and over the hill by Mercado San Miguel and home for a break from the heat.






The square out in front of our place slowly filled up to the point where there wasn’t a single table at any of the 5 or 6 restaurants left empty. I asked MLW if they were singing outside, but it was just the din of so many conversations drifting up to our windows. We left about 7:55 for our 8PM reservation and when we got to El Mandela our table was waiting for us.



We had a great meal – MLW having grilled fish and I reprised last year’s choice of salted beef chunks in peanut sauce served with rice. MLW had a couple of tintos and I had a really malty big bottle of Nigerian Star beer. We visited with Jose, ate our meal, mused about how nice it was to be here and listened to a trio of African women at the next table fluidly moving between English, Spanish, French and some other languages as their conversation went on. Stuffed, we declined desert but Jose treated us to an African tea infusion made from some sort of flowers. He offered three names, one from Mali, one from Senegal and one from somewhere else, none of which I caught.



The walk home was a playbacl of every day, up one hill and down the next. All the restaurants on the way were packed to capacity, making me wonder about the sad tales of Spain’s economy. Perhaps socializing is so important to this culture that other things are traded off to allow it to continue.



Arriving at home, the elevator was stuck ironically on our floor so it meant a long climb back upstairs, this time without a peering terrier.


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