Becoming local.

I set out on a mission last Wednesday: find a cobbler, and get my shoes repaired.

Some stitching in the leather uppers had come undone, and I knew it would be a quick fix. The biggest question was: how would I find someone in Madrid who could repair my shoes?

This turned out to be not a problem, actually. Cobblers are more of a thing in Europe, and Madrid is large city regardless. But I’m not in the habit of tracking down cobblers while abroad, so it felt like a real adventure.

Cobblers, like barbers, are people you only need of you’re a local. I imagine few tourists ever track down a cobbler to fix burst stitching or a detached sole. For one, it usually takes a few days to a week for the repairs to finish, and many travelers can’t wait. So taking the time to look one up and track it down felt like mastering some aspect of daily life. It felt like I’d established myself in my neighborhood.

As it turned out, there was a cobbler less than a quarter mile from my flat. Even so, I’d never wandered down those particular streets, and they felt narrower, and a bit dingier than the ones I was more used to on the other side of the road. They also seemed targeted to a more local group of people: your typical corner shop, your hole-in-the-wall flower stand.

I’ve noticed a pattern in Spanish shop signs. They all derive their names from whatever product it is they chiefly sell. This in itself would be normal enough, but they can get oddly specific, probably because they’re small and only do one thing.

You get fruit from the frutería, and flowers from a floristería. You wash your clothes at a lavandería, and (most importantly of all) you drink your beer at a cervecería. So after all this, I suppose it should not have surprised me when I showed up to the cobblers and found a faded awning above the shop with the word zapatería in peeling white paint.

I went inside. “Hola,” says the shop owner sounding tired. It’s just past noon, so he has another hour and a half till he closes up for the break that always seems to come between 2 and 4pm. I set my shoes down on the counter and point to the areas that need to be restitched. He leans forward, nods, rattles off a bunch of Spanish I don’t understand. I think I catch the word “Thursday,” and I think that means they day he’ll have them finished. I suddenly forget the day, and holding up two fingers I ask “Dos días?” (My Spanish is truly awful.) The shop keep nods and repeats what I’ve said.

He has me write down my phone number, presumably so he can call when they’re done. I know I won’t be able to talk to him, but I go through the gesture. Two days? I repeat, and he nods. I’m about to walk out when I remember another thing. “Y hora?” I ask. He speaks more Spanish that I don’t understand, shrugging and pointing to the counter in what I assume means “come back at about this same time.” “Gracias,” I say, heading out the door.

I didn’t realize my confusion about the day till I got home and realized it wasn’t Tuesday. Whether I’d misunderstood the day, or he’d just agreed with “two days” because it was obvious I hadn’t understood I’ll never know. But I waited two days and went back today for my shoes. There they were, neatly stitched, just as I’d asked.

It cost me €3. I wandered home, feeling proud.