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.

A very ignorant impression of El Prado.

I don’t know much about art history.

At this point, I’ve been to a lot of art museums, but my knowledge comes mostly from what I read in the informational placards and my own personal feelings. For a while, this seemed like a fine way to do things. Then I had a few chances to overhear a guided tour and realized that, on my own, I don’t really appreciate what I’m looking at. It’s not just art, it’s also history, and boy oh boy is there a lot of it. So what you’re going to read here are my very semi-educated reflections on some of the most important and influential works in western art. I wish I had more to offer, but I’m not being falsely modest when I say I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

That said, on this trip, I had the good fortune to be guided through the museum by my friend Francesco, who is a) Italian (useful for when you’re viewing Italian art), and b) very good with art history. So, for instance, he explained to me the difference between the Italian school of painting and the Dutch, how the baroque style shifted over time, Raphael‘s masterful draftsmanship, Titian‘s attention to color, and Caravaggio‘s influential use of chiaroscuro. At one point, Francesco gestured toward a painting: “This painting is very famous, for no particular reason,” he tells me, which is a characteristic evaluation. Probably the next best thing after a well-informed guide is an opinionated one, and in this instance I was lucky to have both.

For my part, I felt most attracted to the works of El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya. Of the three, Velázquez is the most traditional (although I feel that is not the best word to use here), and his painting Las Meninas is one of the most famous on display in the museum. I only just now learned from the Wikapedia page that it “has long been recognized as one of the most important paintings in Western art history.” Which, again, shows you how much I know: I liked it and thought it was super cool and a bit of a mind-trip. Had no idea it was quite that important.

Velázquez, Las Meninas
Not only are they looking at you, but Velázquez has painted himself painting the painting you are looking at, and in the background you can see the reflection of the viewers viewing the painting in a mirror. That’s some serious fourth-wall-breaking shit going on right there.

El Greco came as much of a surprise to me as to his contemporaries. After halls and halls of precise aesthetics, the color and imagination come as a shock to the system. Many of the other artists we looked at shared chains of influence that ran in a direct line from one artist to the next. Meanwhile, El Greco belongs to a group of painters who won’t appear for another two to three hundred years. To borrow commentary from Francesco, when most people talk about such-and-such an artist or this-or-that painting being “ahead of its time” or “a precursor to X movement,” it feels like a bit of an exaggeration. With El Greco, you are without doubt looking at the precursor to Expressionism and Cubism—at the turn of the 17th century. I still can’t wrap my head around that.

El Greco, The Adoration of the Shepherds
I’m not sure anyone has ever painted a more shocking, vivid, fantastical portrayal of the nativity.

Out of everyone, I was most keen to see Goya. He was the painter I remembered most from what little art history I took in high school, and the only one I had read about since. As with everything else on display, El Prado did not let me down. While I greatly admired his portraits, I was mostly interested in his Black Paintings, specifically that of Saturn Devouring his Son. In his lighter or more formal moments, I detect a strong undercurrent of irony running through Goya’s work. His portraits of the royal family are so brutally honest, you almost wonder how he kept his job. Only in a few instances do Goya’s portraits seem to express a genuine admiration for the subject. As a whole, Goya’s paintings seem compulsively sincere.

Goya, Charles IV of Spain and His Family
Goya’s not very flattering portrait of the Spanish royal family. Note the influence of Las Meninas: Goya has painted himself painting the painting in the background.

Perhaps this is why I feel so drawn to his more horrifying subjects. Goya captures humanity, even in the midst of terror and suffering. His Disasters of War series depicting the brutality of the Peninsular War are one such example, as are his paintings The Second of May 1808 and its pair, The Third of May 1808. But his Black Paintings feel like a descent into some of the bleakest recesses of the human psyche, a deeply disturbed and deeply private expression of Goya’s soul. Painted directly on the walls of his house, he may never have intended them for public display. Perhaps that is why they make me feel as if I should turn away and look closer at the same time.

Goya, Saturn Devouring his Son
Probably one of the most graphic and horrifying paintings in Western art. Morbidly, also one of my favorite.

Somehow, even after 6 hours of intense exploration, we managed to miss Bosch, and we ran out of time to check out a temporary Goya exhibit upstairs. Fortunately, the museum is free for the last two open hours every day, so I’ll have a chance to go back.

Which I intend to do, several times. Great art humbles me, places me in a position of awe that very few other things are able to do. There is a deep beauty, even if the darkest subjects, which stuns me. I find myself paralyzed by wonder.

Spanish grocery impulse purchases.

One of my favorite parts of exploring a new country—and this is something you miss when you vacation in a hotel—is the grocery stores.

I don’t mean this in a “oh, aren’t they all so quaint” sort of way (although they can be). No, I’m talking about walking into the neighborhood dive, and floundering your way through aisles of almost familiar items, hoping you’ve correctly identified shaving cream from spray-on deodorant, and wondering where the hell they stock balsamic vinegar.

Because while many other aspects of a city accommodate transient visitors, grocery stores are for locals only. They don’t cater to tourist tastes. Here you find only what the residents demand, and this can be a surprise. What you really find in a grocery store is the common vs. the uncommon, what people consume every day, and what’s considered a luxury.

My previous trips to grab groceries have been fairly perfunctory. Today was meant to be another such trip, but then I stumbled across some must-haves, and the impulse buying began. I know: you expected something more exciting for my first post about Madrid, didn’t you? But I promise, this gets good.

So, let’s start with what I came for…

Bananas, grapes, and a six-pack of eggs.

Nothing surprising here! I mean, all I really needed were the bananas for tomorrow’s breakfast, but the grapes looked tasty and eggs never go amiss. Off to a good start!

Alcohol, because obviously.

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Spain was how cheap the wine is. Seriously, that bottle you see there cost only about €6, and that was about the mid-range. As for the beer… well, I hadn’t seen any of these ones before, and I wanted to have them around to try. Are they good? Maybe. Being a Michigander, a land abundant in microbeweries, my standard are high. But part of me kind of doesn’t care: I just want to see what’s on offer.

OH MY GOD, THE LETTUCE.

I mean: THE. LETTUCE.

Do I sound like a crazy person? I first encountered this lettuce in Germany, and it’s just about the only green leafy vegetable in the whole world that I have strong feelings about. In the Baden-Württemburg region where I lived, it was known as rapunzel—you know, as in that salad green that Rapunzel’s mother craves so much during her pregnancy that her husband steals some from a witch’s garden only then they get caught and so the witch takes their first born child from them which she then names after the lettuce? Yeah. Well, if you ever read that story and thought “what kind of woman gets pregnancy cravings for lettuce?!,” let me step in and say: I TOTALLY EMPATHIZE WITH THAT WOMAN.

And, for some totally inexplicable reason, they don’t sell it in America. At least, not anywhere I’ve looked, and that includes Whole Food’s. Mom and I even tried growing some last summer, but it just didn’t taste the same. In Edinburgh, I usually found it in the store as lamb’s lettuce. It’s soft, and has a distinctive flavor, unlike a lot of other lettuces, which usually just taste like water. My favorite way to eat it is with a little bit of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and goat’s cheese.

So, obviously, when I saw it in the grocery store to day, I had to get some. And that meant I had to get the other ingredients, too.

Olive oil was pretty easy. In fact, the most difficult part about the olive oil was picking out the right bottle. Do I get the organic olive oil in a tin? Or the cheap plastic bottle which probably every common-sense Spanish mother out there will tell you tastes just as good and costs half the price? Or should I give in to my desire for that very fancy looking bottle with the interesting shape? (As you can see, I went for the latter.)

Surprisingly, I had a harder time with the balsamic vinegar. I found it eventually near the soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and other condiments, but unlike the olive oil (which had a very prominent section all to its ownsome), the balsamic vinegar did not have many options. I guess it’s not used as much in Spain as other places.

I usually prefer fresh goat’s cheese, but it was not to be found. I discovered the roll pictured shortly after checking Google for a translation. Turned out it was the cheese with a goat picture on it. Go figure.

Oh, and also pictured: artichoke hearts. I’m a sucker for artichoke. I passed them in the same aisle as the balsamic, so I grabbed a couple jars. They are waaaaay cheaper here (as is just about everything else).

WHELP, I GUESS I’M GOING TO LEARN TO COOK OCTOPUS.

My first night here, a friend of mine took me out for wine and tapas, and one of the tapas he ordered for us was a nice fat octopus tentacle.

Honestly, it was super tasty! I’d had calamari before, but it’s not something I’ve ever prepared myself. I’m excited to try! I sometimes forget I can cook. This, in spite of how I spent a year in culinary school, and some of my friends know me best for my ability to pull together dinner in under two hours for 30–40 people. But when I’m on my own, I rarely take time to prepare anything. I slice up some chorizo and brie, pour a glass of wine, and that’s dinner. Breakfast is bananas and yogurt. I’ll probably make that rapunzel and goat’s cheese salad for lunch one of these days, and eat artichoke hearts for a snack.

But then I see an ingredient that I just need to know how to use, and all of a sudden my cooking brain kicks into gear. I have no idea how one is meant to prepare octopus, but you can bet I’m going to find out and serve it to someone.

All told, this was a super affordable grocery splurge.

The above rang in at just over €45, with the octopus being the most expensive item at €10.90. The exchange rate right now is almost 1 to 1, so I think I did pretty well.

And don’t worry. I’ll let you know how the octopus turns out.

I’m going to Madrid.

Last summer, I spent a couple months in Vienna.

I’d always wanted to try traveling and working abroad, and after looking in to a few options, I realized it was way more doable than I’d previously imagined. I booked a flat off AirBnB, bought a plane ticket, and headed to Europe for two months of work-travel.

Not gonna lie: it was pretty excellent.

A few weeks in, I started planning my next trip. Well, “planning” is the wrong word. I knew where I wanted to go, and I knew I didn’t have much actual planning to do yet. So really, I began to mentally prepare myself for my next trip. Shortly after that, I started telling people about my plan, just to get it out there in the open. I notice that when I don’t say things out loud, I tend not to follow through on them.

This week, I finally made the commitment. After a few days of browsing apartments, and then a few more days of flipping between my top picks in my browser tabs, and then making an ordered list of the top three I wanted to go for, and then waiting at least another twenty-four hours out of sheer anxiety, I sent in my request.

The last time I did this, I swear I applied three or four places to people who kept coming back to tell me that they’d forgotten to update their listing. This time, the owner got back it me in less than three hours.

So, that’s that.

If you’re looking for me about February and March, I’ll be in Madrid.

I’ll let you know how it goes.