Barcelona and Madrid are Spain’s two largest cities, but they are quite different. Barcelona is a coastal city on the Mediterranean, while Madrid is in the middle of the country. Barcelona has a more international, multi-cultural vibe, being closer to the rest of Europe, while Madrid has a more traditional Spanish feel. In some ways the difference between Barcelona and Madrid is a little like the difference between L.A. and San Francisco. Yes, they both belong to the same country but they have very distinct cultures and lifestyles. Even their sports teams have a strong rivalry. Miguel and Peter are big Barca soccer fans and our Madrid friends can’t quite understand why. For them the Madrid teams–Real Madrid and Atletico–are far superior.
We like both cities for different reasons and were glad we could spend some time in each place on this trip. Unfortunately, Barcelona has gotten more and more popular with tourists, which we discovered on our trip four years ago. A visit to the Sagrada Familia cathedral meant standing in a line that wrapped around the block and lasted several hours. This time, we didn’t have the time to visit famous cathedral or Guadi buildings but we saw friends and explored their little town of Premia, which was probably even better. We ended our short stay in Premia with a quick trip to the beach, and then got in the car for the long drive (about six hours) back to Madrid.
We arrived in Madrid around 10 p.m. and fortunately the A/C was working since it was still in the 90s! Last time we did our house exchange we went on a trip and came back to a sweltering house. The A/C in the house is delivered through the floor. There are pipes running under the floors with either cool or hot water, depending on whether you want A/C or heat. The system works well, but it takes a day or two to kick in. This time we were smart enough to ask our house exchange family to turn on the A/C a couple of days ahead of our arrival. Phew!
Temperatures are not going down. After coming home Wednesday, we spent much of Thursday hunkered down in the cool house. Even Madrilenos say they’ve never seen such a long and intense heat wave. Peter managed to do a few errands, like wash the car, and fill out paperwork for his lost suitcase. Finally, at about 6 p.m. we went to our friend’s urbanizacion (apartment complex) for a dip in the pool. Many big apartment complexes have their own pools here and it functions as a community gathering place. During the summer people get off work and head for the pool to cool off and catch up with their neighbors. After a couple of hours at the pool with friends Javier and Angeles and their chidren, we all walked down the street for dinner at the Eiffel, a popular restaurant. We met up wth our other friends Manu and Paloma and their three children as well as Paloma’s parents. Paloma and her mother gave us two sweet gifts–a new edition of Don Quioxte that translates the classic story into modern-day Spanish, and a vacuum-sealed package of meats and beans to make cocido, a popular Madrid dish. Technically, you are not allowed to bring meats into the United States, but it’s definitely worth the risk. Four years ago we packed vacuum-sealed packages of jamon in our suitcases and they got through customs. It’s almost impossible to buy jamon in the U.S. and when you can buy it it’s very expensive. A tiny package that might cost $5 in Spain would cost $25 in the U.S. and a whole leg that costs $100 in Spain costs $1,000 through a mail-order company in the U.S.! Talking with our friends we realized we missed a great opportunity to mail some jamon home–we should have included a dozen packages or even a whole leg in the box with the chairs we sent home a few weeks ago! There was plenty of extra room in that box. Now, we’ll have to be satisfied with cramming a few packages in our suitcase and hope customs doesn’t spot it.
Both Peter and I felt melancholy on Friday. The end of a satisfying vacation is always hard. We decided to go to the city center in Madrid one more time and enjoy a few sights. We’ve seen most of the big museums, like the Prado, so we decided to visit a small one, focusing on Romanticism, a period of art in the 1800s. The museum was actually the furnished rooms of an old mansion in the now-trendy Cheuca neighborhood of Madrid. It’s always fascinating to see how rich people lived. Even though Spain’s golden age had ended by the 19th century, the family that lived in this house was extremely wealthy. Oil paintings, gold mirrors, velvet sofas and even fancy children’s toys (like a miniature horse carriage and dollhouses) fill the home. It reminded me a little of Madrid’s Royal Palace, which is the most well-preserved palace, in terrms of furniture and decor, in Europe. After the museum, we walked over to El Corte Ingles, Madrid’s fancy department store, and we felt like royalty ourselves as we enjoyed a drink on their 7th floor terrace, overlooking the city. The day could have ended then quite satisfactorily, but we had another dinner date with friends later on. We had convinced our friends to do an American-style potluck, where they brought the food and we supplied the house and drinks!
In a fitting end to our time in Madrid, our dinner guests didn’t arrive until 10. They brought lots of ham, an huge empanada, dried tuna and almonds, salad, pizza, cheese and crackers and dip. What kind of things do you talk about with friends from a different culture? For one thing, they were fascinated with Peter’s work as a financial planning workshop presenter for Ernst and Young. They wanted to know all about the topic of pensions and health care in the U.S. Evidently there is little variation in pension and health care plans here in Spain, unlike in the U.S. That was the serious side of the conversation. Then Peter mentioned that one of his clients is 3M, the company that makes Post-Its. We talked about Post-its and someone mentioned something about duct tape. It turns out that Spainards call duct tape “cinta americana” because in lots of American movies bad guys tape up their victims with duct tape! We laughed. We then explained what a duct was and debated about whether it had been called “duck” tape originally, given its water repellent qualities.
Around 1 a.m. we had a few copas (after-dinner drinks, a necessity in Spain) and our little party broke up around 2 a.m. We all exchanged many besos and promised to keep in touch via Skype and what’s app. It’s hard to keep in touch with friends in Europe due to the time change–they are nine hours ahead of us. However, even if we don’t keep in touch often, we feel like we’ve strengthened these friendships for many years to come. We hope to see them in California one day, but it is a long way. Many Spainards make it as far as New York, but not California. In any case, we’ll be back again someday soon. Spain’s people, food and sights continue to fascinate us! It’s been a great trip.