In 2003, when I was studying abroad in Toledo, I went to Madrid most weekends to walk the busy streets and dream. I dreamt of a life in Spain, of meeting the perfect guy, of the many adventures we’d have as my writing career took off. Walking into the bookstores in Chueca and seeing the rainbow flags everywhere was freeing to a deeply repressed and closeted boy.
For five years, I dreamed of a life in Spain, of those amazingly handsome, kind-hearted, caring, romantic españoles. Although I preferred Barcelona, I had been warned that the Catalán would be a major deterrent (I must say that now that I speak Catalán quite decently I love it as much but differently as I do my first love Spanish) and Madrid was the place to be. I wrote short stories about meeting my beautiful Spanish husband in queue at Starbucks (quelle horror now) and the adventures we would have. For five years, until my return in 2008, Madrid represented a land of opportunity, and my very own American dream that just happened to take place in Spain.
I had to wait a year, a very long year of working and living in small-town Jaén in Andalucía, to make that dream come true. And the dream became a nightmare.
Madrid de visita (on a visit) is very different from actually living in Madrid. The chaotic streets and nightlife make it a very lonely city, and although it’s quite easy to make a friend to go out to party with, it’s quite difficult to make a lasting friendship with someone you can count on. (The opposite is true in Bilbao. The Basques are very hard to get to know or for them to invite you out for a kalimotxo (wine and Coke) and pintxo, but once they let you in, they are incredibly nice, caring people. It’s just hard breaking through barriers in the land of eternal rain that Irish and Seattleites both have complained about.) The madrileños will invite you out with a big group of friends, but you’re quite often left at the end of the table drinking softly and listening to everyone else, especially if you’re an introvert like me.
And in the land of Chueca, where gay sex sells and every night is Pride Night, finding a decent guy even in plan amigo, let alone plan novio (boyfriend) is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
I lived in Madrid from 2009-2010 and again from 2011-2013. I learned a lot about myself in those three years.
I find myself de paso once again in Madrid this weekend. A lot of memories are surfacing, mostly good but a few bad. I gave Madrid my all, but my job drained me a lot, and I was dealing with other issues. I did accept myself fully as a gay man in Madrid, and for that, I was grateful. However, Madrid just represents so many of my crushed dreams. I never had a relationship, never found that group of friends, and I found myself with more than one broken heart from unrequited love. I fought to accept myself while trying to fight to fit in with the muscle heads and bears of Chueca. I killed myself at the gym yet never could get a six-pack (tabla de chocolate in Spanish) or big arms. My personality and my intelligence were never enough.
I also find myself questioning Madrid, who yearns to host the Olympics
(because Barcelona did in 1992), and how they are the capital of Spain. Yet browsing through the language books in FNAC, you’d be hard pressed to realise that Spain is a country with four official languages and a bazillion unofficial languages and dialects. I found a few books for learning Catalán, 2 for learning Euskera (Basque) and ZERO for learning Gallego (Galician). Everything is in brokenEnglish (and sometimes not even Spanish, just a lazy attempt at English). When I went to Brussels, I loved how both the French Wallonia and the Flemish Flanders were represented in the capital city despite the city being a French-speaking city. Imagine how far the little effort it would take to truly represent all the cultural identities of Spain (17 autonomous communities, some with stronger identities with others but all amazing in their own right) instead of pushing the Andaluz stereotype of flamenco and bulls as a Spanish identity. In Barcelona, every Christmas, the metro writes “Merry Christmas” in Catalán, Castellano (Spanish), Basque and Galician. The Metro de Madrid promotes their latest outrageous price hike as still being cheaper than Paris and London, all in Spanish. (This is a true story from 2011.) Spanish Nationalism is a tricky subject on a good day, but imagine how different it would be if the capital city tried to represent and include all parts instead of making people feel alienated. (And I’m not saying that many Catalans and Basques do their own things to make things worse. It just seems to me that in a multi-nationed country, it would be helpful for the capital city to try to include all nations. Nation does not equate country.)
Ernest Hemingway once said that Madrid was the least Spanish city until you lived in it for some time, then it became the most Spanish city. For me, in 2015, it has lost all trace of “Spanishness” when century old cafés like Café Comercial close down, yet there is a Starbucks on every corner. Several of my favourite haunts from even 2013 have been closed down for trendy gastrobars that don’t even offer Spanish cuisine. And in my afternoon walk tonight, I heard more English than Spanish in the Spanish capital. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t speak English for the tourists, but don’t lose your Spanishness in doing so. Madrid would do well to focus on representing all aspects of Spanish life instead of trying to turn itself into New York Clone. People can go to Starbucks wherever, but where else can they go to a Museo de Jamón for a cheap jamón serrano sandwich? What other country can offer paella, gazpacho, jamón serrano, pintxos, tapas, La Rioja, and relaxing cafés con leche?
I know I give Madrid a rough time. Many people love Madrid, but for me, the city represents so many broken dreams, not only my own broken dreams, but the broken hopes and dreams of both the city of Madrid and the entire country of Spain.