Monday, March 19, 2007


Well, if the reunion is in Madrid, you can still have a great time anyhow.

The Spouse and I did just that this weekend. We went to Madrid, ostensibly because there was going to be a casual gathering of the Spaniards and Anglos who participated in the English immersion program I went to in November. I didn’t expect people to return from the four corners of the planet: the Kiwis, South Africans, and Americans were certainly not going to travel that far just for a weekend of swigging Rioja. And, in fairness, Mark came because he had signed up to do another Vaughtown week (this time with his brother in tow), and Mandy appeared, although, discouraged, she went off to Alicante to see her own brother.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

We left out of Vienna on Swiss International Air Lines. This leg of the flight was one of those where they load you on a bus, and drive you to a plane. For some reason, on the bus, the Spouse and I realize that we are seated on opposite ends of the plane. Oh well, it’s a short hop to Zurich, and once there we will ask if we can sit together on that leg (because currently, we aren’t seated together for it either).

Flight delayed by fog in Zurich, we arrive, late and with a short connection time. We have to go through another security screening. While the Spouse is repacking his laptop, I tell him to give me his boarding pass and I’ll ask the nice lady at the gate.

The other passengers are already lined up, and they are just about to begin boarding, so I say, “I know it’s late, but is there any chance we can be seated together? Or should I just ask other passengers to trade with me?”

She sighs, but kindly, and says, “Honey, there’s nothing I’m going to be able to do as we are over booked for this flight.”

Ah ha! I say, “So, do you want volunteers to take a later flight?”

“Would you consider it?” she appears hopeful.

“Sure! What’s the deal?” I am ever vigilant.

Turns out we would get about $300 US apiece and only have to wait an hour (although we’d be sent through Munich or Hamburg or something Germanic). I tell her I can wait quite patiently in the Business Class lounge. She says that shouldn’t be a problem.

But a few moments later, she calls us over and says that we don’t need to be bumped (so no cash . . . awwww), but because we were such good sports, she will put us in Business Class for the Zurich-Madrid leg and we can even sit together (hurray!!!!!).

So that was an auspicious start.

We arrived in Madrid, navigated the long lines at Immigration (those darn Swiss aren’t part of the Schengen Agreement but the Immigration Officer stamped my passport while saying, in Spanish, “What a beautiful face” . . . this is why I love Spain), took the Metro to our hotel (a bargain at 1 Euro each), and raced to El Corte Ingles: he to the book section, and I went in search of beauty products, but, alas, I was unsuccessful.

What I just LOVE about all this, however, is that I CAN talk to the sales ladies, even if I stumble and stammer and lurch around the language of Cervantes. I could say, “I’m looking for Frederik Fekkai shampoo and BeneFit foundation,” and they were able to tell me to go ask this colleague over there. I was flirted with by a handsome and very young man who was pushing a new Lancôme fragrance for men (it’s nicer than the women’s version and I should have bought it) . . . always nice even if you KNOW he’s just trying to sell a new Lancôme fragrance for men. Then, the highlight was that while I was waiting outside for the Spouse, a young woman came up to me and asked, “Do you speak English? Do you know where to find a shop called Women’s Secret?” Turns out I do and I did. Ah, to know Madrid!

Other highpoints were, in no particular order

1. A fabulous starter made of paper thin slices of avocado, wrapped around what could only be described as transcendent egg salad (I like egg salad, but am not normally moved by egg salad), topped with red caviar and served with the most perfect portion of tossed salad greens. I surprised myself by liking the glass of fino I was served with this. I didn’t mean to have fino . . . I understood that I was having “typical wine of Andalucia” so I thought a Malaga muscatel . . . something a little sweet as an aperitif, certainly, but I forgot about sherry. I usually pour sherry on potted plants, but this was extremely nice and not at all cloying.

2. The Rastro flea market! A traditional Sunday morning, open-air market, on the streets in a neighbohood south of the Plaza Mayor. Spanish friends had waxed poetic about riding to the market on Sunday mornings by motorcycle, shopping, relaxing with a coffee or beer. It sounded interesting. (The term rastro, Spanish for trail, was coined in the 16th century, when a slaughterhouse stood near the area. The animal carcasses were dragged (arrastrados) from it to the nearby tanning houses, leaving a bloody trail or rastro . . . ew).

My guidebook said, “It is located between the Plaza de Cascorro and streets leading off the Ribera de Curtidores.” I looked on the map, and that seemed like a contained and manageable zone. Being Anglos and not vampires like the Spaniards, we were up, had had our coffee and croissants, and were walking to the market about 9:30 Sunday morning. We found one of the main streets, walked down it, and thought, “Hmm. Clearly we’re early and not all the vendors have finished setting up, but this seems . . . underwhelming.”

Then we turned a corner and discovered it went on and on and on! Truly amazing: books and t-shirts and shoes and CDs and LPs! and parts of old radios and TVs and computers and hardware and comic books and antiques and plants and just plain junk. It was one part San Telmo in Buenos Aires and one part the market in Kiev.

My favorite item was a contraption for washing your freshly picked olives. In one square, there was stall after stall of clothing and the vendors were calling out in Spanish “One euro! Everything one euro!” or “Women’s under clothes! Get your women’s under clothes!” or “We are liquidating!” It made the whole area vibrate with energy. I walked around like a goof with this big grin on my face.

Link with photos: Scroll way down until you find El Rastro and click on that for some excellent photos of the market.

3. Coffee and churros after the market in the Plaza Mayor. It was sunny and the sky a flawless, September 11 blue. Just like in Bratislava (I’m joking here), a waiter greeted us, took our order, made suggestions, and gently shooed away a gold toothed, old lady selling lottery tickets (she asked the Spouse, who declined on both our behalves . . .then she asked me specifically, “C’mon guapa” and when the Spouse told her “I said ‘No thank you, señora’,” she said, “I am asking her now!” meaning me! She was tenacious.). I saw the waiters greet a large, English-speaking party, “How many? Seven? Of course. . . . come this way. Do you want sun or shade?” Just like in Bratislava!

4. The Prado. We went specifically to see a Tintoretto exhibit because we had read about it in The New Yorker. Frankly, I wasn’t that excited by the Tintorettos, but I was happy, as always, to see the Goyas and Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Researching the exhibit after the fact reveals that he was inconsistent, so I feel vindicated. After the Prado, we walked along the Paseo del Prado, which is lined with book sellers. We stopped at each and every one, and then walked through the Parque del Buen Retiro. Somehow we missed a huge anti-war demonstration, including the filmmaker Almodóvar, during all of this. Don’t ask me how.

5. Sitting in our lovely hotel lobby both afternoons, swigging down fabulous wine and snarfing up Spanish hams and cheeses. Then napping before going out to eat and drink more. Ah!

6. My kind and lovely friend, Angel Palacio and his beautiful, intelligent, funny wife. She has great taste in perfume, too. They were hosts extraordinaire. We got a thorough tour of the city, and an insider view of many tapas bars, thanks to them. Can’t imagine Bratislava would ever appeal to them, but we would be delighted to return the favor some day. These people are jewels.

7. And, of course, seeing Mandy and Mark. Too short, these visits. Too short.

Then we went back to the airport, this time by taxi. We checked in, found what we thought was our gate, realized our flight was delayed about 30 minutes, and settled in to drink more Spanish wine (out of the single-serving sized bottles they sell in the cafeteria) and mock other travelers. We were having such a good time, and getting so . . . well, frankly, drunk, that we failed to notice that no other passengers were gathering at this gate. Finally, when I wandered off to a newsstand to sate my hunger for fashion magazines, I noticed on the monitor, to my abject horror, that our flight was now LAST CALL.

I ran like OJ Simpson back to the Spouse, as I thought we were boarding there, but on the way realized that I had the gate information all wrong. I descended on the Spouse, sputtering about “It’s my fault, we have to run, NOW!” and led the charge out of the A section of gates and back into B. I got myself on the wrong side of a row of chairs and had to leap over them like a hurdler. I wheezed up to the desk, to be greeted by a humorless flight attendant who told me not to stop or even talk, but to RUN down the jetway to the plane. She didn’t even want my boarding pass.

With the Spouse some distance behind me, I threw myself into the plane, dropped all my bags, and began rifling for my boarding pass. “Madam Surbey,” a different flight attendant looked at me sternly. This is Swiss International Air Lines, after all. “How did this happen?”

I had no excuse. I did the Walk of Shame down the aisle, no doubt now reeking of perspiration and Spanish wine, while every other passenger, people who somehow were able to remain sober, read the monitors, and navigate themselves not only to the proper gate, but into their seats, glared at me. Obviously, I have little experience traveling by plane.

Karmic justice is swift and thorough. My punishment continues today with aches in muscles I didn’t know I had. Thank God I work out. But I am not and never have been a sprinter. What I have learned is that, if pursued by wolves or Nazis, I probably could run away. But I would be given away by the sound of my lungs, being coughed up after the sprint to my hiding place.


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