Category Archives: Once More, with Feeling…Madrid 2013

Lost in Translation


Summer drinks in Plaza Tirso de Molina. My Russian friend (who is proficient in Spanish) orders some lamb to eat. It is translated (unusually, for Madrid) into English as ‘lamb stripes’. We assume that it means ‘lamb strips’. But when it arrives, the waiter presents ‘lamb tripe’. Even the Russian, who eats packets of dried squid mailed from Russia, cannot stomach this. She tries to explain (in fluent Spanish) that the dish has been translated incorrectly, but the waiter assumes that she simply doesn’t know what tripe is. After a bit of haggling, he agrees to exchange it free of charge.

Later, I decide to treat myself to a JD and diet coke. Single Spanish measures are equivalent to English triples; sometimes more. I don’t know the word for ‘straw’ so I ask the Russian for the word. She directly asks the waiter for a ‘paja’. Our Spanish friend chokes on her drink, the waiter leaves without responding, and I am confused. Apparently, the Russian has just asked the waiter for a wank. Amid hysterical laughter and stares from other tables, we discover that she should have asked for a ‘pajita’. I am too busy wiping away the tears to ask the waiter the next time he appears, so the Kiwi has to do it for me.

JD and diet coke never tasted so good through a straw.


Lessons from Madrid


I leave Madrid in less than 48 hours. In some ways, it feels like I have only just arrived. But I made the decision to leave all the ghosts of memories behind, just before a hedonistic week of new memories was created. Oh well….

I have learnt new lessons in Madrid, as well as revising old ones. The first (which I only discovered a couple of weeks ago) is that people are not as disposable as one dark shadow once led me to believe.  From first going to university, I have discovered that it is always possible to make new friends; sometimes life-long ones. However, I have since realised that it is not always the making of friends that is difficult, but maintaining those friendships. For example, there are some friends who miss you as much as you miss them. People whose group is incomplete without you; people whose jokes and flaws and intimacy you need around you on a weekly basis.

I have also learnt that there are some friendships that ignite quickly, appear to burn on a low heat over time and distance, but never burn at full flame again, even when you are reunited in the same country.

And some friendships, the intense ones that are concentrated on shared experiences and distance from a different life, only last as long as the shared experiences do; even when you try to prolong them. There has to be mutual effort. Accepting the end of these friendships can be heart-breaking. It is like being dumped by a lover without being told why; or even without being told at all.

And that brings me to a revised lesson, or at least a proverb that someone wise told me a few years back: “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. The trick is recognising which category they fall into.” I know that the gods have smiled on me because I have several friends who I can count in the ‘lifetime” box. These are friends you can return to without seeing for years and easily pick up where you left off; friends who have seen the best and worst of you and still message you to breathe the same air and expel it in laughter with them. That is not to under-value the reason and season friends; without them, you wouldn’t get by in foreign cities with new jobs and arrogant locals. But the trick is letting these friends go without sadness or resentment when the reason or season has passed. And that is a lesson I still need to revise.

So, with sadness I leave Madrid, again. But new adventures await. Life is for living and the world is my playground.

The wise one I mentioned is my little sister.

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone”


It is 2am. I get off the metro and ascend the steps into Plaza Tirso de Molina. The flower stalls are still there; the vibrant blooms taking on sepia tones under the light-polluted night sky. I marvel that people are selling flowers at this hour. And as I exit the plaza, I remember that I am alone in this city, completely alone. My mother would murder me for walking home alone at this hour; kill me before any of the countless rapists and murderers she imagines are lurking around every corner could assail me. But still, I walk alone.

This city, where I can breathe and be true to myself, is starting to haunt me. One afternoon, I imagine that I see my old best friend across the metro station on the opposite platform. But she is a mother now, living back in her native Italy. I am here, with plenty of acquaintances, a couple of good, old friends, and too much independence. Nothing anchors me; last time I had the blonde Italian and the Mancunian redhead on either side of me. But they are gone now, along with any remnants of our friendship. Now I drift through this city, remembering good times that will never be again, because I have changed, grown. My old anchors have sailed on other ships. The situation is different.

There is still that wild-fire inside of me: the need to party until the sun rises; to not be confined by medieval walls; to have endless options. I am half Irish, and that fire will never be extinguished. We O’Donnells live life until we die. Old age and cancer never stopped any of my legendary aunts from drinking brandy and dancing the night away into their seventies, or cultivating plants at high temperatures until the reaper came along. I guess we  make our own rules and live by them.

But now, despite its endless possibilities, my past time in Madrid haunts me. The fire still burns inside me, but it no longer burns in Madrid. Unemployment and poverty stalk the streets, the good times left not long after myself and my former anchors. Now, the world whispers the promise of new adventures to me. I need to go somewhere completely new; somewhere without memories lurking around corners, reminding me that I am alone here. I want  an un-lived adventure; to make new memories. Maybe this time the boy from the north will live them with me.

One thing is certain, however; adventure keeps me alive.

What really annoys me….


It was inevitable that this post would appear sooner or later. Anyone living away from their homeland will find something to whine about, amid the novelty of daily sunshine and new experiences. You usually find that people will diss the same things.

So, I am in Madrid, the capital of Spain. Life is ‘fast’ here; as fast a slug that has spent the night in a bong. Ok, I speak hyperbole, but people rush more in northern, provincial York than in this European capital. NO ONE runs for the Metro, even though the service has been reduced and you can wait up to 10 minutes for a train in the evenings, up to 15 at night. Some us can’t be late for work, not when we have a class waiting to be taught. Which brings me nicely to my first gripe…People here have NO spatial awareness. I’m speed walking through the packed streets, trying to squeeze a 10minute walk into a 5 minute one. Couples, groups, individuals clutter the pavements like time doesn’t exist. I veer left to go round them. They veer left. I veer right; someone walks into my path from the opposite direction. NOBODY EVER moves even slightly aside for you; YOU have to move for THEM. I wonder how people are not constantly colliding into each other.  Inside, I scream, “GET OUT of my way! Get out of my  fucking way!” and then my students tell me that Madrid is fast-paced. Yeah right, what a load of old cojones.

There is one exception to this Spanish lack of rush, and that is when it comes to toilets in bars, cafes, school etc. There is only one ladies’ loo at work, and in the evening there’s always a rush for it between classes. Just as I start to relieve myself, there is, without fail, frantic knocking at the door. The door is locked; doesn’t that tell you that it the loo is ocupado? Do you really need to knock and rattle the handle like there’s a axe-murderer chasing after you? “Si?” I shout. No reply, just more hectic hammering. Jesus, I think, with my kecks round my knees, is something wrong? “SI?!” I shout, louder this time. The knocking continues and I toy with the very tempting idea of yelling, “FUCK OFF! Just fuck off and let me piss in peace!” But I figure I would rapidly be forced to join Spain’s 27% unemployed if I take this route. So instead, I take my own sweet (Spanish) time while I wee. Ha! Take that. As I unlock the door, I am confronted by four teenage girls. “Is there a problem?” I ask calmly. I’m gonna flush your head down the loo if you do that tomorrow. “No,” they answer. No. Of course there’s not a problem; no axe murderer after you, just you, Spanish you with your ‘fast’ setting  that is only activated by a full bladder. “OK,” I reason, “when the door is locked you don’t need to keep knocking, just wait.” “OK,” they barely nod, and I think that they haven’t understood me.

The next day, I wee, sans persistent knocking on the door. Thank you.

It must be screamo….


knew that there was a good reason why I decided to share a bathroom with Mario- even though he uses my toothpaste…There’s some pretty intense screamo music coming from the bathroom next to ours. That can only mean that Paco is on the crapper. Precisely how anyone can enjoy screamo is a mystery to me.

However, maybe it does serve a purpose after all; it can literally annoy the shit out of you.

“I was a woman”


I join the gym and would like to go swimming. Before I can go, I need to be bikini ready, so I pop to my local hair and beauty salon.

I am drawn in the gay friendly rainbow in the doorway; can’t go anywhere that wouldn’t serve my sister if she visited. I quickly realise that there are only two guys working there. This could be tricky for what I need. “Are there any girls who work here?” I ask in Spanish.


“OK. I need a wax and I’d prefer a girl,” I hesitate.

‘No girls work here, but I was,” the young guy attempts in English. I was? A diamond earring in each ear and pristine eyebrows. Definitely gay, but surely not transgender?

“You? You were a woman?” I have to ask. I HAVE to ask.

“No, no, I wass! I make the wass!”

Riiiiiiiiiiiiight! “You do the wax? Vale, ok, bien!” He does the waxing. He didn’t use to be a woman. Well, you never know. Madrid is pretty open-minded for  a Catholic capital.

“OK, gracias, but I prefer a girl.”

Gay or not, even I am not liberal enough to have a guy do something that intimate for me!

Compañeros de Piso


So, I have two flatmates; both guys, both 24 year old students. On paper it sounds nightmarish. The lying landlady told me that a Spanish girl who is not a student is moving in. Two weeks later and she hasn’t appeared, so it’s just me and the chicos.

At first it was just Mario and I, as Paco was away for Easter (better change names, though I doubt they’ll be reading this). Mario is Sicilian, and when I first arrived he talked to me so much that it delayed my unpacking by about 40 minutes. Despite being warned by a friend that Italian men would expect me to clean up after them, I decide to share a bathroom with Mario, rather than the Spanish guy whom I had not yet met.  When looking for space to stash my  stuff in the shower, I start to wonder about Sicilian gender roles when I see that Mario has more products in the bathroom than I do. I try not to think about where he uses the Nair hair removal cream that hangs in a carrier bag in the shower…

On the first night we go for cañas in the buzzing La Latina, the barrio we live in. As it’s just the two of, I buy the second beer. “In Sicily, it is very hard for a man to let a woman do this,” Mario informs me. “One of the downsides of feminism,” I reply. “In theory I should I also hold the door open for you, but I’m not going that far!” So he uses Nair in the shower, but finds it hard to let me buy him a €1 caña? Hmm, Italians. The evening passes easily in a rounds of story-telling and laughter, and I find it hard to believe that this morning I did not even know this guy. I am relieved that he is not the problem flatmate that the lying landlady had implied him to be.

The next day, Mario is cooking pasta with tuna and offers me some. Who am I to refuse pasta from an Italian? When I sit down I see enough pasta on my plate to feed a baby elephant. Of course, having other Italian friends, I expected this, but I am relieved when Mario has to leave early for football: “Just leave what you can’t eat and I’ll eat it later.” God forbid that an Italian should let pasta go to waste! Plus, he’s a student, and I’m pretty sure we ate whatever was on the go back then, too. “Do not wash ANYTHING!” he adds as he leaves, “I will do it when I come home.” So, he cooks a lot of pasta: one point for the stereotype. When he arrives home later, he does all the washing up: one point against.

After several 3am bedtimes, I decline Mario’s offer to go out again, and have an early night instead. I am woken at 6am by laughter as Dani and his friend arrive home. I get back under the duvet and reach for my earplugs. Before I have the chance to push them into my ears, I hear the sound of a girl enjoying herself in Mario’s room next door. REALLY enjoying herself. I may not always act my age, but I’m not teenage enough to be disgusted by people shagging in the next room. What I find slightly objectionable is that Mario’s girlfriend, whose photos are plastered all over his room, is in Italy. I do not see him until early afternoon the next day, when his sheets are in the washing machine. So, he cooks, he cleans, he struggles to let a girl buy him a drink, but he is an Italian stallion after all. A few days later, I recall that I didn’t hear Mario; I only heard a girl’s sighs. Maybe it was porn. Who knows? Who cares?

I can’t help but enjoy living with Mario.