Days and Nights of Love, Wine and Cholesterol – the story of my life in Spain
Another year’s gone by…
It’s my 13th Spaniversary.
Thirteen years since I moved to Madrid with no plan, no visa, no nothin’.
And of course, it’s got me thinking.
What exactly have I learned throughout these years?
I’m still happy to be in Spain, but could I have been just as happy somewhere else?
We’ll never know – you can only live your life once, and hindsight (as the saying goes) is notoriously fallible.
Shoutout for this post goes to my boy Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. His book Shoe Dog is shockingly good.
And it’s organized the same as this article, year by year.
I’d recommend you go get a copy post haste.
Luckily, though, you’ve got time to read the story of my life in Spain first.
My life in Spain begins: 2004
On a cold, rainy morning in October (a lot like this one, actually) I arrived in Madrid with nothing more than a backpack, a duffel bag, and a girl’s phone number in my pocket.
Obviously, I was ruining my life somehow, but I’d never been happier.
I called the girl from the airport, struggled through a conversation in Spanish, then made my way to her neighborhood on the metro. Waited for her what seemed like forever, in a shitty plaza, in the cold and rain.
Finally she came and took me to her house. It was pretty minimal – second floor, no elevator, a neighborhood that wasn’t too well-off. Her flatmates were from Bulgaria and Colombia: two countries I’d barely thought about before that point.
It was a learning experience.
I stayed at the girl’s place as long as she’d let me, then I rented a room in Madrid’s worst neighborhood.
Lucero. Cars on fire at night, people shooting pigeons in the park, buildings full of squatters.
The best part was that I had no idea.
I’m from the middle of nowhere in the Arizona desert, and had barely seen a 3-story building before moving to that shithole neighborhood.
So I spent my first months in Spain ecstatic to be surrounded by such European finery.
Soon it was time to look for a job – something I’d never been good at.
I figured I’d hate it, but the pay for teachers seemed to be better than the local average.
By mid-December I’d finished the course. I was, according to Cambridge University, a qualified teacher.
The last few days of the year were cold, dark and windy. I spent them wandering around Madrid, walking from language school to language school.
I’d found the schools in a phone book (remember phone books?) and probably wasted three quarters of every day on transport because I had no idea of the city’s geography.
In those days, we’d carry around a callejero, which was a whole book with 240 pages of street maps. We’d look in the index for the street name, find the page (which was conveniently divided into squares A1 to N16) and then try to figure out the nearest Metro stop.
Go to that Metro and hope for the best.
We also didn’t have expat groups on Facebook, so we’d just stop a random person on the streetcorner to ask our inane questions about life in Spain: Where do I buy shampoo? What day is daylight savings? Wanna hang out with me? Maybe get naked and sweaty together?
On December 23 I was walking across the frosty grass of the park to catch the bus when I got a call from a guy named Ángel, a director at a language school where I’d applied – and suddenly I had a job, starting right after the end of the long Spanish holiday season.
Maybe I wasn’t ruining my life after all.
Or maybe it was just going to take longer than I had thought.
The year started out on a hilltop in Lucero with the girl I came to Spain for. At the stroke of midnight, fireworks started exploding everywhere, bursting from every balcony and every patio in the neighborhood.
I’d never seen anything like it.
Too bad there weren’t too many fireworks with the girl.
The next morning, after some embarrassingly bad sex back at my place, I set out for Morocco. I figured I’d probably be back in Arizona soon enough, so I’d better cross “Africa” off my bucket list ASAP.
Turns out what I was imagining for “Africa” was Subsaharan, not Morocco. Guess I knew nothing about North Africa. Thanks, US educational system. Thanks, American ignorance.
Live and learn.
I took the ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta – a small Spanish city on the north of Africa – and walked across the border from there. Went to a town called Chaouen, got ripped off by at least one taxi driver, bought some fake Armani jeans and ate a lot of cous cous.
Morocco, then. It wasn’t bad. (I still don’t like cous cous that much, but whatever.)
Back in Madrid, the winter passed.
I was wrong about hating teaching English. Actually, it was a lot of fun.
My students were young (meaning older than I was at the time) and very friendly. And cute girls seemed to be interested in me in a way they weren’t back home.
I decided to stay in Madrid longer. I cancelled my ticket home and bought a new one for the end of June.
Spring bloomed with new leaves and cherry blossoms on every corner. It was spectacular. And this young desert rat had never seen anything like that either.
A few days before I was scheduled to leave town forever, I was sitting in front of the Royal Palace watching the sunset. My students hadn’t shown up to class, so I just went for a walk.
Sitting there, a girl came up to me – apparently egged on by her friends. She was Puerto Rican, 19 years old, ridiculously beautiful. Sonia. Oh, Sonia.
We had a 2-week romance that went nowhere. I was way too shy. I remember her walking away from me in Plaza España, for the “last” time before I left for home.
She didn’t look back. Or answer my calls or postcards later.
But that’s a different story.
Because suddenly, spring was over too, and I was back on the ranch… at least momentarily.
Soon I was bored with the stripmall hell and conservative wasteland and set off on a new adventure.
Summer 2005 was a lot of fun – I hitchhiked and bussed it across the US and part of Canada, meeting people I know along the way.
I visited my grandpa in New Mexico. My friend Brean in New Orleans – about a week before Katrina, if I recall. In Savannah, Georgia, I figured I’d seduce a girl with a ridiculous faux-French name in order to sleep indoors for a night. She didn’t fall for it, so instead I ended up sleeping in an alley, where a guy came up in the middle of the night and started waving his dick at me.
Gotta hand it to the guy… his dick was huge.
In Montreal, I spent a week in a frat house – my friend had rented a room there because it was cheap during summer. The basement was full of empty beer bottles and tons of porno mags. (Remember porno mags?)
I sat in on some mild Canadian hazing as the schoolyear started again, and the fraternity looked for new recruits… in the meantime I’d decided I was going back to Spain.
It’s from that beer-and-porno basement that I called my boss at the language school to announce I’d be back in Madrid soon.
He said I could have my job back.
Soon I was back in Madrid and living with a rotating cast of Peruvian girls in a slightly better neighborhood. I was starting to make new friends. I was enjoying life.
Shortly before Christmas I met Maria – the first of many Marias.
Did I mention the first girl was back in her country by then? Yeah. People imagine my story of “moving abroad for some girl I barely knew” will end with a lifetime of happy Disney-style monogamy.
I’m sorry. It doesn’t. The first girl went home to live off unemployment benefits. Yay, socialism.
And Maria, as much as I liked her, unceremoniously dumped me a few months later.
I seem to remember it being a series of things: I didn’t have a car. I didn’t know how to dance. I put chorizo in a paella that one time.
Pretty standard, I guess.
In any case, I felt bad about it for a while.
Not about the chorizo, about being dumped.
(She has a kid now. And a rent-controlled flat in one of those neighborhoods you’d never visit unless you lived there. For me, it’s just a stop on the way to the airport, where I briefly think of her each time the doors of the train hiss open and closed. Oh well. I hope she’s happy.)
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
It’s time for…
As an English teacher, I was making more money than I ever had as a barista back home. And I was actually enjoying it… a fact which continually shocked me.
Also, having to spend several hours a day talking to complete strangers was transforming my twisted introvert brain into something far more sinister…
The twisted brain of an introvert who can fake it.
I stocked up on the hottest 2006 fashions from H&M and tried to “blend in with the locals”. None of “the locals” were 6-foot-tall gingers, but that was an issue I hadn’t yet taken into account.
Socializing was much easier than I had ever imagined, even if I didn’t always enjoy it.
One evening, during the 2006 world cup, brimming with insane youthful enthusiasm, I spent an evening at a bar arguing with a girl who was way out of my league.
She was beautiful and rich and totally annoying.
A few days later I asked her out, and for some reason she said yes. (Why did I ask her out if she was that annoying? Eh… Why not? She was hot.)
Anyway, let’s call her Maria #2.
She took me on an emotional rollercoaster the likes of which I’d never thought possible. Worse, even, than my first love back home.
Then she broke my heart.
I spent that summer sleeping on the couch in a friend’s house. I had gotten sick of the rotating cast of Peruvian girls calling me “el gringo”, but finding a flat was turning out to be damn near impossible. A lot of people would hang up as soon as they heard my foreign accent on the phone. The others advertized: solo chicas.
Finally, I got a room in a new place. The neighborhood was almost as bad as the first one… Vallecas. But I still didn’t know much about the differences between good and bad neighborhoods. It had a metro stop, so I was fine.
That’s when I took up boxing.
Beating the shit out of the various kinds of small-time hustlers kicking around my new-new neighborhood turned out to be surprisingly fun… And it was a great way to forget about the heartbreak I was suffering due to to Maria #2.
Also, getting knocked down was more educational than anything I did in school… EVER.
Here’s my two step plan for all types of success, conceived in a sweaty, smelly boxing ring in Madrid’s second-worst neigborhood:
- Get knocked down.
- Get up and get back in the fight. HIT THE MOTHERFUCKER BACK.
Simple and effective.
Wish I’d known that in middle school.
I don’t remember much about the second half of that year, except that I got my jaw dislocated a couple of times. A couple bruised ribs. No biggie. I could always sleep on the non-bruised side.
Anyway, let’s move on to…
The girl I’d been seeing off and on the last several months had been suspiciously silent.
She lived on the other side of Spain, so I hadn’t seen her for a while either.
Then she called and announced that she was pregnant. Baby was due in August.
I did the quick mental math: the kid wasn’t mine.
In the next sentence, she said she’d found a guy she wanted to spend the her life with. Her words hung in the air. That guy, appaerently, also wasn’t me.
So long, Maria #3.
We hardly knew ya.
In any case, the euphoria of living in Spain wasn’t anywhere near wearing off… yet.
I spent the spring bubbling with the joy of being far from stripmall hell & the conservative wasteland, newly single, and not an accidental father.
That summer, I went up to Santander and spend a few months in the cool. A family up there had (for reasons I still cannot fathom) more or less adopted me.
They took me to a bullfight and made me eat all kinds of absurd Spanish foods I’d never tried before. Pork ear? Bull’s tail?
It’s all good, dawg. When in Spain…
I ended up loving the whole thing. The whole Spanish experience.
Back in Madrid, things seemed to be going well, too. I’d settled into something of a routine.
Soulsucking (but somewhat profitable) company classes in the morning, fun language-school clases in the afternoon / evening. A few hours’ break in between to eat and sleep the siesta.
Three times a week, just before lunch, I’d go to boxing. The lowlives at the gym were getting lower. Some of them were criminals, some of them were cops. I was the only English teacher. The only one, apparently, who didn’t live and die by his fists.
Still, we had fun.
On weekends, there was always a plan with friends, or some girl.
At some point in all this I made it to Lisbon, and Oporto, and Toulouse. As well as a few Spanish cities. Hardly world travel… but at least I saw some nice places in southern Europe.
I’m not sure if that Christmas is the one where every single person I knew went out of town. Probably. I sat at home alone for the holiday season, unheated flat, drinking café con leche con brandy and reading Moby-Dick. What was that about?
I still don’t know.
Whales, maybe, and their bizarre anatomy. Or perhaps misery. Or obsession. Or death.
Soon, a new year was upon us.
Winter of 2008 seems to have been uneventful – at least I can’t remember anything of note.
At the end of May I went to my private lesson with Cristina, a student in the neighborhood, and told her, “Good news! I met my rollito de primavera over the weekend.“
Rollito de primavera. Spring fling.
Also, spring roll, like the Chinese food. Delicious Spanish wordplay, there.
She was Italian. So let’s call her Mariglia.
The GL is mostly silent.
Things went swimmingly for a while. One day I rolled over in bed and said, “You know, we’ve been together for 6 whole weeks.”
She looked at me like I’d lost my mind, but for me 6 weeks seemed like a long time.
Back from Santander (again) after the summer, the crisis hit.
We’d had some indication of crisis before. Subprime something something. Stuff happening in New York or whatever. But it had all seemed so far away.
When Lehman Brothers collapsed, though, hot damn.
My coworkers declared the end of capitalism.
So did Mariglia.
Meanwhile, we all kept getting up, going to work, walking to the supermarket to buy lentils and cheese and cheap beer.
When I was younger, I had dreamed of one day seeing the end of capitalism.
If this was it, I was pretty fucking disappointed.
Soon, I became obsessed with the inner workings of the economy. Fascinated by interest rates and stocks and bonds. Turns out, everyone has an opinion about the stock market. Very few even know what the stock market is.
I sure didn’t, back then.
But for a while, it seemed like things were plugging along as normal. The official unemployment statistics just kept getting worse, but you couldn’t see it on the street…
Until you could.
After a few months, classes at the language school were full of unemployed architects and engineers. There was a line of them trailing out the door some nights, waiting to sign up for English class. Those who weren’t unemployed yet knew they soon would be.
Rather than learning English to move up to some great job here in Spain, they were thinking of moving away – to Germany, to Chile, to Saudi Arabia.
If you live in the US and you think you know something about real-estate bubbles, think again.
Spain’s was worse.
Unemployment would eventually hit 26% – but that was a long way off… in the futuristic year of 2012, and after a few more years of economic freefall.
Back in 2008, the first visible signs of crisis were the new pawn shops that popped up on every street.
Then, the lines of people outside those pawn shops – trying to get whatever they could for that bicycle, that blender, those straightening irons.
It was the opposite of gentification. De-gentrification? It sucked. Take note, ye Madrid newcomers. It was much worse before.
All that autumn, there was a guy outside the language school wearing a sandwich board, shouting ¡Compro oro!
Soon, he was joined by another guy in another sandwich board shouting ¡Buffet libre!
All you can eat!
The low-cost craze had begun.
El País published an article about how Spanish women were moving back into prostitution, after a couple of decades in which prosperity had made it unnecessary. A few weeks later, I saw evidence in my very own neighborhood.
While things went to hell here in Spain, Angela Merkel and her minions were promising to put us on an austerity plan – whatever that meant. And the papers promised that everything was going to get much worse before it got any better.
So I did what anyone would do…
I got used to cooking the cheapest possible foods – as long as they still had protein. Horse meat. Lentils with bacon. Skirt steak. Hoof and snout – whatever animal was available.
For a while there, it seemed like we were just days away from trying to catch the neighbor’s cat for our Sunday paella.
In any case, I was (as usual) optimistic to the point of delusion.
How long could this crisis possibly last?
How long indeed…
Stay tuned for part 2 of my life in Spain
I hope you enjoyed reading about my life in Spain as much as I enjoyed writing it. I’ll do part 2 “soon” – that’s where things are really gonna get heavy.
Autobiography is sort of a headtrip.
I’ve always envied those people who have a life plan, a sizeable trustfund, the desire to get mortgages, and who end up marrying their high school sweetheart.
Seems so simple… Just follow the plan!
Go go go!
Anyway, if you want more stories (with a focus on blogging and writing success) pick up a copy of my book The Zen of Blogging.
The reviews, so far, say I’m both hilarious and informative.
And if you buy a copy and write a review of your own, I’d be happy to buy you a beer next time we’re in the same city.
Thanks! I knew I could count on you.
‘Cause you’re awesome.
Mr Chorizo AKA Daniel.
P.S. What do you think about my life in Spain? Got any fun anecdotes about Spanish life you’d like to share? Hit me up, right here in the comments…