Spain or For Whom the Taxi Tolls (apologies to Ernest Hemingway, for that one)
We rocketed nearly straight down for several seconds then, at the bottom of the decline, banked hard to the right. I thought, for a moment, we were about to do a complete barrel-roll, but just before inverting, we straightened and began a steep climb, accelerating to keep from stalling, then leveled off and plummeted back down. We made another hard right, followed by an immediate left, then sped along a relatively straight course, zigzagging occasionally whenever evasive action was necessary.
It wasn’t a fighter jet. Not even a roller coaster. It was a taxicab—on the streets of Madrid, the capital of Spain—being driven by a rotund man who seemed to be bored with the whole affair. His right arm rested on top of the steering wheel while the left hung outside the open window, clutching a lit cigarette and occasionally making various gestures at the other drivers, most of whom were also piloting taxis.
The Lady Loafer and I had landed an hour or so earlier at Madrid-Barajas Airport. Neither of us had ever been to Madrid before, nor did we speak Spanish, so—on our own—it would take a bit of finagling to make it through this trip.
Luckily, we were loafing it the lazy way.
We had spent some time prior to departure learning about our destination. We read about Madrid, checked travelers’ reviews and, best of all, spoke to a friend of ours—a retired World War II fighter pilot who had lived in Madrid for several years after the war.
As a result we had a list of historic places to see, restaurants and things to do. We even managed to learn a number of Spanish phrases (although, most of them came from old Western movies). We had also learned to love the music of Tony Bennett, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
The trip was an absolute blast. We visited the Museo Nacional del Prado—and saw original artworks by Goya, Rembrandt, Bosch and El Greco.
We took a day trip to the town of Toledo where we saw the remains of an ancient Roman circus and the Castillo de San Servando, a medieval fortress first built in 1088 A.D.
Then there was the food. We gorged on thin, salty slices of jamon, served with crusty bread loaves and sharp, hard cheeses. There were chunks of potatoes covered in a rich cream aioli, so steeped in garlic that it was no wonder all the vampires had fled to Transylvania centuries before.
Even something as simple as olives were a wonder. At every café we stopped, they brought out small, appetizer-sized bowls of fresh olives, the way a bar in the US might set out chips or peanuts. But these were not the olives I was used to. These were not mushy, salty, little green balls. They were fresh. Really fresh.They were firm and chewy with a mild flavor somewhat reminiscent of an avocado fused with an artichoke heart. They often came still attached to small boughs of twigs and leaves. I sometimes wondered if they had been picked right off the tree that morning.
Most amazing, though was the paella—the “national dish” of Spain. With my first taste, I knew I had to learn to make it. Saffron rice cooked with a number of additional ingredients—meats, seafood, vegetables—almost anything was possible. One version, paella negra, was a black paella that had been cooked in squid ink, although a paella purist told me it was really arros negre since it technically was not a true paella. Whatever the name, I loved it.
We guzzled pitchers of sangria, while eating platters of paella, small plates of tapas and loaves of bread filled with calamari, then sipped snifters of Spanish brandy at outdoor cafes while watching roving bands of street performers.
Our last night there, we’d planned dinner at Restaurante Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) and a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. In fact, Jake Barnes (the protagonist in The Sun Also Rises) has his last scene there. As anyone who knows me is aware, I love visiting locales that have appeared in my favorite books—remember my trip to Cannery Row?
“It (Botin’s) is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta.”
At Botin I ordered the roast pig and rioja alta and thought of Jake Barnes. I thought of his time during the war and his endless days after, wandering the world as an incorporeal spirit coming to accept the sentence of living life with his incalculable loss.
Flamenco is a style of music/dance/song that has influenced jazz, tap and the tango. It may be the most passionate performing art form ever. Watch flamenco sometime and, whether you speak the Spanish language or not, you will know what is being sung about. Love. Passionate, unrequited love. Nothing else can evoke such raw emotion.
We left Botin and waved at one of the taxis, sitting in a row in front of the restaurant. The trip had been wonderful. Excellent food, activities, sightseeing and now a flamenco show. It couldn’t have gone any better and we owed it all to one thing—the “lazy” way of loafing. We’d put in some up-front thought, decided what we wanted to do and followed our plan, while still keeping things loose and easy whenever the mood struck us to do so.
We climbed into the taxi. I was so flushed with our success on this trip that I decided tried out my fledgling Spanish. I looked at the address of the flamenco theatre the concierge had given us and asked the driver to take us there. Instead of putting the car into gear and taking off on another gut-wrench flight through the streets of Madrid, though, he simply gave me a blank look. I repeated myself and this time he launched into a torrent of shouts and hand waving. Once more I tried, and the yelling grew louder and more animated.
“I guess your Spanish isn’t as good as you thought,” the Lady Loafer said, laughing a little. “Just hand him the piece of paper. He’ll know what to do.”
Not knowing how else to deal with it, I gave him the paper, pointed at the address and smiled so that he would know I was friendly. Instead of appeasing him, though, it had the opposite effect. He reached a whole new level of rage, raised his arms to the heavens and shouted, perhaps imploring all the saints above to save him from this pestilence of tourists that had invaded his cab. He looked at me and I pointed at the paper once more. He threw it back into my face then slammed the taxi into gear and took off, tires squealing, and took the first right turn we came to without slowing. Three right turns later (during one of which I think we may have actually gone up on two wheels) he screeched to a stop, reached across me to open the passenger door and began pushing my shoulder, making it clear he wanted me out.
We were right back where we had started. He’d even managed to snag his original parking space. As we stood there in the street, I looked at the crumpled piece of paper and felt my face turn red as I saw these words:
17 C. Cuchilleros
I had given him the wrong piece of paper.
I found the right address in my shirt pocket and started to re-approach him, but he made a gesture that was decidedly unfriendly. There were a few other cabs, but all of the drivers were standing around ours, listening to his tale and giving me disapproving looks.
It didn’t take us terribly long to walk the several blocks to the Corral de la Moreria. We were only a little late and the show was still great.
Nevertheless, the next morning when we took a taxi back to the airport we let the doorman tell the driver where to take us.