- Posted by Julia Burns
- On December 4, 2021
- Spain, Summer diary
By Amy Bell
The writer, a journalist with the Financial Times, shares her summer diary of flexi-working, time-off, and recalibration,
away from her base in London.
Tinto in the sun
The first sip of a cold tinto de verano in a plaza with the sun on my face, and a bowl of crisps. I have been dreaming about this moment for weeks, ever since booking my flight to Madrid.
I hadn’t quite expected to have the entire plaza to myself, but then of course, it is July 1 and the 35 degree midday heat means most madrileños are inside. Either that or they have escaped the city entirely after months of being stuck at home during the pandemic.
“Hija, eres muy valiente…” says the male owner of the bar, who has come out to rearrange the tables and chairs. He glances over at me in slight disbelief.
Why have I come here?
Following months of working from home, I put in a request to work from Spain for a month to make the most of not having to be in the office, so here I am – working a bit and also taking some time off in between.
But also, it is an escape. A break. Time for myself. Space to breathe; to be.
In a magazine I am reading on the flight from London to Barajas I come across the word “liminality”, from the Latin limen, which roughly translates as “threshold”. It’s the idea of being in a state of transition, maybe in between jobs, about to move to a new country, or, as in my case, recently coming out of a relationship. You find yourself briefly suspended in the moment; and faced with the opportunity to be a new or different version of yourself. Though in my case, coming to Spain is also wrapped up in nostalgia – a return to something familiar, from when I lived here before.
That was back in 2009, when I taught English here after university, but since then I have been back a few times a year. It has always felt like a second home, and so, after a year of lockdowns, it was Madrid that drew me back. There is no doubt I romanticise it — but I always feel good here; the streets are familiar; everything feels somehow lighter. Or maybe it’s just because of the altitude: 820m above sea level, compared with London’s 11m.
For a brief space in time it’s about being out in the world and meeting old friends, new friends, even just the experience of travelling again – of moving freely – and feeling grateful.
Here are a few notes from my diary.
Sabado: settling in
Signed up to the gym, which is far more packed than I would have expected – it’s all muscles and lycra leggings and skin-tight vests, flexing and preening. The receptionist tries to charge me higher fees because it’s the tail end of Pride, but after some back and forth she relents and agrees to the normal rate. I briefly entertain the idea of a trial membership at the Crossfit downstairs, and then remind myself that I didn’t come to Madrid to be inside a gym the whole time.
I walk to the Retiro park with the weekend edition of El Pais, and sit on the grass by the water. It takes me back to spending Sunday afternoons here with my roommate in our teaching days, where we would lay out a towel and read Cuore! and Que Me Dices? magazines, making our way through a pack of Principe biscuits. Pay a visit to my favourite statue, el angel caido. In the evening I go to see the family comedy play El mensaje at the Teatro Lara.
Martes: back to the old barrio
This morning I ran down to Templo de Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple that stands majestically in the Cuartel de Montana park, and then into Chamberi. It was the first neighbourhood I lived in with my American roommate and a physiotherapist called Mario from Caceres. As I’m in my nostalgic mood I stop at an old bar I remember on the corner for pan con tomate and cafe for €2 (a fairly basic pan con tomate to be fair but still: €2!), before heading back to San Bernardo.
Up late meeting new friends, so spend most of the following day, miercoles , watching my latest guilty pleasure on Netflix: Elite – a Gossip Girl-style Spanish teen drama set in a private school in Madrid – and then decide to follow all the actors on Instagram.
Jueves: the balcony
In the morning I open the doors and let in the sounds of Malasaña getting ready for the day. Lots of crashing around, shutters opening and loud voices, but the sunlight streams through the window. Meet FT colleague and Madrid correspondent , also BritishSpanish member, Dan Dombey for cañas in the excellent local bar, Bodegas El Maño (they do a great menu del dia as well – example: salmorejo, followed by sea bass with vegetables, followed by arroz con leche, followed by feeling extremely full, €12)
Viernes 15 – sabado 24 : sailing in Sitges
After two weeks in Madrid, I take the Renfe from Atocha to Barcelona, and then on to Sitges for a few days by the sea where I am also booked in to do some sailing lessons at the Club Nautico de Sitges.
My sailing instructor for the week is a fearless 18-year-old from Soria called Cristina, who reminds me of the basics in a mix of English and Castellano. In the club though, it’s mostly Catalan, including the names of the Mediterranean winds, so the manager Luis likes to test me on which one is blowing that day: “Migjorn o Garbí?”
The highly competent Cristina and I take out a blue laser dinghy and practise tacks and gybes, or how to virar y trasluchar, and then another day we advance to a catamaran. “You’re my first ever student I’ve taken out on the cata,” she declares as we enter the water, “so we absolutely cannot capsize, or it will be really embarrassing”. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen — but we get some decent wind and glide through the water. Lots of scrambling back and forth over the deck on our knees to keep balance.
On the final day we venture out on a Catalan patin — a funny boat with no centreboard or rudder so you have to use your own weight to shift the balance, back and forth on the wooden deck. I see some more advanced sailors impressively hanging completely off the side of their patíns as they coast effortlessly across the sea.
At 9.30am I meet La Revista’s very own Sitges resident Dominic Begg, who has kindly offered to give me a tour. We walk past all the old buildings constructed by Spaniards who returned from Cuba at the end of the 19th century, before meeting his wife Maggie for coffee. I then visit the Cau Ferrat museum and the Pau Maricel — full of beautiful tiles — followed by a menú del día with grilled sardines. Drinks at El Cable with buñuelos de bacalao and patatas bravas.
De vuelta a Madrid…and then Valencia
I have a friend flying in from the UK during my last week in Madrid, so as soon as she arrives, I take her for tintos de verano in the plaza, this time to my favourite: Plaza Dos de Mayo just off Calle de la Palma.
But my friend is desperate for some playa y mar, so it’s back on the AVE for me – this time to Valencia and a couple of days at a beach club. We lie on sun loungers and order sangria. In the evening we order a giant arroz seco with duck and mushrooms, followed by the softest, pillowy cheesecake with a rich cherry compote.
Hasta la próxima Madrid
As the train pulls into Atocha, the city heat has reached the high 30s but I’m happy to be back again. A few highlights from these days: we see flamenco at Las Tablas; have a couple of extravagant dinners — one at Ultramarinos Quintin and the other at the new branch of the Big Mamma Group’s decadent and over-the-top Italian kitsch at Villa Capri; rooftop aperitivos and jamon iberico at the Hotel Principal; an obligatory stop at the cafe San Ginés for chocolate y churros; a stroll around La Latina; and glasses of cold fino at the mercado de Anton Martin.
But then it’s time to say goodbye to my home from home. It’s been great to be back, but I promise myself that this time I won’t leave it so long, so it’s only hasta pronto.