Spain's capital and largest city, Madrid is a big yet undaunting place that's located smack-bang in the centre of the country. Madrid was my first stop in España bonita, and in my opinion it provides a great first impression of the country: energetic yet laid-back; historic yet modern; and friendly and easy to acquaint yourself with. Madrid has plenty to offer for those seeking the arts, film and history, as well as even more for the avid party-goer. I came here to celebrate the dawn of 2008, the Latin madrileño way.
This evening, down in the basement bar of Cat's, I ended up sitting down and sharing a few beers with two Moroccan guys, who are immigrants living and working here in Madrid. I've observed (and even met) recent immigrants almost everywhere I've been in Europe: in particular, I've encountered numerous economically impoverished immigrants from North Africa, from the Middle East, and from Eastern Europe. Many, although not all of them, are here illegally. Tonight was the first time I've really sat down with some of the immigrants themselves, and had an in-depth chat about their situation. Few people around here are prepared to admit it, or to objectively discuss it: but this is an enormous issue for Europe, and in my opinion it's one that they're dealing with in an appalling manner at the moment.
Like Madrid itself, we were feeling extremely lazy and tranquilo today: so after our paella lunch, Miguel, Emmanuelle, the Aussie Indian girl (Shomare) and myself cruised over to one of the city's many cinema complexes. We decided to see American Gangster, a new Ridley Scott film starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Very well-produced movie, although quite violent and a little disturbing. The film was dubbed: and although I've by now seen plenty of Spanish-dubbed movies, the "Spanish Spanish" took quite a while to get used to (all that lisping and rapid-fire talking, it hurts my poor Peruano ears). Miguel obviously had no problem with the dubbing; but Emmanuelle and Shomare didn't understand much of what was happening. They just came along for the ride.
My first proper meal for 2008 was about as Spanish as it gets: paella! The classic dish paella is best described as an "everything you can fit in the pan" stir-fry: it generally consists at least of rice, egg, vegetables, numerous seafoods (e.g. prawns, oyster, lobster — sorry G-d), and chicken. For a very late lunch today (late by normal standards, although on-time by Spanish standards), Miguel, Emmanuelle, an Aussie Indian girl and myself found a great-value restaurant: 3 courses (paella was entrée) and wine, for just €8. Filled us up, woke us up, and tasted tip-top.
After a few drinks at Cat's — and something else at Cat's, that was rather less pleasant — a big group of us went down to Plaza del Sol, Madrid's central square, to welcome in a Happy New Year ("Feliz Año Nuevo") madrileño-style. Emmanuelle, her Dutch friend, Miguel, Dan, Matt, Kenny and myself headed to the plaza together — although almost the entire hostel went there at some point; not to mention almost all of Madrid at large. It was mad, it was flamboyant, and it was without doubt the most jam-packed crowd I've ever been in. But it was certainly unique. And because this is Spain, midnight was just the beginning.
I have no complaints about my time here at the Cat's hostel in Madrid. It's been a great experience: that is, except for one very unpleasant incident this evening. It was New Year's Eve, and we were all down in the Cat's bar, having a few beverages as you do (but not that many). An American girl sitting upstairs asked me to heat up a donut that she'd bought: she said that we weren't supposed to go behind the bar and use the microwave; but I was in a jolly festive mood, so I said: "here, give me the donut, and I'll heat it up behind the bar — it's not like anyone's going to care." Boy, was I wrong — clearly, the hostel staff had no interest whatsoever in joining in on the New Year's spirit. In almost a year of travelling, I've managed to never once pi$$ off a hostel's management: and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that heating up a donut without permission would get me in more hostel-bound trouble than almost anything else on this trip.
Miguel is a white-skinned, gringo-looking bloke from Cuidad Juarez — that most infamous of north Mexican cities — which lies on the border with Texas. Miguel speaks perfect English, and he's been living and working in the Netherlands for the past few years. He's another one of the many great people who's staying here in Madrid, at Cat's, to celebrate the New Year: this evening, he partied well into the morning, and didn't go home until the sun was up.
I can't say I've met many New Caledonians on this trip. In fact, Emmanuelle is the first; and probably the last, too. Emmanuelle is a beautiful girl from this tropical French-colony island, that lies roughly 1,200km east of Australia's Queensland coast, and about which I know very little. Her mother currently lives in Melbourne, and she's lived in various places in Australia for several years of her life. At the moment, she's living and working in Brussels, Belgium. She's staying here at Cat's for the New Year, and this evening she partied with the best of us.
These three buddies are good blokes, and they're all staying here at Cat's to celebrate the New Year, madrileño-style. Dan and Matt are both Aussie boys, who are of Italian heritage, and who have been living and working in Italy for the past few months. They also both have Spanish girlfriends, who they've come over here to visit. Kenny's a friend of Dan and Matt, who hasn't got a Spanish girlfriend, and who isn't an Italian Aussie — actually, he's a Brit of Spanish heritage. Complicated little groups they've got themselves into around here, don't you think? Anyway, we all had a blast this evening for el Año Nuevo ("the New Year").
For my second-ever taste of tapas (after yesterday's patatas bravas), today I tried a little dish called boquerones en vinagre (lit: "anchovies in vinegar"). Very tasty: a plateful of the teeny fish are soaked in vinegar juice, and served to you fresh and cold. Spain is well-known for its good seafood, and I was quite impressed by this little introduction to the world thereof. More fish awaits!
The Zaragoza wogs are a funny group of three, all of whom are here in Madrid, and staying in my room at Cat's: a German guy; his Ukrainian girlfriend; and the girlfriend's friend, another girl from Latvia. The two girls have been living in Zaragoza for several months, where they're studying on exchange; the boyfriend is just here on vacation for the New Year. The three of them have a complicated language arrangement: the couple prefer to talk to each other in German; the two girls converse privately in Russian (or in their half-decent Spanish); and all three can understand each other in English. This evening, I went out with the wogs for a late kebab dinner, where they serve excellent baklava.