“En Madrid sólo son buenos
Desde la cuna a Madrid”- Luis Quiñones de Benavente
“LADIES AND Gentlemen, welcome to Madrid!”
The cheerful voice of the stewardess, with her very thick German accent instructing all passengers to fasten their seatbelts resonates through the speaker. She ends her announcement at a jolly pitch. I can´t see her from where she is but I can imagine, by the tone of her voice that she is smiling widely while extending her right hand just like beauty contestants do when they introduce themselves in beauty pageants.
We are about to reach the end of our one hour-and-a-half flight from Switzerland. Our flight was delayed in Manila yesterday so we had to spend the night in Bangkok and catch a connecting flight to Zurich. From Zurich we took a smaller Swiss airplane. We are still a few miles above ground and it´s hard to hide this extreme excitement that I am feeling right now. From the moment we boarded the plane in Switzerland after an almost three-hour layover in Zurich, I have been engulfed by this ridiculously happy feeling that makes me want to jump and dance in my seat. Thanks to the seatbelt around my waist, it keeps me from the itch of boogie-ing around and kissing everyone on the plane.
Needless to say, the Madrid-bound flight is filled with mostly Spanish-speaking passengers. My ears have been on high alert mode. I hear them lisp and I see a lot of hand gestures when they talk. In front of me is a Spanish couple who has been talking to each other non-stop throughout the flight. Behind me is a Spanish grandma and her grandchild, a two-year old future football player who has been kicking the seat in front of him, meaning mine. I try to eavesdrop to every word they say, testing my comprehension skills after learning Spanish for two years in Manila. God, they speak so fast.
De Madrid al cielo. From Madrid to heaven. I can vividly remember our Spanish teacher Juan explaining to us the meaning of this phrase. It´s a popular local saying that means that the city of Madrid lies at the gate of heaven. Or simply saying, Madrid is the best city in the world, period. According to Juan, the complete phrase is “De Madrid al cielo, y en cielo un agujerito para verlo. Literally means “From Madrid to heaven, and in heaven, there is a hole to see it.” This line became popular in the last years of the 18th century during the beautification of the city spearheaded by Carlos III. It was said that when one dies, he can still see from above the Villa and the Corte that made the city grand and majestic through an opening in the sky.
Making use of the view out of my window as my improvised “agujerito”, I take a good look below. However, judging by what I see through my “hole in the sky”, I am not staring at Villas and Cortes. Instead, I see dark and light brown patches of land. And they look dry. Is this the Madrid that is the most beautiful place in the world, second only to the heavens?
As the plane gently dives to land, I don’t take my eyes off the emerging land area as it gets bigger and wider waiting for the real Madrid to come into view. My thoughts are disrupted by a soft tap on my shoulder. I turn around and see the stewardess signaling me to sit straight. The plane prepares for landing. I bite my last chunk of Swiss chocolate that was given to all passengers upon boarding the plane.
In Philippine history class in high school, our history teacher made us memorize the date March 17, 1521. The day when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, working for the Spanish monarch, reached the Philippine shores. He was met with welcoming arms by the natives. He befriended the tribe´s king King Kolumbu who later invited him to a symbolic feast to celebrate the dawn of a lifelong friendship. The king showered them gold and ginger. At dinnertime, Magellan was told that the island was rich in gold. He and his men pretended that they were not interested in gold or whatever wealth the island must have. The truth was, he was already plotting to return again and get them. Unfortunately, a month after his arrival, he was killed by Lapu-lapu, one of the tribe rulers who rejected the Spanish colonisation.
And so today, September 2004, after 483 years, I, Nats Sisma, 29 years old, has finally reached Spain, safe, sound and no signs of jetlag. As I mentioned before, my love affair with Spain happened in 2001 when I caught this documentary about España. I instantly fell in love with its cobbled streets, castles, cathedrals, avenidas, paella and more. Outrageously. Deeply. Madly in love. To a point where it became an intense obsession for me to come to Spain. I wasted no time and took Spanish classes every Saturday. After two years of conjugating Spanish verbs, I applied for a scholarship granted by the Spanish government. After three months, I got the news. I was in.
Here I am now, in front of the immigration officer, grinning from ear to ear upon hearing the light thump as the die of the rubber stamp hits the pad of my passport. The words “Madrid Barajas” are now an indelible seal on top of my Spanish visa. I am a little bit disappointed because he didn’t ask me anything. I would have wanted to recite my first lines in Spanish IN Spain for the first time ever. But he just looked at my passport, glanced at me and with a straight face, certified my official entry to Spain, not knowing that the real reason for my stay is not only to study but also for a mission: to recover all the golds and ginger the ex-colonizers had amassed and looted while overstaying their welcome in my motherland. We are talking of three hundred thirty three years here. Hah!
The immigration officer looks at me again. Oh. Did he read my mind? Is he suspicious? Welcoming? Or it´s just a blank stare? It doesn’t take long for me to realize that he is just signaling me to let the next person in line to come forward. Still grinning from ear to ear, I pace towards the corner a few feet away from the immigration booth to get a luggage cart. Passengers are already gathered around the conveyor belt waiting for their luggage to emerge. I pull one cart. It doesn’t budge. I pull again. Nope. I drag it towards me. Something wrong with the wheels I conclude. But before I can move to get another cart, a friendly-looking señor walks towards me. Spain´s version of King Kokombu? I wonder. Instead of offering me golds and ginger, he walks straight to the cart and presses the handle downward. I feel the cart moves. The wheels are working! The helpful señor gives me a warm smile and points to the sign on the cart´s handle that says “press down to move cart.”
The airport is huge not to mention clean and cool. There are lots of people alright but everything looks orderly. I see that everybody can enter the airport building anytime they want. A far cry from our international airport in Manila where not everybody is allowed inside. When my mother, my brother and my aunt saw me off at the airport last night, they could only accompany me up to the entrance. Only passengers are permitted to enter the airport lobby. This is because everybody wants to be with a departing or an arriving friend or family member. It is a Pinoy (Filipino) thing. I am talking about truckloads of well-wishers and welcoming committee which can be the whole neighborhood complete with welcome/farewell banners.
I text my brother telling them that I have landed. After 30 minutes of waiting, our Spanish friend Carlos arrives. Blond, green eyes and a wide smile, Carlos introduces himself in Spanish. He is the boyfriend of Carla who is a friend of a friend of my friend who also happens to be a co-scholar and my companion on this trip. Carla is supposed to collect us but she has to beg off because of work. My friend and I are staying at their place in Mostoles for about a couple of days before I move to Santiago de Compostela and him, to the student dorm near the Complutense University in Madrid.
Carlos´ car is your typical European car, small and practical. It takes us a while to figure out how we can squeeze ourselves and our luggage inside the vehicle. With a lot of pushing and shoving, the four big luggage are securely tucked inside the trunk. Carlos warns us that he doesn’t speak English and we warn him that our Spanish is neither here nor there. Our first preoccupation is how are we going to understand each other. However, we don’t have a choice but to frisk away our shyness the moment he starts the ignition and drives us to their place. In between our pidgin Spanish and his below-elementary English, we are able to strike a conversation during the trip. Carlos’ smile is just all over the place and he is very patient with our grammatically-challenged Castellano. His Spanish is so crispy for its utmost clearness that it sounds like eating a crunchy fried chicken wing dipped in mashed garlic and mayonnaise in a Spanish restaurant in Manila. My first taste of conversing in Spanish IN Spain for the first time. Ever.
It is a traffic-less Saturday afternoon. The streets are wide and spic n´ span. Curiously, I notice that most of the cars are rather small. My gaze follows the red Peugeot on our left. I wonder if this small car which looks more like of a toy car, can survive the main thoroughfares of Manila especially the long and the notoriously dangerous EDSA avenue. I have always likened this uber-long avenue to a stampede scene in the movie Jurassic Park where fleeing dinosaurs are pounding each other for safer grounds. The buses passing through EDSA are definitely like those Jurassic monsters overtaking smaller vehicles in any way they can; stomping the slow, trudging the frail and plodding the weak. Urban legend says that once a driver survives driving in EDSA, he can absolutely drive anywhere else in the world, with eyes closed.
With the window open, I feel the fresh autumn breeze against my face. I watch “toy cars” drive past ours. I can´t help but wonder whether Pinoy car owners are more vain compared to their Spanish counterparts. You see, a speck on one´s car in the Philippines speaks hugely of the kind of owner the car has. When I still had “Tiago”, my Honda City baby for five months, I didn’t have a choice but to take him to the car wash twice in ten days or else he would stand out in a traffic jam filled with shiny and clean cars, old or new. I didn’t want to be bickered at by “car police” thinking that I was living by the foot of a recently-active volcano because my less than dainty car was covered with ashes and dust.
Even Carlos´ car does not escape this observation, it needs one good trip to the car wash too. Its body is dusty and the windshield has bird shit that looks like it has been there for ages. But mind, even if his small car is dirty on the outside, its interior is impeccably clean and it smells good too. Tall apartment buildings emerge in the horizon. I see a lot of graffiti on several walls of buildings and bridges. Honestly, I don’t mind. They look more like artworks than eyesores. At last, Carlos pulls over the car and we climb inside the lift lazily dragging our luggage.
Then there´s Carla who looks like a character in a Mexican telenovela, big brown eyes, dark hair and very “Spanish”. It is a lot easier to talk to Carla. Thank God she can speak English. Oddly enough, after spending a short thirty minutes talking to her, I already have the feeling that we have known each other for a long time. Like Arturo, she has a warm smile. She just talks, talks and talks. She is a human chimney too. She seems to have smoked a hundred sticks in thirty minutes; non-stop. She only stops though when she raises her two hands to highlight something that needs hand gestures. Our so-called Asian timidity and coyness has decided to say goodbye after seeing the warm reception we got from Carlos and now Carla.
It is already eight in the evening and the sun is still up. Right from a tiring twenty hour flight from Manila, we take a rest in their guest room for a few hours. When the couple sees us up and awake, our first taste of an authentic Spanish dinner follows. Cheese, Spanish omelette, chorizo and bread flood the table. Carla grabs the long baguette and cuts one chunk using her bare hands and passes the rest of the bread to the next person: me. I do the same. Much that I am delighted to have my first Spanish dinner eating bread as everybody else in Europe does, my throat and tummy crave for a plateful of hot rice to go with the Spanish omelette and chorizo.
Lively conversation ensues, juggling from our broken Spanish to Carla´s acceptable English to Carlos´ hand gestures. To go with the sumptuous meal, wine is served. To cap off the hearty dinner, my friend and I feast on peaches and oranges while our Spanish couple has one cig each for dessert. The dining room officially becomes an inverted chimney with smoke hovering over our head. After dinner, we settle on the sofa and try watching TV. Carla can´t hide her amusement when she sees our surprised reaction to the naked woman in a shampoo commercial. We tell her about censorship in the Philippines. She just releases a you-must-be-kidding-me laugh and then goes on telling us that in Spain, there is no such thing as censorship. That porno films are even shown at midnight when kids are presumably asleep.
After several channel surfing and finding no interesting show to watch, Carla tells us, in between puffing, to prepare ourselves for a glimpse of Madrid nightlife. After all, it’s a Saturday night. But not before making it clear if we really want to. Or else we can stay at home. Stay? On a Saturday night? You must be kidding me! Jetlag? What jetlag?
So off we drive to the heart of Madrid. Our first stop is a bar somewhere in Chueca. Fast Latin music reverberates in the background. It seems that our thirty something hosts know everybody in the place. Apart from eating bread at mealtime, one Spanish thing that I need to learn quick and fast is the “greeting” kisses. It is amusing to see that everybody is giving everybody a kiss on both cheeks. Even some men. At first I thought that I would only give one kiss to those whom I have already met before and a handshake for those whom I have just met for the first time. But no. Even before I can extend my hand to the newly introduced friend in front of me, she has already bent closer to plant two kisses on my cheeks.
After an hour of what seemed to be endless chatting, smoking and drinking, we move to another bar. More drinks and kisses-on-cheeks follow. I have already downed two bottles of cerveza.
Another hour has passed, but Carla and Carlos are not yet in the mood to call it a day. They lead us to yet another cool place which turns out to be one of Madrid´s chic discos somewhere in Gran Via. We never feel any signs of jet lag whatsoever because the moment we enter the place, we are plagued by the contagious party spirit of the Madrileños. We dance to the Spanish beat, laugh and drink on the crowded dancefloor.
“What time is it?” Carla asks me after a couple of hours of non-stop dancing.
“Eleven o´clock!” I give my watch a quick glance and then continue wiggling. “Eleven o´clock? But eleven o´clock was like four hours ago!”
“What?” I don’t hear what she is talking about.
She points to my watch. I look at it. And realize something.
“Oh! It´s still Philippine time!”