Finding meaning in Hemingway’s Madrid

At the end of May, I went to Madrid to do some research for a piece about Ernest Hemingway I’m working on.  I use the term research lightly; I was going to drink in the bar he loved, sit at his table, glean what I could from the energy of the place.  I’d have his favorite meal at his favorite restaurant (incidentally the oldest in the world), walk along the avenues he walked.  Try to understand what it was and is about the city that keeps one coming back.

After studying abroad in Santander on Spain’s northern coast in the summer of 2008, I used to tell people the country and I had a love-hate relationship.  When I found myself living in Madrid and teaching English during the 2014-2015 school year, the scales tipped toward hate.  I thought I didn’t like the people or the culture, but the truth was, I just didn’t understand them.  I made unfair comparisons, was quick to dismiss behavior I deemed closed off or anti-social, surrounded myself with only English-speaking expats.  It wasn’t what was wrong with Spain, it was what was wrong with my way of thinking.

I decided to return in the summer of 2016 after I had moved to Dublin and before I was to begin my Masters course.  I saw Madrid with new eyes, my prejudices gone, and began to appreciate it as it is: a city of dichotomies, both lively and tranquil, rough days with gentle nights.  I opened up and spoke to strangers in Spanish and realized things were never as they seemed.  I felt my heart growing warmer toward the place with each visit and it got me thinking.  There’s definitely an indescribable magic about Madrid and the wider country of Spain and I’m certainly not the only one who has been drawn in by it.  There have been many before me as there will be countless more after my time.

I had long known of Hemingway’s infatuation with Spain.  As Madrid was a personal favorite of his, I began to draw parallels from my own emotions and experiences there in an attempt to put my finger on the elusive feeling that creeps upon me every time the plane touches down.  So with my piece in the works, I embarked on yet another journey to the city where my life of international travel began.

But like Madrid’s winding cobblestone alleys, my trip took a detour.  My first night in town, after dinner at my favorite taco place, I stopped by a friend’s bar to make a surprise visit.  As I crossed its familiar threshold, dimly lit as I remember it, the hum of conversation filling the space, I didn’t find him behind the counter.  He was at his other location, the handsome bartender told me.  I decided to stay for a drink anyway.

I’m no stranger to sitting at the bar alone.  I actually quite like it.  You can usually count on sporadic chats with the bartenders at the very least, and in the case of other lone wolves, the chance to start a conversation is there if you want to seize it.  This particular evening I enjoyed both.  A complimentary tapa given to myself and the woman beside me is, strangely enough, what changed the entire course of my weekend.

“This is spicy, no?”  She said to me in Spanish.  I told her it was a little but that I liked it.  Insecurity overtaking me, I added at the end that I was sorry but my Spanish was fatal.  She motioned to the bartender, a friend of hers, telling me he had lived in England and spoke English well.  The three of us began a conversation, half in English, half in Spanish, and full of laughs.  They were both long-time friends of the bar owner, a man I had met while living in the city teaching English.  Incidentally, this bartender, who I had begun to find very charming, was meeting him out after close.  I was given an invitation and decided to take him up on it.

And just like that, we spent three nearly continuous days together.  After having met us for lunch that Friday afternoon, my friend Rob sat next to me at the bar afterward.  Out of earshot, we discussed the turn of events.  “I’m kind of in love with this man,” I told him.  It sounded crazy as I said it, but I meant it.  I had had infatuations before but this was different.  Everything fell into place with him.  He said it felt like he had known me for years.  I felt like he could read my mind.

So Hemingway fell by the wayside.  But strolling hand in hand through the city center, I got a glimpse of his legacy as we passed by El Sobrino de Boton and he was not forgotten.  I was honoring his memory in a fitting way: I was writing my own story in the city he loved.

As we sat at the airport that Sunday, we talked about how we would try to make it work.  I wanted so desperately to believe it would, but told myself that if anything, it was another meaningful connection made.  When I got back to Dublin, I texted him reiterating how happy I was to have met him.  He echoed my sentiments and we once again talked loosely of the next time we’d meet.  An hour later, he wrote to me again.  He was going to book a ticket and come see me as soon as he could.

In a week’s time, we’ll be together again, albeit for only a few days.  I’ve never felt so sure about anything; been so vulnerable yet so secure.  It has been a rollercoaster of a time but I believe that when it’s right you’ll know it.  And speaking on the topic of fate, comes my big announcement.  I had been considering a change for several months now and about a week ago, I found out I had been given a teaching placement in southern Spain.  I had applied to the government program in April, but hadn’t considered it a top priority for the future.  After meeting this man, the stakes were much higher.

When I found out I would be placed somewhere in Andalucia, we considered the 3-5 hour distance.  I told myself we’d at least be in the same country, but acknowledged the difficulty of the commute.  I decided I needed to be in Madrid.  I wanted to give this a real shot.

By a stroke of luck, I found a program that was still accepting applications.  I applied on a Sunday, had a response the following Monday, interview on Tuesday afternoon, and job offer on Tuesday evening.  I’ll be teaching 16 hours a week on a very livable wage.  The schedule is such that I can more fully pursue writing (both paid freelancing and personal projects) while also fitting in some private lessons for extra cash.  More importantly, I’ll be close to this amazing person who has completely stolen my heart.

People close to me have advised me to take it easy and not be too hasty.  But for the first time, I’ve let my guard down.  For me, this means something important.  I’ve always believed these kind of fairy tales exist but genuinely doubted ever ending up in one.  Now that I’m here I realize everything was just leading up to this.  The let downs, insecurities, and disappointments make me appreciate what a genuinely good man I’ve found.

As much as I love Ireland and the incredible friends I’ve made here, I’m excited for this next step.  By September I’ll be living in Madrid for the second time in four years.  This time around, things will be much different; I’m vastly more confident about who I am and what I want out of life.  This time around, you can be sure to find me at Hemingway’s table at La Alemana doing what he loved in a city that has captivated us both.

4 thoughts on “Finding meaning in Hemingway’s Madrid

  1. Seriously, I have chills from your story — so amazing that you found each other, and we’re so glad we could help give you the chance to see how it goes! ❤

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