After a long day’s journey through the sites of Mardrid, the sun was low in the sky as I stumbled upon Mercado de San Miguel. My eyes feasted on the crystal clear glass structure being held up by iron beams winding across the ceiling. Through the walls, you could see produce displayed like a vibrant rainbow.
Through the main entrance, an assortment of bartenders poured beer and served ready-made tapas. The high-top seating around each mini-venue within the structure was filled with locals enjoying their friends. If that wasnt enough to draw me inside, my growling stomach made the final call. As I entered, the crowd’s energy filled in the gaps of my isolated day. This was my first time to Madrid and my first solo trip. As beautiful as the architecture was, I needed to connect and talk to a real live person. “Buenas! Necisito una cerveza por favor.” The bartender smirked at my efforts and poured me what was on tap. “Que es esto?” I pointed to the small toasted bread with a paste mixture piled high on top, underneath a crystal cake dome. He stared a me for a moment as if measuring the level of my Spanish.
“Salmon,” he replied in his romantic accent. He handed it over and said, “cinco” for both the beer and the tapa. The crispy bread, the fresh salmon, with a mixture of light cream cheese and tomato, paired well with the local beer. All at once, I felt more at ease than I had all day.
I turned to the older gentleman that settled in next to me, gestured to my tapa and said, “es muy bueno.” He also smirked at my efforts. I appreciated that Spaniards weren’t completely offended or completely amused by my attempts to string together sentences. He ordered the same beer and salmon that I had and took delight in the liveliness of the building.
“De donde eres?” I told him I was from California, he smiled and switched to English. “Aw… I love California.” He told me he was an expatriate from Italy and that he was never ever moving back. He said that Madrid had better weather than Italy and London, the people were more vibrant and there was more to do here. He waved his beer and said, “I come here every night and I eat at every bar inside to make tapas. Its great fun! You should do that tonight.” He ate the last morsel of his salmon, bid me “adios” and kissed me on both cheeks. I couldn’t help but dwell on what a beautiful Italian man he was even if he was twice my age.
Taking his advice, I finished my beer and moved on to the next thing that caught my attention. I floated passed bar after bar within the Mercado de San Miguel, each with its own style of vintage light fixtures, and its own bar-top textures of oak, marble or metal. Each bar served something entirely different with its own environment to match. I stopped at the wine bar with metal and wood decor and ordered “Porto, por favor!” Enrique was tawny, beautiful and the light danced on his dark eyes as he poured the Portuguese wine into a small after-dinner glass. He complimented my hair and asked me where I was from. I was a sunflower among lilies and it took me all day to realize this. Subconsciously, I had touched down in Spain with Latin America in the back of my mind. But this was not the overtly sexual, smiling Latin America. This was Europe, and while the people were also flirtatious in Madrid, it was done assertively, with a dead-pan straight face. All day, I thought people were gawking because perhaps, I was not welcomed, but it was the furthest thing from the truth. “Como se llama, guapa?” I blushed a little as I told him and his famed Spaniard lisp took on the “s” in my name, lingering there as he grinned and poured a little more Port in my glass. “Dos, Anaïs.” I handed him the coin with two euros printed on it. The Port was an incredible balance of sweet and striking. As the wine put me in the right spirit, another older gentleman approached and ordered a full body red, in English. Admittedly, it felt so good to hear my native language and even more so that it was accented. Enrique complied, allowed him to taste the wine and then poured more. I turned my attention to the rest of the building. Now the crowd had grown significantly, but it still felt intimate with the romantic low lighting sparkling off of the glass walls. There was a middle area with benches and tables that welcomed you to sit amongst your old friends and next to what could be your new friends. The older gentleman laughed with Enrique and I turned back.
“I’m from Australia. Well I’m Irish and British, but I’ve lived in Australia for decades now.” Before there was a moment’s hesitation, I was joining the conversation and telling them where I was from. Enrique gave me a wink and went on to tend to another patron while Julian, from Australia, became my new friend. He was tall with dirty blonde hair pushed back like a surfer turned businessman. The sun had deepened the age-lines in his face. His shoulders were broad, and although he carried himself with power, there was an approachability to his smile that felt easy. He was there in Madrid in between business meetings, “selling luxury goods to international buyers in Switzerland.”
“You’re a spy!” I smiled, taking another sip from my glass. It was an inside joke to myself because a German man had once accosted me with the same accusation in the Frankfurt airport. Julian chuckled and clarified that he was blessed with a career that he loved and that he was now the global director of the company. As we conversed, we were edged away from Enrique’s wine bar and became cattacornered towards each other, leaning on an opposing pillar. We laughed into each other’s space and spoke animatedly, moving from career to our mutual love of travel to #45. We both agreed on what an incompetent embarrassment he was and that his racist and bigoted hate needed to be stopped somehow. I explained to him the four points of how I believed the Cheeto groped his way into office and he explained to me that the British were similarly fooled into Brexit.
Before either of us knew it, our glasses needed filling. “I’m going to see what else is worth having.”
“Well, Anaïs. It was my pleasure.” His accent did just what British accents do, make everything sound more posh and yet the Aussie in his voice, kept him grounded.
“I’m sure you’ll see me around here again.”
“Oh yea, sure,” he gestured to my curly Afro, “you’re hard to miss.” We clinked our glasses in cheers and parted ways.
I finally made my way to the far side of the building where there was a focus on pastries. I avoided those counters and steered towards more seafood. “Guapa!” Hoping that compliment was for me, I turned my head to face a young man almost as golden as me serving fresh oysters. “De donde eres?”
His accent was so thick, I didnt realize what he was asking and I replied, “como?”
“Where-you-from?” I told him and quickly realized we’d have to continue in Spanish as much as I could. He cut open an oyster for me and put a tiny fork on a plate. “Bailas?” I looked at him as if to say DUH! And nodded my head with vigor. He had the dead-pan Spaniard look I had seen all day, but before I knew it he was asking for my WhatsApp number so that I could go dancing with he and his friends after their shift. Enrique suddenly approached from the right to borrow more wine glasses. In my mind, I hadn’t realized that sharing service items between the different bars was even allowed. Shuuuuu, I thought to myself, if Enrique is going to baila later, I’m going to baila later! Just as I was saving my number to Bryan’s phone, I felt somewhat surprised to see Julian walking up to me with a fresh glass of wine in tow.
…..Stay tuned for El Segunda Parte (Part Two) including the snaps from that night.
Thanks for joining me!
(All photos in this post belong to the author.)