Madrid is a little grungy, crude, complicated, and even at times intolerable. As Hemingway so frankly put it, “I do not believe anyone likes it much when he first goes there.” Admittedly, my first day here was marked by extreme jet-lag, my second by utter homesickness, but my third… by enchantment. What moved me to the latter? Maybe it was this afternoon’s glass of (cheap, but very good) red wine, or the salmon tosta, or the churro con chocolate…. but I want to believe that most importantly it was the recognition of the entirely human and deliciously visceral embrace of pleasure that each and every madrileño seems to put into practice everyday. This is a city devoted to hedonism. Though Madrid hasn’t forgotten its history–Franco’s death was a mere three decades ago, religious and racial intolerance are well documented themes in its sculpture and art, and even the genesis of its language is a result of centuries of violent Roman invasion and occupation–madrileños maintain a sense of lightheartedness, a “mañana será otra día” kind of attitude. As a result, madrileños are highly capable of moving from the bad to the good times in swift succession. A turbulent history sure as hell doesn’t stop these people, rather it reminds them to enjoy life.
Madrid has no Colosseum, Big Ben, or Eiffel Tower to speak of. Yes, it is home to good, cheap wine, an enormous variety of fresh seafood, excellent art, and leading haute couture designers… but what sets it apart from other cosmopolitan cities? Well, this is a question to which the answer I am still working on–and I think I’m onto something. It will take a few more vasos de tinto and some good research before I have a tangible answer, but I know this much: the madrileños have it right. In the space of one hour spent wandering Conde de Peñalver (a wide avenue running through the Salamanca district of Madrid), I witnessed an unabashedly open mouthed, full tongued, groping, and passionate kiss–the likes of which I have never been audience to in the states–a group of shockingly well preserved, fur-clad, lipstick-smeared elderly women engaged in animated and unashamed gossip, a paradoxically stick thin woman diving into a heap of terribly indulgent churros con chocolate, and a solitary, grinning, gap-toothed man truly joyfully playing an accordion in the metro to no one in particular. I’m talking about people that devote at least two hours to napping every afternoon, in the middle of the day! I guess my point is this: madrileños don’t possess guilt (something us anglo-saxons haven’t seemed to cast off ever since our Puritanical ancestors sent us on our way), hindsight, or shame. They live through the senses, take pleasure in the simple, the old and the new alike, and are able to enjoy something as basic as human company while appreciating the value of precious solitude.
It is in this vein that I devote the following semester: to the pursuit of indulgence, bliss, and experience. Classes aside, I will devote this time in Madrid to unveiling a human necessity that I find highly overlooked in our American culture: the worship and devotion to pleasure. I solemnly take note that this is no easy task, but I look forward to reveling in good food, wine, music, art, architecture, and sun; I will remember that no, I am not in New York–land of the hectic and overly stimulated–and will instead take two hours to eat lunch in a cafe on a Tuesday afternoon, take a siesta when perhaps I would be better advised to go on a run, and not look back as I take a bite into a sinfully rich postre typical of any Spanish breakfast table.