Locked Up Abroad
While I was in Madrid, I stayed at my friend Anand’s apartment, located in a nice quiet neighborhood the northern part of the city. Anand, my college roommate, teaches English in a suburb an hour away. He has a roommate named Donald, a Togolese man who is a particle physicist at a nearby university (cool, right?).
After a long flight and a busy first day running around the old part of the city, I decided to sleep slightly later the next morning than originally planned. Waking up at about 9:30 AM, I took a quick shower and got dressed so I can see everything I wanted to that day. Map in hand, I excitedly turned the doorknob of the apartment so I could make a swift exit.
Except there was a problem – the door knob did not budge.
That’s cool, I thought to myself, I’ll just turn the locks and I’ll be on merry way.
Yeah, right, except there were no locks to turn. After a quick inspection of the door, I surmised that I needed a key to leave the apartment. For lack of a better word, I was fucked.
I rattle off a series of Facebook messages to Anand filled with nervous laughs.
We message back and forth. He reaches out to Donald the Particle Physicist. He’s busy, he says. Anand has kids to tend to so he can’t rescue me. I scavenge the entire apartment for keys. I find keys, but not the ones I need to unlock the deadbolt.
Honestly, I’m surprised that I didn’t have a panic attack. If there was a fire in that building, I would most definitely be dead. I took deep breaths. I tried to make the situation better by telling myself this could be a “recovery day” filled with counting the ceiling tiles in the kitchen and looking at cute cat pictures. It would be a day for old man Zach to get rid of all that nasty jet lag.
And just as I was about to settle in to live this reality, I heard the door turn.
IT WAS DONALD!
I almost could not contain my happiness. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he had particle physicist things to worry about back at the university. He left, this time leaving the deadbolt portion of the door unlocked. I was a free man.
I ended up only wasting an hour of that day thanks to Donald. The least I could do for him was buy him a bottle of some Spanish vino, which I left him along with a nice handwritten note expressing my heartfelt thanks at the end of my stay.
Living like a Local
Two old Spanish women walked up to me as I was headed toward the Atocha railway station in downtown Madrid to purchase my tickets to go to Toledo the next day.
“Do you know where the train station is?” one of them asked me in Spanish.
Without missing a beat, I replied “it’s about a 10 minute walk down this street,” in a confident, but very gringo Spanish. At that point, the women knew I was a foreigner and giggled a bit. An American had just answered their question.
I, however, got the last laugh. On my second day in Spain, I was already being confused for a local. And I was just fine with that.
The Smoky Soccer Stadium
A true highlight of my time in Spain was getting to see a Real Madrid soccer match at Santiago Bernabeu stadium. The game was a Champions League match against the Polish team Legia Warsaw, a game that Real Madrid won easily 5-1. Soccer really isn’t my main sport, so beyond the story lines of the game itself, here is what I have to say bout the experience:
- To my surprise, you can smoke inside Santiago Bernabeu (or if it is not allowed, it certainly was not enforced). There was a family of four sitting next to Anand and I. Dad (sitting in the row in front of us) was chain smoking for the ENTIRE game. At one point, the people sitting directly next to him had to move because of all the smoke. Mom (who was sitting next to us) smoked several cigarettes throughout the game and blew smoke unapologetically in our faces. And while their teenage son thankfully was not smoking, we could tell his hoarse and raspy voice had become victim to his parents’ smoking over the years.
- Many people brought their own food into the stadium, and most of that food was in the form of ham. Spanish people love ham if you didn’t know (they have an entire “museum” devoted to it).
- The visiting fans from Poland were NUTS. They were contained to several sections on the upper level of the stadium and were easily louder than the rest of the fans in the stadium combined. Their team’s terrible play did not deter them – they were rowdy for the entire game. And earlier in the day, they had a little bit of fun on the streets of Madrid which led to some punishments from FIFA.
- All in, the soccer match was a 10/10. Would attend again!
The Marijuana Dealer
“Do you want some marijuana?” asked the marijuana dealer.
“NOPE,” I said matter-of-factly, while simultaneously thinking of the numerous episodes of Locked Up Aborad that I had watched in my youth.
I first learned what a chupito was several days into my trip. I was at a restaurant indulging in a prix fixe lunch (known as a menu del dia in Spain) when the waitress asked me if I wanted one. I had no idea what said chupito was and after failing to explain it to me in Spanish, she told me to hold on so I can see and try it for myself.
Out came a light green liquid in a shot glass. I had no idea what to make of it, so I slowly sipped it. It was one of the nastiest shots I had ever had in my life!
So when Anand told me about a bar that solely serves cheap chupitos in Barcelona, I was a bit pessimistic and nervous. But we had to go. This place was apparently famous.
We walk into the bar called Espit Chupitos pretty much right after they opened for the night (at 10:30 PM!). The only other customers were a small group of French women and another small group of British men who were awkwardly trying to converse with one another like preteens at the junior high prom.
But I digress. We immediately were drawn to the back wall.
This was the menu. Now I’m sure you may be asking, “how do I know what’s in each shot?” Well, you don’t. You order it and hope for the best.
After much thought, I decided to go for the Telletubbie. I thought that the name was funny and that I would be able to tell all my friends I was able to reminisce over one of my favorite childhood TV shows while drinking cheap liquor. However, the extremely sassy bartender on duty crushed my dreams of this scenario ever happening.
“That drink is for girls!” she yelled in a thick, accented Spanish.
I had no time to think of a Spanish argument on how gender is merely a social construct and how I can order whatever shot I damn please. So after looking some more, Anand and I decided to go for one of the more masculine looking shots on the wall: the Terminator.
The bartender gets right to work. First, she grabs a bottle of unknown alcohol A and pours a bit into the shot glass. She does the same thing with little bits of alcohols B, C, and D. She serves us with a smile, but I’m not ready to drink. I take a minute to muster up some courage and then I finally down it. If you ask Anand nicely, maybe he’ll show you a video of me doing so.
The shot was surprisingly good and smooth. There was a sweet aftertaste. And since they are cheap (2.5 euros per shot), people can get easily trashed from choosing different shots on the menu. Fortunately for Anand and I, we had our priories straight – off to bed we went!
Paella with a Side of Microaggression
“Where are you guys from?” asked Adil, our waiter at a beach-side paella restaurant in Barcelona.
“The United States,” I said proudly (important: this was before knowing the results of the presidential election that had occurred several weeks later). Adil stared at Anand (who, if you didn’t know, is of Indian descent) and went on his merry way.
Stuffed to the brim with paella and slightly tipsy off cava, a Catalonian sparkling wine drink, Adil came to clear our plates. He looked at Anand again.
“Where are you really from?” he asked.
“My family is Indian,” Anand replied.
All of the sudden, out of nowhere, Adil starts singing in Hindi. I’ve known Anand for four years and I’ve never seen his face light up the way it did in that moment. “I learned that song when I lived in India for a few months,” our waiter proudly beamed. Anand was momentarily on cloud nine.
That song, plus the 2 chupitos each he gave to us for free afterwards, made us forgive his microagression, an act that would have been completely inexcusable on any very liberal university campus back home in the United States.
The most Epic Kids Concert in the History of Mankind
Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc was the centerpiece of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and as a big fan of sports stadiums, I had to check the place out.
Because of its location on top of a hill called Montjic, which literally translates to Mount Jew (I kid you not) in Catalan, Anand and I found ourselves tired and out of breath after we ascended to the summit where the stadium lies. Wanting to take a rest, we saw that the stadium gates were wide open and people were streaming inside. So, like any curious tourists, we strolled right in and took a seat.
Here’s a panoramic shot of the view we had:
You see that circular dome in the front? That was a stage. And then, Anand and I realized that we were the only people in the stadium not accompanied by children.
What happened next was amazing.
After an epic countdown on the electronic screens throughout the stadium, a musical group entered. They were not any ordinary musical act though, they were a children’s rock band.
And man oh man, they were ROCKING OUT. Mind you, they were rocking out in Catalan, a French based language that I can barely understand, but it was insanely cool nonetheless.
Anand and I stayed for about the first fifteen minutes. Check some of it out in the video above – you won’t regret it! But if you want to spare yourself from watching the entire thing, here’s a summary:
After a quick drumming sesh, the whole group entered the stadium.
As you can see, Anand and I were sitting allllll the way in the back, as demonstrated by the red arrow below.
After singing some songs that were presumably about adventure, making friends, and any other relevant kid themes…
some bikers came out and did some cool tricks off ramps while the musical act continued to belt out melodies about previously mentioned kid themes.
Then, the bad guys came out. We were truly getting our money’s worth here!
I was truly mesmerized by this music. But eventually, Anand tapped me on the shoulder and (low key) whispered, “People might think we’re pedophiles, we should go.” I reluctantly agreed, and we continued on.
- 3 magnets
- an unofficial unlicensed Real Madrid/ Legia Warsaw soccer scarf
- a combination of Euro coins totaling €0.32
- A receipt from the restaurant that Anand and I went to where they gave us (and made us pay for) steak we never ordered. My Spanish explanation of Anand being a vegetarian didn’t cut it.
- 2 bottles of wine that I bought at the absolutely mythical Spanish department store El Corte Ingles.
- Chocolate for my coworkers so I could score some brownie points
- Clichés about “finding myself” and having “a lifetime’s worth of memories”