A Spanish Start

Fayes T Kantawala fell in love with Madrid

A Spanish Start
Whenever I’m standing in an immigration-related queue in one of the world’s finer airports, an irrational part of me starts to hyperventilate, convincing me with quickened step and shallow breaths that I am moments away from being “found out”. Maybe everyone who has a Pakistani passport feels this unease since “aviation” and “Muslim country” haven’t been used in the same sentence as the word “easy” since 2001. I have come to recognise this fear and, if not embrace it, at least acknowledge it from across the room as one would a wearily familiar foe. So we stood, my fear and I, at the immigration line at Madrid Airport. I clutched my green passport and slid it over the counter to the stern-looking man on the other side. He looked from it to me and back again. He asked why I was there, and I said tourism. He said welcome and stamped my page with a flourish. My fear evaporated (“see you in back at JFK, b***h”) and I came out into the warm air of early morning Madrid.

It’s my first time in Spain and the country is a bit of a mystery to me. I knew its history and art well enough, but circumstance had made it so that I never had a chance to see for myself the place that made some of the greatest painters the world has known. I arrived super early and took a cab to my hotel – always a horrifying prospect in an unfamiliar city – where I caught up on sleep. The first day I met up with some friends and wandered around the plazas and promenades that make up the vast expanses of downtown Madrid.

The first thing that struck me was how few people there were in the city. Probably asleep, I thought. I had prepared myself to receive a stampede of Japanese and American tourists coming at me like a school of fish. But no, the shops were attended but empty, as were most of the cafes and delis. The one thing that did show up was the Spanish sun, which within minutes demonstrated to me why the Spanish have a siesta built into their day. It is legit hot. Less I’m-going-to-prance-around-in-my-linens-whilst-my-shades-twinkle-in-the-rays and more a I’m-having-an-aneurism-God-where-is-the-water-get-out-of-my-way-you-old-person-or-I’ll-drink-the-water-in-your-blood kind of way. But a few sips of a Spanish drink under the cool shade of the umbrella can put anyone right again.

Central gallery at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

The main reason I had orchestrated a trip to Madrid was so I could visit its most famous museum: The Prado. The Spaniards loved painting. They loved painting so much, and were so good at it, in fact, that other royal courts imported their greatest artists. The Prado is home to some of the gems that the Spanish royals commissioned over the years, from portraits and allegories to tapestries and historical tableaus. They have so many Velasquez’s that you think you’d died and gone to a sumptuously decorated heaven, which I suspect is rather the point. They also have the famous Hieronymus Bosch three-panel altarpiece Garden of Earthly Delights, a painting so uniquely bizarre that it is almost single-handedly responsible for surrealism via Dali (another Spaniard). Again, because there weren’t many people around, I got to have a good look at the paintings.

Even if you have just a casual acquaintance with art, picked up through the images on mousepads and iPhone screen backgrounds, you are bound to come across dozens of pictures you recognise. I cannot say enough about the museum, which was nothing short of a religious experience, but let me say that if ever you have an inkling of a glimmer of a chance to be near it, go there. You won’t regret it.

Dinner was a tricky affair. I was looking forward to the Spanish tradition of tapas or small plates that you make a meal out of, like appetizers. What I hadn’t factored in was that the Spanish take a long siesta and tend to eat dinner really late. But like, late. If you show up at a restaurant before 10 they think you’re a loser with no social skills. Most bars didn’t even open their doors until well past 11:30. Jetlagged and famished, I braved the judgment and had a fantastic meal at one of the more hipster places in the neighborhood. Speaking of: a friend from Madrid had told me to stay in an area called Chueca, and I in turn recommend this to you, if only because everyone is so good-looking. The Spaniards I saw all looked vaguely desi too, with dark hair and ochre skin. Or at least like the models we see in fashion ads in Pakistan because, as I have pointed out, the Spanish are intimidatingly beautiful people.
If you show up at a restaurant before 10 they think you're a loser with no social skills

Most of the rest of my time there was structured so that I would see art in the day, come back to my room sleep off the exhaustion, and then return at increasingly later hours to have dinner. I found out the reason the city was so empty is because in August all Spaniards are on holiday, and the cities become derelict as everyone heads to the coast for surf and sand. I went to several more museums (Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Queen Sofia are both so excellent they deserve their own columns) but the four days I had to spend there are simply not enough to see a city as exquisite and extravagant as Madrid.

I hope to return, but for now I have to catch a flight to Florence. Yes, I am aware of how braggy that sounds. And no, I do not care.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com