It’s difficult to describe my relationship with the Spanish capital. Madrid for me was like that kid your parents force you to be friends with, because they’re best friends with her parents. And just like that first awkward play-date, Madrid and I got off to a rocky start. When I first arrived, I was fresh off a flight from the Philippines with almost no idea how to get around. The airport was still called Barajas, and my Spanish consisted of “Hola, mi nombre es Alex, quiero ir a los Sanfermines.” I remember being sweaty, lost and frustrated as I lugged my overstuffed suitcase through Avenida de Américas, trying to find the bus that would take me to Pamplona, my home for the next five years.
The way the buildings towered over me in Nuevos Ministerios on my last visit brought me back to how I felt eight years ago, when the Spanish chapter of my life began with arrival in Madrid. Everything was so daunting, like a series of hurdles to overcome, each one looming larger than the next. Like every other freshman at the University of Navarra, I had to adjust to to dorm life and new classmates. But as a foreigner I also had to accredit my transcripts and get my residency permit. All the while I was speaking incredibly broken Spanish, practicing what I would say in my head before an appointment like an actor running lines before a scene. You know how they say immersion is the best way to learn a language? Well there’s no better intensive course than weaving through the tangled red tape of Spanish bureaucracy.
But I wasn’t alone- in my first year there were about ten other Manileños studying at the University of Navarra. When our brains throbbed from trying to keep up with rapid-fire Spanish conversations, we would meet up to try and find decent sushi in the city, indulging in food and conversation that felt like home. We would bond over our latest Spanish-language struggles (“Why do they need three past tenses?”) and bask in each others’ small triumphs (Today I went to Movistar to get a phone plan and my Spanish was on fire!“) No matter how frustrated we got, going home was never on the table. Being away was sometimes hard, but always exciting. The grand prize for pushing ourselves into the unfamiliar was independence, and to give in to the difficulty of adapting would be a big step backward. Madrid was the gateway for us all, that portal connecting our home lives in Manila to university life in Pamplona.
In a way, Madrid watched us grow up. It saw us off before our visits home for Christmas and summer breaks, standing taller and walking surer with each departure. It saw us off before new adventures with friends, escaping for the weekend to backpack in hostels. It bore witness to the heartbreaks following our doomed long-distance relationships, the setting for heartstrings tugging and snapping over the seasons.
I realized on my last visit that it had been a while since I’d come back to Madrid. This was the first time I’d visited since I’d graduated and started “adulting” in Barcelona. Its monolithic structures were still beautiful, but no longer so intimidating, the bear that before seemed so formidable now is almost cuddly.
Madrid, I didn’t like you at first, but I can see now why my parents wanted us to be friends. You’ve always been there for me, but I feel like I’m just getting to know you. Why did it take me so long to wander through Barrio Salamanca and catch the golden late afternoon light? Or appreciate the baroque beauty of Gran Via, or get lost in the colorful streets of Malasaña? This last visit had me feeling nostalgic, but also a lot more settled. And rather than being just a portal to pass through, a stop between Pamplona and the next plane, I feel like I can pause and paseo through the city, the way it’s meant to be seen. Madrid, we’ve been through a lot together, haven’t we? Now let’s make up for lost time.