Art and Rebellion on My Date in Madrid

(Originally published on

Nigel and I matched on Happn in Madrid. I’d been to Spain, particularly Madrid, a handful of times beginning with a homestay I did with a Spanish family when I was sixteen. I don’t know if it’s because of my impressionable age that first trip, or some past lives experience, but I’m pretty sure there’s enough sangria flowing through my veins to fill pitchers.

I was staying in Barrio de las Letras, a neighborhood I’d chosen for its charm and literary history; Cervantes lived here and the cobbled streets are inlaid with quotes from great Spanish works and authors. Las Letras is not a party center, but nevertheless bars are lively late into the night, and each morning I was awoken by a neighbor playing the piano. Sound traveled easily, the laundry lines between buildings carried the news of gossiping neighbors into my open windows like telephone wires. The streets are narrow, dark as if each generation left a shadow behind. This was Spanish city living as I’d always known it.

Nigel lived across town in Chamberí. He’s British but has lived in Madrid for 10 years working as a scout for an English soccer team. His messages seemed friendly enough and, I figured, if nothing else we could talk about Real Madrid. He mentioned his neighborhood had a lot of bars and terrazas and was on a nearby metro line, so I agreed to meet him there.

I wasn’t familiar with Chamberí. I’d known neighborhoods like Chueca, Malasaña, and now even seedier Lavapiés, to be trendy for living but recently Chamberí popped on my radar because I’d met a bunch of young professionals with apartments there. In the last few years, it seems, Chamberí has been attracting Madrid’s young adults with a quiet beautiful neighborhood near the center of the city. It was easy enough for me to get to, so that evening I hopped on a rowdy metro car and followed the line to meet Nigel and check out Chamberí.

Nigel was waiting for me on Calle de Carranza. He was a nice looking guy, about my height with an inch or two added by the swoop of hair atop his head. He had a groomed two-day beard that extended down his neck and smiling eyes that sloped slightly downwards to the edge of his face. He was sporty but styled, wearing a denim jacket with the collar flipped up which didn’t look as cheesy as it sounds. Nigel had the aura of a tight bundle of energy in a small package and reminded me of the guy who cracked jokes in your middle school math class who you thought was cool but never had a crush on. We hugged hello and walked to find a place to grab drinks.

Quickly I noticed Chamberí’s elegance. The boulevards are wide, the streets quieter, the vibe a bit staid and traditional. It’s a neighborhood for Madrileños; bars aren’t trendy, there are no tourists. I wondered why we were forgoing my rowdier bar-packed area on a Friday night, but ultimately was glad Nigel had navigated me into this parallel, calmer Madrid lifestyle. It turns out one of my favorite Spanish artists, Joaquín Sorolla, lived in Chamberí and the streets here have a peaceful, garden-like tranquility as if in one of his paintings. Sorolla’s house and studio have been turned into the Museo Sorolla, a small Chamberí mansion filled with his art and antiques, and it’s worth the trip.

Nigel picked a large corner bar and we popped inside for some cañas (small draft beers). I liked this place, but it wasn’t cool. It felt like a local pub with bright overhead lighting, wooden booths, soccer on overhead televisions. It was busy though, and we managed to snag a small hightop by the window. A tubby, aproned waiter plopped a plate of olives between us.

Nigel was in his twenties when he first moved to Madrid. Spain was inexpensive, he had a job there, and he liked how laid-back the Spanish lifestyle is. Madrid is always alive, loud and kicking, and he liked the energy of the city. He wasn’t sure how long he’d stay, but in an endless summer-way he forayed the experience into ten years, a career scouting for an English team, as well as a position announcing games for radio. He explained the ways working in radio is different than television: Without visuals, it’s his responsibility to transport listeners to the excitement of the pitch; he has to carry the emotion of the game, every goal and yellow card, in his voice. As a scout, which is what seemed to fill most of his time, he explained what he looks for in players, how he scores different elements of their performance, and reports back to the club that employs him. He attends a lot of games he doesn’t really find exciting, but I think the whole thing is pretty interesting. Soccer is something I’ve gotten into as an adult. There’s grace and theatrical performance to the game and, as an art lover, there is no better way to appreciate the male form than during the jersey swap.

Nigel’s perspective as a scout was interesting, but I have to admit it resulted less in me thinking it was him that was interesting than it had me fantasizing about my favorite Real Madrid players. Hearing technical insight was informative, although I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that I practice bicycle kicks on my bed. I think he took that as a subtle invitation. It wasn’t, I really do use my mattress as a landing pad to practice flipping backwards while kicking an imaginary soccer ball. I’m not half-bad, either! Haven’t heard confirmation, but pretty sure that’s how Neymar started. As innocent as my intention, I think Nigel banked the idea.

Next we moved on to the neighborhood of Malasaña, a short stroll away. In Malasaña Nigel had a destination in mind: he wanted to show me a few bars of La Movida. I wasn’t familiar with this at all, so here’s a little background:

During Franco’s regime in Spain, useful words to describe Madrid were suppression, control, and repression. Franco had political buddies like the Fascists and the Nazis, so you have an idea of what kind of ruler he was. A national identity was forged by suppressing diversity, the Guardia Civil and Policía Armada patrolled regularly to make sure you fell in line. After Franco died in 1975, Spaniards acted out in all sorts of crazy ways they couldn’t before: recreational drugs, punk music, holding hands in public. Gay people and prostitution were no longer hidden behind locked doors. This freedom of expression birthed a countercultural movement in Madrid: La Movida. Centered in the neighborhood of Malasaña, the sloppy, hedonistic, heavily styled Madrileño rebellion was encompassed in new works of music, street art, literature, and movies. Pedro Almodóvar is notably associated with La Movida, his earliest movies used Malasaña bars and bands as set pieces. In the streets off the Plaza Dos de Mayo, some of these bars still exist.

The first bar we went to on Calle de Velarde had a line to get in, so we walked across the street to another ‘bar de copas.’ Bars in Spain are split between those serving beer and wine, and ‘bars de copas’ which serve mixed drinks. I’m not talking mixology, more like gin and tonics. And in this place the copas were super cheap, like cinco euros each. There was punk kitsch everywhere, on the ceiling and covering the walls, which gave me a lot of fun stuff to take in while Bon Jovi blared through the speakers. Behind the bar was a mother and daughter bartending team. They were busty, not well aged, a bit rumpled, and looked like they might be wearing house slippers we couldn’t see. If you are one to fantasize about a mother and daughter serving you drinks, these most likely wouldn’t be the ladies your brain conjures up. Also, if you’re fantasizing about a mother and daughter serving you drinks, I think we should have a little talk about gender dynamics.

This place reminded me a bit of CBGB before it closed: an old shithole, full of character and the smell of sticky spilled beer, with a “Damn the Man” spirit. You can yell inside and no one cares. But it also reminded me of the new CBGB, an airport tourist trap: the anthem rock is less gritty expression than regurgitated legend. The vibe has been sanitized for your protection (although I must admit the two women behind the bar and the stiff drinks they poured were keeping things real, nothing glossy about them). Instead of remaining the backdrop of a movement, these bars were eventually accepted by the establishment to the point of being swallowed whole. But that’s progress, I guess? The outsiders welcomed in? I have a hard time reconciling the desire for acceptance of different cultures, and the loss of diversity this inclusion creates. When angst is pacified, it’s hard not to mourn the creativity it once fueled.

An artist I met at a dinner party an evening or two earlier argued that with Spain’s current shit employment rate and economy, Madrid will be the next Berlin. The next city to emerge from rubble and welcome the poor avant garde with cheap rents, prolific cigarettes, and a party to fuel creativity and hedonism. This is something I hear and read a lot, projections of which city will assume Berlin’s mantle, if it’s for the taking at all. I see her point, how Spain’s desperate youth contribute to its arts, but living in Madrid is not all that cheap. You don’t often hear of people moving to Spain from elsewhere to fulfill their artistic destinies. Besides, as I was learning, didn’t Madrid already live this moment more acutely with La Movida? [As a sidenote: I think one guy I went out with in Berlin was on the right track when he said the next Berlin, if there is one, will be somewhere east, like Sarajevo, when their own socialist culture stabilizes.] Madrid however, in defense of its own artistic path, does have a thriving theater and arts scene that is cutting edge in its own right. A Spanish actress I know starred in a successful stage show where, as she put it, she “fake-fucked onstage for an hour and a half” every night. So there’s that for lack of artistic inhibition.

After Nigel and I had a couple of drinks at the rock bar I was ready to call it a night. We walked to the nearest thoroughfare to hail me a cab. Nigel was nice, but he was the middle school guy I’ll never have a crush on. The night had carried itself away with interesting conversation, I’d experienced some of Madrid’s artistic history, but the mood had been platonic; I never felt potential for chemistry. So it was surprising when, as my taxi pulled away, the backdoor was pulled open and the cab came to a halt. Nigel stuck his head in and pleaded:

“Take me with you.”

He wasn’t stranded, I knew what he meant. This was not a good look. It exuded desperation, a last ditch effort to turn the night romantic, and it was confusing. Had we just been on the same date? Nothing about this moment was persuasive. I offered to drop him off at his apartment, but made it very clear I was going home alone to mine.

Nigel continued to text me over the next few days. I invited him to grab seafood tapas at Casa Labra, a restaurant suggested to me by another Tinder date from Spain. Nigel declined the meal but kept suggesting ideas that involved me going to his apartment: I could teach him my bicycle kick on his bed, he could give me a creepy massage. Jesus, Nigel! Not sure if he thought I had reconsidered during my taxi home, or he just had nothing to lose, but I thought this was weird. He had somehow forgotten what our actual time was like and recast me in his mind as a love interest. Tinder is a vast sea, mi amigo… There are more (interested) ladies out there!

Between Sorolla’s Chamberí and Almodóvar’s Malasaña, Nigel had shown me an artistic side to Madrid beyond the Prado, one that blurs the line between where the real sidewalks end and art begins. But now Nigel tried to blur too many lines between our reality and his imagination, so I eventually stopped responding to his text solicitations and chalked up our time together to the confusion of La Movida.

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