On the way to the café I always walked slow.
Slow enough to look upwards at the curved steel adorning each balcony window above my head, but still quick enough to keep the morning chill out of my bones and the wind on my back. A more relaxed pace ensured I stayed upright on the misaligned cobblestone, too.
When a bike or scooter would drive by, the repeated thwack-thwack-thwack of the wheels atop the cobblestone always made me concerned about persons bound to wheelchairs, walking sticks, or an unlucky night in high-heels.
In passing strangers on my way, I’d let out the occasional hola. I never stopped to chat beyond a single word because, after this greeting, my Spanish ran out quickly.
Luckily, smiling works in any language, and this I’ve become quite decent at. Passersby always return my smile with one of their own, as do the waiters and waitresses who speak not a word of English.
The buildings of Madrid all appear as if they had been dipped in a bucket of pastels — pastel yellow and pastel pink, light green and baby turquoise. Beneath the coloring is architecture that, long ago, seemed to have been designed as if it were art, and as if it mattered.
Elaborate patterns and statues with poignant facial expressions built right into the walls give onlookers the pleasant option of admiring either the details or the composition as a whole.
All the buildings in the area more or less fit this description except for mine. My own building resembled something of a gray blotch on an otherwise sunny and colorful street, the lone gap in the rainbow reserved for poor university students, starving artists, and hack writers.
Like myself, most of my neighbors within the complex fit into all three categories at once. At the very least, the building opposite mine looked right at home in Madrid — pastel pink, a sparse and sober Baroque design, surrounded by cobblestone — and this view was all mine from the comfort of my gray, unfurnished balcony.
I had arrived in Madrid, Spain some weeks prior yet I’d already made a strict habit of going to Café Libre each morning. It took me ten minutes to walk there; if I were in the states, the two-legged commute would have only taken five, but no one speed-walks in Madrid.
Upon my arrival each day at 9:15AM, I’d sit down at a small and old table for one, immediately next to the shop window.
I open my notebook and pull my pen out with a long, slow movement, apprehensive to revisit my work from the previous day. The cacophony of sounds inside the shop settles me; the whizzing of the espresso machine; the quiet, Spanish chatter of the surrounding patrons; the slurping sound of a young boy sampling hot chocolate for the first time.
Old-fashioned electric light bulbs hang from the ceiling like icicles, only the glow they emit is warm rather than cold.
Once I acclimate to this familiar café in this foreign city, then comes my chance to humble myself with broken Spanish in front of Ameron, a suave and mustachioed barista whose very presence exuded friendliness.
In my series of visits thus far, I’m happy to call him something of a friend. Once he found out I was not only an expat but a writer, Ameron never shied away from giving me a café au lait on the house. (I was not usually one to take milk in my coffee, but rarer still would I ever turn down anything offered on the house).
On the days I did pay for my coffee, it cost a meager €1.30; since tipping is not common, I always felt richer upon my leaving than arriving.
For barely one-third the price of an American coffee, I’d spend several hours writing in Café Libre, engage in pleasantries with a good and gentlemanly Spanish chap, and watch locals go about their day seemingly without rush or anxiety. It didn’t hurt that literary figures such as Hemingway and Miguel de Cervantes mucked about in Madrid in their times, too.
All this added up to a charming, productive milieu for a young and untested writer like myself.
Ameron kept a particularly keen eye on my table. He seemed to find intrigue in watching me sit there and grapple with my thoughts. “Señor, what are you writing?” Ameron would ask.
“Nothing, really…” and my voice would fade away, leaving the sentence and conversation hanging, incomplete like the story in my notebook.
This was my most common answer, because it was most commonly true. Before me on the small and wooden table was a scrawled page with some incoherent attempt at a story, a poor rendition of art.
The prose lacked character, and my characters lacked wit and mettle. Though I was putting words on paper, in that shop rarely would I write anything good, but it was good practice and a good discipline.
Sometimes, on what I called ‘good’ days, I would reply to Ameron’s inquiry — “Señor, What are you writing?” — more excitedly: “Everything, really.”
When I first sit down to write, I never know if it’s a good day. Good days, for writing, come to me only after a string of crummy-to-mediocre days. It feels like depositing a series of down-payments for an investment in the future.
When those good days do come, however, they are certainly good and unquestionably worth a string of crummy days.
The habit of writing in itself (not to mention Ameron’s affable nature) made those trips to Café Libre worthwhile, and I continued them for the duration of my time in Madrid.
I remember the discipline only, not the words that sprang from it. In place of the words, instead I remember conversations with Ameron, the cobblestone roads, the pastel buildings that stood out against the blue, clear sky.
The life I lived in Madrid gave me the material which I had sought then to put on the page. At the time I could not realize I was attempting to write first and live later, rather than the opposite.
Now, as I write this, a great deal of time has passed since I departed from Madrid and bid adiós to Ameron. The details stand out fresh and clear like foliage after a good rain. Part of this stems from a longing for what once was, a desire to recreate pleasant times with a pen; but, mostly, I failed to write about Madrid while I was in Madrid because putting the cart before the horse is neither wise nor productive.
It was a pleasant and long and good time that I spent each morning at my table for one, and yet to this day I am confident I wrote nothing worth revisiting.
This story was originally published here on January 1, 2021.
Phil Rosen is a writer, editor, and blogger. His bestselling travel book is available on Amazon. If you want to see more, check out his travel blog and Instagram.