I have never really understood the concept of “home.” Beyond a place to sleep and protection from the elements, it hasn’t ever had much meaning for me. I seem to have been running for much of my life. Usually away from myself or messes I’ve created. But nine months ago I finally stopped running. I moved to Madrid. I came home. And I discovered what that word means.
It is one thing to be lucky enough to know the Madrid that offers the world the Prado, Thyssen, Reina Sofia. Where you can wander in your lunch break to see Guernica and then have a picnic in Retiro park, explore the Royal Palace, drink a caña in plaza Mayor. It is a whole new level to fall in love with Calles Cava Baja or Espiritu Santo – streets that perhaps to you seem normal but to me are entirely magical. To see people walking slowly (anathema in London), waiting for the traffic lights to change before crossing the road (a first for me). To count the extraordinary number of old couples holding hands. To chuckle at the majesty of Serrano where you can buy a jacket for the same price as a car. To take in some extraordinary theater at the Pavon Kamikaze, eat croquetas that may literally change your life at Santerra, have a croissant in Café Comercial that makes you laugh out loud it’s so good, watch TV gold as Salvame professionals analyze the body language of Letizia in front of a rapt audience.
The differences between here and the UK are astonishing. I am writing this in my sick bed at 2am because I caught Brexit flu going back to UK for three days. Back in Madrid, I called Adeslas. An hour later a doctor came round to my home and gave me antibiotics. I pay €35 a month for health insurance here (perhaps a luxury, but one I need because of past back surgeries). In London I pay almost 10 times that. And even then doctors won’t visit me at home without charging €200.
You may not believe me but I have no reason to lie when I tell you that everything is better here. The trains, the Metro, the taxistas, the kindness of strangers, the unhurried pace of life, the frankly alarming ability to insult one another (forget mothers and sexual acts; you guys can do it using fish, asparagus and milk – it’s an art form worthy of Cervantes), the delicious language (Quisquilloso, rifirrafe, ñaca-ñaca, sollozo, zurdo, tiquismiquis which may as well be my nickname, and on and on – your dictionary is the verbal equivalent of Chopin. It really is the guay del Paraguay), the impressive number of dedicated smokers as if to proudly tell the medical community and self-righteous assholes of LA to go fuck themselves. The live-and-let-live friendliness, cleanliness, open heartedness of it all. The croqueta of the year award. Your respect for books, for art, for music. For family time and rest. For the important things.
The surprising number of talented people named Javier (Bardem, Cámara, Calvo, Ambrossi, Manquillo, Del Pino, Marias, Perianes, Navarrete, etc. etc. – can you guess what I’ll be naming my next son?).
You invented siestas and still you work longer hours than practically any other country in Europe.
I have met strangers on the Metro with whom I have ended up playing Beethoven, grandmothers who have made me torrijas and talked about their previous life playing the piano, patients at psychiatric hospitals who have stunned me with their bravery, a young kid who plays the piano far better than I did at his age and who I’ve been lucky enough to give a few free lessons to. Even Despacito sounds fucking great at 8.30am on the Metro because it’s played on an accordion by an old man who is smiling, and as I watch the other commuters on the train I can see how contagious that smile is. I have spent hours wandering around the Carrefour de Penalver overwhelmed by the colors and flavors and smells and freshness of it all, seen tomatoes the size of footballs at the fruit shop around the corner from my apartment, eaten cakes made for me by my neighbors who, rather than complaining about the noise, ask me to play the piano a little bit louder. I have discovered the genius of natillas.
And on and on.
There is so much good here. Oftentimes hidden away. I have seen first-hand the extraordinary work done by organizations such as Fundación Manantial, Save the Children, Fundación Vicki Bernadet, Plan International and so many others, big and small, whose mission is to shoulder some of pain of the world in which we live without asking for thanks, praise, reward.
Yes there are problems. Of course there are. The frankly appalling, offensive and barbaric laws on sexual assaults as evidenced by La Manada; laws that simply must be changed. Drugs, homelessness, trafficking, abuse, health cuts. The corruption of power. Politicians (please can we just let Manuela Carmena abuela the shit out of Spain for a few years and sort everything out?). The normal scourges of humanity since time immemorial. But these things haven’t turned you hard, cold, ugly and battened down as they have so many nations. They have instead opened you up, shone a light on some of the purity and good in this world, and I am so fucking proud to be a single, tiny, solitary figure wandering around this country in wonder at her collective vitality.
This year I will be visiting Ibiza, Sitges, Seville, Granada, Costa Brava, Pamploma, Cuenca, Vigo, Vitoria, Zaragoza and so many more amazing places. I have been to dozens more cities over the past two years. I am a foreigner, a guest, and as an Anglo-Saxon I don’t believe I have the right to be political here but what I can say for an absolute fact is that whether I have been in Barcelona, Gijón, Madrid, Bilbao, Santiago, Girona, wherever, my experience has always been the same – warmth, hospitality, smiles, openness. Different food perhaps (obviously Valencian paella is the only authentic one. Ditto churros from Madrid and salmorejo from Andalusia. Pretty much anything from San Sebastián is the best you’ll eat; OK this is perhaps a dangerous game, which I’ll stop now), different accents (I’m sorry Galicia but I don’t understand a single word people say there – my bad), but the same giant hearts, same insanely impressive work ethics, same hugs, same giant friendliness.
I love this country. I look up to her. Metaphorically and literally. I never used to look up – I would walk about eyes glued either to the pavement or to my phone. Here in Spain I gaze around me in awe. I see you, and your reflection blinds me with its loveliness. I look up now. Because I feel safe. And visible. And held. And welcome.
When I was in London recently I saw my psychiatrist Billy. He told me that 10 years ago he didn’t know if I’d live or die. And that even a year ago he had serious and legitimate concerns about my well-being. But that right now he hasn’t ever seen me this well. And you know what, Spain is largely the reason.
And perhaps some will say that is because I have had some degree of professional success, I sometimes stay in nice hotels and eat in nice restaurants, perhaps people treat me differently. So let me end with this:
Many years ago (too many years ago) as a very young child, I would come to Mallorca every year. We would stay in a shitty little apartment on the beach in Peguera for a couple of weeks every August. I remember those holidays as the safest, most perfect and incredible respite of my childhood. I was lifted away from the war zone that was my rapey, violent, monochrome existence in London and for a brief moment in time, aged eight or nine, I could buy cigarettes (Fortuna for a few pesetas) from Pedro in the tiny shop by the beach, drink warm Rioja (again, thanks Pedro) looking up at the stars, go swimming, occasionally convince someone with a boat to offer me a water-ski, enjoy the sunshine and, most importantly, breathe in and inhale a feeling of shelter and protection. More than 30 years later you are offering me the same thing. And I will never be able to express my gratitude to you for that.
A previous draft of the English version of this article included a mention of the Spanish Civil War that was removed by the author before publication. EL PAÍS published this English draft copy in error but has now removed the reference.