An Unhurried Journey

"Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world." -Alan Watts

Dear Madrid

It wasn’t love at first sight, was it? Please forgive me. But there were so many people, so many tourists. Carrying their Primark shopping bags from one place to another. Having overpriced ice cream. Taking selfies with their smartphones.

Walking around Puerta del Sol, your heart, your epicenter, navigating the endless stream of humans, some going this way, some that, just trying to buy some ripe bananas for breakfast, was draining, taxing my patience, challenging my threshold for frustration. There was simply too much activity, too much energy, all of it so densely concentrated it felt like I was suffocating. My senses adjusted to all this stimulation by downregulating, by becoming number.

I didn’t feel comfortable with you. I felt acutely aware of myself, in the worst way possible. In the way that made me feel alone, isolated and awkward despite being surrounded by people. If I’m being honest, I thought I might leave you after just a couple of days. Oh, how wrong I was.

But, I’d be lying if I said everything was dark and horrible during those first few days. Movement to the rescue. I started venturing outwards, started exploring you.

And I quickly noticed how many facettes you have. How silly you are at times, how serious at others. How one moment you’re majestic and imposing, the next tender and vulnerable. Turning a corner, I never know what to expect. Never know who you’ll be, what face you’ll put on.

I changed neighbourhoods, fleeing the tourist haven, moving to Malasaña, a young, artsy, alternative area. That’s when it clicked. That’s when I started getting to know you, to fall in love with you.

Madrid, I’m at a loss, don’t know where to start. You’re spotlessly clean, ridiculously safe (which unfortunately comes at the cost of some really heavy police presence though), and you have, save for maybe Iceland and some towns in the Canadian Rockies, the best tap water I have ever tasted.

I admire how balanced you are, how you seem to have it all figured out. Somehow, you manage to feel small and big at the same time, in the best way possible. Walking is never a chore. It’s like you’re made for pedestrians. There are blissfully few cars, ensuring that you’re surprisingly quiet for a city your size. There are no huge streets lacerating you. Gran Via being the excepting to the rule, but this one I don’t mind, for it’s a sight to behold.

Walking from one end to the other, you make sure I don’t get bored. You don’t suffer from these barren stretches of deserted wasteland made up of nothing but cold, gray slabs of concrete. You’re vibrant, boasting an impressive color palette. You’re varied, hosting a range of architectural styles, both old and new. This makes for a treasure trove of curious, seemingly mismatched combinations of buildings, which, in actuality, turn out to be stunningly picturesque frames.

When I’m pressed to explain further, I mention your geometry. Your angles. The hypnotic line of sights you offer. You don’t do repetitive, monotonous, depressive grid layouts. You’re complicated, messy, all over the place. Often, you’re hilly, slightly inclining up or down.

You’re made up of these lovable, proud neighourhoods with distinct vibes, each one having its own unique identity, represented and lived by the local residents. They flow into each other seamlessly, fitting like pieces of a puzzle, coming together to create something larger than themselves.

Like other big cities, you’re multicultural, throwing together many different kinds of people with a multitude of backgrounds, cultures and values. Fortunately, in your case, it works out harmoniously.

You’re home to large groups of immigrants from various Latin and Central American countries, alongside many Senegalese, Chinese, Indian and Moroccan people, each contributing and sharing parts of themselves, mixing together in the backdrop of Spanish culture.

This gives everyday life an exotic taste, figuratively and literally. As most living beings, I have a deep and complex love for and relationship with food. You satisfy my curiosity and desire to try out new dishes from far off places. Part of my daily ritual here is the walk to my favourite restaurant in Lavapies, your most ethnically diverse neighbourhood, with street after street of Indian, African and Arabic restaurants.

There, I’ve become addicted to Thieboudienne, a traditional Senegalese dish consisting of rice, vegetables and fish. There are many delicious meals I’ve tried here, but only this one could (and currently do) I eat every single day of my life.

The sheer size of you might be one of your most fascinating properties. Apart from the obvious convenience of having endless options right around the corner, the amount of people, coupled with the anonymity a city provides, creates some interesting possibilities.

One can live many different lives in you. Moving a mere 20 minutes to a different neighbourhood, there is an unlimited amount of new stimulation waiting. It doesn’t take long to meet new people, try new things, establish a new social circle, ease into a new routine, a new life. Few environments can claim to offer such a chance to completely rediscovered and reinvented oneself. You don’t put a limit on how fast, how dense, how intense a life is lived.

While I’m aware that you share these attributes with many other cities, to me, you’re different. You seem to have a genuinely upbeat disposition that permeates everyday life. An attitude of flowing with the ups and downs and not taking it too seriously, readily seeing the humor in life’s many mishaps.

The list goes on. You’re green, consisting of many trees. They blend in perfectly, as if they had always been there, balancing out the inanimate matter. Being spread out evenly, they’re never overpowering or out of place.

You’re tolerant. I was surprised to discover that you have a sprawling LGBT-scene. In fact, Chueca, an entire, iconic neighbourhood is dedicated to this. But it goes deeper than the acceptance of different forms of sexuality. It’s the inspiring value of encouraging the expression of one’s individuality, in whatever way, shape or form, that is part of you. This makes your people more interesting, more strange, for they are authentic, real.

And don’t get me started on your climate. I fail to come up with any other place where the weather has been so agreeable with my nature (in August, at least). You redefined my definition of the perfect summer, making me understand once more just how crucial climate is to my physical and mental well-being.

Most of the time, I simply don’t notice it, that’s how at home I feel. It is never a hindrance, always enabling. Making life simple. Not once have I had to wear something else than a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. It’s consistent, but not boringly so. Just when I need it, you spice things up for a day or two, unleashing a furious thunderstorm with torrential downfalls or sneaking in a cloudy and slightly humid day.

For the rest of the time, you’re stable. Sunny and dry. There always seems to be a light breeze going. It’s bright until close to 10pm. No rain or clouds obscuring the sky. There are times I glance at the sky and stop dead in my tracks, forced to take a moment to comprehend the preternatural blue of it.

It’s warm during the day (around 30°), sometimes it gets quiet hot (reaching 35°), which I love, for it forces everybody to relax, to go slower, but it cools down nicely for the night (usually something short of 20°). And you don’t have any mosquitoes. It doesn’t really get better than this, does it?

Then there are the plazas. From stumbling over lively, cute, asymmetrical triangles perched on an incline to soaking up the atmosphere of royal, airy squares, filled with the pleasant murmur of restaurant guests reminiscent of the calming sound of rain chattering against a window, there is no shortage of coffees to be enjoyed.

Simply taking a walk is enough to raise my spirits. Honestly, I can be in a bad mood, feeling oppressed, tangled up in thoughts and doubts, but as soon as I step out the door and start taking you in, I start relaxing, breathing, enjoying. No place has ever had such an effect on me.

Walking around in you is like a form of meditation. You make me aware of these views I have never appreciated before. Long line of sights down a narrow cobblestone street, lined by trees on both sides. A tall, sleek building towering in the background, contrasting the stately, almost delicate three story buildings around me. So much detail in between.

Ambling down these streets I often find myself focusing on the furthest possible point in the distance, relaxing my eyes, my vision. I keep my gaze fixed on that point, continuing to walk. Instead of acting as the usual spotlight, hovering over individual things in my immediate vicinity, inspecting, classifying and judging them before jumping to the next, my eyes stay put. My awareness starts to change.

I notice people far away, impossibly far away, little figurines, walking hand in hand, riding a bike, carrying grocery bags, talking on the phone, living their life. I can’t believe it. Looking at life from so far away, it seems almost unreal, like actors playing a role.

A strong sensation floods over me, threatening to overwhelm me for a second, until I give in. A shock, a deep understanding in my stomach that each and everyone of these people is living a life just like I am. That every single one of these people has lived for years and years and years. That they all carry around their emotional baggage, their desires, fears, hopes, sorrows and dreams. That they all feel alive just like I do.

I realize that to them, I must look like a little figurine very far away, playing its own part, completely caught up in its act, unaware of the bigger picture, of the reality all around me. I try to imagine what it looks like from their view, what I look like, what part I might be playing. I can’t quite picture it.

Increasingly, I become aware of all the movement in my periphery. I start taking in my entire field of view, soaking it up. My perspective becomes large, wide. Everything slows down. The space between things becomes alive, almost tangible, instead of just being empty nothingness. Bit by bit, I melt into this, flowing along.

A serene, eternal tranquility settles over everything; or rather, it was always there, I just didn’t pay enough attention, too caught up by bananas or something else.

As I dive deeper, letting myself go even further, my vision becomes unbelievably vivid. I look around. Everything is so indescribably real, brimming and overflowing with life. What I see stuns me. It feels like I’m perceiving life for what it is, without immediately differentiating and processing everything into things, language, concepts; into mere abstractions. The everyday, the mundane, mesmerizes me to the point where nothing else but it exists.

I completely forget myself. The part of myself that has a name, a personality, a history. The concept I have of myself. The little man in my head, the one that sits between my ears and looks out from behind my eyes, is on break. There is no me to which life is happening to, no me standing behind and apart from experience. No me that has to control life, no me that tries to steer it into a certain direction. No me that’s constantly planning, no me that has to go somewhere or get something.

Instead, there’s simply this. Experience, awareness, life. Whatever you want to call it.

I pick up a dried leaf from the forest floor. I hold it in my open palm, looking at it, for the first time really looking. I’ve never seen anything like it. I see birds flying, rays of sunshine pushing through the canopy of leaves. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. There is a little spider on me. It is crawling on my hand. I look at it. And I see how incredible it is. How utterly alien. At a moment’s notice, it produces a silky string from its belly, by which it can hang in the air, hovering there as if unaffected by gravity, if it wishes rappelling down or climbing it back up. I’m in awe of it. Of it and everything else. Of the world. Of its complexity, diversity, intricacy. Of its unbelievable beauty. And of myself, a human, a part of this expression of creative energy, aware of itself. And while I might no be able to fly or poop magic rope, I am just as magnificent.

And it’s all going on completely on its own. I can’t make out anybody that’s directing it all, anybody that forces everything to happen. My own actions included, there’s no one doing them, no one deciding upon what to do, they happen by themselves, just like everything else.

Until, after a while, the oh so familiar voice in my head starts chattering, talking to itself, narrating, commenting and judging everything again. Until I start playing me again, the me that wants and needs, the me that worries and stresses, the me that looks ahead into the future and back into the past.

I look at the people around me, and I see them acting, just like I do. The way they carry themselves, their clothing, their attitude. Playing somebody. Somebody frustrated, somebody content, somebody that really has to go somewhere. I can’t help but chuckle to myself about the seriousness and the sternness of it all.

Madrid, I love you. I love you because while I was with you, perhaps with your help, I woke up to the world. I discovered what living can be like. I let go of a lot of stuff, ideas I had about myself, about the world. I saw how much my life right here, right now, was still limited, tainted by the past, and how that’s not necessary, completely up to me to immediately change it.

Perhaps that’s why I love you so. Maybe you’re not all that special. Maybe all places are like you, and I just wasn’t aware of it, couldn’t see, couldn’t appreciate it. But I don’t care. To me, you’re special. You changed me. And I’d like to think that in some way I changed you.

But Madrid, I think it’s time to go. Time to experience something new. If I don’t move, if I keep doing the same thing, nothing of significance will change, will it? Goodbyes are always hard. But I don’t think the amount of time we spend together really matters. Is it not the quality that truly counts?

Thank you, Madrid. I have a feeling we will meet again.

Valentin Raphael

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