Sunday, December 26, 2004

In Praise of Folly

La Fontanilla MadridLa Fontanilla, Plaza de Puerta Cerrada

I lost my way to the church of San Francisco El Grande, although, as with most locations in old Madrid, I was never as far as I thought I was from my destination. But in order to avoid behaving as a tourist, I developed the habit of walking into an establishment and perusing my book-bound map indoors. Sometimes in the wc, sometimes while quenching my thirst.

I walk into this colorful Irish pub, drink a caña and stand at a corner to look at a map. Miguel from Córdoba and Carlos from Ávila walk in, stand right next to me and order two oxsanitas from the bartender. Antonio is loud, chubby, with a beard, and Juan is quiet, reserved and thin. He frequently and demurely lowers the lids of his big blue eyes. I gather they are socios from work who regularly stop by this quaint, little watering hole mid-afternoons.

Antonio asks me what I’m doing and I explain I’m an American writer looking for San Francisco el Grande. He raises his eyebrow and I see the spark in his eye. He doesn’t believe I’m an American writer lost in Madrid, but I show him the map, he points to a spot and of course I see that the Calle de Segovia, then left at Bailen, would have been the easier route. Another round of oxsanitas is ordered, but this time it’s three. An oxsanita, named after the lovely redheaded bartender from Roumania, is just a gin and tonic served in a squat table-wine tumbler.

I tell Antonio that I’m writing a book for single women travelers in Spain. “Soltera,” he says, “I have a brother, forty-one years old, never been married, a farmer in Avila, why don’t you marry him?” But I’m a writer. I don’t know how to milk cows. Antonio makes some remark about feeling nauseated. It’s my cleavage, he admits. It’s making him dizzy and it would make his brother dizzy too. Juan doesn’t dare to look. What a trio, I think. The lusty milkmaid drinks gin and tonics with Folly and Prudence, in the allegorical theater of Madrid.

Before I know it, Antonio and I are engaged in an unexpected, somewhat highbrow conversation about Don Quixote, its place in literary history, its characters and how it gave La Mancha such much-needed publicity in the middle ages. I’ve never read the epic, so I’m full of questions. A couple of oxsanas later, the brazen Sancho Panza and his melancholy companion Don Quixote return to work. By then it’s too late to see San Francisco el Grande on the inside. But outside, the sun is setting. Wandering aimlessly and free now, I come upon the Plaza Mayor. The center of Madrid is suffused in wide amber rays that deepen the terracotta hues of tiles and bricks. The city is awakening, just before night falls.

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