This last weekend, Helen and I walked along the Manzanares River further than I’ve ever gone to find the Parque Lineal Del Manzanares (Linear Park of Manzanares Park). It was my first time visiting the park and I was pleasantly surprised to discover a massive park filled with green spaces, sculptures, ponds, and people playing frisbee and enjoying other activities.
There was even a small amphitheater. I was reminded of weekends in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, a similar verdant oasis in a bustling metropolis.
The Parque Lineal Del Manzanares, which is about an hour and a half straight south of my neighborhood, Puerta del Angel, is also home to La Dama del Manzanares (the Lady of the Manzanres), a towering bronze and steel sculpture of a woman’s head facing toward the city center of Madrid. It was designed by Manolo Valdés, a Spanish artist, and it is 13 meters tall (roughly 43 feet for my American readers).
Situated on the top of a hill in the center of the park, the platform on which the sculpture stands provides 360-degree views of Madrid, with Plaza de España visible in the distance. It offers one of the best views of the city I’ve ever seen. Although we were there before lunch and therefore weren’t around for nightfall, I have to imagine sunsets from that perch are absolutely breathtaking. Another time, perhaps.
Though the park has gone through major renovations in the last couple decades, including the construction of La Dama, the space where the park now exists has played a vital role through Spanish history. Ancient Roman ruins have been found in the park, and during the Spanish Civil War, the area was an important (albeit, ultimately unsuccessful) point of resistance against Franco’s forces. Though I didn’t specifically see any, there are apparently still trenches and other remnants of the war in the park.
Up until last Sunday, I had never heard of either Parque Lineal Del Manzanares or La Dama, which is proof that, even after five years in this city, there are still countless new discoveries to be made.
During the 10 Cities project, when I would leave each city after a year, I knew that I had only scratched the surface of those homes and there was still plenty more to see and discover. This last weekend was a fresh reminder of why I love cities: they constantly offer new experiences. They are a source of perpetual reinvention.
It’s reassuring to know I could live in Madrid for the rest of my life–I very well might–and still be confident that I haven’t seen it all. Who knows what the next weekend of exploration will uncover?
A week ago I spoke in front of a small gathering about my 10 Cities project at the Secret Kingdoms, a recently opened English-language bookstore here in Madrid. It was a surprisingly brisk hour (for me, at least) in which I shared a few favorite stories from that decade of my life and read some of my writing, including an excerpt from Yahweh’s Children.
At the end of my talk, there was a Q&A where the audience asked a number of interesting questions about my travels and the motivations for my choices. Even though I’ve answered questions about 10 Cities for well over a decade now, there were still some fresh inquiries, which were a fun challenge to tackle on the spot.
One of the most common questions I get is, of course, “How did you choose your 10 cities?” With the half dozen interviews and articles I’ve done, and the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with friends and strangers over the years, I’ve answered that question countless times (short answer: mostly, circumstances decided for me). But, I realized the other day, never once have I turned the question on the inquisitor to ask, “What 10 cities would you choose?”
So, I’m doing it now. Whether you’re a new reader or you’ve been on this journey with me since the early days, I want to know, what 10 cities would you have picked if you were doing this project? You can stick to the same limitations I was under and select ones from your home country, or you can just pick any 10 cities throughout the world. You do you. The only firm rule is, in this hypothetical, you will live in each city for 1 year exactly, and none of them can be your hometown (sorry New Yorkers).
Feel free to answer in the comments, or on Facebook, or Twitter, or simply write it on a piece of paper, bury it, and have your grandkids digs it up in 100 years.
Another Spanish city checked off. This time, Cadiz.
After a sweltering summer in Madrid, we took our first break from the Spanish capital since our May trip to Greece and Italy to visit one of Spain’s many southern beach towns: El Palmar de Vejer in the region of Andalusia.
While being the most populous autonomous community in the country, home to Seville, Málaga, and Granada (to name a few of its better-known cities) Andalusia has historically been one of the nation’s poorest regions. Interesting tidbit: The Catalonia Independence movement is partially rooted in the wealthier Catalans resenting their taxes subsidizing the poorer Andalusians. But, hey, whatcha gonna do? We live in a society.
On Saturday morning, we took a train to the city of Cadiz, which is also the name of the province that includes El Palmar and numerous other beach communities. There we spent the weekend before bussing it to El Palmar Monday morning.
In many ways, Cadiz resembles the other Spanish southern beach cities I’ve visited, including Valencia and Málaga. There are the requisite cathedrals and churches towering around every corner; citrus trees of various colors and sizes abound along both the ornate and unremarkable city blocks; seafood is plentiful (especially fried); and outside the tourist sections, drinks are a steal.
But Cadiz, Spain has its own unique charms and I do say, I think it’s one of the prettiest I’ve visited in the country. I’ll let the photos speak for me, but between Playa de La Caleta, Parque Genovés, and Jardines de Alameda Apodaca (with its towering, winding ficus trees), it’s one of the most charmingly designed seafronts in Spain. (As always, click on any photos in the galleries to see them bigger.)
El Palmar de Vejer, Spain
After two days in Cadiz, we boarded an early morning bus and rode roughly an hour and a half east to El Palmar. There we had rented an apartment just across the street from the beach, at one end of what could generously be called “the city strip.” El Palmar de Vejer is a pretty quintessential beach town, which means most of the development happens along the road that runs parallel with the beach. Traverse more than a couple blocks back from the seafront and the area reveals itself to be a very literal desert.
Fine for us, because our plan for our five-day stay was to sit on the beach, read our books, swim occasionally, and play a whole lot of cards over drinks.
Which is not to suggest there’s nothing to do there. There are surf schools every other building and opportunities to ride horses and do other activities. But after a long, hot summer, we wanted less activity, not more. There were plenty of other tourists there to keep the surf schools occupied, mostly from Germany. I heard more German that week than English or Spanish.
Each morning, we arose for sunrise (which wasn’t until 8:20ish, so it wasn’t too bad), and each evening we returned to the beach to watch the sunset. Helen was brave enough to get in the water a few mornings for a sea view of the emerging sun, but even with her love of cold-water swimming, she didn’t stay in long. (I stuck to quick dips in the afternoon when I could count on the sun to thaw my frozen limbs once I was out.)
We took long walks on the beach, ate most of our meals at the various bars and cafes that lined Paseo Marítimo, and made a few feline friends, including one who joined us for a sunset viewing. And, of course, Helen swam in a half dozen swimming suits while I took pictures.
We did get out of El Palmar one day, walking down the impressively long (and windy) beach to Zahora, another local beach town. There we had noontime drinks by the beach before lunch. After eating, we realized we were too hot (and I too drunk) to walk back in the midday sun. Unfortunately, we quickly found out that no taxis would come by to take us back. Walking was our only choice.
We struck out along the road back to El Palmar in the scorching sun with the seemingly hopeless plan to hitchhike. This may surprise some readers, but I have never actually successfully hitchhiked before. So, it was a great relief (and surprise) when a Portuguese/Argentinian couple picked us up and drove us back to our rental.
The couple owns Verde Agua, so if you’re ever in the north of Portugal and need a nice place to stay, check out their establishment.
Back to Cadiz, Spain
After five days in El Palmar, we needed to catch a bus back to Cadiz. A tip for anyone who is going to visit El Palmar. You need to pick up the bus from the same stop where you’ll be dropped off. Expect the bus to be up to 30 minutes later than the schedule states, and when you get to the first stop at the station in Conil de la Frontera, you’ll likely have to switch buses to continue on.
Back in Cadiz, we had one more night to enjoy walking about the city. I’ve said it before, the walkability of European cities is a huge selling point, and one that only a small handful of American cities comes close to replicating. Cadiz isn’t a particularly large ciudad (just over 115,000 residents and falling), but it has plenty to occupy a couple weekends.
As we enjoyed a few pre-dinner drinks in the Plaza de la Catedral (where the massive Catedral de Cadiz stands), we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by a crowd. It turned out that we had chosen to spend our last night in Cadiz during the Festividad de Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary; alternatively, Virgin of the Rosary), one of the countless region-specific Catholic holidays that occur throughout the year.
As with most such festivals, there was a procession of elaborately dressed priests, choir boys, and a marching band, along with the requisite bling-festooned floats. We broke away from the crowds to have dinner, after which we came across the procession once again, this time in the Plaza de San Juan de Dios. It was all very…religious.
If you choose to visit Cadiz, I can’t recommend highly enough staying at Pensión España, which is ideally situated, well priced, and very clean, albeit no frills. It’s also just around the corner from Plaza de San Juan de Dios and the delightfully indulgent (if a bit Instagrammed out) El Café de Ana.
While it might not be high on the list of must-see cities in Spain, if you get the opportunity, a visit to Cadiz is well worth your time. And visit El Palmar, too; if for nothing else, for the sunrises/sets alone. Just make sure to put some rocks in your pockets or the Levante winds will carry you away.
P.S. If you’re in Madrid on Wednesday night, October 19, I’ll be speaking about 10 Cities/10 Years and more at the Secret Kingdoms in the Barrio de las Letras. Get tickets here.
Hello new visitors. It’s quite possible you’ve found this site because of the Newsweek article. If you haven’t already read it, I recently wrote about 10 Cities/10 Years for Newsweek’s “My Turn” feature, which is a space for people to share their unique life experiences. In the article, I discuss the details of the project, what I learned about myself through doing it, and what I learned about America in general.
It was an honor to write for the feature and I’m quite pleased how the article came out. You can read it here:
City living is a great way to be reminded that America is uniquely complex, that there are millions of Republicans in “blue” America and millions of Democrats in “red” America. One of the silliest notions I’ve ever heard is that there is a “Real America.” According to many politicians, because I grew up in a town of less than 80,000 people, I’m from “Real America.” This concept, that “Real America” exists in the heartlands of the country, outside of our main metropolises, led me to wonder: What does that make the over 15 million Americans I lived among, in big cities, from 2005 to 2015?
After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I heard frequently about the “liberal bubble,” but that never fit with the country I experienced. In the cities I lived in—many considered liberal strongholds—I met all kinds of people whose views fit more neatly in the “conservative” box. There was the transgender woman in New York who adamantly defended the U.S. government’s use of torture on terrorism suspects after 9/11. There was the co-worker in Nashville who assumed, because I am an atheist, that I “sacrificed” children—her interpretation of abortion. For that matter, there were all the residents of so-called liberal cities who went to church every Sunday. I encountered all types of political and religious views over my 10 years; rarely did they fit in an easy category.
If you’d like more background on what exactly the 10 Cities project was (and continues to be), there’s always the About section. If you want to read some stories from the road, you can check out “The Book” section (scroll down and start with the Prologue). You can also check out other Press coverage. Or just take a look around the site; you may stumble across something I’ve totally forgotten I wrote.
Whether you’re a regular reader of this site, someone who used to be a regular reader and is just checking in, or someone who came across 10 Cities/10 Years because of the Newsweek article, I’d love to hear your thoughts: on the article, on the project, on life, on the 1962 Chicago Cubs, whatever. Leave a comment, show some love.
Cheers from Madrid,
P.S. Anyone who is interested in keeping up with my ongoing adventures, including my life in Spain and future publications, can add your email address over on the righthand side.
P.P.S. If you live in Madrid or are going to be in the city in mid-October, I’ll be doing a talk about the project and my writing at The Secret Kingdoms, a recently opened English-language bookstore in Barrios de las Letras. Get tickets here.
I have now lived in Madrid for half the length of my 10 Cities project. I’ve been here for longer than any of the other 12 cities I’ve called home other than Lawrence, Kansas, my first home.
At the end of my fifth summer in Madrid, quite possibly the hottest summer of my life, I’m inevitably thinking back on the the half-decade I’ve lived in Spain. Boy, a lot has happened. I’ve made friends, lost friends, traveled to half a dozen new countries, taken thousands of photos, finished writing two novels, gotten COVID-19, seen multiple friends have babies… Oh, and, of course, I met (and pareja-ed) Helen. DWOML.
Meanwhile, back “home”, so much has happened since I left the United States – at least two plagues and one coup – yet, here, time can sometimes feel at a standstill. Some months crawl by. I suppose that’s inevitable after having lived my life on a strict yearly schedule for a decade. Any year in which I don’t completely upend my entire existence is going to feel a bit more drawn out.
Which is, of course, intentional.
Slow Down Idiot
On September 1, 2015, the day 10 Cities/10 Years was officially completed, I went to an NYC tattoo parlor to get my final project-related tattoo: “Idiot, Slow Down.” Taken from the Radiohead song, “The Tourist,” the tattoo is a reminder to myself to stay still and not let an innate restlessness rob me of what’s right in front of me.
(It’s also frequently a phrase of great consternation to store clerks who see it peaking from my shirt and wonder who I’m calling an idiot.)
Since I’ve been in Madrid, I’ve gotten only one new tattoo, a Spanish translation of lyrics from “Coxcomb Red” by Songs: Ohia. During a dark, post-project period, this song found me and helped keep me going long enough to travel to Spain and figure out a new path. These lyrics caught my attention immediately:
You said every road is a good road Between the next road and your last road
Like so many of my previous tattoos, those words (in Spanish: “Cada camino es un buen camio”) can change meaning based on context. I love the original idea conveyed in the song itself – which, in tone and melody, suggests a kind of bitter finiteness to living – but also, out of the context of the song, the words take on additional significance. There is no inherent right way to live, just so long as you stay on the road.
So, what makes a road “good”? The travel itself.
Will I get more tattoos here in Madrid? Almost certainly. Just don’t know what yet.
Living in Madrid
When I first arrived, I lived near Ventas in what is technically Barrio Salamanca with an assortment of American roommates, all of whom have now returned to the States for a variety of reasons. Six months into my life here, I went on my first date with Helen and we’ve been together ever since. I moved into her Malasaña flat, then, some months later, we moved to our current home.
I’ve now lived in Madrid’s Puerta del Angel barrio longer than I’ve lived in any home since my parents divorced and sold the family home. I was 17 when my mother and I moved into a small loft apartment for my senior year of high school. Since then, the longest I’d inhabited any dwelling before my current one was 2 years (a fact that can complicate matters when I have to verify my identity with banks).
Life in Madrid is relatively easy, for various reasons. The main one, though, is it’s cheaper than basically any other comparable city, certainly more so than all the US cities I lived in, other than perhaps New Orleans. I live comfortably without making work my end-all, be-all of existence. I realize I’m fortunate in that, and my circumstances are not all people’s circumstances. But, also, I spent my 20s eschewing anything resembling a career and I had plenty of people telling me I was going to regret that financial instability.
Now I have socialist healthcare, can travel to beautiful countries for a few hundred bucks, and work (mostly) when I want. I think I did okay.
There are aspects of Madrid (and Spain) that aren’t perfect – for one, there isn’t a word for “customer service” in Spanish. But that’s the constant give and take of life, knowing that there is no such thing as paradise, no utopia. You determine the things that matter most to you and hopefully you can place yourself in a situation where the good outweighs the bad.
I made countless choices in life to get to where I am, and the main reason I can be satisfied with where I am in life is because I made those choices. They weren’t made for me. There are plenty of roads I bypassed on my way to Madrid (often, the “right” roads), but the detours I took had some amazing scenery.
I don’t know. I’m here now. I’ve slowed down. I still travelfairlyfrequently, albeit as a tourist, not as a new resident. I’ve found a home, I’ve found a life with Helen. Beyond that, the future is unwritten, just as it was when I finally completed 10 Cities/10 Years and didn’t have a new destination in mind. However, unlike September 2015, when the sudden completion of a decade-long project left me feeling listless and lost, I feel content, no longer restless.
I’m not naïve. Problems can (and do) still crop up, both personal ones and ones beyond my control. The daily nuisances of life never end. Moving to Madrid didn’t suddenly make life a cakewalk (far from it in many situations). Life will always be a road, potholes and all; that’d be true no matter where I lived.
If you’re feeling lost and aimless, would I recommend dropping everything and moving to a foreign country? Not necessarily. Your circumstances may not allow it. All I can say is, if you’re not dead, you haven’t reached your final destination yet.
Helen and I have talked about the possibility of living other places at some point, but there’s no rush. If the opportunity to take another road presents itself to us, we may take it. But, right now, the road we’re on is pretty damn good.
This last Saturday, Helen and I, along with her parents, headed to the third night of Las Fiestas Virgen de la Paloma, one of Madrid’s most popular local festivals and essentially the biggest party of August.
My first experience of the Fiestas de la Paloma was back in 2018, when Helen and I accidentally stumbled upon it not realizing what weekend it was. The festival, from August 11 to August 15, builds to one of Spain’s main national holidays, the Assumption of Mary (or Assumption Day). Being a majority Catholic country, celebrations of Mary (Marian feast days) take a central role in Spanish society, even if day-to-day religious practice is majorly on the wane. They usually involve parades, religious plays, and Mass.
While Saint Isidro is officially the patron saint of Madrid, the Virgin de la Paloma (Virgin of the Dove) occupies a similar, albeit unofficial role for Madrileños (citizens of Madrid). As such, the Paloma festivals are essential the city’s biggest block party and not-quite-end-of-summer celebration.
The festivities takes place in Barrio de La Latina, among Madrid’s most active and developed neighborhoods (it makes my own Puerta del Angel look positively sleepy). Situated around Plaza de la Paja, the festival stretches past the Royal Basilica of Saint Francis the Great and to the Church of the Virgen de la Paloma. At that second church, there is a famous image of the Virgin Mary over its altar, from which the church and the festivals derive their name.
While La Paloma is ostensibly Catholic, the parties themselves aren’t particularly religious. Mostly, they’re an excuse for locals and visitors to drink beer, eat various grilled meats (lots of roasted full pigs on display), try their hand at carnival games, and watch traditional music and dance performances, like the El Chotis, a Madrileño folk dance that’s origins go back to Polka. At night, there are also concerts on a mainstage to show off various local performers, from flamenco to rock.
A fair warning to anyone planning future visits to any Spanish festivals: If you want to eat, show up early. Spain is a country of exact timings, and the only thing more rigid than dinnertime (22:00) is lunchtime (14:00). If you go for dinner at the standard time, expect to wait in line for 30 minutes, easy. On the plus side, if you’re even 10 minutes early, your wait will be cut in half.
(This is a general rule for eating in Madrid any day of the year. If you don’t have a reservation and want to get a table for lunch, show up at 13:45 and you’ll be all good.)
The Return of the Festivals of the Virgin of Paloma
In 2020, las Fiestas de la Paloma were canceled due to COVID-19. Still reeling from the ongoing pandemic, 2021 brought the return of the festivals, but in a very restricted manner. There were strict capacity limits for most of the events, even outdoors.
So, seeing the bustling, mostly unmasked crowds at the festival this year really drove it home: Madrid, and probably Spain in general, has officially entered the post-COVID era. That’s not to say COVID is gone (it never will be), or even that people should stop caring about COVID (I’d expect at least a mini-surge in winter). But people definitely have stopped caring.
To be fair, at 86% of the population, Spain does have one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe (and the world). Though the country was pummeled by the first few rounds of COVID, life in Spain has mostly felt like it’s been back to “normal” for a while now. But this weekend at La Paloma was the first time it was so in my face.
We were among the unmasked cohorts; there were maybe a handful of attendees wearing masks. In Madrid, mascaras are only required on public transportation and in pharmacies. Perhaps that’s a mistake; maybe the long-term effects of COVID will prove masking should’ve been a permanent part of our lives. But, hey, no one ever accused humanity of being farsighted.
(I realize for many Americans, the idea that any COVID precautions would still be in effect sounds insane.)
For now, at least, it really does feel like we’ve truly entered the post-COVID era. Not an era where COVID doesn’t exist, but an era where the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, vaccines are readily available, and serious cases are few and far between. Famous last words? Guess we’ll see.
Fiestas de la Paloma 2022
If the last 2 years has reinforced anything, it’s that we live in uncertain times. It’s a frequent topic of conversation, the fact that lifestyles that were once taken for granted are no longer the norm. It’s not just the pandemic. The Great Recession and its ripple effects, the rapid technological advancements, the widening global reach of culture, all of it has wildly reshaped what it means to live, even just from a generation ago.
So, it’s interesting to walk through something like the Fiestas de la Paloma and see the vestiges of the past still holding on. The elderly chotis dancers were doing their part, performing their routines in classical attire. And there were younger people helping out, too, like the 20-something-year-old girls wearing manila shawls and traditional dresses.
The purpose of the various Spanish festivals is to continually reinforce the ever-fraying threads that connect the past and the present. Many Madrileños will return to La Paloma year after year, growing up with it from childhood to adulthood to parenthood, bringing their own offspring to an event that makes some concessions to the changing world but largely remains the same. They’ll come because it doesn’t change.
Likewise, posts like this by writers like me are meant to be evergreen, something that aims for the first page of search results when someone googles “Fiestas de la Paloma Madrid”. A good travel blog (which 10 Cities/10 Years is categorically not) is always looking for that perennial hit post, and that means writing about these kinds of static cultural events.
But, how static is it, really? The festivals themselves are relatively new, having grown out of the religious processions surrounding Assumption Day; the Paloma Festivals only started at the end of the 20th century. So, while it’s now a mainstay of Madrid culture, it’s a relative baby in terms of Spanish tradition. What will La Paloma look like in the future; in the unknowable 2023, and the unimaginable 2053?
Spain is a country that is notoriously slow to embrace change, but it feels like all of us are being carried on an unstoppable wave to a foreign future (and not just because sea levels are rising). So, will I be returning to the Fiestas de la Paloma in 30 years, or will we have all evacuated the city to escape the fire-breathing lava monsters that rise up out of the heat-scorched Earth? It’s really anyone’s guess.