Madrid

2017/01/12 writing

YUL → JFK → MAD

Spent my time in YUL just wandering around and coding. Talked to some frequent-traveler-type about the charm of various places and the possible revival of Detroit. He urged me to chek out Big Sur within my lifetime. Flight on the way to JFK was pleasant. Read Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life". Couldn't be bugged to pull out my Kindle in this tiny plane, so I read it on my iPhone.

At JFK I helped some old man figure out how to extract some files from his e-mail. The airport is capitalistically and cruelly wireless-free, so I had to figure out how to properly tether an uncooperative Android. Later, prey to boredom, I went to the bathroom and tried to shave. My electric razor's batteries died on me immediately after taking a couple of stabs below my chin. Embarrassed, I cover the whole mess up with my scarf. It's itchy.

On the way to Spain, I sat next to a Spanish-Argentinean couple going back to Pamplona. They were great. The girl was afraid of flying, the guy and I had wine and beer. We talk about English in Spain, and how it's not very commonly spoken compared to other places. Dubbing all media is a factor.

Madrid feels modern and clean. I get the 5 day pass for 27 or so euro. Feels like a slightly futuristic Montreal, with less french and more spanish. People seem shorter. Everyone is helpful, defuses my expectations of arrogance. I notice half the dudes are sporting the Ali look, nobody really has long hair like mine. I get pointers to take the bus to my hotel, which turns out to be not in Madrid proper but in Salamanca, which is apparently well-known as a fancy bougie district. Cars on the street move fast and slow down on a dime when they're close to you, but it seems like it's pedestrians first all the way. The city is dense with narrow roads and tight parking. I wouldn't like driving here, but I don't like driving anywhere. They have a Bixi variant.

Shower. Work out. My knee is really busted. Not sure whether the workout or the walking or the plane ride contributed most, but it's no joke, I'm actually hurting. Also, amid numerous restaurant recommendations, nobody mentioned I should bring a plug transformer. Electronics dying.

Some ends are loose with respect to my meeting with company folk the following morning, so I make their quarters my first destination. I walk there. They're cool. No dice with the chargers. Between my knee and my dying electronics and my lack of connectivity I'm actually having a bit of a bad time. Free Wi-Fi is a very rare commodity in this city. Also, they call it wee-fee. On a little patch of online communication I manage to connect with Richard, my spanish godfather, and he recommends the Apple Store in Plaza del Sol. It's basically the core, so why not?

I head there and find garish weird overpriced devices for 44, 33, and 22 euro. Apple Store guy is kind and helpful, we discuss how maybe a hardware store is a better choice. He finds one on his mobile, I memorize the address. I head out of the store. Concentrating on my hurting knee, I forget what I had just memorized. I wander north into this slightly elevated cluster of narrow streets and buildings, it's quite lovely. Ask for directions, people tell me I need to see El Chino. I walk around. I find El Chino. He has a perfect device for a mere 3 Euro. I buy a Postcard.

I head outside. Not sure what to do. Thinking about Parque El Retiro, but also kinda hungry. Hear a familiar tune. Some people are playing "Alma, Corazón, y Vida" in a little shop. I decide to ask them for food pointers, since my lack of Wi-Fi wasn't allowing me to check my saved list. They all perk up, and they tell me I have to follow the guitar player. He's a peruvian guy, wants me to try out his restaurant. Why not?

We sit down at his restaurant, which is decently packed, always a good omen. He orders us sangria and some incredible olive appetizers. I order beer and paella mixta. We talk about tons, and tons, and tons of stuff. He's got recognizable anecdotes. Peruvan electromechanical engineer from UNI, went to Spain, took lowlier jobs, rose the ranks, became a serial entrepreneur here and abroad, went back to Lima to start this thing in Gamarra (everything checks out), crazy stories about how difficult it is to do business purely legally in Peru. I think about when my dad told me practicing law wasn't the idealized thing I had in mind when I was considering staying back and doing just that.

Decide to take metro home, from Sol to Salamanca. Head into my room. Think about coordinating some calls and coding, but pass out for a couple of hours instead. Wake up. Hungry. I also feel like my breath smells bad. Forgot lots of tiny key things: Transformer, Razor charger, dental hygiene implements. Head right out. People clearly party on Thursdays, this isn't Toronto or Vancouver. Little cornershop bars are pretty happening, groups prowl around planning what to do. I decide to not go far. Little bodega, Ecuadorian. Get toothpase. Need to make a fiver for a credit purchase, so I pick some extra items. A couple of empanadas and a bon-bon. Head back home. Eat. Write. Hotel is fine. Mattress slides around. I pin it with the desk and a chair.

Interview Day

Meeting time is 10:30. I set out to depart a lot earlier. My knee is absolutely busted, cannot do a proper workout so I keep it upper-body focused. The reservation doesn't include breakfasts, which is just fine. After all, food tourism doesn't exclude going out for breakfast. It does today, though. I just get a toast and 3 glasses of milk in the lobby.

I take the station from Manuel-Becerra to Retiro, and walk around the park. It's beautiful. Quite a few dog walkers. I ponder whether to get chocolate and churros, but decide to just focus on getting myself into CS mode instead.

The office is located in this quintessentially Spanish building, like the ones you see in movies. It's got this tiny little long and thin elevator, which I thought was decorative the day before. The floors are labeled Primero, Segundo, etc.

Their interview room is quite well furnished. Their whiteboards are particularly stylish. Three of their developers pop in and do a casual Q&A with a few technical questions mixed in. I tend to over-explain my thought process in the technical questions, I probably should just learn the proper responses and answer curtly. They asked about the difference between TCP and UDP, as well as the access time complexity of HashMaps and BinaryTrees.

Then there was a "logical" interview with their russian ML expert. I had to explain how I would implement a spam filtering system for an e-mail service. Then there was a cute question about identifying the length of a string without null terminator, disguised as a circular train question. The interviewer found it amusing that I had found the right answer very early and not realized that I had.

We take a lunch break. American-style burger place, but they had a seasonal truffle-themed burger, so I got that. They told me truffles were underground mushrooms, and that I would never guess how they were scoped out. I recalled that in Majora's Mask you use the pig mask to find truffles. Score! We end up talking about quite controversial and esoteric topics; the source of law and the pay gap and political identity. Amusing.

On the way back I have the longer interview, a design meeting where I explain how I would implement their old business model, from raw source of URLs to delivering recruitment e-mails. It's a good exercise. I get the job, but it's the lowest end of the range they offered. Then I get to talk to their CEO. He's the youngest person here. I think about how he's dressed like a CEO, and how I never dress like that. He'd like to learn Haskell. Not a bad chat at all.

I head back to the hotel, and I'm spent so I take a nap. This is something I never do normally, maybe there's something in the air that is causing all these "siestas". I look at my list compiled from friend recommendations and realize that it's all restaurants. I decide to go with Chris's and check out DF Bar. It's a small resto more than it is a bar, but I sit at the barra anyway and watch this charismatic waiter and waitress duo handle a massive influx of people while I sip on beers. They deem their tap not worth mentioning, while the Negra Modelo and other imports are prominently highlighted in the menu. Turns out their tap is Beck's. Ponder how funny it is that that would be the more expensive import in Canada.

I just sit at the bar and drink and chat and it takes forever but eventually my torta Pastor comes out. It's absolutely incredible. Chris is right about the hot sauce too, but I don't steal anything like he had exhorted me to. It's not even in a proper container. The waitress feels bad about having had me wait and so she gives me a free margarita as I wrap things up. It's an excellent night-cap. I start my walk around Sol all the way to Retiro, hoping to walk around the park in the dark. On the way I find a karaoke bar. I walk inside. It's far more like L'Auberge St. Hubert than my bitterly beloved Trois Minots on St. Laurent, so I decide it's not in the cards for me to sing tonight. I reach the park, and it's all locked up. I settle for a nice walk alongside, reach the station, and it's a wrap.

Saturday

I decide that Apple Maps is really not doing the trick. Neither is CityMapper, which one of the devs had recommended. I download 3 map apps and set out to play around with them. One is too thickly corporate branded for my taste, so I stick to HERE Maps and maps.me. The latter eventually wins out.

I start my day late. At around 11, I decide to hit up Bisi's Valor recommendation. I make a mistake and head down a wrong transfer to a wrong station, and end up walking around this nice neighborhood with a lot of character. I also get to see the Metro museum, and how not all metros are as high tech as the line I usually ride. Some have this old-timey handle thingy in the doors. Some of the publicity in the walls is great, it's striking how much classier than New York City or San Francisco these are. One ad is just a page from an interesting-sounding novel about a woman learning english. It's trying to get you to buy the book, or go to a book fair, or something along those lines.

I exit at Callao. It's unexpectedly an extremely happening place, feels a bit Times Square-ish with the huge tall telescreens and crowds. I had understood the actual main square was Plaza del Sol, maybe not. I make my way to Valor. It's absolutely incredible. I go the extra mile with an additional white chocolate cup after my proper churro and chocolate pair. I decide to walk alongisde the Gran Via as per Romney's recommendation. While standing near a Starbucks abusing their Wi-Fi, I hear some screaming and wailing and my mind for an instant ponders terrorism, but it immediately realizes that what I am actually hearing is the unmistakable sound of a sea of fangirls. I head around the corner and the streets are absolutely blocked up with a mass of people, from which groups of girls stream in and out from in pairs and triads sporadically. Somehow it reminds me of the statistical mechanics behind evaporation. Some very puzzled tourists ask me to explain the situation to them, and I decide to clarify for myself as well and ask a very Spanish looking man. I translate for the anglophone tourists. Indeed, a boy band has released some kind of memoir or biography, and this is the book signing event.

I get back to Gran Via and continue walking down. It's beautiful. I think the city can best properly be described as "palatial". I eventually make it back to now-familiar haunts like Banco de España and Sevilla, so I take a turn at the Palace and see if maybe I hit the Museo del Prado today. I walk through a strangely cloistered hall with temperature controls and security, turns out to be the Ayuntamiento. I observe big UK-Style surveillance cameras. I realize I'm near the Naval Museum, so set out there instead.

Naval Museum is small but quite gorgeous. I feel myself reverting back to my Age of Empires days, half of the stuff here would be perfectly at home on an average The Conquerors match. Their weapon collection is amazing, I'm surprised at some of the dimensions. Lots of boats and boat fragments. A fair bit of multimedia as well; some mini documentaries playing in loop in corners (of the militaristic patriotic variant) as well as a pretty well done AR map which you interact with via an iPad. There's also a reconstructed boat. The temporary exhibit about Manila makes me ponder imperialism. I buy some souvenirs here.

I head down to the Prado Museum, but I cannot figure out the pricing and I'm exhausted and it looks packed. The Real Academia is right there, but it's not a tourist destination. Looks incredible though. I walk around trying to find some accessible building but instead give up and walk into the Parque del Buen Retiro. There's accordions playing, as well as Mickey Mouse and Winnie Pooh and Donald Duck, and people rowing in the pond, and kids feeding the ducks, and people roller-blading. The weather seems particularly perfect. I make my way back home taking as much in as possible.

I call Daniel. We meet up. I feel like we both look pretty unchanged outside of the aging, so like, just older versions of our younger selves. It's the kind of thing you'd think is normal, but in many cases people... change a lot. He lives with his girlfriend, who just left for a few weeks. Their place reminds me of ours. We talk about sports injuries and living in Madrid and what people from back in the day are up to. His friends come over, everybody communicates mainly in english. I step outside for a bit to grab dinner. I just go to a random dep-looking place and it turns out to be well-furnished: tables, kitchen, a bar. I have some cold cuts and eggs with tinto. I get back, we drink a fair bit. A couple of people leave, we talk about hip hop, we head outside. It's quite late for Montreal standards, maybe 2:30 AM? We take a very long walk around the city. There's Southeast-Asian looking beer salesmen everywhere. We buy some beers. We drink outside. We stand outside a brothel and they about prostitution for a bit. We keep walking. We grab some donairs, and more beer. We grab some pizza. We've walked a long long way, I haven't been in this part of town before. It's 4 AM and streets are still very busy. We take a cab back to the station in between our places and part ways.

Sunday

Another late day, this time with a good excuse I suppose. I set out for myself a modest set of goals: Exchange one souvenir at the Naval Museum, visit the Prado Museum and acquire a few others, and have some good food. My modesty is rewarded: I will eventually succeesfully complete all of these tasks.

First, though, I decide to have breakfast at Museo del Jamón. This was my one and only bad experience in Madrid. It was raved about by multiple people, including my godfather having fond memories of going there with my grandfather. The startup guys trashed it as a bit of a tourist trap. Anyway, I sit at the bar... and similar to Schwartz's, attention is sporadic and fleeting. I want to ask questions about what's this and what's that, but nobody has time. I want an orange juice, but in haste and confusion I somehow end up with a Fanta. A paellita appears before me as well. I suppose it's some kind of courtesy. I order huevos rotos with jamon serrano, and they arrive. I order another Fanta, and suddenly a stew appears before me. Turns out drinks came... with pretty big meals each? I don't understand anything. I pay and bail. All I wanted was some soft ham.

I head down to the museum zone, and decide to first scope out Prado. The admission is steep at 15 euro, and they have this thick guide bundled for an extra seven euro. I just say screw it and get it all. Inside... honestly, I just walked around observed and read, but it was wonderful. I don't really know how to capture the whole thing with words. Even the bad parts, such as the poor air quality, somehow added to the experience. I discovered Rubens is my favorite painter, all it took was "Prometheus" (with the fire, not unbound). Two of the temporary exhibits were interesting but didn't really stick — one about Clara Peeters' still-lifes (neat feminist angle to it, especially about her tiny self-portraits in the reflections of shiny objects as statement), and one about a guy who "mastered drawing", whatever that means in the context of an art museum. The exhibit about Meta-Art, art about art itself and painting and breaking the fourth wall and art serving social and symbolic purposes throughout the ages, was fantastic. I considered buying the print edition. The thesis was well developed. There was also an architecture thing at the top in the cloisters. I was too exhausted to even begin to comprehend it.

Then I went to the permanent exhibit and it was just overwhelming. In a good way. Just absolutely massive works, varied as all hell. I understood Goya departing from myths into painting everyday life, Rubens painting said myths, marble sculptures, royal portraits everywhere, so many saints. Every other thing, from details in paintings (like... nip slips?) or the extremely multitudinous security guard corps or the handheld listening devices or the Chinese tour groups. It all made me wish I had someone to talk to. I didn't, so I just observed and listened. I went about it haphazardly, not following any of the recommended orders, and eventually just felt sated and headed out. It was actually tricky to find my way back.

For like an hour I stressed out in the souvenir shop, and decided postcards were the best investment. I swung back by the Naval Museum and exchanged one generic girly keychain for another magnifying glass one. They're great.

I went back home and chatted with my godfather. So far Spain had made me reminisce quite intensely. About my grandfather and grandmother in particular. Gave context and retroactively enriched memories somehow. I was in touch with all of this two dozen years before I actually stepped foot in Madrid.

My post about Rubens received a reply that let me know Adam was online, so I asked him a few Art History questions and decided that destiny was picking my last meal for me. He had strongly emphasized that I check out La Casa del Abuelo. I departed once again. The place looked nothing like what I expected. The gambas al ajo that my friend mentioned were prominently advertised. I decided to not even look at the menu, just went inside ordered those with a glass of wine and figured I'd get one extra thing as I went along. As soon as I opened the menu I realized that this was by far the steepest place I had been to in Madrid. Not a bank-breaker at all, I guess I'm just a frugal guy. Anyway, the waiter recommended this 500g steak, and it seemed both too large and too expensive. I settled for the option below, 200g of Secreto Ibérico, less than half as big and half as expensive. I thought about that economic paper about how the second cheapest wine in the menu often has the highest markup, preying on our psychology.

The food was fantastic. The gambas were indeed something extraordinary, and the rest was similarly impressive. I wrapped it all up with a glass of sangría and headed home one last time. I was a bit anxious, so it took a while for me to fall asleep. Not so much because of the sadness of leaving, but because I didn't know the exact route I'd take home. I just didn't feel like figuring it out then and there.

MAD → JFK → YUL

Wake up. No breakfast. Just shower, metro, airport. Sleep through most of the first leg. Extremely unpleasant times at JFK, probably some of the worst organized security checkpoints I've seen. Sat next to a nice peruvian lady on the last leg, we talked about software ane education. My knee hurt. Then I went home.