The traffic, the bustle, the sophisticated and beautiful people — tanned and rejuvenated after August in Cádiz or Valencia or Almería — marching and swaying, giggling arm in arm, drawn towards the dizzying lights of the Madrid night. A care-free, giddy human chain of mischievous excitement. Monday morning a million miles away.
While lugging two bulging and wobbly-wheeled suitcases up Gran Via on that stifling Saturday night in September 2016, I had that giddy feeling you get in Times Square for the first time. By then, I had crammed all the classic books on Spain — the likes of Giles Tremlett’s Ghost of Spain and John Hooper’s The New Spaniards — and was well-versed in Madrid’s juerguista fame, the late dinners and long nights and those who continue to cling on to the memory of La Movida Madrileña.
Do what you want to do
I moved to Madrid without ever having stepped foot in the Spanish capital.
It wasn’t exactly a shot in the dark like the thousands of Irish who emigrated in the 50s and 60s, more an educated punt by someone who was lucky enough to be able to choose Spain and prepare with Spanish classes at the Cervantes Institute.
It was a move that put a full stop to mark the end of my Dublin rat race story. I had had enough. I was fed up with doing what I felt what I ought to be doing, fed up with following others rather than doing something that really drove me.
Coming out of university at the very peak of the financial crisis in Ireland I took what I could get, but numbers and spreadsheets didn’t make me happy.
Doing what you think you should, rather than what you want, is no way to live — I wish someone had given me that advice earlier.
A personal reset was needed.
Professionally, I took several steps back to be able to move forward. Having said that, Madrid isn't a bad place to take a few steps back.
All or nothing
Madrid is grandeur and glamour, it’s loud, it’s all consuming: from the endless debates and polémicas, to the way the city wines and dines and dresses — always decked out to the nines. It’s go hard or stay home.
I’m now in my fifth year in Madrid and it’s felt like one long crash course into Spanish life. Three general elections; an overthrown president; the Catalan referendum chaos which had the entire country on the ropes; a global pandemic; a historic snow storm; more corruption cases than I care to remember; and Real Madrid winning a historic three Champions Leagues in a row.
I’ve seen anger, joy, fear, unity, bitter divides, hope and despair — virtually every emotion across the spectrum. I have seen the Spaniards and Madrileños at their most jubilant and most vulnerable.
They are generally good people, kind, sincere and fun. On a professional level they sell themselves short, though. The problem with Spain is that it is brilliant at selling Spain to itself rather than to the outside.
Can´t stand the heat…
I often think that of that line…I think it was Marilyn Monroe…“if you cant handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve my best.”
Madrid at its worst is in July and August. The days of searing heat where the mercury continues to rise past 6pm.
Then you´ll have the days of high winds and 40 degree heat and the sensation that you are teetering agonisingly close to the head of a hairdryer on full blast.
Summers in Madrid are cold gazpacho and iced tinto de verano; lost sleep and only leaving your piso early in the morning and late at night — and you can forget about sunbathing! (I think I may actually be whiter than when I arrived.)
As an Irishman, its not in my DNA to dread the summer. It’s a time of year I was raised to relish.
I do miss those warm evenings of cycling home coat-less along Dublin’s canal. The people enjoying the craic and a few cold pints after work. You come out of an office at 6pm in Madrid in July and its run (!) for shelter and air conditioning.
Others have the luxury of being able to go to a segunda residencia in Malaga or Alicante for a couple of months but I’m just tired of dreading summer.
Madrid is currently under the control of a right-wing regime that has been in power for 25 years — a quarter of a century. They are a group who revel in confrontation from the comfort of their lavish lifestyles, so out of touch with reality that they find it hilarious to ridicule those who try to highlight the need to confront a very real societal mental health crisis.
Measures introduced by previous Madrid mayor, the progressive Manuela Carmena to make Madrid a more spacious and breathable city were quickly reversed as soon as the right-wing coalition took over the town hall. Current regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso aimed to justify the archaic strategy to make Madrid great again by claiming that “traffic jams are a symbol of Madrid identity,’’ and back came the cars.
The political tension in the region has been ratcheted up with the announcement of a snap election for May 4. The region is divided right down the middle: it’s left v right with nothing in between, the centre like the streets of an Andalucían town during la hora de comer. The daily daggers, the insults, soundbites, scaremongering and mudslinging are incessant and tiring.
Despite its glaring societal (wealth divide), political, and environmental problems, Madrid as a city is wonderful for most of the year.
It is compact, the public transport works really well, the neighbourhoods are diverse, and the architecture stunning. The food scene rivals that of anywhere in the world, and it is extremely safe.
Then you have the bars and terraces, football, fashion, theatre, cinema, thriving food markets, El Rastro, El Retiro and world-famous art museums.
But no beaches.
There have been many days – not during lockdown curiously enough – that I have felt a suffocating sense of claustrophobia.
Growing up, I never lived more than a short ride from the coast. The same in Dublin. With each passing year in Madrid it has felt like the walls have been slowly closing in.
Two years ago I suffered badly with anxiety. I could barely muster the strength to meet up with close friends who had come to visit. It was crippling and I sought medical help — Spain’s public health system is excellent — and I am now doing well.
I hope the move will further improve my well-being.
Spain, for me, is home. Why would I want to leave a country that has allowed me to visit and make friends in places like Madrid, Seville, Valencia, Barcelona, Malaga etc while enjoying the best gastronomy and wine in the world?
But I do miss the rain. How could I not? The weather defines us Irish. We have a sort of morbid fascination with it.
The land from the middle of Spain downwards is scorched and parched. Harsh and lifeless.
The wind, the rain, the Atlantic waves and the lush green for me is life.
Thousands of families raise perfectly happy children here. Para gustos los colores as they say, but Madrid is not where I personally want to raise a family.
In almost five years here I have not once rode a bicycle — Madrid is the least cyclist friendly capital in Europe. Cyclists are second-class citizens here, viewed as an inconvenience rather an easy form of sustainable mobility.
Of course the pandemic has accelerated the urgency to skip town. Being cooped up in small, expensive apartments does that to you.
All for immigration
Learning Spanish and becoming a tax-paying citizen in Spain has unlocked a part of my brain I never knew existed. I started to think differently, I began to view words, beliefs and mindsets from a angle. And I became better at taking things a bit slower.
Living in a new language is extremely humbling — you learn to talk less and listen more, simply because you have to. It’s an awakening: you are exposed to new cultures and new ideas. Being an immigrant brings with it that nervous energy of not having anything or anyone really to fall back upon. It forces you to live life on the front foot. To not take things for granted.
The world would be a better, more tolerant and open place if more people lived abroad at least once in their lives.
Madrid has been an incredible platform to construct my life in Spain, it has allowed me to lay the foundations and create a new network, to learn and develop, to decide what I wanted and what I didn’t.
Unlike most immigrants I have the luxury of being able to work remotely, supported by a brilliant Madrid-based company recently named in the Financial Time’s top 1,000 fastest growing companies in Europe and I will be back in Madrid regularly for work. Professionally, I am miles ahead of where I was in Dublin.
On a personal level, I’ll be back to enjoy Madrid on my terms.
Coffee on Calle Ruda; pinchos de tortilla in Casa Paco; cañas in Chamberí; sitting out on a terrace sipping coffee in a glass on a cold December morning with the sun on my pale cheeks; sizzling garlic prawns and croquetas with a caña in La Casa del Abuelo; suffering in the Wanda Metropolitano as Atlético Madrid hang on for a 1–0 win at home to Espanyol.
My first ever Spanish teacher — it all started in 2015 with private classes in a Dublin Starbucks — once told me: “I would have liked to have been a foreigner in Madrid, to have that feeling that the world is your oyster.” It really is a fabulous city.
So where now?
I’ve been searching for a land that gives me that balance between what I love about Spain — the food, the wine, the football, the pace of life, the culture and people — and what I miss most from home: the green, the Atlantic, the warmer evenings as winter retreats for another year, and SUMMER!
I’ve found what I’ve been looking for.
Apologies in advance for the many restaurant and cultural recommendations coming your way.
Keep in touch,