Thursday, January 6, 2011

Madrid: where do you fit?

After a few days roaming around Madrid (where the skies were blue and the temperature was around 13oC/55oF, which felt like Summer after Oslo), on our last evening there we left aside the city map and just headed in a random direction. Soon we were out of the touristy section and in a more residential area where people walking briskly were on the street (not the two-steps-and-stop or wavering walk associated with tourists trying to take the sights in). We kept on walking and suddenly the grocery stores, butchers, bakeries, etc were replaced by signs in Spanish and Chinese and stores selling cheap clothes and plastic stuff from China appeared. Not just the stores, but the people working there were also Asians. Soon some Pakistanis were also in sight, working at kebab stores or elsewhere (A. was identifying them by the bits of language he could pick up). And then the streets became narrower and less lit, fewer people were on the streets and only the occasional bar brought some noise. As a developing country person I instinctively became alert to my surroundings, a feeling that this might not be the place to be at night. At the same time I sensed A. relaxing, walking easier and looking around with greater interest and curiosity.
Later we were sitting at a tea shop with a hookah and a bunch of locals (a mix of Spanish, Urdu, Punjabi and Arabic was floating around but none looked like tourists) and A. mentioned how much at ease he feels in immigrant neighborhoods. I thought it was odd, as I would usually avoid these areas when traveling by myself, especially at night. I usually sense that people look at me funny, as if wondering what this gori is doing in this part of town. For A. on the other hand, it was the place in the city where he usually finds acceptance, where he is the same as the others and, especially, where there is good food. Not being a Western cuisine fan (although he's increasingly taking a liking for baguettes with olive oil ;), A. always finds a falafel stand, a Middle Eastern hole in the wall, a Chinese entrepreneur in the middle of Venice or even the occasional Indian eateries in these neighborhoods. We realized that we have opposite instinctive reactions to less lit immigrant neighborhoods when we travel in the West, while I avoid them or approach them as a stranger (or, sometimes even don't consider them the "original" country experience I came to see), A. seeks them out, giving him a glimpse of what life could be like if he lived there, or bringing him a step closer to home.

I must admit that when  in India for too long I do seek out a bakery or pizza though, so I guess we are not that different after all.


  1. Wouldn't that make you an immigrant as well technically your not exactly European. So it makes no sense why you would avoid these neighborhoods. Theirs bad everywhere.

  2. Hi Anonymous,
    I completely agree, I'm as immigrant as any other. I just meant that I avoid wandering off to not well lit streets where people stare at me.

  3. I can identify with the feeling of uneasiness when in neighborhoods like that, especially in unlit surroundings although in my case it is the other way around. Being of the brown persuasion, I have felt the kind of can-we-get-outta-here feeling when roaming around in "deep-white" country in interior US. Not sure if A. has had the same experience but I've been stared at. Not with malice - just curiosity mostly.

  4. agree with dyslexichippo- we are moving to the US soon and the first thing that crossed my mind was the hope we wouldnt be in some horribly redneckish "deep white" place because i feel so SO uncomfortable around that environment, whereas my husband is from midwest small town farm area and he feels not-as-comfortable in "off-white" zones (as he put it)'s making for some interesting travel!

  5. Hi Dsylexic!
    Yes, A. also does not like the deep-white areas mostly for getting stared at. I guess we all like to blend in somewhat.

    And :),
    Do you know where you are moving to? I can imagine many places in the US where it will be fine and lot's of others that will take some tough skin...