Cornered in Madrid

by Marianne Rogoff

While enjoying a drink at a taberna in Madrid, a traveler’s attention is pulled between a televised bullfight, the music of nearby slot machines, and the traffic outside. This story was selected as a finalist in the Soundtrack of Travel travel writing competition.

When the picador missed him / What did Ferdinand do? / He kissed him!

            ~ Slim and Slam, jazz duo song “Ferdinand the Bull”

That tall man’s eyes are laughing in rhythm with the merry chatter of this indoor-outdoor taberna on a hot afternoon in Madrid. After walking the city all day, I’m thirsty, and there is no room to squeeze in to order at the bar past the wide shoulders of the bald man seated on a stool at my elbow, the one who made the tall man laugh. My own eyes are over-stimulated by hours of museum tours, zooming their lenses out and in to grasp the sprawling history of art while studying the fine brushstrokes of Dali, Miro, Goya, and the rest. What I want now is less grand, street music not concert hall, a cold drink.

High up in a corner, above two pulsing neon slot machines, hangs an old television, where a toreador is taunting a fierce-looking bull with a hot-pink cape. This part of the bullfight is a dance, the pleasant, pleasing prologue to the prolonged fight-to-the-death. The crowd starts yelling at the TV because the bull has taken a stand by refusing to dance; instead, he plops down on the dirt of the arena and yawns. From his barstool, the bald man shouts, “Ferdinand!”

I know Ferdinand! I spent many summertime hours reading that vintage children’s book. Ferdinand the Bull refuses to fight when the toreadors then the picadors goad him with their bright capes and sharp picks. He is not a fighter. Ferdinand prefers to smell the flowers.

Did the bald man read The Story of Ferdinand, too? Was it first written in Spanish? (That would make sense.) In fact, the book was published in 1936, right after the start of the Spanish Civil War, and became surprisingly controversial for a children’s book (I later learn):

A writer for The New Yorker observed, in a January, 1938, Talk of the Town story, “Ferdinand has provoked all sorts of adult after-dinner conversations. Some say he’s a rugged individualist, some say he’s a ruthless Fascist who wanted his own way and got it, others say the tale is a satire on sit-down strikes—you see the idea.”

So much of life is a matter of perspective, I do see that, and how the view keeps shifting, too. Here in this crowded bar on a hot tarde in new millennium Madrid, two young men push coins into musical slot machines below a hung television where a bullfighter is trying to rouse a bull’s attention and tempt him to dance. I love the toreador’s knee-high fuchsia socks, his adorable brocade knee-length pants and bolero jacket, his velvet beret, aesthetic holdovers from the old world that cultivated this brutal spectacle of costumes, cape dancing, and killing. This very pub might have been here since the Spanish Civil War, in which a short man and the bald man at the bar are still fighting.

“Franco was a good man. He was for the People!”

“Yeah, which people?”

“All those who work hard and suffer!”

The bartender tops their glasses and makes a joke I can’t hear over the roar of the crowd as the matador himself enters the ring and one slot machine starts loudly dropping coins. The old men fighting old battles decide to raise a cheery toast to who-knows-what. Perhaps that the bartender is tapping the bar in a gesture that indicates this round is on the house. I seize the moment to shoulder my way in next to the Franco men and at last come away with a nice, tall glass of iced sangria, then seat myself at a small table, not far from the action since this place is small, with two walls open to the street corner, my table off-balance, a little bit inside, a little out.

I feel balanced at this moment, poised between outside and in. Traveling solo is my new favorite learned skill. When friends at home ask, aren’t you afraid, don’t you ever get lost, I say I find my way by following my ears to lively gatherings. It might be cacophonous birds singing to each other from the tops of trees, church bells calling all the lonely people to prayer, or hurdy gurdy organ grinders with tin cups clanking coins, signals of gratitude from turistas like me. Ears alert, the body relaxes, tuned in to all invitations to stop obeying maps and itineraries, and just listen. So many people are out walking the streets right now, so close to my seat I can hear their dialogues in passing, smell their perfumes; some stop behind my hair to watch the stirring motions of the bright pink cape and cheer the bull’s response, as now Ferdinand is moving between indifference and charging.

The sidewalk pedestrians shout at the television then go on their way. A town clock gongs 4pm as a truck rounds the corner too fast, too close to me, nearly knocking three teenagers off their feet, and they shout at the driver, “Tonto!” Close call, I survive, but my sangria is a frustrating drink as the glass is tall but narrow and full of large, blocky ice cubes; it is hard to get my mouth past the cubes to get a good sip of the wine. My throat is so dry, and this is not working. Across the room, the bartender notices my dilemma and elects to deliver me a pitcher-full and motions to the tall man to carry it over. I gesture, no, no, it’s fine, but now he, too, is intent on quenching my thirst. He walks toward me with the pitcher, gestures for permission to pour, and I am not sure what to do. I may be the only woman in here. I remain parched. Is it okay to say Yes? Feeling guarded all of a sudden, I say No and try again to get my lips past the ice to take a drink, when Ferdinand abruptly stands and rushes the matador, gores him, tosses him in air, then goes at him again when the man is lying flat on the ground. This causes passersby behind me to halt in their tracks in horror, watching with their mouths open as the bull charges ahead and jumps the barrier into the seats of spectators, who scatter, spilling wine, flowers falling from their hair as they go.

What Ferdinand wants next, he does not appear to know any more than I do, except to avoid death, hear more music, smell the flowers, taste the wine.

I dump the ice cubes onto the sidewalk where they melt immediately in the summer heat and hold up my empty glass. The tall man pours from the pitcher with its lip that holds back the cubes. The matador is carried off the field, perhaps still breathing but maybe not. Ferdinand has been captured alive, though his fate is unclear. The people in the stadium on TV, as well as the ones on the sidewalk at my shoulder, go on their way now that the fight is over. I gulp a solid mouthful of sweet cold wine and smile. From around a nearby corner, a busker’s violin commences its song.

Cover photo credit

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