The Unknowable Lightness of Being: Madrid 2012
Welcome to our new contributor, Bob Ecker, who circles the world, looking for a great glass of wine, or a good story. His circumnavigations of the globe promise to bring EENews new looks at our old planet. Welcome, Bob.
By Bob Ecker
In a short fortnight my wife Colleen and I traveled extensively around Spain and were finally catching our breath back in Madrid before the next day’s flight home. Hungry that foggy evening, we ventured out into the streets of the capital looking for a decent last meal in Spain.
During this whirlwind Spanish sojourn which began and ended in Madrid, we’d eaten tons of tapas, sampled lovely sardines, patates bravas and calamares fritos, put away pounds of paella, dined at roadside haunts and Michelin starred restaurants. It was mostly delicious, but that evening we were both hoping for a simple, no nonsense economical meal.
Unfortunately our hotel was in the fashionable district of Madrid with few restaurants of any kind nearby. That night, we walked and walked in an increasing drizzle until discovering The China Palace, a large gaudily lit Chinese restaurant. Although few tables were occupied –never a good sign — it seemed like destiny guided us inside.
The lights in the China Palace blazed brightly while some indescribable Chinese Disco music played over the speakers. Gigantic exotic green plants hovered like primeval grasshoppers over many of the empty tables but it otherwise seemed acceptable, plus the wait staff seemed incredibly happy to see us.
Typical onion and sesame oil scents floated by stimulating our appetites so we sat, ordered tea, pot stickers, Kung Pao and looked around. A grand total of three tables had customers inside the spacious restaurant. No matter, we settled in for a comfortable meal.
Nearby, two of the customers were dressed in an unusual fashion. They both wore dazzling vinyl outfits, long white boots and lots of costume jewelry. One of them had huge, platinum hair, almost like a tent on top of her head. They were giggling and drinking beer and I caught “Miss Big Hair,” flash her long fake eyelashes at me.
They were taking a break it appeared, from the world’s oldest profession. Through the occasional lapses in music, I heard the ladies speak a few words in a language that I thought I recognized. I focused my hearing, and yes, yes, it was! They were speaking Hungarian – my parents’ native tongue. I haltingly speak the language but understand it pretty well when I hear it. This was exciting.
I told Colleen that I had to say something to them. She gasped and remarked that I was insane. “What? Why on earth do you want to do that?” she asked. “I don’t know, I just want to try,” I said, while playing with my napkin.
I wanted to communicate with them, in Hungarian, here in this foreign land, like travelers wearing the same baseball hat meeting in a distant galaxy. Or something like that. I could tell that, for some reason, Colleen did not share my enthusiasm.
Part of my desire was that while on this trip, we had trouble communicating with the Spanish people. And it wasn’t the language barrier. People we met were tolerant, sporadically friendly but usually reserved, offering no more than necessary in any discourse. So this seemed to be my last chance to speak, or to have some sort of “meaningful conversation” with a total stranger before our return home.
We discussed speaking with the ladies over our meal –excellent and affordable – as I occasionally made inadvertent eye contact with “Miss Big Hair.” When the bill came, I told Colleen that I was, after all, going to say hello to “the ladies.” She was upset at my decision, blurted that she’d meet me outside, and walked out in a huff.
I paid the bill and with an awkward gait, ambled over to the two young ladies and said “Szervusz,” (hello) in Hungarian. They seemed stunned, then confused, then simply laughed. Out of a corner of my eye, I noticed three of the smiling Chinese waiters looking at me while whispering to each other.
The two women mentioned how cute my “American” Hungarian accent was after I stammered through a couple of horrible Hungarian sentences. However I was able to convey that no, I wasn’t a policeman, just an ordinary tourist, and no, I didn’t want to go “out” with them either. They asked me about the woman I was with and roared when I told them that she was my wife who had strongly disapproved of my coming over.
Then “Miss Big Hair” asked me to sit down with a delicate wave of her bejeweled hand. Although the offer was intriguing, I didn’t think it would be a good idea. The women continued giggling right in my face so after a very awkward minute, I said goodbye then burst out the door to greet my uncomprehending wife.
She was blinking away in the evening mist, almost speechless, and couldn’t understand why I did it. I couldn’t really say but I’ve learned that travel is at times curiously, spectacularly unknowable. Sometimes you just have to take a chance. Even if you don’t know why. Even if two Hungarian hookers in Spain, sitting in an empty Chinese restaurant, laugh at you out loud.
Bob Ecker is a Napa, California based freelance writer/photographer producing compelling wine, destination travel, culinary, sport and feature content. His magazine articles have appeared in Decanter, Enroute, Morning Calm, Wine Enthusiast, The Walrus Magazine, DOTW News, Beverly Hills Magazine, Business Traveler Magazine and many newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Toronto Globe & Mail, Jerusalem Post, Sydney Morning Herald and South China Morning Post.Pin It