As I also mentioned, none of us had ever been to Spain before. Our language abilities were limited. My husband, who practices criminal law in New York City, has picked up some Spanish from listening to courthouse interpreters, but most of the time he relies on his fabulous bilingual paralegal to communicate with non-English speakers at home. My kids have had some Spanish in school, but it's been entirely of the lady-with-a-guitar-singing-songs-about-the-names-of-the-days-of-the-week variety. So while they could tell you that we had arrived on a martes, and they could ask for a bathroom and say please and thank you, they couldn't really say much more.
I had had six months of intensive Spanish instruction in college. I'd signed up for the classes on a whim, not knowing what else to take my senior year. I'd needed something fun and challenging but relatively easy to fill out my class schedule while I focused most of my academic efforts on writing and defending my thesis in German. Granted, that was twenty-five years ago, but, as it turned out, I was the family member who was best equipped, linguistically speaking, when we touched down on the Iberian peninsula.
The first order of business was, of course, to find a bathroom in the airport, and this was the magical moment in which it occurred to us that we were a bunch of gringos without a clue. For, as far as we knew, a bathroom was called a baño. We were pretty sure that was the right word. But in Spain, a baño is a bath (as in a tub full of water in which to soak). What we were looking for - toilets - are referred to as aseos in Spain. This is a word none of us had ever heard before.
Fortunately, whatever they are called, we found them right away.
And then we were off on our adventure. Madrid is a beautiful city, full of friendly people eager to try out their English on visiting Americans. The first thing we did, after settling into our hotel, was to explore the neighborhood on foot. As it turns out, we were just a few steps from Retiro Park, which was basically Madrid's equivalent of Central Park. We took a stroll, stopped for lunch in a cafe in the middle of the park, and watched the boaters and the street performers.
|Three American kids posing in the Retiro on their first day in Spain.|
|A street performer blowing a giant soap bubble.|
|Outside the Prado|
We might not have found the old city and some of the more important sights if we had not hopped onto the bus. Also, I am famous in the family for copping a nap whenever possible, especially on board moving vehicles, so the bus gave me an opportunity to close my eyes between sights.
|Contemplating a Spanish menu|
|Strolling around town|
After our few days in Madrid, the next order of business was to get a rental car (in the city, we had been walking everywhere) and drive it to Bilbao, up near the northern coast. This would be a full day's drive, so we packed everything but the guide books (we had brought Fodor's Spain 2011 and the green Michelin guide) and set out on our drive.
Coming up: Burgos, Bilbao, and the northern coast