Adventures in Spanish Cat Sitting: Part 1, Madrid

Sometimes you pick your vacation spots, and sometimes they find you. That just happened for us, in the form of an invite from good friends who happened to be cat sitting in Spain in a two-bedroom apartment. They live in SF, and no, this isn't an international version of the Rover app or a remake of "The Holiday" but with dogs and cats. A friend of theirs who lives in Spain invited them to come stay for free in her apartment for a couple weeks while she was traveling, and it was great for both parties: free vacation + free petsitting, win-win! We were lucky enough to get invited along to hang and pet kitties too.

So Joe and I packed our bags a few weeks ago to take a flight to Madrid, where we stayed for about 24 hours before we moved onto our next destination! We didn't get to do too too much. Namely: Churros and chocolate.

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My sweatshirt did not survive an encounter with this super thick dipping chocolate. We went to the historic Chocolateria San Gines in Madrid, as recommended by my friend Linda, and sat in the basement, which looked like a subterranean subway car.

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Sorry for the dirty plate shot, but I had to share my wallet for this trip. I kept all my valuables in a ziplock bag for some reason, that's not sad at all. I've been obsessed with reading about Birkins lately (an impossible dream), and we'd joke that I would get the Birkin (how good is Chiara's orange one?) but continue using a ziploc bag as a wallet.

There's a whole story behind that lounge pass too - basically I took all the money we would've spent on hotels and splurged on getting an Amex Platinum card. Everyone in my life tried to talk me out of this card in favor of the Chase Sapphire, but I got weirdly fixated on it (much like the Birkin, but slightly more attainable). I realize now that adulthood is just a series of conversations about credit card rewards.

Of course, I tried to rationalize it by putting it in the context of this trip. We'd get Global Entry! And lounge access! I believe Joe was more excited before we left about #loungelife than our vacation. At Dulles, I sashayed into the Turkish Airline Lounge and proudly held up my Priority Pass. It was as if I held up a dirty sock. 

"I'm sorry, ma'am, the lounge is full," the receptionist said as she waived in actual rich people. "It didn't work," I shrugged to Joe. "Let's go to Wendy's." 

Once we got to Madrid, we took the metro to Gran Via to our hotel, which was the cheapest central hotel I could find the Amex travel site. What the Amex site neglected to mention is that there was zero signage for the hotel, not even a buzzer. We were at the right address, but it looked like an apartment building in a semi-abandoned alley. We had already dragged our suitcases all over Gran Via at that point, which was (as is our luck) blocked off for a marathon. Joe and I actually cut across the marathon course not once, not twice, but three times looking for our hotel, each time running across with our rolly bags in tour. What a scene.

So this situation after finally finding the hotel was not ideal. I looked up the name of the hotel on Trip Advisor and it said you were supposed to let them know you were coming 48 hours in advance. Also not ideal!

Luckily, the apartment door eventually opened and I sprinted to grab it and everything worked out. Except that the hotel was too small to store our luggage before we checked in. "I know a place that can help you," the hotel employee said, and she wrote down an address and the words "Look and be free."

"Look and be free," Joe said. "That's deep. That might be my next tattoo." Once we arrived at the address, it made a lot more sense.  

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Lock & Be Free! It was this oh-so-branded luggage locker place. Is this not the SoulCycle of luggage lockers? They were absolutely printing money, with a steady stream of suitcase-laden millennials like us lined up outside. 

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Now that we were free sans luggage, here's how we explored Madrid in the little time we had: we went to Mercado de San Miguel, which was an adorable food market but so crowded. We also took a spin through Mercado San Anton, which seemed more geared towards locals. We found a hipster coffee shop, Toma Cafe, so so hip. I promised that my jet-lag and red-eye-induced nap would just be a few hours but that was a lie.

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Mainly, we visited Madrid's amazing art museums because I had to see "Guernica" at Museo Reina Sofia, just had to! And the Museo Nacional Del Prado is incredible, totally worth walking a mile around the marathon course to get inside. We just scratched the surface of Madrid, but it seemed like living there would be hard to beat.

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Honeymoon! London

I haven't written for so long! Somewhere along the line I turned this blog into a burden when it was only ever a joy. To catch you up to speed, Joe and I got married!! Best news ever. I planned a wedding and it all came together.

But I'm going to skip that for now and tell you about our "Grand European Tour" of a honeymoon. Technically, I don't know if you can call it a Grand Tour if you only go to two countries but that was our working title. Around Thanksgiving, we flew to London and stayed for about five days and then took the Eurostar to Paris. Joe had never been to London and I wanted to show him the city I fell in love with when I studied abroad there in 2005. It's kind of amazing how much I'd forgotten but hopefully he got the gist of it.

I picked out an Airbnb in Brick Lane/Shoreditch because I remember thinking that was such a darn cool area. When we arrived, rolly bags in tow, I thought perhaps this was too cool for us now for where I'm at in my life now. 

Here's the door of our place, located on the very last square before our tourist map of London cut off. Looks much grittier than the fake yuppie block that is our DC street yet in actuality this London street is probably way safer.

We signed up to take a graffiti tour of Shoreditch but it got canceled at the last minute so I just took some photos of interesting graffiti as we wandered around the neighborhood. All Joe wanted to do in London is see a Banksy but that was a washout, alas.

Our Euro Tour went at a leisurely pace. We woke up and would amble over to a cafe on Brick Lane for an involved breakfast. Of particular interest was this Full Stop cafe which was decorated like someone's great aunt's living room. Cream cheese on avocado toast, it's a revelation.

While at said cafes, we read the free reading material. London seems to be awash in glossy, high-quality neighborhood magazines, which is surprising and intriguing. They were all devoted to gentrification and the effect the insane rents are having on culture and life in general.

Which is how I learned that the Cereal Killer Cafe on the same street was the site of a 200-person anti-gentrification riot when it opened this past year. The employees cowered in the fancy chocolate shop next door while the crowd raged against £4.40 bowls of cereal and “Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheiks, Israeli scumbag property developers, Texan oil-money twats and our own home-grown Eton toffs," as the Facebook event page put it. 

 "Must love Cereal."

"Must love Cereal."

We did not eat at Cereal Killer, although I have to wonder if avocado toast is any better, really. I had to laugh a bit this past week while reading about this fancy Brooklyn cereal bar with $5 cereal in Racked. Come on, New York, no cereal bar riot for you? You're just going to let this happen and enjoy it, eh? 

Loved the graffiti and the feel of the yuppie/vintage shops, but the Sunday Up Market at Brick Lane was so fantastic, the scope of food was just incredible. That's when it clicked, of course, people are fighting for this neighborhood, who wouldn't want to live here? But just because you want to live here, should the government make it possible even if you don't have the money? Do we all deserve and declare that it's our birthright to live in trendy neighborhoods adjacent to the city center, market forces be damned.

We were supposed to go to a museum but instead we wandered until we found this wide open green space with a zipline that I would've made a major impression on me when I was a kid.

Heck, it did now.

The community garden was just like our community gardens, except it had a cow.

I never thought I would have to check the "Have you interacted with livestock" box on the custom form for this this trip. Just kidding, I totally didn't check it. To be fair, I observed the cows, chickens, and sheep from a respectful distance and didn't really interact with them.

Over a perfect cappuccino at Monmouth Coffee, we met a fellow American who happened to share a booth with us. He'd lived in London for 10 years and he was so nice to chat with us. I wanted to know what from our election season had filtered over to the UK and were they laughing at us? (Yes).

We told Russell that we were going to the British Museum and he had pitch-perfect recall of the galleries. We took his advice on what to see and where to go for lunch and a pint — the Museum Pub across the street, which was in no way as touristy as you'd imagine. 

I demanded we go to the Tate Modern, and what you are seeing here is an exhibit that is entirely piles of dirt. The artist hopes you'll throw seed bombs to complete his vision.

I loved the Calder exhibit, maybe a large part of that is the fun of an art exhibit where you spend all your time looking up at the ceiling. We also were transfixed by a video about the painstaking process of restoring a vandalized Rothko.

I thought Joe might enjoy the Churchill War Rooms but I ended up loving it. It was so well done, and I didn't realized how many acts Churchill's life had, how remarkable. 

Our meals mainly consisted of leisurely breakfasts and pub food, but we sought out this grilled cheese at Borough Market. I got it last time I visited London!  I also loved our meal at Dishoom, get there early to avoid the wait.

We did make one fancy honeymoon reservation, lunch at the River Cafe. April Bloomfield is so charming and real in Mind of a Chef, my dream was to go there and see where her career kicked off. It looked so inviting on the show.

We made the reservation, but we didn't quite realize how far from the city center the restaurant was and ended up an hour late for our noon table. Oh dear! We had been touristing at Saint Paul's and lost track of time. We tried to take a cab, but he said it would be quicker on the tube. The only problem that it was raining, and a bus splashed us from head to toe on the walk, just like in the movies, with a tidal wave of water. We were already dressed down but now we were drenched. And one hour late.

River Cafe was very gracious about it all! "Of course we have a table for you," the hostess said. And that was that. Thank you, River Cafe! I read a free magazine later (notice a trend) and the US Ambassador said River Cafe was his favorite restaurant. Been there, I thought smugly. Haha. Afterwards, we walked along the Thames and read signs about the Olympic rowing teams that practice along the river.

Here's the area on the way to the Airbnb, Spitalfields market. I did a little window shopping at Whistles and I wanted to buy everything. Later I went to the gigantic Oxford Street Topshop with its four stories, tattoo shop, hair salon, cupcake shop, and restaurant (that's where Joe hung out for hours). I wanted to buy something so bad, with every fiber of my being. But I couldn't find anything I wanted to wear. Am I getting old??? Nothing from the Kendall + Kylie collection appealed to me. Everything in the store was all fuzzy fuzzy faux fur coats and overtly '90s wear. I felt so old. I got the plainest Grandma sweater and a Krusty the Clown iPhone case.

 Just a cool food truck. 

Just a cool food truck. 

I feel like we just scratched the surface of what to do, and that's after five days of vacation and six months of living there back in study abroad days. I met up with one of my friends from the University of Westminster who stayed in London since then, so amazed/kudos to her for making that happen! It was so nice to catch up with her.

  Awesome shipping container shopping mall.  A Gap store was here, very progressive, Gap!

Awesome shipping container shopping mall. A Gap store was here, very progressive, Gap!

This was something I totally didn't remember from when I lived there, but Joe just couldn't believe that there was no standard for who walks on what side of the sidewalk in the UK. They don't walk on the right or left, it's just absolute chaos! “The British are ambulatory anarchists,” according to the BBC, which seems very odd.

Joe didn't have many requests for sightseeing, but he inexplicably wanted to see a "plague pit" from the Middle Ages. On our very last day, we looked down in Spitalfields Market and saw this medieval hospital preserved under glass. Close enough?

The exchange rate in London for this trip was better than when I lived there, but things were still crushingly expensive, especially the Tube. So I felt alright when it was time to say goodbye to London and head to Paris via the Eurostar. Next time!