Closed for vacations: Surving a Madrid Summer

By Kelly Crull

Near my apartment at Plaza de España, the intersection of Gran Vía and Calle de Los Reyes is a reminder that I live in a city of 5 million--gigantic power-hungry buildings, swarming traffic, people spilling across the sidewalks and the plaza.

Starting August 1st, however, this intersection is something else entirely. It's the scene in an Old Western at high noon. The street is empty, windows are shuttered, and minutes pass where nothing moves. Even the white sun directly overhead appears to be at a complete standstill, apparently unsatisfied until every last drop of shade has been dried up. A lone tumble weed, in this case a plastic El Corte Inglés bag, catches attention as it blows across the street and out of sight.

Madrid is a ghost town in August. Signs like the one in the photo above, which reads, "We are closed for vacation until the 3rd of September," go up in store-front windows at the end of July. There's no shame in closing up shop for the month of August to hit the beach on the coast or to escape to a preferred village in the mountains.

Only the brave and the uninformed are left in Madrid in August.

I have my plans to get out of the city. In fact, 3 hours from now I'll be on a plane to Amsterdam, where I dream of wonderful weather--rain showers every day, cloudy skies, anything that will bring me to the point of shivering. I've packed my rain coat with high expectations.

I empathize with those who are left behind in Madrid this month in the same way I empathize with an ant smoking under a magnifying glass. So, I'd like to dedicate the rest of this essay to sharing what I know about staying cool in Madrid.

Lesson 1: Walk in the Shade

Shade will save your life. Your main job in the next month is simply to stay in the shade. I suggest pulling the blinds in your apartment and not leaving for 30 days. If, however, it's absolutely necessary for you to leave your apartment, stay in the shade. If you're walking on the sidewalk on one side of the street, and the shade is on the other side, cross the street. Don't let stoplights, street signs, or even the occasional traffic cop distract you from your main objective, which is to stay in the shade.

If you're on the bus, know the bus route. Choose a seat on the side of the bus which has the most shade.

Likewise, when you're waiting at an intersection for a green light, don't stand at the curb. No, find a place to wait in the shade. If you're lucky, you'll be near the entrance to El Corte Inglés where a blast of gale-force arctic air will chill you to Magnum bar temperatures before sending you on your way.

Also, stay away from plazas. They're not worth it. Yes, they are gorgeous, and the rest of the year they may be a short cut. But in August, they're giant brick ovens.

Plazas have a point of no return. It's when you've decided to risk it and walk straight across and you reach just about half way that you panic, feeling like a piece of pottery baking in a kiln about to explode, and when you begin desperately hopping around looking for shade, you'll find there isn't any. Maybe if God is on your side, there will be a fountain you can dive into.

Believe me, it may seem smart at the time to take the shortest and easiest route by walking directly across a plaza, but don't do it. Take a minute to walk around the plaza instead of through it, and you'll save a year of your life.

Lesson 2: Take a Siesta

In my opinion, siestas are practical. The rest of the year it may seem inconvenient that the shops are closed in the afternoon, especially for those who aren't familiar with the siesta. But in August, it just makes sense.

My wife April and I work together, and we basically set our hours. April says in August we should turn our schedule upside down, so we're sleeping in the afternoon and working at night. It's not a bad idea. The afternoon is unbearable, the nights are cool. It only seems smart to be unconscious during the worst part of the day.

Madrileños have figured out how to make the most of days in August. While the afternoons are disturbingly vacant leaving backpackers turning circles, nights are alive. Kids chase each other in the streets after midnight. Old ladies wait patiently with plastic bag in hand while their terriers squat in grass nearby at 1 AM. The 20-somethings crowd the terraces, and the teens lounge on the ground in circles in the plazas and parks sipping from liter bottles of Coke and wine mixed.

It's no wonder Madrileños are called los gatos, the cats. They're nocturnal.

If you think a siesta is a waste of time, try taking a generous 2 hour nap some afternoon. We'll see if you can keep up with the locals late into the night.

Lesson 3: Go to the pool

If at any point you find yourself at the brink of stripping down to your undies and diving headlong into the box-shaped lake at Retiro Park, splashing around and panting like a dog, or you find yourself standing at the edge of the pond in front of the Crystal Palace envying the ducks and the swans because they get to soak their tushies in scummy pond water all day, I suggest finding a pool instead.

Unfortunately, these fits of manic water deprivation happen more often than you think. The many municipal pools in Madrid provide a good fix. A mere 3,80€ is a steal on a hot day.

Or even better, make a friend in the suburbs who has a community pool and move in with him or her for the month.

However, for those who don't enjoy a rousing game of Marco Polo, who would rather not bob up-and-down in one of the crowded municipal pools like a Cheerio in a bowl of milk, or who aren't sure they even know how to get out to the suburbs, a cold shower goes a long way, especially just before bed, or in most cases, several times throughout the night.

Lesson 4: Eat Gazpacho

Most likely the heat will take away your appetite. It's funny how your body knows that even small movements like chewing, swallowing, and belching produce heat, and therefore, must be avoided entirely.

However, before you shrivel up into a prune because you haven't eaten for weeks, why don't you consider eating something cold. The logic is simple--cold foods keep you cool.

gazpacho is a cold food. Actually, it's a cold soup. But before you go writing it off completely just because everybody knows soup isn't supposed to be cold, remember that in August food preferences related to taste and/or texture are meaningless. Taste doesn't matter because your appetite is the size of a pea anyway, and texture doesn't matter because your lips and tongue are as dry as camel skin--you can't tell if you have food in your mouth or not.

I'm sure whoever invented gazpacho must have been suffering through an August in Madrid trying to come up with something healthy since it was probably the first time eating in weeks. If you eat one bowl of gazpacho, you probably have the nutrients you need to last days without having to think about eating again.

In addition, preparing gazpacho is a cinch. All you have to do is blend together tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, garlic, and of course, some olive oil. It definitely won't get you in a sweat, and most importantly, making gazpacho doesn't involve using the oven.

Actually, many of the apartments in Madrid don't even have ovens. I don't blame anyone for not wanting one. The last thing anyone wants to see when it's hot enough to melt skin is a heat-producing device of any kind. The thought of something intentionally heating anything will make you cry.

So my last bit of advice for anyone with an oven is to get some tape and a marker, tape a giant "X" on the front of your oven, and write in giant, capital letters, "Do not use on pain of death."

Lesson 5: Find Air Conditioning

I've found that most people in Madrid don't like air conditioning. They say it dries out the air too much and can even make it difficult to breath.

That makes sense to me. Madrid is dry--it's technically a desert.

However, for myself, someone who grew up in Iowa in the States where it's so humid people like to say you can slice the air and serve it on a platter, I don't mind dry air. I'll take AC when I can get it.

So if you're like me, and if you're not one of the 14 people in Madrid with an air conditioned apartment, you'll want to think about scouting out your neighborhood for the cafes with AC.

Once you've found a café you like, the next thing to do is make friends with the bartender. You'll want whoever is working at the café on your side. Think of it almost like moving into a flat with someone. After all, you'll be spending afternoons together for the next month. Do you really want someone glaring at you from the bar for buying only one drink in an afternoon or hounding you for claiming the table in the corner as your personal bookshelf?

If Madrid isn't cooling off at night, and your bed feels like a tanning booth, consider moving to a chill-out club with AC that's open until mid-morning. The music is perfect for putting you to sleep, and I've found that positioning 3 or 4 table chairs or bar stools in a row directly underneath the air conditioner offers a cool, "couch-like" sleeping alternative. A scrunched-up table cloth makes a perfect pillow.

Lesson 6: Freeze your underwear

Last but not least, freeze your underwear. I feel a bit hypocritical suggesting something I've never tried myself, but then again, I've never gotten this desperate.

The reason I mention freezing your underwear at all is because although the idea seems ludicrous now, I want you to know that when that moment of desperation comes, it's okay to roll up your whitey-tighties like burritos and wedge them into your freezer next to the fish sticks. I know people, normal people, who freeze their unmentionables. It's okay. I give you permission to dance around your bedroom in ice-cold boxers in the name of staying cool.

My only word of caution is this: avoid cooling your undies with open food containers. I know it's not likely, but I wouldn't want the food mingling with your wear. All it takes is a few stray shrimp thawing in your drawers to make for an uncomfortable moments.

In Conclusion

To wrap things up, it's true, I would rather put my head in an oven than be in Madrid in August. But to those who are left in Madrid, make the most of your time. A few crazy ones I know say being in Madrid in August is one of the best times of year because the city is all yours. It's your playground. I think the crazy ones have a point here. Enjoy not waiting in line at the grocery store. Enjoy renting any movie you like at any time of day. Enjoy parking your car in front of your apartment, or parking across the street if you want to get some exercise. Enjoy the quiet.

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