A fine layer of snow dusted the ground around Madrid’s Barajas International Airport when I arrived in early January. The contents of my life were neatly folded and arranged in one suitcase and one carry-on, easily loadable from plane to taxi. I tried to make conversation with my cab driver, but he didn’t speak a word of English. I gave up. Lionel Richie crooned on the radio. The only certainty in my future was a slip of paper, clenched in my fist, an address typed out: “Calle Pensamiento, 27.” Not even the driver knew where that was.
We drove through the middle of Madrid’s financial district, an area dominated by bulky Cold War-era architecture. When the driver finally found the building, I was disappointed. Not the charming little villa I was hoping for. Instead, I looked up fearfully at a monolithic tower of concrete. The windows were little more than slits in the walls. My new home.
The doorman eyed me sullenly from his glass cubicle and pointed me to the elevator: eighth floor, apartment three. I rang the doorbell, trembling, not even sure anyone would be home.
A platinum blonde with heavy eyeliner opened the door and stared at me.
“Hola, me llamo Lindsey—” I started.
“Mamá!” she called back into the shadows, and an old woman—her eyes like an eagle’s and her nose like a beak—hobbled out of the kitchen. Her right arm was bound in a sling.
“Hola,” she said, as she kissed me on each cheek. “Soy María del Carmen.”
She led me to my room—a shoebox that looked like a former nursery—and showed me the closet and the bed.
She was complaining about the weather, about how it hadn’t snowed in 10 years. Then she suddenly blurted out, “Are you Spanish? You look a little bit Spanish.”
“No, I’m not,” I said, flattered. “I’m American,” I added, thinking it would take too long to explain my whole ancestry, and not sure how to say anything else.
“That’s what I thought—you don’t speak Spanish very well,” she muttered. I didn’t think she realized I understood her.
For the next few weeks she continued to insult my butchering of her precious language, and the general ineptitude of Americans. I felt like I was living in an Almodóvar film, with a tempestuous woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. When I didn’t make the coffee she had set out for me one morning, she dragged me over to the stove and scolded me for being a “stupid American” and not knowing how to do anything for myself. I returned to my shoebox, sat on the bed and broke down in tears, humiliated.
As my Spanish improved, though, so did my relationship with Carmen, as I came to call her. Every afternoon when I returned from class, she would sit on the living room couch watching TV, almost in anticipation of asking about my day. Every night, in the cool of her tiled kitchen, we’d watch the news together as I ate dinner, and she watched me. And when I started to guess the right answers on her favorite quiz show, “Pasapalabra,” she really started to respect me.
Through those nights next to each other at the kitchen table we came to know each other’s life stories, tossing out little tidbits, piecemeal. Gradually, out of heavily-accented words, shrugs, raised eyebrows, and sometimes a smile, her tales took shape. She had lived through the Spanish Civil War. She grew up in the Basque Country during the bombing of Guernica. Her husband was a navy serviceman who died young, leaving her to raise a baby daughter on her own.
Carmen was a tough old bird who showed her affection in strange ways, by chastising rather than complimenting. Her coarseness began to make sense to me as I recognized what we had in common. We were both independent, afraid of showing emotion, but not afraid of adventure. She said I reminded her of herself when she was 20. I told her she reminded me of my grandma, who had died three years before.
Almost as soon as our relationship deepened, it was time for me to leave Madrid behind. I was depressed, facing the thought of leaving this new home to return to a country that would seem foreign now.
She led me downstairs at 3 a.m. in her nightgown, leaning on my arm as I had once leaned on hers when I was sick. We waited for a taxi to find its way to Calle Pensamiento, to take me back to Barajas. When one finally found us, she kissed me on each cheek.
“I know you’ll come back someday,” Carmen whispered to me. “Your heart is in Madrid.”
I managed to give her a sad little wave from the back seat.