zuheros to madrid / madrid, night one

This post has two parts: the clerk and the lost.

The clerk.

I had a good night's sleep and woke up at the leisurely hour of 8:00. We had breakfast at the hotel and packed up, ready to hit the road to Madrid. And wouldn't you know it, the desk clerk handed me a bill for one dinner and two nights. I politely explained that I had called to cancel one night, and was told that was fine. Desk clerk said I called too late, I had to be charged for two nights. Naturally, I repeated my position.

We went back and forth for a while. He alternated between rapid-fire Spanish - to which I would reply, "No comprende, despacio, por favor" - and English. I alternated between English and my crappy Spanish. He would tell me I had cancelled too late, and I would tell him that I spoke to someone and that person said it was fine, I could cancel, no problem.

I was careful to be firm but not angry, to not lose my temper. I held in abeyance the "I'll pay for one night or we'll leave and pay for nothing" card. I repeated my position and he repeated his. I asked him, "Who would pay for a night at a hotel that they didn't use, when they called to cancel? Would you pay for a night at a hotel that you didn't use?" I reminded him there were three other couples at the hotel. They were not even half full. It's not as if they turned away potential customers because of my reservation.

Desk Clerk, throughout, was making exaggerated facial expressions of bewilderment and dismay, shrugging his shoulders and lifting his hands dramatically, in a pantomime of helplessness. This annoyed the bejesus out of me. At one point, I said, "It doesn't matter how many faces you make, we're not paying for a night of a hotel that we cancelled." Allan touched my arm and indicated that was not called for, so I didn't repeat it. Honestly, other than that, I was restrained. But please note, he looked like a bad soap opera actor.

This went on for quite some time. Another guest was waiting to speak to him, and I was aware that the hotel was at a disadvantage. They don't want a scene.

Eventually Desk Clerk "threatened" to call his partner. We encouraged him to do so. He made a phone call, at first speaking clearly so I could hear, then dropping his voice to a murmur, and eventually hanging up.

Desk Clerk cleared his throat and said, "My partner says that you had to tell the agency that you booked with, so the hotel is not charged a commission." I said, "Yes, he told me that. So I called hotels.com, and they said they would contact the hotel." Allan reminded Desk Clerk that the issue was now between hotels.com and the hotel.

More wrangling ensued. I was considering playing the pay-nothing card, wondering if he would use the call-the-police card. And then it happened.

He started to sniffle. Repeatedly. He began to prepare a new bill and print it out, all the while sniffling loudly and prominently. I thought, what's with the sniffles? An allergy? An odor? And then - I can hardly believe this as I type - he daintily but ostentatiously dabbed beneath his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. I thought, do my eyes deceive me? Is he pretending to cry??

I checked the new bill, and waited while Allan used his credit card, all the while staring at the Suddenly Weepy Desk Clerk. I thought, what on earth is going on???

Had this man gotten off the phone with his partner and said something like, "As it turns out, my partner didn't update me on your phone call. I will print a new bill," I would have thanked him, told him we had a lovely stay, and said a proper goodbye. But this... this was too crazy. I waited til Allan paid and got a receipt, then turned and walked out.

After Allan and I negotiated our way through the narrow streets and down the hill to the highway, I asked Allan, "What was with the pretend crying??" Then this story gets even crazier, because Allan thinks Suddenly Weepy Desk Clerk was really crying!! Apparently after I walked out, SWDC was so choked up he couldn't speak, wordlessly pushing the receipt at Allan and hiding his face in shame!

So what's going on here? A cultural trope I'm not familiar with, or a wacko in the wrong line of work? Allan and I have talked it to death, and laughed uproariously, but we cannot crack the mystery. I liken it to the over-emoting of bullfighting, or to football stars mugging for camera. Allan thinks if this was acting, SWDC has earned an Academy Award.

I know that many more people are reading this blog than are commenting. Some of you may remember our trip to Newfoundland and Unintentionally Hilarious Tour Guide. That generated a lot of fun comments. What do you all think of Suddenly Weepy Desk Clerk? Was he pantomiming hurt - "You wound me, Madam!" - or did I actually reduce a grown man to tears, merely by holding my ground? Any and all thoughts welcome!

The lost.

The drive from Zuheros to Madrid took about four hours, easy highway driving, and mostly the same lovely rolling hills of farmland, punctuated by the occasional olive oil factory. We hit the outskirts of Madrid and continued to follow our Google Map directions, with Allan doing a super job of changing lanes in complicated traffic streams. Still no problem.

Then we exited the highway, and suddenly nothing made any sense. Our Google Map directions didn't correspond to the street signs, and the street signs were often impossible to see, and if we made a mistake it was uncorrectable until we got to the next roundabout, and suddenly the street went down a tunnel and had no signs for several blocks so we didn't even know if we passed the street. And we were lost.

Poor Allan. He's driving a stick shift in city traffic, lost, again. We reminded ourselves it was daylight and all we had to do was find the right street, that this wasn't Grenada all over again. We reminded ourselves we knew this could happen, and we still prefer to drive rather than taking trains and buses. I kicked myself for not buying a map of Madrid earlier in the trip. (Allan says that we never would have thought to do so, since all we had to was make it from highway to hotel, then we'd be on the metro.)

I wanted Allan to stop the car, so I could ask for directions, but even that wasn't so easy, because stopping would mean blocking traffic. Finally an opportunity presented itself, Allan pulled over, and I went into a farmacia. To my amazement, my halting Spanish drew blank stares. It was as if I wasn't speaking Spanish at all. A woman understood I needed the neighbourhood Cuatro Caminos, and told me to take the subway. I explained that we were driving, and she called over a man, who then spoke so quickly I couldn't understand a word. I asked him to slow down. The man said to the woman, "Ella no entiende": she doesn't understand. I said, "Si, puedo comprender, pero no hablo espanol bien." He gave me rudimentary directions, indicating that we were very far away, but when we saw a certain street, we would be in Cuatro Caminos.

It worked. We made one or two mistakes that were able to correct at roundabouts, but for the most part we drove from that farmacia to our hotel. We hit Madrid at around 4:00. We got to the hotel at 6:30. Ay Dios mio!

I had been planning and hoping to do one of the three great Madrid museums tonight, but The Lost ate up too much time and stress. Now we have the greatest hits of three museums, plus laundry, plus David, in two days.

Cuatro Caminos

We're staying in a working-class, down-to-earth residential neighbourhood. Our friend David says it reminds him of his native Kensington in Toronto, and it reminds me very much of our old Washington Heights in New York. We found a neighbourhood joint for dinner and somehow had a pollo asado dinner for two - chicken, potatoes, salad, bread and a full litre of house wine - for 10 euros. Ten euros! For two! We weren't trying to be cheap, but we were happy to eat a hearty meal for a pittance.

So far Madrid is shaking my confidence. We haven't had any major language problems on this trip, or on any trip in a Spanish-speaking country. In Peru, no one spoke any English and we were always fine. Here, I can't understand anybody. Everybody speaks so fast! Is this what strangers feel like in New York?

Ah well, we're only in Madrid for a few days. Great art - and a lavanderia - awaits.

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