Downtown Madrid was being swept away by a Eat, pray, love-like typhoon. Everywhere I turned, all I could see were tourists in search for anything that was artisanal, local and – why not – gluten free as well. In the Mercado San Miguel English had become the de-facto language, and every single Galician fish fillet, every single slice of jamon, was being immortalized by at least two reflex cameras and one iPhone. I could feel Instagram statistics rising as I jostled through the crowd of foodies, almost breathing the clouds of hashtags being tapped away.
I started walking aimlessly, in a strange feeling of apprehension. Sure, there were worse things than seeing itinerant sandwich sellers becoming fashionable and renaming themselves food trucks, but I began wondering if the Madrid I used to know from a project I used to work on – a Madrid made of suburbs, warehouses, Andean workers talking Quechua – had disappeared.
Tirso de Molina told me that, maybe, my worries weren’t justified. Throngs of pensioners stood in a corner, discussing so exuberantly that their Spanish was all but unintelligible to my ears. A few were even waving about the barra de pan rústico they’d bought in a shop earlier as a mean to underline a particular point. An Indio boy was slowly bringing two cakes from a van to a patisserie. Two drunks kicked off an argument that immediately escalated in a shouting match across the playground.
Suitably reassured, I entered Lavapiés. The borough, long considered the epicentre of squatting in town, had gone up a notch or two in the scale of respectability, but gentrification remained still a very remote risk. As soon as I started making my way downhill, past the shut-down shop that doubled as the main Gurdwara for the Madrid Sikh society, a cacophony of sirens bellowed through the streets: three blue police cars squeezed through a narrow alley, and stopped. By the time I got there, almost every cop was already inside a building, where a shouting-and-clanging contest was by now in full swing.
Incidents with the law enforcement aside, Lavapiés was a charming discovery. A grid of cobbled streets that reminded me vaguely of Pennac’s Belleville, adorned with Indian takeaways awash with pictures of Keralan sights and Taj Mahals, old Spanish establishment with majolica facades, and a witty populace who didn’t seem to mind the visitor sat on the edge of the sidewalk, fashioning a sandwich out of an oily focaccia and a scattering of manchego slices.