When I first moved to Madrid, my expat friends and I used to joke that it was like accidently walking onto the stage of a play. You don´t know your lines, you’re wearing the wrong costume, and maybe you knock over a fake tree or two.
Only there’s no exit. You wake up in your bed American but the second you go out your front door, you’re an alien again.
Throw not knowing Spanish into the mix, and any little victory feels like climbing over a mountain. I remember when I got my first DJ gig in Madrid, I didn’t care that I got booted for a guy who put Enrique Iglesias on repeat. Any failure that you have, you can say to yourself, “I’m doing this play without the script, what can anyone expect of me?”
Even the best mantras only work some days. On the other ones, I wanted to know my role, or at least be given some stage directions. And it was always the little things that sent me into a three euro bottle of wine. My roommates laughing at me for using too many clothespins, or getting stuck behind a sidewalk full of slow, life-loving Madrilenos.
On the days when I felt most like a freak, a little bit of kindness went a long way.
One of my favorite places to receive positive remarks was from a man who stood in front of a church. I always assumed he was like the church bouncer, politely greeting everyone who walked in, and maybe kicking out the riff-raff if necessary. As I walked to work in the morning, this beacon of the community would say hello as I walked by.
It didn´t matter if it was raining. It didn´t matter if I was jogging with headphones, on a much needed break from this alien, Spanish world. He always said "Hola," whether I said it back or not.
I got used to his presence as the months with by. In fact, I started to expect his greetings. I was like a bird that knew where to go for the best crumbs. It seems like a small thing, and compared to sharing a beer with a close friend, it is. Still, when everything feels crazy and different, sometimes a nod and a hello is enough to get you at least through lunchtime.
Eventually the sharp edge of being an American abroad dulled. I learned some Spanish. I got a girlfriend. I even got a library card.
The more comfortable I got in Madrid, the more I realized that many of the incidents I assumed meant bad vibes were just miscommunications. Madrid has like three million people in it. You’d be crazy not to put up a couple walls.
So why was the church guy so open? Was he some kind of saint?
My Dad used to tell me this bible verse, probably to make me feel better about not being able to afford a Nintendo: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
And if that quote is true, then church guy definitely is some kind of holy man.
One day, I was talking to my Spanish roommate about church guy, how great he was, and how he always said hi to me, when she interrupted me. “That guy doesn’t work at the church,” she said.
“He was begging.”
It all made sense.
My belief in church guy vanished, as it once did with a white-male God and the Tooth Ferry. Like many realizations, it's easier to judge your miscalculations in hindsight, and this one was no different. I had been going to the same grocery store for the last six months, and the lady behind the counter still wouldn´t let me walk in without my backpack.
My idea of a community building, altruistic church bouncer was about as likely as seeing a unicorn in a big city, and even a unicorn would probably try to steal your wallet.
In the end, I projected on church guy what I needed to hear. I mean sure, he was probably just trying to get some money from me. And it’s hilarious to imagine him thinking, “Jesus, this guy never even gives me a quarter!” Regardless of his intentions, he made me feel good, like I knew someone on the block, and that I was finally starting to become a local.
Either way, I think I owe church guy a lot of change.
- Art and Writing by: Matt St. John
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