Planes, Trains and Automobiles 2

We were speechless for a few seconds before he finally broke in again.

“Uh, do your folks have any valium hanging around?”

“I’m not sure,” I gulped.  “Let’s go take a look.”

Upstairs I poked my finger around the medicine chest and found lots of brown plastic cylinders with polysyllabic medicinal names typed on them, but nothing indicating that they would make us hang out on a couch for hours munching on Doritos.  In fact, the wrong kind of cocktail just might impede our learning Spanish, or anything else for that matter, for a long, long time.

I gripped a bottle of St. Joseph’s chewable children’s aspirin.  The ones with the orange flavor that I loved so much.  “I dunno, John,” I grimaced.  “I’m not up for experimenting.  I don’t want to watch you racing down the center aisle screaming ‘I am the walrus’ while flying over theAtlantic.  Why don’t you try these laxatives?  They’re good for easing the tension.”

“That’s all right.  My system’s already taken care of that department for the last week.”

“Well, I guess, then, it’s just up to our iron-nerves, a couple of draft beers at the airport bar and Mr. Phillip Morris,” I concluded. “How does that sound to you?”

“Sounds like crap,” he admitted stoically. “I want drugs.”

“St. Joseph’s?  We could down the pills, eat the paper label, too, and slam back some vodka shots for good measure.”  I figured the last par would at least assure us a good buzz.

“That’s all right man.  I have a philosophical heart, so don’t mind me.”

“That’s the spirit,” I cheered and led him to the living room.  “Now, let’s go and enjoy our last day here.”

His body screeched to halt.

“Oh, for crying out loud.  Would you chill out!  It’s not like we’re going on the Hindenburg or something like that.  Come on.  Let’s watch a Cheers rerun.  That’ll take your mind off things.”

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Yahoo! informed me calmly this morning of what brought about the demise of the pop duo Wham!  Although it never concerned me in the late 80s, and I can’t conceive why journalists felt there was a need to shed light on it now, I ended up falling for it and took a look at what became of the other side of the group, the not-George Michael, Andrew Ridgely who, at the age of fifty, looks like a tan 60-year-old surgeon more than a former international teenie-bopper singer.  That was about all I got from the piece.

      That and the fact that I was once again reminded of just how long it has been since I arrived in Spain the first time way back in January of 1988.  Twenty-five years ago.

       On that occasions, I flew with a Spanish charter company called Spantax.  It was the air carrier chosen by my university program, Saint Louis University, and in retrospect I now realize that the Dean of the school had little care about whether his study body made it for spring semester or not.

      Up till that point, I had always enjoyed air travel, but like any good citizen of my country, I was suspicious of putting life, limb and luggage in the hands and of a foreign airline.  Hell, we had invented the goddamn contraptions, God only knows what these Europeans were capable, or incapable, of doing.  Plus, a company whose name sounded to me like something you wear to an S&M engagement provided little encouragement.

      And yes, my deepest fears came true.  My first flight over to Spain would serve as more than an excuse for never wanting to board a winged vehicle again.  Not even a Pontiac Thunderbird.

      I was not alone in my travels that year.  My good friend John from college had also decided to brave six months in the wilderness of Spanish-speaking humans, but first he had to face the leap across the ocean, which was going to be a challenge enough for him.  Up to that day, the closest John had ever been to flying was when he sprang off diving boards in the summertime.  He confided in me this secret just two days before takeoff in an offhand sort of way which was so characteristic of his way of dealing things.  It wasn’t British stiff-upper-lip-ism, but more like Virginian low-key-ism.  I appreciated his demeanor and was proud to be the first to accompany him on such a monumental moment in his life.  Not being a veteran like me, he naturally had reservations about the feasibility of an 800-ton metallic canister becoming airborne.  So, to ease his nerves, I patted him twice on back, told him to relax, and then went back to stuffing boxer shorts in my suitcase.

     I guess my words of soothing must have lacked the kind of convincing one needs in those hours of anguish because the very next morning John went out and bought a carton of cigarettes and by dinner he was already running out and asking if we could go back downtown to get some more.

     “Take it easy John,” I said as we shared a shivering January cig outside my house.  “It’s no big deal.  Just think of the thousands of planes that take off every day and don’t crash into a billions pieces.”

     “I’m cool man.  I’m not worried at all,” he replied and let the silent night air reign.  We scanned the skies and observed the beauty of the universe above us.  Billions and billions of Carl Sagan’s twinkling baby stars blinked and winked away happily.  Two human beings awed beneath the hushing nighttime heavens.

      Suddenly there interrupted from the north a flashing red light.  It was just at that angle where you couldn’t tell whether or not it was moving horizontally or vertically.   Soon enough, though, we could discern it was a plane.  From the other end of the indigo dome approached another soundless projectile.  Two aircrafts coasted over the continent, softly like clipper ships coming into harbor, and headed for their destinations, wherever they were.  They were heading for their homes, for a place to rest, for a goodnight’s sleep; they were heading for…for…straight for each other!

        It was too late to scream at them to change directions, so we just gawked and sat back to watch the imminent disaster unfold before our very eyes.  I wasn’t going to be able to save any lives, but at least I could tell my friends and family I had witnessed it, and that can be very important in modern times.

        The red beads neared and neared until for a moment, they became one.   I held my breath in anticipation of a raging expansion of energy, a sunburst, a dying supernova, something loud and spectacular.  It was going to be awful, but from a distance, eerily beautiful.

      The explosion, however, would never appear.  Soon the tiny intermittent flashes parted and sailed away with the same calmness they had met before, as if nothing big had happened.  As if they hadn’t even seen each other for that matter.

       John and I stared at the exact dark spot where the catastrophe should have occurred.  We were speechless for a few seconds before he finally broke in again.  “Uh, do your folks have any valium hanging around?”

Traveling Out Loud

For once a travel agency has made me stop in my tracks.  For the most part I avoid staring at their ads because, A) I can never go on these trips and that gets me depressed and B) I don’t have the money to go on these trips, which deepens the depression.  And since I like to get home feeling about as good about life as I possibly can, and not drop kick one of my guinea pigs out of sheer frustration, I pretend they don’t exist at all.

            But this time I took a second look, and not because of the terrific prices being promoted, 1,000€ to spend three jet-lagged days in New York, but rather for another related but odd detail.  The duration.  It was really a 3-day trip  to the Big Apple, but this is how the agency put it: 3 nights and 5 days.

            Now we all know that these special offers love to bend the truth a little becasue they always tack on the extra day even though your flight may be departing at six in the morning.  But this time, the company seemed to be challenging some of the greatest laws of physics.

     It didn’t take long for me to figure it out, but, still, I did have to mull over this wonder of time-space travel for a few minutes.   This is what they were getting at.

     Day 1 – Typical Spaniards arrives at Barajas, gets on flight and arrives at his hotel some time in the evening just in time for a dinner and a collapse from exhaustion.

     Day 2 –New York, New York, New York

     Day 3 –New York, New York, New York

     Day 4 –New York in the morning…JFK airport and departure forMadrid.

     Day 5 – Plane lands in Barajas.  The typical Spaniard says NYC is the greatest thing since the invention of tinto de verano.

      So, Day 5’s itinerary involves landing at an airport at 7:00 a.m. 3,000 miles from Central Park and probably going to work like an utter zombie.  But at least it’s included in the price.  So, the purported “five days” really turns out to be two full days, one evening, and a little over a morning, dominated by the the stress of being booted from the hotel and making sure you get to the airport on time.  Sounds like fun.

            Was this a clever piece of marketing to get people to do what I was doing?  A cheeky attempt to make the holiday seem lengthier?  Just plain stupidity?   I was originally inclined to believe the second option, then considered the first only to end up at the third.  But only for a while.  Then I inched back to the second choice again but am still eyeing the first.

            But that is what publicity and deceit can sometimes do so effectively.  They make you forever wonder what the hell is going on and cause you to doubt even your strongest instincts.  And suddenly you don’t know what you believe in anymore.  And the notion that something like that ridiculous ad could potentially be proof that there are a lot of people out there who a much smarter than me, disturbed me.

Empezando el Año con un Viaje

Intento ser lo más sensible posible en los primeros momentos del año para sacar alguna indicación sobre cómo me van a ir los próximos 365 días.  Es un razonamiento bastante irracional, he de ser sincero, y algo que evoca todo tipo de críticas desde el campo científico, pero como no pienso publicar esto en una revista profesional, que les den.

      En fin, las primeras horas me saludaron con alegría, abrazos, besos, música, baile y, por supuesto, las doce uvas de buena suerte al principio.  Embutir la boca con doce trozos de fruta como manera de arrancar la siguiente vuelta de nuestro planeta alrededor del sol, desde luego se aleja de la forma tradicional de celebrar este día en el resto del mundo, pero precisamente por eso resulta ser una de mis costumbres preferidas de España.

      Eso no quiere decir que no me he encontrado con situaciones de vida o muerte por culpa de intentar engullir la docena con demasiada agresividad.  Y tengo que reconocer que por muy divertido que pueda resultar, no es comparable con colocarte al lado de la chica más guapa de la fiesta para poder plantarle su primer beso del año, como es la estrategia en mi país, pero no cabe duda de que la boca no pasa el momento inactiva.

      Este año acabó un poco más relajado que lo normal ya que la abuela de la casa donde estaba cenando se dispuso a pelar todas las uvas de todos los participantes para reducir el riesgo de atragantarse, cosa normal, porque a nadie le hace ilusión empezar el curso solar en el tanatorio.  Después de todo, solo dispones de unos 36 segundos para completar la tarea.

      No obstante, lo de pelar las uvas siempre me ha parecido algo asícomohacer trampa y por consiguiente podría causar un efecto negativo en mi fortuna y futuro.

      Yo nunca pelo.  Y así se lo dije.  Dije que no era un “pelador”.

      Pero se empeñó y tampoco me apetecía acabar el año echando una bronca a una mujer de casi 80 años, así que cedí.

      Es una labor ardua y merece la pena evitarla a todo coste, pero supongo que está bien si alguien se ofrece a hacerlo por ti.  En el fondo sabía que era todo un detalle por su parte y se lo agradecía.

      Llegó la medianoche y con ella, las inminentes campanadas.  Primer llegaron los cuartos, ni caso.  Luego el plato fuerte.  Pasamos la prueba más o menos sin incidentes, aunque reconozco que la fruta despellejada estaba muy pringosa y tendía a quedarse pegada al plástico, provocando varios segundos de pánico con la idea de que me iba a quedar colgado y no seguir el ritmo de pelotón, pero logré alcanzar a los demás.

      Luego la música y el baile familiar durante un par de horas.  Es algo que me encanta de España.  Ves a gente de 3 a 83 años en la misma sala, riéndose, cantando y moviéndose a la música más variada que te puedes imaginar…y todos disfrutando.  Es ese algo de inocencia que nos falta a los americanos.  Pasándolo en grande, porque sí.

      Sobre las tres de la mañana decidí que había tenido suficiente y dije a todo el mundo que me iba.  Lógicamente la respuesta fue, “¿Por qué tan pronto?” Cosa que entendía porque realmente era muy temprano en este país, al contrario de los demás lugares donde la gente ya estaría sobada y durmiendo la mona.  No es nada fácil despedirse de los españoles porque les gusta insistir en que te quedes.  En el pasado no sabía qué hacer y muchas veces cedía, pero he aprendido que lo que tienes que hacer es ser firme durante un periodo crítico de 3-4 minutos y si aguantas, si lo superas, eres un hombre libre.

      Hablando de libre, mi mayor preocupación una vez en la calle era saber si iba a encontrar un taxi que no estaba ocupado ya que Nochevieja tiene fama de ser una de las más complicadas en este sentido.

      Mientras me acercaba a la esquina, noté que había numerosos taxis pasando volando.  También he observado que la mayoría llevaban las luces verdes encendidas, indicando como bien se sabe que estaban disponibles.  Esto me extrañó.  Lo mismo había sido porque había pasado mucho tiempo desde la última vez que salía en esta fecha y no recordaba bien la situación; o, a lo mejor, la flota de taxis había crecido.  También se me ocurrió la posibilidad de que estaba en la acera del sentido contrario, es decir, de alguna manera, iba hacia el centro y no hacia fuera.  La mayoría de los taxis libres vienen desde fuera hacia el centro, ya que han dejado a sus clientes en su destino y ahora buscan a nuevas personas.

      En resumen, estaba contento de saber que no tendría que esperar casi nada.   Me subí, le dije con voz cansada al conductor a donde iba y envié un par de whatsapp a unos amigos deseándoles lo mejor para el nuevo año.  El mío, desde luego, había comenzado con buen pie.

       Cuando estábamos llegando, eché vistazo al taxímetro y vi la cantidad de 6,30€.  Al ser las fiestas y un tiempo para ser alegre y generoso, planifiqué redondear el coste final hacia arriba hasta 7,00€ que incluía una propina de 0,70€.  Después de todo, el pobre hombre tuvo que trabajar una noche con esta lejos de su familia y amigos.

       Soy consciente de que la propina puede sorprender a algún lector que no esté familiarizado con las costumbres de aquí.  Aquí la gente no se siente obligada a dar una propina, pero cuando se hace, suele ser una cantidad simbólica.

        En fin, el taxista se paró, y mientras iba sacando mi cartera, vi cómo él empezaba a pulsar todo tipo de botones en el taxímetro.  Aparece la palabra “suplemento” y a continuación la cantidad 6,70€.  Me dice con tono muy natural, “¡Qué bien!  Sale perfecto.  Serán 13,00€.”

       “¿Qué dice?  ¿Está seguro?  No me parece perfecto a mí.”

       “Más que seguro.  Es el suplemento de Nochevieja.”  Ya entendía porqué nadie cogía un taxi.  Solo el gilipollas de mí.

        Bueno, damas y caballeros, solo os puedo decir que era ya tarde y aunque estaba atónito ante el coste adicional, que, como pueden apreciar, era más alto de la tarifa real, no me encontraba con fuerzas de pelearme con nadie, sobre todo porque no estaba seguro.  El conductor parecía muy normal, desde luego.  Me había oído hablar. Lo mismo había entendido mi acento y decidió añadir un regalo especial para el guiri, pero tenía la sensación de que no.  ¿Había comenzado el año con un palo de un 106%?  Si era así, ya entendía porque había tantos taxis libres.  Este hombre ya se había llevado su propina, y tanto.

Images of Madrid: The Three Kings’ Day Parade

This is no mistake, though could easily have been one, knowing my page.  The image on your left is a non-image, it’s “a there” that is not there for your viewing pleasure.  I was at a friend’s office with my two daughters to watch the Three Kings’ Day Parade (The Feast of the Epiphany no longer says much to a lot of people other than it might refer to a white fresh water bird eating a large meal), because Madrid’s is the most famous of them all.  Parents tell their children “These are the real thing! The real kings.  They come to Madrid.”, which is surely what moms and dads around the land tell their children in all the towns and villages throughout the town.

            This parade that you cannot see used to kick off right across the street from where I live, in the Retiro Park, but they moved it over to the Paseo de la Castellana, oh I’d say some seven years ago, to turn it into a bigger and more spectacular event.  That was back when Spain had money and could afford these things.  Well, it couldn’t afford them back then either, but the difference was everyone liked to pretend it could.

            My friend has his law firm in a building right smack on the Castellana just above the Plaza de Colón (That’s the literal equivalent of “Columbus Square”, not a hotel for people with intestinal disorders), and from the height of the fourth floor, we are afforded a terrific vista.  It used to be a cozy gathering of just a few, but the numbers have risen, as well as word has spread, and now we can call it snug, but in a suffocating sense, if you know what I mean.

            In any event, it was fun to get together and toast with some cava and dive our faces into yet more Three Kings’ cake.  This has always been the torte par excellence on these dates, but more recently, the numbers have increased, as has the quality, I am happy to say.  The cake has never been a big hit with me, but before it was like sinking your teeth into a stack of envelopes.  Now, for the most part, the good bakers of this city have come up a recipe moist enough to make indulging generally something you won’t choke on and occasionally even a pleasure.

            The majority of us would migrate from the table over to the balcony to poke our heads out, then back to table again, chatting with friends and joking with children as they got all revved up for the Three Wise Men to make their way down the street in flashy floats.

            This parade is always slow to get up and running and the children in the bleachers, in their despair after such a long wait, will cheer for just about anything.  A lone cop on a motorcycle puttering down the road drew a rousing round of applause.

            Finally, the first sign of life appeared and the entertainment-starved crowd let out a roar.  Then you had the usual fare of bands, a few gaudily-colored floats featuring famous Christmas stories and Disney characters, the traditional banner tossers, a ballerina twirling and somersaulting while suspended beneath an enormous balloon, and that sort of thing.  Then came the military guard, the royal mounted guard, ducks, sheep, camels, and more exotic fauna like elephants.  But it was all stop and go.  Stuttering and puttering, the way these things happen to work when they try to deal with the logistics of a well-timed parade.

            Adults find this annoying, but children find it unbearable.  At the office the kids would stand up and run for more cake, get a bunch of sugar in them, and start really buzzing around like overheated flies.  Then they would run back to the balcony and take a peek, and dart away again.  There was no sign of the kings and the show was getting somewhat dull with all the unexpected stalling, except for the moment when one of the elephants paused to take a mid-walk pee.  The animal had been lumbering down the street when all of the sudden it stiffened up and readied itself.  If dragging a dog off the path in order for it to do its duty was tough enough, here there was little choice but to sit and wait.  It gushed out, I tell you, and sent a tsunami of urine right for the other side of the street where the crowd panicked to avoid the impending flow.  The rest of us who were out of harm’s way got a good laugh out of it.

            Speaking of basic needs, it was just about that moment when one of my daughters announced that she needed to go, and so I showed her through to the back of the labyrinthlike office where there was a restroom and then returned to the window.  Just then I saw the first of the three kings coasting by freely the way Barbie drives her convertible along the California coast.  At that speed it was hard to get glimpse of which one it was, but the white beard gave it away.  It was King Melchor, Melchior in English, my daughter’s favorite.  So, I raced back to the bathroom, told her to make it snappy, and then we tore back to catch the rest of the show.

            By the time we got there, the time elapsed had barely eclipsed 30 seconds, all we could see was the back of the final float with Balthazar hurriedly waving to children below.  Caspar must have been sandwiched in between there, but I can only assume this because I had no visual confirmation.

            That was it.  Done.  There was nothing left.  Whole families were descending from the bleachers and heading home.  The sanitation department was scrubbing the inundation caused by Dumbo.  The Three Wise Men had zipped by.  I was dumbstruck.  For an hour and a half, the cast of the opening show dawdled around, sometimes taking breaks of up to ten minutes, only for the main event to sail by as if they were late for a wedding.  Not that it was going to keep me awake at night, but I did feel for the children.

            “My guess,” said a friend at my side as we saw Balthazar’s float disappear behind the horizon like a distant boat at night, “Is that they are low on candy due to the crisis and can’t afford to slow down too much.”

            I nodded with taking my eyes off the street being abandoned by thousands of somewhat stunned fans.  Sadly enough, it made sense to me.

            I have spared you the pain of viewing the tragedy, mainly because I missed it myself.

Why My Taxi Driver Didn’t Have to Go to Jail

You see the man had been honest with me, in the sense that dishonesty can be honesty if backed by a law.  It so turned out that the taxi drivers had the right and duty to tack on 6.70€ to the fare just because it was December 31st and not any other day.  Apparently they do the same on Christmas Eve.  It’s a whopping supplement, trust me.  Even going to the airport is cheaper.  Just about anything is, come to think of it.  Here is a list of what this service costs:

  • Entry rate depends on the time of  day and the day itself.  Most of the  time it’s 2.05€, but at night it goes up to 2.20€.  Nocturnal rates for the weekends and      holidays rise to 3.10€.  That’s the post-bar, “Yeah, I’ll take you home, but  it’s going to cost you.”
  • Coming from or going to the airport means an additional 5.50€.
  • If it’s the train or bus station, be prepared to fork over 2.95€.
  • Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, the aforementioned 6.70€.
  • And that doesn’t even count the actual fare of taking you where you have to be.  The specifics of that cost are not mentioned, but they are the usual time/speed/distance factors.

So, in short, if you are thinking of coming from Barajas on New Year’s Eve and it’s past 10:00p.m., you might as well stay at home and save some money.

            Before I went ahead with publishing this, I decided I would check with taxi prices in other parts of the world to see if this kind of highway robbery was particular to Madrid or a worldwide phenomenon.  New York, for example, was once renowned for its cabbies who chauffeured unwary Japanese tourists, they always seemed to be from Japan, from JFK to Manhattan for $300, and that was back in the 80s.  Now it has a fixed rate of $52.00, not including tip.  Anyone who has been in the daily traffic jam on the ailing Van Wyck Expressway and watched the meter tick away mercilessly, will agree the price is a more than reasonable one.  Other than that, though, the average opening fare costs about $2.50, which is pretty economical all things considered.  There is no mention of a Christmas or New Year’s surcharge, either.

     I went back to Europe and noticed that London cabs did include these dates as reasons for hiking the price.  In this case, it’s 4 pounds, which comes to about 5 euros.  Of course, considering that in the United Kingdom, the average monthly salary is around $3,065, compared to $2,325 in Spain, 24% lower, the supplement here in Madrid is all that more painful.

      And what do the French do?  Well, in addition to making good wine, good food, good love, and buying Russian passports to evade taxes, they charge a little bit more for sitting your rear down in the taxi, 2.40€.  They also have different distance rates for different times of the week, and an extra price for a 4th passenger, 3.00€, or its equivalent, two ten-year-old children.  That last feature was an eyebrow raiser, but I guess every country is entitled to its own customs.  On the other hand, they have no supplement for the airports or train station, unlike Madrid, nor does there seem to be an additional cost for the aforementioned holidays.

      Berlin is by far the most expensive place to start off.  3.20€ is the starting rate.  From there, they charge by the kilometer and have supplements for baggage that doesn’t fit in the trunk and a nominal 0.50€ fee to go to the airport.  Other than that, everything seems to go according to the distance you travel.

      So what does this all tell us about me trip home?  Very little, other than that different countries have different strategies, but I must admit that the 6.70€ surcharge in Madrid exceeds what I feel is reasonable considering the standard or living here.  It’s literally highway robbery.  So I began the year just a little bit poorer than my impoverished life of the year before.

      And just when I went to bed that night, I put on some piano music. And the city was very, very quiet.

Why I Fear the New Year

I try to be as sensitive as possible to the early moments of the year in order to get a sense of which direction things will go for the next 365 days.  It’s an irrational procedure, frankly, and one which warrants an entire array of criticism from the scientific field, but since this post is not to be published in some scholarly journal, they can stick it.

     Anyway, the first couple of hours were greeted with cheers, and hugs and kisses and, of course, the twelve grapes of good luck which preceded everything.  The challenge of stuffing my cheeks with twelve pieces of fruit as a kickoff to the next lap around the sun does depart from the normal manner of celebration in this world, but it happens to be one of my favorite Spanish traditions precisely because of its uniqueness.

     That does not mean I haven’t been confronted with some near death experiences over the years as I took on gulping the daunting dozen down with a degree of aggressiveness.  And I have to admit it doesn’t quite match sidling up to the best looking girl at the party and planting her with the year’s first kiss, but it certainly provides for a little excitement.

     This year was a little more relaxed than usual since the grandmother at the home I was dining at set about peeling everyone’s grapes to reduce the difficulty of the task and, in passing, avoid any unnecessary gagging.  After all, you only have 36 seconds to perform and complete the task.  I have always felt that peeling was kind of like cheating and that doing so could have and unfavorable effect on my fortune that year.

      I never peel.  I told her I was a “skinner” myself.

      But she insisted and I wasn’t comfortable with ending the year by telling an 80-year-old woman to shove it, so I acquiesced.

     It’s an arduous task and worth avoiding at all cost, but as long as someone else is doing it for you, well then I guess it’s all right.  It was kind of her to offer and execute the task and I was grateful.

     Midnight came and with it, the imminent tolling of the bells.  Before them you have the tingling of the four quarter-hour chimes, and then onto the main event.  We rolled through the procedure rather uneventfully, with the exception that the fleeced fruit tended to stick to the plastic wrapping, causing a few moments of mild panic amid the thought I would find myself caught behind the rest of the country’s grape-gulpers, but I managed to stay with the crowd.

     Then it was music and dancing for the next couple of hours.  I have to admit that this is something I cherish aboutSpain.  People from 3 to83 inthe same room laughing and singing and dancing to the corniest music you could imagine.  And having a blast.  I have trouble revealing my corporal movement flaws in front of even the smallest of crowds, but I did get up and shook my booty from time to time.  The Spanish, on the other hand, can be totally unabashed about their dancing, especially when they are bashed.  So, it was good fun for everyone.

     Around three o’clock I decided I had had enough and told everyone I was leaving, which was met with the usual, “Why so early?!” which is no exaggeration since there were people in Madrid who hadn’t even begun to go out yet, let alone retire to their beds.  It’s a tricky challenge bidding farewell to a group of Spaniards who inevitably are going to insist you stay on.  In the past I would give in, but I’ve learned that all you have to do is be steadfast for about three or four critical minutes and then you are home free.

     My biggest concern once released from the home was whether or not I would actually find an unoccupied taxi, since New Year’s can be notorious for this problem and a rainy one, as was the case, would make things that much more adverse.

     As I approached the corner though, I noticed several taxis zipping by with their wet tires kicking up water and making that crisp damp sound on the asphalt.  I also observed that most had that distinctive green light on, indicating that they were free.  Hmm, I thought to myself, maybe it’s because I am not right in the center of town and in a direction which is going towards the heart of the city.  It can make a difference you know.  Most free taxis come from the outskirts while most taken ones head away from the center.

     The long and short of it was that I was glad to see I wouldn’t have to wait at all.  I plopped into the back seat, told the driver where I wanted to go with a tired voice, and zapped off a few Whatsapp messages wishing various people the best for the New Year.

     As we approached my corner I glanced at the meter and saw that it was 6.30€.  Being the holidays and a time for cheerful generosity, I mentally decided that I would up the final fare to 7.00€ and treat the man to a fairly plush tip.  After all, the poor man had to work on a night like this instead of being with his family or friends.

     My calculation for the gratuity my startle some of my readers who are not familiar with the way things work here.  In Spain, people don’t feel obliged to tip at all and often won’t, which is why a 50-cent keep-the-change is many times met with a sincere how of gratitude.

      In any event, the cab comes to a full stop, and just as I am tugging out my wallet, I see the man punching all sorts of buttons on the meter, the word, supplement appears on the screen, followed by the amount, 6.70€.  The man says in a natural tone, “that’ll be 13.00€ all together.”

      “What?!  Are you sure?” What was he, drunk?

      “Yeap.  New Year’s supplement.”

       It was late at night, ladies and gentlemen, and even though I was astounded by the extra cost tagged on, as you can see it was higher than the actual fare, I was in no position to dispute it because I did not know.  It had been so long since I last took a taxi on New Year’s Eve, I really couldn’t say if it was true.  The driver certainly seemed normal about it.  He had heard me speak; maybe it picked up on my foreign accent, which has stubbornly never disappeared.  Had I just been taken for a ride with a 106% mark-up?  Great.  What a way to begin the year.

     This man was certainly getting no tip from me.