It’s funny what you realize about your country only once you leave it. Americans, and I include myself, really like to see a list of available items and their prices. It’s important to know how much your coffee costs and that it comes in small, medium, and large. Perhaps it’s because we’re a very diverse country, and you can never really know what you’ll find, or perhaps it’s because we know we can be gouged.
In Spain, however, things are different. In Madrid, in particular, with its old-school, bocadillo bars and little corner cafes, it was hard to find anything announcing what you could get.
So imagine poor Anne and me arriving early in the morning into Madrid, changing trains twice to get from the airport to the hotel by subway, and then looking for breakfast, bleary-eyed. I can barely remember that the café was called Chocolate, and that there was a long bar with middle-aged men eating pastries and drinking coffee and a few café tables. There was a menu on the table, but it seemed to list only fruity, expensive juices, nothing about the coffee everyone was clearly drinking, nor the churros everyone was eating. No one else seemed perturbed; clearly, they all knew what was available. I tried to ask in my Mexican-accented Spanish what was available, and the most we could understand was that there were churros and tostada, or toast. Okay then, some churros and tostada! We were also offered brightly wrapped candies or chocolate, and we had no idea what they were or what they cost or perhaps they were free, who knows?
But we did get better at navigating breakfast. We managed to locate places in small alleys, which is no small feat as the old part of Madrid is 90% small alleys, and we lost the fear that we would be charged something exorbitant and unexpected because we never were. Anne found a strong endorsement for Chocolateria San Gines near Puerta del Sol, and by then, we had learned enough to know that churros were skinny and sugarless and that something called purros or parros were a fatter version, similar to the crullers Chinese people like to eat for breakfast with their congee. It was a good thing Anne had done this research because here, also, there was no menu. That didn’t detour us, though, and we boldly ordered one of both, cost be damned, and happily dipped them into the thickest hot chocolate I have ever had in my life. It almost sat in my spoon like pudding. I almost didn't miss my morning coffee, the chocolate was so intense. So this is why the churros weren’t dusted with sugar! And our breakfast, as always, cost less than expected.
Our triumph was complete when we ate croissants at Antigua Pasteleria on Calle Pozo, a tiny little one-block street near Puerta del Sol. We had walked by one morning too early, as it didn’t open till 9:30 a.m., but we had seen through the screen doors the happy fat bakers at work. When they saw us peering in, they smiled, “Buenos dias,” and we promised each other we could come back the next day.
The croissants were unlike any croissants I’d ever had. In my former, snootier life, I might not have ordered them, as I used to be very orthodox about my croissants. They were glazed with an orange-scented marmalade and they pulled apart like sweet challah, but even eggier. There was nothing flaky about them, nothing that shattered, nothing that meant my old criteria for an excellent croissant, but I really enjoyed mine. The bakery didn’t sell coffee, so Anne and I wandered towards Puerta del Sol until we found a standard Au Bon Pain-type eatery, which being in Spain, made all its coffee using espresso machines. We found a quiet corner upstairs, with a big window looking out towards Puerta del Sol and ate our croissants and drank our cafes con leche. I don’t know how Anne felt, but I felt proud, like I had come a long way.