Mum and I say goodbye twice at the airport in Malta. After our first farewell she checks her baggage, and then circles back to Costa Coffee for another hug. Her flight is hours before mine, so soon necessity, security control and the Duty Free hall separate us again. I sit in the cafe long after I finish my mocha, air conditioning on blast and hits of the ’80s playing on a TV overhead.
I arrive in Madrid not long before midnight, and sleep easily in a cheap hotel room near the airport. The next day I transfer to a hostel in the city centre. My room (shared with half a dozen others) is one of seven or eight in the attic; there’s no sunlight up there, leading people to doze on the futons in the ground level foyer at all hours.
I’m used to having Mum around to chat and bicker with, so the silence of my own company is strange. Walking around Madrid I plug in my iPod, but this shuts me off from the sounds of the city. I find a park bench in Parque del Buen Retiro and listen to an accordionist cycle through the theme from Amelie and a few other songs for an hour or so, chucking him some low denomination coins when I leave.
Most restaurants in Madrid only serve paella to parties of two or more, and I don’t particularly fancy being crammed between tables of tapas-inhaling Spaniards on a busy Saturday night. Belying its location, my hostel is celebrating Oktoberfest with crisps, microwaved sausages and cheap beer. This combination helps me dust off my Meeting New People skills, and I spend the night talking and drinking with tourists from America, France and Northern Ireland. The Irish guys have accents so thick that, even with my years of exposure to (and love for) Nadine Coyle, I occasionally have to smile and nod along rather than ask for a third sentence repetition.
Sunday morning is a bit of a struggle, but after a large breakfast, a nap and a coffee, I’m back on my feet. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza isn’t far from my hostel. I wander through the gallery’s contemporary and medieval sections, leaving my favoured periods to last. The paintings are all set against apricot walls.
When I reach the gallery’s Classical and Impressionist rooms, I find the depictions of daily, domestic scenes the most absorbing: men conversing, families eating dinner, a woman sitting in a garden. These works bring on thoughts of my own home, and the simple comforts and rituals I miss (tea in bed, cuddles with Milly).
As well as these portraits, though, there are beautiful landscapes: Paris, Marseille, an entire room dedicated to Haussman. I feel a small thrill at my ability to recognise these places from sight and memory. There are Spanish landscapes, too. These aren’t familiar to me yet, but I hope they might become so.