Don’t mention the menagerie
What do you reckon about a statute of limitations on travel yarns: say, if you haven’t been to a place for a long, long time you forfeit the right to talk about it. No, it would never work — and why should it?
I am reminded of the problems of time at a social gathering at which two of our number are just back from Madrid. Talk is about a Picasso exhibition at the Prado. The inevitable question: Have you ever been to Madrid? I answer, yes, but then qualify, “A long time ago.” When? I can’t compute quickly, but “20 or so years ago” seems safely distant.
I later Google. My visit was just after General Francisco Franco died (late 1975, I learn). That would make the visit 1976, which is, tot ’em up, nearly 40 years ago. The truth is, I remember the Prado was big, the Royal Palace was grand, and I bought aerograms at the point of a machine-gun (soldiers were everywhere as Spain “transitioned” from dictatorship to a restored monarchy and democracy).
But there is one vivid recollection I can roll out as my Madrid moment. We are searching out, on the advice of a dog-eared guidebook, a hotel that occupies the rooftop of an art nouveau apartment block, six floors up without a lift (wonderfully ornate staircase, but its charm pales as we lug heavy bags up the steps).
I check a discreet name plate on a door and press the buzzer, to be greeted unexpectedly by a chimpanzee, in bellhop uniform, who escorts us inside. The whole Noah’s ark is revealed. Monkeys scatter; there are exotic birds galore, some free-ranging, others in an open-air avi- ary; a dog offers a paw of welcome; cats, some larger than domestic, flash a grin; there’s a four-legged animal of a species I don’t recognise but which seems to know me.
The human not in charge says, without a word of explanation, “Welcome to our little home.” He looks partFranco, part-Peter Sellers and would not be out of place on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s in a military jacket complete with medals. Not familiar with Spanish service honours, they may well be coloured milk-bottle tops, for all I know.
The chimp is always there to usher us to our room. Sleep is erratic: some of these animals are nocturnal, and every living being is awake at first light. However, the thing that I still marvel about four decades on is not the fabulous fauna, but who the heck wrote the guidebook. Why was every detail included of proximity to museums, transport and cafes, but not a mention of the menagerie? Who could be so nonchalant about a check-in chimp to not even note it? David Attenborough, or one of the Hathaways (for those who remember their 60s TV) or maybe Ronald Reagan (ref. Bedtime for Bonzo)?
Today we are prepared by web searches for everything we are likely to encounter on a trip, down to how our guestroom will look when dishevelled. Maybe such surprises will never await us again. I’d love to return to Madrid but in Satchmo’s words, It’s a Wonderful World … so many places, so little time. If I do, I’ll be equipped to discuss modern Madrid. In the meantime, it’s a tale with whiskers. But isn’t that what travel’s all about?
Susan Kurosawa is on assignment.