I arrived in Madrid on a Friday morning and found my way to the hotel. The room wasn’t ready. The man at the reception desk said that I could leave my bag and come back in about an hour and check in.
I asked about a place for breakfast. He pointed out the window across the via to a little side street. I headed back downstairs and crossed over. I was tired from the flight but trying to stay with local time as much as possible.
The street looked like an alley. There were the backs of some shops along one side and the faces of other shops on the opposite side. It was about one and a half lanes wide. Pedestrians peppered the way. Graffiti dotted some of the walls and gates.
It was quiet. The buildings blotted out some of the noise from the nearby traffic. I passed a couple gypsy women panhandlers who asked for money. They shook cups of coins. The sound of the coins clanging echoed in the street.
There was a black and yellow sign on top of a doorway in the middle of the block: Dulcinea Cafeteria. Inside, the restaurant was long, more narrow than wide. There was a room in the rear but it looked empty. Everyone was in the front area. A long bar stretched along most of the room.
Two men with white aprons, probably both in their 60s bustled around, making coffee, chatting, wiping tables, picking up empty cups. I ordered a café con leche. A swath of saucers and spoons sat out on the counter, awaiting orders. The man with the black hair slid one over for my drink.
The front table facing the door was open and I sat down. The chairs had thick metal frames but were relatively light, standard cafeteria furnishing.
The breakfast menu consisted of a few basic sandwiches. The lunch menu, posted on another wall, was more expansive. Croissants and churros sat in a small pastry case at the front of the bar. The steamer from the espresso machine hissed regularly. Spoons clinked in small cups.
For a small spot on an unassuming side street, it got a lot of foot traffic. A couple of workers in neon yellow vests came in and stood at the bar. A woman with a white motorcycle helmet, fur coat, and tall black boots entered, joined in a few minutes by a boyfriend.
I wrote in my notebook and occasionally flipped through a book I had been reading on the plane. The room bustled with conversation. It was oddly easy to concentrate, though, even with the banter. I didn’t have to worry about understanding the words. Voices rose and fell, reduced to timbre, pace, modulation. The sound enveloped me in an odd, foreign calm.
It occurred to me that this was joy. It wasn’t an ebullient, shout-from-rooftops explosion, but I felt an overwhelming sense of elation.