An Exchange Student’s Bittersweet Journey Home

I was eighteen years old and introverted. My Spanish host father was a retired porn director. My host mother had had her palm read; there was no sign of her husband in her future. My host brother was a spoiled, teenaged baby.

During my six-month stay, I had offended them in ways I still don’t understand, and they had kicked me out….

March 1989

A faded symbol on the ground outside the Puerta del Sol, a 19th-century square which is the heart of not only Madrid but Spain itself, marks Kilometer Zero of the system of national highways known as the carretera nacional. The major arteries of this network are six toll-free highways, or autovías, prefixed by “N” and numbered I to VI.

Radiating from the geographically centered capital to coastal provinces or the Portuguese border, the N-I-VI are more heavily traveled than the “R” autopistas (toll highways) they run parallel to since many Spaniards can’t afford to pay the high tolls. Anyone who has been mired in traffic hell during one of Madrid’s four rush hours knows all too well that “heavily traveled” understates things quite a bit.

The N-VI breaks out of the capital near the Mirador del Faro observation tower and passes through Ciudad Universitaria on its way to the suburbs and the northwestern port city of A Coruña. At Kilometer 18 along that major artery lies the burgeoning municipality of Las Rozas. Its proximity to the capital, which was on the front line during the Civil War that began in 1936, explains why the town stood in ruins when the war ended in 1939. The fact that it straddles the N-VI only twenty minutes from Madrid is an important reason why it and los roceños (the people of Las Rozas) flourish today.

Roceños are among the countless nicotine-addicted suburbanites with a penchant for the honking of an automobile horn who each weekday morning form a creeping Madrid-bound caravan. Even with five of the N-VI’s eight lanes, including its two center reversible HOV lanes, or carriles de Bus-VAO, open to inbound traffic, commuters making the 15-kilometer trek to the capital may be stuck in traffic for an hour or more. No wonder so many of them smoke.

As I taxied alone from Las Rozas to Madrid’s Barajas Airport, which lies almost 15 kilometers to the east of the Puerta del Sol, I became fixated on the growing total on the running meter and the blinking colon on the dashboard clock. It wasn’t long after we had been “parked” on the N-VI that I began to place mental bets on which would be gone first—the pesetas in my wallet or my mid-morning flight to New York. The woman in the maroon Volkswagon Polo to my left and her young backpack-toting passenger appeared to be on their way to a colegio (primary or secondary school) somewhere near Madrid. I just knew that little girl would be late for school, and I was quite sure that eventually I would be standing in the international terminal staring at an empty gate.

To my surprise and relief we made it to our exit in about thirty minutes and merged on to the outer carretera de circunvalación (ring highway) encircling the capital that provides access to the airport. Racing—well, it felt like racing, at least compared to the crawling of the last half hour—towards Barajas with that slowly moving parking lot behind me I whispered a long-distance thank-you to the upstairs neighbor who had called for my taxi just a few minutes early. About an hour after I got into the cab I stepped out of it, and after more waiting at the ticket counter, passport control, and security, I boarded the plane and was in my seat. I hoped that schoolgirl was in hers, too.

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