The other morning in Cafè Nero, the Italian coffee chain, I ordered, without thinking, a cortado and a cheese toastie with chorizo and sweet red peppers. This is how Spain leaves its mark, its marca, its brand on you. My flight to Madrid had been booked for my first trip as the Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow, and already one of Europe’s great capitals was exerting its centripetal force on my tastebuds.
It will not be the first time I have been through Aeropuerto Alfonso Suarez, Madrid-Barajas, the Spanish equivalent of London Heathrow, but I have never been in to the city it serves; it has always been, as it is today, a transport hub, a mechanism for reaching elsewhere.
Being Welsh, my default force is centrifugal. In Spain, I have always sought out the ragged edges, the substate nations and regions of the north, east and south: the Basque Country; Catalonia and the Comunidad Valenciana; Andalusia. And having begun the long march along the camino to Santiago, the rain-soaked greenery of Galicia also exerts a powerful hold on my imagination. Somehow, between all of these, I have avoided the absolute centrality of Madrid, city at the geographical and historical heart of Spain.
Now its magnetism has taken hold. Even my seat on the plane is pulling me towards ideas of centre. I have a strong preference for the window-seat, but here I am in 9B, locked between armrests, an Englishman reading The Times and a German woman flicking through the FT.
I glance at the headlines, which focus on Theresa May’s ‘Salzburg waltz’, the latest instalment of the protracted Brexit negotiations with the EU27 in Austria. Inside the FT, ‘Colombia grapples with migrant crisis’ outlines the ‘Venezuela exodus’.
I will be in Cartagena de Indias in January, the third stop on this incredible journey on which I am about to embark. There, and here, I want to listen to people and talk to writers about some vague notions I am developing about displacement and exile, currents that seem to be coursing particularly strongly through the world today, although of course their source lies at the beginning. Everywhere and always, humanity is on the move.
At the front of the cabin, above the curtain that separates us from first class, an artifice reminiscent of some religious ritual, the light up sign says SALIDA EXIT.
The German lady turns the page: ‘May set to reject Barnier’s Irish border plan’. Droplets of London rain still cling to the oval window as the commandante announces ‘El tiempo en Madrid esta buena’. In the centre of Spain it is 32 degrees, and at 35,000 feet above Bournemouth, payments go out in pounds for the change to come back in euros. Window man orders a water and suddenly on the tray tables next to the Brecon Carreg from my bag stands the distinctive squat blue botella of Solán de Cabras. Like the kick of strong coffee or the smack of chorizo, the sight of my preferred brand of Spanish mineral water, its design worthy of a perfume, gives me a little rush of endorphins. These are the little transitions, the small shifts in Europe’s soft borders.
Stuffed in my pocket with my mobile phone and crumpled boarding pass, the gold lettering of my passport is fading. The document itself expires in March 2021. My Irish ancestry has receded too far into history; notwithstanding some change in the prevailing political wind, this will be the last that says European Union. The next one will be hard edged, and bluer than a bottle of Solán de Cabras.
As we begin the descent into Madrid, my thoughts turn to my first cortado back in a country I have grown to love as a kind of strange second home-not-home. Cortado means ‘cut’ – so cut me, I’m European.
Dylan Moore is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2018/19, travelling to each Hay Festival edition, exploring issues of displacement and exile. His debut collection, Driving Home Both Ways, is out now.