I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world—for both business and pleasure, not that those are mutually exclusive. This blog is about my unique experiences around the globe. It is not intended as a paean to the wonders of the locales themselves, as there already exist volumes that more than do justice to the magnificence of virtually every corner of this earth.  Here, I simply recount small, personal moments of surprise, embarrassment, stupidity, excitement, fear, heroics, and other stuff like that.

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Madrid, Spain…February 1993. Over the course of my tenure as an international ad man, I visited Madrid many times, but the most noteworthy by far was the weekend Sande and I spent there early on in our life as expatriates. An interesting place to do business, often requiring translators, thanks to Spain’s relatively recent past under the iron-fisted isolationist rule of Generalisimo Franco, and a place of cultural renown, thanks to the treasures of the Prado, the Sofia, and the city’s many magnificent cathedrals and plazas, Madrid was also a city where I would have the most memorable dessert of my life.

Sande and I had gone to Madrid that weekend, in part, so that I could reconnect with a fellow I had worked with in the early ‘70s at the Benton & Bowles ad agency in New York. After Franco died in 1975, Spain began to open up to the outside world and my friend, Butch, had relocated to Madrid to facilitate the agency’s international expansion there. I recall, at the time, being envious of his exciting foreign assignment but, in hindsight, I now realized Butch’s new gig was probably anything but glamorous—what with the challenges of language, culture, and Spain’s complete lack of advertising and marketing sophistication, or even comprehension. Now, some fifteen years later, Butch was still there and very much a Spaniard, meaning we met he and his wife for dinner on Madrid time—late. It was a pleasant enough evening and I did pick up a few clues about dealing with the Spanish, but it was one of those nights that drove home just how much our two lives had changed. It would be the last time I’d see old Butch.

The next day, Sande and I did our usual “new city” aimless wandering routine—along the pedestrian ins-and-outs of the Plaza Mayor, checking out the Bear & Strawberry Tree, the Prado, and a cathedral or two—always on alert for interesting little pit stops for wine and tapas breaks; our modus operandi for foreign travel having been finely honed by several pre-expat trips to the likes of Paris, Florence, Rome and Vienna.

In our travel world, museums and cathedrals were mainly relegated to filler between cafes and restaurants. That used to seriously grind the gears of some of our friends, who couldn’t understand how we could possibly miss seeing such-and-such famous painting, sculpture, or whatever in these magnificent cities, but…it worked for us. Personally, I’ve always found it more interesting to observe people, especially in foreign lands, than inanimate objects. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the incredible masterpieces that are the Sistine Chapel and the David, or that I can’t lose myself for a few minutes in Velazquez’ Las Meninas or the works of Rubens or Goya. It’s just that I find museums overwhelming; they make my legs tired. As for Sande, she’s yet to meet the artwork that can compete with a fine glass of Pinot Grigio.

In those days, I would jog every morning. I found it a great way to start the day and an especially good way to get my bearings in a new city. That morning, in fact, I had been out for an early jog when I became quite the person of interest. It was about 7 am. As I rounded the corner onto a side street, I saw a group of people, seriously glammed up, coming out of a building and about to enter a waiting limo. I was dumbfounded to realize their night was just ending; the building they were exiting being a nightclub, and nightclubs apparently having no curfew in Madrid. I couldn’t help but be reminded of that scene in The French Connection when the drug-dealing Dave and Angie characters depart a Manhattan nightclub in the pre-dawn hour to be tailed by Popeye Doyle and his partner, Cloudy, after the two cops had spent the night freezing their asses off in a stakeout car. But I digress.

Anyway, as strikingly out of place as these Spaniards looked to me, dressed to the hilt at seven in the morning, I quickly realized that they were staring at me like I’d just dropped in from Mars. Clearly, jogging at dawn was not a normal part of Madrid’s culture. Not so surprising, when one appreciates that “eating early” in a fine Madrid restaurant means 10 pm, maybe!

Indeed, when Sande and I asked our hotel concierge to make a dinner reservation for us that night, he scoffed at our first suggested time of 8:30 pm, which was already pushing the envelope for us. “No,” he said, “is not possible. The restaurant does not open until ten.” Even Butch ate earlier than that the night before! But, when in Madrid…

So we made the reservation and, at 9:45, took a taxi to the restaurant, only to find the doors locked and the lights out on our arrival. What to do?

We waited, trying not to look like the clueless rubes we so obviously were. About twenty minutes later, the place opened and we crossed the threshold with no other patrons in sight, albeit others did begin to straggle in soon thereafter. As dinners go, the meal was fine (especially considering that we were guessing at the Spanish language entrees), but sloooww, and yours truly was getting a bit grumpy about the glacial pace of things. So when it was time to order dessert, a part of the dining experience I consider essential, I was keen to move the process along.

“I’d like a dish of ice cream and a cup of coffee,” I said. “But (and this but was delivered with great emphasis), bring them together. I don’t want the ice cream first, and then have to wait for the coffee.”

“The coffee and ice cream together, senor?” the waiter asked, clearly incredulous.

Si,” I said, tapping my rather limited Spanish language vocabulary in an effort to establish rapport with the confused fellow and soften my insistence on special treatment for the dessert course.

Together, por favor,” I said, with the confident authority of a man who knows what he wants and will accept nothing less.

A few minutes later, the waiter re-appeared with my coffee, bobbing at the top of which was the rounded crown of a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

“Your coffee and your ice cream…together, senor!”

I looked at him, speechless, wondering if he was being a smartass or was merely trying really hard to satisfy the customer’s wishes.

Sande, meanwhile, felt no such ambiguity, and proceeded to laugh her ass off. To this day, she remains convinced that, somewhere in Madrid, a couple of old waiters, one of whom delivered my dessert that night and another who she suspects was watching gleefully from the kitchen, still chuckle about the time “that pain-in-the-ass American” insisted on having his ice cream and his coffee together.

 T H E  E N D

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