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The International Writers Magazine: Madrid, Spain

Game Night on the Río Manzanares
• Toni Pecchia
I can hear it. At first it scares me a little, because it’s an incredibly primal, torrential sound triumphing over the usual sounds of a big city. It sounds like a plague of Old Testament locusts about to descend upon us, or perhaps a tidal wave, though it’s a six hour drive to the nearest ocean.


What is this hum? Soon after it registers on the vibrating anvils and hammers of my inner ears, the smallest bones in the human body, it begins to move up and down, musically. It sounds like some kind of a chant, and as soon as I have this thought, I know that’s exactly what it is; A football chant. I’m not a huge fan of football (okay fine, soccer), and being on the Metro after an Athletico game, when I’m the only one not dressed in red and white barbershop quartet stripes, waving a scarf and singing at the top of my drunken lungs, makes me feel like I’m in a circus sideshow. I’m avoiding the Metro for this reason, and because I’ve got nowhere to be tonight and rarely get exercise. I lived in this neighborhood for a month in a hostel before settling down in Carabanchel, far from the city center with its overpriced tourist traps. Even so, I still get lost. I get Glorieta de Embajadores mixed up with Glorieta Santa Maria de la Cabeza, even though it should be pretty easy to tell the difference. I just came from Embajadores and am trying to get to the river so I can cross the bridge and continue on home.

Stadium But now I know exactly where I am. All I have to do is follow the chant. Estadio Vicente Calderón, where Athletico Madrid plays, is right next to the river, and when you’re crossing the bridge you can look over at it and see the people sitting in the stands.

The stadium is half a mile away at least, but the chanting fans’ voices carry all the way to my ears like the sound of sea lions barking back home in Santa Cruz, California, where you can hear them even all the way up in the redwooded hills if the wind is right.

I’ve always been annoyed with the way other foreigners jump on the football bandwagon so quickly once they get over here, but I can understand why they do. First of all, it’s a fun sport to watch. Can’t argue with that. Second, you’ll be out of luck for conversation material with your average Spaniard if you don’t. It’s so burned into the culture here that because I’m not into it, I’m probably more of a social outcast than most sex offenders, as long as those sex offenders are football fans. And it’s safe to assume that they are.
I’ve tried to follow sports. It’s fun to go to a game every now and then, but I just can’t become emotionally invested in a team. Can’t do it. I try to reassure myself that it’s okay, I shouldn’t feel left out, because sports mania exists to give the ignorant masses something to believe in and shield them from the harsh realities that would make them angry enough to start a revolution, or whatever. I immediately feel terrible for having this thought about nice, well-meaning human beings, many of whom are my friends and family. I kind of want a drink; There's got to be a corner store open somewhere that will sell me a litro.

On my way to Pirámides, the distant hum is supplemented by a much closer sound: a single human voice, howling at the moon. It’s a lone, middle-aged Athletico fan, staggering and zig-zagging on the opposite side of the street, dressed for the occasion in a red and white, vertical-striped jersey. His slurred voice rises and falls in time with the hum, which is becoming more of a roar, and he throws a shaky fist into the air.
Glorieta de Pirámides is dotted with police cars, and I can feel the officers’ tension in the air. They’re all standing around, jittery with the knowledge that the game is almost over, waiting anxiously to deal with the hellish traffic and angry drunk drivers. Just across the river I can see the lit stadium.

Toledo Bridge Puente de Toledo is ancient, especially at night. The Manzanares is much higher than the last time I saw it. I look left and right to make sure no one is coming to push me off and sit down on the bridge, my legs dangling over the side. I take out my cellphone that was made in China for a South Korean company and glance at the time. My stomach is full of Lox and Bagels, and my bladder is full of Mahou beer. In my purse is a used book I just bought at La Libre book café, an English woman’s account of her trip to Mexico during the nineties.

I’m wearing my favorite jacket, hand-sewn in California using patches from recycled old shirts probably made elsewhere. I know what I would see if I could look down at my reflection without falling in: a 23-year-old patchwork human; A girl born and raised in the United States now living in Spain, whose ancestors came from other parts of Europe, whose insides and outsides are covered in things from all over the world.

I take the nearly empty bag of pipas from my coat pocket and pop one in my mouth. My tongue burns from the salt overload. There’s a barren, pickled spot right in the center with no taste buds left after months of constant pipa eating. I crack the shell with my teeth and flip out the sunflower seed with my tongue. I’m so good at this now. In middle school, people used to say that if you could unwrap a Starburst candy or tie a cherry stem with your tongue, it meant you were a good kisser. I decide that skillful, quick pipa eating doesn’t hurt my cause.

The river is high tonight. The river is tonight; a slow, glassy black blob of miel de caña that doesn’t seem to move at all unless you see some foreign object being carried by its lazy excuse for a current, and because of this it’s the ideal canvas for the nighttime cityscape reflected in it. I suddenly have the urge to spit something off of the bridge and into the water, to send life-destroying atomic shockwaves over Madrid’s reflection, that timeline of Spanish history where cracker box red brick apartment buildings stand right alongside 16th century palaces. Pipa shells are my best bet. They don’t fall very well, or make an exciting splash when the hit the river, but they’re all I’ve got.

© Toni Pecchia June 2014
Toni Pecchia is a writer, visual artist and professional baker living in Oakland, California. She has lived, worked and studied in Spain and likes to pretend she's still there. Toni enjoys learning about plants, thinking about language, and talking to strangers. She does her thing over at

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