I call it my magic forest. From my desk I can see across the former hunting ground of King Fernando VI that today is better known as Madrid´s Casa de Campo.
Over 1,700 hectares of holm oak and stone pine trees tower above an emerald carpet of grass, providing a natural habitat for 140 species of birds and 21 different mammals including copious red squirrels that are almost extinct in the UK.
On a sweltering house-hunting mission in 2014, this was our final viewing of the day. As soon as we parked up at the front-door I caught a glimpse of the swaying tree tops beyond the garden and knew it was the one.
The fact that this 1980s architectural eyesore looks like a prop for Darth Vader in a Star Wars movie, was promptly overlooked as the concrete-free horizon behind more than made up for the brown-tiled monstrosity for rent.
My husband, for once, agreed that we should take it immediately although I rather think his decision was influenced by our heavily endowed Cuban neighbour see-sawing her hips towards the communal swimming pool. I made a hasty note to self to search out one of those ingenious tankinis with clandestine corseting in El Corte Inglés.
This is my fourth stint in Spain and every morning I drink in the crisp fresh air from that forest as I stomp around listening to the dulcet tones of Emma Barnett in Woman’s Hour or Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach inspiring me to go the extra mile.
A far cry from my first move to Spain in my gap year, when, armed with 2,000 pesetas (€12), I chugged into Chamartín station as my father refused to pay Iberia´s excess baggage costs for my three suitcases, much to the chagrin of my fellow travellers in our bijou couchette compartment. I figured that if I couldn´t lift them neither could anyone else so I abandoned the trio of luggage on the platform and strode off with my fourth and most precious item, a ghetto blaster the size of a Shetland pony in search of a taxi.
I’d naively been expecting the taxi to be wending its way past whitewashed one-storey houses, not the orange high rise blocks of flats so ubiquitous in 1980’s Madrid.
Despite an A Level in Spanish my poor linguistic skills relegated me to the photocopying cupboard on day one of my internship at an advertising agency. By the time they realised that I was more of a guillotine operator than a photocopier, cutting off the heads of most of the material I was supposed to be copying, I had acquired sufficient colloquial Spanish to be allowed out to shadow some of the directors. Mostly in the capital’s infamous bars.
Office attire for women in those days was very conservative and comprised any pantone variation of either olive green or biscuit beige. Wholly oblivious to any fashion, I turned up in a range of Benetton rainbow outfits and a threadbare dinner jacket from Camden Market. Colleagues joked wryly about having to don sunglasses every time I came down the corridor. However, I was quick to cotton on and the following year I turned up to Newcastle University bedecked with Zara’s latest brown Chanel imitation jackets complete with shoulder pads – quite a novelty in a city where outer garments are not worn even in the depths of winter.
Home-cooked Spanish food baffled me for the first few months.
Ever keen to spy on what my host family had been dining on before my turn in their kitchen, I once poked back the lid on a large pot to reveal an ebony-hued stew with little balls and various bones floating in it. This, apparently, was Cocido Madrileño, a slow-cooked stew with a generous helping of morcilla black pudding that had dyed the chickpeas black. Fortunately, my tastebuds have since broadened their horizons and I now gobble up all the Spanish bone broths and pulses with gusto, much preferring the Burgos Morcilla to the oat-based variety my Scottish grandmother served us up for breakfast in Sutherland. Although I still maintain that nothing beats a decent chunk of Macsween’s haggis on a Nairn’s oatcake.
Since joining the EU in 1986, Spain has become a lot more cosmopolitan. Its registered foreign population has grown from 0,63% in 1986 to 11,6% in 2022 according to the Instituto Nacional de Estadística. Once as elusive as toilet paper during lockdown, American-style burgers now grace most menus nationwide and soy sauce is a permanent fixture in all supermarkets.
All the more reason to continue my daily jog in the magic forest.
Now on her fourth residency in Madrid, London-born Susannah has seen the city flourish since the 1980s. In retaliation to countless family holidays in the frozen wilds of Northern Scotland Susannah has been making up for lost time (and sun) travelling to over 86 countries. A wordsmith at heart, she is fluent in 5 languages and fascinated by people and cultural idiosyncrasies the world over. Following a 12 year-marketing career in the wine and spirit industry she now devotes her time to writing and editing.