What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.
Candy Lee LaBalle, 42, is a New Orleans native who has lived in Spain seven years. She is currently a writer and academic coach in Madrid, and is the author of "Living Abroad in Spain" (Moon; $19.95).
Q. You're from New Orleans, one of the most exciting cities anywhere. How different is Madrid?
A. They always say New Orleans is the most European of American cities, and I see parallels. People there and in Madrid are always in the street. There's this thing that happens every night at 7 in every city in Spain called "paseo," which means "stroll." The entire family just pours into the street and by 7:15 the bars are wall-to-wall people. By 8:30, everybody is gone. It's really nice.
In both New Orleans and Madrid, there's a real joy for life.
In New Orleans, there's a love of food and meals. Here, too.
It's all about slowing down and enjoying things. That's how it is in New Orleans, too.
Q. It has been a long, cold winter in America and Northern Europe. How was it in Madrid?
A. It has been cold; we had snow two or three times, and normally it just doesn't snow here at all.
Spain has four seasons and they're well-defined, depending on where you are. Central Spain gets cold in the higher elevations. In the summer, it is really hot.
Spring is fantastic and absolutely beautiful — 70 and sunny. Spring and fall are both lovely times to be here.
Madrid especially puts money into parks and gardens. Even the smallest suburb has a park.
Looking out my window now, I see a tree-lined park they just put in. It has lots of flowers and greenery. They plant a lot of tulips here — I bet you wouldn't have guessed Spain is big on tulips — and when spring pops, there's beautiful color everywhere.
When spring comes, all the restaurants put tables outside to create "terrazas." They're filled with people having a wonderful time until midnight or 1 a.m.
It's a happy season with many fiestas.
Q. Most Americans associate fiestas and Hispanic culture with Mexico or Puerto Rico. Does Madrid have an Old World feel?
A, Very old. Spanish life has nothing to do with the New World. There are ruins in Madrid that go back to Moorish times. There are medieval streets, cobblestone pathways and amazing museums like (famous art collections of) the Prado and the Thyssen. It is purely European and nothing but.
If tourists go on a trip to Spain, they usually hit both Madrid and Barcelona. They're more likely to spend more time in Barcelona; it has the Mediterranean Sea. They think of Madrid as a jumping-off place because their plane lands here. They'll think, "Well, I'll just spend a day or two in Madrid when I'm coming or going." But there's so much to do in Madrid they'll miss, especially its museums and neighborhoods.
Madrid holds up well in comparison to any other city in Spain.
Q. What's the food of Madrid?
A. Madrid is the capital and is in the middle of Spain. It's a mix of different styles and regions. Being in central Spain, which is mountainous, the food tends to be hearty, based on meats and legumes.
One dish, called cocido Madrilena, is typical of Madrid. It's chickpeas cooked with several meats and sausages.
But as I said, you get all the influences from the rest of Spain. There's great Basque food, Catalan food, and even great sushi.
Madrid is as far away from water as you can get in Spain but is home to the second-largest fish market in the world. So you get really great fish here.
Q. Is Madrid very expensive?
A. No. Hotels are among the cheapest in Europe. It's cheap to go out and have an amazing meal with wine and tapas for 25 euros (about $34) a person.
Even going from bar to bar is reasonable. You can get a great glass of wine here for less than $2.