Saturday, 28 June 2014

On living in Madrid's Little Caribbean (and how to compliment like a Dominican)

Telling people I live near Cuatro Caminos gets mixed reactions. Sometimes it's simply 'I don't know where that is' or a non-committal 'Oh right'. I've had the occasional fond reminiscence from former residents of the area, but quite often people don't seem to understand my choice of postcode. It's true Cuatro Caminos isn't hip and trendy like Malasaña, vibrant like Huertas or stately like Chamberí. It's a low-rise tangle of streets in north-west Madrid inhabited largely by Latin American immigrants and older Spaniards. Since 2013 it's also been home to a rather conspicuous-looking blonde Brit, who for some reason feels much more at ease in this working-class corner of Madrid than she ever did in Chamberí. It may not be scenic, it may have nothing of interest to visitors and I may have to sidestep dog poo and discarded shoes more than once on my walk to work, but I've grown very fond of my barrio.

Cuatro Caminos: A hive of positivity. What's not to love?

My main objective when moving back to Madrid was to find a flat within walking distance of my office. Some people would rather base their address on other factors than a commute, but taking the Metro in the morning isn't for me. This particular corner of Cuatro Caminos – close to Alvarado – wasn't really on my radar. On my way to view my flat for the first time, I realised I stood out quite a bit from the area's other residents. Stepping into a light-filled apartment with more metres squared for my money than any others I'd seen, I was more than happy to make this unknown neighbourhood my home. After all, it's well-connected, with plenty of shops and services on my doorstep – and it's cheap. It's a residential area, but it's not exactly sleepy: a few streets away is the 'Little Caribbean', El País's name for the area that's home to the biggest Dominican community in Madrid. It's well-documented that the Spanish love to be outside, with the evening paseo and bata-clad abuelas on the doorstep a common sight in towns around the country. Well, they've got nothing on the Dominicans.

In addition to bars (as you'd expect), the Dominican social scene seems to centre round barbershops and hairdressers. Ladies chat animatedly outside hair salons, rollers in place. Men, women and children dart in and out, greeting friends, stopping for a drink or even a game of draughts. Plenty of hairdressing and beard-trimming goes on too: I've seen barbers preening their customers at midnight before now. It's not just the social side of things that's different. Shops and restaurants in the neighbourhood cater to latino tastes; the music you hear blasting from car stereos is most likely to be a bachata rhythm or some booming dembow. Sometimes it doesn't feel like I live in Spain, but I guess that's part of the attraction. My neighbours and I may not have the same country on our birth certificates, but nor do we have the name of the country where we now reside printed there. We're all far from home, some further than others. And I suppose I can relate to the sense of community among the Dominicans, their recreation of the streets of Santo Domingo and San Juan here in Madrid. I'm more noticeably an outsider around here, but I feel like less of one.

I've learned bits and pieces about the Dominican lifestyle since I've called Cuatro Caminos home. I've also learnt that Dominican men know how to pay a compliment. The creativity, originality, slick delivery and – above all – lack of sleaze: other nations should take note. Many women object to being complimented as they go about their daily business; it makes them feel hassled and objectified. Of course, it can. But for me personally, there's nothing objectionable about hearing I'm the love of someone's life as I walk past. Or better still, how about these rather more unusual lines...

'I would sell your eyes'. This was my first introduction to Dominican-style compliments, in the rather unromantic setting of the LIDL fruit and veg section. I was just perusing the peppers when a gentleman announced: 'Que yo vendería esos ojos...' which, in a Spanish-Caribbean lilt, is much less creepy than the English translation. Anyway, I got the gist: nice eyes, love. I also managed to part with my peepers intact, thankfully.

'What are you doing round here during the day, if the stars only come out at night?' Well I'm just on my way home sir, but thanks for confusing me with the aurora borealis.

'Nature is great. It created you'. Again, another compliment that sounds much better in its rather more wordy Spanish form. Never mind those wonders of the world like the Great Barrier Reef and Iguazu Falls: nature created me!

And the one that prompted me to finally write this post: 'You're like the Virgin Mary, walking here on Earth'. I have absolutely no idea what prompted this biblical comparison, unless the gent in question remembers a Mary with blonde curly hair from his school nativity play. Given that I'm not sure nativity plays are that big in the Dominican Republic, the reason will probably remain unknown, but it was certainly a memorable moment that raised a smile. That's the thing: these poetic declarations are so charming in their grandiose overstatement (and utter lack of sense) that you can't help but feel a little bit better. So ladies, next time your ego is in need of a bit of a boost, take a walk down Calle Alvarado. Or as it's known to me, Hairdresser Street. Oh, and tell them the Virgin Mary sent you.

Let me know if you liked the more local focus of this post. There's plenty more blog material in Cuatro Caminos, believe me. 


  1. Brilliant! You'll have to take me down there, will hopefully get a confidence boost! Hahaha!

    1. The Virgin Mary will be happy to accompany you any time you like!


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