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Detained in the Underbelly of Madrid-Barajas Airport

Thursday, March 31, 2016
What's it really like to be detained? Here's the uncensored story of my interrogation, strip-search and confiscations while flying from Madrid to Israel.

There are certain things that you sign up for when traveling outside the comfort zone of the European Union. When venturing to a politically complex country, misadventures are to be expected, though the exact predicaments can never be foreseen. Upon embarking on my recent trip to Israel, my most dramatic misfortunes occurred prior to even leaving Spanish soil.

Ominous beginnings

After being aggressively questioned by El Al officials before checking into my flight, I was told that my carry on luggage had to be searched prior to boarding the plane. After fueling up with a snack and a green smoothie, I ambled up to the gate for my second security check. After some chaos and confusion about a gate change, I watched other passengers be sent off, seeing as they were in the clear. When I was finally attended, I was singularly escorted to a basement below the terminal.

I was lead into a rather large bunker that connected to a garage of sorts. The cellar contained a makeshift waiting room with twelve or so chairs, a body scanner and an additional scanner for luggage, watched over by a few Spanish baggage handlers idly chatting about sports. Aside from the El Al security officials, a bored looking Civil Guard officer watched over the room.

First, the security officials wiped down my shoes for any suspicious substances. This didn't seem strange to me, considering security in the USA does something similar with TSA pre-check. The din of animated Hebrew filled the air as the minutes passed languidly. As my bags were being searched, I was told to wait for a female police officer to do a full pat-down. An attractive and friendly looking Israeli security official approached me, but what I thought was a casual conversation turned into another intense interrogation about the purpose of my trip.

What was supposed to be a "routine, 10 minute inspection" was turning into a lengthy ordeal. "But it's Spain", I casually thought to myself. "Everything takes forever here."

You want me to take off my what?

After about 20 minutes, the female Civil Guard officer finally arrived. She glanced at her colleague with a baffled expression and blurted, "Her? Really?" The policeman shrugged apathetically, and they both turned to me, quickly realizing that I speak Spanish. Once they confirmed that I could understand them (and obviously wasn't a threat), the Spanish policewoman took pity on me. After the Israeli officials came back to ask me questions about the contents of my bags, she whispered to me with disdain, "These guys think that everybody wants to blow up their plane."

"I'm sorry, but do you have a different pair of shoes that you could wear on the plane? I'm afraid we can't let you fly in these", the security official announced. "Why can't she wear those? That doesn't make any sense", touted the policewoman. "I'm afraid they've set off an alarm", she responded.

Now what kind of alarm these shoes set off, I'll never know for certain. From late nights at the club to reggae concerts, these shoes have seen it all. Whatever it was, I'm sure the mystery substance couldn't have been any worse than what's perfectly legal in the great state of Washington.

I handed my shoes over and was escorted into a small locker room, where my full pat-down was to begin. "By the way, you're probably going to have to take off your sujetador", warned the policewoman. "¿Sujetador? ¿Qué significa?" I asked, not recognizing the word in Spanish. She swiftly motioned to her bra. Noted.

My strip-search took a turn for the worst when the metal detector kept beeping on my legs, where there was obviously no metal. The policewoman told the female El Al official that the detector was probably faulty. Unconvinced, the official apprehensively let me put all of my clothes back on and leave the locker room.


Saved by the Civil Guard

As I continued waiting, I snuck a glimpse of the back room, where the contents of my bags were strewn across the counters. I could hear the police arguing with the security officials, and finally they entered the stark waiting room together. "We need to scan you again", the official said with muted urgency.

The policewoman rolled her eyes and gave me a sympathetic glance. "The detector's faulty, she's fine", she reiterated as she scanned me again. No beeps, no static. I glanced down quickly enough to see her turn on her scanner, right before she scanned her own pistol and said, "But see! It still works!" Unsure of what I had just witnessed, I shot her a glance and we briefly locked eyes. She smiled and said, "I think we're done here", as she motioned for her colleague to leave with her.

The security officials still weren't convinced. They brought my iPhone to me, asking me to unlock it. They asked me to take a picture with and without the flash, so they'd know that the camera hadn't been tampered with. They then ordered me to play music or something with sound.

Serenity now!

Shortly thereafter, they broke the worst news of all. Motioning me into the back room, I saw that they had disassembled my camera and extra lens, indelicately examining them without even using the lens caps. "Unfortunately we can't let you fly with these either", the official said in a grim tone.

Panic paralyzed me. Not only is my camera gear the most expensive thing I own, but that camera is my life. "We need to put these in your checked luggage, but there's no room." Of course there's no room, I thought. I tried to pack eight days worth of clothes into one small carry on, and then I had to squeeze in the pair of boots that I wasn't allowed to wear on the plane.

They reassured me that they'd wrap it in bubble wrap, and I begged them to let me pack it myself. Seeing that I was visibly shaken, they let me wrap and pack it accordingly. And that's precisely when the tears came.

Desperately trying to keep it together, I collected myself and asked to be escorted to the restroom. I felt like a criminal.

"We're sorry you have to do this", the officials assured me as they let me repack and reassemble my bags after an hour and a half in the cellar. "You don't do this to everyone, do you?" I wondered aloud. "No, but when an alarm is set off, we have to follow certain procedures." And I obviously look like a pretty shady character, so apparently they couldn't take any chances...

I was escorted by the two officials up to the gate, where they ensured that I was the first person to board the plane without buying anything, using the restroom or talking to anyone. Considering they had also confiscated my iPod and headphones (but then let me repack them in my checked bag), I was left to my own devices on the 5 hour flight. My only entertainment was my book, 1984, which in hindsight may have also set them off due to its relatively subversive content.

Do I look like a criminal?

I am not a terrorist.

When an entire region of the world basically wants to wipe your country off the map, I can fully understand why security has to be rigid. If anything, it made me feel safer to fly El Al to Israel. That said, I was shocked to be searched, interrogated and detained with such intensity.

My friends in Tel Aviv were convinced that it wasn't my shoes that set off the alarm, but rather the stamps in my passport from Morocco and Turkey. Which I suppose is valid, but then again, as a smiling, blue-eyed preschool teacher/former sorority girl, I don't exactly fit the bill for "suspected terrorist".

Thankfully, the rest of my time in Israel wasn't nearly as dramatic. Despite the rocky start, I ended up falling in love with the country's culture, cuisine and history. I can't wait to gush more about my love affair with Israel, but for now, this story will go down as one of my most rattling travel experiences.

I still made it to Israel!

What's your worst airport horror story?
Have you ever been detained?

8 Ways Living in Madrid Has Ruined Me for Life

Tuesday, March 15, 2016
After almost three years of living in Madrid, I still get heart sparkles wandering through the streets of Spain's capital. Despite the ups and downs of expat life, Spanish culture has effectively seduced, indulged and transformed me.
From the captivating lifestyle to the ability to travel extensively through Europe, Spain has spoiled me in countless ways. My years in Madrid have undoubtedly been the best of my life, and quite frankly, I'm worried that none of my future endeavors will ever compare.

But my time here must unfortunately come to an end, and in just four months I will be tossed back into the cruel reality of adulthood in the USA. Spain's enviable way of life has ruined me for good, and I'm not quite sure how I'll be able to readjust to American mediocrity (and expensive wine).

So, what's so special about life in Madrid?  Take a peek at what I'm making a conscious effort to savor these next few months:

1. Tapas, tapas, tapas

Heaven is a gooey slice of Spanish tortilla

The best way to satisfy an indecisive palate is by sharing a variety of small plates and sampling bites of all the different treats. The ultimate solution for culinary commitment-phobes, tapas solve the problem of having to commit to just one dish. They're also known for being delightfully cheap, or in some cases, even free.

Although Granada is best known for its heaping plates of complimentary appetizers, there are also a few bars in Madrid that generously dole out free tapas when you order a drink. Even if you aren't served a legitimate tapa, you'll at least be given a small dish of olives or potato chips to snack on.

To score free food in the center of Madrid, check out La Petisqueira, La Blanca Paloma and El Respiro. Otherwise, head outside the center to more residential neighborhoods. In the neighborhood that I work in, Carabanchel Alto, all of the bars spoil me with overflowing plates of free huevos rotos, cocido or tortilla  when I order a glass of wine to cope with the stress of teaching preschool.

2. Phenomenal wine for unbelievably low prices

It's always wine o'clock somewhere in Spain

Every time I visit the USA, I die a little inside every time I have to pay $14 for a glass of Chardonnay. I know it's my own damn fault that I'm a wine snob I have good taste, but seriously, fourteen bucks? ¡Qué va! 

The going rate for a glass of wine in Madrid is anywhere between 1.50-2.50€, while a particularly high quality glass can cost you 3.50€ (at the most). Not only are the prices delightfully low, but the selection of native Spanish wines is positively delicious. Rioja, Ribera, Toro, Somontano, Albariño... I'll take a glass (or five) of each, por favor.

Looking for great wine in Madrid? Check out De Vinos, Vinoteca Vides, Stop Madrid or Casa Gerardo (Almacén de Vinos) for carefully curated selections of decently priced wine.

3. Unparalleled nightlife

Spanish nightlife | 8 ways living in Madrid has ruined me for life

It took me two years to learn how to keep up with Spaniards after dark. In Madrid, the locals start heading to the bars or pre-gaming at home around midnight, and finally roll up to the club around 3 am. After dancing the night away, they slowly make their way home once the discotecas close between 6 and 7 am.

During my first two years as an expat in Madrid, I could only handle this exhausting ritual once every two months. Even when I did make it out until 6, I could hardly function the next week. But now that I'm on Year Three and feel casi madrileña, if I don't do this at least once a week, I feel like I'm doing something wrong. It's not a successful weekend in Madrid unless I dance 'til sunrise and sleep past 1 pm the next day.

Considering that bars back home close before 2 am, I don't know how I'm going to adjust to the pathetic lack of nightlife in Seattle. Clubbing isn't exactly popular in my hipster hometown, so who knows how I'm going to get my groove on after hours. I'm not trying to fly to Vegas every time I want a proper fiesta.

4. Efficient public transportation


Madrid has surely spoiled me with a remarkably efficient public transportation system. While I adore the ability to walk everywhere in Madrid, I can also get to any given destination by metro, bus or train. The system here is well-connected, affordable and relatively idiot-proof.

Given that Spain isn't exactly known for its efficiency, I appreciate their flawless transportation system even more. As someone who harbors an irrational fear of driving, this is the main thing I wish I could bring back to the USA with me.

5. The Spanish dining experience

Federal Café: great restaurant, terrible service. Just the way I like it.

Six years ago when I studied abroad in Cádiz, I positively abhorred the meal schedule, the slow service, and the aloof waiters whose attention you could never seem to grab. And what was that sobremesa business all about? Sitting around the table, just talking for hours after a meal? Who's got time for that?

But after almost three years in Madrid, gone are the days of wanting to eat dinner at 6 o'clock, pining for free refills of ice water and appreciating quality customer service. Now, I live for the late night dinners and the delightfully slow meals. Bringing the check with the food is an unforgivable offense, and I find myself unreasonably put off when friends aren't in the mood to sobremesa.

After getting accustomed to Spain's slow service, I feel irrationally annoyed by American customer service norms. I don't want to be bothered or checked in on, especially when it means that I'm therefore obligated to tip 20%. Please take my order, then leave me alone and let me eat in peace!

The Spanish dining experience is not only more pleasant because I can enjoy my meal without being bothered or rushed out to have my table turned, but also because the food here is decidedly sublime. In Spanish cuisine, less is more. The traditional gastronomy focuses on fresh, high quality ingredients, rendering it all the more savory in its simplicity.

Hungry yet? Here's a list of my favorite places to eat in Madrid.

6. A slower pace of life

The makings of a good morning

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the Spanish lifestyle is its relaxed pace and no pasa nada attitude. Spaniards work to live, not live to work. They're not becoming workaholics or multi-tasking themselves to death. Instead, they're focusing on enjoying life. The people of Spain take joy in life's simple pleasures: savoring a caña in the sunshine with friends, engaging in long conversations after meals, and making family their number one priority.

Though most madrileños don't actually nap during the post-lunch siesta hours, I secretly relish when some of the shops close and life temporarily slows down. On the weekends when the city is dead until 11 am, I savor my leisurely morning ritual of grabbing a café con leche at Toma Café, feasting upon some homemade pan con tomate, and slowly getting ready until it's time to grab a vermouth and a bite to eat with friends.

7. The lower cost of living

The view from my bedroom's balcony

My rent in Madrid is on the higher side, mostly because I chose to live in a recently remodeled apartment in a rather trendy neighborhood. (I also picked a bedroom with two balconies and an unbelievably picturesque view.) But while I consider my rent to be pricier than the norm, in reality, it's still insanely cheap. In fact, it's half the price of an apartment in Seattle. That's right, a full 50% cheaper than rent in the USA. (And that's not even taking into consideration the utilities and cleaning services that are included in my rent here!)

Not only is housing reasonably priced, but groceries are also remarkably cheap. On average, I only spend 30-40€ on weekly groceries (not including my specialty gluten-free goods that are usually more expensive). I score the best deals at local fruterías, which are neighborhood grocers that only sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

8. Being fully immersed in an extraordinary culture

8 Ways Living in Madrid Has Ruined Me for Life

Spain exemplifies beauty unlike any other country I've visited. Between the friendly locals, vibrant customs and seductive language, the Spanish culture is decidedly electric. Vivacious, dynamic and unpretentious, Spaniards truly know how to live. Whether it's at the dinner table or on the streets, their love for life is positively contagious.

Being surrounded by such an effervescent culture has made me appreciate life in a new way. Whether it be savoring a steaming cortado at my favorite neighborhood bar before work, taking a short siesta in the sunshine on my lunch break, or eavesdropping on the musical inflections of a Spanish conversation (and relishing the fact that I can understand most of it), life in Spain has taught me to find joy in the relatively mundane.

It will surely break my heart to part ways with a culture that constantly excites me and brings me to life. Though I will try to find ways to bring the Spanish lifestyle back to the USA with me, right now I have to soak up as much magic as I can during my last few months here.

Have you ever lived abroad?
How did it "ruin" you for life?

After 3 years in Spain's capital, living in Madrid has absolutely ruined me for life. Here's how Spanish culture has seduced, indulged and transformed me.