It was while sitting next to Juan on the flight to Madrid that I remembered why I liked Spain so much. There is nothing the Spanish like more than striking up conversations with randoms on public transport. I dropped my British guard, and we chatted away happily for the duration of the flight. I was about to take part in a conservation project high in the Segovian mountains. Juan was returning from a short break in London.
On arrival, he helped me with my luggage and kindly bought me a metro ticket for our tube ride to Madrid’s Atocha Station. It was on the tube that I got my first urge to use the toilet. By the time we arrived, I was desperate. Ever the gentleman, Juan asked a policeman where the nearest baño was, only to be told that since the Atocha bombings two weeks earlier, all station toilets had been closed. The nearest was apparently up and outside the station.
“I’ll never make it,” I whimpered.
“Go over there, but be quick,” Juan advised.
Not entirely happy with the idea, but not wanting to meet the conversation team with wet pants, I found a dark corner and let it rain.
Footsteps and then a firm grab of the shoulder brought things to an abrupt, untidy end. It was the same policeman who had just directed us upstairs. There was no way, with my rusty Spanish, that I would be able to talk my way out of this one. I looked around desperately for Juan, whose back I could just about make out as he tore off through the station. And he had my ticket.
With one hand on my shoulder, the other one radioing the office, the policeman led me off through the crowds. In the office, he asked me to explain to everyone what I had been caught doing.
“Pissing up the wall,” followed by “I’m not a hooligan,” I could just about manage.
The hooligan comment must have triggered something, for as he wrote down my details he said: “Sean O’Hare, that is a Scottish name, no?” Not wanting to correct him and tell him it was actually Irish, I just nodded and wondered whether I was looking at a fine and a slapped wrist, or maybe a night in the chokey.
“Which team do you support, Celtic or Rangers?” he asked me next.
In a Catholic country like Spain, there was only one answer to that question.
“Celtic,” I said.
“Off you go,” he replied, scrunching up his form.