Let’s, for one moment, pretend that I didn’t spend Valentine’s Day with friends, sober as a judge, watching a Don Quixote-style Carnival. Let’s just imagine. Say, for example, that I had a delightful, candlelit dinner in some exceptionally swanky restaurant. (To prove exactly how delightfully candlelit it was, I just had to punctuate the date with half-hourly selfies. #myimaginarybfisthebest, and all the rest of it.)
That aside, Spain boasts quite a relaxed and liberal dating culture. Lots of things are, of course, familiar. A first date still tends to involve casual drinks in a bar after exchanging a text or two, and the run-up to 14 February is still known for its teddies, flowers and gaudy balloons.
But, just as St Valentine’s is very much a recent phenomenon in Spain, mingling in Madrid has its own distinctive touch.
If their language is anything to go by, the Spanish place great importance on physical beauty. The word ‘guapo’ (or ‘guapa’, if female) is the go-to word to describe anybody even mildly pretty. From baby photos to statues of the Virgin Mary during Easter processions and celebrities on T.V., this word crops up everywhere.
It even comes across as rather rude if, when meeting up for a coffee, you forget to complement somebody’s new hairstyle, clothes, mere physical presence etc. Used around friends or work colleagues, it conveys a sense of platonic intimacy.
But, like, is he, you know, into me? Well it totally depends on the context, but it’s a promising start. In summary: if you’re looking to date in Spain, learn the phrase ‘Ay, ¡qué guapo/a estás!’
Something else that seems quite common is to have a very strong social circle of family and friends. Many of my Spanish friends have maintained a close relationship with the same classmates for over two decades. It’s also not abnormal to live with your parents well into your late twenties or early thirties, though this probably has a lot to do with the economic downturn, too.
Though personal circumstances obviously vary from person to person, I’ve found much of Spanish culture to be much more family-orientated than expected.
Prepare to have much more contact with a significant (Spanish) other’s Uncle Pedro than you would in the UK. In my experience, the majority of Madrileños are exceptionally open and hospitable. It can, however, still be intimidating to go out with somebody who texts his mother as much as he texts you.
One of the best aspects of modern Madrid is its diversity and el amor is no exception. This is exemplified by an increasingly vibrant gay scene, the epicentre of which is downtown Chueca. By day, its upmarket shops and cafes are perfect for exploring, and, by night, it’s easily my favourite place to go out.
Homosexuality has not always been so accepted on the Iberian Peninsula. In both Moorish Spain and the formidable Spanish Empire, it was a criminal offence. The Fascist Francoist dictatorship (1939-1975) interned at least 5000 people in labour camps for their sexual orientation. Frederico García Lorca, a gay author and playwright, was famously murdered by Spanish nationalists in the first few months of the Spanish Civil War.
And, as in all European capitals, homophobia still exists. Only two weeks ago, an internal memo by a public transport security firm was leaked to the press. It advised employees to be especially vigilant around ‘gays, mendigos y músicos’ (gays, beggars and musicians) on the Madrid metro.
But if there’s one thing that the resulting public outcry shows, is that Madrid remains largely very tolerant of the LGBT community. The Madrid Pride Parade, known as Fiesta del Orgullo Gay, has been held annually since 1979 and in 2007, the city hosted Europride, one Europe’s biggest LGBT pride events.
In Europe’s third largest city, you can be pretty sure of finding just about anything. From flamenco-listening, tortilla-eating Spanish stallions to tortured hipster-poets, Madrid is a menagerie waiting to be discovered. For the moment, though, I’m happy sticking with my distinctly unromantic, carnival-based entertainment.