Bowling in Madrid

Baseball. Apple pie. Cowboys, and bowling. Bowling? Bowling.
I hadn’t realized that I had been craving some sense of connection to the rugged heartland of America, but yesterday, when I strolled into the bowling alley above the Chamartín train station, I breathed a sigh of sweet relief. The best part was that when I subsequently inhaled, my lungs weren’t assaulted by the sickening stench of 1960s cigarettes that somehow still haunts any American bowling joint.
An ocean away from home, I walked down memory lane into the approximate scene of my five-year-old birthday party. On my dresser in my childhood bedroom still sits the sturdy, comforting bowling pin that my kindergarten friends signed with various shades of Sharpies. The video footage from that youthful outing shows that I bowled by shoving the ball down the lane with two hands between my legs. Granted, the ball never moved with much haste, but it did ricochet off the obliging bumpers a dizzying number of times. Normally, the ball thudded into the overworked gutter at the end of the lane, but on the rare occasion that it connected with a bored pin, my five-year-old self squealed and turned to my mom for validation.
Yesterday, I could not have turned to my mom. I could have faced generally westward and dialed her number via WhatsApp, but without WiFi, I would have squandered my cellular data at a concerning rate. Plus, I like to think that I don’t need as much external validation as I once did.
At the very least, I need fewer hands to hold the bowling ball. As a college junior, I bowl with only my right hand, but I still rely on the precise, mathematical method that my mom instilled in me. I concentrate on the arrows on the ground and aim for the one directly to the right of center. I release the ball with a follow-through that finishes directly over my right shoulder, and I confidently await the happy clatter of scattering pins.
Yesterday, though, when I rolled my first ball in front of four mentors, two fellow students, and one intercambio, I stared down the lane in chagrin as the ball collided with the very front of the center pin.
The result was an impossible split. I shook my head in annoyance before turning to face my friends, all of whom had their hands in the air. They were smiling! They were relaxed. They wanted to give me high-fives.
They reminded me that I wasn’t at that bowling alley to display my remarkable bowling prowess or to prove my American upbringing. I was there to have fun, to speak Spanish, to see a bit more of Madrid. Feeling grateful, I completed the high-fiving social transactions with gusto, and then I waited for the bowling-ball retrieval chute thing to eject my ball. There has to be a more elegant name for that conveyor belt, but it escapes me, as did three of the remaining four pins during that first frame. The one pin that did fall came into contact with a murky green globe with the number 12 on its side. I had to laugh, not just at my incompetence, but also at the sheer Americanness of the sport — Bowling balls are so americano that their weights aren’t even measured using the metric system.
It is easier to quantify weight than fun, but suffice it to say that I had a blast. I love talking with the mentors; I so appreciate their willingness to talk with us students, to be patient as we stumble over their native language, to support us and really become our friends. On this particular trip, I learned about fencing from Andrés, sympathized with Isa about the tedium of physical chemistry, discussed the mouthwatering smell of cookies with Paco, and thanked Maria profusely for having arranged the trip.
Visiting the bowling alley reminded me of home, even if it was only a crude approximation of its American counterparts. And by crude, I mean new. And nice. I saw no flashing neon signs, no freezer-burned food, no American football on the TV screens. Instead, I saw signs in slick, millennial fonts; edible-looking appetizers; and real football in the form of Real Madrid against some helpless opponent.
After returning my shoes (size 42, not size 10), I went to the bathroom to wash the oily feeling of the bowling ball off my hands, and when I realized that the soap dispenser was empty, I wasn’t annoyed. I was impressed. It marked another detail of American bowling alleys that Spain had gotten right.

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