It's a holiday in Spain, el Día de la Hispanidad. Most businesses are closed around the neighborhood, though not as many as on a high holiday. News kiosks are open, most watering holes and coffee joints have their doors open, though starting later than on a normal weekday morning. The streets are quiet, but not empty.
On this day, the main north-south artery to the east of the city center is shut down for a military parade. The King is there, in his Commander-In-Chief outfit. The Queen is by his side. Government mucky-mucks are there. Review grandstands are set up along the length of road just off of the big traffic circle at la Plaza Colón, packed with people.
The closest I've ever been to the parade is sitting in a neighborhood wake-up joint working on a cup of espresso, watching coverage of the event on the house idiot box through bleary eyes. For some reason, this morning I found myself toying with the idea of wandering over there to see how it felt.
As part of the ongoing political noise happening here, el Partido Popular -- the party tossed out of power after the bombings here in March 2004 -- has lately been pounding the patriotism drum with increasing stridency. Two or three days ago, the party's current head did a television address to encourage people to show the Spanish flag today -- the little bit I've seen in clip replays showed him staring into the television camera with a fixed expression that some video coach apparently thought would convey earnest gravity, but came across to me more like a kind of exaggerated, almost cross-eyed solemnity that provoked the impulse to giggle. I have not sought out those clips, but they've proved impossible to avoid between news programs and other shows lampooning them. (A popular late-night show, Buenafuente, dubbed the closing sentences of the King's traditional Christmas address over a partial clip of Rajoy's address, the insinuation being Rajoy and the PP's longing for absolute power.)
For various reasons, I've lately been unable to settle on one or two preferred neighborhood morning joints, which has led to way too many half-awake wanderings in the search for somewhere my caffeine-thirsty side can call home. Given the wild overabundance of coffee pushers in Madrid, that has so far meant stops at a nearly endless number of candidates, along with one or two startling realizations: the overall quality of local coffee is not as uniform as I once thought, and the price of a cup of espresso has risen substantially during my five months in the States.
This morning I walked mostly empty streets for a while, finally stopping in at a small sidestreet cafetería I hadn't been to in a long, long time, me and the woman behind the counter the only souls there to begin with, the television droning away behind me, images of King/Queen/mucky-mucks being broadcast live as the doings at la Plaza de Colón got going, a mile away. I sipped at shrug-worthy espresso and paged through El Pais, she tossed sweet rolls onto plates laid out behind glass on the counter. At some point, a diminutive, unshaven older guy stepped into the joint, talking loudly in garrulous, half-in-the-bag fashion. He settled into a stool to my right, exchanging greetings and general commentary with the counter woman, me giving him a smile before returning to paper-page-turning. Others entered, the noise level rising with each new arrival. I eventually emptied my cup, paid up, stepped out into the cool air.
Walking along one of the barrio's main drags. Few vehicles passed but more people moved along the sidewalks, many pulling wheeled suitcases, many speaking German. Another restaurant/cafetería/bar I hadn't been to in a long time loomed, I stepped inside to find more voices speaking German and German-accented Spanish. A group of tall, 20-something males accounted for all of that, the counterman busy pumping out cups of espresso and plates of toast, the boys polishing them off as fast as they appeared. A 50-something Spanish gent sat at the end of the bar to my right, watching the show, the television mumbled away behind me, showing further images of King/Queen/mucky-mucks, etc.
A short, rumpled, unshaven Spanish 40-something materialized at the bar to my right, smelling of alcohol. He and the counterman exchanged friendly words as the counterman poured vodka into a brandy glass, the newcomer carried glass to a table in front of the TV, sat down, began paging through a copy of El Mundo. The group of German boys grew as two or three more walked in and joined the fun, conversation and laughter growing louder. One of the boys walked to the far end of the bar and inspected a box of sweet rolls and croissants -– the counterman looked over, the German indicated they wanted it all and picked up the box, bringing it to the others, who began emptying it. The counterman counted up the box's contents and noted it on the group's growing tab, his expression indicating he'd stumbled into an unexpectedly good morning and was happy to do give the boys whatever they wanted.
I paid up and stepped back outside, found myself heading toward Gran Vía, then among the stream of people walking east along the avenue. I'd apparently decided to swing by the parade, had no idea what to expect.
What I found as I got closer: no traffic on the avenue, but no pedestrians out enjoying the empty street due to the increasing number of police scattered about, all wearing no-nonsense expressions. It may have been a holiday, but the atmosphere was not frivolous, maybe due in part to a robbery of chemicals in France yesterday, the perpetrators apparently members of the Basque-separatist group ETA -- a development that has some in power here on edge). The crowds remained modest-sized until the block just before el Paseo de la Castellana, site of the parade, where crowd density quickly increased, the October sun casting slanting shadows, the lovely shape of the main post office building providing a pleasing backdrop.