Events: Holidays 2001
Friday, October 12, 2001
Today is a holiday here in Spain -- El Día de la Hispanidad, which a friend compared to Commonwealth Day in the U.K. My dictionary defines hispanidad as: (1) group of countries or peoples formed by Spain and by Spain's colonized peoples whose official language or most spoken language is Spanish; (2) group of common cultural characteristics of those countries/peoples. (My friend also said El Día de la Hispanidad is kind of like 'el día de la raza España' -- the day of the Spanish 'race' -- though, he added, that would be more along the lines of the fascist, Franquista take on it.) It falls on October 12th, the day the expedition of Columbus (called Cristobal Colón here) made landfall in the Caribbean, believing they'd reached India. Meaning most of Madrid, myself included, has the day off. Meaning many people either flee the city or go to the movies.
One effect of the short work week: it magically endows the weekend with two Friday nights. The result: Thursday = party time. Yesterday evening around 7:30, I brought a pair of my pointy black boots to a shoe repair shop a few blocks from here, passing through crowded streets humming with the early weekend vibe. A short time later, I caught a Metro train over to the barrio of Salamanca to meet a Spanish friend, Jaime, for an intercambio. (An intercambio: you get together with a Spaniard who's working on his/her English; half the time you converse in Castellano, the other half in English). A train was packed with people, many of them young and ready for big celebrating.
I reached the café before Jaime, ordered an espresso, watched the street life streaming by on a mild, pretty October night. People of all sorts, a few in some sort of traditional dress. As in centuries and centuries of tradition, a bit medieval looking, which in the case of two young men featured rows of small crests on the front of their outfits. One of the two played an acoustic guitar as they went quickly by.
I waited. I did some homework (exercises re: the overabundant differences between the verbs ser and estar) because I'm such a good boy. (I actually am a good boy.) (No, really.)
Yesterday was the first day I saw leaves blowing here, reminding me all over again that it's autumn. There's not much in the way of color locally, just faded greens and browns. By the second half of August, the leaves on some trees around the city begin to wither up and fall from months of hot, dry weather. Come the end of September, rain arrives, nighttime temperatures begin to cool, the falling of leaves picks up steam. As I stood at a crosswalk yesterday, they came gently down, blowing by me. There's nothing like the sound of leaves in the street swirling around before a breeze.
A friend wrote me that he spent Columbus Day weekend camping out in northern Vermont. Big color, leaves falling, nippy weather. Rain, sunshine, even an encounter with snow. (It starts up in October in northern Vermont.) I love Madrid, but I miss autumn in New England.
It began raining near the end of the intercambio, we called it a night. I retreated to the Metro and, on emerging back aboveground here in Chueca, found plenty of people out enjoying the night, rain or no rain.
The barrio I lived in last year was fine in many respects, but come the weekend, activity essentially died. When I moved in here, I felt some apprehension about the people/noise factor, but it just hasn't felt like much of a problem. Kind of a surprise, that.
Anyway. El Día de la Hispanidad. Big military parade -- the Spanish army takes over el Paseo de la Castellana, a major north-south route to the east of here (eight lanes -- four in the center, long park-like islands to either side, two more lanes beyond them for local access), and shows off for the political bigwigs, king and queen included. Featuring military aircraft doing flyovers, including three jets trailing colored smoke to suggest the three stripes of the Spanish flag.
Someone said that the incidents of flyovers earlier in the week may have been prep. for this display, with no connection to what's going on in Afghanistan. Me, I have no idea, but that thought feels better.
A final, unrelated item: Yesterday I noticed someone hanging huge spreads of posters on the wall across the street -- the same one over and over again, two or three rows high, ten or twelve long, extensive enough to look like wallpaper. Until you move closer and see that they're ads for a troupe of male dancers -- 'Tomas Dancers,' vaguely along the lines of the Chippendale Dancers. Big, pumped-up, goofy-looking, nearly-nekkid males that dance for women. Only I suspect this group dances for guys.
To each their own.
Wednesday, October 31, 2001
Another beautiful Madrid day. Spectacular, in fact -- like one of the first warm days in April. [Note: just went outside -- make that more like June. Woo-hoo!] I have no idea how long this kind of weather intends to hang about, but I'll enjoy it while it's here.
And. Not simply another beautiful day -- Halloween. So I'll attempt to write something appropriate, about an experience my brother and I had some years back.
My brother, Terry, lives in a town just across the flats from the eastern reaches of the Catskill Mountains in New York. Used to be a small town, but between the college and the area's accessibility to New York City, it's now a large, busy town. Terry went to the college there, met his wife, married. They settled in the village and have lived there ever since, apart from four difficult years in the Navy.
A portion of those four years were spent in New Hampshire, working at the Naval yard in Portsmouth, living in Navy housing across the state line in Kittery, Maine. I drove up to visit one time shortly after Terry and Sue had their first child, Bebhinn.
My first time meeting my niece, a beautiful little soul. As I remember it, she wasn't talking much at that point though she'd begun walking, if still a bit uncertainly at times. I'd never had much contact with babies prior to that, and spent a lot of the trip about watching this teeny human navigate her way through the world she lived in.
I remember her being a bit tentative, a bit shy, with bursts of extremely sweet exuberance. My brother showed me a game they played where he would pick up the phone as if it been ringing, say, "Hello?" then hand it to Bebhinn, telling her, "It's for you." She'd then start chatting in nonsense-talk with the imaginary caller. Adorable.
Terry and Sue were into old houses, architecture, antique furniture. At that time the whole antiques thing hadn't hit the way it has in more recent years, there were still abandoned houses sprinkled around the New England countryside, waiting to be explored. An intriguing, slightly spooky pasttime. I remember us driving around the traffic circle in Portsmouth then heading off away from town, winding up by the side of a road in front of a large old Victorian house that thrust itself up against the sky, vacant, seemingly forgotten, still in surprisingly good condition. We found our way inside, nosed around for a while, and as a result of some conversation about empty houses and ghosts, Terry and I decided to bring a ouija board to an old cemetery in Portsmouth one night during my stay.
During my teenage years, I did a fair amount of reading about what might be called the paranormal, especially during the summer months, trapped in the woods with my family. Pure escapism, in part, but also a sign of genuine curiosity about this life of ours -- the official explanations (i.e., those spewed by church and society) about life and its meaning never seemed credible to me, leaving me to cast about in my own small, ignorant way.
One night we parked on a side street in Portsmouth, Terry led me to an old churchyard, we found our way into its cemetery -- old, old headstones everywhere, the thin kind, hip-high, leaning this way and that with age, some partially-covered in lichen, others with death's-head angels carved above the name/date/etc. The air cool, leaves rustling above us in the trees. No one around but us. We sat down, got out the ouija board, started trying to strike up a convesation with someone of the nonphysical persuasion. Which turned out to be a far slipperier, more frustrating wrestling match than we'd expected. We'd ask questions, resting our fingertips on the little plastic thingie, it would kind of slide this way, sort of move that way. Not in any decisive manner, just futzing about. Now and then giving us little teasing bits of, well, not much, really -- I seem to remember the board producing a woman's name, but follow-up questions resulted in nothing coherent, contributing to a slight, growing sensation of being toyed with. We felt bits of energy and movement in the plastic thingie, but nothing of any duration, nothing sustained. As if things -- whatever things -- simply weren't lined up, for whatever reason. But we kept trying. (After all, it's just a game, right?)
Coming up on an hour later, with nothing much to show for our time, we were tiring. Terry asked 'it' (whatever 'it' was) if we should stop for the night. Both of us felt the plastic thingie move surely, smoothly toward a certain part of the board, stopping over one of the key words. We both leaned over, looked at it, and in the same moment, the same nanosecond that the word registered, the bell in the church tower tolled, loud and sudden enough to make us jump. The word: 'goodbye.' We immediately said, "Fine," picked up our toys, got out of there.
A genuine moment, if you know what I mean.
I once knew a woman named Ellen who told me about an experience she'd had way out in the New England countryside, at a place where a friend had some land with an old house. The structure was slated to be torn down so that a new house could be built, the demolition was imminent.
Ellen went into the building with some other folks, at one point the others were off in another part of the first floor, leaving Ellen by herself in the foyer, between the front door and the stairs. She happened to glance up the stairs, where her eyes met those of a man standing on the second floor landing, someone she'd never seen before. They stared at each other for a moment, then the unknown male turned and walked away, deeper into the second floor, out of view. No one knew who he was, no trace of him was found when they all went upstairs to look around.
The house was demolished soon after, the whole thing left Ellen feeling sad, a bit spooked.
Life: it's packed of mysteries.
Thursday, November 1, 2001
Called one of my intercambios to see if he wanted to get together this weekend. He did, which I appreciate. Nicer than that, though, was me getting through the conversation in error-free Spanish. Not that we're talking about a lengthy conversation, but still. In recent months -- me reaching a point in learning Castellano where I began realizing exactly how much I don't know (far, far more than I do know) -- I began feeling intimidated by the depth and complexity of the language thing. If I'm talking with someone and I start screwing up the genders or missing the right words to get across what I want to say, nerves sometimes take over. Not a great time. So that the occasions when it goes well produce a feeling of achievement, of real satisfaction.
Went out to meet a friend for lunch, riding the Metro down to Lavapiés ("washes-feet," maybe referring to the old story about Jesus washing someone's feet), a barrio south of Sol and la Plaza Mayor. An interesting place, busy, with narrow streets that wind up and down hills, a district of high-density population, includes many arty types, many immigrants. The plaza right around the metro stop is usually an active spot, today was no exception. I met my friend Paco, we scurried around the corner to an Arabian restaurant called La Alhambra (named after, er, La Alhambra). A medium-sized joint, just one large room and a bunch of tables with a bar off to one side, usually busy, usually filled with Arabs.
My first time eating at La Alhambra, I was with G. & S., two women friends visiting from the States. Two Jewish women friends. We stumbled across the place, went inside to check it out, encountering a room filled with men and cigarette smoke. Conversation around us came to a standstill as we found our way to a table, gradually resumed once we were seated. No women present, apart from G. & S. Just Arabic males. The waiter looked to be in his early 20s, and it might be that our simple presence spooked him. He made like he couldn't deal with my Spanish, quickly backing away and consulting an older, thirtyish guy at a nearby table, who got up and came over to us with a menu. I started ordering, he realized there was no problem, turned and yelled at the young guy, "Hablan español, tonto!" ("They speak Spanish, dummy!") before finishing with our order.
A genuine scene. In one corner played a large TV, a major focus of attention. The room reverberated with loud conversation -- reminding me all over again that the word 'dinner' begins with 'din' -- men sitting down, standing up, moving between tables, gathered in groups over by the bar. After we'd started eating, another group of non-Arabic types came in, bringing another couple of women to thin out the mix of cigarette smoke and testosterone just a bit.
The food: just fine. Good salads, I had an outstanding plate of lamb and vegetables over couscous, and the after-dinner tea with mint leaves went down nicely. I think G. & S. may have been a bit less taken with the chow than me, but I could be wrong. An older waiter took over serving us, when I gave the thumbs up re: the lamb/couscous, he seemed pleased.
I've been back there a couple of times, but not since the happenings of this last September. For some reason, I got a strong urge to go today, and when we entered I wasn't sure what the reception would be like.
In fact, no one paid us any mind at all. We walked in the door, the place was at least as loud as the last time I was there (meaning: loud). We found a table, the younger waiter came over, seemed to remember my face, we got on just fine. After ordering, I checked out the scene.
Once again, not a woman in the joint, almost all tables occupied. Loud conversation. The TV played a local news show going on about tensions between Morocco and Spain. Almost everyone watched, discussing it the entire time. Morocco is just across the Straits of Gibraltar from the Iberian peninsula, it may be that most, if not all, of the men in the room were Moroccans. None had an Afghani kind of look. A story about the sitch in Afghanistan started, attracting, sure enough, way less interest. Attention turned from the TV to food, conversation, whatever. And no one seemed to notice Paco and me. Shortly after that a family group entered, bringing two women into the mix. Within minutes, three more coed groups entered, including a threesome with what appeared to be a young Arabic woman in a sweater and jeans.
I wish I had photos of the faces in this place to flog you with -- amazing faces. Casual dress, for the most part, with a few younger characters dressed in ways that would have fit right in some neighborhood pizza dives in the States. At one point a table near me finished up and left. An older guy got up to assist the waiter clear it off -- face deeply lined, teeth missing, stubble, graying moustache, receding hair. Moving slowly, deliberately, clothes slightly soiled, though not in a way suggesting homelessness. He brought dishes over to the bar, returned to the table at that same deliberate pace, hands held out in front, as if already focused on more dishes. At another table, an extremely thin 50ish guy glanced at me curiously a couple of times, then resumed reading a newspaper, lips moving as he read.
Again, an excellent meal, I let the waiter know it. He seemed enjoy having me there this time. And when Paco and I stepped out into the street, I felt satisfied.
Paco took off to meet some other folks, I caught the Metro to go see a movie.
The train passed through Sol, where a large group of people got on, many with the look of South American Indians -- round faces, dark eyes and skin, thicker features, hair black in a way that's almost shiny. I was standing in a corner, a 30-something mother with a stroller got on, took the corner opposite me, positioning the stroller so that her baby, a little girl, faced me. Sound asleep, staying that way through all the motion of her mother getting them onto the train and settled in. The mother leaned down and fussed over her, her fingers -- thick and rough, maybe from hard work -- handled the little girl lovingly. The child remained dead to the world through it all.
She wore a spotlessly clean pink dress, with an outer layer of lace reminiscent of large, immaculate doilies, sheer and in perfect condition. A beautiful little girl, with the broad face of a dusky-skinned, South American angel, her hair abundant and fine. After the mother finished fussing, I watched the little one for a bit. Her fingers moved slightly in her sleep, her head rocked with the movement of the train.
Today's a holiday -- All Saints Day (El Día de Todos los Santos) -- the city nicely busy, with an entirely different feel from workday busyness. Happier, more leisurely. Lots of families about. I had time to kill, when I emerged into the daylight at la Plaza de España, I grabbed a bench by the side of the promenade that runs between the two immense fountains and enjoyed the scene. Sunshine, people from all over passing through. Families, couples, kids. Someone went by with two dogs, a smaller one on a leash, and a golden retriever mix, young and so happy to be alive it could barely contain itself. Lithe, full of energy, its feet hardly touching the ground.
The movie: a Spanish film called Visionarios (Visionaries), about an event that took place in the north of Spain, in el País Vasco, just before the Spanish Civil War -- a sighting of the Virgin Mary by a group of people that was, depending on whose side you hear, a fraud or a cover-up by the government. Pretty good story.
And here's a quirky feature of some Spanish multiplexes: they don't allow moviegoers to exit through the theater, post-film. Everyone has to go out the emergency exit into dark, unadorned corridors that feature restrooms and generally spit the customers out behind the building or onto a side street. Theater employees tend to lurk at the rear of the theater when the movie finishes up, turning away those who try to get out in that direction. Don't think I've ever experienced that before.
I stumbled out of the theater to find darkness coming on, a few brightly lit clouds hovering over the western horizon. The number of people in the plaza had doubled, a crowd had gathered on a plot of grass around a group of people drumming and dancing.
When I arrived back here, a poster party was just winding up across the street, a mess of large, ugly concert announcements pasted over the last generation of ads. Bet they'll be covered over by tomorrow afternoon, their brief lifetime lasting less than 24 hours. We'll see.
Sunday, December 9, 2001
Well, I'll freely admit it -- I love the holiday season. I do, I can't help it. I love the way lights and decorations gradually transform streets and entire neighborhoods. I enjoy the quickening of the pace of life. I like the way parties and seasonal events pop up everywhere. I love giving and receiving gifts, I enjoy sending cards -- the key to those last two items may be that I generally give gifts and send cards only to people I really want to give/send to. Meaning far less now than in years past. One result of that: the number of cards coming in has fallen sharply, especially now that my living sitch has begun hopping all over the map. And that's fine. The cards that make it through are generally from people who really want to make sure I get them. And some now arrive via e-mail, which works just as well for me.
The number of gifts I pass out has also dwindled, now mostly items I genuinely want to give, given to people I truly want to give them to. I have little biological family left, the connections between us aren't currently very strong, so the gifts that find their way to me are minimal. Which feels just fine. I appreciate the thought and effort behind what actually shows up.
I like the look of the light this time of the year, I like the snap to the air. I like the way people dress in response to the changing weather, to the coming holidays. I like seasonal craft fairs and rummage sales, I like wandering through places like that with friends. I like that people become more mindful re: some of the more important aspects of existence -- making each other happy, enjoying the day, letting others know what they mean to us.
The Christmas season's all right with me. I know there are circles where an admission like that is akin to admitting cretinism, but there it is.
Monday, December 10, 2001
An overcast December afternoon in Madrid, breaks in the clouds providing tantalizing glimpses of blue sky, muffled sunlight.
As they do periodically, the City sent out a crew to clear the posters off the wall across the street. First thing this morning (meaning, in local terms, somewhere around 10 a.m.), a pump truck materialized, they got to work. Between manual scraping and spraying of pressurized water, the entire length of wall on this street got cleared off by lunchtime, looking, well, not virginal exactly, but chaste. As immaculate as something that's endured countless generations of local advertising wars can get. Down to basic gray and black, nary a speck of paper visible, at least along this street's stretch of the structure. A three-or-so-meter length extends around the corner, completely be-postered ["Shakira -- la nueva CD, ya a la venta" ('the new CD, now on sale'); "Sauna Men -- para gente joven" ('for young people' -- that accompanied by an image of muscular, highly-chiseled black guy from the waist up, the poster getting its message across without stooping to subtlety]. They left that alone.
I headed off to lunch shortly before two. An hour later, fully one-third of the cleared wall had been reclaimed by a solid block of posters. How the Spaniards got hung with a reputation for laziness is beyond me. They are as industrious as all get-out when they put their minds to something.
One of the first harbingers of Christmas here is the annual fair in la Plaza Mayor. The plaza: an immense cobblestone courtyard, enclosed by a huge, four-sided building, built in a restrained Baroque style. (Restrained because the era's King/Church wouldn't allow anything as expressive as unrestrained Baroque.) During the summer, it's a focal point of tourism -- many of the cafés, tapas joints and watering holes that line the building's ground floor fill large swaths of the cobblestoned ground with tables and chairs. Off to one side, populist art (caricature-style portraits, variations of the Elvis-on-black-velvet school of painting and pastels) does its best to generate revenue, at other points around the plaza musicians and dancers (flamenco, tango) of various skill levels carry on. When the calendar turns to the early days of December, long rows of booths fill the plaza's space, festooned with strings of white lights, appearing like a sizeable craft fair. Around the plaza's perimeter, vendors sell Christmas trees and food, street entertainers hold forth. The general atmosphere: festive, crowded, bustling.
Last year, a woman I was dating hauled me downtown one evening to get an eyeful of the Christmastime version of the plaza. It's an institution, the fair -- well attended, that night, by Madrileños out to get the holiday season hooha underway.
The crowded streets that surround and feed into La Plaza Mayor are narrow and winding, medieval style -- at times contrasting strangely with the shops that line them, a melange of old-style businesses, bars, cafeterías, fast-food franchises. It's a great scene, especially if one is not bothered by having to walk at a slower pace than one might hanker for. (Madrileños often exhibit a tendency to take up as much of the sidewalk, stairway or walkway as they can, moving at a speed that's in sharp contrast with their general tempo when, for instance, they're behind the wheel of a car. In the Metro, as a train pulls into a station, on-board passengers get up and crowd around the doors well before the train comes to a standstill, positioning themselves to get out first so they can hustle to the stairs where they then spread out and slow down. I can't say what's actually going on with that, but it sometimes comes across as a communal display of passive-aggression.)
As we neared the plaza, the crowd intensified, squeezing together to pass through an archway into the plaza itself where the whole scene spread itself out before us, looking and feeling pretty fine. I took a moment to gaze around as people flowed by, then headed with Victoria for the rows of booths. Expecting something akin to the holiday craft fairs that have become commonplace in the States, what I found was a whole different thing.
The booths come in essentially four different varieties: three different versions of Christmas ornaments/doodads/tchotchkes (one dealing mostly in religious items, two dealing in more secular Christmas paraphernalia -- ornaments, toy trains, etc.) and one dealing in joke items -- wigs, goofy fake spectacles, plastic vomit, all that. And that was it. Those four types of booths, repeated over and over and over, vending essentially the same wares, up and down each aisle.
Once the lack of variation became apparent, the thrill rapidly wore off. Times like that, I truly get how different this culture is from the one I grew up in.
But the street entertainers were fun and the rest of the city center provided plenty of Christmas lights, crowds, decorations, and the normal staggering overabundance of places to eat and drink. Plus, I had good company to share it with.
Madrid, romance, the holidays -- not a bad combo.
It's now 5:30, well past the end of Madrid's lengthy lunch hour. The city crew has not returned to take on the rest of the wall. I'll be curious to see if they have the will to show up tomorrow and finish what is clearly a futile job.
Saturday, December 15, 2001
I've figured out why the Spaniards have been going nuts about the arrival of cold weather -- because it's freakin' cold! Madrid weather being so generally benign -- relatively warm in spring/autumn, authentically hot from May through September -- one forgets what it feels like to walk outside into an intense blast of winter air. The temperature today at 1 p.m. (according to a street clock/thermometer): -2 centigrade, meaning it probably remained below freezing all day. Everyone looks a bit dazed by it, walking around slightly hunched over, cheeks red. Fur coats -- far more popular here than in the States -- have quickly become a common sight.
In recent days, I've been searching nearby sections of Madrid for Christmas cards (tarjetas de Navidad). There are few to be found, and what I've seen so far have been godawful. Tacky, sentimental, badly drawn/painted. Went to the Thyssen Museum this morning -- a world-class joint, with a store that sells a broad selection of prints and post cards. Nothing. No Christmas cards. At all.
Without the few leftover Unicef cards I have hanging about, I'd be in trouble.
Tuesday, December 25, 2001
Nine days have passed without a new entry here. That would be because on the morning of the 18th I hopped an early flight back to the States, where I've been having far too much fun doing far too much socializing. Last night, Christmas Eve, I joined a select group of friends for what has become the annual Christmas Eve dinner in Chinatown, followed by a hilarious/inspiring Christmas lights tour of one or two neighborhoods in Somerville (a Boston-area town squeezed between Cambridge and I-93) where we witnessed some righteously excessive displays. A Boston radio station provided a soundtrack of Christmas music from the past 60 or so years -- from Bing to Phil (Spector) to insipid pop dreck.
I need to invest in a digital camera so I can inflict images from such activities on this journal.
I send Sincere wishes for a fine holiday season -- good will to all the denizens of the planet.