Events: Holiday, 2002
Thursday, January 03, 2002
The year so far (beginning with the end to the old year):
Woke up in Cambridge, Mass. early on the morning of the 31st -- way early, far too early -- the last day of my tenancy in an apartment I've had for nearly six years. (Sniffle.) Got up, packed the remainder of my things, stuffed them in my car. Cleaned the apartment, dragged the sofa out to the sidewalk along with the garbage/recycling. Hit the road.
Reached northern Vermont around noon, the ride featuring snow, wild turkeys, amazing winter views. Dropped my travelling bags in a Montpelier B&B, then headed out to where I'd be garaging my Subaru for the coming months. Dropped off the car, began the short hike downhill to Route 12, the two-lane that heads south to Montpelier, intending to thumb my way back into town, stopping along the way for a brief visit with an elderly couple I know, Mo and Kay Pearsons (pronounced 'Persons'). A hugely entertaining pair who have lived in their small home on a hill in East Calais for more than 50 years. Mo's family has lived in the town for generations, he's the real item. Grew up there, went to a one-room schoolhouse on the other side of the hill, worked as a stone-cutter in Barre (Montpelier's evil twin city) for many years.
About a month ago, creosote build-up in the chimney pipe from their wood stove led to a chimney fire. They've since been enduring extensive repair work, labor long overdue in a house that old and so good for all concerned. An added benefit: it gives them an ongoing source for complaints and exposition. That, hunting matters (Mo being hardcore), and the ongoing drought that's left them without running water for several months composed most of Mo's conversation. Kay, on the other hand, vented about the various physical trials they've both endured over the past year (Mo's age: around 80; Kay's: in her 70's), along with 9/11 and whatever else came to mind, giving thanks over and over that 2001 was on the way out.
When they learned I intended to hitch back into Montpelier, they refused to allow it, getting a touch offended when I insisted there was no need for them to put themselves out. Mo and I climbed into his Chevy truck -- one of the joys of his existence -- and drove back roads to Montpelier.
Got back to town before darkness fell. Montpelier: a town of 8,000 people -- just a little outpost nestled in a basin among green, looming hills, at the conjunction of two rivers. A place that would be described as sleepy if it weren't the state capital. The small downtown area is active during the Monday through Friday daytime hours, shutting down fairly decisively after the workday, though that softens some during the summer and leaf-peeper months when hours of sunlight are longer and tourists are about.
The B&B, situated up the hill from downtown, is part of a small empire run by a married couple, including at least three nice old buildings. On arriving, I ran into a woman I hadn't seen in more than a year and a half, a lovely woman who works there cooking and cleaning. It was good to see her, so good that it made me wonder why the hell I was leaving.
In my room, I found myself turning on the tube, watching parts of various program orgies (Twilight Zone, Buffy The Vampire Slayer). By the time I'd torn myself away from all that and slipped/slid my way downtown, the town hall clock had struck 8 p.m., the Montpelier First Night parade had gotten underway. Drums and sounds of partying, a stream of bodies and torches passing at the intersection of State and Main at the foot of the hill. A couple of searchlights pointed up into the sky, light snow falling through their beams. A huge light mounted up on the tower of the City Hall projected moving bubbles of light along sidewalks, street, nearby buildings. Kind of a surreal Lawrence-Welkey thing.
The parade moved off down State Street toward the State House, a stretch of road lined with an interesting combination of old and more recent buildings, the Capitol Building itself -- stately, elegant, gold-domed, compact -- occupying a sweeping stretch of lawns and walkways.
Few businesses were open, the ones that were (especially the Ben & Jerry's shop) seemed to be doing brisk business. There are two good bookstores right at the main downtown intersection, Bear Pond Books and Rivendell Books, they might have roped in a bunch of customers that night. Then again, maybe they preferred partying to working.
As the crowd swarmed away toward the State House, I searched for food, winding up at a window table in a Chinese restaurant shoveling down a generous pile of chicken lo mein. Outside, a short, heavy-set, dentally-challenged young woman wandered into view. She held something that looked like it might have been a street newspaper along the lines of Spare Change, the paper sold on the streets of Boston and Cambridge, Mass. And as she hovered out there, the sound of fireworks erupted. Montpelier's First Night finale. At 8:30 in the evening. Aren't New Year's Eves fiestas supposed to climax around midnight? (After spending most of the last year and a half in Madrid, I'm constantly startled at the American tendency to start and finish evening activities early.)
[continued in entry of January 7]
Sunday, January 06, 2002
My first couple of days back this last week, Madrid remained mostly gray, often rainy, temperature hovering around 50. Yesterday and today, the skies have been clearer, the air colder. Almost like winter.
People are celebrating Little Christmas here, a holiday oriented around children. Los reyes magos (the three kings!) show up bearing gifts, or at least that's what they're up to in ads seen around town. There they are, three cheerful dudes, in outfits straight outta central casting, arms full of presents. It's nice -- everyone's happy. Yesterday brought a parade -- lots of floats, people on 'em tossing trinkets and candies into the crowds along either side of the street. Today plenty of people were about, enjoying the wind-up of the holiday season. Folks away for the holidays trickle back, the pace of life visibly picking up. Tomorrow is the officially-observed holiday. Then back to regular life, version 2002.
Tomorrow begins another round of intensive Spanish classes, four weeks' worth. At a different school this time. I put in a lot of time at the last one, it had some great instructors. But it's time for a change. For some reason, this school does not take tomorrow off. And as it's January, not many tourists around, I may not have many fellow-students.
Monday, January 07, 2002
The year so far (continued from entry of Jan. 3):
A fine fireworks display, 15-20 minutes long, with a properly energetic climax. Light, color, whistling sounds, explosions. After which the town quieted right down. Groups of people moved off down dark streets. Others straggled into City Hall where indoors activities were underway. The light machine on the City Hall tower continued projecting streams of light bubbles on nearby concrete and brick surfaces. And apart from the line filing patiently into the Ben & Jerry's shop, Montpelier lay nearly still. At nine o'clock, New Year's Eve. They're a weird bunch, those Vermonters.
I shuffled my way back up the hill to the B&B for further communing with Rod Serling, drifting nicely off to sleep until 3 a.m. or so, which was about it for the night, snoozingwise. My body never seemed to adjust to the change in time zones during these last couple of Stateside visits, rousing me between 3 and 4 a.m., rarely letting me sink back into unconsciousness. Soon as I return to Madrid, I sleep later. Much later. As if I settle right into the local rhythm, naturally, without effort. Hmmmm.
Next morning: January 1st. Sunshine. A bit of fresh snow on the ground. Crisp winter air.
Breakfast, a few people already eating when I materialized in the dining room, all Canadians. A nice couple from Stratford, Ontario, and a grandmother/mother/daughter team from Québec, also nice, their conversation moving easily from French to English to French. The woman I know at the B&B produced plates of food. She and the proprietor, Betsy, asked what I've been doing in Spain for the last year and a half, I gave the brief answer: writing. Not being evasive, just not wanting to dig too deeply into personal history before I'd fully woken up. Most mornings I need time to become fully functional, though I try to put up a good front.
Went back to my room, packed. Found the proprietor, paid up. Took off for the bus station. At 11:30 on the nose, the Montréal-Boston bus pulled in, nearly at capacity with mostly younger folk who appeared to have done serious partying the night before, leaving them silent, nearly comatose. A young German woman sprawled across two seats got up to sit next to her traveling companion, leaving me a perfect window perch with no one next to me. An hour later, the bus pulled into the Station in White River Junction for a half hour lunch break. Lots of passengers retrieved luggage and disembarked, making for points unknown. I committed the error of going to a nearby McDonald's for a chicken sandwich, something I hadn't done in a long, long time. Bleah. Got back on the bus, once again in a nearly full vehicle with a perfect window seat, no one next to me. Found myself at Logan Airport in Boston shortly after 4 p.m. where I discovered I'd left the B&B with my room keys. (D'OH!) Couldn't do anything about it until I got back to Madrid; I prayed Betsy had back-up keys for the room.
While waiting to check in, met a nice woman who works for the Food Service at Harvard University, bound for French wine country with four work companions. A work-related jaunt. A Boston-area native with an accent so thick it could easily be used as mortar to lay bricks. We entertained each other until our turns came, me telling her we might have to take our shoes off when we went through the security checkpoint in the wake of the nitwit with the plastic-explosive in his sneakers a few weeks back. I'd seen shots on televison news of travelers at Logan doing just that. No one even glanced in the general direction of my boots when I went through. Probably because I radiate trustworthiness.
Waiting. Hours of waiting. The plane lifted off 60 minutes behind schedule, its incoming flight arriving late because of delays related to a luggage-handlers strike in Paris. Onboard, I found myself next to an interesting, attractive, late-30s French woman. A bit reticent, a bit sad-seeming, but also intelligent, a bit flirtatious. Reading a copy of Foreign Affairs, the journal of international matters read and written by very smart people, many of whom work in government/diplomatic service.
She didn't work in government or diplomacy. She wrote software, a skill she cobbled together while living out in Silicon Valley working as a private teacher for wealthy folks' offspring. Finding herself there during the boom, she picked up a couple of books, taught herself a lucrative skill, found work. When the valley began cooling off, she relocated to the Boston area, working there until it too cooled off. After which she lined up work in Paris, commuting back to the States once a month to see friends.
A quirky woman, with a nice way of pursing her lips when putting together replies to questions of mine. When she decided to take a nap, she got out an inflatable neck pillow, put it on and wrapped her scarf around her head, mummy-like, to cut out the light. Made quite a picture. She seemed unhappily preoccupied with something, her energy directed toward me at times, at other times most definitely directed somewhere inward and private, so that I didn't push conversation too deeply.
There's nothing quite like arriving in a European city in the early morning after a night of minimal rest. The world on that side of the Atlantic is fresh-faced, showered, crisply-dressed, ready to meet the day, while the traveller feels spindled, folded, wrinkled, creased, oddly out of sync with just about everything, deprived of anything more than fitful sleep -- certainly of REM sleep -- and expected to carry on like a fully-functioning human.
A question: why have the French stopped stamping passports? I've gone through Paris several times now in the last year and a half -- each time they give my name/photo a cursory glance, hand it back, wave me on. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate that they don't, say, drag me off to a security dungeon and perform a full-body search, cavities and all, but they literally do nothing beyond the bare minimum. How am I supposed to accumulate passport stamps? The absence of 'em can have consequences [see journal entry for 7 Nov. 2001]. (Now that I think about it, the U.S. customs agents also seem to have stopped stamping passports -– my last two times returning to the States, they did more or less the same as their French counterparts, saying, "Welcome home," then ignoring me. Strange. Of the several countries whose borders I've crossed in the past seven months, England's the only one that's actually applied stamp to paper.)
Possibly due to the strike, it took an hour for luggage to get from the plane to the pick-up carousel. Once suitcases and such began appearing, my monster wheeled duffel materialized almost immediately, I grabbed it and took off. The French woman made a point of giving me a nice good-bye, I responded in kind. Found my way to a shuttle, then to a different terminal, where I checked into a flight to Madrid. Made my way up to the waiting area, fell asleep for a while. That flight also took off an hour late, maybe just for the symmetry of it. By 2 p.m., local time, I was back in Madrid. By 2:45, the bus from the airport spat me out at La Plaza de Colón. Into a rainy, gray Madrid afternoon.
It rained on and off for the next 48 hours, me adjusting to existence in this time zone. By the time the clouds parted late Friday afternoon, I'd begun to catch up on sleep, rest and life as a high-functioning homo sapien. The holidays remained underway here, the transition to the euro the major news story.
Think I'll stay put for a while. It's nice to wake up in the same bed after a night of genuine sleep.
Thursday, July 04, 2002
A short while ago: me, sitting here at the dining room table, noticing that clouds had rolled in, that the breeze had disappeared. The local weather forecasters have warned of thunderstorms later today, the phrase "the calm before the storm" drifted through my thoughts. Which got me thinking about something my sister-in-law had once described to me, from her younger years in Indianapolis, when the air had turned green before a tornado passed through. And that got me remembering a late afternoon/early evening when I was 13 or 14 years old and saw the air turn green.
Happened in April on Long Island, where my family lived during the school year. Must have been April -- the warm season hadn't quite asserted itself but the weather had become mild, and though this event took place around 6 p.m. there was still plenty of light. Clouds had made their way in earlier that afternoon, the neighborhood was quiet, quieter than you'd expect it to be at that time of the day, with people arriving home from work, the parkways and main drags congested with traffic.
I'd been in our teeny house, happened to glance out the living room window where I saw the air had turned a strange, almost luminescent shade of green. The kind of soft green that I associate with the upsurge of fresh new growth as spring settles in and the world gradually grows warmer. Except that this was the air itself, shining with a muted radiance that made everything look different -– soft, fresh, mysterious.
I stepped out of the house into my suddenly unfamiliar neighborhood, walked to the corner, where I found Peter Opramolla staring around at the amazing display. Just him and me, no one else. The air had transformed itself yet people weren't running out into the street to gaze about, call back and forth across small front lawns about the strangeness of it all. In fact, the neighborhood seemed uncharacteristically quiet, which just reinforced the odd, hushed, heightened quality of the event.
Peter was two years older, with a mature, self-contained air. We ran in vastly different circles, knew each other hardly at all. And we got to talking, began getting acquainted, one of the first instances in this lifetime of mine when someone older spent time with me like that. The air shone softly around us, a distinct, luminous green that gradually faded as we talked, growing more and more muted until we found ourselves standing out in an ordinary overcast evening, when we finally said so long and returned to our respective homes.
The overcast here on my hilltop in northern Vermont has lightened a bit, though thunder rumbles faintly off in the distance. The color green is all around, just about everywhere but in the air. Being out here away from towns/villages, there's been no real sense that it's July 4th. No crowds of people, no fireworks, no sounds of barbecues or games of softball. I'll be heading into Montpelier later to go to a film. The town's official July 4th activities took place yesterday evening, but there'll be people around, there'll be restaurants open, there'll be families out walking and ice cream and red, white and blue bunting.
Have a good holiday.
Friday, December 06, 2002
Being that today's a holiday here, there was some partying in the neighborhood streets last night. Good-natured, even polite partying, people roaming happily around, moving from one night spot to another. I stayed in, using the start of the long weekend as an opportunity to begin catching up on sleep, meaning the bedside light went off around 1:30 a.m. Voices of revelers woke me from time to time, the last instance happening around 6:20, after which quiet reigned until the sound of the street-cleaning crews and the first people making their slow way out into the morning light around 9. Turned over, went back to sleep, where I had strange dreams of journeys by plane, of trying unsuccessfully to give information re: flights/airlines to someone seeking it, and of singing Johnny Cash's classic "Ring of Fire" with a male I don't know (and a decent rendition it was, except that for some reason we sang the lyrics to "Ring of Fire" to the tune of another Cash classic, "I Walk The Line"). In that last dream, I knew something about the song was off kilter but couldn't figure out what until we were almost done, at which point I woke up, my teeny brain rattling blearily around in my skull.
Got myself up around 11, did the a.m. shower/shave bit, wandered outside into a beautiful morning -- yesterday's hint of winter having given way to the mild, sunlit deal of Tuesday and Wednesday. The streets remained relatively quiet, 11:30 still a bit early for un día de fiesta in Madrid. Still, a surprising number of shops were open and doing business.
Yesterday in school, we were admonished to remember that everything would be closed today, which is the usual caution re: holidays in these parts. And maybe that's the case in other barrios. Around here, though, loads of people will be out enjoying themselves later in the day, and many businesses are geared to that -- the large supermarkets are closed, but the small neighborhood grocery shops are open. Restaurantes, cafeterías, bakeries (pastelerías), pharmacies (farmacias), some gift shops, even some footwear tiendas are up and running. (This neighborhood, for some reason, is heaving with shoe stores -- from the down and dirty to the high-priced/high-style -- and with shops dealing in high quality leather items (coats, jackets, bags). If only a fraction of them are open for biz, those shops will number more than the total you'll find in most districts on any given day.) Even Madrid Rock, a major independent record store, is open today, and I found myself drawn into it like an errant, slightly foggy iron filing to a gaudy magnet with a good beat.
Later: went to a film which entailed a walk through la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, the very center of the city, by then crowded with people out enjoying the day and lines of cars looking for parking. Went intending to see a French film ("Eight Women"), arrived at the theater to find the film was no longer there, decided to see "Changing Lanes." When the lights went down, I discovered I'd instead been sold a ticket for "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a film I'd somehow managed to avoid during my months in the States. I had to cross the Atlantic to see the bugger (by mistake, no less). When I emerged from the theater just after 5:30, the day was just beginning to turn toward dusk, the sun out of view but still high enough to render the top floor of the taller buildings a quiet, glowing shade of rose. The sidewalks were packed with people -- groups of young folks, couples, families walking together -- the air nearly vibrating with the sound of a city filled with life. On my way back through Sol, I found myself where I'd first been smitten by this city, at nearly the same time of day. [See journal entry for 5 August, 2001.] Since I got here on Tuesday, the municipality has gotten Christmas lights up and they were ablaze, extending down the major avenues and pedestrian walkways that stretch away from the plaza like spokes on a huge wheel. It's a shot of energy, Sol, and I remained there for a while, soaking it up.
At some point, I waded through the crowds up into one of the pedestrian avenues where I discovered that someone, during my last few months in Vermont, had snuck a Ben & Jerry's into one of the storefronts. A Ben & Jerry's shop, dropped directly into the heart of Madrid, right across from the Hotel Europa, about 200 feet from la Plaza de La Puerta del Sol, where people swirled around the statue of the bear, the symbol of Madrid. A brand new shop, still clean and shiny, with the usual Ben & Jerry's sign shining brightly above the door and a young Latino couple standing out in front taking a photo of it. I've seen plenty of Ben & Jerry's shops -- hell, I have a Christmas postcard from those knuckleheads hanging on my refrigerator in Vermont, from back in the pre-ice-cream days when it was Ben, Jerry & Vinny (no, I'm not kidding) and they were debating starting a bagel business -- so I continued on my way, around the corner to an intersection of the next pedestrian way over, where el Corte Inglés buildings comprise three of the four corners and the building housing the main store is now aglow with a huge, eye-catching Christmas light display. So huge, so eye-catching that the river of pedestrians passing through swirled around in the intersection, movement nearly stopped by families with children taking in the display, cameras held aloft and working away.
Up past el Cortes Inglés, foot traffic had grown so intense that I veered back to the avenue I'd started out on where I passed two musicians -- a heavyset, hairy yet balding violinist and a smaller guy sitting at synthesizer -- doing a pretty passable version of "Summer" from The Four Seasons, the synth providing a startlingly realistic imitation of an orchestra. I paused to listen, realizing as I did that I was standing just across from the corner of the hotel I stayed at during my first visit to Madrid.
Man, I love it here.
Saturday, December 14, 2002
Science blazes new trails in the quest to improve the quality of life on planet Earth:
Scientists search for perfect pizza
December 14, 2002
COMPUTERISED scanners and "fuzzy logic" software have been harnessed by food scientists to yield the mathematically perfect pizza.
The pizza of the future will have sauce spread evenly and lushly across its base and its mushrooms, ham, sweetcorn and other toppings will be positioned with millimetric accuracy, thanks to the culinary efforts of Sun Da-Wen and Tadhg Brosnan at Ireland's University College, Dublin.
The breakthrough was derived from digital snapshots of 25 pizzas which were then broken down and transformed into a mathematical formula to define the optimal pizza's base area, spatial ratio between toppings and circularity.
The study is reported in next Saturday's New Scientist. It is published in full in a specialist publication, Journal of Food Engineering.
The findings should be useful for ensuring quality control in pizza factories, enabling cameras to instantly pick out a pie with sparse toppings or which is skimpy or patchy on sauce.
See that? Nice people in clean white coats are working day and night to bring us a wonderful existence. Life is good, isn't it?
Or is it? Dear God, what am I going on about? Maybe things aren't quite as bright and hopeful as I thought. After all, it's mid-December -- Christmas is galloping relentlessly in our direction. Everyone -- that's right, even you, buster -- is feeling the stress of all that holiday cheer. Peanut brittle, greeting cards, eggnog, office parties, people in red suits (who are NOWHERE NEAR FAT ENOUGH to be the genuine Christmas fat man) standing on city corners ringing little teeny bells for hours and hours on end trying to weasel your hard-earned pocket change out of your pockets into that goddam kettle/tripod thingie they've got. Stores so packed with crazed gift-shoppers that you have to elbow them out of your way so you can wrap your cold, chapped hands around that perfect gift for, er, Auntie Em. Heck, who am I kidding? Who even gets close enough to the display shelves that they can actually apply the elbow to an inviting nearby rib cage? Who even actually figures out what to buy the deadbeats who people our miserable lives? No one knows what to get anyone, so they wind up with far too many lameass gifts in a desperate attempt to compensate for crippling feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Relax. Breathe. Take a look at Dave Barry's 2002 Gift Guide, where you'll find a farkin' plethora of brilliant gift ideas.
Then take a moment to put things in perspective. You think you have problems? Right now I've got channel 3 from Madrid playing in the background, and as I write this Lex Luther has hoodwinked Superman into opening up a lead-lined chest that contains a huge chunk of kryptonite (the only known substance that can weaken and kill the Man of Steel!) mounted on a huge gold chain, just like vintage '70s pimp apparel imported directly from the planet Krypton (before its untimely complete and utter destruction). And as if that weren't bad enough, Lex Luther is wearing a leisure suit with alarmingly wide lapels. And both he and Superman are talking in Spanish!
See what I mean? How bad can your life be? No evil genius is going to force you to wear cheap-looking extraterrestrial pimp gear.
What's that, Mr./Ms. Whiner? Still not convinced? Right, well, in that case get a load of the following news article. Then get down on your knees and give thanks for your boring, ordinary life with its boring, ordinary sources of holiday stress:
Out-Of-Control Holiday Revelers Deck Shit Out Of Area Halls
AMES, IA -- Holiday celebrations took an extreme turn Friday evening as an unruly mob of out-of-control holiday revelers observed the shit out of the Christmas season, violently decking 21 area halls.
According to police reports, at approximately 9 p.m., after consuming large quantities of 60-proof egg nog, the frenzied throng of 40 to 50 revelers broke into the home of resident Milton Krajcek, aggressively decking his halls with wreaths, garlands, ribbons, ceramic nativity scenes, tree ornaments, mistletoe, candy canes, and "shitloads" of boughs of holly.
Once their supplies were exhausted, the crazed merrymakers rode in pickup trucks to a local ShopKo outlet to restock, only to return and continue decking the already overburdened halls.
"I begged them to stop," Krajcek said, "but they wouldn't until every last inch of my halls was decked beyond all recognition."
Not satisfied with forcibly festooning Krajcek's halls, the slavering, nightmarishly cheerful horde then turned to those of other locals, posing as holiday carolers to lure residents to their doors.
"I heard an ancient yuletide carol coming from the front porch," said Millicent Slopes, 53, "and was pretty worried because they were really tolling the hell out of it. I decided to acknowledge them so that maybe they would leave, but as soon as I opened the door, they poured into the house and went batshit on the halls. I mean, look at my halls! I can barely squeeze through there, such was the force and vigor of their decking."
"It was horrible," said Francine Eppard, whose halls were also brutally decorated. "There was tinsel everywhere."
Local police officials are still searching for the binge revelers. If caught, they will be charged with breaking-and-entering, reckless and wanton decoration, second-degree festivity, and willful construction of toyland towns around eleven Christmas trees.
"The scum who did this will pay," police chief Carl Torvaldsen said. "No punishment could be too severe for perpetrators of this kind of shameful, senseless decking."
The wanted celebrants are described as inebriated suburbanites clad in gay apparel which they allegedly "donned the living fuck out of," according to Torvaldsen. Added the police chief: "We have reason to believe they may be armed and extremely joyous."
Until the revelers are captured, Torvaldsen warned homeowners not to open their doors for carolers, strongly advising that nuts and cocoa instead be lowered from an upstairs window or pushed through a mail slot.
Monday, December 16, 2002
Last year at this time, I posted a lengthy -- some might say, er, long-winded -- reminiscence of Christmastimes from earlier in this little life of mine. In the weeks that followed that post, I received a surprising number of PEMs saying surprisingly nice things about the piece. Because of that, I've decided to re-post it this year in reworked form and in two parts, beginning tonight.
Ghosts of Christmases Past
I grew up in a Roman Catholic family, a middle middle-class clan planted in the middle-middle-class community of North Merrick, near the south shore of Long Island, New York -- all of that being a set of conditions which set the tone for many things, including the way Christmas unfolded year after year. ('Planted' -- possibly not the most accurate word. Transplanted might be more like it, my parents having moved there from Jackson Heights, N.Y.C. with my two brothers and me when I reached the six-month-old mark. Oddly enough, the housing development the family bought into was called the flower homes, all the streets bearing names like Verbena Avenue, Larkspur Avenue, Crocus Avenue. Crocus Avenue, by the way: our street. So planted, transplanted -- whichever.)
Not a spacious home, our little house. Decidedly unspacious, in my memory -- cramped, even. The ground floor: a tiny kitchen into which my parents had rammed a small dinner table; a small dining room, which saw gustatory action only when holiday company happened by; a living room -- the largest space in the liveable parts of the house, but again, not what I would call, er, capacious; a teeny bathroom, two small bedrooms. The second floor: two more small bedrooms bookending a closet, along with a microscopic crawlspace. I mention all this to draw a picture of a home notably short on storage capacity, a serious limitation for a family mothered by a professional packrat. The basement, in theory, had a fair amount of cubic footage for storage. In practice, most of it consisted of the laundry area, my father's shop, and an unfinished play area, part of which had been cordoned off by a decrepit piano and a vaguely Japanese-style standing screen to be utilized for desperately-needed storage. That left the basement's built-in bar which, sadly, never experienced loud and/or happy people swilling liquids -- instead it found itself pressed into use as storage space.
Not an affluent bunch, my clan, during my younger years. On the contrary, obsessive austerity was the family m.o. Clothes were picked up at cut-rate stores and passed down the line once outgrown (eventually winding up on my pudgy bod), and a fair amount of the furniture seemed to have been built by my father, with the notable exception of the living room sofa and armchairs, whose lives my mother extended through repeated patching and re-covering.
Many of the nicest items in the house were given by or inherited from relatives, including a sizeable portion of the Christmas decorations, which I think came by way of my Uncle Sam, the family's only representative of the Jewish tradition, who married into our gene pool and lived in Brooklyn with my Aunt Florrie in a townhouse that, for many years, functioned as my only exposure to an affluent lifestyle.
Despite the general threadbare living mode, we had a startling abundance of Christmas paraphernalia, including boxes and boxes of old, interesting German ornaments -- again, as far as I know, courtesy of Uncle Sam -- which contrasted nicely with the mass-produced stuff the family picked up over time. The decorations spent most of the year in the second-floor crawlspace, surviving summers that essentially transformed the storage tunnel into a solar oven, miraculously making it from one Christmas to the next with most casualties occurring once they were actually out of the boxes and on the tree.
The holiday season began slowly in those years, not at the now customary mid-November creep/6 a.m. day-after-Thanksgiving gallop. Halloween passed by. A few leisurely weeks of candy-consumption later Thanksgiving showed up. From there, the procession of days constituted a slow gathering of steam until about two weeks before the 25th, when everyone abruptly seemed to wake up to the alarming fact that Christmas lay 14 short days off. Which unleased pure pandemonium. Enjoyable pandemonium, at least from my perspective. Darkness fell earlier and earlier, until one evening found my father outside stringing up lights in the cold December air. Somewhere around the middle of the month, someone picked up a tree and the living room became centered around something other than TV. The tree wound up in front of the living room window, the better to show off its soon-to-be-excessively-tinseled splendor to the neighborhood. Old, worn boxes materialized around it, producing far too many ornaments. Festive Christmas candles and other assorted tchochkies (or is it chotchkies?) appeared around the living and dining rooms, along with glass bowls of sour balls, ribbon candy and peanut brittle, pandering to the family's eternal sugar jones. The household record player alternated Christmas carols hooted by Bing Crosby with Christmas carols performed on bells, chimes and the occasional overly-fruity Hammond organ. And the teeny manger scene surfaced, materializing on the top tier of the thigh-high dad-made bookshelf by the front stairway. Minus the baby Jesus, of course. He snuck in during the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning.
The manger scene: another interesting element of our Christmas season. Foreign-made, I think, nicely crafted and painted, nothing cheesy about it, except arguably its music-box component, tucked away underneath which tinkled out "Away In A Manger" whenever someone cranked the bugger up. Which brings up the word 'manger.' When did everyone begin substituting the word 'cresh' for 'manger'? Sometime during the last 10 or 15 years a consensus was reached behind my back, manifesting suddenly enough that it felt like a kind of mysterious telepathic programming, as if it were the will of Landru, leaving me out of the loop. Not that it matters. Just seems strange.
As Christmas slouched closer and the air in the house grew tangy with the scent of sacrificial pine tree, homes all over town found themselves abruptly adorned with strings of lights and electric candelabras and glowing plastic figures of Santa and reindeer and candy canes and snowmen and solemn Jewish couples with babies named Jesus. Several blocks up Jerusalem Avenue (I am not making that name up) from our street, in the shadow of the Southern State Parkway overpass, the annual Christmas tree market got underway. I actually tried working there once, maybe during my 9th or 10th year. Man, I hated that. I remember standing out in a heavy snowfall one Saturday morning, dragging trees to buyers' cars in the hopes they'd tip me well enough to make the suffering worth it -- they didn't, it wasn't -- and I remember looking up into the sky, thick, white flakes swirling down around me, my hands aching with cold, ears hurting, snow collecting in my collar. I asked myself what I was doing there, couldn't come up with a good enough answer, came to my senses, went home to sit by our tree -- benignly lit up, massively overdecorated -- where I watched Saturday morning television dreck on our console TV and ate a bowl of sugar frosted chocolate bombs. Much better.
At some point, someone -- maybe the local weekly newspaper, Merrick Life -- began sponsoring a, er, front door contest, motivating homeowners to do up their front entrances as creatively -- elaborate wreaths and light arrangements; large, disturbingly happy Santa faces; outsized simulations of gift wrapping -- as they could, tossing a further point of concentrated color and light into the mix. I liked all this, actually. Still do.
And then, of course, the radio pumped an increasing amount of Christmas music into the house, advertising flyers featuring SALES, SALES, SALES slithered through the mail slot, and a growing avalanche of Christmas imagery/music poured into the living room via the idiot box. Until Christmas eve, when one of the local New York City stations -- channel 11, maybe -- broadcast a yule log burning in a fireplace all evening long, and things quieted down.
In my younger years, no one in the family attended midnight mass. My father was one of the ushers at the 8 a.m. service, we customarily ended up there by default. That meant I would get shunted off to bed sometime before midnight, when the parental work crew finished the last-minute wrapping and staging of gifts. Considering the heap of presents that awaited come Christmas morning, I can only assume they'd been stashed off-premises in the days beforehand. As I've already laid out, the house was modest in size, drastically lacking in storage space. There not only weren't many hidey-holes I didn't track down in the pre-Christmas days, there just weren't many effective spots of concealment, certainly none of any real cubic-footage. It was enough to make one believe in overweight pixies in garish outfits using animal slave labor to transport Christmas giftage.
Somewhere between my 10th and 12th years -- between the time my mother moved out of the conjugal bedroom into separate quarters and my eldest brother went into the Coast Guard -- tradition changed. Midnight mass became part of the mix. Prior to that, I would rise around 4 or 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, my pudgy body agitated from more anticipation than one little nervous system could keep anesthetized with sleep. I would stumble quietly downstairs, crank up the lights on the tree and sit scoping out the display of presents, the world outside and the house around me silent and still. Just me, a pile of gifts, and an overactive brain riffling through thousands of possibilities for what might be lurking under all that wrapping.
Actually unwrapping anything would result in me catching absolute hell when the parental units woke up. Likewise for anything like playing music or charging up the TV, the single difference being that hell would arrive sooner. My only option was the only option: me sitting alone, waiting until the day commenced and we went to church or ate breakfast or whatever the hell we did in any given year before the gift-opening ritual.
I suspect most families have their version of holiday rituals. I sure as hell hope they do. I'd hate to think mine was the only one -- trapped in slightly goofy behavior patterns, triggered when the daylight grew short and the yearly leftover-turkey assault started up. Some of the rituals were more general in form and timing, others more specific, more rigid. Case in point: the unwrapping of presents.
In the years when 8 a.m. mass was the rule, the present opening waited until later in the morning, until my parents had fortified themselves with a meal before stumbling, sleep-deprived, into the rest of the day. This, of course, was pure torture for me. In later years, as early mass blessedly became a distant memory, the unwrapping hour grew a bit more flexible, though still forbidden until after a round of morning chow and caffeine. It was during those mornings that I learned the delicate art of hovering -- never actually hanging over the person(s) to whom one is beaming psychic commands (UNWRAP PRESENTS! UNWRAP PRESENTS!), but never truly disappearing from sight. Never nagging, but always present. Always somewhere nearby. Waiting.
Inevitably, my relentless mental assault wore them down. Chairs got pushed back from the kitchen table, dishes went into the sink, people moved toward the living room. All members of the family materialized as if beamed in -- focused, intent, making little conversation.
The old man presided over the ceremony, taking a seat near ground zero. The rest of us found a chair or patch of rug. Homage was paid to the household's unofficial 11th Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Throw Out Used Wrapping Paper) with a centrally-placed cardboard carton, The Patriarch then parceled out the first round of stuff. Everyone received a present, everyone opened their present, appropriate noises/comments/silences. Another round followed that. Then another. If, between any round, someone needed to get up -- telephone call, potty break, numb butt -- the proceedings were briefly put on hold. Briefly. With the person's return, action recommenced until every gift had been handed out. In my memory, I see the post-gift-ritual living room looking like a bomb had landed on it, like someone had broken open a monstrous piñata, leaving the area littered with debris. Not, I suspect, the actual scene. My mother may have been a packrat, the house may have been bulging with accumulated STUFF, but everything had its place, and that was the general state of things, even in the wake of a gift frenzy.
After that, everyone else in the family took off to whatever responsibilities awaited. For my parents, that usually meant Christmas dinner prep. For my brothers, well, who knows. My oldest brother had eight years on me, so he was out of the mix as soon as he could manage it. Terry, the middle brother, had six years on me -- he took the same path. They returned during the holidays from the Coast Guard/college, respectively, sometimes with company -- sweethearts or friends far from home. And when my father's mother was alive -- the only grandparent to make it to my epoch -- she usually took the train out from Brooklyn, often bringing a bakery cake to contribute to the dinner.
So for a while -- two, three hours -- I was left to entertain myself. Which generally meant remaining in the living room to survey the wreckage and wring some fun out of it. Which I sometimes found surprisingly hard to do. My parents, bless their hearts, usually managed to shower me with a fair amount of toys, though rarely toys I might have asked for, so I found myself in the odd position of abundance, but usually not the abundance I would have chosen had I been able to choose. Which created the classic picture of material plenty creating little joy. (D'OH!) And when I occasionally managed to entertain myself with something I'd been given, my parents often regretted it as the proceedings had a tendency to become disorderly and raucous. I'm remembering rubber tipped darts flying around the household, I'm remembering plastic balls hurled at stacked-up, soon-to-be-wildly-airborne plastic Yogi Bears -- all Christmas presents, all items I'm sure my parents quickly regretted. Interestingly, what seemed to work the best for all concerned were books -- fiction, nonfiction, comic books; didn't matter. I loved reading, my parents probably loved the silence.
I'm not sure why I wasn't consulted re: potential gifts. The one time I remember trying to ask for something, I did so via a letter to Santa Claus, probably around my seventh year. The family had had two kittens -- Puss and Boots -- both of whom checked out early, one from sickness, one under the wheels of the family car. I mourned their passings, dealing with it by writing Santa to ask for another kitten. My parents took the completed letter, assuring me they'd funnel it on the appropriate party. Come Christmas morning, I found a stuffed pussycat under the tree. A little pink stuffed kitty. A nice thought, but not what I was looking for, and the first step in my disillusionment re: The Fat Man.
So I killed time between the gift orgy and dinner. Once in a while I'd go bother a neighbor kid, but usually I kept to myself, and the times I wound up with something good to read were the best times.
The holiday dinners -- Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter -- were the high points of the family year, I think. My mother -- not normally an inspiring cook, I suspect because she loathed being trapped in the housewife thing, with its repetitive, low-status, mind-numbing duties -- threw together excellent feeds, meals I remember to this day with an automatic drool-response. And the combination of the staggering expanse of excellent food and guests brought out the best in the family. Hilarious conversation, exchanges that burst into one-liner fests, abundant laughter, good cheer. Times that stand out in my memory as genuine fun, times when I saw the best aspects of my family. Rich memories, memories that make me smile.
Here in Spain, it is often the custom to linger over a meal, drawing out the time together with conversation and long, relaxed eating/drinking. The time after the meal proper when the diners relax and enjoy being with other is called sobremesa -- literally, over table. It reminds me of the way holiday dinners in our home lingered on, through all the various courses, the second and third rounds, the dessert and beyond. Just sitting, enjoying. When I think back on it, that to me best embodied the holidays -- time together when we could, however tense and fractious our life in general may have been, create some fun together. Fun -- often a rare commodity in our family, or at least that's how it stands in my memory. Except during the holidays.
[continued in next entry]
Tuesday, December 17, 2002
Ghosts of Christmases Past, II
In putting together this dip into Christmases long gone, I found myself thinking about one Christmas Eve in particular, that of my first year of college. The oddest Christmas Eve I've ever experienced.
During my years in high school, my parents had a house built on the family land north of Albany, N.Y. [see journal entry of 15 October, 2001], and pretty much the nanosecond I graduated 12th grade, they bolted from Long Island. I had the house on the Island to myself that summer -- yes, we are indeed talking large-scale partying -- after which I bumbled my way up to University in Binghamton, N.Y.
I met some interesting folks at school that autumn, including Tony and Jackie, a couple from Huntington on Long Island -- two lovely people. When classes broke for the holidays, I returned to the Island where I would pass a few days before driving upstate to inflict myself on my parents. On Christmas Eve, I was to pick up Tony, Jackie and Jackie's cousin, a nice woman whose name I can't seem to remember, then drive us all into Manhattan. Tony and Jackie would go uptown to a movie, a downtown concert awaited Jackie's cousin and I. Post-performance, she and I would collect T&J, we'd all head back out to the Island.
And that's what I did. I found my way out to Huntington, crammed them all into my VW bug, we sped west toward Manhattan. A nice drive -- Christmas Eve, the four of us in the bug, Jackie's cousin and I seeming to enjoy being with each other. Conversation flowed easily, the evening's beginning unfolded comfortably.
We were 15 minutes or so from crossing the East River, Christmas lights shining around us in the evening darkness. Out of nowhere -- literally, with no prior thought on my part -- the statement "My car's going to be broken into tonight" popped itself out of my mouth. Startling me every bit as much as it startled everyone else.
A moment of silence. Jackie gazed at me strangely, saying nothing. No one ventured to ask, tactfully or not, what I'd meant. We all just quietly sidled our way around the moment, conversation slowly resumed, the evening continued on. A short time later, we landed in Manhattan, I dropped T&J off, Jackie's cousin and I zipped downtown. I hadn't forgotten about the mystery statement, though. And though I managed to keep it from intruding in any visible way on my time with Jackie's cousin, I found myself in a growing state of worry and preoccupation. Everything I'd brought with me from college was in the car (me not being smart enough to leave it all in Huntington). A paltry collection of belongings, really -- some clothes, a box of records, Christmas gifts for my family -- packed tightly into the teensy trunk and the cramped space behind the rear seat. It was what I had, though, and it was out there, draped in the shadows of a minimally-traveled, poorly-lit East Village street.
Post-concert, back out in the night air, I found my pace slowly accelerating -- Jackie's cousin nicely indulgent, not complaining about our increasing speed -- until we reached the car, where I could see for myself that the vehicle had gone undisturbed.
Huge relief. Apprehension bled away, my heart slowed to its normal, happier state. We mounted up and returned uptown.
T&J were at a theater on Fifth Avenue, just a stone's throw from St. Patrick's Cathedral. Christmas Eve was in full swing, the Avenue packed with cars, the sidewalks dense with people. Amazingly, I found a parking space on the Avenue, about two blocks from the movie theater. We locked up the car, trotted to the theater, found T&J, headed back toward the bug. An excursion of five to ten minutes. As we neared the VW, I could see something was wrong and ran the remaining distance to discover that, with all the traffic going by, with the throngs of people out walking, someone had, in that five to ten minutes, forced their way into the vehicle and made off with my stuff. All of it.
I'd had the records stuffed into a packing box from a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which had been jammed behind the rear seat, apparently in clear enough view through the rear window to be inviting. Whoever spotted it had expected to find a piece of electronic equipment. They wound up with albums, luggage, Christmas presents.
It's an interesting life.
My parents' insurance company treated me kindly, covering enough of the losses that I could replace the gifts for my family, the part of the whole affair that had hit me the hardest. The rest was just stuff. So that, apart from some emotional tumult, everything more or less worked itself out. Kind of like life itself.
Be well, everyone. May you spend the holidays with folks you love, in ways that feel good to heart and soul.
Thursday, December 19, 2002
As you know, if you've read any of this journal's entries from last month, the arrival of deep winter to northern Vermont at the beginning of November drove me to lighting candles and playing far too much Christmas music. Since arriving in Madrid -- two weeks ago today -- with its gentler, friendlier weather, I haven't felt the need to crank up the holiday atmosphere. A few days back, on the 15th, the realization that el día de Navidad was only ten days off and steaming steadily in this direction jolted me back into tossing Christmas tunes onto my little boombox CD player. Not that I have many tunes to choose from -- only "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "A Star In The East" made the trip. Which, considering I tend not to go for traditional Christmas music, has been fine. I skip over the one or two authentic traditional tunes sung by authentic kids on "Charlie Brown" (that's right, I skip over the singing children - so sue me). And "A Star In The East," a haunting, extremely beautiful recording of medieval Hungarian Christmas music by the Anonymous Four, works just fine for a weirdo like myself.
Whatever other Christmas atmosphere I get comes by way of my normal travels around Christmastime Madrid. Or via field trips, like last Saturday evening's jaunt to the annual Christmas Fair at la Plaza Mayor. Normally one of the city's mostly intensely concentrated points of tourism, the plaza is taken over for the month of December by the Fair, changing the atmosphere in drastic fashion.
The city center is currently aglow with holiday lights and the energy of the crowds surging through the area -- shopping, eating, walking, in groups of family members, friends, couples. It's a joy to pass through it all, people-watching, smelling aromas of food from various tiendas, passing street musicians. At least until one gets into the very center of Sol, where the pedestrian traffic becomes intensely congested, a state worsened by the ubiquitous black market street vendors, who lay their wares out on either side of the thoroughfare, though not actually at its edges, so that the overabundant foot traffic is squeezed into a narrow channel running along the center of whatever pedestrian way one is passing through, making the trip slow and arduous. (The key is making one's way to the margins of the thoroughfare, to pass along the thin strip of space behind the vendors, which sounds easier than it is.)
Last Saturday night, the main streets, sidewalks and side streets between Sol and la Plaza Mayor were swamped with holiday revelers and vendors, much of the traffic swirling in the direction of la Plaza Mayor, so that all one had to do was, er, go with the flow, slow as that flow may be. The centuries-old warren of narrow cobblestone streets that surround the plaza leads toward the various entrance archways, at which point you suddenly find yourself in an enormous expanse of open space, bounded on four sides by stately, relatively austere Baroque architecture -- tiendas/restaurants on ground level, offices/pisos above. The contrast between the trip up the winding, constricted streets and the abrupt opening away of the Plaza is quite a sensation, heightened when the winding streets feeding into the plaza are packed with people. And at the same time dampened a bit right now because the Plaza is not the open space it is most of the year. Currently, several rows of booths fill the center of the plaza, while the periphery is lined with Christmas tree stalls and other rough-edged commercial concerns.
Despite the number of booths, they only consist of three of four types -- standard decorations, religious decorations, joke articles ("artículos de broma"-- masks, wigs, funny glasses, plastic vomit, etc.) and then there are stalls that combine those in different ways. Meaning there's a whole lot of duplication of wares, loads of stalls selling essentially the same stuff. Which doesn't seem to matter -- there appears to be plenty of business to go around.
And what, you might ask, is with all the gag items? December 28th is Spain's version of April Fools Day -- el Día de los Santos Inocentes. Originally a day designated in commemoration of the massacre of children ordered by King Herod, somewhere along the line it became a day to play practical jokes and carry on in hilarious ways. How? Why? Good questions. So far I haven't found any source of information that provides a link. Regardless, somewhere during the passing of the centuries, it became an occasion far more lighthearted than originally intended.
People of all ages clustered around the various stalls, checking out the available goods, groups of young folks and families moving slowly up and down the aisles. Wigs were a hot item on Saturday night, mostly wigs whose individual strands were made of acetate or something similar, colored metallic shades of blue, purple, lavender. Between the time I arrived and the time, the number of wigs Fair-goers sported increased drastically, along with big, floppy Santa hats -- red with white trim, decked with tiny blinking chaser lights, all playing a high-pitched, tinny-sounding, computer-music version of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Chinese folks stood around selling that kind of stuff -- hats, canes, little toys and stuffed animals, all pumping out the same tune. They were everywhere, doing an aggressive sales job, so that by the end of my trip to the plaza, the identical, increasingly annoying rendition of Beethoven's ditty was everywhere.
Another recurring element: a sign in the stalls selling joke stuff which read "HAY BOMBAS DE AGUA" (essentially, WE HAVE WATER BOMBS). None were flying around the plaza, but I get the growing impression that Dec. 28 may turn out be an interesting day.
A Bitter Christmas
by Jane Siberry
It was the night before Christmas
and all through the house
the children were excited, hoping for snow.
It looked like it might snow,
but no, no, no.
Good. I'm glad.
The next morning
father had set the alarm clock
but it didn't go off,
so the whole household
slept all the way through Christmas day.
Good, I'm glad.
And then they thought
We'll still open all
our presents the day after Christmas,
so they raced down the stairs,
they flew down the stairs
they streamed down the stairs into the living room,
Good, I'm glad.
(From Jane Siberry's excellent 1997 CD "Child")
Saturday, December 21, 2002
A confession: I love the Christmas season. It's as simple as that. I'm especially enjoying it here, watching the Spaniards wade gracefully through their version of it. I hear a fair number of complaints re: stress/obligations/materialism run amok, just as I do in the States, but when it comes down to it, what I see around me is a great deal of happiness. That is, of course, only one aspect of each day's complete picture, but you know what? I don't care. The picture here is a good one, I'm enjoying taking it in as the days sweep by.
In some ways, the pace of life has picked up as the gift-buying season has progressed and folks devote more active attention to plans for Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), Navidad (Christmas day) and the season as a whole. On the other hand, over the last 2-3 days, college students have headed for home, followed by a more general exodus as people stream off to parts unknown to pass the coming days. Last night in particular seemed to signal the genuine onset of the two-week Christmas vacation. During the day, traffic out of Madrid maintained a steady pace as businesses closed, people took off and the city's rhythm gradually slowed with the outflow of people.
This means major partying for many of those who remain, and the last two nights in this barrio have featured dusk to dawn revels, groups of partyers drifting from one restaurant/bar/café to another -- talking loudly, laughing, singing, with outbursts of shouting, even howling. For some reason, 3-4 a.m. is an especially active time, maybe the hour when certain places close down and other late night spots just get going, triggering slow, jubilant waves of migration for the all-night crowd.
Chueca, my barrio, has always been a dynamic mixture of funky, commercial, touristy and extremely chic. This little corner of it -- mighty funky when I moved in, with outposts of high chic -- is undergoing a drastic gentrification, a process that has crept closer and closer to this building. La Calle de Pelayo, the street at right angles to this one, just 50 feet from our front door, was a mix of funky residential, neighborhood tiendas/bars and a scattering of more upscale shops (and, lately, art galleries). An epidemic of rehabbing older residential buildings got underway a year ago, gathering steam during my last few months back in the States. The cafetería on the corner of our street and Pelayo, a neighborhood joint that attracted an outrageously colorful, mixed clientele, cutting across the entire spectrum -- also featuring great coffee, good morning nosh food (churros, croissants, sweet rolls, breads) -- closed earlier this year, undergoing a months-long major transformation once the previous owner had been nudged out. Yesterday evening it opened its doors as an attractive, slick-looking bar/nightspot.
Across the street, the vacant lot's days are numbered. Last week -- 8, 9, 10 days ago -- the re-postering in the wake of the city crew's scouring the wall clean began sluggishly and never fully re-established itself, the first such occasion in my time here. That Friday, I arrived back home from the morning's Spanish classes to find someone had tossed up a six-foot tall wire enclosure along the curb, preventing access to both the sidewalk and wall. The new enclosure went around the corner to the wall's end, where someone was constructing a brick and plaster barrier across the sidewalk, from the wire enclosure to the wall itself, to prevent passage. I asked the lone worker what was up, he answered that construction would begin on a brand new building sometime between now and the beginning of January, a piece of news whose disclosure felt something like an arrow through my heart. The street between our building and the lot on which the new building will grow is narrow, the construction will be extremely close by. Months of that is not something I look forward to. But it's the on the way. I will miss that empty lot.
Change -- life's only constant. And in general, I like change. I'll have to sit tight and see how this new development unfolds.
It's Saturday morning, the time when the local world gets its shopping done before the tiendas close at 2 p.m. A process that normally gets underway in leisurely fashion, picking up speed around 11 a.m., so that by 11:30, the shops, streets and pedestrian ways are crowded with people. This being the final weekend before Christmas, it was an accelerated version off its usual self. Both yesterday evening and this morning, I made trips to the local centro comercial to pick up most of what I'd need for the coming days. This morning, once done there with that, I headed off toward la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol and el Corte Inglés, the megastore that is Madrid's retail heavy hitter, stopping briefly at a neighborhood joint for a quick café cortado.
A gray morning, just damp enough to produce some mist in the air, just cool enough that my breath was visible. I stepped into el Cortes Inglés at 11 to find heavier crowds than normal for that hour. Heavy, yet not suffocating, not frenzied. Going about their business, getting done what needed to be done, seeming a bit relaxed about it all (except at the long, busy meats/chesses counter, where the line and the wait were considerable). The displays of Christmas sweets -- and the Spaniards enjoy their sweets -- were impressive, persuasive and ubiquitous, and I've shown genuine restraint in not picking up any. I'll be getting a cake for the staff at school Monday a.m. -- that'll be my main indulgence.
Outdoors afterwards, Madrid was out in force in all its variety, from elderly couples waking slowly arm in arm to families with young children -- one little one ahead of me, maybe four years old, digging in her feet against her parents' pulling her on, protesting something loudly, the parents trying to cajole her into forward movement -- to individual characters, talking to themselves, milling through the crowds, clothes in disarray, carrying multiple bags. And it almost goes without saying that with this swirling, eddying human traffic, cell phones were in abundant use, visible in all directions.
There is something about walking amid all this that brings me a pleasure I can barely express. I love people. I love people-watching. I love Madrid. Toss all that into the same mix, it's a combo that reminds how good this life of ours generally feels to me, in all its color and variation, in all its joys and dischords, its splendor and squalor.
It's about 1:30. Time to wind this up and head back out into the day.
Tuesday, December 24, 2002
Woke up during the early morning hours, tossed and turned, gradually drifted back off to sleep. When my eyes finally re-opened, my teensy bedside travel clock read ten of nine. Classes start at nine. I managed to stumble in the door of the school around 9:15, setting a personal record. Showered, dressed, with all needed books/notebooks, though unshaven. Three out of four ain't bad.
As happened yesterday, I encountered few people on the Metro during the ride to school, further evidence that Madrid's rush hour evaporates during the days of Navidad. The atmosphere at school was one of chomping at the bit to get the partying underway. During the late morning break, the teaching staff played music, drank bubbly, scarfed down pastries. They are a cute, smart bunch with endearing tendencies toward rowdiness. The second session of class ended a bit early so that one of the three brothers that preside over the school, Ángel, could pop open two bottles of Spanish sparkling wine and lead a group toast which degenerated rapidly into random hilarity. Los profesores were carrying on, ready to bolt and continue the partying elsewhere. I went into the classroom to pull on my coat/pick up my stuff, when I returned to the common area, most everyone appeared to have flown the coop, as if they'd literally leaped out any available window or door while I had my back turned. José, another of the three brothers, seemed to be collecting the few remaining souls to head out for lunch, I attached myself to that, assuming a big gathering of students/teachers/etc. was in store.
A short walk took us to a restaurant a few blocks from the school, packed with Madrileños happily and loudly tossing down tapas, raising glasses of wine/champagne, chatting, laughing. Our group of six -- José, myself, Sergio (a French 20-something), Nikki (a 20-something New Yorker), Concetta (an Italian 30-something) and Wolfgang (a German 30-something) -- pushed through all that and were ushered to a rear dining room filled with tables prepared for dining. Many tables, no diners. Except us, cloistered away from all the noise and fun. And as we were seated at a table for six, it started to sink in that the big hooha I'd thought I'd attached myself to was off happening somewhere else.(!!) Our little group consisted mostly of people who had further classes to go to, so were being given a nice, fast lunch by the school, not the raucous blowout I was looking forward to being a part of. And I found myself in attendance at one of the more awkward, unrelaxed dinners I've attended here in Madrid -- not the shindig I was up for.
I mostly sat, ate, watched the people I was with, something I virtually always enjoy. Post-meal, back outside into the December air, I wished the rest of the group Feliz Navidad and took off, happy to be free and making my way through Christmastime Madrid -- people doing last minute shopping, bars and restaurants overflowing with folks spending Christmas Eve afternoon in traditional social fashion.
We'd been warned at school that stores would be closing as the afternoon progressed and that by 8 p.m. the entire city would be shut down, including public transit, movies, restaurants, you name it. Christmas Eve -- families congregate for the major Christmas dinner, everything else comes to a halt.
I figured some theaters would have to be open and, calculating correctly, managed to get myself to a late-afternoon movie. When I emerged back into the falling evening shortly before six and headed up Gran Vía, the city was literally in the process of closing up around me. Stores, restaurants, bars -- locking up, turning off their lights. Not all of them, but most, enough that it generated a strange sense of tranquil unreality. Automotive traffic was sparse and the sidewalks on either side of Gran Vía -- normally crowded to where simple walking at one's own pace can be difficult to manage -- were nearly deserted, making for a long relaxed saunter, watching the natives emerging from closing stores with bags of gifts or walking in groups talking animatedly.
All of this produces in me a strange sensation of contentedness, spiked with an occasional feeling of disconnection as I drift through this lovely city while it carries on in traditional Christmas fashion, me having no particular Christmas Eve destination other than home. Which is a fine destination, considering where that home is.
One strange note in Madrid's Christmas season -- fireworks. They began last Thursday or Friday, here in Chueca. I stood in my kitchen preparing something to eat -- out in the street something exploded, loud and intense enough that I literally jumped. A bomb, I thought at first, ETA having been active recently not far from Madrid. Until it occurred to me that no windows were broken, no sounds of shock/terror/fear came from the street, post-explosion. Christmastime fireworks, big ones -- not small inoffensive buggers. Ashcans or M-15's, something of that caliber.
Since then I've heard them around the city, huge explosions, usually producing a cloud of smoke, the perps managing to get some distance away before the explosion so that it's impossible to make out which individual just scared the bejesus out of the neighborhood. As I entered my barrio on the walk home tonight, making my way along la Calle de Hortaleza, someone set off a major explosion a block ahead, a thick cloud of smoke drifting through the air in its wake. People stop and look around, local life pauses for a moment. Then everyone carries on.
My barrio, despite many businesses being closed/shuttered/dark, proved to be lots livelier than the other parts of the city I'd passed through. Some book stores had their doors open. Some taverns and restaurants were packed with people looking for food, company, noise, energy. A surprising number of places remained open for business as I neared my calle, the streets pleasantly alive with folks walking, Christmas lights radiated cheer from store windows or strung across la calle overhead. The three businesses on the corner nearest this building's front door -- two slick cafés and a small, funky neighborhood tavern -- bustled with sound/people. I went into one of the cafés -- dark, smokey, music playing (music with a good beat) -- and planted myself at a corner table where I worked my way through a couple of espressos and did, er, homework. Happy to be where I was, doing what I was doing.
Tomorrow I take a combo subway/bus ride out to one of Madrid's 'burbs for Christmas dinner with my landlords, an expansive, highly enjoyable British/American couple who have become friends. Just them, their two 20-something kids and their son's Spanish sweetheart. And me. I expect some serious entertainment.
Have a lovely holiday, wherever you are, however you spend it. Felizes fiestas to all, and to all a good night.
Wednesday, December 25, 2002
Christmas morning 2002, Madrid -- some moments:
-- Fireworks went off sporadically during the night. Shortly after 7 a.m., some capullo set off a couple of loud buggers, the explosions clear and sharp in the morning silence. On impulse, I got up, opened a window, leaned out to see the state of the neighborhood this holiday a.m. Everything was closed/shuttered, though a few individuals walked the quiet streets, in particular one hefty woman sporting a sweater, jeans, flip-flops, no socks, no coat. Weaving a bit as she made her way along, as if she had passed a long night celebrating in heavy-duty fashion.
-- Around 10 a.m., I found myself beset by the desire for a decent cup of espresso and left to track one down. The local streets remained dead silent, the few other pedestrians quiet and keeping to themselves except for one lone street cleaner busy sweeping up trash from last night's revels. As I headed out to la Calle de Hortaleza, moving toward Gran Vía, activity began picking up. Ahead of me, on the opposite side of the narrow street, a guy in a Santa hat (bright red, white trim, pompom) walked along talking loudly into his cellphone.
-- Most of the folks strolling along Gran Vía were alone, some clearly out for a head-clearing paseo, others not looking terribly content or relaxed. Little automotive traffic passed by, though buses provided color and motion. To this point, no businesses of any kind were open, not even the newspaper stand across from the end of la Calle de Hortaleza, usually a bastion of activity.
-- An eccentric-looking 60-something gent jogged by in sweatshirt/shorts/Walkman headset, his gait bow-legged, his steps a bit exaggerated as if he were treading on hot cinders. Down the block, a diminutive older gentleman the jogger had passed turned to stare after the runner, mouth slightly agape in amazement at the vision that had just pranced by.
-- A few blocks down Gran Vía in the direction of Callao, the pink neon of the big sign for the Zahara Café (or is it the Café Zahara? it's impossible to tell from the sign's layout) shone brightly through the gray morning light. Across the street, the Cafetería Nebraska also appeared to be open, customers clustered around the counter inside. Neither of them places I'd ever set foot in. I chose the Zahara, which turned out to be a cavernous Planet-Hollywoodesque joint with many, many tables and a long U-shaped counter. Christmas morning supplicants lined the long U, sipping infusions of caffeine, some also working on buttered toast with knives and forks as is the local custom. Two women moved around behind the counter, clearly not happy to be where they were this Navidad a.m.
-- I found a stool, ordered a café cortado and churros. A 30-something guy sat to my left, smoking, appearing a bit bleary and unsettled. When my stuff arrived, I asked him to pass me a napkin dispenser. He did so, clearly startled at the smile on my face and by the fact that I seemed to be enjoying myself. At one point, as I slowly hoovered down the churros and café, he sneezed. I said the traditional Spanish "Jesús" (the locals' version of 'bless you,' pronounced Hay-SOOS), again startling him, though he produced a tentative smile and a "gracias" in response.
-- As I ate, a gent with a weathered late-50ish face appeared to the other side of the customer to my right. He mumbled something to one of the women behind the counter, she disappeared, reappearing with a snifter and a bottle of brandy, pouring him a healthy hit that he accepted a bit shakily.
-- More strollers were out during the walk home, the pace of the morning clearly picking up. As I mounted the stairs here in the building, I could hear sounds of conversation and activity in different pisos on the various floors, Christmas day in Madrid slowly finding its feet.
Saturday, December 28, 2002
Man, there's been a lot going on in recent days, with no time to plant my posterior in a chair and write any of it down to inflict on unsuspecting cybervisitors. ('Til now.)
Christmas day: left just before 1 p.m., took Line 10 of the Metro to Principe Pio. Line 10 -- clean, modern, looking practically brand-spanking new. Within the last few months, the city picked up a new fleet of spacious, streamlined, high-tech trains, complete with numerous plasma-screen television monitors in each car broadcasting weather, news headlines, scenes from Madrid, blahblahblah. Plus, each coach is open on both ends so that you can see all the way to either end of the train, which I find to be big fun for some reason. Simple thrills for simple minds.
Across from me sat three eastern European males, one slender 40-something guy in between two 20-somethings, all with a very particular eastern European kind of aspect. I sat down across from one of the 20-somethings, he gave me a look of some sort, studying me. Then the other 20-something did the same. The older one, also, but not as lingering or direct. Then the first 20-something made a show of doing something with a fist over his mouth -- yawning? clearing his throat? who knows -- which he used to make a comment of some sort, apparently about me. All I could do was smile and get out a book to read. (As an attorney I once knew used to say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't talking about you.)
At Principe Pio, I caught a bus and made the 30-minute ride out to Villaviciosa, the reasonably well-heeled suburban enclave in which my landlords (John: American; Pat: English) have taken refuge for years and years and years in a lovely brick house they themselves built on a very green third of an acre lot. They're an extremely entertaining bunch, my landlords' clan -- generous, voluble, right out there with who they are. The kids -- Bobby and Anna, both 20-somethings -- are smart, bilingual, enjoyable to be around, with striking similiarities and differences. Anna, in particular, speaks Spanish that is fast, fluid and beautifully musical. Also present: Bobby's Spanish sweetheart, Sandra. A spicy blend of personalities, and a fine spread of food, from pre-meal nosh to a fine, classic turkey-and-stuffing main course with some less traditional side dishes, to a large, delicious English Christmas pudding with brandy sauce. Plus party favors and moments of hilarity. What a deal!
Brief aside: Between a slowly-sipped pre-dinner beer, a couple of glasses of mineral water (not to mention a glass or two of bubbly cider) with the meal, and a couple of cups of tea afterward, my bladder decided it had a bunch of work to do. Resulting in increasingly frequent trips to the loo as the afternoon wore on, to the point where it may have become worrisome to my hosts. NOTE TO MY HOSTS: I am not bulemic. I was not making room for successive courses of Christmas chow. I was simply obeying my increasingly-distressed plumbing and dumping the ballast. Honest. End of aside.
After dinner: a pause for chat/tea, then an hour-long walk. After which I made the bus trip back to the city, now busy with Christmas night revelry -- young folks everywhere, readying for some serious partying; the occasional explosion from heavy-duty fireworks ringing out -- stumbling in the door to my piso at 9 p.m. Not a bad day.
[continued in next entry]
Sunday, December 29, 2002
After the lovely, quiet pause of Navidad, Madrid has reverted back to its busier, raunchier self, the streets of the city center packed with people, traffic back to its more normal, unruly incarnation.
Thursday morning, the number of people making the trip to work -- notably silent, I observed, perhaps not overjoyed with the sudden end to Christmas recess -- increased substantially from earlier in the week. By Friday, the volume of commuters had reached near-normal levels.
In school, with the decreased number of students, I found myself the only student in my class for the first couple of hours. Just me and the instructor, Montse. Which meant that on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday I had two intense hours of conversation/instruction, which seemed to kick-start my language skills in some way, so that by Thursday and Friday, when the school had me join another class for the post-break conversation class, I felt comfortable enough with the language that I was carrying on loudly, unstoppably, delivering whatever quips came to mind at any given moment. To the point where I might have become a living stereotype of the loudmouthed American, except that I was actually speaking the language well and getting laughs in the process from both students and la profesora. Which just made me all the more smug and insufferable, though that didn't seem to be bothering anyone. One of the many benefits of a sparkling personality. (Kaff, kaff.)
Christmas shopping continues here as many, if not most, Spaniards look to January 6 as the real gift-exchange day. Or so I'm told. Several of the instructors at the language school have sworn that up until the last few years, the 25th itself was not really an important day here, Christmas-wise, that the 24th and the 6th of January were the actual dates of import. They say the same -- sometimes less than happily -- about Santa Claus, that the man in red is a recent import who's suddenly gaining ground as Spain is more a country with strong, growing connections of all kinds with the rest of the world, post-Franco-era isolation.
So shopping is once more in high gear, most stores supplying the incentive of post-Navidad discounts, the city assisting by closing down city center streets for post-Christmas block parties, complete with music, food vendors, banners snapping cheerfully in the breeze, and people in various costumes (mostly big, cute, huggable animals). The activity will continue until the evening of Jan.5th, the city will shut down again for the 6th -- el día de los Reyes Magos, the three Kings who come bearing gifts. On Jan. 7, the month-long sales period -- las rebajas -- commences. Weeks and weeks of consumer partying, starting in mid-December and coasting all the way through January.
When I descended into the Metro Thursday morning here in Chueca, the first thing that caught my eye upon reaching the inbound platform was a brand new ad, a sizeable bugger, maybe 8' by 8', which consisted of four drawings of a girl and boy, as done by a kindergartener: (1) working together with toy tools on a little toy house; (2) one ironing, one with a mop; (3) riding a tandem bike together; and (4) with a baby in a carriage. Between those images, lines of text read, "Los Juguetes Son Para Quién Quiere Jugar Con Ellos -- Campaña De Promoción De Juegetes No Sexistas -- La Igualdad Tambien Se Aprende Jugando" (Games Are For Whoever Wants To Play Them -- Campaign to Promote Non-Sexist Games -- Equality Can Also Be Learned Playing." Around the edges of the ad run the two words "Compartir, Eligir" (Share, Choose). Sponsored by a department or division of the City of Madrid.
Hmmmm, thought I, staring bleary-eyed at this overwized, hard to ignore, consciousness-raising thingie. Mighty progressive, a kind of progressiveness the center-right national government would be unlikely to take on, though the local, more liberal city administration appears game.
Meanwhile, over at the Plaza de España station on the Metro Line 10 -- an expansive, modern-looking, sparklingly-clean counterpart to the older, more dog-eared line that runs through the station here at la Plaza de Chueca -- the large TV screens that have provided a visual focus for both passenger platforms have suddenly been augmented by a huge two-sided plasma screen video monitor placed between the tracks. All playing la Canal Metro Madrid -- Channel Metro Madrid. Weather, sports, news headlines, etc. The same channel that plays in the trains on that line -- Madrid presenting its modern, high-tech face to the human traffic flowing to and from the airport.
Tuesday, December 31, 2002
New Year's Eve 2002, Madrid
Similar to the way Christmas Eve Day slowly found its feet a week ago, New Year's Eve day began quietly, with few people on the street, few in the Metro. Today's classes were happily chaotic, most of the first two-hour session spent in comical, near-anarchic conversation, no one showing much desire to attempt anything resembling standard scholastic behavior. Post-break, we simply tossed in the towel and headed out to a neighborhood sidrería, where our small collection of souls (me; Patricia, our Madrileña Spanish instructor; Roger, from Holland; Wolfgang, from Germany; Concetta, from Italy; Eugenio, from Russia) worked its way through two bottles of mildly alcoholic sidra and an entire tortilla española, on our feet the whole time, the group shifting from one configuration to another as sidra and conversation flowed. (It's a fascinating phenomenon, getting people from all over the map together like this, everyone communicating via a language that's not their native tongue. After a few days in each other's company, what rises to the surface is our overwhelming commonality and our desire to enjoy our time together.)
Later in the day, after watching a film in the video centre at the language school (Torrente 2, a Spanish take-off on everything vaguely James-Bondish that revels in trashiness, tackiness and its own relentless brand of low humor), I found myself out on the street with Wolfgang, heading in the direction of la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, ground zero for Madrid's New Year's Eve doings. The sidewalks were crowded to the point where walking in the street was easier, facilitated by the fact that the police were gradually pinching off all traffic flowing through Sol, leaving few cars to contend with. By the time midnight slouches in, Sol and the surrounding streets and plazas will be crammed with many, many thousands and thousands of partying Spaniards -- eating, drinking, carrying loudly on. The carrying on has, in the past, included fighting and hurling empty bottles through the air. This year, 3,000 police are being posted around Sol, screening out any glass containers and, presumably, any people carrying on in ways that might hurt someone else.
When the big clock atop the Municipal building in the plaza tolls midnight, most everyone will begin the ritual that eases in the new year and, according to tradition, guarantees luck in the coming 365 days: eating a grape with every toll of the bell, 12 grapes in all. Not so easy if everyone around you is yelling, spewing chewed grapes as they laugh or trying to make you laugh. There is actually a Spanish company that sells small tins of one dozen peeled, pitted grapes, a product whose ads have been in heavy rotation on local TV during the last couple of weeks.
Some snapshots of the scene in and around Sol between 6 and 7 p.m. tonight:
-- The network of pedestrian avenues that criss-cross the real estate between Gran Vía and Sol were near capacity with human traffic, people of all ages out strolling together, heading home or in and out of shops/eating establishments. The red w/ white trim Santa stocking hats of a week ago have given way to a far more abundant new crop, identical except that the red has become green. Many folks carried shopping bags -- Zara, El Corte Inglés -- or toted handbags, shoulder bags, knapsacks. Elderly couples walked slowly together, often arm in arm. Groups of young folks threaded their way through the currents of people, moving quickly, with more nervous energy. Parents walked hand in hand with children. The air fairly crackled the sound of many people in motion, with many voices carrying on excited conversations. Smiles and sparkling eyes far outnumbered neutral or displeased expressions.
-- Lit sparklers could be seen scattered around, vendors selling them at "3 paquetes por un euro."
-- The ubiquitous black market venders were out in force, peddling everything from counterfeit CDs to scarves, watches, shawls, wallets, gloves, laying their goods out on sheets or small blankets, standing over them as strollers slowed or stopped to appraise. At the slightest hint of approaching police, the goods were instantly bundled up in one smooth movement, the venders moving quickly away in a spreading wave, immediately reappearing and spreading the stuff out when the patrol car or motorcycle had rollowed by. And I mean immediately, reappearing in a wave of unfolding sheets as if they'd literally materialized out of thin air in the wake of the vehicle's passing.
-- In Sol itself, several individuals wore costumes of Pokemon characters, waving to kids, posing for photos. The star-spangled Mickey Mouse continued his holiday residency, calling out "Feliz Año!" ("Happy New Year!") to startled passing folks.
-- Wigs were everywhere, being worn by all sorts of people, in bright colors -- silver, red, lavender, or a combination of hues -- the strands of "hair" made of something like acetate, appearing softly metallic.
-- At 6 o'clock, a long, slow process of shop-closings began. People continually filed in and out of the open shops, sometimes despite security shutters that had been pulled halfway down in a wishful effort to move everyone out and shut down for the night.
-- Between FNAC and el Corte Inglés, the two giant stores at the Callao end of the main pedestrian thoroughfare that stretches between Sol and Callao/Gran Vía, a line of eight South American musicians, all in their late teens to late 20s, played Peruvian music, collecting a large crowd, the musicians stepping back and forth together in time to the gentle, steady beat, like an uncomplicated southern-hemisphere Motown kind of thing. Music sounding both serious/sad and joyful, produced by a drum, two pipes, a guitar, a mandolin-style instrument, a double-bass, a violin. Two of the musicians wore green Santa-style hats. In the crowd watching, a 40ish guy with black pants and a nice leather coat sported a Shirley Temple/Goldilocks style blond wig.
-- Pedestrian traffic thinned out along Gran Vía, especially on the Chueca side, making for easier walking. After I crossed the avenue, headed toward home, a group of eight or so young women all dressed up for New Year's Eve swept by me, moving toward a crosswalk and the area I'd just come from, the scent of perfume lingering in the evening air after they'd passed.
-- A 60ish woman passed, wearing a shawl and thick-heeled black shoes, singing happily to herself, just loudly enough that anyone walking by could hear.
-- A minute later, an attractive lesbian couple moved by me, both with multiple piercings, walking arm in arm at a steady, focused clip, one with bottle-blond hair cut short, the other with longer brown hair dyed lavender in patches.
-- As I moved further into Chueca and the time approached 7 p.m., the closing of shops accelerated until virtually nothing was open except bars and cafeterías. Fireworks began going off up ahead, the heavy-duty variety that's become the normal course in this barrio since several days shy of Navidad. The first one: polite. The second: louder, sharper. The third: like a hand grenade had been tossed into the street a block ahead.
-- Two gay 20-somethings brushed by me, talking and laughing together, their arms touching as they walked, the tang of marijuana drifting in their wake. Someone's New Year Eve partying was well underway.