Events: Holidays, 2003
Monday, April 21, 2003
The arrival of Monday after a long weekend almost always startles me. I'm not sure exactly what it is -- something about that stretch of time off whipping by so quickly followed by the sudden start of another week. Time seems elastic to me -- its speed and feel change constantly. Sometimes I'll find myself experiencing a long, languid stretch where the hours seem to stretch themselves out in the friendliest, laziest way. Then, after the fact, it all seems to have flashed by at wild, contradictory velocity. Strange.
But the weekend. Man, I don't care how mundane the activity is, a four-day weekend is a joy. Thursday and Friday had a peaceful, summery feel -- warm temperatures, sunlight filtering down through skies hazy with high clouds. I found myself walking around the barrio of Malasaña, the district to the west of Chueca -- another zone of narrow streets and big nightlife, looking and feeling mighty Mediterranean in the spring weather. Wandering around during the daylight hours you might not get any real sense of how active the place gets come darkness -- the bars and restaurants are plenty visible on certain streets, but many of the clubs maintain a low, discrete profile, like those of Siroco and Attitude. (Not so the club called Mutant Beach. During the day its entrance is covered by metal shutters painted in loud, garish colors, portraying a goofy scene of surfing at a, well, mutant beach.) Other hints re: the barrio's nighttime character abound for those with an eye for them -- for instance, a bit of graffiti magic-markered in small letters on a garage door: "By the way in the night be the party." You betcha.
Friday evening: I found myself out with a few thousand other Madrileños in the streets around la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, checking out the Easter processions. They're religious affairs, these processions, each one affiliated with a group/society/fraternity or whatever they should be called, similar to how traditional groups do the Mardi Gras thing in New Orleans. Most nights of Easter week, one or more processions will wind their slow, deliberate way through a long succession of streets, emulating, in their way, the carrying of the cross on the way to the crucifixion.
Last year, at the end of March (Easter Week 2002), I drove down to the city of Granada in Andalucia with a group of folks to check out La Alhambra. A fine place to visit, Granada -- great food, nice people, and La Alhambra is spectacular, easily worth the trip all on its own. After a long day, we found ourselves in the city's downtown area where we stumbled across first one procession, then another, then a third -- all criss-crossing their way through the city center via routes that at times overlapped.
If you spend much time in Spain during the course of a year, you will sooner or later see images from the processions of Easter Week (Semana Santa), the aspect with the most immediate visual impact being the outfits worn by people walking in long lines before and after each procession's float, outfits of the Ku Klux Klan variety, complete with pointy hoods, in different colors depending on the procession -- white, blue, purple, red/white. Weird to someone from the States until you get that these outfits were around long before the KKK and that the KKK probably cribbed the look from here.
The centerpiece of each procession: a float, each featuring some version of Jesus or Mary, of varying degrees of elaborateness and grandness (or grandiosity, depending on your perspective). The floats in Granada? Fairly spectacular -- big and canopied, lit by many, many large candles, each featuring a dramatic image of Himself or His Mother as its focal point. The procession itself extended for quite some distance, consisting of long lines and groupings of marchers preceding and trailing after the float -- people in quasi-military uniforms; women in elaborate black, lacy dresses, complete with mantillas; marchers in the KKK-style outfits. Many folks carry large white candles (large meaning four or five feet in length). Others carry long staffs on which are mounted crosses or banners. A few walk with crucifixes slung over a shoulder, thankfully nowhere near the size of the original as seen in the customary images, but big enough to be symbolic. Each procession features a band, blowing dramatic tunes at a tempo that suits the somber rhythm of the doings. And the tail end of each procession often consists of various-sized groups of regular folks who attach themselves to the proceeding and follow along, swelling or shrinking as people come and go.
At the heart of each procession we saw in Granada was the float -- big, heavy iconic images mounted sturdily on several horizontal poles and carried by squads of volunteers mostly hidden behind surrounding swaths of black cloth. Seriously arduous work done in the spirit of worship and penance, the floats so heavy that the bearers could only go 50, 100, 150 feet at a stretch, moving slowly then stopping to rest. Each crew had what amounted to a coxswain with a large staff walking immediately in front of the float, someone who set pace, provided encouragement, called out the order to stop, got the bearers organized and ready to start again, calling out a three-count before giving the order to lift then proceed. Each coxswain might have others with him, two or three individuals in front of and behind the float to help with support.
Loads of detail, then, with each procession. And around each swirled spectators, filling the surrounding curbs, sidewalks and street. When the doings came to a halt, the music stopped, silence descended as the bearers caught their breath. Team members carried shoulder-height staffs with forked tops on which the float's support beams would rest, taking much of the weight off the bearers. After a couple of minutes, the coxswain would organize the team, the energy around the scene would swell, everyone aware that each team carried a huge amount of weight and that getting it back up and moving again was no small thing. The coxswain called out the three-count, the team shifted the full weight of the float back onto their shoulders, the crowd burst into applause, calling out encouragement. The band struck up a number, the procession would get underway again.
During Semana Santa, television coverage of these processions abound, the images become pervasive. It's a strange phenomenon for someone from out of country to observe, all of it. And I have to say, the true feel of the event does not come across in photos or television images or print descriptions. I did not get it until I experienced it right there in 3-D fashion, in the chilly Granada night, and I have to say its worth getting. I'm not a Christian -- I live a spiritual life, but it's not of any organized religion. I grew up in a Irish Catholic household and that was enough of that kind of thing for me. But there is an expression of spirit and devotion in these processions that is real and powerful, that I'm glad I experienced.
That was in Granada. The deal here in Madrid turned out to be somewhat different.
[continued in next entry]
Tuesday, April 22, 2003
The Friday evening Easter processions here in Madrid were scheduled to get underway at 7:30 p.m. -- three of 'em, all starting in different locations, taking different routes that occasionally overlapped. Two of the three were set to pass through Sol, so I headed there first, arriving just before 8 to find the streets into the plaza blocked off by the Municipal police, the area overrun by people. The plaza itself turned out to be so jammed that I skirted it, zipping along the periphery to la Calle de Arenal, the route one of the processions would be taking into the plaza. A quick look down Arenal showed a street alive with humans and, visible way down at the other end, the facade of the Royal Opera House. But as yet no procession.
Which gave me time to duck quickly into a beer joint/tapas bar just off the plaza, a place I'd seen many times and wondered about. Normally busy with customers on weekend evenings, as it was this evening. And located temptingly right there in front of me. Hunger, curiosity, convenience -- a potent combination. Inside, I found a stool at the counter, ordered a small plate of patatas bravas (potatos with a spicy red salsa) and a caña (a small glass of beer). And it wasn't bad -- nothing special, but not bad -- until I asked for the bill. Over five euros, nearly $6.00. I nearly laughed out loud in appreciation at the cojones it takes to charge that kind of money for what I'd just tossed down, though I wasn't so charmed that I would make a return trip to donate another wad of cash to the in-house retirement fund, at least not in this lifetime. Paid up, got out, headed toward the far end of la Calle de Arenal.
A block or two before reaching the plaza that fronts the Opera House, I heard the faint, steady sound of marching drums, saw people lined up on either side of the street. And as I entered the plaza I could see uniformed figures slowly approaching, barely visible among the gathered ranks of onlookers. Lots of snare drums playing a steady rhythm, along with a bass drum. And fifes. Interesting, stately, keltic-sounding music.
I found a bit of curb with a good view and watched as the procession began passing by. A male holding a cross on a large staff fronted it, followed by two people with large candles, then three lines of marchers in military-style outfits, all in red/white/black, including tricorner hats, red/white capes with high collars. A couple of rows of regular folk walked behind them, including four women in black, lacy outfits, complete with mantillas. And then came the float, a simple scene of flowers and a big cross. A BIG cross.
A simple scene. Minimal, not elaborate at all, but sturdy and clearly one heavy bugger. Carried by well over 20 bearers.
As the procession moved along, pausing to give the bearers a rest then resuming, the ambient crowd noise nearly stopped altogether, the music and the sound of the marchers' feet on the pavement filling the air. During the rest pause, the pipers stopped playing, leaving the drums' slow cadence the only remaining sound. A few alternate bearers, who had been marching beside the float like, er, soberly-attired pilot fish switched places with some of the current bearers. When the procession began moving again, the pipes started up once more, and the instant the tail end of the procession passed (the end being a large collection of normal folks in your normal church-going garb), crowd noise immediately resumed, people moving to follow the procession, conferring together in small groups or heading off in different directions. Suddenly feeling like a Friday evening out in Madrid.
Interesting, all of it, but a bit underwhelming. Small. Austere. Not much in the way of drama, and lacking, I noted with curiosity, any marchers clad in the classic pointy-hooded outfit. I wondered how one of the other processions would compare and found myself moving back toward Sol, snaking my way through the crowded sidewalk. I came to a pedestrian sidestreet, a wide alleyway/walkway that angles around la Chocolatería San Ginés, a popular old Madrid fixture, and found myself suddenly sucked down the passageway, drawn toward the chocolatería [WARNING: heavy-handed metaphor coming] like a hungry iron filing caught in the invisible EMF eddies of a powerful, chocolate-dispensing magnet. Seriously, there is nothing like a cup of their chocolate -- dark, intense, less sweet than rich -- and a plate of their freshly-made churros. A cup of half-café/half-chocolate is just as good and a bit less overwhelming to an unprepared mouth. Travelers to Madrid, take note.
Unfortunately, this being the evening it was, the streets awash in human traffic and all, the chocolatería was mobbed. I continued along toward the far end of the pedestrian way, where I could see crowds lined up along la Calle Mayor and horsemen going by. The second procession!
Quickly running along la Calle Mayor ahead of the mounted folk (in quasi-military outfits, same as the advance marchers in the first procession), I secured a small patch of space at a crosswalk located just out in front of the coming display. And then they all stopped, horses and everything behind, except for the continued, heavy rhythm of some drummers. For a long, long, long pause. A pause that stretched on and on. And on and on. And on some more. Damn, thought I, this must be one heavy mother of a float, needing serious breath-catching and energy-recuperation.
People took advantage of the continuing pause to trot across the street, switching sides or heading away toward points unknown. Two cops stood in the center of the street, well out in front of the horsemen, conferring about the settings for a digital camera one of them carried. One of the horsemen fielded questions from people in the crowd until his mount began to show serious discomfort with its bit, its mouth foaming as it chewed at the metal, when it began stamping about, moving out in front of the formation in agitated fashion until its rider got it calmed down and back into place.
Two 60-something women showed up suddenly behind me, one of them -- a pugnacious type, her jaw jutting forward aggressively -- began alternately pushing up against me and staring at my head as if trying to bore a hole in it with laser vision, apparently trying to hypnotize me into moving aside so that they could take over my position in the crowd. I'm always holding doors open for people, letting folks enter trains before me, helping parents carry baby-strollers up and down stairways. I have no problem making courteous gestures. If this woman had asked me, if I might have been happy to assist them in getting better situated. After finding myself on the receiving of a few elbow-jabs and shoulder-shoves, I decided to stay put and see what happened. A couple of minutes later they realized that our section of the street was well ahead of the action, and that in fact all action (except the percussion section) had gone inactive, with no indication of going active again in the near future. At which point they took off, stalking down the street toward the plaza and the main body of the currently-inert procession.
I watched people. I listened to the drums, to the voices in murmured conversation all around. At one point, the sound of a helicopter appeared overhead, followed quickly by the helicopter itself, flying low and fast over the roofs of the buildings, streaking into view on one side of the street and quickly out of view on the other. People stopped to watch, heads turned up to the sky, the helicopter's passing leaving a surprising silence in its wake. Almost immediately, the keening call of swifts filled the silence as three of the birds flew along the street, shooting down between the buildings, then swooping back up into the evening's fading light and out of sight.
A dark-skinned Central American couple with two young daughters had inserted themselves into the scene to one side of me. The two little ones, maybe 6 and 7 years old, were in and out of the street, craning their necks to make out what was going on back in toward the main body of the procession. They watched the cops, they talked to each other, giggling. They snuggled up against their parents or held on to parental hands while they leaned back, looking up at mom and dad, asking questions I couldn't make out. They were beautiful kids, providing well-needed entertainment.
Until the drums abruptly began working more emphatically, more energetically, and some woodwind instruments began a slow, mournful tune. The horse riders got their mounts into motion. And the procession actually began moving again.
[continued in next entry]
Wednesday, April 23, 2003
The mounted folk moved by, followed by a cleaning squad of two clad in the city crews' normal outfit of forest green, bright lime green and reflective silver, pushing a wheeled trash can, each carrying a push broom. One of the horses let go as it headed down la Calle Mayor, the cleaning crew hustled over to sweep up the equine leftovers, accompanied by a city cop wearing a reflective vest in cleaning crew colors. That done, they followed the horses and the marching band approached, drums and brass playing loudly. The brass players had apparently missed rehearsals because they were all over the place, murdering the music in enthusiastically eardrum-busting fashion. At which point the procession came to a standstill once more, all sound stopping except for the drums, which maintained a loud, nearly steady rhythm.
And there they remained. For quite a while. Behind the band were long, loose lines of marchers in KKK-style outfits, white with big, red, pointy satin hoods. A couple of them -- short, maybe around 12, 13 years old -- carried straw baskets and moved up and down the street, one on each side, passing out small cards with photos of the procession's Jesus icon, receiving coins in return. Motion finally resumed, the costumed folk began to file by, the first carrying a large staff with a cross up top, the second carrying a banner. Most of the rest carried the large, white candles, a few carried crosses. They were a strange bunch -- mostly short (apparently either fairly young or well on in years, often equal in height to or shorter than the candles they carried), many overweight, appearing lumpily ungainly and uncomfortable beneath their outfits. Three or four walked barefoot. Behind them came the float, accompanied by a group of only five or six people, and as it drew near I saw why -- it was mounted on tires, they were pushing it along. Jesus on wheels, being carted merrily through the streets. Which raised the question of why the long, drawn-out pauses in forward movement? It's not like anyone had to stop and rest from the weight they were carrying.
At some point, it became clear that another procession had turned onto la Calle Mayor and approached behind the current bunch, a procession that appeared far more serious, its marchers clad in black, people of indeterminate gender in pointy-hooded outfits and women dressed in mourning gear -- black, lacy dresses of many layers, complete with mantillas and black lace shawls, black stockings, black shoes. The band consisted of drums and a few woodwind instruments, playing a quiet, mournful number and playing it well. The float was a large, striking affair, its centerpoint an icon of Mary that trailed large, long shroud, emblazoned with silver stars and extending behind for several feet. Two oversized silver candleabras flanked the icon, gracefully-bent arms rising to varying heights, the candles glowing softly in the day's dimming light. The whole affair was borne along by 16 people, clearly working hard, so that when the procession paused for a breather, you knew they needed it.
By the time float and marchers had moved past and the crowd around me began to disperse, darkness was coming on. The final procession had brought the experience some substance, though none of the evening's three compared with what I experienced in Granada. As a whole, the Madrid version came across as Processions Lite, kind of strange considering it's the capital city. Or maybe not so strange. It may be that the spirit expressed so clearly in the south of the country is an Andalucian thing. A friend was down there last week, in Sevilla, the heart of the Semana Santa thing. He's Catholic and gets something very different out of the experience than I do, but his description of the event suggests to me a distinction between Sevilla and Madrid that might be comparable to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Fat Tuesday in Seattle. The second one is fun, a good party; the first is the real item, light years beyond a simple good party, done professionally, with fire, soul and a long, deeply nuanced history.
So now I know.
Afterward, I found my way back over to la Calle de Arenal and headed back toward the Royal Opera House and the Metro station. En route, I passed el Paraíso del Jamón, one of the many mid-level tapas joints that abound here, and on impulse I veered in that direction. Though crowded and busy, I managed to weasel my way inside and position myself behind a couple at the counter who were just paying up, taking over part of their bit of floor when they vacated. The first counter guy to ask me what I want was a South American, who seemed to have trouble with my Spanish. Another camarero took over, one who knew me from my many visits there during weeks and weeks of intensive Spanish classes in the next-door language academy. I asked for a pincho of tortilla español, he responded by slinging a wildly generous plate of it at me -- the last of it, what would have been two helpings in most places. Another order for the same thing came in immediately afterward, he replied that they were fresh out, aiming a friendly wink in my direction.
It's good to have connections.
Friday, May 02, 2003
I'm trying to figure out why there is such a distinct feeling of having an extreme number of holidays here. 'Cause it sometimes feels like that, and I hear people from out of country marvel at how many days off the Spaniards seem to take, days in which large portions of the city shut down and folks bolt in hordes of fleeing vehicles for long weekends away, causing truly impressive traffic jams. I suspect it's actually not the case that the locals observe more holidays than, for instance, people back in the States, but there somehow is a sense of more.
Maybe it has to do with the long summer vacations, the way Madrid quiets down -- truly quiets down, transforming its basic character -- beginning in July, growing more tranquil until August's long sustained vacation period, life's rhythm remaining relaxed until the beginning of September. Similar to August in New York, when the outflow of people empties the streets to a remarkable degree through Labor Day, quieting the activity level.
Or maybe it has more to do with the Spaniards' manner of passing the holidays -- sleeping in, emerging slowly during the course of the afternoon until the early evening's streets are filled with people and remain so until the wee hours (the madrugada, as they refer to that time of the night that is both very late and very early) as people eat, drink, go to films, walk around, attend late concerts, hang out in plazas until one, two, three in the morning. Or go clubbing until, er, whenever. Four, five, six, seven a.m.
Yesterday morning, the first morning of this long weekend, I stepped outside around 10:30 to find the streets nicely tranquil. Not exactly empty the way they are Sunday mornings, but extremely quiet. Most commercial concerns were closed, but most news kiosks remained open, a couple of bakeries did business, a very small neighborhood grocery tiendas had their doors open. Though the streets were not completely absent of people, next to no traffic could be seen and parking spaces abounded, drastically different from the barrio's normal state.
I walked the two or three sedate blocks to la Cafetería Vivares, stepping in the door there to a contrast so sharp it felt a bit startling. The street: peaceful, few individuals about, little noise. Inside Vivares: bright lights, a counter lined with people drinking espresso, tables crowded with groups of younger folk, the sound of the television blending with that of loud conversations. Most of the customers looked to be in the last phase of a long night out, tossing down espresso or hot chocolate, appearing a little haggard in the wake of long hours of activity, but not low on energy. Animated, loud, voices raised in caffeine-boosted chat and laughter.
The entrance vestibule channels customers in so that they make a 90° turn and enter facing the bar, situated along the right-side of the space. Three people sat together at the counter by the doorway, including a bleached blonde transvestite, planted so that his/her appraising eyes were the first things to meet whomever happened in from the street. Combined with the rest of the input -- the burst of sound, the smells of café/baked goods being consumed -- it was a moment, causing an immediate adjustment as I moved from the outside environment to the inside one.
I write about mornings a lot here, maybe to excess, about things similar to those I've described here. Probably in part because much of the writing for this journal happens early to mid-afternoon, so that the mornings are fresh in my mind. But also because the mornings here seem so distinct to me -- different from the mornings I've been used to back in the States in ways that reflect certain aspects of the local life (and local characters) vividly. Folks in their 70s and beyond, walking quietly, slowly along, sometimes dressed in black, usually unaccompanied -- the women often rocking slightly side to side as they go, the men often with hands clasped behind their back. Individuals out walking leashed dogs, mostly little ones, who are happy to be out with their human and absorbed in their present moment, investigating the multitude of odors on sidewalk and walls, leaving their signature in different places unless their person pulls them along too quickly to do so. For some reason, I've seen a fair number of transvestites in recent mornings, mostly walking in two or threes. Most of them not very convincing, I'm afraid. Looking like chunky, thick-bodied, heavily made-up males. The bleached blonde I described earlier was an exception -- svelte, make-up artfully applied. Convincing, at first glance.
The mornings of these holiday weekends pass gently into the early afternoons, the number of people in the streets remaining low, though the plazas become collecting points as tables and chairs appear outside of cafes and bars. Down the street here in la Plaza de Chueca, there are two areas of tables/chairs that materialize after midday, each attended by waitpeople from nearby establishments, two for each collection of tables. The area in the plaza's northwest corner gets a strong, sustained dose of morning/early afternoon sunlight, attracting the most customers to start with. With the sun's drift into the western sky, the shadows from the buildings around the plaza gradually cover that first area -- the tables on the plaza's eastern side then become the focal point, the number of customers there increasing as the number at the other tables drops. The murmur of voices swells between midday and 2 p.m., reaching a point where it becomes a steady kind of ambient backdrop, sometimes coming and going with the breeze, the way surf at a beach sounds from a distance. Early evening brings an influx of people, the noise in the plaza growing until it reaches the level it will remain at until late, late, late.
Sometimes I wake up in the early hours, as I did this morning, around 5:30 -- in time to hear my upstairs neighbor's footsteps as she returned from a night out. Her steps ranged around her space, distinct but not obtrusive, until she hit the sack between 6:30 and 7. It's now 2:30 p.m. Her footsteps just re-commenced, abruptly, heading in what I think is the direction of her bathroom. Outside, I can hear the hum of voices from the plaza, a bit louder now than they were an hour ago. The sun is at its high point in the sky, the light outside has taken on the flat, full quality that the warm season's sunshine has here.
It's Friday, the second day of May. The city seems to have found its feet after a long night.
Time to drift in the direction of an unhurried meal. Then on to the evening.
Tuesday, December 09, 2003
It's the day after a three-day weekend here, yesterday being la Fiesta de la Inmaculada Concepción. A religious holiday that gave everyone an excuse to either flee town for a few days or commence Christmas shopping, both options chosen by many, many Spaniards. Massive traffic jams on Friday evening signaled the exodus away from the capital. That in combination with rain produced a night far quieter than normal here, most partyers either gone away or driven inside.
Saturday a.m.: gray, quiet. Strangely quiet, most places of business closed up tight, streets deserted, few souls about. Conditions that changed drastically when I left the barrio to rendezvous with an American couple just in from the States -- friends of a friend back in Vermont -- and discovered that for every person that fled the city the night before, one or two people from elsewhere made the trip here for (a) the three-day weekend, or (b) the 25th anniversary celebration of the Spanish Constitution, a big deal in a country with a history as turbulent as Spain's, or (c) the beginning of the local Christmas season. The lighting of the city's holiday decorations happened Friday or Saturday night, the annual Christmas fair in la Plaza Mayor got going. I arrived at the rendezvous point just as police were blocking off streets within a half-mile radius around the Spanish Parliament in advance of a ceremony set to take place in the legislative chamber, the official observation of the Constitution's 25th anniversary, all important national political figures in attendance and then some, the royal family at the center of it all. Traffic, already more intense than for the normal Saturday midday, now a bit more harried and wild. Crowds of pedestrians streaming in every direction. Gray, chilly.
J. and H. found me, I herded them further toward the city center, inflicting far too many local sights on them in a long string of veering detours. We eventually followed large crowds to la Plaza Mayor for a brief wade through the scene at the Christmas fair (a strange scene -- see entry of December 19, 2002). Many, many families about, many young couples, many clusters of young folks. Many people wearing silly multi-colored wigs, silly eyeglasses. (December 28 is the local version of April Fools Day -- el Día de los Santos Inocentes.) Rows of booths set up in the enormous space of the plaza, Christmas trees being sold around the periphery. People continuing to pour into the plaza. After a fast look-round, we poured out of the plaza, heading west toward the Palace and la Plaza de Oriente, pausing for food and drink inside el Café de Oriente, a small, elegant place that produces the most single most wonderful tapas I have ever had the pleasure of inhaling.
Post-tapas-ecstasy, I inflicted another leg of the lightning tour on them, then called it a day.
Until the next morning. I'd been thinking of going to el Rastro -- an immense, sprawling, hyperinflated fleamarket that takes over most of Madrid's La Latina district every Sunday -- to check out one or two particular stalls that deal in used jeans. J. and H. mentioned they'd been thinking of going. We hooked up, made the short Metro trip, found ourselves in the middle of an ocean of people. Me, not very good company I'm afraid, until I tossed down a cup of espresso and a helping of tortilla española. Better after that, though as I woke up, it became clear that J. & H. were underwhelmed with el Rastro. And I can see why. Intense crowds. Touristy out on the main drag. Off the main drag: mounds of curbside junk being hawked to passing throngs, shops filled with more junk lurking behind it all. What a combo, huh? This is why I tend not to go unless (a) I have a specific purpose (usually jeans) or (b) visitors want to see it. We did stop at a local churrería where I picked up two churros and two porras. J. tried one of the porras, found it too greasy. It was, which failed to stop me from hoovering down mine.
Found our way back to the Metro, set up a date for dinner (tonight), waded through crowds both on and off of trains, said good-bye.
Later Sunday: headed back into the center (far more crowded than on Saturday, more stores open) to meet with an intercambio for the first time. Both of us waiting near the bear in Sol. Not finding each other. For 25 cold minutes. On one side of the bear stood a Peruvian band, playing musaky versions of songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Imagine. On the other side, a rumpled, disturbed-looking white guy jerked and twitched his way through truly bad hip-hop robot type dancing to nearly inaudible music coming from a small low-fi radio/tape player that had seen better days. No jacket, no coat, no sweater, despite genuinely frigid weather -- just a creased, worn white shirt, sad, saggy black pants, black shoes. Dancing so badly that people stopped, mouths open, at the sight. Every little while he paused to move out through the passersby, thrusting a hat at them, asking aggressively for money.
Eventually my intercambio and I hooked up, I spent the next 3+ hours working my butt off, discovering that this person was nearly impossible to understand in both Spanish or English.
Next morning: Monday. Still gray and cold. Nothing open except the gym. Got myself up out of a nice, warm bed and went. Found myself walking the streets of Salamanca, Madrid's ritziest barrio, virtually alone. After which, returned home, crashed. Stayed home the rest of the day.
Monday, 10 a.m., in the barrio of Salamanca, Madrid:
Today: Still gray, cold, intermittently rainy. The city's reverted to its normal weekday self.
Took myself to la Universidad Complutense in northwest Madrid to investigate their course of studies in Spanish for furriners. The jury is out on whether that'll be something I'll investigate further.
Will be meeting J. & H. for dinner tonight at a fun, inexpensive restaurant specializing in roast chicken and hard cider.
Thursday morning I board a plane to the U.K., where I'll spend six days inflicting myself on various friends. London at Christmastime. Oxford. Stoke-on-Trent.
Posts may be scarce for the next week or so.
Sunday, December 21, 2003
Man, what a beautiful December morning. When I did the right thing and pulled myself out of bed to drag my little bod off to the gym, I found a Madrid cloaked in fog, just enough of it to soften the city, to provide an air of benign mystery. A scattering of folks were about, a mix of older folks out to get a newspaper or baguette and younger folk at the tail end of a long night's club-going. The majority didn't look overjoyed to be up at that hour (just shy of 10 a.m., early here). The younger folks, in fact, appeared ragged and surly, keeping to themselves. I can relate. I -- barely half-awake -- could easily imagine what being out in the plaza on a cool, foggy Sunday morning might feel like after a hard night of partying.
The Metro and the gym were nicely underattended. When I stepped back out onto the street, post-sweatiness, around a quarter of 12, a more normal mix of humans were about, walking together arm in arm or being pulled along by dogs on leashes.
I passed a father with three children, two boys aged five or six and one adorable little girl, maybe 2-1/2, 3 years old. The father and boys were deep into an exchange among themselves, while the little sweetie had something on her mind she was trying to get across to them -- repeating what sounded like "na-se-ta-la-pa-ta-ta," all the different syllables pronounced separately just like that. Could have been a string of nonsense sounds she found entertaining or could have been some profound thought related to potatoes ('patata' being one of the two words for spud that I've heard hereabouts). The males in the group paid no attention, forcing her to repeat the phrase, louder, then again, even louder. Still no response from the others. For all I know, she's trying to get them to listen to her even now, repeating "na-se-ta-la-pa-ta-ta" at ear-rupturing volume.
Just up the block from them, a lovely 30-something woman pulled aside the curtains at a second-story window, wearing a thick, white bathrobe, face framed by long black hair. She opened the window, leaned out, dropped a set of keys to a male waiting below, him holding a plastic bag containing Sunday paper and groceries in one hand, catching the keys with the other. The window closed, she disappeared, he unlocked the building's front door, vanished inside.
The build-up to the holidays continues here, crowds clogging the city center, the energy level climbing steadily. Beneath it all, however, a winding down has begun as many people -- foreigners and Spaniards alike -- commenced the Christmas season migration, heading off to whatever points on the map function as home. Schools of all kinds have closed, much of the ubiquitous construction work has begun easing up in prep. for the holiday work stoppage.
And within the last two days the annual Yuletide explosions started up, something I've only experienced here. Individuals out on the street setting off major fireworks of the ashcan/cherry bomb variety, stopping everyone's heart for a moment, leaving sizeable clouds of smoke drifting quietly upward in the wake of the concussion. St. Nick had better pull on a flak jacket when he reaches Spain.
Sunday in Madrid, four days before Christmas. On to the afternoon.
The Lord of the Rings hits Madrid:
Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Well, I will freely admit that I love these days leading up to Christmas. There is something about this season that feels so sweet to me, so full with simple, transient pleasures. The lights and decorations, the parties, people carrying bags of items soon to be adorned with wrapping paper, ribbons, other frufru. The fresh feel to the air, the slant and angle to the sunlight. The sense of anticipation as the days slip by, the swelling in the number of seasonal observations of whatever kind -- spiritual, religious, cultural (music, art, all that).
It's good, all of it. (Please try not to hate me for being into the sappy yuletide way.)
Yesterday evening: me, out to meet a Spanish friend. Strolling along la Calle de Alcalá, by la Plaza de la Cibeles, with its enormous fountain and the main post office building. Lights everywhere, the area looking grand and Christmassy. And the post office -- an extravagant building to begin with -- tall, white with turrents and banners. A beautiful, impressive edifice, made more so with all the seasonal lighting.
Call me naïve, but I like all that.
Two days back, the numbers were picked for the Christmas lottery, the biggest of the numerous Spanish lotteries, called la Gorda (the fat one). A lengthy, drawn-out, televised ceremony in which pairs of children pick numbers, calling them out in a repetitive chant. A long, long to-do, its pace slow and measured in a way that some might experience as monotonous, tiresome. But Spain is into it, and winners of the various sizeable prizes get their moment in the evening news and the front pages of the following day's newspapers -- hugging, kissing, brandishing winning tickets, popping open bottles of sparkling wine, shaking them vigorously to spray in every direction.
The big one
Christmas is a presence on local television not only through holiday programming, but also through the change in advertising, from the more normal ads for cars, premium television channels, mobile phone companies, prepared foods to a flood of ads for perfumes/colognes and, as Christmas has drawn closer, for sparkling wines. More ads for smelly lotions and bubbly than I even knew existed. Impressive, in a slightly unnerving way.
The crowds in the city center continue, out walking, shopping, pouring in and out of the Christmas Fair in la Plaza Mayor. And speaking of that Christmas Fair, someone told me recently that among the various figurines people buy there for the traditional manger scene -- an elaborate item that often even includes a small pool of water, a teeny pond or lake -- there is one of a person crouching, pants down around their ankles. I'm told some Madrileños buy this figurine and position it by the lake, as if it's, well, pooping in the water. It's some poorly-educated twit from Barcelona, they apparently say, using this traditional holiday scene as an opportunity to express a bit of the traditional Madrid-Barcelona rivalry. Or more than that, the rivalry between la Comunidad de Madrid and the autonomous province of Cataluña. A rivalry with a history of enmity, apparently still running deep for some folks.
I have yet to find confirmation of this, but then I've only asked one local so far, and she seemed as mystified as me at the whole idea.
The weather has gotten nice and crisp -- daytime temperatures in the 30s, dipping below freezing at night -- with sunshine pouring down, strong and direct enough to make sitting on a bench in a plaza or a park a good way to pass some time. An extremely user-friendly version of the Christmas season.
The city seemed surprisingly busy this Christmas Eve morning, the Metro substantially more crowded than I remember it last year on the same day, lots of people about when I headed out early to the gym. Since then, things seem to be quieting as the city prepares to shut down this evening. Signs in the Metro advise that trains will stop running, all stations will close at 9:30. The streets will empty out, families will gather for the big midnight dinner. Tomorrow will bring another big dinner, gifts will be thrown about, and there it will be: Navidad, 2003.
I'm off to a dinner tonight, though not quite as hardcore -- starting at 10, ending in time for a decent night's sleep. It will be nice to walk through the quiet streets before and after the get-together, the night air crisp, Christmas lights shining all around.
And before then, I'll take care of my own version of holiday prep., maybe get to an early showing of a film before the theaters shut their doors for the evening.
However you spend this evening, whatever this time of the year means to you, be well.
For last-minute shoppers seeking the thoughtful, considered guidance of a professional journalist, along with a fine suggestion or two for names of rock 'n' roll bands: Dave Barry's 2003 Holiday Gift Guide. Worth perusing not simply for the unnerving gift ideas, but also for the moving holiday story that starts it off.
Saturday, December 27, 2003
These last few days have whizzed by at startling velocity. Time has flown, I've had plenty of fun. Some old saws hold true.
The 24th: Stepped outside around 6 p.m. from a late afternoon movie to find Christmas Eve Day in Madrid slowly giving way to Christmas Eve (la Nochebuena). Little traffic, crowds thinned out, leaving enough people about to provide a peaceful sense of city. A quieter, more relaxed Madrid. The cafeterías and taverns still open were crowded, customers moved freely in and out of the few stores still going at it. Most businesses were dark, though as I walked from the city center into Chueca, my barrio, that slowly changed. A surprising number of shops on la Calle de Fuencarral had doors open, music pouring out into the street. Stores of all kinds -- clothing, footwear, glitzed-up dumps peddling trashy gifts/touristy tchochkes, bakeries, joints dispensing café and food. Off the main drag, things quieted down. Few cars cruised the streets -- kind of amazing in itself -- though people were about, enjoying the thoroughfares turned into de facto pedestrian ways.
During all this, the soft light of the long, lingering twilight continued, the sky to the west painted in pinks and soft reds, the light extending out into the rest of the sky from there, changing to blue, then to progressively darker shades. Lovely, tranquil. Apart from the explosions.
That's right, explosions. Fireworks. Nothing organized, nothing official -- ashcans (or the local equivalent) and rockets being set off by local knuckleheads, continuing for well over an hour after my return home, much of it out in the street in front of this building.
When I stepped back outside around 8:45, on the way to Christmas Eve dinner -- bearing two bottles of sparkling cider, one of sparkling wine -- fewer people moved through the local streets. Those that did walked in groups, talking happily. A 7 or 8 year old boy went by on a scooter, peering out at me from under the hood of his winter coat. The only kid to be seen. I smiled at him, he zipped past, expressionless.
The streets lay emptier, quieter, with more shops closed, until I reached la Calle de Montera, a three-block stretch that lays between la Gran Vía and Sol, known as la Calle de las Putas. A fair number of prostitutes did Christmas Eve duty, attracting groups of rough-edged 20-somethings, Eastern Europeans and darker-skinned Central/South Americans, carrying on among themselves.
In Sol, where large stores remained open, catering to last-minute gift-buyers, plenty of people drifted about, most in groups of two or three, carrying bags of purchases, some eating pizza or pocket sandwiches from the numerous local Turkish food shops.
The dinner: an affair taking place in a travelers' residence where Tracy, a friend from Spanish class, is staying. I got there to find numerous folk about, Tracy sitting in the small common room with one of the women who worked at the residence -- Teté, from Argentina, bright and very slender -- and an Argentinian 30-something named Eugenio (a jewelry-making craftsperson, hair pulled loosely back in a small ponytail, several days' stubble, a thick Argentinian accent). A young Romanian woman sat apart from them in front of a computer, involved in instant messaging. Other individuals came and went, all males. It felt to me that my presence -- a gray-haired American guy -- made Eugenio and Teté a bit uncomfortable. Teté loosened up with talk and wine, especially after ascertaining that I was unmarried, with no children, immediately talking about setting me up with the woman who runs the residence (not present that evening). For whatever reason, Eugenio never really seemed to warm up to me too much.
Two more folks joined us, Juan and Henry from Venezuela. Conversation turned from trying to set me up with the owner to politics and comparing life in Venezuela, Spain, the States. Tracy disappeared to prepare lamb chops for the meal, the rest of the group eventually drifted through the surprisingly endless hallways of the residence to the kitchen, where seats were taken, bottles of cider and champagne opened, bowls and platters of food found their way to locations among plates and glasses. The young Romanian woman materialized with her partner, a 20-something Romanian guy, they settled into two chairs at the far end of the table set-up. Hailing from Transylvania (where, they claim, a Dracula-oriented theme park is being built), she spoke multiple languages, he spoke English but no Spanish, so that she had to translate the conversation that flowed around the table.
A motley five out of eight. (Photo courtesy of Tracy D.)
[continued in next entry]
Saturday, December 28, 2003
And flow the conversation did, at least among the Spanish speakers. The Romanians mostly listened, though I suspect that would have changed if he'd had some facility with Castellano. He had a tendency to mutter comments to himself as his eyes followed the conversation around the table, the two of them occasionally whispered commentary to each other after one of her translations, sometimes laughing quietly as they leaned together to confer.
Conversation turned to the subject of machismo. I can't tell you how we wound up there, I can only report that all three South American males made it clear they considered the women who lived in machista cultures to be responsible for a full 50% of that social dynamic. Maybe more than 50%. Could have been a pre-emptive thing, setting that opinion forth as strongly as they did -- getting the boot in before any females took it upon themselves to begin dumping responsibility on the guys. Teté accepted it diplomatically, acknowledging some of the guys' argument before using that as a stepping-off point. A smart cookie.
Tracy looked unhappy with the general tenor of the South American male position, though everyone's stance softened some with further talk. The Romanian guy became noticeably restive until I gave him an opening to speak up in English. Environment trumps genetics/gender in determining who we all are, what we all do, he said. The rest of the table listened to a translation of that, agreed in a shoulder-shrugging way, the conversation immediately reverted to Spanish, galloping off to topics like politics, the holidays, the state of our respective countries, critiques of Spain/the Spaniards (there being no Spaniards present to defend themselves).
And so it went. Midnight arrived, cheeks were kissed, wishes of Feliz Navidad exchanged. Food, cider, champagne got inhaled. Dessert appeared, disappeared amid good-natured struggles over who got to wield the knife and distribute which kind of cake to whom. The Romanians retired to their bedroom around 1 a.m., I began to lose steam around 1:30. Ten or fifteen minutes later, the Venezuelans excused themselves, I said good-night, found myself heading out of the building with Juan and Henry, riding downstairs in what may be the single most cramped elevator I've ever sidled into (resulting in brief, unexpected physical intimacy with my fellow crampees).
Needless to say, all the conversation spoken in all the various accents (with varying intelligibility to my ears, depending on the speaker) gave my Spanish a serious workout. The quality of my comprehension fluctuated, depending on the speaker, my ability to respond came and went, as if I needed to withdraw at times before I could re-engage without making too much of a mess with my middle-level Castellano. I was ready to go home when I got out of there, and for the first time in a while felt glad to get away from having to speak Spanish.
The 25th found me in bed until noon, as decadent a Christmas morning as I've ever spent. Dozing, reading, dozing some more. At two o'clock, I stood outside la Estación Príncipe Pio over on Madrid's west side, waiting to board a bus that would take me out to Villa Viciosa, one of the city's many 'burbs. Where my landlords, John and Pat, live. Where we would rendezvous at their son's home for Christmas dinner (me hauling the now customary bottles of cider and champagne). 'Get there around 2:30,' John told me when we spoke a day or two earlier. The bus dropped me off in the town center just after 2:30. Bobby, the son, had offered to come pick me up. I pulled out my cellphone, dialed. He answered, we had a brief, almost terse exchange. I said I was there, he said he'd be along to get me, we hung up.
The temperature had slid up into the 40s, sunlight poured down in abundance. A sizeable fountain not far up the road did its thing with joyous abandon. Couples walked by arm in arm, some pushing baby carriages. A beautiful Christmas afternoon. My bladder decided right then that it needed to be relieved, refused to take no for an answer. I had to shuffle off, find a secluded spot near a row of stores, between cars, to take an embarrassed, slightly shamefaced yuletide whiz. Got back to where I said I'd be waiting just in time for Bobby's arrival.
I mounted up, we shook hands, exchanged Feliz Navidads, he turned the car around, headed back toward home. I filled him on the previous night's dinner, we did small talk until arriving at his place. Which turned out to be the local equivalent of a townhouse in a sprawling, brand spanking new development. A small but nice place that he and his Spanish sweetie moved into a few months back.
I found myself in a living/dining area with sliding glass doors, afternoon light filling the room. The yard outside those doors: teeny, bounded by a slatted fence, which gave off onto a little bit of land that gave off, in turn, to a highway, and more land off beyond that. And right outside the teeny yard, right on the other side of the fence, stood one of those huge honking towers that carry high-tension wires, the kind that look like a stylized version of a metal giant holding electrical lines. I'm not sure I'd ever seen one so close up. Impressive. And fortunately, the locality had agreed to move the lines away from the housing development in the not-too-distant future, off to the other side of the highway where they would join other big metal giants, holding other high-voltage lines. Man, talk about a stroke of good fortune.
So there we were. Me, hovering around the living room, Bobby and his sweetie Sandra at work in the kitchen, getting things ready for the arrival of the rest of the family. I knew Bobby least of anyone in his family, after a few minutes small talk seemed to dwindle. I hovered, they worked. 3 o'clock passed, then 3:15. No sign of the 'rents. Bobby and Sandra got out a bunch of tins, began pouring finger food into bowls, immediately cheering me up. Most of it turned out to be unidentifiable fish/shellfish stuff, the kind of chow around which I maintain a prudent distance. But still. Olives, some with pits, others stuffed with blue cheese. Peanuts. Those few items enough to keep me content while some other brave soul digs into unidentifiable fish parts.
And finally the rest of the family materialized -- John, Pat, their daughter Anna -- armed with the meal: turkey, mashed potatoes/turnips, stuffing. Vegetables of some sort, too, undoubtedly, though I'm damned if I could tell you what they were. Not my main focus of attention, apparently.
[continued in next entry]
Saturday, December 30, 2003
Much of what I heard about during the first hour of this get-together were amazed, effusive descriptions of the staggering Christmas Eve dinner given by Sandra's parents the night before, apparently a nearly endless parade of fine food, one course after another, stretching well into the wee hours. Platter after platter of meat, fish, meat, fish, meat, fish. With a break for dancing, at some point. As in furniture being moved aside and family members gettin', er, jiggy. To what kind of music I couldn't say (though I'd lay heavy odds no AC/DC tunes figured in the playlist). But who cares? If I found myself at a Christmas Eve do of that ilk, I wouldn't give a rat's patoot what the soundtrack was.
John -- he of the he&she that comprise my landlords -- looked tired and drawn, to the point that nearly everyone commented on it. (Everyone except me, Mr. Diplomat.) Didn't appear he enjoyed that much, though he clearly enjoyed repeating ever more exaggerated versions of his daughter's "God, you look terrible!" The overall feeling, despite bursts of inter-parental-unit crankiness, was one of good humor. In fact, I would go as far as to say that there was a strong element of sitcom in the family interactions going on around me. Good sitcom, well-written sitcom. Funny sitcom. Lots of intra-family comedy, the kind that provides fine accompaniment to the inhaling of an excellent traditional Anglo-Saxon-style Christmas meal. The kind of comedy that brought John's smile/laugh to the surface every now and then, moments when it seemed like the light from the late afternoon sun suddenly brightened, something I don't mean as overdone poetic hoo-ha. He has a genuinely great smile/laugh, a kind that automatically gets me smiling in response. Literally feels (to me, at least) like the local candlepower spikes upward when they burst forth.
Great folks, my landlords and their progeny. Connecting with them was a stroke of outrageous good fortune.
So. Food. Talk, some in Spanish, some in English. More in English as time passed. My Spanish seemed to have temporarily collapsed, after two or three days of heavy language workouts. Anna, J&P's daughter, speaks superb Spanish, a kind in which the music of the language is crystal clear. Makes me want to spew my weak imitation in the vain hope that I might someday keep up with her, that I might someday manage to achieve a weak, watered-down approximation of her impressive, melodic Castellano. My mouth wasn't having any of it this day, though. Luckily, I usually speak fairly decent English. So I had something to fall back on.
And as the eating part of the program gave way to post-gorge conversation around the table, a beautiful sunset began cranking up outside. One of those long, drawn-out affairs where the light and color get going and keep going, changing continually in subtle, kaleidoscopic fashion. Got me up out of my chair and over to the window to get an eyeful over the yard's slatted fence. Pat suggested going upstairs to stand out on the small terrace, which sounded like a fine idea. I hadn't seen the upstairs yet -- my inner nosy, prying snoop liked that prospect.
Turns out this modest home had a seriously grandiose, squared-off version of a spiral staircase leading up to the second level. White stucco. Airy, with windows all around way up top. Ending at an upper level of two small bedrooms and a bath. And a terrace off the guest bedroom, looking out over the highway to rolling land that stretches away to the southwestern horizon, where the day's last light continued to put on a quietly spectacular show of oranges, reds, purples. And there we stood, out in the cool air, traffic passing below, watching a poignantly lovely sunset. A killer sunset. Through the power lines.
Something about that summed up this year's Christmas for me.
The days since then have remained beautiful, the temperature rising and falling unpredictably from one day to the next. (Unpredictable for those who tend not to follow the news/weather, anyway.) Sunday: genuinely brisk, authentically cold, the kind of conditions that get people walking quickly, coats pulled tightly around, hands in pockets. Today: mild enough that a handful of restaurants put out tables and chairs for the afternoon meal.
The mornings have started off slowly, quietly, Metro trains only half-full, passengers silent, drowsy. The days have been awash in December sunlight. By late-morning, the streets are busy with traffic, the city center thick with people shopping, conducting business, walking along sidewalks or pedestrians crowded with folks of all age brackets -- couples, families, groups of friends. The afternoon light hangs in the air through the rush hour, gradually transforming into long, lingering twilights -- major displays of color in the western sky, gradually giving way to evening and the lights of the city.
The holidays in Madrid. A fine time of the year in a place that feels like home.
Saturday, December 31, 2003
Madrid has been humming today, in a nice way. Most businesses opened for at least part of the year's final calendar entry. Workers showed up at the building going up across the street, making noise for an hour or so beginning around 8:30, then mysteriously melting away as the morning wore on and local streets grew busy with people out doing errands -- streaming in and out of the Metro, picking up a paper at the kiosk in the local plaza, buying food and drink for dinners and parties being given tonight. Cafés and restaurants seemed to get underway a bit earlier than normal, customers seemed to materialize as soon as the doors opened.
I stopped in at one of my preferred neighborhood a.m. caffeine pushers. As I stood reading a paper, sipping wake-up juice, a diminutive elderly woman appeared to my left, standing before the counter -- wearing a gray cloth coat and tired-looking brown shoes, expression serious, thinning gray hair clipped tightly behind her head. She asked the counterperson how much a glass of brandy cost, he said one euro and change. She counted out the correct sum from a small handful of coins, he set a snifter in front of her, disappeared, then reappeared a moment later, bottle in hand. She deposited a small, neat stack of coins on the counter, he poured her a hit of dark liquid. She spent three or four minutes working her way through it -- deliberate, measured, one little taste at a time. When the glass had been emptied, she fastened up her coat, called out "¡Hasta luego!", disappeared out the door.
Fireworks have gone off throughout the afternoon and evening, finally coming to a stop about an hour ago, possibly a sign that people are moving into the city center, to la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, the traditional location to greet the new year in these parts, Madrid's version of New Year's Eve in Times Square. Other folks are at dinners with family, with friends, getting ready for the countdown of the final 12 seconds of 2003, when one is supposed to eat a grape for each passing second, 12 grapes in all, to ensure good luck in the coming year. (There are companies that actually sell tins of 12 peeled, pitted grapes -- a product whose ads appear on television immediately after Christmas, vanish immediately after midnight on New Year's Eve.) People will do the ritual, the year will arrive to big noise, lots of carrying on. Partying in the streets will continue for a while, many will at some point head off to gatherings in homes, restaurants, clubs.
I ate lunch this afternoon at a restaurant here in the barrio, seated at a small table between two other small tables. To my left sat a couple who spoke not a word to each other, remaining silent the entire meal. At the other sat a 30-something black American male and a 30-something Spanish woman -- friends apparently, not lovers. Talking the entire time, their conversation loud enough that I couldn't help but hear every single blessed word. He looked for things to complain about, seeing the complications, the downsides in everything they discussed. She, on the other hand, sought out the positive aspects. She liked life, appreciated her particular existence, gently balanced out his carping. He owned an art gallery, which allowed him to travel, connected him with lots of people, provided him a pretty good life, though he seemed to have some trouble enjoying it. She worked a job that kept her in an office long hours and entailed some traveling. He chided her about working every night 'til midnight, she said she did it because she liked the work, and seemed to mean it. Near the end of the meal, she mentioned her father had given some money for Christmas. Her dining partner asked how much, she lowered her voice when she answered so that I couldn't hear the reply. He immediately blurted out (at twice his previous volume), "20,000 euros???"
Good for her, I thought, pulling on my coat, heading out into the afternoon air. It got me thinking about a Christmas gift I received when I was 13 or 14, something that showed up unexpectedly from our family's only wealthy relative. Enclosed in a Christmas card. When I opened the card -- a bit mystified, this being the first card I'd ever received from that relative -- I found it contained a length of odd-looking paper, folded in half. My fingers pulled it out, unfolded it, gently spread it flat. A bank check, looking mighty formal, the amount of money it represented printed in official-looking characters of both black and red ink. My eyes scanned it, expecting to find numbers in the neighborhood of $25, $30 -- $50 at most, a sum that would have felt amazingly, wonderfully over the top. The figure that met my eyes began with the number 3, followed by zeros. Several zeros. $3,000.00 worth of them, in fact, a number sizeable enough to make my mouth drop open. One of ten such checks my aunt gave that year, sending them off to various branches of the family, all part of a tax deduction move.
It lasted me several years, that $3,000.00. Bought me my first good stereo and other things that expanded my little world outward.
That was a while ago, back when years began with the numerals 1 and 9. 2004 now waits in the wings. Any number of surprising developments may come our way in the calendar pages that lay ahead. As we stumble through them, may we remember that each passing day is a gift -- transitory, fleeting, full of promise. It's a hell of show, this life. Easily worth taking a moment to appreciate now and then.
May we each have our share of those moments.