Events: Madrid/The Royal Wedding
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Saturday night: found myself in attendance at a dinner given by my neighbor, a bright, attractive 50-something woman who runs a residencia for students. The kind of international affair I used to experience regularly during my first months in Madrid, when I spent weeks and weeks in intensive language classes, slapping together what I hoped would be a workable foundation of spoken Spanish. Three and a half hours a day penned in a classroom with people from all over, punctuated by frequent extracurricular activities -- bouts of conversation over midday meals or plates of tapas/cups of coffee; nights out wandering the city. Fun, with a multi-national character I'd never experienced before. Stimulating. Satisfying.
The last time I found myself in a gathering of that sort was Christmas Eve [see entries of December 27, 28 and 30]. My current language classes -- the adult-ed variety: three evenings a week, an hour and a half at a pop -- are also an interesting mix of nationalities, but the students have day jobs, have lives that consume their time/energy. More serious overall, mostly a bit older, less given to frivolous bursts of socializing.
I've been curious about the flat across the hall (in keeping with my chronic, nosy craving to get a peek into virtually any living space -- an extension of my overdeveloped people-watching thing). This is an old building, with cozy, compact apartments. Not cramped, but not wildly spacious, at least if you want to pack more than two residents into one. And depending on the space and the residents, two can be pushing it.
Groups of students come and go, days of quiet giving way to busy periods, various languages echoing in the hallway -- Spanish, French, English. When I'm in my kitchen, I often hear my neighbor, Esperanza, at work in hers. Or her TV, her radio (usually playing Radio Olé, the only Spanish station I'm aware of dedicated completely to Spanish music, a strange mix of (a) pure, potent traditional, (b) sentimental, muzacky pop, and (c) more blatantly commercial top-40 fare).
Her kitchen/pantry is right off the apartment's entryway, I'd been in there on a couple of occasions, chatting. Saturday night was my first opportunity to scope out the rest of the space. Esperanza rustled about finishing up food-prep., two of the attendees keeping her company (a smart, attractive, post-university, spikey-haired Norwegian woman; an intelligent, college-aged French guy -- both extremely simpático, both speaking very decent Castellano). Introductions, a bit of chat, then I grabbed a couple of platters of tapas-style stuff and sherpaed them to the other end of the flat, where the small living room had been transformed into a dining zone.
A tall, shaven-headed, late-20's male sat on the living room sofa. Quiet, appearing uncomfortable. Dutch, it turned out, from Amsterdam, speaking very limited Spanish. Esperanza appeared, placing a big platter of cauliflower (steamed, then briefly sautéed in olive oil and garlic -- addictively good) on the table, everyone took a seat.
A scene like this is one version of paradise for me -- a table covered with plates of excellent food, all of which I have permission to ravish (within civilized limits). It's all I can do to keep myself from regressing to a primitive, slavering state, gruntingly shovelling piles of chow into my mouth in a frenzied display of primordial impulses.
We're eating, we're conversing. I'm enjoying my companions, I'm checking out the surroundings. Esperanza has Radio Olé playing its weird mix of tunes, volume just low enough that the music doesn't infringe on talk. A forest of framed photographs is arrayed atop a low table off to one side, family and friends smiling out at us.
[continued in next entry]
Friday, May 14, 2004
Royal romance: it's currently happening in a big way in this corner of the world. And I'm not talking your standard tabloid rubbish re: the Princesses of Monaco. A trio of major springtime weddings has gotten underway around the continent -- last month in Holland, today in Denmark, next weekend here in Madrid. One right after another. Glamorous, high-profile gatherings of royal clans from around Europe and points in the Middle East, providing both legitimate media outlets and the pink press with huge amounts of easy reporting fodder.
Given the local media's fascination with the famous ('los famosos') and Spain's many centuries of kings/queens/etc., the local royals are an easy fit, an anachronism many view with a cynically-cocked eyebrow, yet continue to accept as an adornment on the Spanish political system, as a strangely alluring aspect of the culture. An aspect that provides pomp and happy distraction, that the political world accepts (mostly) and that the commercial world can wrap itself around, currently pumping out commemorative royal wedding flotsam with joyful abandon.
Coming from a culture with no state royalty (ignoring the Kennedys-as-Camelot thing), I've never had a whole lot of interest in the vestigial monarchy deal. A quirky part of the old world, I figured, an ocean away and easy to ignore, apart from the ubiquitous updates on the Windsors' peccadillos. And then I found myself in the old world. Suddenly royalty is a part of the background of daily life.
Walking around the west side of Madrid's city center, it's hard to ignore the sprawling influence of the royal palace. Keep an eye on local political hooha, it's hard to miss the benign, affable presence of King Juan Carlos and family. Read the papers, turn on the TV these days, it's impossible to avoid the swelling coverage of the future King, Prince Felipe, and his bride-to-be, Letizia. Also, how security for the wedding will impact life here next weekend. The major story these last couple of days re: that last bit: the establishing of a no-fly zone around the city for the wedding day.
I pondered all this at dinner last Saturday night, sitting at a table with individuals from four countries with long histories of the royal sort, three of those -- Spain, Norway, Holland -- with some version of it still up and running. (The fourth, France, killed off its royals a couple of centuries back in a wild spasm of cultural makeover.)
Most Spaniards I've talked with re: the royal family refer to it dismissively, to one degree or another, though that generally seems tempered by genuine appreciation, even affection. In part, I think, because the Spanish royal family doesn't get itself into trouble. They do their job -- without acting out -- and it not only seems to matter to them that they do their work well, there seems to be genuine feeling for their country, genuine emotion lurking behind the royally restrained exterior.
On the other hand, one Spaniard I know -- an anchorperson for the daytime news on a national network -- does not appear to care a whole lot for the royals, and talks about the hands-off policy the press follows (re: reporting on royal family problems/troubles) in tones of disgust. Without itemizing, he assures me that they have their scandals, their misbehaviors. After saying that, he looks off to one side, shaking his head slightly, expression not sanguine.
Ah, well. Can't please everyone.
[continued in next entry]
Monday, May 17, 2004
This last Friday night: during the course of a late, late dinner with friends (a couple -- her Spanish, him an American living here for many years), me having just written an entry here about royal weddings, etc., I asked my companions' thoughts on the Spanish royal family. A simple question, producing immediate, lively commentary -- mostly from her, him generally listening, a smile on his face.
Her opinions: not wildly complimentary, featuring frequent use of terms like 'imbecile' and 'asshole,' though leavened with one or two appreciative points re: King Juan Carlos. Including expressed displeasure over the amount of state money being spent on preparations -- a complaint I've heard with increasing frequency amid ever-swelling media coverage of the event.
Money is clearly being tossed around, in part to give the city a sprucing up in certain high-profile locations. And I will confess to enjoying what I've so far seen of it.
Madrid is overrun with construction and rehab. It's everywhere, in exuberant, cheerfully-unsightly profusion: big scaffolding structures covering entire exterior walls of many-story buildings, generally covered with bright green or blue scrim to minimize the possibility of errant chunks of this and that clocking passing pedestrians. In an effort to reduce the eyesore factor (or take advantage of high-traffic locations), the expanses of scrim are sometimes turned into enormous billboards. [See entry of November 27, 2003.] Someone in the city government pondered that concept and had a brainstorm re: camouflaging the most obvious examples of city-center construction ugliness. The first examples have begun materializing along Gran Vía -- enormous reproductions of paintings by Goya. Landscapes, expanses of sky. Large enough to have a genuine impact on the look of a plaza or section of street.
Gran Vía/la Plaza de Callao, Madrid:
The city has been beefing up already-existing flower beds in public places, and according to news reports, security officers will be looking to foil citizens who attempt to make off with any of the flowers. Nighttime illumination of buildings, already something the city does well, will be taken up a notch, using many more colors, something the city government supposedly inaugurated officially a few short minutes ago.
And in the traffic circle near Atocha train station, scene of March 11's most damaging terrorist attacks, the city will be installing 192 trees in memory of those who died in the bombings. Not planting -- creating a small, temporary urban forest in big pots, to be relocated and planted for real in el Retiro, Madrid's version of Central Park, post wedding weekend.
Thursday, May 20, 2004
A recap, for those not paying close attention to the details of life in Madrid this week:
Two days from now, Saturday morning: the royal wedding.
In preparation for that event, the city's been getting a fast spit-shine (streets suddenly cleaner than normal, big arty banners covering expanses of construction/rehab, nighttime lighting on certain key buildings enhanced with eye-catching colors).
Virtually all local media outlets are currently obsessed with everything relating to the wedding.
Measures taken to address security concerns have begun impacting daily life in increasingly visible ways -- beginning last weekend, everyone entering the country via highway and railway gets stopped for security checks; beginning tomorrow, all motor vehicles will be barred from certain major thoroughfares around the city center; beginning this evening or tomorrow, parking lots around the city center will be closed. A no-fly zone will be enforced over the city on Saturday, possibly on Sunday as well. And on Saturday, 200 sharpshooters will be arrayed on rooftops along the processional royalty-waving-to-everyone route taken through the city center. (That last doesn't really impact daily life, but is worth noting just for the hell of it.)
It's something to watch unspooling, all this. Big pomp, in an endearing, slightly off-kilter old-world-meets-new-world way, the local reaction seeming mighty complex. Yes, the media is on it like a cheap suit. And yes, there apparently is an audience for all the wedding-related media noise. Yes, the number of Saturday morning viewers is expected to be huge, as is the 3-D turnout along the motorcade route here in town.
An event of this pedigree, after all -- a commoner (ex-newscaster, in this case) marrying into the royal realm, world leaders and European royalty in attendance; high romance, with a resonant aura approaching that of the fairy-tale -- doesn't come down the pike every week. For which I am grateful, because it could get real tiring. Wearing, even. Annoying. Abrasive. Brain-numbing.
Not that I'm suggesting for a moment that the current once-in-a-generation happening is any of those nasty adjectives. Truly, sincerely, I am not. (No, really.) It is, in all its strange aspects, just too damn interesting to be any of that.
For instance, the mixed feelings I see in the community around me -- a sense of pride, on one hand, at the city being the center of so much attention, along with a frank, unashamed enjoyment at the sudden show of ambient eye-candy, particularly the lighting displays taking place come dusk around certain plazas and buildings. Last night at sunset, big crowds collected around la Plaza de la Cibeles and down el Paseo del Prado, a concentration point of light and color. Many thousands of people, mostly Spaniards as far as I could tell, many with cameras out, all happily gawking away. Lots of ironic commentary to be heard, co-existing comfortably with genuine, unfeigned delight, neither reality contradicting the other. Fun.
Madrid gets lit -- la Plaza de la Cibeles, yesterday evening:
On the other hand, I've heard plenty of carping about the money being spent on the whole wingding. And closer to home, the shutting down of parking garages and main thoroughfares in the city center is causing some local businesses to go dark for the weekend come Friday afternoon. Not because they want to -- because they believe the disruption of access to the center will mean far fewer customers and a dropoff in business drastic enough to warrant closing up shop. The Metro will be open, operating free of charge on Saturday until 4 p.m., but few Madrid residents are expected to be out shopping that morning. Good time to stay at home and watch royalty get hitched.
One thing that's becoming more true with each passing nanosecond: however one feels about the nuptial thing, it'll all be over soon.
I have no idea if I'll wind up turning on the tube Saturday morning. I hope to be asleep, frankly, not awake debating the question, as I'm still recovering from last weekend's combo of high activity level and little sleep. It's entirely possible, though, that I'll drag myself out of bed at a distressingly reasonable hour, pull on clothes, limp to a neighborhood espresso pusher (where the royal hooha will be probably be on at high volume, the lost souls in attendance staring blankly at the screen). At which point I'll remember I should be out on Gran Vía watching the motorcade with the rest of the city, under the watchful eye of all 200 sharpshooters. So that I can write something semi-informed about it afterward.
Might happen. Or it might not. I'll find out Saturday.
T-shirt seen yesterday in the Madrid Metro:
NO, TAMPOCO fui invitado a la BODA REAL
(NO, I wasn't invited to the ROYAL WEDDING EITHER)
Friday, May 21, 2004
The crowds turning out to enjoy the lighting displays set up as part of the pre-wedding make-Madrid-shine effort have become a phenomenon, growing larger with each passing evening. Becoming, last night, so sprawlingly enormous (250,000-300,000, according to the media) that they simply took over that part of the city, provoking major, unexpected traffic tie-ups, attracting national news coverage.
There are those who think this week -- the conjunction of perfect weather, preparations for tomorrow's wedding, and the focusing of world attention here for that event -- has been cathartic, a lift to a city in need of one after the bombings of two months ago. That the flood of people taking to the streets has been a sign of Madrid opening back up after a deep shock. Could be, and that might explain the gentle official reaction to last night.
The police: patient, respectful, doing everything they could to accommodate the crowds. Rather than attempt to control the growing river of gawkers, they directed reduced traffic carefully through the area until the swelling number of pedestrians made that impossible, then eliminated motor vehicle access altogether, turning the streets over to the crowds.
The mayor, rather than reacting with panicked attempts to control the surging anarchy, embraced the turnout, practically beaming (this from a man who rarely shows any expression at all) at the success of the displays, at the way the city has come out to enjoy them.
Yesterday evening, I made a return trip to the area -- an easy ten-minute walk from here -- in an attempt to get more photos. With no idea that the scene would be what it turned out to be. So many people that the crushing congestion in the broad sidewalks quickly became dangerous, police having to lift people out over the curbside railings into the street to prevent injuries. At which point, it all just turned into a free-flowing explosion of humans out enjoying themselves, unrestricted by anything. Happily, breezily chaotic. Everyone with cameras, taking photos of the lighting displays, of the unexpected anarchy, of each other.
In descending order:
a) the main post office building, la Plaza de la Cibeles
b) la Calle de Alcalá, looking east toward la Plaza de la Cibeles
c) la Calle de Alcalá, looking west toward la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol (not visible)
So much happy partying that the national security services became nervous, asking the city to abort tonight's lighting displays -- concerned that the crowds might prevent the completion of preparations for tomorrow's motorcade/wedding/etc. Tonight was to have been the final evening of the big pre-event celebration -- the city will now have to resort to its normal Friday night mode of all-night revels. (Sniffle.)
An interesting factoid mentioned in one of the countless news stories about wedding prep./security: there's an extensive network of underground tunnels below Madrid -- 5,000 miles' worth. They're now being methodically searched and patrolled, and will continue to be until the last of the international wedding guests packs up and disappears.
Meanwhile, early yesterday morning: woke from a dream in which I learned that a 42 foot high wave of water had rolled through Manhattan, information with a massive implied death toll.
I was somewhere north of N.Y.C. when I found out, in a private office of some kind. Big, entirely done in dark wood, the lights discretely low.
A balding 50-something male in a suit sat behind a sizeable desk at one end of the room, a 50ish woman at a desk or table across from him. (His office, though, not hers.) Desk man spoke with a soft Austrian accent, telling me and the woman about the killer wave, going on to say that he'd realized the owners of the five biggest banks were behind it, as if were a realization that should be obvious to everyone. I kept my smartmouth thoughts to myself.
A 42 foot high wave of water. What am I, a walking trailer for the latest disaster film?
Friday night: rain moved in several hours ago. The crowds that had been accumulating around the center ready for fun diminished some, the high spirits of the remaining die-hards muted but not smothered. Every TV channel is occupied with pre-wedding activities and the hordes of royalty, world leaders and famous types that have invaded Madrid over the last 24 hours for the event.
I had the impression that a fair number of folks would ignore the wedding ceremony tomorrow a.m. Silly me. Even my Spanish instructor, one of the last people I would have expected to be up for something like this, said he'd be out of bed with the telly on. Me, I may go to the gym. Depends on how grinchlike I feel in the morning.
A final note: this evening someone found this page via a search for "scissors orange x-ray butt."
Hard to improve on that as a summing up.
Saturday, May 22, 2004
This morning: tried to sleep in. A neighbor had their television on, watching the arrival of the wedding attendees at the National Cathedral. A murmur just loud enough to keep me from drifting back off once I'd come awake and become aware of it.
Gave in, got up. Cranked up the T&V, kept it going while I showered, etc. Saw a friend on one channel -- a newscaster with one of the Spanish networks -- sitting with a compatriot in some elevated location with a great view of the city's west side, commenting on the various mucky-mucks arriving for the ceremony. Realized all over again how boring that kind of thing is to me. Shut it off, headed out to the gym.
Not many people about, like any other Saturday a.m. here. Streets and plazas appeared a bit cleaner than normal, probably due to the overnight rain -- putting a lid on the Friday night revelry, resulting in less debris for morning clean-up crews. Virtually all businesses were closed, the few cafés in operation all had the TV going, the eyes of customers and staff fixed on the wedding coverage
No TV going at the gym, no radio. Just blessed quiet. Rain started up while I was inside, greeting me with an intense downpour when I stepped back outside. Thunder pealed, the kind that starts near the horizon and rolls across the sky.
The Metro remained practically deserted during the ride back here, when I emerged from the station in the plaza down the street rain continued falling. Ducked into a cafetería for a shot of caffeine, the tail end of the wedding ceremony playing on the TV at crisp, clear volume. Church music: choir singing, organ playing. The two 20-somethings behind the bar supplied their own liturgical tunes in response:
Customer: Un cortado, por favor.
Barkeep: (In the style of Gregorian chant:) ¿Un corrr-ta-dooooo?
Barkeep: ¿De má-qui-naaaa?
I sat for a while. Sipped, ate, read the paper. People passed in and out of the cafetería. Music (live and from the TV) came and went. The rain eventually let up. I came back home.
It's now after 1. The streets outside remain deserted, quiet. Overhead, the drone of a helicopter periodically swells then fades, the only indication of how close this neighborhood is to the route of the wedding motorcade, where the royal entourage is now making their post-ceremony trip through the city.
A good day for relaxing. Think I'll do some of that.
This evening along Gran Vía, wedding come and gone, rainclouds long vanished -- two images before the police were loaded into vans and carted off, one image of a brief few moments of freedom between their departure and the return of traffic: