far too much writing, far too many photos

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.

[Continued from entry of Dec. 28]

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.

Madrid — seen in the city center, today:


[Continued from yesterday's entry]

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 entry of Dec. 30]

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 entry of Dec. 28]

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’s turned 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.

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:


Woke up this morning fully intending to be good, responsible, productive. (Go to the gym, get errands done. Write email, make phone calls.) Made the mistake of turning on the ‘puter before doing anything else, the morning pretty much went to hell from there.

There are those days when sitting in front of my laptop becomes my personal equivalent of zoning out in front of the T and V. My own personal time machine — one minute it’s 9 o’clock, next thing I know it’s closing in on 11:30 and nothing of any substance, much less import, has gotten done.

When I finally dragged myself away from the ‘puter screen, out the door, into the street, I discovered a whole world carrying on life beneath gray Saturday a.m. skies. Stores open, cafés serving wake-up liquids and morning finger food. People walking in couples (hetero and otherwise, this being the Greenwich Village of Madrid), stopping in front of tienda windows, conferring about things seen there. Others sitting together at café tables, slowly coming to.

I’ve been short on sleep these last 2-3 weeks, to the point that I could feel the swelling drain of it during my waking hours. These last two nights, however, brought long stretches of lovely, satisfying shuteye, and I can feel my body wanting more. The lack has produced an odd feeling of disconnect, something the holiday season has amplified. I am not part of any religious tradition or belief system. I don’t have much in the way of family. And right now I am not part of a romantic partnership. Without those ties, I find myself drifting along as the days of this season slip past, enjoying the lights, the store displays, the general growing sense of anticipation. Living my own little existence — going to classes, writing, passing time with various people, pondering what I need to do with myself in the coming months. Nothing wrong with any of it, unless I choose to distract myself with worrying thoughts of one kind or another, something I recognize to be a complete waste of time.

One of the nicest angles of this last trip to the U.K. [see previous two entries] was hooking up with friends not seen in a while, spending sizeable chunks of time with them, often in places I’ve never been before (Mayfair, Hampton Court, Oxford, Stoke-on-Trent). Being ferried about either on public transport — on my own, checking out the people around me — or in friends’ cars, watching the local version of the world sweep on by.

Meeting one old friend at her office in Mayfair Thursday night, going to a middle-eastern restaurant, ordering a sampler meal, then watching plate after plate after plate of food materialize in front of us. An amazing, table-covering display that we pretty much demolished in no time flat.

Taking a train out to Oxford Friday morning to rendezvous with a friend from Bristol, where we talked nonstop, wandering from museum to pub to café to restaurant beneath skies dark and gray, rain coming and going. Christmas lights shining through it all. (My friend, N.: five feet or so tall, with an impressive head of thick, wavy red hair — quite a bit more of it than the last time I saw her, nearly 2-1/2 years ago. Me to her: “You have more hair!” Her to me: “You have less!” Given that I am blessed with abundant naturally-occuring head insulation, I can only assume she meant my haircut. Probably shorter than the version she saw in 2001.)

Meeting C.and J., a friend and his wife, on Saturday — post visit to the Saatchi Gallery, a place whose overriding goal may be to provoke and/or gross out — for a ride on the London Eye, followed by a trip out through London’s western reaches to Hampton Court. A beautiful, impressive place, probably spectacular in warmer, sunnier seasons, when the gardens are in full, extravagant bloom (and which now seems to be the site of a Christmas haunting).

And this is something else that stood out for me on this trip — Londoners are often characterized as distant, unapproachable. Not my experience. I am not shy about asking questions of folks around me on the street or in the underground, and did so regularly during this trip. Without fail, they answered my queries as best they could. I find the Brits to be warm, generous, interesting. C. and J. pushed the generosity thing, not just taking out a Christmas season afternoon to show me around, but insisting on paying for my tickets to the Eye and Hampton Court. Don’t ask me why — it’s not like I’m impoverished. I had to sneak in payments for a couple of smaller expenditures, stuffing money into C.’s hand for parking before J. could drag her own cash out, paying for my own food/coffee at the Hampton Court cafeteria before J. realized what was happening. (This is not a complaint, by the way. Please, all those who want to buy me meals and pay my way into attractions of all kinds, send email and propose traveling fun.)

I have the feeling I’d enjoy living in the U.K. Apart from the climate.

Speaking of which, as I’ve written this, the Madrid sky has lightened up. Clouds have thinned, sunlight pouring through.

Must go outside.

Later.

*************

The South Bank, London, by the Royal Festival Hall — wind generator, the London Eye, Charing Cross train trestle, Christmas tree

A bit about the weather during this last trip (I apologize in advance):

For a week or so before heading off to the U.K., the weather here in Madrid featured persistently gray skies, cold temperatures, rain. Day after day. Not very user-friendly. The day before I left, it gave way to blue skies, sunshine. Cold, but nice.

Thursday morning — the plane takes off, sun beginning to poke its way into view in the eastern sky. We head north, clouds cover everything. We arrive in London to find gray skies, cold temperatures, rain. Weather that remains pretty much the case for the next three days.

Sunday morning — I drag myself out of bed at an early hour to catch a train north to Stoke-on-Trent. The clouds are gone leaving blue sky, the sun slowly pulling itself into view to the east. As it’s Sunday morning, most sane British humans are home in bed, few trains are running. Those of us foolish enough to attempt travel in a northerly direction get herded onto buses which take us from London to Northampton, where further transport awaits. From there, I find myself on a beautiful, sleek train moving through towns with names like Rugby, Nuneaton, Tarworth. One other traveler shares that coach with me, tranquility reigns. I get out my walkperson radio/DVD player, put on A Charlie Brown Christmas, pull out a Spanish magazine, pass the trip happily. As we move north, clouds creep into view. The sunlight dims, then disappears. Showers start up. We pull into Stoke-on-Trent to find gray skies, cold temperatures, rain.

Sense a pattern?

But. Next morning: clouds give way to sunshine, and that’s how the rest of my time in Stoke goes. Clear skies. So nice. Cold, yes — people bundled up, cheeks red, the mornings revealing ground and cars covered with thick, heavy frost — but with plenty of sunshine.

Enough with weather blahblah.

High points of my time in the Midlands:

My friend Dermot taking me to an old pub/restaurant not far from Stoke for a delicious, satisfying meat ‘n’ potatoes style lunch, the place filled with English types, mostly young couples and groups of old folks. And one 30ish Japanese couple with a mighty active young child, a boy — happy, curious, providing loads of entertainment.

Spending Sunday afternoon in Stoke’s ceramics museum — an interesting place, way more interesting, it turns out, than the term ‘ceramics museum’ might indicate.

Dinner with five of Dermot’s friends at an Indian restaurant whose decorative scheme featured framed prints of Salvador Dalí paintings, along with other, more typically English, scenes (as the in-house sound system pumped out Indian techno-pop). We were a rambunctious bunch, too rambunctious for our waiter, whose low opinion of us was confirmed when we spent half an hour at meal’s end playing a game in which everyone writes the name of a well-known personality on a piece of paper, sticks it on the forehead of the person sitting next to them (so that everyone but the person wearing the name knows who they are), who then asks yes/no questions of the rest of the group until each has figured out the name stuck to their forehead. Way funnier (and more frustrating) than it sounds. Two 20-something Brit males who arrived to dine went a bit wild upon spotting us paper-foreheaded types, trying to paste cloth napkins to their foreheads in mocking imitation. When it became clear their commentary had no effect on us, they turned their attention elsewhere. The waiter’s low opinion of us never seemed to waiver.

A field trip to Manchester, an hour north, taking up most of my second day visiting Dermot. A mighty interesting city, a blend of industrial and modern post-industrial. Lots of energy, good fish and chips.

Stoke-on-Trent, by the way, was home to John Tolkien, eldest son of J.R.R. Tolkien, where he worked for over 30 years as a parish priest. Dermot made a point of taking me past a street named Tolkien Way, an address with some serious cachet these days. (And speaking of Tolkien, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film get the kind of reviews that The Return of The King is getting. I may have to experience the bugger for myself later today.)

Written two days ago:

4 p.m., Dec. 16, London — Sitting in a café on The Strand, sipping a cappuccino, the day outside slowly giving way to twilight. Around me the minutes pass in a wash of sound and motion, people and traffic passing by without pause outside the café’s windows. The sound of many vehicles blends with that of passing footsteps and voices in conversation, in a way that strangely resembles the ebb and flow of ocean surf.

Inside the café, Christmas music drifts through the air — sometimes pleasantly jazzy, sometimes teeth-grindingly hopped up, brassy, difficult to tune out — along with the smells of coffee and the sounds of customers coming and going, staff at work, counter transactions. Life going on all around, ceaselessly.

This day started for me at 6 a.m. in Stoke-on-Trent. A two-hour train ride south had me in London by 10:30, an amazing transition of darkness giving way to rolling countryside and towns whizzing past (flashes of church steeples, dark rows of tired looking homes), daylight slowly revealing a dramatic mid-December morning, turbulent skies looming over fields blanched with frost.

And then London — packed Underground trains, streets and stations filled with rivers of people striding intently on to their day. The loudest sounds: the fast-moving footsteps of many, many people, voices talking into cellphones, discussing meetings, deals, papers that will or won’t be signed.

Stashed my luggage, hoovered down a plate of pretty good breakfast food at a greasy spoon near the station, gravitated to the South Bank. Checked out an overhyped Dalí exhibition, passed the rest of the afternoon wandering about, watching people, activity.

2 a.m., Madrid time — Wed. morning, despite the date given this entry by Blogger. Freshly returned from the U.K., a late flight getting me home well past midnight. The end of a long day with too little sleep, me beginning to get genuinely stupid from the need for shuteye. Therefore I’ll keep the following brief:

From a conversation in Oxford, England: “I’m experiencing a definite slippage of reality.”

Sign seen on the side of a city bus in Oxford: PLEASE REFRAIN FROM LICKING THIS BUS

Seen on a chalkboard in a pub in Oxford: DOG’S BOLLOCKS — DANGEROUSLY DRINKABLE!

A quote attributed to Salvador Dalí, seen in London:
“The one thing of which the world will never have enough is exaggeration.”

Yet another quote attributed to Salvador Dalí, also seen in London:
“I’m in a permanent state of intellectual erection.”

From a conversation overheard in the Victoria line of the London Underground (said through a thick cockney accent):
“I’m gonna have to say to Trish, ‘Do you not flush the toilet when you go to the loo in the middle of the night?’”

Recent images from this Christmas season — Yesterday afternoon in Manchester:

Trafalgar Square, London — Late this afternoon, daylight waning:

To bed. More will follow in the next day or two.

On one hand, the clouds and rain of the last several days finally moved on after a night of heavy showers, leaving beind a beautiful, crisp December Wednesday — brilliant sunlight, deep blue skies, air fresh.

On the other hand, the construction across the street started up again this morning.

On one hand, the noise from the work wasn’t as loud and intrusive as it had generally been last week.

On the other hand, the work has spread from the building being erected to its already-existing neighbor, scaffolding going up bit by bit through the morning, so that by midday every window here looked out on guys in hard hats toiling away.

On one hand, the work that will be done on the new scaffolding will restore the front of a building that could stand some attention.

On the other hand, it may go on for some time. Noise, dust, all that. While next door, they’re busy tossing up the roof on the final floor, slowly shutting out my view of sky, neighborhood roofs, cutting down light. (Waaaahhhhhh!!!)

A good time to go away for a few days, I suspect. Which, by an odd coincidence is just what I’m about to do. Tomorrow. Early. For six days. Off to the U.K. for big bunches of fun.

Back next week. Later.

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 — discovering that for every person that fled town 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 and 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.

Be well.

Rain moved in late yesterday afternoon, and with it an easing off of Madrid’s recent cold snap. Something I’m sure the locals appreciate. I spent a couple of hours with a Spanish friend last night — the two of us meeting at a Starbucks located midway between his workplace and here, talking half the time in English, half the time in Spanish. Both of us agreeing that we’d been given pretty bad coffee, deciding next time we’d go to a nearby cervezería, get a good glass of Spanish beer, maybe some tapas. During the conversation, I brought up the cold spell, the local reaction to it, the fact that I thought it had been beautiful December weather. [See yesterday's entry.] He essentially laughed at everything I came out with on that subject, especially the idea of the weather being enjoyable. Pretty much said it all, I think, as far as the local reaction to cold weather

Got myself up and out to the gym this morning, like the good boy I am. Post-sweaty suffering, I retired to one of the two rooms the gym uses for classes of various kinds (Estudio 2 — it’s not just a studio, it’s an estudio!) to stretch, etc. As I’m doing so, a 20-something woman entered — slender, long black hair, attractive. She put some orchestral music on the room’s small stereo, began doing tai chi, going through long sequences of slow, graceful movement. There was something strangely familiar about her, I finally realized she bore an uncanny resemblance to a friend of mine from the Cambridge/Boston area, a smart, attractive woman named Bev. Examining her face, I could see it clearly was someone else, someone I didn’t know. When I returned to what I was doing — glancing at her from time to time, aware of her reflection moving slowly in the mirrors that cover three walls of the studio — I experienced the repeated, disorienting sensation of being around a friend I knew for a fact was thousands of miles away.

Her outfit: a red short-sleeved top, black sweat pants, dark socks. The pants, I noticed, were emblazoned with words, three words printed in a gentle curve across the woman’s butt, reading ALMA Y CUERPO — soul and body. I tried not to study her butt too excessively.

Later, emerging from the Metro here in Chueca, making the short walk home, I found that work on the building across the street had gone abruptly into high gear after several days of relative quiet. The truck with the crane was back [see entry of Nov. 25], parked in the narrow street in front of my building, shutting down local traffic. Across from me, the girders for the uppermost floor of the building are being put into place. The first step in wiping out of some of my view, a prospect which I confess gets me down if I dwell on it.

I’ve enjoyed the view I’ve had of neighborhood rooftops, I’ve liked being able to see the outer edges of some beautiful sunsets. I’ve been fortunate compared with people on the floors below me — as the new building’s gone up, they’ve lost more and more of the day’s light. I won’t lose much actual daylight, just a portion of the vista I’ve been fortunate enough to have out my windows.

Ah, well. Everything changes. I’m still situated here in the heart of a great neighborhood, one overflowing with energy and activity and people to watch. Still planted in the middle of a city I love.

*****************

Postcard from Vermont —

Part of a recent email from a friend in Montpelier who works with the ski patrol at a large northern Vermont ski area:

“Do you know what graupel is? It’s a kind of snow, like little white ball bearings, usually whipped around by high winds. It happens particularly when fronts collide and when temperatures drop suddenly. I was bombarded by graupel this afternoon, as I walked around town doing errands. Five minutes later, the sun was shining. But it’s cold, cold, cold tonight.

“A story I forgot to tell you the other day: Though there was little snow on the slopes on Saturday, there was a skim of it on the road as I left, enough to send quite a few cars skidding off the road. The [mountain's] access road is long and steep and features a wicked S-curve about a quarter of the way down. I made it through that curve, but not without some significant fishtailing. Conditions were as bad as I’ve ever seen that section of road, slick and greasy with an underlying sheen of ice, and I came at it a bit too fast. I managed to ride out the skid in the classic way, steering the direction of the skid (with gratitude to my race-car driving dad, who taught me in a snowy parking lot).

“I’d picked up a hitchhiker on my way down, an eccentric, bearded character known as Callahan who works on the mountain, in the summer wielding a scythe to clear the sections of trail that are too steep to be done mechanically, and in the winter as a lift attendant. ‘Lift-rats’ are the lowest on the totem pole and he could do better, but chooses to spend his days in a tiny shack at the top of the quad, riding a stationary bike for hours as he watches over disembarking skiers. Callahan is legendary for the hair-raising ski trails he cuts in the backcountry — and also for the fact that in summer, dressed in jeans and hiking boots, he rides his mountain bike up the access road every day, carrying a backpack full of 100 pounds of rocks. (The rocks may be apocryphal, but I’ve seen him riding many times.) He’s not training for anything, he just likes to do it. Anyway, I think Callahan’s knuckles might have been a little white as I skidded through that turn, muttering, ‘Whoa, whoa, don’t worry, we’re okay, I got it!’

“I hope that’s the worst trip this winter, though I heard later that there was some pavement resurfacing at that spot this summer that may have left it permanently slick.”

It’s Thursday. How did that happen?

The first wave of Christmas decorations appeared in Madrid this last weekend. Accompanied by seasonal weather, holiday lights shining softly out from store windows in the first gray, cold days of December. A few major stores had already installed some fairly massive displays (most notably el Corte Inglés), but if they’d thrown the switch on them before Saturday, nothing had caught caught my eye.

The city slung up the first of the street decorations, festive lights stretched across streets both narrow and broad. Not lit yet that I’ve seen, crews continue stringing them up. At some point they’ll give them the juice, nighttime Madrid will become brilliant and gaudy. (In a tasteful yuletide way.)

El Corte Inglés, guilty of sprawling expanses of holiday lights/decorations at its many large stores, has erected one humongo display along the side of its flagship store in Sol — ‘Cortylandia,’ a variation on the standard Toyland theme. Huge, castle-like, covered with lights, dotted with drawbridges, turrets, doors, banners flying, happy holidays creatures, music and long spoken passages booming out. Adding up to a bona fide spectacle that attracts big crowds during the evening hours, sometimes overflowing the side street/pedestrian way that abut each other on that side of the store. It is one overblown motherfucker of a Christmastime department store extravaganza, one whose scope and ambition I admire, though I will admit that I can’t take in more than a few minutes of it at a time. (Cheesy? Whooeeee!) And that’s okay — a whole lot of other people get a kick out of it.

I enjoy passing by, though — hearing the amplified voices, getting a brief eyeful of light, color, motion, all on a grand scale. Watching children transfixed by it all. (The photo below, second from the left, comes nowhere near doing it justice.)

The genuinely cold weather has forced the locals to pull out winter garb, everyone sporting heavy jackets, nice cloth coats, puffy jobs of the North Face variety. Leg warmers have made a sudden comeback, gloves and scarfs have appeared, along with boots or warm shoes. Looking seriously like December, and provoking loads of complaints, the Madrileños not generally being a bunch who pine for real winter weather. Compared to northern Vermont, these are not trying conditions, but I try to keep that sentiment to myself. They don’t need some jerk from the States inflicting a shot of perspective on them.

[Above, from left to right: (1) la Calle de Arenal, looking toward la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol (Madrid's central crossroads); (2) a partial view of Cortylandia (the bugger being large enough that it would not fit it into one image); (3) Gran Vía, looking west toward la Plaza de Callao, where the avenue veers to the north; (4) the main pedestrian way between Sol and Callao, one of several that form a network of carless streets in the city center, a fine place to shop, get some café or people watch.]

I’ve been back in Madrid for slightly more than two weeks now, and have gotten into the habit of carrying my digital camera with me most every time I head outdoors. A major change in m.o., me being one who’s preferred not to appear tourist-like in any way, shape or form. There’s something about this high-tech bugger, though, that’s made the leap a breeze. It slips into a jacket pocket unobtrusively, not showing until I pull it out. Easy to operate, easy to transfer the phots to my laptop. I’ll be walking somewhere, notice something, pull out the camera, stand there for a while. Take a shot or two. Stand there some more, staring, aim it again, shoot some more. Some people take no notice. Others make a point of walking around me rather than through the shot. Others stop and wait. I’ll finish quickly, say, “¡Gracias!”, they’ll resume course, calling out a cheerful, “¡De nada!” I’m not sure it could get more civilized.

In fact, my second or third day back in the city: me around the corner from here, shooting a doorway [entry of Nov. 21, first photo]. Street and sidewalks so narrow that I had to cross the street and crouch up against the wall to get the entire image. I’m squatting there, happily working away. A UPS truck swings around the corner, I hear it slow down. I look up, I realize the driver has stopped to allow me to finish what I’m doing. A UPS truck came to a halt, bringing one or two vehicles behind it to a halt, to let me get a photo. Looking like the last thing he wants to do is screw up the shot. I motion for him to go by, give him a wave of thanks. He waves back, drives on. The other drivers pass, no one appearing bothered at having stopped for the guy with the camera.

Just about made my day, that one moment.

We often get a bad rap, we humans. A lot of the time, though, in a lot of ways, I think we do all right.

Shameless self-promotion:

One of this journal’s entries from several weeks back has been included in the current edition of the Virtual Occoquan. Go read it.

***************

Monday in the barrio, around midday:

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