far too much writing, far too many photos

I don’t know about you, but the new year’s thing doesn’t mean much to me. An arbitrary day someone somewhere chose as the final entry in the current edition of the Gregorian calendar, tonight to be used as an excuse for a whole lot of partying. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (apart from the intense concentration of godawful television packed into this one evening) — I just can’t say I’ve ever felt anything but a slight sense of insert sound of shoulders shrugging here over it all.

An arbitrary point in the ongoing flow of moments, no different, really, from the moments that came before or will come after. (Except that part of the planet have marked that moment as the beginning of another year in the western calendar, and therefore a reason for journalists to draw up one top ten list after another concerning aspects of the previous year. And, here in Spain, a reason for people to choke down 12 grapes — one grape for each of the year’s last 12 seconds — to usher in the new year with luck.)

That, in fact, was one of the ways I knew Christmas had truly passed on by — two mornings ago, during a long walk through the narrow streets of the city center, I stopped in at the humongo grocery store in the basement el Corte Inglés and noted that tables formerly covered with boxes of Christmas sweets now featured a final few sad unclaimed boxes of sweets and many stacks of small brightly-labeled cans (many in three-packs), each containing 12 grapes. I could only smile at the entrepreneurial chutzpa in action. Television ads for canned grapes commenced immediately after midnight on Christmas night and have been unavoidable ever since (assuming one has the TV on — leaving it off is an easy solution).

Many hundreds of thousands of folks will gather in la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol tonight, the very center of Madrid, for the customary cramming together to see in the new year amid screaming, shouting, drinking, eating, all leading up to the countdown/grape-chokedown. Followed by more partying into the wee, wee hours. A tradition’s a tradition, I guess.

Now, though, two or three hours before intense crowds arrive, the city’s looking mighty pretty. Families and couples (local and foreign) out walking, buildings and streets strung with lights, music playing. A kind of scene that feels extremely good to stroll through.

I have a pending invitation to a small dinner next door, but I’m seriously considering staying in, in part to observe a couple of passages of my own that are happening at this time.

However you observe or ignore this transition, I hope it brings something satisfying, whatever that might mean for you.

See you next year.

Madrid, te quiero.

Zen Judaism

If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?

Those who know do not, kibitz.
Those who kibitz do not know.

Drink tea and nourish life. With the first sip, joy.
With the second, satisfaction. With the third, Danish.

Be patient and achieve all things.
Be impatient and achieve all things faster.

In nature, there is no good or bad, better or worse.
The wind may blow or not.
The flowering branch grows long or short.
Do not judge or prefer.
Ask only, “Is it good for the Jews?”

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single oy.

If you wish to know The Way, don’t ask for directions. Argue.

Take only what is given. Own nothing but your robes
and an alms bowl… unless, of course, you have the closet space.

Let your mind be as a floating cloud.
Let your stillness be as the wooded glen.
And sit up straight. You’ll never meet the Buddha with
posture like that.

There is no escaping karma.
In a previous life, you never called, you never wrote,
you never visited. And whose fault was that?

Do not let children play contact sports like football.
These only lead to injuries and instill a violent,
war-like nature. Encourage your child to play
peaceful games, like “sports doctor.”

To practice Zen and the art of Jewish motorcycle
maintenance, do the following: get rid of the
motorcycle. What were you thinking?

Learn of the pine from the pine.
Learn of the bamboo from the bamboo.
Learn of the kugel from the kugel.

Be aware of your body. Be aware of your perceptions.
Keep in mind that not every physical sensation is a
symptom of a terminal illness.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Forget this and attaining Enlightenment will be the
least of your problems.

Do not kvetch. Be a kvetch. Become one with your whining.

The Tao has no expectations.
The Tao demands nothing of others.
The Tao does not speak.
The Tao does not blame.
The Tao does not take sides.
The Tao is not Jewish.

Whenever you feel anger, you should say,
“May I be free of this anger!”
This rarely works, but talking to yourself in public
will encourage others to leave you alone.

Be here now.
Be someplace else later.
Is that so complicated?

Zen is not easy.
It takes effort to attain nothingness.
And then what do you have? Bupkes.

**********

A quiet December sunset, twice removed — Madrid:

Madrid, te quiero.

It could argued that of late I’ve been abusing the [this entry in progress] tags sometimes seen at the end of this page’s entries, notations that generally indicate, er, an entry in progress. It’s a useful, fairly elastic term, ‘in progress,’ an expression that could likely be applied to just about everything in this earthly life, at least up until the usually fatal points of death and disintegration. Could also be that everything remains in progress post d&d, on planes that transcend the three-dimensional. Could be, but let’s not wander off in that direction right now. I’m just not up for that kind of intellectual masturbation rigor at this moment.

It hasn’t been intentional abuse. I’ve simply been overtaken by life in various ways during the last, er… (pauses to count… runs out of fingers, pulls off socks, rapidly runs out of toes… goes to flat across hall, hammers on door to see if further extremities can be rounded up there, but neighbor is either out or lying doggo) …well, a while now. There’s been a lot going on, all kinds of things, much of it positive in that I’m alive in the middle of it all, all my senses functioning, my enjoyment of life generally intact, my little existence packed with adventures and more blessings than I could count (given the limited number of body parts at my disposal).

I’m involved in a lot of heavy thinking about this life of mine, feeling a strong urge to make some serious changes. One or two shifts in direction have already commenced, others may follow — time will tell. Among the subjects on the table is this journal and what I’ve done with it up to now. For all the writing posted here during the last nearly 3-1/2 years, the product is often highly selective — I don’t simply pull a psychological cork and allow blather re: all levels of my existence to come pouring out. On the contrary, some fairly important areas remain completely private. I’m wondering if I want to continue that.

The irony: in earlier years of this life, I was far more prone to sharing just about anything about me and my history that came to mind. In some ways, that was a method of using what I had — me, what I’d experienced — as artistic fodder. In other aspects, it was a manner of simply giving myself away too easily, indicating a belief that I needed to be ready to do whatever was necessary to make an impression. Kind of a sad, desperate conviction that my simple self — sans great torrents of entertaining info and exaggerated behaviors — would be nowhere near sufficient to attract interest.

Man, has that changed.

And that right there, that change — a simple, compact word that, in this case, covers an extensive part of my personal map — is an example of a major part of my story that I’m not currently prepared to dig into here.

Maybe with time. Or maybe not. We’ll see.

There is one story I could get into, I suppose. A fairly juicy story, now that I think about it, concerning an intense six-month relationship I had with a woman, a wild half-year that just about

[this entry in progress]

Here’s what I remember of my Christmases.

I remember waking up in the wee hours in our small house out in the Long Island ‘burbs, unable to sleep from excitement. I’d creep downstairs as silently as I could, step out into the living room, turn on a light and stare at the tree (thickly layered with decorations and tinsel, the closest we ever came to what might be called glitz in our household). My eyes would then take in the mound of gifts beneath the tree, always an amazing show of abundance in a household that normally had little money to spare. I’d slip the plug for the lights into the wall, watch the room burst into quiet extravagance. Then I’d snoop around the gifts until I’d found as many addressed to me as could be located without disturbing the mound. (The pile — put together with care by my parents sometime post-midnight on Christmas Eve — could not be disturbed. Gifts could not be opened before the family opening ritual several hours. These rules were not to be fucked with as the consequences could be painful.) Then I sat in a chair and stared and thought and looked out the window, waiting for daylight, listening for the first sounds of others getting out of bed.

I remember my father putting up the outdoor lights in early to mid-December. Always a man inclined to making detailed plans, neatly drawing out diagrams and measurements, carrying out projects with methodical, painstaking care. (Not always a man given to patience with those who didn’t do things with that methodical, painstaking care.) Some years the tree would be going up in the house at the same time, meaning the living room would be piled with boxes of decorations, the small cresh would appear by the small bookcase by the staircase, wrapped in ancient comics pages that I would read, year after year. Combined with the strong scent of pine tree, with all the visual cues and memories of other holiday seasons, the old comics (far, far too old — Dick Tracy! Gasoline Alley!) felt deeply, satisfyingly evocative of something I don’t think I could have put my finger on if I’d stopped to think about it.

Until the tree was securely vertical, the multiple strings of lights securely in place, I wasn’t allowed near it, which left me drifting around in a strange state of boredom/contentment/excitement. I’d pull on a coat, wander outside to watch my father hang the giant wreath over the living room window or string big old-style lights along the eaves, around the front door.

Walking indoors from the cold, everything smelled fresh, everything looked new and loaded with potential in a way the house never did during the rest of the year.

I remember my grandmother — my father’s mother, the only grandparent who hung about until I was born — making the trip out from Brooklyn for dinner. My parents had me late in their lives, so they were already on in years. My grandmother was REALLY, GENUINELY, SERIOUSLY on in years. Old, wearing bottle-lensed, black-framed eyeglasses, thick unsupple stockings, big slab-heeled black shoes. Sometimes she’d arrive from the train station in a taxi, other times someone would go pick her up. I only remember getting a first glimpse of her as she emerged carefully from whatever vehicle delivered her, wearing a dark, stodgily elegant winter coat, carrying a bakery box tied with string (always, as far as I know, containing a chocolate cake, densely delicious in an old-world way).

I didn’t know her well, she never seemed terribly interested in me. My job was to entertain myself when she was in the house, to stay out of the way, an assignment I had no problem with (after all, there were new toys to abuse and weary of). When the hour for Christmas dinner arrived — all of us squeezed into the house’s small dining room around a table covered with food (my mother, generally not an inspired cook, made up for the rest of the year on Thanksgiving and Christmas, always producing a sensational spread, a genuine knockout) — I’d tuck my butt into a chair, my attention split from that moment on between eating (and eating) and an ongoing study of the old person who, I was told, was a relative. I got to know her speech patterns, some of her smells, her laugh, her thick fingers, the excess meat on her arms, the abundant wrinkles on her face, her waved gray/white hair. Never really learned much more about her until stories were passed on in later years, well after her long, slow fade, by my mother and older brother. A stubborn, often impassively stoic, deeply Catholic child of Irish immigrants who I’m told was a spirited young woman.

Maisie — my grandmother.

[to be continued during a future Christmas season]

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

Last week in cold, damp christmastime London, near Covent Garden:

This afternoon at la Plaza de España in Madrid, temperature in the 50s, an unknown teenager copping some pre-Christmas-Eve z’s:

Madrid, te quiero.

Two Christmas cards found their way to this snailmail address today. That may not be a humongo deal for normal human beings. But for me? A major aberration. With all the skipping across the Atlantic I’ve done these last few years, people from my 3-D life often seem not to know where to find me. (This despite me reminding them that all they have to do is check this page, a reminder I finally stopped giving this last year; they all know I maintain this journal — if where I am matters to them, they’ll keep track.) In addition to which, I’ve taken to disentangling myself from the obligatory yuletide stuff — meaning I buy gifts and send cards only when I genuinely want to. And these last couple of holiday seasons, I’ve made the shift to e-cards, a move I’ve discovered I love. (For those who think the standard e-cards leave something to be desired, there are online haunts that provide some decent alternatives — wading through a Google search is worth it.)

One of today’s two cards came from my only computerless friend, an older guy who simply hasn’t made the leap. If he had, I would have pelted him with an e-card a few days back.

The other card was addressed ‘To Mr. + Mrs. Gustavo ?’ Right street address, down to the apartment number and mail code, at least if they were trying to reach me. Wrong address for the ? family. Wrong building. Wrong street, for all I know.

Yes, of course I opened it — Tina, Colin, Leonie + Amie hope Janet, Gustavo, Alba and Ela are keeping well and they send love.

No last names, no return address. Some in the psychology biz might consider that an indication that the senders didn’t really want the card to arrive. Other, more jaundiced folks might see it as an indication that they just didn’t care enough to make sure the job was done right. Could be either of those, or it could simply be stress, overload, too much stuff going on, too many cards being sent out too quickly.

All I know is I’ve got a Christmas orphan on my hands. Fortunately, there is room at this inn. I’ll hold onto it awhile, quiz a neighbor or two, see what comes of it.

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

Posters seen up the street — overdoing the holiday festivity thing:

Madrid, te quiero.

Yuletide homage to the town in which I was born:

‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (Noo Yawk Style)
(author unknown)

‘Twas the night before Christmas,
Da whole house was mellow,
Not a creature was stirrin’,
I had a gun under my pillow.

When up on da roof
I heard somethin’ pound,
I sprung to da window
To scream, “YO! KEEP IT DOWN!”

When what to my
Wanderin’ eyes should appear
But dat hairy elf Nickie
And eight friggin’ reindeer.

Wit’ a bad hackin’ cough
An’ da stencha burped beer,
I knew in a moment,
Yo, da Kringle wuz here!

Wit’ a slap to dere snouts
An’ a yank on dere manes,
He cursed and he shouted
An’ he called dem by name:

“Yo, Tony! Yo, Frankie!
Yo, Sally! Yo, Vito!
Ay, Joey! Ay, Paulie!
Ay, Pepe! Ay, Guido!”

As I drew out my gun
An’ hid by da bed,
Down came his friggin’ boot
On da top of my head.

His eyes were all bloodshot,
His b.o. was scary,
His breath was like sewage,
He had a mole dat wuz hairy.

He spit in my eye
An’ he twisted my head,
He soon let me know
I should consider myself dead.

Den pointin’ a fat finga
Right under my nose,
He let out some gas
An’ up da chimney he rose.

He sprang to his sleigh,
Obscenities screaming,
An’ away dey all flew,
‘Fore he troo dem a beatin’.

An’ I heard him exclaim,
Or better yet grump,
“Merry Christmas to all,
An’ bite me, ya hump!”

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

Midday today, normal life carrying on down the street from here in la Plaza de Chueca, Madrid:

Madrid, te quiero.

And so we’ve arrived once again at the pre-Christmas home stretch — the days flying by, the local world gearing up for the start of the season’s two-week core sprint: Christmas Eve/Christmas Day. (Both occasions for family gatherings and big dinners, followed by a few days’ rest before two more such occasions: New Year’s Eve and January 6, el Día de los Reyes Magos — the local holiday season finish line.) Me — having little in the way of biological family, not currently part of a couple, located thousands of miles from those I’d consider to be my family of friends — I drift through it all, soaking up the overall atmosphere, watching it all build to the long, sustained payoff.

Something about that in combination with the recent outing to the U.K. has put me in a place of serious reflection — a state that actually seemed to get underway upon stepping off the train in Bristol and has so far shown no sign of petering out. Though like everything in life, that could change at any time.

Trying to wrap words around it makes it sound intellectual — it’s not. Trying to stake it out on virtual paper would be simpler if it were, less likely to produce paragraphs of turgid blathering. I’m not looking to torture potential readers any more than I normally do, so I won’t be going there. I just felt the need to mention a bit of what’s going on in the background as I attempt to focus here.

Anyway. Me in the middle of it all, feeling a bit disoriented. I sit down at the computer and turn it on. Next thing I knew it’s four hours later. My laptop is a time machine. Talk about disorienting.

And then there’s that bit about my body not liking the cold/damp in the U.K., a physical unhappiness that gradually turned into a lingering chest cold I can only describe as impressive in its persistance and unattractiveness. A cold that’s turned me into one of those people you see walking around city streets making horrible, unwholesome noises.

Good thing I love this time of year.

On the upside, it’s sure looking and feeling like December here in Madrid, one of my favorite times of the year — the soft light from the low-hanging sun, hazy afternoons looking like it might only take a nudge from a benign weather forecaster to push them in the direction of snow. Christmas lights glowing in store windows, the narrow local streets transforming from their normal daytime selves to cheery pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares, thanks to the decorations the city’s strung up — benign, super-tinselly, shining warmly. I have no christmassy decorations in my little hovel apart from the Christmas cards that actually find their way here, preferring to use my own wacky mix of Christmas music to set the seasonal tone. Which is to say that stepping out into the neighborhood’s evening streets provides a nice contrast.

And so it was with Bath as darkness fell, Christmas lights coming on, people bustling about. N. and I walked through it, trying to find an Indian restaurant we’d passed earlier in the day. Trying and trying and trying, with no Indian joint in sight. We finally passed a police station, I got an impulse to go in there and ask them.

A woman in uniform came over to the window when we stumbled in, five other police personnel sat around an island of desks and tables behind her, all listening to N. and I as we asked our silly restaurant question. The woman seemed unsure and turned to her colleagues, a debate commenced about which restaurant we might have seen, evolving into a discussion about which Indian restaurants were the best (both as an absolute and for the money), then of those judged the best which we’d be more likely to find. At the end of which we left with a city street map marked up to help us locate the target joint.

A simple question, resulting in a pile of unexpected entertainment. (And the restaurant, by the way: excellent.)

[this entry in progress]

Madrid, te quiero.

I know, I’ve been mostly MIA this last week. My absence can be explained in part by a formula along the lines of: traveling + the Christmas season = less writing. There being only so many hours in the day. Add to that the effect of simple overwhelment from a long wave of input brought on by the travels. Not a bad thing, that, by any means — just a real phenomenon that had my system on full absorption, a process that leads eventually to writing, though sometimes at glacial velocity.

For whatever reasons, my little bod did not care for the cold and damp that predominated during this last haul around Bristol/Bath/London. Didn’t care for it and let me know loudly and clearly, which led to some strange moments of physical unhappiness that just about overrode the rest of the experience. Just about. In virtually all other respects, it felt so good to be where was I was, doing what I was doing, that the physical weirdness just functioned as static in an otherwise kickass scenario — sometimes intruding, but never wiping out the main event.

First stop at Heathrow: customs, where everyone else from the flight headed toward the ‘EU citizens’ windows, leaving me the only furriner, the single lonely figure crossing the other half of an enormous, starkly empty space. Where, it turned out, the gods of smooth arrivals smiled on me: a tall, bored customs agent asked two or three fast questions then waved me through. My little suitcase was the first to appear on the baggage carousel. I grabbed it, skipped happily off toward the tube where a train pulled in and opened its doors just as I stepped onto the platform.

The sun shone through winter haze as I rode in to Paddington Station where I hopped a train west. A tall, slim 30ish black guy sat across from me with his son, the boy looking to be about three — big enough to talk a blue streak, small enough to be physically corralable. And here I saw further evidence of a change I’ve noticed during recent trips to the U.K.: the little guy’s ongoing chatter elicited smiles from other passengers, even when the volume spiked to challenging levels. Amusement, enjoyment in lieu of irritation or displeasure. The English used to have a reputation for coldness and intolerance toward children — if what I’ve seen is anything to go by, they’re developing an appreciation for their progeny that rivals that of the Spaniards. And the Spaniards love kids.

Dusk began shortly after 3 p.m. By the time the train pulled into Bristol, just shy of 4:30, darkness had fallen. Which brings up yet another aspect of existence in Madrid that I appreciate: at this, the darkest time of the year, daylight lasts until 6 p.m. The kind of detail in the flow of daily life that makes my little bod go, “Ahhhhhhh!” in contentment.

A friend, N. (red-haired, freckled, clear eyes reflecting a sharp, active mind), waited at the station in Bristol, we fell into a waiting cab. A short time later I found myself in a comfy, compact living room, the BBC playing on a small stereo. Nonstop conversation, me pausing now and then to grab a clementine from a basket by the stereo and gobble it down. N.’s two grown children stopped briefly by, the first a lovely young woman, her guy in tow, the second a mid-20s male — both interesting, with distinct personalities, him a bit more elusive, seeming a bit skittish toward the furriner suddenly taking up space in his ‘rent’s house. (Understandable, thought I. In his place, at his age — not so long ago on one hand, feeling light years away on the other — I might have felt the same.)

The daughter maintained a bedroom in the house and at some point I discovered that she’d vacated it so I could sleep there for the next three nights. Apparently not that humongo a deal as she supposedly spent most nights at her sweetie’s place anyway, but still. Generous, and I appreciated it. The room: a nice-sized space painted some color like lilac, festooned with images of Eminem. The wall behind the bed featured an array of teeny white Christmas lights, spread out and tacked down, shining softly when I went up to dump my stuff. I discovered soon after that those lights couldn’t be shut off without also cutting power to the bedtable light, which meant either trying to snooze with 30 or 40 teeny nightlights sparkling away or getting up when ready to call it a night, shuffling to the other side of the room to pull the plug from the socket (stumbling over once again to fumble it back in if I needed the bedtable light during the wee hours). Any time I found myself tempted to grumble about the arrangement, I reminded me that the normal occupant had decamped to provide someone she didn’t really know a place to flop. Immediately put it all in perspective.

Comfortable bed, by the way.

The next two mornings started off nice and slowly, me soaking up the sights, smells, sounds of the environs. The two household cats came and went, one immediately throwing herself at me with coquettish abandon, the other initially resenting the intrusion of a stranger (me), not at all convinced I warranted trust, much less attention.

Conversation, tea, a good English breakfast (N. makes an exceptionally fine fry-up). And finally, around middayish, out into the world.

Saturday’s activity: a field trip to Bath, a short train ride away. A beautiful town, done up for the holidays, much of the city center’s narrow streets lined with Christmas Fair booths. The kind of place that attracts plentiful tourists, and I can see why. Like Como in Italy. A spot that would be easy to pass a lot of time in, easy to adopt as home.

[continued in following entry]

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

Seasonal foolishness: The virtual snowglobe, now a yuletide oldie-but-goodie.

Holiday music I’m longing to hear:
‘Have Yourself A Groovy Little Solstice’ by Magic Mose and His Royal Rockers
(from The Dark Side of The Christmas Tree — Performance 393,
distributed by Arf! Arf! Records, now apparently out of print)

Madrid, te quiero.

Boarded a plane on Thursday, touched down in Heathrow 2-1/2 hours later. My existence shifted into ‘charmed life’ mode, everything that could go smoothly doing so without effort — no line at customs (getting waved quickly through), trains (both subway and aboveground) pulling into stations just as I walked through the entrance, people friendly, needed information coming easily. The English countryside slid by outside coach windows, richly, lushly green, even in mid-December. Friends materialized like adrenalized angels, providing food, lodging, company and (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) excellent entertainment.

Late afternoon yesterday: exploring Bristol with a friend as the December p.m. leaned slowly toward evening in the long, gentle dusks they get in this part of the world. In a tree near the graceful suspension bridge that spans the gorge to the city’s west side, a bird sat hidden among foliage singing its heart out, as if springtime had arrived instead of advent, as if new greenery were bursting out all around instead of holiday lights and Christmas trees (one each propped up atop the toll booths at the bridge entrance). It sang on and on, drawing amazed attention from couples walking by, from people walking dogs. The day’s light faded, the air cooled, and still it sang. When we finally headed downhill into nearby local streets, it continued singing, its music slowly fading with distance.

Rode a crowded train to London this morning, the sky gray, the air cold and raw (the soft illumination from lit Christmas displays taking the edge off the weather). Will be here until Wednesday a.m.

Further entries will happen (or not) as time allows.

Later.

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

Strangely eye-catching Sunday a.m. scenery — near Reading, England:

Madrid, te quiero.

It’s the fourth day of a five-day weekend here. That’s right, five whole days.

The Spaniards have a reputation for peppering their calendar year with an excessive amount of holidays. And if you mention that to them, they’ll protest and say, no, no, then count out the holidays to you month by month, absolutely sure that if a halfway reasonable human being pays attention and counts along with them, we will clearly see and understand that there is nothing excessive in the number of holidays they give themselves. And of course the right thing to do is nod and agree with them because they’re lovely folks, and after all, who really cares how many holidays they take?

But as you’re nodding and agreeing, deep down inside you’re likely saying to yourself: goddam, they have a poopload of holidays here. (Pause for nanosecond of fairness: to those of us who come from a culture that doesn’t value the savoring of life in quite the same way they do in Spain, it may simply seem like they have a humongous number of holidays when factoring in the long, relaxed summer vacation that much of the local world takes and enjoys.)

Yesterday was the day of the Spanish Constitution, celebrating, well, the Spanish Constitution, and via that 25 or 26 years of Spanish democracy. Something to celebrate after centuries of turbulent history capped off by nearly four decades of fascist dictatorship. Tomorrow is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and though most of the population is not exactly what you would call devout, they will happily take tomorrow as a holiday, thanks very much. And since today falls between those two days of celebration, it’s a wash. Might as well sleep late, have a nice lunch, go out, take a walk with your sweetie, maybe do some Christmas shopping, maybe go see a movie. Then rest up after all the activity because don’t forget, tomorrow’s a holiday and there will be meals to eat and family or friends to hang around with.

So the long weekend finishes up tomorrow, leaving two days before the next weekend. Two meager, miserable days. Not much point in dragging ass back to work just for Thursday and Friday, is there? Well — pausing for yet another brief moment of fairness — there will be those heading back to the salt mines to keep the wheels of commerce turning. Not everyone, though. There will also be those taking those two lonely days off — creating, in effect, a nine-day weekend. Is this brilliant or what?

And then two weeks later: Navidad! Which means: Christmas, New Year’s, then what used to be called Little Christmas back in the States (el Día de los Reyes Magos here, the day of the Three Kings). Which wraps up the holiday season.

I have no problem with the Spanish holiday thing. It’s healthy, is what I think. And fun.

And beyond that, I love the Christmas season. That’s the simple truth. No, I don’t really observe the holiday, or at least its religious version. But the general spirit of the season feels extremely fine to me, extremely comfortable, embodying sentiments I think an advanced, compassionate culture would want to strive for on a daily basis, throughout the year: the joyous urge to give, the enjoyment of receiving. Wishing the best for your neighbor, with a general vague sense that we’re all in this together, that we all deserve and hope for love, abundance, acceptance and good will from our fellow humans. Letting people who matter to us know that we’re glad they’re here, glad they’re alive, glad they’re part of our life.

I love the lights and decorations. I love the parties, the increased socializing, the dinners, the work-related wingdings, the gathering together in so many different ways that counters all the hours of early darkness. I love the craft fairs and the way stores fancy themselves up. I love the pageants, the concerts, the pantos.

It’s good. And it’s fun to watch the local version of it swell and grow more elaborate as the days reel by. Madrid’s an excellent place to be for the holidays.

As, for that matter, is London — a part of the world I’ll be passing through real damn soon. Thursday morning I hop a plane up to Heathrow, head into Paddington Station and grab a train out to Bristol in the southwest to visit a friend for a couple of days. Sunday a.m., I grab another train, head back to London, where I’ll rendezvous with a friend or two, do touristy things. Then return to Madrid mid-week for the holiday home-stretch.

In the meantime, the long, long pre-Navidad holiday weekend continues here, the streets outside are alive with people out enjoying it.

Think I’ll go enjoy some of it myself.

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

Today, along la Calle de Alcalá, Madrid — soaking up the thin sunlight of a cold December morning:

Madrid, te quiero.

Along Gran Vía (morning, afternoon, evening), Madrid:

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

Seasonal foolishness:

From ‘The Ten Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time
(Written by John Scalzi, posted at Whatever):

The Lost Star Trek Christmas Episode: “A Most Illogical Holiday” (1968)

Mr. Spock, with his pointy ears, is hailed as a messiah on a wintry world where elves toil for a mysterious master, revealed to be Santa just prior to the first commercial break. Santa, enraged, kills Ensign Jones and attacks the Enterprise in his sleigh. As Scotty works to keep the power flowing to the shields, Kirk and Bones infiltrate Santa’s headquarters. With the help of the comely and lonely Mrs. Claus, Kirk is led to the heart of the workshop, where he learns the truth: Santa is himself a pawn to a master computer, whose initial program is based on an ancient book of children’s Christmas tales. Kirk engages the master computer in a battle of wits, demanding the computer explain how it is physically possible for Santa to deliver gifts to all the children in the universe in a single night. The master computer, confronted with this computational anomaly, self-destructs; Santa, freed from mental enslavement, releases the elves and begins a new, democratic society. Back on the ship, Bones and Spock bicker about the meaning of Christmas, an argument which ends when Scotty appears on the bridge with egg nog made with Romulan Ale.

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

Yesterday marked the 11th anniversary of the day that Frank Zappa shuffled off this mortal cabaret. Numerous webpages have made homage in various ways, while the Zappa homepage has marked the occasion with a simple tribute featuring one of Zappa’s more beautiful instrumentals, the title track from Zoot Allures. A fine way to pass a few minutes.

Madrid, te quiero.

Winter began edging its way in here on Thursday. The afternoon, already cool, grew colder as the hours slipped by, the sky turning the kind of gray that sometimes means a coming snowfall. I heard more than one person comment on that, noticed the air had taken on a pre-snow smell and feel I recognized (with a fleeting pang of nostalgia) from winter in New England. Walking home in the early evening I thought I felt the light, ephemeral touch of a few snowflakes on my face — briefly there, melting quickly away. Might simply have been my overactive imagination at work, I don’t know. Snow doesn’t fall often in Madrid in these days of climate change.

People are suddenly dressed in cold-weather gear, a shift that harmonizes nicely with the sudden abundance of Christmas lights, of shop windows reflecting Christmas in subtle or extravagant ways, with the appearance of Christmas cards in stores, a phenomenon of recent years here. In past holiday seasons, they’ve mostly been painfully tacky, gooily sentimental. This year cards from Unicef and the Red Cross have landed in some shops, introducing higher level, more appealing designs. I’ll be curious to see if this trend continues.

Store window, Madrid

I’ve been back in language classes these last couple of weeks, a kind of kick in the (adorable) butt I’ve needed. At a language school I’ve never tried before, just a few blocks from here. Run by a handful of smart, young, interesting Spanish women (all of whom, for some reason, have seriously beautiful eyes — distracting at some moments, but a distraction of the best kind). Between the cumulative input from class time and home-study time, combined with daily exposure to newspaper/radio/TV, I suddenly find myself thinking in a mix of English and Spanish. It’s a sensation I like, a different way of processing what happens during the day.

Meanwhile, since my return to this part of the world (a month ago now), my mobile phone has gone belly up. Or rather some days it seems to, unable to hold a charge, unable to connect with the local network. Other days, for reasons unknown, it gets happy, plugs nicely into the grid, behaves like a youngster again. It’s a phone given to me by a guy from Texas I met in intensive Spanish classes in the spring of 2001, the day before he returned to the States — a good guy, the kind of person that sometimes made the constant flow of folks through those classes (there one week, gone the next) a sad fact. A phone that’s extremely low-tech by current standards, one that’s put in long, honorable service. Not that I demand much of a mobile phone. I often forget about it when I’m at home, leaving it off (willfully, in part, as I’d rather folks try the landline blower first). Which means I tend to forget about it when I leave the house, sending me out phoneless. (Something the more curmudgeonly part of me has no problem with, not wanting me to be quite as available as the world of 2004 sometimes expects us to be.) Some days, now, it acts tired, cranky. Not up to holding a charge. Today it seems glad to be alive.

Glad to be alive. I can relate. This day started off cold, gray, spitting drizzle. About an hour ago, the overcast thinned, sunlight began spilling through the flat’s windows, sending me out to pick up groceries before the shops shut down for the weekend at 2 p.m. The local streets are nicely active, the commercial concerns humming with people looking to beat the closing hour. Something about ducking into neighborhood stores, returning to the flat with everything I need without having to drive anywhere or make a Metro trip further into the city center, pleases me with such depth and simplicity that I’d be hard pressed to explain why. It’s simply good to be alive, taking care of the a-b-c’s of daily existence, in a part of the world that feels like home.

But you don’t want to hear about that. You’re probably more interested in consumer alerts of the cutting-edge-fashion variety. For instance, if you’ve been putting off buying that special pair of gold platform boots until the right moment, you may want to pack a credit card and book a fast flight to Spain. They’re on sale here in the barrio, and there’s no guarantee how long inventory will hold up.

Once you’ve found a pair your size and have battled your way through the lines at the register, you can stop in at one of the abundant neighborhood cafés/cafeterías/restaurantes and have a good meal or a fine cup of espresso while you watch the Davis Cup finals between Spain and the States, an event that is being broadcast everywhere, receiving rapt attention from the locals (and, incidentally, producing some good-looking tennis).

One last thing: overnight email here brought inquiries about yesterday evening’s bombings in Madrid, five small bombs made and placed by ETA, the Basque separatist/terrorist group, in gas stations along highways out of the city, all set to go off at 6:30, during the height of rush-hour traffic (traffic augmented by people leaving the city for the long weekend). All is well — the devices were ineffectual, causing little damage of any kind. Symbolic of the current state of ETA in the wake of cooperation between the Spanish and French governments that’s resulted in drastic dismantling of ETA’s structure and network. More of a piddling temper tantrum, really. Not worth giving them the attention they crave.

On to the weekend.

Madrid, te quiero.

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