far too much writing, far too many photos

This morning: me, sitting in a neighborhood joint drinking café con leche, reading the paper. One of several local spots I go to for the morning infusion of caffeine (no, not all on the same morning). This one, because of where it is — in the plaza right down the street, behind the entrance to the Metro — gets an especially colorful mix of humans wandering in, pretty much the entire spectrum of local types, from crusty old folks to young hipsters (straight and gay), plus the occasional appearance of confused tourists. A big television often plays, or a radio, pumping in music and blather. Lights and sounds come from two or three high-tech slit machines lined up together against a far wall. And human voices — calling out orders, conversing, laughing — most of them loud. In general, I hardly notice it, in part because I’m usually there before reaching full consciousness and a lot of the input just doesn’t register the way it might when the system is functioning at what some might call a higher level. And in part because it’s a kind of racket I’m used to and enjoy. Somewhere along the line I developed a preference for waking up this way, with people around, with activity, voices, all that. Not that I’m looking to interact much — I just want to come to, with minimal pressure to perform.

And frankly, some mornings it’s a miracle I can walk, dress myself and mumble a few words in English, much less Spanish. There are those times when I find myself barely able to produce sounds, much less enunciate, which can cause serious problems when the people behind the counter can’t understand my a.m. version of what is supposed to Castellano. Or if I haven’t paid full attention to the coins I hand over, get back change that seems wrong and have to talk with the counterperson to figure out what exactly happened.

Nothing like that happened this morning. I showed up shortly before noon, claimed a teeny table, got a lovely glass of espresso and slowly poured it into my system, paging through the paper. When I finally left, the world out in the plaza — often not what I’d call a tranquil environment — seemed peaceful compared with the wall of noise I’d just left behind. Which got me thinking about how I’ve adapted to living with all that, with the hubbub of this city of six million loud souls. Going back to Vermont is a major shock when it comes to the noise level — not bad, just a huge contrast. One I seem to compensate for at times with the noise level in my head. Though the din up there doesn’t always wait for a return to quieter climes before cranking itself up.

Take this morning, for example. At some point after dragging myself out of bed and into the shower, a Talking Heads (Girlfriend Is Better) song found its way into my teeny brain, taking root securely enough that not even the hideous technopop blasting from the sound system in the gym could dislodge it. I can’t explain the why or how for this particular tune — can’t remember the last time I heard it, wasn’t thinking about anything related to it or the band or David Byrne. It’s just one big mystery.

Not that I’m complaining. As mental jukebox tunes go, I can live with this one. Better some ancient new wave cut than, well, most of what gym management had cranking today. None of which was memorable or distinctive enough to be able to take hold and follow me out the door.

But I blabber.

On to the afternoon.

España, te quiero.

This morning, along the course of the 30th Madrid Marathon:

España, te quiero.

These last three days have seemed dreamlike. Spring has settled in and I find myself drifting through local streets, the air feeling so soft that at moments I experience the sensation of floating, feet barely touching the sidewalk. The swifts have arrived in force with the turning of the weather, and their calls are in the background almost continuously from sun-up to sundown. A friend said yesterday evening that this is the season when Madrid becomes Madrid again, life opening out and returning to the street after the turning inward of the winter months. Not that life here ever fully turns inward, except on mornings after a hard night of partying in the barrio. And that’s just a brief pause, a few hours’ collapse to catch up on sleep. But I know what she meant.

Buskers and musicians are about, tables and chairs host chatting customers outside cafes and restaurants, streetside trees get ever greener. It’s lovely.

Last night the leader of the political opposition here spent two hours fielding questions from citizens on TV, apparently achieving his objective of coming across more sympathetically than he has during the three years since the bombings, though without actually answering any questions. I avoided it, choosing to enjoy the evening instead. Got a few restless hours of shuteye and now find myself at the end of another week, wondering how the days manage to evaporate the way they do.

On to the morning.

España, te quiero.

Mid-April. Springtime at last, after a long, strangely gray, cool period here. Sun coming up earlier, air softening. Chilly mornings, warm afternoons. Cold weather clothing melting away, t-shirts appearing. Sky remaining light until after 9 p.m., streets busy with a mix of locals and tourists.

Yesterday’s recurrent theme: dance music. Began in the morning when the radio greeted me with a cut by New Order, one of the groups that softened my feelings toward dance music after the scourge of disco during my tender years. (Apologies to disco aficionados — once in a while in a club, in full dance mode, I can take it. Apart from that, not a fan.) Bits of dance tunes surfaced during the day, over and over. PARTY HEARTY HEARTY! EVERYBODY DANCE NOW!

Shortly after 7 p.m., skipped out of the Metro at Callao, deep in the city center, gradually became aware of a kinder, gentler sound mixed in with rush hour racket. Down a pedestrian boulevard, outside FNAC, a string quartet worked its way through Bach’s Air on the G String, four 30- and 40- something males producing some pretty sweet music, and as happened not long ago in the Washington D.C. Metro, not many people stopped to listen. Of the three or four standing there, the 50-something husband of a tourist couple was more concerned with snapping pix, stepping directly in front of me over and over, no matter where I moved to, until I had to place myself right next to him with my leg out so that the only way he could do it again without tripping would be to consciously, openly, carefully step over my leg in a blatant show of assholicism. (He did not go that route.)

Attended my continuing language classes, where it was just me and the instructor, Eva, the other students away or studying for next month’s DELE exam. A fast 90 minutes of chat and DVD watching (the very first installment of Cuéntame cómo pasó.

Afterward, descended into the Metro for the ride home, stepped into a car to find myself facing an accordion player, busking for change. In the middle of the tune frequently flogged by the brethren of the accordion: Those Were The Days. He finished up with a cheesy flourish just before the doors opened at the next stop, wafted off to the next car. Upstairs at my station, two drunks staggered around near the top of the escalators, the booth person on the horn calling for police, the lone security guard barking into his radio, calling for same. Outside in the mild air, darkness falling, people sat at tables or stood about, drinking, eating, chatting.

Mid-April. Springtime at last.

España, te quiero.

What I wrote earlier about enjoying the city in its more tranquil state? When a lot of the local world flees for long weekends and life in the center settles into something much quieter? After several days like that, with most businesses closed — most stores, most local food and coffee slingers, most newspaper stands closed (and no newspapers publishing on the day before Easter) — I was so ready for a return to regular life. And when people flooded back in the city during the course of Sunday afternoon/evening and local streets suddenly swelled with folks out walking, looking for places to sit, eat, drink a beer, talk, it came as a relief — even though it meant a return to the normal late night/early morning noise level in this barrio given to partying.

A lot of news time got devoted to the number of traffic deaths during this year’s Easter season, a number high enough that the word fracaso (failure) was applied to measures taken by governmental agencies aiming for lower mortality rates — within the last year or two, a points system has been inaugurated, an attempt to address the Spanish tendency to drive like raving maniacs. That, combined with an advertising campaign specifically aimed at raising consciousness for the many millions doing long-distance driving during the country’s week and a half long holiday period, had some hoping for changes in the national attitude while on the highway. Ah well.

And after several weeks of lovely early spring conditions, the weather turned ugly for Easter week — gray, chilly, abundant rain causing flooding in many parts of a country used to much more user-friendly weather at this time of the year — and has remained strangely unseasonal, rain falling around the peninsula day after day. Feels like being back in Vermont, where this kind of thing can be routine.

One of the nicest parts of the long Easter weekend: the workers usually out working on the front of this building, creating lots of noise from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., vanished for six lovely days. Got me remembering what life was like nineteen or so months ago, before scaffolding got tossed into place and work crews began systematically tearing everything apart. Two mornings ago — Tuesday, 7:55 a.m. — they reappeared, talking at the top of their lungs as they trudged up the many flights of this elevator-free structure to the top floor, leaving cigarette butts and bits of junk food wrappers in their wake. At some point in the future they will run out of excuses to hang around, the scaffolding will disappear, quiet will return. Or if not quiet exactly, the normal soundtrack of life in the barrier will reassert itself. Every time I think of that, a happy smile appears on my silly face.

Two mornings ago, the swifts returned. I heard them suddenly as I sat here in front of my laptop, their high, keening cries swelling and fading with their flight. Like swallows on the other side of the Atlantic, they’re one more sign of the warm season’s advance, along with trees greening up, temperatures slowly warming, and tourists flooding the city center. They’re a major element of the warm weather soundtrack for me here, their presence bringing pleasure and comfort, and when they’re gone for the winter months, I adjust, forgetting that there’s a gap in the sounds of the barrio. And then they reappear, and it is no exaggeration to say that something in my heart swells on hearing them.

Easter come and gone, warm weather critters returning. Cooler days giving way to warmer ones. It’s good.

España, te quiero.

As the Thursday and Friday before Easter always are here, the streets of this barrio and of the city center in general have been quiet these last two mornings, so very quiet. The kind of quiet that most places in the States experience on Christmas morning. A few people were about yesterday when I stepped outside around ten, walking, chatting quietly, now and then someone passing pulling a wheeled suitcase. This morning the streets were literally dead, a handful of people scattered around the neighborhood. No markets open, most newsstands and coffee pushers closed. Light rain fell from low, gray skies, freakish weather for this time of year — an anomaly that’s taken hold of much of the country during the last week and a half, producing flooding in many places to the north.

One local morning joint, usually jammed with customers tossing down caffeine (and the occasional glass of hooch), was sparsely attended, the characters behind the bar able to work without their normal edge of frenzy. So sparsely attended this morning that it left me feeling unsatisfied, wanting another shot of espresso but somewhere with a little more life. A walk of a few blocks brought me to a main drag and another joint, this one a bit more down and dirty. Crowded with people, most of whom streamed out soon after I ordered my hit of caffeine, leaving a free table for me to spread out newspaper, food, espresso, the sound level quieting enough that I could hear the in-house radio, a tune by Queen in progress.

The local world livened up some yesterday with the passing hours, me taking long walks through the center (American tourists are suddenly everywhere, something else that always happens during Easter week). Stopped in at an exhibit of contemporary British art, me the only visitor during most of my time there, the artwork leaving me mostly indifferent with one notable exception: a slideshow playing in one small room, photos taken of a 20-something woman in an immense apartment complex under a mostly cloudy English sky — not fancy flats at all, but everything in good repair, the buildings mostly identical, no one about except the one woman and rows of parked cars. The photos not arty at all, just bread and butter images, one after another. Found myself loving it, and stayed there for a while. Just me and the changing shots in an otherwise empty room, in an otherwise empty hall.

Quiet, though less quiet with the hours. A few restaurants opened, a few stores along the largest of the main drags. And movie theaters opened, prompting me to take in a matinee — The Good Shepherd, newly arrived in this part of the world. (I couldn’t agree less, btw, with reviews that called it slow-moving or tedious, found it top-notch in every respect. But depressing.) In the theater, as out in the street, a substantially higher than normal percentage of American English could be heard before the lights went down. When the lights came up at the end, I was relieved to find myself out in open air, with life going on all around. Normal life, with normal people, not quietly murderous spooks, or families slowly imploding.

España, te quiero.

[continued from previous entry]

Easter season began here on Friday with a large chunk of the population jumping into their cars during the afternoon and jamming the highways the lead away from the capital. From that point, things began quieting down, the collective blood pressure drifted toward lower numbers. I like it — like the month of August without the heat. Much more tranquil.

Television news broadcasts showed clips of highway traffic (fleeing in the opposite direction, referring to it as operación salida — operation exit) and the occasional photo of wreckage from an especially spectacular car crash. And, yes, the tally of dead to this point. I’d say the Spanish have a morbid obsession with death — and they may — but this kind of holiday weekend coverage happens in the States as well so it’s not for me to say anything.

Local coffee pushers are only half as crowded during the morning rush hours, the barman at one complained this morning about diminished business and resulting boredom. I bought a second cup of café con leche to compensate, he seemed to appreciate that.

This being Easter week — Semana Santa — every single day is holy. A television presenter this morning referred to today as Martes Santo, Holy Tuesday — leaving me blinking in surprise until I remembered it’s a this-whole-week thing — and coverage of religious processions are easy to find around the various channels. The processions have begun here in Madrid, and though they don’t have the weight or grandeur of the processions mounted in southern cities, they’re worth seeking out. And I may — it’ll be hard to avoid them on Thursday and Friday evenings, might as well go appreciate them. They’re like nothing one is likely to come across outside of New Orleans.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Magic shop, Madrid sidestreet

España, te quiero.

From recent days:

Out walking one morning mid-week, realizing that the young trees planted along narrow local streets had begun sprouting leaves, the bare look of winter months suddenly softening, the color green suddenly everywhere again.

Stopping in at the local estanco — tobacco shops, a long-standing institution where one can buy stamps, post cards and trinkets as well as cigarettes, etc. — to get stamps. The friendly 30-ish guy behind the counter began singing along with a Randy Newman song playing on the radio as he dug my stamp out from an accordion folder in a drawer. In awkwardly accented English, he came out with, “You can leave your hat on….,” one of the least likely lyrical extracts I expected to hear in a neighborhood shop that morning.

Last Tuesday night, Television Español broadcast the first edition of Spain’s version of a French program, featuring candidates for high office taking questions from members of the public, responding with answers as unscripted as you’ll get from candidates for high office. Title: Tengo una pregunta para usted (I Have A Question For You). For two hours, the current president (José Luís Rodriguez Zapatero) took questions from 100 people — selected objectively, it’s claimed, by a firm outside the government and TVE — on topics that ranged all over the map. Out of all the exchanges, some of them fairly intense, the media fastened on the one in which a person asked Zapatero if he knew the current price of a cup of coffee. 80 céntimos, he answered. This was headline news, and for the next two days pages and pages of newspaper space and many hours of radio and television were devoted to squeezing as much out of that one silly Q&A as possible. There was a serious concern behind the question, of course: the drastic increase in prices and general cost of living provoked by the conversion to the euro, and wondering how in touch the president was with an aspect of life that affects everyone of normal income levels. That didn’t get a whole lot of press, and I was thankful to see one female journalist speak disparagingly about the entire chapter, referring to the question as “una bobada,” as nonsense. The day after the broadcast, with the press foaming at the mouth about the coffee question, Zapatero invited reporters to have a cuppa with him at a government cafeteria. The price, headlines blared, was 70 céntimos. Zapatero essentially shrugged, maintaining a show of good humor through it all.

(70 céntimos? 80 céntimos? One joint in this barrio charges a euro — prices in all the rest range from a euro and 5 céntimos to one euro 20.)

Sometime this month, the leader of the right-wing opposition party will be on the show (all of this part of the lead-up to elections coming in May). I suspect I’ll do myself a favor and skip that one.

A night or two after that, Madrid experienced a night of theatrical happenings, events taking place in theaters and public places all around the center, some going through the night, well into the wee hours. Down the street from here, part of the plaza got cordoned off during the day, a couple of techies set up sound equipment. By evening, something sounding like a cross between crickets and an electronic keening could be heard in the space, a crowd gathering around the cordoned area. I missed the event. By the time I passed, around 11 p.m., the plaza had reverted to its usual nighttime party mode, techies packing up equipment as the crowd swirled around them.

[continued in next entry]

España, te quiero.

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