far too much writing, far too many photos

This morning: me planted in a window seat at a café. Gazing at the world outside where tiny, barely visible snowflakes fell from a blue, cloudless sky, drifting down from sunlight into the shadows of the narrow street, disappearing before reaching pavement and sidewalks. Across the street, two flights up, a sad, skeletal-looking Christmas tree had been left out on a small balcón, all ornaments gone, branches half free of needles. A newspaper lay open on the counter in front of me, a thin wisp of vapor rose from a pretty good cup of espresso.

An hour and a half earlier, I’d made the cold hike to the nearest centro comercial hoping to get purchases out of the way before the Saturday morning crowds poured into the place. A reasonable hope, given how quiet the streets were. Didn’t matter. Several people already stood in line at the butcher’s stall I go to. I’m happy the owner does good business — he’s a personable guy, peddles excellent meats and cheeses. But waits of 15 to 25 minutes have become normal, and it’s gotten old.

I’d taken my number, I went and made other purchases before returning to finish the wait for my turn. Finished up, dragged purchases home, retired to café.

Window seat, snowflakes, sad ex-Christmas tree, etc.

Strange things in the newspaper: a political assassination in a turbulent part of the world, a Spanish bishop makes bizarrely stupid comments about gays, mountains of garbage accumulate in the Madrid Metro because of a cleaning crew strike. Year-end top ten lists are out (El País likes Alison Krauss/Robert Plant, Wilco, the White Stripes). I page past disturbing stories, linger over arts and sports pages.

And I ponder my little life a bit. It’s the end of the year, which doesn’t mean a whole lot to me in a certain way — that end-of-a-cycle thing fabricated by some pencil-pushers way back when feels so arbitrary to me that I have a hard time drumming up much interest. Just seems like another day to me. But with everyone gearing up to use it as an excuse to party, make resolutions and read all those top ten lists, I do find myself reflecting on what’s been happening in my existence. It’s a good thing, that kind of process, but going on about it could get deadly boring. So I’ll spare you. For now.

España, te quiero.

Yesterday: Christmas Eve morning, the neighborhood so quiet, so few people about, that it might almost have been Christmas morning. Dragged myself out of bed at a horribly decent hour. Pulled on exercise-’n'-get-sweaty clothes — knowing the city would be slowly shutting down during the course of the day, knowing the gym would go dark far earlier than normal — dragged my sorry hind quarters out the door, attempting to be good, grown-up, responsible. Made the cold hike to said gym. Found it closed. Spewed colorful language. Trudged home.

Changed clothes, made the trip to the local centro comercial for groceries. I do my damndest to avoid shopping on the eve of days like Thanksgiving and Christmas, this time had little choice. Needed groceries, shops not already closed would begin locking their doors around midday.

The market: a bona fide madhouse. Short middle-aged and elderly women went about the deadly serious business of gathering provisions, expressions steely, not exuding a whole lot of holiday cheer, except with their designated shopping companions. Found myself being pushed aside by teeny, ancient females, poked with deadly sharp elbows, occasionally being cut in on. Navigated it as well as I could, eventually stumbled back out into cold pre-Christmas air with a few bags of edible goodies.

A fast pit stop at home, tossing groceries into the kitchen. Then back out into streets now busier with traffic and people. Pointed myself in the direction of a café, made the hike. Met up with someone I currently have a serious crush on (a fine way to recover from shopping traumas), sipped at decent espresso, tried to converse like a semi-intelligent human being.

A nice time. So nice we decided to extend it, running off to a matinee of a genuinely creepy spanish film. Afterward, she headed off to Christmas Eve family stuff, I walked along Gran Vía, the city quieting down as darkness fell, Christmas lights coming on, tourists far outnumbering spanish-speakers around me, the crowds sparse and relaxed compared to the usual rush-hour scene. At least until la Plaza de Callao, where stores remained open and people flowed in and out, carrying bags of last-minute purchases, many wearing joke wigs, santa hats, soft, puffy reindeer horns.

In other years, I watched the center shut slowly down on Christmas Eve, then return to life as I entered this barrio. This year seemed like I’d stepped into Bizarro Madrid. Callao and Sol were jumping, full of life. That all faded the deeper I got into this area. Chueca was quiet, most places dark, and the few shops left open were clearly preparing to call it a night. An hour or two after arriving home, the streets had grown silent, the quiet only broken now and then by the sound of passing voices or a stray firecracker.

Christmas Eve, Madrid.

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Gran Vía, Madrid — the night of the 24th

España, te quiero.

This evening, la Plaza Mayor, Madrid:

España, te quiero.

Christmas weekend got underway yesterday, local streets alive with people and activity. In this barrio nighttime revelers stayed out celebrating until, er, this morning. Throughout the early hours, voices drifted up from the street — talking, singing, shouting, laughing. A city cleaning crew passed through around 7 a.m., sweeping up, hosing everything down. They moved on, the revelry continued until silence gradually descended around 8, daylight finally driving everyone home.

Around 9:30, I headed out — chilly air, gray skies, damp sidewalks. Wandered to the local plaza, picked up a newspaper, stopped into a cafeteria, the place nearly empty given how early it was for a Saturday morning in this part of the world. The few bleary individuals there stood at the counter, eyes fixed on the TV where the national Christmas lottery unfolded.

It’s a huge deal, la Lotería de Navidad, an elaborate ritual virtually impossible to avoid come the morning of the event. (The hook line on television: la suerte, en directo — luck, live.) On a stage in an auditorium, two children dressed in, essentially, Catholic school outfits take wooden balls that find their way out of enormous golden spheres — chanting the figures emblazoned on the balls along with the value of the prize. The balls are dropped onto a rod in an abacus-like device, decisive balls are shown to a panel of officials, an audience in the auditorium reacts at big moments. An elaborate ritual that goes on for hours, the chanting nearly continuous, one pair of children giving way to another, the value of the prizes slowly climbing.

I watched, working on a croissant and caffeine. Two 30ish males stumbled in from the plaza, looking like they’d been up all night. They asked if the big prize (el gordo) had been picked yet, one of the counterpeople said no, it would be a while. The two males nodded, transferring their gaze to the TV for a moment before shambling back out to the gray morning.

A short time later I did the same, walking past a line of trucks to one side of the plaza. Children’s voices played on radios in virtually every vehicle, the chanting following me past delivery people unloading crates of produce and out into the street.

Saturday morning, December 22, 2007. Madrid.

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Existentialism — it’s everywhere:

Yow! I think I just understood ‘Beetle Bailey‘! It’s all about pain, loneliness and despair!!” — Zippy the Pinhead, 12/14/07

España, te quiero.

I am so glad it’s this week and not last week. Because last week kind of had its way with me. And it was not pretty.

I’d expected to head north on Wednesday , touching down in London, spending a week on that big island inflicting myself on various friends. That was the plan. The deities who run this lunatic asylum we call life had other ideas. Couple of days before departing, my body began sending me the signals it sends when it’s thinking about coming down with something. Lightheadedness, the feeling of a system slightly out of balance, tilting toward something not so pleasant. My response: take extra good care of myself. Ate well, gulped down vitamin C, took naps, tried not to stay up as absurdly late as I tend to do here. And whatever was coming on held off, hovering about instead of taking control and making me miserable. Until Tuesday night, when it suddenly blossomed. Nose began running with joyous abandon, energy plunged wildly, that kind of thing.

Spent the night mostly awake, mostly feeling real bad, blowing my reddening nose every few minutes (producing sounds like low-flying aircraft) and dreading the thought of traveling to a cold, damp somewhere, dragging luggage everywhere I went. And when I finally found myself in the bathroom around 7 a.m., trying to pull myself together for the trip out to the airport, I stared into the reddened eyes of the ragged-looking individual who gazed at me from the mirror and knew I could not put myself through a major trip right then.

I might not have allowed that kind of turnaround if it hadn’t been for one of the friends I’d been planning on visiting in Blighty — someone going through a difficult passage and feeling shaky, fragile. I’d received an email from her the night before bailing on our visit, offering apologies but resolute in the need to take care of herself. A good example, one I apparently needed to see -– I suspect if I hadn’t I would have gone ahead with the flight and spent a miserable few days, unwell and lousy company. So I cancelled — let friends know I wouldn’t be showing up and dragged my adorable bum back to bed where I mostly remained for the next two days, sleeping off whatever had taken hold of my bod.

There really is nothing like recovering the ability to do something basic. Get up, walk around, go out enjoy the day. Eat, breathe, follow the simplest impulses without thinking about it. So nice, all that. And so nice that we mostly have the luxury of taking it all for granted. Nothing like a bit of deprivation to make that clear.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle of all that some knucklehead left a comment on this journal’s last entry, reacting to my slightly less than blissful tone re: having a Paul Revere and the Raiders tune lodged in my head. I answered, low-key and barely coherent, but didn’t really absorb the comment until after I’d returned the land of the living and read it again. And again. And found myself laughing happily at the wonderful goofiness of a statement like “…Paul Revere beat Pearl Jam all hollow.” I’m sorry to say the writer didn’t leave a name or webpage, but I sincerely hope that will not be the only time they grace this page with their thoughts.

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Yuletide hooha outside El Corté Inglés, Madrid:

España, te quiero.

Somehow during the course of this morning — for the life of me I cannot explain why — an ancient tune by Paul Revere and the Raiders found its way into my teeny brain, and it will not go away. (The good part: it’s not a bad tune. The bad part: it’s by Paul Revere and the Raiders. And it doesn’t want to go away.)

Adding insult to injury (extremely minor injury, I admit, but still), the long weekend continues here, and though it’s Saturday morning most stores are closed. Clothing shops along local chic main drags are open, but useful places — banks, food markets, hardware stores — are dark. (The good part: streets full of life, people streaming in and out of the places that are open for business. The bad part: open places are mobbed, making getting in, getting out and everything in between a real process.)

Enough places are open, however, to satisfy basic needs: caffeine, something to eat, newspaper, good people-watching.

Was out early (early for here: 9:30) for a fast cuppa and a nosh, intending to go to the gym after (silly me — gym not open). The only available morning joint: a clean, bright, comfy spot, recently open for business, this morning with two sweet young women behind the counter trying to deal with a shiny, high-end, but cranky espresso machine that produced slow droplets instead of a healthy, happy stream of miracle juice. More customers appeared, orders piled up, the two sweeties continued trying to convince truculent machine to cooperate, growing desperate as customers continued streaming in. One finally made a phone call for help, talking via cellphone as she wrestled with the espresso monster; the other dealt with customers, doing what she could to pacify. They finally got one spigot working, began producing one cup at a time. I’d arrived before the crowd, was working on a warm cup of joe that some folks gazed at with expressions of ill-humored envy (me reading paper, pretending to to be oblivious).

When I’d paid up and re-emerged into cold morning air, the two women were still valiantly dealing with less-than-ideal circumstances.

A long, lazy day stretches ahead. Madrid is heaving with people, folks from around the country (and from out of country) have poured in to enjoy a long weekend of Christmas lights, Christmas shopping. Traffic is a mess, sidewalks are crowded, stores seem to be enjoying a happy start to the yuletide season. (The good part: cold air, bright lights, festive shop windows, excellent people-watching. The bad part: hordes of slow-moving humans clogging sidewalks. The good part: lots to see, lots to listen to. The bad part: the hours that Christmas lights are illuminated has been cut back from power conservation concerns. The good part: public transport is everywhere, movie theaters are open, city nightlife is jumping.)

Saw ‘Michael Clayton’ yesterday evening (the first straight-up Hollywood film in a long time that took hold of me and kept me absorbed from beginning to end; not perfect, but good, with Clooney’s superb, low-key performance giving it more heft than it might otherwise have had). Stopped in at a beer-joint in the barrio later on — packed with people, techno blasting, the air thick with talk and Friday evening energy. Two cañas, a complimentary plate of good nosh, then back out into the cold. Fun.

And now: afternoon. Me at home, voices from the street rising into cold air, gray skies occasionally glowing with thin sunlight. Warm food awaits.

Later.

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Christmas lights along Preciados, Madrid

España, te quiero.

It’s a holiday in Spain, el Día de la Constitución, the barrio has been waking up slowly.

Above, high, thin clouds render the sky milky blue. Sunlight falls between buildings into narrow streets, areas of shadow cut by slanting shafts of light. As morning gives way to early afternoon, the light takes on the quality of golden mist, delicately thick in the manner of the air around a waterfall.

I walk to the nearby plaza, buy the paper, set course toward one of the few local coffee joints that will be open on a día festivo. I approach an intersection of two slender streets, a 40ish male cuts across in front of me. Wool hat, pipe in one hand, other hand thrust into a jacket pocket. Talking to himself loudly, in the middle of a wry monologue about something I couldn’t catch. Not angry, but not exactly placid either. Walking quickly, disappearing down a sidestreet, voice briefly lingering in the air then fading.

I arrive at the cafetería, find a spot at the counter. One of the workers gives me a thumbs up, points inquiringly at the espresso maker, I nod. Food, caffeine, something to read, conversation all around. When I’ve finished up and stepped back out into the street, the angle of the sunlight has changed, more people are about.

A Thursday in December, local life slowly getting underway.

On to the day.

España, te quiero.

[continued from previous post]

What Chávez achieved in the short term was something something not seen here in recent years outside of the national reaction to terrorist attacks: the unification of everyone, all the way across the political spectrum. The exchange at the summit was all over every news outlet, and the universal reaction was immediate: amazed laughter, and a general nodding of heads at the way Chávez confirmed the overall perception of him as an idiot on the scale of George Bush. My friend who had giggled about Juan Carlos’ intervention, a person very much to the left side of the political spectrum, referred to Chávez as un loco de baba — a drooling idiot — a portrait completely in tune with the general outlook.

I mentioned the effect Chávez had on the Spanish public on an email list I sometimes take part in, along with the fact that he was basically seen as being of the same basic stripe as W., one woman reacted with rabid anger. She knew little about Chávez or Venezuela apart from the broadest, most superficial parts of the Chavista description of him, but couldn’t keep her knee from jerking, rushing aggressively to his defense. And she is not alone in that. On another email list, a Spanish language forum, a young woman who admitted she knew little about the actual situation in Venezuela, went expound on him in glowing terms, posting links to articles in Rebelión that pushed the Chavista take on everything. I get the feeling, though, that the ranks of the unquestioning may be thinning a bit, that many see him less as a champion of human rights and of a broad socialist agenda and more as a simple power-hungry thug. On the eve of the referendum re: Chavez’s proposed changes to the Venezuelan constitution — what he called the ‘constitutional reform’, essentially giving him absolute power and an unlimited ability to get re-elected — that took place in Venezuela two days ago, El País published an opinion piece by a Venezuelan writer — the title: ‘He’s Not of the Left — He’s a Fascist.’ I cringed when I saw that — it’s a word used far too easily, ‘fascist,’ with the smearing power of the labels ‘racist’ and ‘pedophile.’ But could also be seen as the coming home to roost of certain nasty chickens in the wake of Chávez’s own willingness to toss the word around carelessly.

Chávez seized on the interchange with Zapatero, and in particular on Juan Carlos’ exasperated interjection, and attempted to use it in the days before the referendum to galvanize support. He’s smart enough to know a hot-button topic — the Spanish colonialism of centuries past, embodied in what was portrayed as a king’s arrogant command to a freedom fighter — when one presents itself, and canny enough to hope it might be distraction enough from more substantial issues, like the Venezuelan economy. The Venezuelan opposition had a massive rally in Caracas three or four days before the referendum, Chávez responded with a series of large rallies leading up to the day of the vote. And when it came down to it, none of it was enough — the proposed changes to the constitution went down by a narrow margin, in part apparently due to a sizeable abstention of Chavista voters.

Within the last 24 hours, Chávez has responded to that defeat with these comments (translation mine):

“Did Hugo Chávez choose the wrong moment [to attempt the constitional reform]? Could be. Could be that we’re not yet mature enough or ready to assume the socialist project. Before going around looking for those to blame…. No, I made a strategic error in the choice of the moment to make the proposal. That could be. It could be that those 3.4 million [of supposed Chavistas that should have voted but abstained] still aren’t mature enough politically to assume without fear, without letting us be terrified by the opposition’s propaganda… a socialist project.”

Or it could be that they weren’t prepared to give this individual absolute power. Either way, I’m happy to see him off the front pages, I’m happy to be able to turn on the TV without being confronted by more about him. The news media made big-time hay with all of this, and with Chávez ‘freezing’ relations between Venezuela and Spain in the last week or so, making ominous threats about reviewing or nationalizing Spanish firms doing business in Venezuela. A friend told me she turned on the tube to find a celebrity gossip show that had tracked down Chávez’s ex and had her on, telling tales. My general response to all this is the same as it is whenever a clip of Bush comes on — I change channels or kill the TV. I’d rather not sit and suffer. I’d rather enjoy my day.

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Christmastime, la Plaza de Chueca, Madrid

España, te quiero.

[continued from entry of November 20]

It’s been fascinating to follow the fallout from incident at the summit, beginning with the incident itself, a happening that took everyone by surprise — possibly even Chávez himself.

He seems to be a man who is not very good at listening, who has little patience and little tolerance for ideas that don’t conform with his, and who loves to hear himself talk. The papers here refer to him as a narcisist, an egotist. Maybe he is, maybe isn’t. What’s certain is that he couldn’t keep quiet during the time given to the Spanish president to talk. It didn’t matter that the format was designed to allow one person at a time to deliver a short…. whatever. Speech, discourse, comic monologue. So that every head of state there on the dais would have their turn. It didn’t matter. For whatever reasons, in that moment this individual simply could not contain himself. He interrupted Zapatero time after time, babbling insults about the previous Spanish president, José María Aznar.

Aznar, I will admit, is eminently insult-worthy. As president he was every bit as intolerant of different perspectives, every bit as controlling and manipulative and in love with the idea of absolute power as Chávez. (He was, you may remember, the third face in the famous pre-Iraqi-invation photo from the summit in the Azores. He aggressively pushed the idea of WMD’s here in Spain, dragging the country into something the vast majority of the population wanted nothing to do with, and continued with that until earlier this year when he finally made a grudging, ill-mannered acknowledgment of their non-existence.) Lots of not-so-flattering things could be said about him, but the fact that they came from the person they came from made it an occasion of eye-rolling silliness instead of incisive political commentary. And the fact that Chávez’s spewings were delivered when and in the manner that they were delivered put Zapatero — someone who may have had some sympathy for Chávez up until then — on the spot, casting him in the unaccustomed role of Aznar defender (defending a person who has never passed up an opportunity to speak ill of Zapatero, who once, during the campaign of 2004, compared Zapatero to Hitler — another wonderfully ironic bit of comedy). Which he did, maintaining impressive equilibrium and poise in the face of Chávez’s repeated interruptions.

For instance, part of the exchange (translation mine — video in the original Spanish here):

Zapatero: It could not be said that I’m close to ex-President Aznar, but Aznar was chosen by the Spanish people, and I demand, I demand….

Chávez: Tell him to be respectful. Say that to him.

Zapatero: …I demand that respect for one reason, and….

Chávez: Say that to him, President…. Say the same to him.

Juan Carlos I (King of Spain — exasperated, to Chávez): Why don’t you be quiet?

Bachelet (President of Chile): Please, no dialogue. (To Chávez:) You’ve had time to put forth your position. (To Zapatero:) Please finish, President.

Chávez: He may be Spanish, President Aznar, but he’s a fascist and he’s a….

Zapatero: President Hugo Chávez, I believe that there is one essential thing and a beginning of dialogue, and that is, to respect and to be respected we must try not to lapse into name-calling.

Chávez: The government of Venezuela reserves the right to respond to whatever aggression wherever it happens, in whatever place and in whatever tone.

You may have noticed the sudden appearance of King Juan Carlos in the middle of all that — that detail left the people of Spain at least as astonished as the master class Chávez gave in senseless blathering. No one that I’ve spoken to about this could remember Juan Carlos ever doing anything similar — he’s known as an affable, even-tempered sort that has never engaged in goofy, ill-considered behavior, at least in his public capacity as a representative of the country. One friend giggled about his sudden appearance in the back-and-forth — at the way he suddenly leaned forward as if he’d abruptly reached the end of his tether, popping into view, delivering his one fateful sentence to Chávez then slowly retiring — amazed and delighted at the outlandishness of the event.

[continued in next entry]

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For a yuletide chortle: The 12 Pains of Christmas

España, te quiero.

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