far too much writing, far too many photos

The last week in August, Madrid slowly returning to normal as its residents (los Madrileños) drift back from vacation. More restaurants and tiendas are open for business than in previous weeks, while traffic moving through the traffic circle at Alonso Martinez this morning resembled the heavy, impatient flow of vehicles that’s more the norm. First time I’ve seen that since the end of July.

There used to be something melancholy about the end of summer for me — shorter days, the feeling of the normal work life gearing up once more, the coming of cooler weather, followed by winter. Now, I’ve gotta say, it feels lovely. The air is softer, the sun lower in the sky, the light less intense. Sunrise is happening later in the morning, which for me means deeper, longer sleep. It feels just fine.

I’m in the process of moving (me and half the end-of-summer western world), it feeling like a real demarcation of seasons. Same as last year, then less than a month into a major change of life. Still adapting. I’d spent August housesitting for a friend, or at least had expected to be housesitting for a friend. The friend: Leslie, sister to my best friend’s wife, married to a Spanish attorney named Jaime and living in a large, luxurious house in El Viso. (El Viso: a district of Madrid, north-northeast of the city center, known for affluence and architecture of a strange art deco type.)

I arrived in Madrid on July 31st, shortly before Leslie, Jaime and their daughters fled to the family’s summer residence, in a small town on Spain’s northern coast. They bolted soon after my appearance, which should have left me alone, housesitting. Instead, I found myself sharing the space with Jaime’s son, Jaime, Jr., a 20-something real estate person. Jaime, Jr. began conducting business from the house, carrying on with a couple of different women up in the master bedroom suite, bringing the occasional group of friends home to sit in the living room and drink. (In fairness, that last only happened once. The rest became routine.)

Not a bad guy, Jaime, Jr. — just not the sitch I’d anticipated, and apparently not what Leslie had expected either.

I commenced intensive Spanish classes a few days after arrival, at a school just off la Calle de Génova, near Alonso Martinez. An interesting morning bus ride in from El Viso, quieter than normal, the city looking a bit drowsy, coming to slowly in the August heat.

At the same time, I began the hunt for an apartment so that I could be out of the house when Leslie and her brood returned in September. The paper with the rental listings, Segundamano (Second Hand), came out Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On those mornings I’d pick up a copy on the way to school, search through it at the 11 o’clock break, make calls after classes to try and line up viewing appointments.

That was where I began to see the impact my primitive Spanish could have on the process of building an existence. The simple act of trying to find out about a flat could be high-stress or low-stress, depending on the person I spoke with. Depending on their degree of patience, on my state of mind. Some folks simply didn’t want to deal with a less-than-fluent foreigner. Others were kinder. Either way, nothing came together. Partway through the month, with the Segundamano routine going nowhere, I connected with some rental agents, getting a clearer idea of the overall situation: there simply weren’t many flats to see, at least until September. Of what was available, the agents consistently pushed me toward the high end, the word “American” apparently being synonymous with “$$$$$.”

Leslie and Jaime returned in early September, the house filling up with the noise and energy of their family, with the recommencement of their routines. They assured me I wasn’t in the way, but it was clear I had to find a place fast. One of the realtors finally rounded up some prospects, we started looking.

The first stop: a decent flat in one of Madrid’s northern neighborhoods. Owned by a 60ish Cuban couple. Extremely nice people. The furnishings, however, were the kind my Great Aunt Lu and Great Uncle John in Queens, N.Y. would have had, sans the perpetual stink of his cigars. Stiff, uncomfortable, less than visually appealing. No good.

The second stop: a piso in Argüelles, a district to the west. A hilarious 60-something woman and her 30-something daughter showed us the place. Great owners. But the flat? Small/cramped, especially for the requested rent. And again with the stiff, uncomfortable, ugly furnishings. No good. (The daughter called me afterward, we began going out. That, however, is another story.)

Third stop: a fairly elegant place on a lovely street near Alonso Martinez. Three blocks from the British Embassy, four or five blocks from the language school. Pricey, but more comfortable, with much more space. I went for it. We made an appointment to sign a lease on the afternoon of Saturday, the 9th of September.

I showed up for the signing pulling my monster wheeled duffel, meeting my realtor outside the building, ready to move in. When we entered the apartment, we found the owner had brought a friend. As a witness, apparently. Something about that set an odd vibe for the transaction, compounded when the owner’s first move was to try to raise the rent, claiming he’d been getting rental offers for more than our agreed-upon amount. My realtor, I think, was as surprised as I was, but responded with extreme diplomacy. Possibly a better option than my outrage.

The piso had been billed as furnished which, according to Leslie’s husband, meant that it had to have everything one would need to move right in and function normally. It had furniture, so I could move in and go to sleep or sit in the living room in a comfy chair and stare at the wall. Other items, however — plates, glasses, pots/pans, dishrack, iron/ironing board, towels, television, etc. — were notably absent.

My realtor haggled with the landlord, they eventually hammered out an agreement in which the rent did not go up. Papers got signed. The landlord said he’d send me an inventory for the flat to scribble my name on, went out and bought most of the missing basics, or at least the small-ticket items. Then they all buggered off, leaving me alone in my first Madrid apartment.

Other problems arose with that landlord, beginning with the seriously inaccurate inventory. Not that he was a bad guy. Could be he just didn’t know how to handle the lessor/lessee dynamic in a way that communicated he actually gave a rat’s ass. But the flat was spacious. Windows to the east and west allowed plenty of light. The master bedroom was roomy, with big windows, the living room long and comfortable, with floor-to-ceiling windows that gave out onto a small terrace overlooking the tree-lined street. For the time being, it worked.

The street: a combination of residential and business/restaurants, providing the bustle of people/commerce during the day, quiet at night. In the spring, when the swifts returned to Madrid for the warm season, there were weeks of them swooping over and between the buildings, calling continually back and forth. In the evenings, the birds disappeared, a few bats materialized, flying silently back and forth above the street.

The mornings began slowly, as they seem to here, the day getting underway between 8 and 10 a.m. To one side of my building lay a neighborhood grocery store where people went for baguettes, milk, fruit. To the other side: a bar/cafetería, attracting early morning customers for café y bolsos (coffee and sweet rolls) and big lunchtime crowds. Across the street were a computer shop, a clothes tienda, a hair-cutter’s, a restaurant that only opened in the evenings.

At 2 p.m. the stores closed for lunch, announced by the screech of metal security screens coming down. The porteros of the various apartment buildings — having spent the morning hours on duty, chatting with each other or with passersby — disappeared inside for the midday meal. The entire spectrum of neighborhood workers, from executives and office employees to manual laborers of all stripes, poured in and out of eating establishments or passed by in loudly-talking groups. The sounds of the activity floated up four stories to my flat in a nicely soothing way. Between 4 and 5 p.m., businesses opened again, everyone returned to work, the lunch joints closed. Around eight, the screech of lowered security screens announced the day’s end, the street quieted down.

There are an unbelievable number of vehicles in Madrid. I’ve been told that two-thirds of the cars in the country are in the capital — an amazing statistic, if true. True or not, traffic is intense, especially during work hours. Double parking is a way of life. During my neighbourhood’s workdays, in addition to a row of parked cars on either side of the street, a line of double-parked vehicles extends from one end of the block to the other, leaving a single narrow lane for passing traffic. When the drivers of legitimately-parked cars return, they begin beeping their horns in hopes that the drivers who have blocked them in will return and allow them to them leave. Surprisingly, that system seems to work reasonably well. I’ve never seen fights or shouting matches erupt from the parking situation, though people often have to sit in their vehicles for long periods, working the horn more and more emphatically.

That particular serenade is a part of life in this barrio, one I won’t miss in my new flat. The street that runs in front of that building is one lane wide, providing no room for parking. On the other hand, one stopped car can produce a line of impatient vehicles in no time flat, resulting a chorus of braying horns — briefer than the double-parking solos I’ve grown accustomed to, but more concentrated, with less show of civility.

On weekends, when many people leave Madrid, the neighborhood empties out, the pace of the days grow more leisurely (especially after 2 p.m. on Saturdays, the hour many businesses close until Monday). Until Sunday evening, that is, when everyone streams back into the city and empty parking spaces disappear once again.

I’m going to miss this street, this block. And I’ll miss some things about the flat — the way the sunlight moves from one side to the other, spilling into the living room around 10 a.m., withdrawing after a few hours to creep slowly around to the rear courtyard until it pours in the bedroom windows, finally withdrawing for the day when the early evening sun moves behind other buildings.

I’ll miss the view out my bedroom window at night, the lit rectangles of other flats’ windows shining softly in the darkness. I’ll miss hearing the neighborhood come gradually to life in the mornings and quiet down in the evening. And I’m going to miss the floors of my piso. Parquet floors, beautifully finished so that they’re not only pleasing to the eye, they’re just slick enough that — in socks, with a running start from the bedroom — I can slide halfway across the living room. I’m going to miss the bentwood chairs and round dining table in the corner of the living room by the kitchen, where I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours writing, going through e-mail, often with the radio providing a soundtrack of flamenco, jazz, classical, rock ‘n’ roll.

I’m going to miss all that. But it’s time for a change.

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