far too much writing, far too many photos

A confession: I love the Christmas season. It’s as simple as that. I’m especially enjoying it here, watching the Spaniards wade gracefully through their version of it. I hear a fair number of complaints re: stress/obligations/materialism run amok, just as I do in the States, but when it comes down to it, what I see around me is a great deal of happiness. That is, of course, only one aspect of each day’s complete picture, but you know what? I don’t care. The picture here is a good one, I’m enjoying taking it in as the days sweep by.

In some ways, the pace of life has picked up as the gift-buying season has progressed and folks devote more active attention to plans for Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), Navidad (Christmas day) and the season as a whole. On the other hand, over the last 2-3 days, college students have headed for home, followed by a more general exodus as people stream off to parts unknown to pass the coming days. Last night in particular seemed to signal the genuine onset of the two-week Christmas vacation. During the day, traffic out of Madrid maintained a steady pace as businesses closed, people took off and the city’s rhythm gradually slowed with the outflow of people.

This means major partying for many of those who remain, and the last two nights in this barrio have featured dusk to dawn revels, groups of partyers drifting from one restaurant/bar/café to another — talking loudly, laughing, singing, with outbursts of shouting, even howling. For some reason, 3-4 a.m. is an especially active time, maybe the hour when certain places close down and other late night spots just get going, triggering slow, jubilant waves of migration for the all-night crowd.

Chueca, my barrio, has always been a dynamic mixture of funky, commercial, touristy and extremely chic. This little corner of it — mighty funky when I moved in, with outposts of high chic — is undergoing a drastic gentrification, a process that has crept closer and closer to this building. La Calle de Pelayo, the street at right angles to this one, just 50 feet from our front door, was a mix of funky residential, neighborhood tiendas/bars and a scattering of more upscale shops (and, lately, art galleries). An epidemic of rehabbing older residential buildings got underway a year ago, gathering steam during my last few months back in the States. The cafetería on the corner of our street and Pelayo, a neighborhood joint that attracted an outrageously colorful, mixed clientele, cutting across the entire spectrum — also featuring great coffee, good morning nosh food (churros, croissants, sweet rolls, breads) — closed earlier this year, undergoing a months-long major transformation once the previous owner had been nudged out. Yesterday evening it opened its doors as an attractive, slick-looking bar/nightspot.

Across the street, the vacant lot’s days are numbered. Last week — 8, 9, 10 days ago — the re-postering in the wake of the city crew’s scouring the wall clean began sluggishly and never fully re-established itself, the first such occasion in my time here. That Friday, I arrived back home from the morning’s Spanish classes to find someone had tossed up a six-foot tall wire enclosure along the curb, preventing access to both the sidewalk and wall. The new enclosure went around the corner to the wall’s end, where someone was constructing a brick and plaster barrier across the sidewalk, from the wire enclosure to the wall itself, to prevent passage. I asked the lone worker what was up, he answered that construction would begin on a brand new building sometime between now and the beginning of January, a piece of news whose disclosure felt something like an arrow through my heart. The street between our building and the lot on which the new building will grow is narrow, the construction will be extremely close by. Months of that is not something I look forward to. But it’s the on the way. I will miss that empty lot.

Change — life’s only constant. And in general, I like change. I’ll have to sit tight and see how this new development unfolds.

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It’s Saturday morning, the time when the local world gets its shopping done before the tiendas close at 2 p.m. A process that normally gets underway in leisurely fashion, picking up speed around 11 a.m., so that by 11:30, the shops, streets and pedestrian ways are crowded with people. This being the final weekend before Christmas, it was an accelerated version off its usual self. Both yesterday evening and this morning, I made trips to the local centro comercial to pick up most of what I’d need for the coming days. This morning, once done there with that, I headed off toward la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol and el Corte Inglés, the megastore that is Madrid’s retail heavy hitter, stopping briefly at a neighborhood joint for a quick café cortado.

A gray morning, just damp enough to produce some mist in the air, just cool enough that my breath was visible. I stepped into el Cortes Inglés at 11 to find heavier crowds than normal for that hour. Heavy, yet not suffocating, not frenzied. Going about their business, getting done what needed to be done, seeming a bit relaxed about it all (except at the long, busy meats/chesses counter, where the line and the wait were considerable). The displays of Christmas sweets — and the Spaniards enjoy their sweets — were impressive, persuasive and ubiquitous, and I’ve shown genuine restraint in not picking up any. I’ll be getting a cake for the staff at school Monday a.m. — that’ll be my main indulgence.

Outdoors afterwards, Madrid was out in force in all its variety, from elderly couples waking slowly arm in arm to families with young children — one little one ahead of me, maybe four years old, digging in her feet against her parents’ pulling her on, protesting something loudly, the parents trying to cajole her into forward movement — to individual characters, talking to themselves, milling through the crowds, clothes in disarray, carrying multiple bags. And it almost goes without saying that with this swirling, eddying human traffic, cell phones were in abundant use, visible in all directions.

There is something about walking amid all this that brings me a pleasure I can barely express. I love people. I love people-watching. I love Madrid. Toss all that into the same mix, it’s a combo that reminds how good this life of ours generally feels to me, in all its color and variation, in all its joys and dischords, its splendor and squalor.

It’s about 1:30. Time to wind this up and head back out into the day.

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