far too much writing, far too many photos

A beautiful pre-Christmas day, wan sunlight shining through high clouds. When I dragged myself out to classes this morning, the usual morning rush hour Metro ride had given way to a sparsely-attended pre-holiday non-rush-hour kind of event, a handful of drowsy, half-smiling commuters sharing the car with me. Likewise, when I disembarked at la estación Opera for the short slog up la calle de Arenal to the language school, few people were about. Far more like a Sunday morning than a Monday. Two hours later, when I stepped outside during the morning break to grab a café and a bocadillo, the sidewalks were alive with crowds of Madrileños out doing last-minute Christmas shopping. Talk about a transformation. (This is something I used to love about living in Cambridge, MA during the holiday season — the relative tranquility that reigned from Christmas Eve to just before New Year’s Eve, the relaxing of the usual high-speed local lifestyle. Rush-hour became a drastically diminished version of its normally intense self, something I especially enjoyed. Christmas Eve in Cambridge/Boston is particularly low-key, the streets practically deserted, the usual bustle replaced by quiet, Christmas lights shining in the December night. Except down in Boston’s Chinatown, where the restaurants are packed with those not keyed in to the more normal versions of Christmas Eve. In fact, tomorrow night will be my first Christmas Eve in the last five or six years not spent with a handful of friends around a Chinatown table piled high with plates of excellent chow, the room around us ringing with the din of conversation and dinner activity.)

I find myself walking through my days here smiling a great deal of the time, beset by almost inexplicable waves of contentment at being in this city. I say ‘almost’ inexplicable because I can point to scores of things that provoke pleasure in me, many of them seemingly trivial — passing moments of no great import that flit by as the day passes. The faces I see around me, radiating to greater or lesser degrees the life going on within those individuals. The sound of the language, and the snippets of conversation I hear washing by on the street. The architecture, the way the sunlight slants down the buildings to slice across part of a narrow calle, shifting slowly with the sun’s movement as the minutes slip by. Young couples walking hand in hand or standing close together, talking, faces inches apart, moving closer to share a kiss. Families or groups of friends carrying gift-wrapped packages. Lots of talk and chatter, lots of motion, stores lit up, the air filled with a nice energy.

It’s good, all of it. Call me Pollyanna, but there it is.

Went to the gym this afternoon. On the way back, stopped in for the first time at the new corner spot next door. Slick. Real slick. And pretty. The old joint was not pretty. Kind of dumpy, in fact, the walls crowded with anonymous, kitschy artwork or photos, the wall and shelves behind the counter crammed with food, supplies, bottles of liquids and tchotchkes. The windows – wide floor-to-ceiling jobs looking out on the street – were mostly covered with old, sheer curtains. A dive – cramped, crowded, dowdy, dog-eared. The new place’s owners ripped out everything that had been in the space’s previous incarnation, exposing the bricks, buffing up the floor (a nice wood floor I hadn’t noticed in the old joint), leaving the windows uncovered. It’s an austere spot now, tastefully done. Europop – decent Europop – played on the sound system, a wide flat-screen television hung at either end of the space playing what are probably by now clichéd rave-type images of concerts and crowds dancing, waving glowsticks. All in all, okay, with the picture-window views of the world outside a major plus. The downside: the café they served me? Not very good. Not very good and a third again as expensive as anywhere else in the neighborhood. Bugger.

An elderly woman from my building tottered slowly in with a friend, another woman around her age, both of them the local version of the classic little old blue-haired lady (minus the blue). The woman from my building has one of the world’s most radiant smiles — when she spotted me, she waved and unleashed it in my direction. She and her friend sat at a table by one of the windows, ordered cafés. When the espressos arrived, the two women sat and sipped, watching the neighborhood activity outside, Europop playing loudly around them. Content.

Me, too.

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