far too much writing, far too many photos

Woke up during the early morning hours, tossed and turned, gradually drifted back off to sleep. When my eyes finally re-opened, my teensy bedside travel clock read ten of nine. Classes start at nine. I managed to stumble in the door of the school around 9:15, setting a personal record. Showered, dressed, with all needed books/notebooks, though unshaven. Three out of four ain’t bad.

As happened yesterday, I encountered few people on the Metro during the ride to school, further evidence that Madrid’s rush hour evaporates during the days of Navidad. The atmosphere at school was one of chomping at the bit to get the partying underway. During the late morning break, the teaching staff played music, drank bubbly, scarfed down pastries. They are a cute, smart bunch with endearing tendencies toward rowdiness. The second session of class ended a bit early so that one of the three brothers that preside over the school, Ángel, could pop open two bottles of Spanish sparkling wine and lead a group toast which degenerated rapidly into random hilarity. Los profesores were carrying on, ready to bolt and continue the partying elsewhere. I went into the classroom to pull on my coat/pick up my stuff, when I returned to the common area, most everyone appeared to have flown the coop, as if they’d literally leaped out any available window or door while I had my back turned. José, another of the three brothers, seemed to be collecting the few remaining souls to head out for lunch, I attached myself to that, assuming a big gathering of students/teachers/etc. was in store.

A short walk took us to a restaurant a few blocks from the school, packed with Madrileños happily and loudly tossing down tapas, raising glasses of wine/champagne, chatting, laughing. Our group of six — José, myself, Sergio (a French 20-something), Nikki (a 20-something New Yorker), Concetta (an Italian 30-something) and Wolfgang (a German 30-something) — pushed through all that and were ushered to a rear dining room filled with tables prepared for dining. Many tables, no diners. Except us, cloistered away from all the noise and fun. And as we were seated at a table for six, it started to sink in that the big hooha I’d thought I’d attached myself to was off happening somewhere else.(!!) Our little group consisted mostly of people who had further classes to go to, so were being given a nice, fast lunch by the school, not the raucous blowout I was looking forward to being a part of. And I found myself in attendance at one of the more awkward, unrelaxed dinners I’ve attended here in Madrid — not the shindig I was up for.

I mostly sat, ate, watched the people I was with, something I virtually always enjoy. Post-meal, back outside into the December air, I wished the rest of the group Feliz Navidad and took off, happy to be free and making my way through Christmastime Madrid — people doing last minute shopping, bars and restaurants overflowing with folks spending Christmas Eve afternoon in traditional social fashion.

We’d been warned at school that stores would be closing as the afternoon progressed and that by 8 p.m. the entire city would be shut down, including public transit, movies, restaurants, you name it. Christmas Eve — families congregate for the major Christmas dinner, everything else comes to a halt.

I figured some theaters would have to be open and, calculating correctly, managed to get myself to a late-afternoon movie. When I emerged back into the falling evening shortly before six and headed up Gran Vía, the city was literally in the process of closing up around me. Stores, restaurants, bars — locking up, turning off their lights. Not all of them, but most, enough that it generated a strange sense of tranquil unreality. Automotive traffic was sparse and the sidewalks on either side of Gran Vía — normally crowded to where simple walking at one’s own pace can be difficult to manage — were nearly deserted, making for a long relaxed saunter, watching the natives emerging from closing stores with bags of gifts or walking in groups talking animatedly.

All of this produces in me a strange sensation of contentedness, spiked with an occasional feeling of disconnection as I drift through this lovely city while it carries on in traditional Christmas fashion, me having no particular Christmas Eve destination other than home. Which is a fine destination, considering where that home is.

One strange note in Madrid’s Christmas season — fireworks. They began last Thursday or Friday, here in Chueca. I stood in my kitchen preparing something to eat — out in the street something exploded, loud and intense enough that I literally jumped. A bomb, I thought at first, ETA having been active recently not far from Madrid. Until it occurred to me that no windows were broken, no sounds of shock/terror/fear came from the street, post-explosion. Christmastime fireworks, big ones — not small inoffensive buggers. Ashcans or M-15’s, something of that caliber.

Since then I’ve heard them around the city, huge explosions, usually producing a cloud of smoke, the perps managing to get some distance away before the explosion so that it’s impossible to make out which individual just scared the bejesus out of the neighborhood. As I entered my barrio on the walk home tonight, making my way along la Calle de Hortaleza, someone set off a major explosion a block ahead, a thick cloud of smoke drifting through the air in its wake. People stop and look around, local life pauses for a moment. Then everyone carries on.

Strange.

My barrio, despite many businesses being closed/shuttered/dark, proved to be lots livelier than the other parts of the city I’d passed through. Some book stores had their doors open. Some taverns and restaurants were packed with people looking for food, company, noise, energy. A surprising number of places remained open for business as I neared my calle, the streets pleasantly alive with folks walking, Christmas lights radiated cheer from store windows or strung across la calle overhead. The three businesses on the corner nearest this building’s front door — two slick cafés and a small, funky neighborhood tavern — bustled with sound/people. I went into one of the cafés — dark, smokey, music playing (music with a good beat) — and planted myself at a corner table where I worked my way through a couple of espressos and did, er, homework. Happy to be where I was, doing what I was doing.

Tomorrow I take a combo subway/bus ride out to one of Madrid’s ‘burbs for Christmas dinner with my landlords, an expansive, highly enjoyable British/American couple who have become friends. Just them, their two 20-something kids and their son’s Spanish sweetheart. And me. I expect some serious entertainment.

Have a lovely holiday, wherever you are, however you spend it. Felizes fiestas to all, and to all a good night.

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