far too much writing, far too many photos

New Year’s Eve 2002, Madrid

Similar to the way Christmas Eve Day slowly found its feet a week ago, New Year’s Eve day began quietly, with few people on the street, few in the Metro. Today’s classes were happily chaotic, most of the first two-hour session spent in comical, near-anarchic conversation, no one showing much desire to attempt anything resembling standard scholastic behavior. Post-break, we simply tossed in the towel and headed out to a neighborhood sidrería, where our small collection of souls (me; Patricia, our Madrileña Spanish instructor; Roger, from Holland; Wolfgang, from Germany; Concetta, from Italy; Eugenio, from Russia) worked its way through two bottles of mildly alcoholic sidra and an entire tortilla española, on our feet the whole time, the group shifting from one configuration to another as sidra and conversation flowed. (It’s a fascinating phenomenon, getting people from all over the map together like this, everyone communicating via a language that’s not their native tongue. After a few days in each other’s company, what rises to the surface is our overwhelming commonality and our desire to enjoy our time together.)

Later in the day, after watching a film in the video centre at the language school (Torrente 2, a Spanish take-off on everything vaguely James-Bondish that revels in trashiness, tackiness and its own relentless brand of low humor), I found myself out on the street with Wolfgang, heading in the direction of la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, ground zero for Madrid’s New Year’s Eve doings. The sidewalks were crowded to the point where walking in the street was easier, facilitated by the fact that the police were gradually pinching off all traffic flowing through Sol, leaving few cars to contend with. By the time midnight slouches in, Sol and the surrounding streets and plazas will be crammed with many, many thousands and thousands of partying Spaniards — eating, drinking, carrying loudly on. The carrying on has, in the past, included fighting and hurling empty bottles through the air. This year, 3,000 police are being posted around Sol, screening out any glass containers and, presumably, any people carrying on in ways that might hurt someone else.

When the big clock atop the Municipal building in the plaza tolls midnight, most everyone will begin the ritual that eases in the new year and, according to tradition, guarantees luck in the coming 365 days: eating a grape with every toll of the bell, 12 grapes in all. Not so easy if everyone around you is yelling, spewing chewed grapes as they laugh or trying to make you laugh. There is actually a Spanish company that sells small tins of one dozen peeled, pitted grapes, a product whose ads have been in heavy rotation on local TV during the last couple of weeks.

Some snapshots of the scene in and around Sol between 6 and 7 p.m. tonight:

– The network of pedestrian avenues that criss-cross the real estate between Gran Vía and Sol were near capacity with human traffic, people of all ages out strolling together, heading home or in and out of shops/eating establishments. The red w/ white trim Santa stocking hats of a week ago have given way to a far more abundant new crop, identical except that the red has become green. Many folks carried shopping bags — Zara, El Corte Inglés — or toted handbags, shoulder bags, knapsacks. Elderly couples walked slowly together, often arm in arm. Groups of young folks threaded their way through the currents of people, moving quickly, with more nervous energy. Parents walked hand in hand with children. The air fairly crackled the sound of many people in motion, with many voices carrying on excited conversations. Smiles and sparkling eyes far outnumbered neutral or displeased expressions.

– Lit sparklers could be seen scattered around, vendors selling them at “3 paquetes por un euro.”

– The ubiquitous black market venders were out in force, peddling everything from counterfeit CDs to scarves, watches, shawls, wallets, gloves, laying their goods out on sheets or small blankets, standing over them as strollers slowed or stopped to appraise. At the slightest hint of approaching police, the goods were instantly bundled up in one smooth movement, the venders moving quickly away in a spreading wave, immediately reappearing and spreading the stuff out when the patrol car or motorcycle had rollowed by. And I mean immediately, reappearing in a wave of unfolding sheets as if they’d literally materialized out of thin air in the wake of the vehicle’s passing.

– In Sol itself, several individuals wore costumes of Pokemon characters, waving to kids, posing for photos. The star-spangled Mickey Mouse continued his holiday residency, calling out “Feliz Año!” (”Happy New Year!”) to startled passing folks.

– Wigs were everywhere, being worn by all sorts of people, in bright colors — silver, red, lavender, or a combination of hues — the strands of “hair” made of something like acetate, appearing softly metallic.

– At 6 o’clock, a long, slow process of shop-closings began. People continually filed in and out of the open shops, sometimes despite security shutters that had been pulled halfway down in a wishful effort to move everyone out and shut down for the night.

– Between FNAC and el Corte Inglés, the two giant stores at the Callao end of the main pedestrian thoroughfare that stretches between Sol and Callao/Gran Vía, a line of eight South American musicians, all in their late teens to late 20s, played Peruvian music, collecting a large crowd, the musicians stepping back and forth together in time to the gentle, steady beat, like an uncomplicated southern-hemisphere Motown kind of thing. Music sounding both serious/sad and joyful, produced by a drum, two pipes, a guitar, a mandolin-style instrument, a double-bass, a violin. Two of the musicians wore green Santa-style hats. In the crowd watching, a 40ish guy with black pants and a nice leather coat sported a Shirley Temple/Goldilocks style blond wig.

– Pedestrian traffic thinned out along Gran Vía, especially on the Chueca side, making for easier walking. After I crossed the avenue, headed toward home, a group of eight or so young women all dressed up for New Year’s Eve swept by me, moving toward a crosswalk and the area I’d just come from, the scent of perfume lingering in the evening air after they’d passed.

– A 60ish woman passed, wearing a shawl and thick-heeled black shoes, singing happily to herself, just loudly enough that anyone walking by could hear.

– A minute later, an attractive lesbian couple moved by me, both with multiple piercings, walking arm in arm at a steady, focused clip, one with bottle-blond hair cut short, the other with longer brown hair dyed lavender in patches.

– As I moved further into Chueca and the time approached 7 p.m., the closing of shops accelerated until virtually nothing was open except bars and cafeterías. Fireworks began going off up ahead, the heavy-duty variety that’s become the normal course in this barrio since several days shy of Navidad. The first one: polite. The second: louder, sharper. The third: like a hand grenade had been tossed into the street a block ahead.

– Two gay 20-somethings brushed by me, talking and laughing together, their arms touching as they walked, the tang of marijuana drifting in their wake. Someone’s New Year Eve partying was well underway.

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