Of Stories and Street Life

Yesterday, for the first time since March, I walked down (up?) Gran Vía*, the bustling avenue sometimes known as Spain’s Broadway, then cut across the plaza at Puerto del Sol.

The first time the girls and I ever ventured bravely, tentatively out on our own, we took this same route. Gran Vía may be Madrid’s glittering Great White Way but to a jetlagged semi-small town American fresh off the plane it was just too hot too crowded too loud too dirty too smelly — in short, just too much of a muchness. And then, the first time I wove my way across Puerto del Sol, dodging hucksters and lollygaggers and tourguides brandishing umbrellas, I swore I’d never willingly set foot there again.

Yesterday, though, Gran Vía felt quite civilized. In fact you could almost call it sedate. Not empty by any means, but the foot traffic was manageable. Madrid felt human-sized. My brain could absorb it. I found myself looking up at the buildings that line the wide sidewalk, spotting stone arabesques and flourishes I’d never had time to notice before. And then Sol — crossing Sol was actually almost pleasurable! We strolled. The vendors who stand at the peripheries, sunglasses and lighters and junk spread on blankets tied at the corners with ropes they hold in one hand so they can yank up their wares and hightail it whenever the cops come — not there. Nor the ladies who try to give you stalks of rosemary and read your fortune. Nor the tourguides trying to herd their milling, dazed-looking charges. Nor the tubby guy known as Spiderman Gordo (His hustle: you can have your picture taken with him in his bunchy costume, for a price.)

I said: so this is Madrid, in the Summer of COVID, sans tourists.

The daughters disagreed. They said: so this is Madrid, on a hot Wednesday morning in July. Same as it ever was.

Or maybe, I thought, once we got home, this is Madrid, after a year spent developing your city-shield. The foreign becomes familiar.

And the converse is also true: the familiar becomes foreign.

Three stories. All true.

Three stories. Take your pick.

Shaping stories requires at least a little certitude. Don’t know about you, but I’ve never been less certain of — well, anything — than I am this summer.

How can we conclude what anything means, in this kind of weather?

*In the early 1900s, Gran Vía wasn’t called that but was instead named after 3 notable figures. When the Civil War started, it was Avenida de Rusia but nicknamed Avenida de los obuses (“Howitzer Avenue.”) After the war, it was renamed “Avenida de José Antonio after the founder of the Falange. Only in the 1980s was it named el Gran Vía.