In many ways, Saturdays and Sundays feel interchangeable in the United States. A person might have different routines and rituals on Saturdays than they do on Sundays, but beyond that, the outside world just keeps on doing what it does best. The relentless engine of commerce never stops firing; things never really slow down.
Though Spain’s no Germany, where, when we lived there in the 1990s, it was frowned upon (if not actually illegal) not just to shop on Sunday but also to hang out laundry to dry, Sunday in Madrid contains a celebratory pause that makes it different from any other day of the week.
It’s not necessarily religion that gives Sunday this festive nature: only 22 percent of the population of Spain goes to church regularly (41 percent of Americans are regulars at services). Nor is it completely due to shop closures. Grocery stores, large chains, bakeries and convenience stores are all open on Sundays, although smaller, independently-run shops tend to be closed. (Fruterías, which tend to have better produce, also tend to close from 2 p.m. Saturday until Monday morning, so I try to do the shopping on Saturday rather than Sunday).
The center of the day around which Sunday orbits is lunch, whether it’s with family or friends, in a private home (these days with five other people) or gathered at a sidewalk terraza with glasses of vermut the color of Coca Cola.
Around noon, our neighborhood starts its preparations. People head home from the bakeries carrying neatly-packaged boxes of pastries or cakes tied with lengths of blue or red string. (Yesterday, I saw two well-dressed middle-aged women carrying advent wreaths.)
The flower sellers set up on the corners, so bouquets of carnations or roses or this time of year gaudy poinsettias can be bought. Caregivers, whether they’re paid or daughters pressed into service, accompany impeccably-dressed older women down the sidewalk. These elderly women, with their heels and sunglasses and big brooch-like earrings and hair shellacked into what can only be called a hair-do, mingle with well-dressed families on their way to the grandparents’: mom and dad in Sunday best, the kids two or three meters ahead on their scooters, dressed exactly alike if they’re the same gender.
Or, there’s Sunday’s less traditional version: walking, in one form or another: to window shop around the neighborhood, to and through a park, or on one of the hiking trails half an hour or so north of us in the Guadarrama mountains.
We don’t quite have the Sunday routine down yet; it’s hard for Americans to eat lunch at 3 p.m., for one thing, and drinking vermouth mid-afternoon would give me a headache, for another. But whenever I see someone carrying their cake down the street on a Sunday, my heart swells a little. When have I ever seen such a thing back home? The answer is of course never, because we’re always in our cars when we run errands.
But it seems so very sane and civilized, this celebratory pause before the plunge into the work week, no matter whether it’s urban life or Spanish life that causes it. Once you’ve seen them carry a cake down the street, you have to love your neighbor.