Passionate Spectator

… for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.

Baudelaire

Years from now, if anybody asks me what I loved most about Spain, I may very well say — six a.m. on a Madrid summer morning. Six a.m. on a Madrid summer morning, when the mercury in the thermometer plunged 30 degrees (F) while I was sleeping. Six a.m., when I step out of our inadequately air-conditioned bedroom into the un-airconditioned hallway and can feel yesterday’s heat, held in the wooden floorboards, in the soles of my bare feet.

Six a.m. on a morning at the end of July, when, out on the terrace, the gradually lightening sky is a dusky velvet ombre; when the swifts arrive from wherever they spend the dark hours; when the chill in the air is almost enough to raise goosebumps.

I’d like to say I get out for a walk at this hour — but I don’t. For one thing, if you didn’t walk home from dinner until 10:00 p.m. the night before, you’re going to need a couple of cups of coffee to get you up and moving. (Here, I want to insert trivia about how much coffee the Spanish drink but it turns out each person only drinks 9.92 lbs a year. The Finnish, at number one, drink 26.45 lbs a year.)

It’s usually between 8:30 and 9:00 before I make it down to the street. While still pleasant, the day already has a bite to it: the heat’s coiled, waiting to strike. The porteros y porteras are fruitlessly mopping the sidewalk in front of their respective buildings. The lady who runs the beauty shop — and it’s a beauty shop, not a hair salon, its patrons all elderly ladies — passes the shoebox-sized sidrería, whose proprietor stands in the doorway.

Coming in? he asks.

Later, later.

A silver-haired man sits at a cafe table with his coffee and a folded newspaper (a newspaper, even now, with its news that was already obsolete by the time it was printed!). — The vaccination, a younger guy stops to tell a woman, the second one. A little further on, an elderly woman with two canes makes her slow way somewhere with her Spanish-style fan protruding from one front pocket of her dressy slacks.

And me? I’m right behind a worker whose t-shirt says los quesos de mi vida.

The cheeses of my life. It wouldn’t work as an advertising slogan back home, but it has such a ring to it, in Spanish.

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