Sixty-seven percent of Spanish children prefer to get their Christmas presents from the Three Kings than from Papa Noel (Santa Claus). Thus, tomorrow, Epiphany, is another holiday. The festivities, however, start tonight. Why have one party when you can have two (or three), or only one day of Christmas when you can draw it out to twelve?
Usually, the Three Kings parade into Madrid, tossing candy to the spectators who’ve lined up to see them (the wise spectator brings their own ladder). This year, mysteriously, the sides of Madrid buses say “the three kings travel by bus.” I’m not sure what this means, but according to the official Madrid tourism website, “from 6:30 p.m., in 25-minute intervals and in six different points of Madrid, flashes of light will be fired in the form of a comet that will announce the imminent arrival of the Three Kings.” At that point, we can join the festivities via television screen.
Meanwhile, midafternoon, people are lining up in front of all the bakeries to purchase their king cake, their roscón de reyes.
We jumped the gun and sliced into ours last night. This year’s contained not a tiny king (the person who encounters this in their piece is king of the festivities), but a penguin.
A more secular version?
— Or maybe it’s a king penguin?
Also, today, the knife sharpener roams the streets, the sound of his pan-flute like e.e. cumming’s balloon man’s, a faint trill, somewhere far off,
Over the past 15 years, as life’s become increasingly less analog and increasingly more digital, I’ve devised, without thinking on it much, a ritual that effectively closes the book on each year and turns the page to the next.
The ritual is this: some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas every year, I sift through the year’s photos, pictures only in the vaguest sense of the word, amorphous bits and bytes that exist only in my phone — in other words, nowhere.
Even so, I sort and cull. Deleted as if they never existed, the dozen pictures of a blurry sunset that didn’t capture the reality, the hundreds of selfies snapped by bored teens who snatched the phone at random moments, the signs for restaurants seen while out walking that I thought I might someday come back to.
And then, out of the distillate, the photographic jelly that remains, I create an honest-to-goodness paper and ink coffee table book. It makes an excellent gift for the grandparents, for one thing. For another, it allows me to dabble in things I’m actually not very good at, like graphic design, for a captive admiring audience.
Or, I should say: this was something I used to do, until COVID-times. In 2020, the annual family milestones were virtual; the travel, non-existent. We took no pictures.
What to do? The grandmothers needed presents, all the same.
It wasn’t that I actually stopped taking photographs in 2020 — they just became less personally historical, less chronological. Instead of taking pictures of piano recitals and birthdays and holidays and sporting events, I was documenting what I found while I walked Madrid, post-cuarentina, instead: building cornices, bits of blue sky, face masks tossed on the ground, public health announcement signs.
I decided to take 6 or 7 of the best pictures I’d taken of old doorways in Madrid, lay them out in an aesthetically pleasing way and have them turned into (o, the wonders of technology) into an 1000-piece puzzle.
And so, this weekend, which could’ve been much more productively spent (making new year’s resolutions, maybe?), I pieced together, not our most recent past history, but the barest snippets and wisps of a few seconds during 2020. Somehow, in the process, the details went from mundane to momentous. The nighttime sky and the glow of a streetlight in one photo became ethereal. A shop window became timeless; the tiny sticker in the corner of the window that announced that dogs were allowed inside, transportive.
Coincidentally, this weekend, I found myself reading an article about a Spanish photographer who has gotten hooked on taking pictures of old Madrid store fronts before they’re gone. The article called him a flâneur, a term the French coined in the 19th century to describe a certain sort who strolls through a city, engaged in what de Balzac referred to as “the gastronomy of the eye.”
Baudelaire, champion of flânerie, said:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, 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.
Leave it to the Europeans! Walking as an intellectual pursuit, my brand-new New Year’s Resolution.
For a year now, I’ve steadily gorged myself on information, wanting to make meaning from its ceaseless flow. Now I have more of it, of information, than I can possibly handle.
As an antidote to the sheer enormity of those numbers, media floats the notion, a tiny twig tossed into that river of information threatening to engulf us, that maybe now in these COVID times we can find ourselves.
Truth be told, trying to do that is just an attempt to make meaning from madness, paltry in the face of such change and loss.
A year later, I wonder why I even bothered to bookmark some website that counted cases. What good was that information ever going to do me? But I did that before they temporarily turned Madrid’s ice skating rink into a morgue. Before it became second nature to slather our hands with sanitizer. Before I started to wish I could throw every KN95 mask in the apartment onto a bonfire because I’d developed such a negative pavlovian response to the smell of the paper they were made from. Before I wore a pair of sneakers out, with COVID walking. Before our city had been truly, honest-to-God confined for 10 weeks, and our tiny health zone theoretically confined for 10 weeks more.***
Before before before before before before before.
And now here we are. In the still point, the waning of the year, this strange space before the After.
***Our tiny health zone has the highest number of cases in Madrid again. They’ll announce whether it will be confined next Monday.
This time last year, I was in Amsterdam; in 36 hours I’ll be there again. But a different Amsterdam this time, a way station rather than a destination, with hydro-alcoholic gel everywhere. My flight to the U.S. was canceled, then it was changed a number of times: all that hard work setting up travel during decent hours for nothing. The taxi will drop me me at the Madrid airport at 4 in the morning. A friend says it’ll be crowded, even then: only one terminal’s open. For all I know, you can only leave Madrid to go anywhere else in the world at 6:00 in the morning.
Carefully, with trepidation, I’m traveling from here to there, the end result of a complicated, personal calculus (including PCR tests at the beginning and end of the trip) aimed to gather the troops and eventually get us all in the same place at the same time.
Today’s a holiday in Spain, El Día de la Inmaculada Concepción. Back in old, pre-Covid days, the first weekend of December, which is always a four day weekend because of Inmaculada Concepción and Constitution Day, is prime travel real estate.
This year, as stands to reason, we’re required to stay in the Community of Madrid. All the same, I’ve got plenty of things I should probably be doing. Instead, I’m sitting in the sun, drinking strong sugary cups of Earl Grey tea, reading a book — reading in a way I might not’ve read in years, since those lazy years before children, when it was actually possible to fritter away an entire day without either paying attention to, or answering to, anyone.
The name of the book I’m reading is ˆFlights.
This morning, I realized I had referred to the final leg of the journey back here to Madrid as coming home.
Yesterday, the plumber who came to our apartment to replace our water heater informed me Kamala Harris was a communist.
I was caught off guard — not just by the vigorousness of his opinions but by the vigorousness of his need to tell me these opinions. It was like One America News Network had suddenly started broadcasting from my own house.
The thing was, even though he had the talking points down, he lacked nuance. An American plumber would never start a conversation like this with me; he’d save it for Facebook. And he certainly wouldn’t ask me who I voted for only two minutes before he asked me if I had a bucket, a rag, and a ladder.
The second thing was — I had to be impressed by this passion for American politics. Who in the U.S., whether plumber or professor, knows who the hell the president and vice-president of Spain even are, much less cares enough to debate their (supposed) foreign policy aims?
The third thing was, after the water heater was replaced and he was finally gone, I realized I’d just had a long conversation in Spanish without even thinking about it, completely lacking constraint. — Communist? I scoffed. There are no communists in the United States. We don’t even have public health care!
He reeled off a couple more talking points.
—Well, that’s your opinion, I said, shrugging.
—Yep, he said cheerfully, that’s my opinion.
—Vale,* I said.
—Vale,* he agreed, and then he said that in order to stop the toilet from running he would have to tear down our bathroom wall.
Twenty-four years ago, six months after M and I married, we moved from Austin to Germany. Needless to say, 9/10s of our friends advised against this step. That we lived to tell that tale is testament to our strong bonds (or deep inertia). When we moved back to the U.S. two years later, I let my passport expire. Been there, done that I thought, dusting my hands of the whole endeavour and moving right along to other life-changing experiences like … pregnancy and parenthood.
I’d never even been to Europe before we moved to Germany. In college, I’d been so terrified by the idea of setting foot in a country where I didn’t speak the language I considered only Australia for a semester abroad (I ended up going to UGA instead).
When we got to Frankfurt, I had three phrases: please, thank you and where is the bathroom? I immediately started taking classes at the free community school. One day, after walking home from class past the junkies who shot up in the wasteland between school and our apartment, I discovered, hanging from our doorknob, a laminated square of paper labeled Haus Ordnung (House Order). The purpose of this document was opaque, though eventually I figured out maintenance of the apartment building’s common spaces rotated from apartment to apartment each week. Once a week, the stairwells and entryway were to be swept and mopped (preferably on hands and knees with a bucket and a scrub brush); once a resident finished their turn, they hung the Haus Ordnung on the door of the apartment above theirs.
Spain of course is a whole ‘nother animal. No haus ordnung here — here, keeping the stairwells clean is one of the responsibilities of a building’s porter. And they really are clean. Yesterday, not only was there no mud tracked into our building, the embellishments on the door to our actual apartment were completely dust-free.
One problem; two approaches to solving it. Which begs the question: do apartment stairways and landings get cleaned in the U.S.? Whose job is that? If you can draw conclusions from COVID times, it might be that as a culture we want neither to band together for the common good nor to pay to make sure that common good gets taken care of.
Which creates a hell of an impasse, so to speak.
I’ve taken lots of photographs of apartment building lobbies since we moved here. This makes sense: because of COVID restrictions, the neither-here-nor-there of entrances and lobbies are as close a glimpse of private Spanish life as I’m going to get (plus, it’s easier to take pictures of doors than people).
Most lobbies and entryways have similar features, whether they’re from the 1870s or the 1970s. There’s a chandelier — ornate jewels dripping crystals in older buildings, tawdry imitations in the newer ones. There’s a green plant, sometimes real, occasionally plastic. And always, tile — from traditional multi-colored arabesques to chunky earth tones that scream out the 1970s.
Apartment lobbies are in-between, transitional spaces that borrow details from home but aren’t home. Meant to be travelled through quickly, in normal times, they don’t bear much thinking about.
But here we are, in completely not-normal, liminal times. The old pre-COVID life is behind us. New ways lie ahead, but what will they look like?
For now, we’re stuck in that way station (that apartment lobby complete with faux-plant?) in between. Familiar — but not.
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.
The morning’s news contained this tidbit: our innocuous little health zone, still in pretend-confinement, now has the highest number of daily Covid cases in Madrid. This is unsurprising, given that our confinement is, after all, pretend. Plus, the neighborhood is full of students, that least Covid limitation-compliant of demographics. If the students who moved in downstairs are any indication, the parties have just moved home from the bars, and they start earlier now, so people can get home before curfew starts at midnight. And of course it’s not a Spanish party without singing. We’d find this charming, except that sometimes the singing goes on until 5 a.m., which means, I guess, that they’ve just decided to keep the party going until 6, when curfew ends.
Meanwhile, the national government proposed Christmas guidelines yesterday: no gatherings of more than six people, a curfew on Christmas Eve of 1a.m. Madrid immediately countered that it thinks people should be allowed to meet in groups of 10; the curfew should be 1:30 a.m. rather than 1 a.m. That the game of political hair-splitting continues is as unsurprising as our case numbers.
But in the face of all this, Madrid, like The Dude, abides. The Christmas lights will be turned on on Friday; December 7-8 are holidays (though we won’t be allowed to leave Madrid. We can still take walks.
So walk I do. Since the spring lockdown I’ve walked all the spring out of my tennis shoes.
Madrid is full of quirks. One’s the fact that the bottoms of balconies of buildings of a certain age are often faced with beautifully-patterned tiles, a glimpse you can only catch if you crane your neck back and look up — not where you’re going.
Anyone who loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books knows by now that like so much else from our childhood, those books, and that liking, have suffered a sea change.
Propaganda for an America that never actually existed in the first place, it’s hard now to read the Little House books in the spirit in which they were intended. (In what spirit were they intended?). It feels a little suspect to admit liking them, and probably will feel more so as time passes, but here’s the thing, or a thing: Wilder was really good at talking about food.
Thursday, Thanksgiving, is just a regular day here in Madrid, but I was able to snag canned pumpkin and cranberries at the American-food chain store last week (everything else on its shelves is either candy, cereal, or bbq sauce, which speaks volumes about America). Because the girls are still in the U.S. having their own peculiar versions of the holiday, our Thursday will just be the two of us. Maybe I’ll use that canned pumpkin — maybe I just won’t bother.
The plot of The Long Winter, the Laura Ingalls Wilder book that was always my favorite, basically boils down to this: it snows a whole lot, the trains with their carloads of supplies can’t get through, and for most of the book, Laura and her family grind flour in their coffee grinder and twist hay into kindling in order to survive.
Survive they do, of course, because The Long Winter is a kid’s book after all. By May the snow that blocked the train has melted, and Pa arrives home from the train station with the Christmas barrel sent from back east six months before.
“Now I wonder what this can be?” Pa said, as he lifted from the very bottom of the barrel something bulky and lumpy that was wrapped around and around with thick brown paper.
“Je-ru-salem crickets!” he exclaimed. “If it isn’t our Christmas turkey, still frozen solid.”
He held the great turkey up where all could see. “And fat! Fifteen pounds or I miss my guess.” And as he let the mass of brown paper fall, it thumped on the floor and out of it rolled several cranberries.
Carrie shrieked with delight. Mary clasped her hands and said “Oh, my!” But Ma asked, “Did the groceries come for the stores?”
“Yes, sugar and flour and dried fruit and meat — oh, everything anyone needs,” Pa answered.
“Well then, Mr. Boast, you bring Mrs. Boast day after tomorrow,” Ma said. “Come as early as you can and we will celebrate the springtime with a Christmas dinner.”
In a few hours, the Madrid government decides whether to keep our health zone, already pretend locked-down since mid-October, locked down for two more weeks. Every morning I wake to ominous shared FB posts from health care workers in the States, the sorts of posts that thankfully dwindled during the summer.
The idea of a raincheck becomes more and more attractive, particularly the way Laura Ingalls Wilder describes it:
At ten in the morning, when I walk to Spanish class, Madrid is just waking up (it’ll continue this leisurely process until about 9 p.m.). Porteros y porteras pensively mop the sidewalks in front of their buildings, even if it’s cloudy and the skies might crack open in a few hours. At ten, the cafes are divided between those who drink coffee and those who drink beer. The high school students jostle on the street in packs, smoking cigarettes, a sight that never fails to appall me. Elegant young women, dressed to the nines, agilely wend their way through the traffic on their Vespas. There are lines, to remind that these aren’t normal times: in front of the health office, the unemployment office, the covid-test laboratory, the bakery that currently only lets in people one at a time.
This morning, as I walked, I decided Spanish class might be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and also that I don’t want to do it anymore.
That I can consider learning a language that difficult shows what an exceptionally easy life I’ve had. (Or maybe how bad at languages I am.) But the thing is, most things that are very very hard, like going through childbirth or watching someone you love die, either take place fairly quickly or you somehow manage to extract yourself from, mentally, out of self-preservation. But learning a language just goes on and on and on, unless you’re a baby. A 50+ year-old brain is not as malleable as a college student’s, and by 50, being wrong all the time stings more. Besides, when you’re the only student in a class, the situation in which I currently find myself, it’s impossible to detach. The whole point is not to — to be present.
In order to get the sort of discount that allows a person to be able to take language classes for over a year, I pay for my classes in “packages.” And now, as the year draws to a close and covid cases ramp up, just one more class and I’ll have used up my current package. It would be so easy — to just pull the plug on on the whole endeavour.
This was an enjoyable fantasy to indulge in. No more telling someone “I needed the exorcism” when what I really meant was I needed the exercise. No more attempting to debate bullfighting or write a rhyming poem. No more being the recipient of rolled eyes, whether from the beggar who called me perra (bitch) or the man who asked me where the Chino was (Chino is colloquial racist slang for the equivalent of the Dollar Store) only for me to answer that I hadn’t seen anyone from China while I was standing there, but many Chinese students took classes in the building behind me.
An eon ago, when I was first being introduced to the subjunctive mood, a teacher attempted to explain it thusly: you use it to talk about things that aren’t factual, to discuss things that, rather, exist in some realm of not-sureness, of unknowingness, of magic.
This left three-fourths of the class even more bewildered than before.
But — desires are in the realm of magic, likewise emotions, negative opinions and giving advice. Agreement is fact, disagreement — the realm of magic.
If you believe something, it’s fact; if you don’t, you just pop it into that vague, unknowable realm of magic. As I walked to class, I imagined a future without Spanish class. I’d just speak in very simple sentences, since connectors confound me. I’d never use the imperative. I’ll avoid that realm of magic like the plague, constructing my sentences only with positive opinions. I’ll never ever make suggestions!
I was feeling good about this plan when I walked into the classroom.
My current teacher, R, who’s really a philosophy professor except there’s more work for Spanish teachers than philosophers these days, asked about my weekend and waited patiently through my strangely-worded response. He played a radio interview and I attempted to guess what the hell people were talking about. He played me a song by a famous Spanish musician and explained its metaphors; I wrote a new stanza for it. I tried to make jokes; he smiled — I think, I hope — underneath his mask.
One class down, one more to go, I thought after I said good-bye.
But R had done what good teachers do, pushing open the door to understanding just a tiny bit more, just wide enough that I could catch a glimpse of the realm of magic that lies beyond the threshold, and I realized that (after a break) —I’d probably be back.