Assessment as We Start Year Two

Madrid abides.

No fancy prose here, just documentation. We’re only 25 days into 2021 but so far, Madrid has experienced:

  • Snow that in places was up to my knees (and over a week’s worth of trash stored on our balcony until garbage service was restored).
  • The explosion of a city building making international news.
  • A fireball (in reality, a meteor) streaking across the sky and disintegrating over the city.
  • COVID restrictions, ever stricter and stricter. This time, the 16 current perimetral confinements will be monitored by drones and checkpoints.

Our health zone isn’t confined — not yet — but the one a few blocks above ours is. Will I be able to pass through it on my way to the park? The frutería?

I can only walk the sidewalk outside the park anyway, looking longingly toward its green spaces. One of the saddest repercussions of the snow is that parks are closed for the next 2 months. Too much danger from still-dangling tree limbs.

Holland already required a PCR test if a traveler passed through its airports: a government decree on Friday night added a rapid test no more than 4 hours before the flight. Since just about the only flight left between Madrid and Amsterdam (and then, on to the U.S.) departs at 6 a.m., travel through Amsterdam is effectively impossible.

Somehow I get the feeling Holland doesn’t want us there at this point.

On a more micro level, in the past year, I’ve walked 1027 miles — half the length of the Appalachian Trail and twice the length of the Camino de Santiago — mostly without leaving Madrid. I’ve explored the city far more than I ever planned to in pre-pandemic times. My yardstick has changed: I used to think distances that meant a 40-minute walk required a train or bus ride instead, to make them quicker. Now any destination less than an hour away feels like a walk in the park (pun intended).

The swifts will start their annual migration back from Africa soon.

(Not Quite)Mopping Up

At final tally, almost a foot of snow fell in Madrid between Thursday and Saturday. Today, the temperature rose to about 37 degrees and the sun came out — but the question now is what does one do with all that snow? If you’re a Madrileño with a top-floor terrace, you shovel it into the street below using your broom and a dust pan, which tends to cause shouting matches with passers-by. This morning, El Pais contained a diagram illustrating how to avoid snowfalls from building cornices. Mostly, people just walk in the middle of the street. Their careful shuffle is a little zombie-like; the car-less thoroughfares, a little apocalyptic.

Snow plows have cleared main streets, but most peripheral arteries are a mixture of snow, slush, dog poop, and downed tree limbs — there’s probably not a tree in Madrid that didn’t lose at least a branch. Volunteers with four wheel drive vehicles are ferrying people to the hospitals, which are otherwise inaccessible.

Tonight’s low will be in the low 20s, tomorrow’s in the teens. Since all that slush is about to become ice, school’s been cancelled at least through Tuesday. The grocery store opened at noon today, but by the time we got there at 12:45, the produce section had already been decimated.

The new joke is that the snow was a government plan to get us all back on lockdown.

Inédito(Unheard Of)

Philomena, the storm of the century, was forecast days ago, but people kept saying it just wouldn’t happen: Madrid doesn’t get snow, not the kind that shuts down a city. On Thursday, it spat flurries, and people said there’s your snow, but El Pais said well, that was just un aperitivo, so I crossed my fingers, my toes, and hoped with all my heart — because by then the news from home was so grievous, so heartrending, that the best thing to do seemed to be to turn away from CNN and walk toward the light.

Snow in places that usually don’t see it covers a multitude of sins and brings out the best in people, and if there was ever a time that called for that — now would be it.

We overslept this morning, Madrid tamped down like a city inside a snow globe, and went out without taking the time for breakfast. An urban center lacking the sound of cars is a beautiful place — more than anything, I wanted to experience it before the snow plows got out, the Spanish woke up, and the beautiful white blanket covering Madrid had become yellow slush.

A friend says someone they know, a native Madrileño of 73, described today as unedito, which literally translates to unpublished, but in this case has to mean unheard of.

People are skiing on Gran Vía:

At one o’clock this morning, there was a giant snowball fight on the plaza in front of the main Corte Ingles department store.

There weren’t many people out at 8:30 a.m., when we first waded out into the snow that covered Calle Princesa. Some wore ski clothes, others, plastic garbage bags over their sneakers.

But — and this is the thing that lifted my heart — when they left their apartments this morning, each and every one of them reached, out of new habit, without getting angry about it, without debating it, for their face mask.

Epiphanies

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,

far and wee.

On Flânerie

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.

Maybe it’s the long look given to a thing that turns life into art.


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.

Bookmarks

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.

But the day I bookmarked Wordometer.com’s case count, some time back in the spring, there were 785,807 cases of COVID-19, 37,820 deaths — in the world. Today there are 81 million more cases, 1.7 million more deaths.

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.

Flights

Our Jesus of the Frutería (photo by M)

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.

Vale*

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.

*OK.

Strangers in a Strange Land

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.

A space to be moved through.

Loving One’s Neighbor

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.

Whether it means being able to go to Target or not wearing a mask, we Americans have the freedom to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it whether it’s Sunday or any other day of the week — damn the torpedos and/or our neighbors!

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.