Saturday, February 25, 2012

What makes Madrid?

A few weekends ago, I found myself sitting with my friend Dani, a Madrid native, in a bar in the grungy-trendy neighborhood of Malasaña. It was early on a cool late-winter Saturday night, and we were drinking cañas (mini servings of beer, ranging from 6 to 10 oz-- a common sight in any Spanish bar.) It was exactly my kind of place, with relaxed, warm atmosphere; colorful and funky decorations; and a pleasant variety of people clustered around tables and at the bar, all celebrating the weekend. My friend ordered another beer, and he took a moment to kibbitz with the pretty bartender. And then he turned to me and said,

"See? For me, that's Madrid. This bar is Madrid." Of course, I pressed him to explain himself-- and he did his best.

"I think Madrid is about life, ultimately. It's a city with everything-- beauty, history, museums. But people really savor life here. They know how to live, and they don't take things too seriously. Take that interchange I had just now with the waitress. I wanted to pay, she gave me a hard time-- that special light tone is very Madrid."

It was a theme I had noticed before, although Dani elucidated it better than I could have hoped. In my handful of visits to the city, I had picked up on that certain "vivaciousness"-- a feeling of energy and life, a New York-like joie de vivre but without some of the sweaty, crowded squirming discomfort. Even in the busiest times, it still felt like there was some personal space left on the Metro platforms. And yet that feeling...

Over three or four visits in the last months, Madrid has taught me about the many forms in which one can encounter this special zest-for-life. In the bustle of morning commutes, certainly. And the weekend buzz of bars in Malasaña or nearby trendy, gritty Lavapies--to be sure. But it's not just about movement.

I found that Madrid Something at the Casa Museo Sorolla, the museum dedicated to the lesser-known Spanish impressionist which I visited in early fall. Sorolla was a Spanish impressionist for his depictions of life in southern Spain and especially his generous splashes of the famous Valencian light. An ordinary museum experience can be sterile, but this one was full of warmth and life--the paintings crowded together, keeping each other company in tiled, richly-decorated rooms where Sorolla himself once painted. The images were full of that same dynamism, fully-realized characters who seemed dying to jump off the canvas. They may have been frozen, but they exuded a familiar energy.

View at the casa-museo

After that museum visit, another friend and I spent a lazy lunch in a beautiful plaza in a forgotten corner of the city. Warm-weather Madrid is chockablock with those kinds of nooks and crannies, full of sun-dappled cafes with people chatting, drinking coffee or beer, smoking. This Saturday-afternoon-cafe version of Madrid isn't in a hurry; it doesn't have anywhere special to be. Instead, it is simply thrilled to be out on this particular day, in this city of all the cities. And yet there is more potency to this lazy contentness than in the heights of some cities' most exciting evenings.

As good a place as any for an early-fall Saturday lunch

Further into the weekend, El Rastro beckons-- one of the best examples of Madrid's specal dynamism. One of the busiest flea markets in Europe, El Rastro floods the streets and alleys of the La Latina neighborhood weekly with leather workers; jewelers; junk food hawkers; vendors of rude t-shirts, key chains, bras, socks; curious shoppers; and (inevitably) pickpockets. It is nothing short of a seething, slow-moving mass of humanity, spreading slowly into the afternoon-- laughing, arguing, bargaining, chatting, drinking in the sunshine and the energy of the city.

El Rastro

Friday, February 17, 2012


I had big plans to post a Madrid-centric essay before I left, but packing always gets in the way. It's all drafted, so maybe I'll have a chance to get it finished while I'm gone. Because gone I'll be-- I'm about to spend 5.5 days celebrating Carnaval in Lisbon and Porto, Portugal. Should be crazy. I feel nervous and excited-- just the way you should before a fabulous trip. Catch you later!

Monday, February 13, 2012


The Lemon Society is one of my favorite nightlife spots in Palencia (see its listing my "things to do in Palencia when you're (not) dead" entry). The inexplicably English-named watering hole, with its colored lights, sleek bar, and menu scrawled in crayon on the wall, is funky enough to appeal to me but trendy enough to attract a crowd of late-20s-to-late-30s Palentinos on almost any night of the week. It is a lovely size for cozy conversation; I enjoy its reasonably-priced local wine selection, served in oversized glasses; and (perhaps most importantly) it is one of the foremost venues for live music in the city.

At least once a week, The Lemon Society plays host to one of the many small-time rock, pop, folk, or blues bands currently touring around Castilla y Leon. I've seen classic-rock tinged duos, punk-pop outfits, and even once a Louisiana-style-blues band imported from Tennessee. Often these bands are only stopping in a few places in Castilla y Leon-- Burgos, Salamanca, Leon, or Valladolid (all much bigger cities), and Palencia. I'm convinced that the Lemon Society has something to do with that, and I'm grateful.

This past weekend's concert lived up to my Lemon Society standards. The artist was the lead-singer of a much-loved pop-rock band from the 80s and 90s called The Lemons (strange name coincidence.) Everything seemed to be well-balanced that night: I went to the show with a group of friends, a mix of Spaniards and foreigners (which I find is often hard to maintain in a ceaselessly foreign environment where spending time with other visitors can be almost too easy.) On other nights the bar had been suffocatingly full, but tonight the crowd level was perfect--large enough to transmit excitement and energy but still with room to breathe. The green and purple lights threw shadows on excited faces as we waited for the show to begin.

It was during that waiting period that I noticed that the atmosphere in the bar differed from what I'd experienced at other shows I'd seen there. Unlike me, it didn't feel like these were people who had just popped in to see who might be performing tonight. They were there with purpose, with expectation. When, a few minutes later, the singer appeared and began to work his way through a lush acoustic guitar-and-harmonica set, they all seemed to stand up a little straighter. And then something happened that I'd certainly not encountered before: as he reached the chorus of his first song, I heard voices joining in all over the bar. Quiet voices and rough voices, from the perfectly-coiffed fashionistas to the boisterous drunk in flannel at the front. I'm always a fan of a sing-a-long, so I closed my eyes and let the sound wash over me.

The set continued: a quiet ballad segued into something more fast-paced and rollicking, and the crowd went along for the ride, clapping and swaying. The energy in the room was palpable. Looking around, it seemed like an awful lot of people were smiling. I couldn't figure it out-- how did everyone in this bar know the lyrics to all these songs? I finished my wine and leaned over to teach one of my Spanish friends the word "sing-a-long." In return, she offered something of an explanation. These songs, she said, were beloved covers from the 1980s.

"In the 80s, after Franco, pop was one of the first arts to recover. Everyone was crazy for music in those days. Those songs brought people together. A lot of people still remember the words." She smiled. I noticed she was tapping her toes to the beat.

The concert was winding down, and I had an early train to catch the next morning. But for a few moments more I sat bathing in the sound of voices raised in unison, now seeing the proceedings from a new perspective. People here are loathe to discuss that part of their history, but (or perhaps thus) I am often surprised by how the specter of Franco still lurks. He's still here, in more than just bad memories-- he's present in the way people think of themselves, their religion and their country; in the absence of nationalistic fervor or even flags (an attitude which for me is reminiscent of Japan) -- and even in something as small as a singalong in a crowded bar.

More thoughts on this to come, I expect.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dia de la Matanza--Preview

Last Thursday was a magical day for me-- a double holiday in Palencia, the Dia de la Matanza (Day of the Sacrifice) and Dia de la Virgin de la Calle (Day of the Virgin of the Street.) The former is an elaborate feast of all kinds of pork products (in past years they killed the pigs right there in Plaza Mayor, while this year the dead specimens were merely displayed.) The latter is a festival celebrating the patron saint of the city, complete with processions through the old town, Castellano costume, and traditional dancing by tiny adorable children (as well as much more adept older adults.)

Overly romantic as it may be, when I stopped to think about what life could be like in Spain last year, this is one of the ideals I imagined: an untouristed town celebrating local festivals, eating traditional food, wearing beautiful clothes-- and myself, camera in hand, happy to see familiar landmarks decorated with time-honored ceremony. And so as I made my way through the crowded cathedral, amidst an eerie susurrus of the Lord's prayer on 300 pairs of lips; and as the dancing girls at the head of the procession stopped to twirl and click their castanets to welcome the Saint back to its home in the church on Calle Cestilla-- I admit to getting misty-eyed. I was here. I saw this. I made it.