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Letter From Madrid

The holiday months caught up with me in Madrid. Spain celebrates Three Kings Day on January 6, with a big procession in the middle of the city. But Spain also celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25, and New Year’s Eve, even has a universal holiday cake to be dutifully carried to family gatherings  — a ring-shaped white flour cake called roscon, with candied fruit bits on top. The bakeries of Madrid all displayed it to prove a point: one cannot get through Deep Winter Holidays on cake alone.

The Jamon de Oro café on Calle Clara del Rey in the Prosperidad District is like a birch tree compared to a tinseled Xmas tree when rated with other bars. Unadorned and well-grained from its homemade apple pastels to the Spanish rioja— of northern Spain origins only, and non-headache inducing. The bartender Emilio, a solid, unself-consciously sweet man, serves us generous tapas of ham slices, white cheese and olives. There are quite good original paintings hanging behind the bar, the work of the owner’s artist daughter; an El Mundo newspaper for the customers is usually tucked between the napkin dispensers on the bar, and the dining room sports formica tables. This leave-it-alone-if-it-ain’t-broke décor pays off in cheaper prices and greater comfort. The bon homie of long-time customers clustered at the bar under the old cheery red, green and yellow chandeliers was instrumental in my cousin ordering yet another 1.30 Euro Mahou beer. And while many businesses in Madrid close in the afternoon from 2 to 5, the Jamon carries on, and  we with it. The big national Navidad lottery, called El Gordo, is advertised on the wall, twenty dollars per one-tenth of a ticket, winners to be called out on December 22. “Shall we share a ticket?” she asks. I prefer to employ my ten Euros (one Euro is approximately one dollar) in immediate gratification, I sniff, acting like a horse’s tail. My cousin natters on about playing her “lucky 127” number, derived from her deceased partner’s and her winnings in a British lottery some years back —“I could play my birth date 7/5 with it.” A stranger walks down from the end of the bar to talk with us, because, he says, we “look happy,” and he is too. Sunday nights the owner, who looks in her sixties, sometimes comes in to sit by the ATM machine and chat. Now she asks my cousin about a common acquaintance, a long-time habitué, “How long has Ingrid been dead, six months?” “No, two years.” My cousin says to me, sotto voce,” “You see how fast time goes when you get old?”

“The speed of light,” I say, noting that we’re a bit older yet. “Let’s get a lottery ticket,” I add, changing my mind after staring so long at the El Gordo notice in front of me. I finish off my wine, she finishes her fourth glass of beer — “They’re very small.” I could go for a refill I say.

“You can drink another one?”

“You’re not the only one who’s had practice at this.”

Hours later two mature women are walking up  Clara del Rey, one laughing out loud like a drunk person, non-stop, the other claiming she’ll have to go to a hotel to sleep if this continues. “Arrastrandonos a su casa,” I say. “Like snakes.” And we drag ourselves to her apartment, actually pretty well upright. Later on, sobering, I make my case for this being one of the real advantages of old age besides lower bus fare — much cheaper to get drunk.

By December 18 I’m well ensconced in my nest of quilts in front of the TV doing my Spanish lesson, learning vocabulary from the soap opera “Six Sisters,” which repeats simple usable idioms, and refers to previous plots in each show, with the text in Spanish on the screen.  “Vale, vale,” is my latest acquisition — “OK,OK.” Being slow-minded I still haven’t figured out why dropdead handsome Germano is lying in a hidden dungeon somewhere bleeding from serious wounds, at death’s door, while the extended family is searching for him. Criminy, there’s about six or ten sons-in-laws and lovers, and all of them can’t do a thing? Before I get to pursue the involved “Seis Hermanas” plot any further the Spanish National Elections take place on December 20th, after a month or so-long political campaign (in contrast to our torturesome year or so-long national election campaigns). Spanish President Mariano Rajoy’s ruling Conservative party, the Popular Party(PP), while winning it, did not win a big enough election margin for his party to form a government. For the rest of my visit this is the all-concerning  subject on the TV, since the four political parties can’t agree on a compromise and that would mean another election in March. The second biggest vote was earned by the PSOE, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party. The pony-tailed leader of Podemos, a relatively new party that won the 3rd biggest number of votes, is an admirer of Venezuela’s Nicholas Madura, Hugo Chavez’s heir. (It’s said that if there are ten Spaniards anywhere, there are eleven political parties.) In the meantime these same National Elections in the province of Cataluña installed a new and determined pro-independence government, which was then warned by President Rajoy that any legal moves toward independence from Spain would be prevented. Today, February 3rd, the party of the second-biggest votes gleaned, the Socialist Workers’ Party, has been asked to govern the country, but it looks more likely that the only solution may be a new election.

One bit of good news in Spain is that unemployment has gone down, and the economy is picking up. It’s hard to believe there are any hard times from what I see in the heart of Madrid — cafes filled with diners and drinkers and department stores like the huge Corte de Ingles complex alight with shoppers pre- and post-holidays, everyone looking upbeat. Aside from air pollution, the city is clean. There are not many homeless living on the streets, very few, and there’s a Catholic Church that lets people sleep on its floor and pews; I was taken to see it. The same church blesses animal pets on announced days. All bueno this mid-winter. There’s been a new Mayor of Madrid for about six months, Manuela Carmena, and she’s put the city in an uproar because of how she staged the big Procession of the Three Magi on January 6th ,Three Kings Day. This is a big day in Spain. I have a wonderful picture here from the January 7th issue of the newspaper El Pais, with Manuela Carmena,  a Communist in her seventies who was previously a judge, in which the Mayor and her Cultural Councilor pose with the Three Kings of the holiday procession. The King with the long white beard and gilded crown is I believe a tall woman in an electric blue-purple tunic with strange black plant stems on it, not unintriguing I have to say. Another King is wearing a bright pink tunic with yellow birds and plants on it, and the third is in a light green tunic with geometric designs in pink and yellow and has pheasant feathers coming out of his rose-colored turban. All are shiny plastic-looking (economic?) one-piece affairs, and induced an uproar in letters-to-the-editors columns swearing that people would never, never forgive Mayor Carmena — never. For this travesty which upset the expectations of their children — there also were no camels or other animals in the procession. The tunics were referred to as “shower curtains,” which they may have been (economics?) indeed, and castigated the Mayor for introducing a “Reina,” as Melchor, one of the Kings. The Mayor’s team defended her saying it was simply a matter of modernizing the pageant, and anyway no one really knows how the Three Kings travelling to see baby Jesus did dress. I’d guess they did not wear those goofy high crowns on their heads riding camels through the desert either, not without rubber bands to hold them on anyway.  Quite sixties San Franiciso, I thought. Of course all four political parties aligned themselves against the Mayor. But let me back up in time to December, when my cousin  and I went to the small village of Nava, north of Madrid, where we stayed off and on until I left Spain at the end of January.

On the 19th of December we go to a concert in Nava’s Cultural Center to hear a mixture of interpretations of original Jewish, Muslim, and Christian music, some of it from the 1400’s, on ancient instruments called citoles, laudes, and adufes, including one wind-up viola. This concert was supported by Spain’s Immigration and Migration Ministry and is here because Nava has hired a world renowned music director. The room was full of school children and their parents and a group of Muslim women. One of the two performers curates a museum of world instruments and gramophones (was that viola actually a gramophone hybrid?), and does musical background for films, TV projects, and festivals. Afterwards my cousin and her friend Juanita and I walked to Pablo’s café in the plaza and discussed a projected Christmas Eve dinner to be cooked by Juanita. “I can imagine Xmas Eve,” my cousin says to Juanita, “ Penny is watching television, you’re in the kitchen cooking, and I’m getting drunk.”  Pablo’s  Ecuadorian waitress Paca brings us tapas of sliced ham, bread, and green peppers in olive oil. The townsman who raises falcons sometimes brings his pet eagle in here, and the men who take part in the pigeon race events do their registration here, the men taking their racers tenderly out of cages to allow the registrar to enter them on his list. The feathers of the pigeons are dyed in bright, mostly  primary colors, and in the races a female pigeon is let loose, then the males (machos) are:  the judges watch with binoculars to see which pigeon reaches the female (hembra) first. The winner collects the pot of money. The female pigeon dies at the end. There’s a large chart on the wall at Pablo’s with the names of the owners of the entrants— across  from this is a for-sale wine section, something I wanted to examine more closely since Pablo, an affable, funny man, knows his wines. The races are referred to by some irreverent women as the “pigeon fucking race.” Yet Spain is a bird-loving place, and the village is a bird sanctuary— it’s illegal to remove bird’s eggs from their nests. (Then again my cousin’s cat goes nuts when she hears the falcons screaming up in the sky, running terrified back in the house to hide under the bed.) I’ve been told the village is the last place in Spain that holds this pigeon race.

Oh yeah, that Tuesday before Christmas  in the Nava general store, where we are because my cousin is getting her El Pais newspaper: Up  above, the TV screen showing a number;  to my American eyes it is 12.7 something, but the Spanish use a point in place of our comma. So I nudge my cousin to look. “Is it twelve and seven tenths? Twelve point seven seven five?” She’s dumfounded. “It’s twelve thousand seven-hundred seventy-five.” 12775, the number she was always planning to buy on the Sunday before we went to Pablo’s, but at the very last minute rationalized to herself that the chances to win were far too remote. It won the second biggest El Gordo prize —  would have been about 60,000 Euros apiece for each of us, after taxes. First time I ever saw someone trying to wring their own neck. “Vale,” I say, “That’s not even enough for me to rent a new apartment in San Francisco, no problem.”  No problema.

In my Spain Notes, writing now, my eyes land on an observation made in Starbucks from  my first days in Madrid. Lone girl, early twenties, orders one chocolate chip cupcake; carries the plate to a little circular table, sits down,  takes out her phone, and photographs the cupcake twice. She sits a while, then raises the cupcake to her mouth and nibbles slightly on the chips of chocolate sticking out at the top. I remember wondering back then, what’s really going on here?  But then we had to leave in a hurry to get down the street to the new Tom Hanks movie on time.

(Copyright©2016, Penny Skillman. Penny Skillman’s fiction and essays can be found on Amazon e-books bookshelf.)

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