Tuesday, November 01, 2005

WHY MADRID (written for my friends at the Travel Bookshop in London and first published in their Newsletter):

Americans always wonder why I choose to live in Madrid. Spaniards never ask, preferring conversation to direct questions. What there is to know about a person comes out in the course of an encounter, over a meal or a copa, or more gradually but just as inevitably in the brief daily chats where you get your newspaper, buy your bread, take your coffee. Manners are exquisite but deceptively informal, rooted deep in subliminal worry, with the easy open point being that no one remains anonymous. Men and women unfailingly trade two kisses, a peck on each cheek when meeting for the first time and by way of every greeting and farewell. Strangers are sure to say hello and goodbye to each other in elevators.

In the last century this national graciousness was honed by a brutal civil war and the subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco. After the mutual atrocities, and under the watchful eyes of Franco's military police and their neighborhood informants, it was better to get along and keep your private life and opinions quiet. Ironically, repression tempered Spain - con ganas, "with desire" - for an eventual democratic transition that was all the more historic for being unprecedented in its orderliness. The country had a long reflective time, 36 years of absolute autocracy, to prepare for the Generalissimo's demise in 1975; one proud legend has it that the night he finally died, statues of political figures all over Spain were quietly and symbolically replaced with telephone booths.

The telephone booths, as sudden links to the outside world, point up another irony of the Franco years: Fascist and nominally neutral during WWII, Spain was excluded from the post-war modernization of Europe and ostracised as a diplomatic pariah - enduring los aƱos de hambre, "the years of hunger" - until it joined the United Nations in 1955. Also, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its spawn of sub-cultural activism came late to Spain, where public display of affection was a citable offense under Franco. Spaniards have caught up fast, but those 30 years outside the international mainstream arguably kept Spain more historically authentic, more stubbornly idiomatic and less homogenized - less Americanized - than her European neighbors who were earlier to put out the tourist trough.

The past is everywhere in Spain, even in the capital, constantly contradicting the future. Everyone's favorite example is lunch: While America and the rest of Europe grab a bite, most of Madrid still closes up shop at 2 and goes home for a proper meal and a siesta in the heat of the day, in the cold shorter days of winter as well. Business resumes at 5, ends at 8; dinner is at 10 and 9 is early to find a restaurant open. Your waiter will probably work there his entire adult life, a professional and proud of it. He is also a source of information about everything from the secret lowdown behind the local news to Madrid's notorious vagaries of spring weather - "Don't take off your overcoat until the 40th of May."- and he has timed the ebb and spate of city traffic to a science. His best kept secret - which he can't help sharing, drawing a map - is that for all the cars and their infernal pollution, and even with all the construction suburbanizing the outskirts of Madrid, it is still possible for a person to arrive at Barajas International Airport and walk west and south into the city, almost 10 miles, almost all of it through open country where the only sounds are birdcalls and the faraway bells of sheep and goats.

This continuity of life can be intriguing to an American, and maddeningly inert when it's time to get something done in a hurry or deal with any bureaucracy. But in the offices and corridors of paperwork, you find yourself, for good or ill, seeing the same faces; they remember you; a greeting elaborates into an exchange, something shared, even if it leads only to further debate. Then one day a small administrative favor solves the insoluble problem, and afterwards your friend the waiter celebrates your victory with a drink on the house, a second one just as you are getting up to leave. You settle back into your seat, your battle with the bureaucratic windmill more or less amicably won and now the occasion of a kindness. This is Madrid, this gift of an unexpected moment when you take another, more relaxed and appreciative look around. No wonder a recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry has shown that Spaniards are less subject to depression than other Europeans - only 2.6% of the Spanish population, compared to 17% of the British - and actuarial tables give Spaniards a longer average life than Americans.

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