Its mid December and Christmas has finally settled in Madrid. The un-hurried, leisurely constuction of temporary markets and festive displays has been completed. Plazas are now congested with an unbelievable array of tatty christmas decorations and kitsch toys, and the christmas lights, flicked on unceremoniously last week, twinkle brightly for an energy-efficient, budget-friendly six hours every evening.
Despite the deceptively laid-back build-up, there is nothing quite like the crazy carnival that is Christmas in Madrid - albeit the city´s festivities are more fitting for Halloween or April Fools Day than for Father Christmas. Santa Claus hats have been replaced by ridiculous wigs more suitable for 60s rockers than St. Nick, mince pies have been swapped for blocks of turrón and steaming cups of mulled wine are nowhere to be seen. Similarly, the christmas jingles lovingly recycled annually on British radio, though often a trigger of weary grumbles about premature christmas cheer at home, are poignantly absent here. For me, the old adage ´There´s no place like home´ has never been truer.
However, strange as it is, the inevitable pangs of pre-Christmas homesickness have been accompanied by a new-found appreciation for the spanish perspective. For example, in sharp contrast to the furious Christmas marketing drive of shops in England, it is refreshing that in Spain, amidst the frenzied, pre-Christmas spending, not even the leading department stores, primely located in shopping hotspots, will consider opening their doors before 10am.
There is clearly reason behind the shops opening hours. Madrid stays up late and wakes up slowly. When you stroll through the centre at night, be it Sunday or Friday, 9pm or 5am, the city is always a hive of activity. In contrast, in the morning the centre is like a ghost town, sparsely scattered with a few newspaper vendors and jaded party-goers from the night before. In fact, when walking to work last Saturday morning, I was accosted by a persistent morrocan intent on selling me marijuana. He had clearly mistaken me for someone on their return from a night on the town rather than a professional on route to work (a sad testament to my appearance early in the morning).
By the afternoon the city has risen from slumber and the central plazas throng with crowds. Locals wait in a long, winding line to buy lottery tickets from kiosks, keen shoppers jostle through the streets laden with bags, and lengthy queues outside gather the main museums. Parque del Retiro, the city´s treasured green space, is also humming with activity by the afternoon. Market vendors, street performers and palm readers line the main promenade, roller-bladers and skaters make loops around the roundabouts, runners puff their way around the perimeter and police horses patrol the main monuments.
Blessed with weather where rain is an outside possibility and sunshine is expected, spaniards of all ages make the most of being outside, be it crisp and cold or warm and summery.This weekend, when running through the rustic reds and golds of Retiro beneath crisp blue skies, I passed an assembly of well-dressed pensioners playing bowls with a slab of slate and a crumpled can of Pepsi. Although unable to understand their gruff, incomprehensible spanish, I occasionally heard a trademark ´¡Ole!´ after a successful shot.
It is promising that, despite longing for christmas festivities with family and friends, mince pies and mulled wine, I am still being charmed by spanish foibles. One can´t help but raise a smile when, for the price of a lemonade, you are dished out a plate of tapas big enough to serve as dinner! Although weary now, I hope that, following two weeks of home comforts and long, easy chats with old friends, I will be fresh faced and enthusiastic when I return to Madrid in January.