Friday, 27 May 2011

Nobody expects the Spanish revolution

It was a student who explained to me that Tirso de Molina, the little district where I live, is something of a hotspot of political activism. A large, open square bordered by a main road and a Lidls, its not particularly attractive. The stone benches are scribbled with graffiti and the corners are home to pungent aromas and empty Mahou bottles. However, on the other hand, the rush of water from the corner statue, the splash of colour from the flower vendors and the excited giggles of the children on the playground make it a nice place to sit. The two restaurant terraces, permanently buzzing with people, are perfect people-watching posts. Though I have never really noticed it, on reflection, there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest the left-wing, anarchist currents of Tirso. Every Sunday the flower stands are interspersed with fold-out tables, laden with political pamphlets, and there are always a few interesting characters loitering in the middle – most recently a mean-looking punk with a severe mohawk, plentiful piercings and a spotted red and white flamenco skirt worn over his leathers.

It was on Friday evening when walking home from the station that I passed a disparate looking procession ambling up a local side street. A demonstration rather lacking in numbers, I weaved easily through the well-spaced crowd to overtake, and continued stomping up the hill towards my flat. A quick glance of the motley gaggle and the felt-tip scrawl on their banners seemed to confirm that it was just a fringe group making a song and dance about very litte. However, two days later I found my doorway blocked by an enormous overturned rubbish cube. On squeezing past it and picking my way through the profusion of smashed bottles and crumpled cans, I was engulfed in billowing clouds of foul-smelling smoke – the recycling bins had been set on fire in an unexpected burst of activism.

Though I didn´t realise it at the time, the fringe demonstration of Friday and seemingly random anarchism of Sunday night were part of the build up to the mass demonstration that has paralysed Puerta del Sol for the past week. It began on Tuesday night. Immersed in back-to-back episodes of The New Adventures of Superman, I remained blissfully unaware that hordes of unhappy Spaniards were gathering in the centre of the city and planning to camp there overnight. In fact, I didn´t realise that the city had been gripped by protest until I picked up a freebie newspaper on the Metro the next morning. The following day, slightly more on the ball, I made a point of passing through Sol at about 10pm. It was an impressive sight. Under a dramatic sky - heavy storm clouds illuminated by the sunset – a sea of bodies milled around expectantly bubbling with fervent energy and jostling together as if waiting for something. Some gaggles of demonstrators had clambered onto the fish-shaped dome that marks the Metro entrance, while others had scaled the scaffolding of the main buildings, punching holes in the advertisments to a crescendoeing roar from the crowds. The atmosphere was electric.

Though it began spontaneously, the protest has now been resident in Sol for about a week. The unruly mob has morphed into some sort of makeshift village – with impressive infrastructure - at a startling pace. In fact, though Spaniards are infamous for their lack of organisation, the impromptu construction of a camp seems to have been conducted with military precision, and it hasn´t been done in half-measures. The face of Sol has been transformed. The statues are invisible beneath a wallpaper of slogans, an uneven canopy of blue tarpaulin shades the random array of stands and the flowerbeds that normally surround the fountains have been trampled into compact, brown earth. There are medical tents, one homeopathic and one conventional, categorised storerooms brimming with vegetarian food and toiletries, a press tent kitted out with laptops and microphones, cushion-laden rest zones and an excess of informative signs stipulating the food timetable, the program of speakers and procedures to be followed in the case of police violence. Stewards marshall pedestrian traffic aong the road, journalists interview self-annointed spokesmen, resident protesters stretch across sofas to catch up on sleep and musicians strum relaxing tunes...

On Saturday night I spent the evening sitting in the square with a friend, sipping a drink and soaking up the atmosphere. Though I did feel twinges of guilt for buying a litre of sangria when there were a plethora of posters encouraging abstinence, we weren´t alone: the surrounding streets were like a local bar on a Saturday night. However, the atmosphere was notably calm and relaxed. In fact, generally speaking there is an overwhelming spirit of co-operation and solidarity. My housemate, who last featured in this blog as the full-grown man wearing a babygrow and sipping a cocktail on a Sunday morning, bounced home on Wednesday flushed and excited after donating 10 pints of milk to the resident protesters. He´s not alone – a variety of restaurants are donating food and drinks. It seems that the entire Spanish pueblo - from jobless students to retired grandparents – is contributing in some way to this spur-of-the-moment display.

Cynics may argue that it is a meaningless charade with no demands and no answers - a theatre conducted by the unemployed with nothing better to do. Indeed, I do wonder what the government could possibly do to appease protesters. However, it is also refreshing to see a society finally shaken into action. Though criticised for being directionless with no political slant or concrete list of demands, this characteristic of the demonstration seems to have been a purposeful decision – a protest against the whole system, wanting sweeping changes and not simply more excuses and finger pointing.

Only time will tell whether it is merely a hippie-haven and a pointless theatre or a defining moment in history. Either way, it´s exciting to be living in the middle!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Ringmaster

Sunken in a comfy, dreamy slumber, the shrill and persistant bleep of my alarm clock seemed somehow more offensive than usual last Monday. Unsuprisingly, contemplating the unappealing prospect of a full day of teaching when snugly wrapped in a cosy duvet didn´t little to animate my enthusiasm. Pressing the snooze button repeatedly was similarly ineffective, merely resulting in a fuzzy head and a groggy start to the morning...

 I have attributed this exaggerated bout of Monday gloom to a “holiday hangover”, triggered by the unwelcome return to reality after the lazy May Day holidays, known in Spain as "San Isidro". Madrid´s equivalent of England´s Spring bank holiday, San Isidro - in true Spanish style - is spun out to last a full week. As such, with the majority of my classes cancelled and a refreshingly empty timetable, I felt like I was on holiday. The long, free afternoons soaking up the atmosphere were definitely worth being a few euros down next month. Whether strolling around the city centre, reading on a park bench or sipping a tinto de verano on a terrace, the city was heaving with people and buzzing with freebie concerts and displays. As businesses closed at lunchtime and offices emptied, the parks and plazas swelled. It felt like the population of Madrid had doubled within the space of a few days.

In Plaza Mayor, people gave up table-stalking the restaurant terraces or hovering hopefully by the stone benches and simply flopped onto the cobbles, picnicking in circles on the stones or leaning against the pillars to bask in the sun. The circus of street performers also seemed to grow, the glut of tourists tempting a handful of new hopefuls to the square. A series of novel fancy dress outfits appeared: a dumpy, oval-shaped fruit bowl, spinning on her finger a sombrero laden with plastic bananas, a "headless" sailor, the necktie of his faded suit swollen in a tell-tale bulge, a theatrical Charlie Chaplin, his curly, black wig lightly dusted with the white powder that coated his face. Some exuberant, young travellers also made brief appearances, attacking the swollen plaza energetically - loudly rallying a crowd of curious onlookers, setting up an array of props and mounting a noisy spectacle.

Amidst the carnival, Spiderman remained a stoic presence throughout the week, quietly confident with his sun-bleached suit and sagging stomach. Distinctive but unobtrusive. Incongrous but effective. An expert at work, he effortlessly attracted a steady flow of snap-happy tourists, conducting a roaring trade – even administering change when necessary. Perhaps in honour of San Isidro, he had added to his trademark repertoire of photo poses, debuting a new posture: the Beer-Belly-Rub. Any unsuspecting passerby with an ample gut was liable to be coaxed into position (legs hips-width apart in a wide stance, pelvis pushed forwards and hands behind back) to partake in a belly-bump with Spiderman. Admittedly, it was a move with varying degrees of success, some of the more bashful targets blushing red and hastily retreating. Even so, the colourful array of extravagant costumes and dramatic spectacles couldn´t detract from Spiderman´s success.

Recently, when passing through Puerta Del Sol, the official centrepoint of Madrid situated a five minute walk from Plaza Mayor, I happened across another "spiderman". However, though sporting the trademark suit (his a shiny, bright red and blue with padded shoulders) he had a rather shrunken, pathetic aspect. Wandering listlessly around the main statue he appeared poignantly uncomfortable instead of easily self-assured. Jostled by the passing crowds, he was a pale imitation of the booming character in Plaza Mayor. In contrast, the Spiderman of the Plaza, the undisputed ringmaster of the circus, seems to be slowly cementing his status as an official emblem of Madrid. Most recently, he has acquired a miniature statue of himself. Though only a foot high, the glazed waxwork is in perfect proportion to his figure: globular, with peachy protruding buttocks and a proudly round stomach.

I´m just waiting until he appears on the Top 10 Must-See´s in the Lonely Planet!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Boredom breakers

Just to prove that I don´t spend all of my free time snoozing on park benches and going for walks, here are some links to articles that I have written recently: The Spanish Taberna and The Bolevan Plateau (p. 40). For if you ever find yourself aimlessly perusing the internet or twiddling your thumbs at work...