Friday, 11 May 2012

Time are tough in Madrid

This time last year, Madrid's Puerta del Sol was the hotbed of Spanish politics, spontaneously transformed into a protest camp that engulfed the centre for weeks – a movement dubbed 15-M. Now, the revolutionary fervour that ignited the passions of so many seems to have fizzled out, replaced with a weary, down-beat resignation: empty tables in restaurant terraces, quieter shops on the high street and a notable swell in people plying their trade on the streets. Times are, most definitely, tough.

I noticed it almost as soon as I arrived in Madrid. The city was heaving with beggars, buskers and vendors, unacknowledged or simply unseen. The leathery-faced old lady hunched beneath her shawl, monotonously turning the wheel of a windup music box; the blind beggar shuffling between the tables of restaurant terraces, eyes clouded with cataracts and head nodding mechanically; the disused doorway established as a bedroom for three, piled high with flattened cardboard boxes and discarded clothes... No corner was unoccupied. Even on the metro from the airport there was a three-piece band squashed into half of the carriage. Pressed shoulder-to-shoulder by the door, one twanged a fast-paced riff on a battered-looking double bass while the saxophonist and accordion player bobbed rhythmically to his side, another maneuvering between commuters to collect loose change in an empty tennis racket case.

In addition, the carnival of performers usually concentrated in Plaza Mayor had overflowed into Puerta del Sol, and the fluorescent-vested gold sellers based in the city's historic centre had to weave in between life-size smurfs and a Puss-in-Boots as they gabbled their sales offers. Human statues in elaborate costumes wobbled uncomfortably in their poses, and a serious-faced torero, dressed in full bull-fighter finery with a briefcase in hand, roamed between the statues solemnly. The Jesus Christ had attempted to up his game by painting himself and his crucifix a metallic gold, and a slightly grotesque baby and cot had appeared – a yellow-toothed face surrounded by a cluster of soft toys. Daubed with clown-like face paint and wearing a dirty-white linen bonnet, it gestured to passersby with plastic arms that must have been detached from a child´s doll.

Needless to say, it seemed that innovation was running low. Duplicates were abound. I noticed at least four headless sailors, and the inexplicably successful snapping goat had multiplied five-fold: from curly-horned Friesians to plastic fauns, there was a trend for sparkly streamers and animal heads with hinged jaws. There were, however, no imitations of Spiderman. The ringmaster of the circus was centre-stage in Plaza Mayor, broad-bellied and enthused with an energy that he had notably lacked on my previous visit. Back to his usual sparkling form, he commanded the plaza in a mix of broken English, heavily accented French and Spanish bravura. Pacing the square purposefully, he was alert to any with a lingering step and camera-in-hand, sending shy tourists quick-march in the opposite direction and engaging braver ones in an animated, multi-lingual exchange. It was a relief to see that his under-pa performance of a month ago had just been a temporary lapse.

Perhaps, just as Spiderman has highs and lows, I simply caught Madrid on an off weekend last week: heavy cloud and drizzle keeping people indoors and bars empty, emphasising the sadder sights of the city. It seems a likely conclusion – in the sunshine, you have to table-stalk restaurant terraces just to get a seat. Similarly, I´m told that, though the revolutionary fervour of last year seems a long way away, the 15-M movement is still bubbling under the surface. With strikes planned to mark the anniversary, it´ll be interesting to see what turn events take.

Times may be tough, but I can´t imagine the Spanish to stay down-beat for long...