Thursday 30 April 2009

A plaza in the sun

Why is that man taking our photo?

For some months I have been meeting with a lady whose avowed intention in life is, by hell or high water, to improve my Spanish. This article is not about that. It is about the plaza where we meet before we set off in search of some quiet place where she alternatively berates me for not studying or complements me on my progress.

The plaza is not the most beautiful in Madrid. It is a concrete and tiled square measuring no more than fifty metres on each side with busy streets on all sides and a main thoroughfare crossing diagonally through it. Very typically, the surface of the plaza is actually the roof of yet another of Madrid’s deep car parking garages. Built on a slight slope the plaza is terraced with the vertical sides of the levels prevented from subsidence by rusting steel sheet. Ventilation to the car park below is evidenced by other rusting steel gratings and the garages entrance and exit are concrete gaping wounds. It would win no prizes for design.

Although the plaza is less than half a kilometre from the prestigious Salamanca district, this is not a rich area. The businesses that surround the square consist of mini-markets, sweetshops, one of the increasing number of “Chinese” shops and the frontage of the barrio’s covered Mercado, where the locals buy their meat and vegetables – but where they might know their onions, but know nothing of chirivias! Perversely the plaza has six different banks, but then the proliferation of bank branches in Spain has reached epidemic proportions. Conversely, the one dilapidated and abandoned shop in the corner bears torn National Front posters blaming its closure on the government.

In this grey half acre (a quarter of a hectare) six sets of traffic lights and four pedestrian crossings try to control the never ending stream of traffic. It is noisy and with a permanent odour of car exhausts. Its surrounding streets are mean and narrow, potholed and crumbling.
Winter does this concrete plaza no favours, for the past few months it has been a depressing spot. Yet in the sea of six (or more) storey apartment blocks that tower like breaking waves above the street, the Plaza of San Cayetano is like an oasis of sunlight and freedom and the coming of spring has transformed this bleak spot. The blossom of the few spindly trees that was stripped by March winds has now turned into fresh shoots of shiny green leaves. The wilted ivy has burst into life and is working hard to disguise the concrete. Were it not for the concrete, the high apartments, the traffic, the fumes, the noise, the smell, you could almost suppose you were in some wooded park.

And so it has become a pleasant place to spend a few sunny minutes after buying a paper from the newsagent’s kiosk, or watching the children play in the well equipped play area. (To which the only access is across several busy streets.) During the day, the pace of the plaza is lazy and relaxed. Come early evening this is transformed by the almost frenetic activity of children on roller blades, bikes, the slides and swings and a dozen water spouts that you can avoid or splash in depending on your mood.

Like ninety percent of the plazas in Madrid, this one is named after a saint. As I was raised in a protestant country, I know about three saints: Christopher, George and Valentine! Oh! And Santa Claus. So who the heck is San Cayetano?

Well, for a start he was Italian. Born in Venice in 1480 into a wealthy family he studied theology, civil rights and religious law at Padua in 1504 and in 1506 moved to Rome to begin training for the priesthood. One of his first duties was as private secretary to Pope Julio II, but when the Pope died in 1513, he returned to his studies.
Back in Venice he founded a hospital for incurables and was an all round good guy. He began a religious movement called the Theatines, which was meant to check the spread of Lutheranism, but apparently, it never grew beyond a dozen of his friends. He died, aged sixty-six, so says his biography, “of grief”. Obviously, that was also incurable!

His followers came to Madrid in the 17th century to found a hospital and care for the Italians who lived there and his fame spread rapidly. On the Calle de Embajadores, in the centre of Madrid, is a church dedicated to the memory of San Cayetano. However, he has to share it with San Millan, but he does get his own street about fifty metres away.
There are shrines to him all over Spain and his followers took his name to South America and Mexico, where he is huge; His reputation even reaching the United States in New Mexico and Colorado.

Sao Caetano do Sul, (Portuguese spelling) is a city near Sao Paulo in Brazil. In Nicaragua he is known as the Father of Devine providence and miracles have been attributed to him in the finding of work and food. He’s definitely a working class saint. As such, he is the patron saint of workers, job seekers, and the unemployed, which might be why there are so many men reading newspapers in the plaza during the day. An unfortunate sign of the times we live in.
He is also the patron saint of gamblers. However, the shop premises in the plaza that bears the torn poster accusing the government of its downfall was due to be an amusement arcade of one-armed bandits. Perhaps they thought the patron saint of gambling would be a boost to their business. Well, you can’t win ‘em all!

Visitors to Madrid will very likely never find, or even want to visit, the Plaza Cayetano. While waiting to meet my friend there every week I see the same groups of mothers chatting, the same old man who invariably asks every passer-by for a cigarette, and the same very old people who sit quietly to take the sun.

The traffic never slows, except to ask me directions. Why me? People pass through with their shopping, lovers kiss on the benches, the children play.

I often remark that Madrid is not a city. It is a collection of villages that just happen to exist side by side. There must be hundreds of these tiny plazas scattered throughout the city. Like the Plaza Cayetano, they are like the village green where everyone meets everyone and may be why, a country boy like myself feels very much at home here. May that long continue.

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