Wednesday 9 September 2009

The Last of the Summer Whine

By Richard Morley.
The remains of summer are blasting through the wall. Within a week those responsible for the too many decibels of, I think they call it music, will mercifully, for me, have returned to their desks and schoolbooks. The beaches of the Costas are once again the province of the ancient Brits, the parks of Madrid will have no one to notice the leaves turn gold. The gridlock on the streets will have replaced the sardine crush of the Benidorm sunbathers.

In the month of August Madrid is like a ghost town. I am greatly amused when visitors tell me what a “quiet” city Madrid is and “How wonderfully free of traffic”. They make their annual pilgrimage here only in August.

I stood at a pedestrian crossing a couple of weeks ago wondering why I was waiting for the lights to change. There wasn’t a car in sight. I strolled across all eight lanes of the normally busy Paseo de la Castellana at 8pm one evening ant thought they were remaking the opening scene of Vanilla Sky in Madrid. It was deserted.

Of course, that would have been a re-remake as Vanilla Sky was based on the 1997 Spanish film Abre los Ojos (Open your eyes). The lovely Penelope Cruz played the same role in both movies. It was a pity that Tom Cruise was in any of them.

The rush hour metro trains have that late night feel to them. Passengers sit listlessly, wilting in the heat that the on board air-conditioning can never quite combat. And there are seats. No standing shoulder to shoulder watching your fellow travellers. It must be lean picking for the pick-pockets.

There are those that tell me that Madrid is wonderful in August because “You can always get a seat in a restaurant”. Maybe, but what restaurant? So many of my favourites close as their owners take their vacation. Visitors ask me for recommendations, but I am never sure if the place will be open.

But some are: Those who cater specifically for the tourist and who, in the local parlance, are, “Making their August”, with inflated prices. No restaurateur around the Plaza Mayor will shut his doors to the August Guiri. Although, surprisingly, several of the gift shops in the nearby Calle de Toledo, did.

Out of the centre the story repeats: Useful shops like grocers, tobacconists and newsagents either close completely or have just a few specific hours of opening. Throw in a fiesta and the situation is impossible. On the 14th of August I returned after two weeks away to an empty fridge and pantry and set out to replenish the stocks only to find not one shop open. It was the Verbena de Paloma, or Paloma’s Fair where there may well be music and dancing in the streets, but a not a loaf of bread or carton of milk to be found. Three cheers for the Chinese shops that have limited stocks but never close.

I would not have been surprised to see tumbleweeds rolling along Gran Via.

Madrid is a friendly city where, I am pleased to think, I have many good friends. But not in August. They jet away on foreign vacations – or visit the village of their ancient relatives. I too spent most of the month not here, but went out of town to the sierras of the Peña de Francia, contemplating in the cool of the mountains, that in Madrid I had just one friend. The day that I left the mountains my friend arrived there. So now I had no friends. Qué triste! How sad is that?

But now September has arrived. People are back in their offices, traffic clogs the street. English teachers who have survived the past few weeks on zero income are happy to see their students return. The smell of the city has changed as fresh air is replaced by exhaust gasses. Trains and buses are standing room only and there are queues outside every restaurant offering a decent Menu del Dia.

The open top buses offering expensive sight-seeing trips to the tourists are now half empty. The last lingering back-packers are leaving. The restaurants in the Plaza Mayor have to cater for a more discriminating clientele. (Who, if they are that discriminating, won’t go there anyway!)

Madrid has become Spanish again. My friends have returned. They are not so happy as they have returned to work, but I get to take long lazy lunches again with my favourite people. Today in fact. People I haven’t seen for several long weeks have invited me to take comida.

My favourite city, dead for the past month, has come alive again. The traffic is noisy, the streets are crowded, and the language is Spanish. Welcome back one and all.

Now, only five more days until the kids with their pounding music return to school. Already the summer smile is being replaced with the scholastic scowl. Their vacation is far too long! Come Monday – heaven. I can’t wait.


  1. I love this! I too found it very weird here for the bits of August I stayed around for. Somehow, when I came last August just as a tourist, I managed to miss the fact that it was quiet. I guess I didn't have much to compare it to. Now I know the truth.

    I only have one issue with this blog - don't diss Tom Cruise!

    Now I just need to join the throngs of English teachers whose students have actually returned!!!!

  2. "The lovely Penelope Cruz played the same role in both movies": WRONG (she's not lovely at all!!!!).
    "It was a pity that Tom Cruise was in any of them": RIGHT (this is the best of my day, hahaha!).

  3. Extremely fascinating article. I love your style of writing and gathering your thoughts.