Great Spanish Traditions: Driving home at the end of Easter break

Semana SantaMany people back home ask me how I spend my Easter Sunday and I always tell them the same: In a car, on a highway and with a handful of swear words on hand and a head full of ways I would like to commit violent acts.

     It’s a reasonable enquiry considering Spain has a big reputation for being such a deeply religious country, with KKK-like brotherhoods parading about scores of towns and cities toting floats depicting anguished images from the passion of Christ.  But that occurs days before when everyone commiserates with the suffering of the Savior on the eve of his crucifixion.  The part about his coming back to life, the happy-ending resurrection, that triumphant “Hey, he really is the Son of God after all”, is overshadowed by the fear of running into one of the worst traveling days of the calendar.  It’s a kind of Sunday after Thanksgiving to the tenth power.

     There was a couple of years there when I took time away from this activity and stayed in Madrid, time off to recover from repeated ordeals.  But I finally returned to one of Spain’s greatest traditions: Operación Retorno.  The photo actually shows traffic heading in the opposite the direction, towards the feared Alicante, but the sense of helplessness it conveys is virtually the same on the way back. 

     There is really nothing complicated about experiencing this great custom.  Just spend a weekend about 500 kilometers away, pack your car, get behind the wheel, and head for the nearest highway that takes you back to Madrid.  Then you look for the first traffic jam you can find, pull up at the end of the line and participate. 

      In the past, returning from a coastal place like Alicante meant the backup usually started a few yards from where my car was parked, some 350 miles from Madrid.  It could go on for days.  But this time I was regressing from the north, and that made things slightly more tolerable.  The electronic panels spanning the road informed the traveler of any impending doom, and on this occasion indicated that we could expect “slow traffic”, which I took as a good sign since it suggested we would be home in two hours instead of the usual four or five it might normally take.  The traffic adopted the classic worm effect, crunching and stretching out throughout the countryside of Madrid.  Every kilometer we advance counted as victory toward a common goal: reaching Fort Living Room before insanity set in. 

      To say you returned to Madrid on Easter Sunday without considering homicide is a true indicator of just how involved you are in life here.  It’s a necessary part of your training in Spanish culture.  It’s like mastering the subjunctive mode in Spanish, or watching from beginning to the final credits of the Eurovision song contest.  No one wants to go through with it, and yet everyone should. 

Holy Week in Madrid 9

The Basilica of Jesus de Medinaceli is surprisingly one of the newest of the classic churches (it wasn’t consecrated until 1930) and yet one of the most popular in the capital mainly because of the cult of the statue of Jesus the Nazarene.

       This figure, more commonly known as Jesus of Medinaceli, was actually made in Sevilleback in the early 17th Century and later was stolen and taken to Morocco where it was held for ransom.  Once returned, it was moved to Madrid by the Duke of Medinaceli and placed under the supervision of the Trinitarian monks, also known as the capuchins.  The monastery remained until the late 19th Century, but when appeared the order would lose its house, a new church was commissioned by the same noble family.  The Christ figure barely survived the Spanish Civil War.

        Now it has become one of the most sacred icons in the city, for the religiously faithful, that is.  It stands above the main altar but every first Friday of the each month, the gates to small chapel are opened and the many flock to go up and adore it.  The biggest date is the first Friday of March where the numbers could rival those of youths lining up to buy tickets to their favorite rock group.  Jesus Christ Superstar.  That’s right.  Some people even wait in line for two days and then sell their place to the highest bidder.  I kid you not.

        Well, that’s where we were going.  To the basilica to see the end of that procession.  The church is right next to the backside of the famousHotelPalace, one of the most elite in Madrid.

        The street is aptly called the Calle de Jesús, and the police barricades ran along the sidewalk to keep people from invading the asphalt.  But they were deserted, so we knew nothing would be there any time soon.  The procession was out somewhere in the streets of Madrid.

       We made plans to meet some friends in the Taberna La Daniela, which is right in front of the main entrance of the church.  Perfect.  No better place to wait.  We learned from one of those expert procession-watchers (generally women over the age of 50), who told us that when the statue returned, a paso with the Mary on it would come out from the church to greet it.

         La Daniela specializes in the cocido madrileño, a chickpea-based stew that is one of the capital’s most typical dishes.  The cocido is traditionally a poor man’s recipe made of garbanzos, bones, lard, bacon, hen meat and a bit of beef.  It has since become a rich man’s delicacy in some of these places.  You don’t eat a cocido for dinner, but you can have some tapas, and La Daniela has plenty of them.  We had some cocido croquettes (I was let down), some fried slices of eggplant (outstanding) and a decent mini tortilla.  We had a couple of cañas, small glasses of beer, to accompany.

       Jorge’s mother was with us too.  She loved going to the processions.  We got to talking about the old Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays during lent and especially on Good Friday.  I remembered it was like that in my home as a child, though I had largely dropped the observance.  She added that when she was a girl, you could get out of not eating meat by paying an indulgence.  Yes, of the kind that Martin Luther compalined about centuries ago.  The Church still could teach that even sinlessness had a price.

       Outside the television reporters gave the latest news on the procession and then departed before the arrival of the image itself, which was kind of odd.  But I guess they didn’t have time to wait around.

      A little after 9:30, the gates of the basilica opened.   The float with a statue of Mary standing on top of it, slid out and waited as the first nazarenos and priests appeared.  Then came a handful of women dressed in black mourning wear and mantillas.  Most of the other processioners turned off before and entered the church from the side gate.  The drummers announced the nearing of the float with Jesus.  Soon you could see it, draped in an emperor purple robe, golden crown of thorns and dark face.  It leaned forward characteristically.  Characteristic of what I am not sure.  But it is.   The two floats met, the band played the national anthem, and then the one carrying Mary was drawn back inside before the other one followed it.  The float with the Christ of Medinaceli was very large, which must explain why it was maneuvered by a mechanical cart beneath instead of the bearers.  It was the only time I saw this set up.

      A few minutes later, the image of Jesus was gently pushed inside and the doors closed behind it.  The procession had rather subtly come to an end.

      And Good Friday too.

Holy Week in Madrid 8

What is so good about Good Friday?  It certainly is a valid question.  Assuming that this isn’t the consequence of a positive-thinking monk ahead of his time, chances are its origins lie elsewhere, though no one seems to know for sure.  You would think they would, but sometimes that happens.  The exact source of what is probably the most commonly used world in the world “O.K.” (and all its variations) is unknown, and this word has been with us for less than 200 years.  As for Good Friday, the theories have been mainly narrowed down to two: it either has to do with an earlier connotation of the word “good”, which meant “holy”, or is a mutation from “God’s Friday”.  I am inclined to believe the former, but who am I really to say?

        In any event, around the world Good Friday is considered the most solemn and serious day of the Christian calendar.  Even the stock market takes the day off.  InSpain, after two nights of ongoing processions commemorating the final hours of Christ, things roll on.  In fact, inMadrid, this the day when the most parades will depart from their churches.  The problem is, most start basically at the same time, so I had to do a little picking an choosing.  I decided on two: the silent procession leaving the Santisimo Cristo de la Fe in Calle Atocha, and the other was the Jesús de Medinaceli, quite possibly the most sacred image of the city.

        But they wouldn’t be until the evening, so first I went over to Jorge and Susana’s house where we had a typical Good Friday lunch: baked cod.  Actually we had two types.  One was made by his mother.  She had bought the salted cod from the classic store “Casa del Bacalao” inGoya   Street.  Salting food is a very old preserving technique, and cod has been prepared this way for centuries.  To keep from suffering from a heart attack, the fish needs to be desalinated.  To do this, you soak it in water, drain it, and then soak it again.  This process can be repeated for up to two days.  The fish retains its salty flavor, but it is not overbearing, and it is also surprisingly juicy.  She topped it with homemade tomato paste from her garden in theprovinceofCuenca.  Jorge made his own version, fresh cod this time, with olive oil, garlic and almonds.  The meal was unforgettable.  For dessert, we munched on some torrijas, the classic Easter sweet snack.   Basically it is a kind of elaborate French toast.  To accompany everything, a Chardonnay fromCataloniaand an Albariño fromGalicia.  Then it was….siesta time.

        Then came time for the processions.  The weather was unstable but somewhat more promising, though it had rained around midday.  It snowed and hailed too.  I know this because I was outside walking in the streets when this occurred.  In fact, the storm reached its height of fury when I was traversing an open area with no shelter.  I arrived at Jorge’s house with my hair whiter than ever and a few dents in my skull to boot.

      By the evening, I sensed we would not have the same problem as the day before, so things should go more or less according to schedule.  But I also learned that even in the best of conditions, processions are very slow to get starting, so I didn’t leave home until the same time it was supposed to start.  I crossed the RetiroParkand walked up the Retiro Streetto catch the Silent Procession.  It was backed up at the entrance, so I flanked the crowd and stopped at the small plazaof Antón Martín, where there was plenty of space to get a front-row view.  Two pasos passed by, one of Jesus on the cross and another of the weeping Mary.

       The silent procession grabbed my attention for a couple of reasons.  One was that the float of the Virgin Mary was carried by 32 women.  It was the first time I had seen an all-female team of bearers.  Very impressive.  The second was that the silent procession was anything but silent.  With two marching brass bands trailing each paso, at times, it was excruciatingly painful.  The whole beauty of the silent procession is its very noiselessness.  At most the processioners progress to the beat of fateful drumming.  From what I could tell, there was no difference from the others I had seen the previous days.  Disappointment factor in that sense was high.

      Jorge and Susana and their children and his mother arrived a few minutes later.  We decided to walk down Medinaceli to see how that would finish up there.

Holy Week in Madrid 7

As the Christ figure waddled away down the street, I thought about going over to see the one that had left the Colegiata deSan Isidro, a church which for years had beenMadrid’s de facto cathedral. San Isidrois the city’s patron saint.  But there was no way of getting over there.  The sidewalks in the center of town can be very narrow and they clog up easily.  You can go for a hundred yards and suddenly find yourself in a bottleneck.  And then what do you do?

        I had changed my mission and was trying to meet up with my friends Jorge and Susana and their two children.  To do this, I had to change my route and loop around the confusing network of back streets of the old town.  There were people everywhere, some were a part of the usual evening crowd, but many were Spaniards trying to catch a glimpse of at least part of the events.

        I shoved my way through the multitudes until I reached center of the Plaza Mayor where a statue of King Felipe III serves as a perfect meeting point.  We made our plans from there.

        Before going on to the processions, it was decided that some hot chocolate was in order for the kids, so we walked down to the Chocolatería San Ginés, the city’s most famous hot chocolate café.  A huge line flowed out the door.  This was not surprising at all.  San Ginés was teeming with customers all the time, what could we expect on that evening?  This dissuaded us from going in…or even waiting.

       We went down past the old outdoor bookstore at the corner of Arenal and turned left and into the church San Ginés, one of the most famous and oldest in Madrid.  Of the original mudejar structure, basically only the brick bell tower survives.  It was rebuilt in the 17th Century and renovated in the 18th Century, which explains its predominately neo-classic appearance within.

        Scores of people were going in and we wanted to see what was up there.  It turns out they were all paying homage to the Christ of the Redemption, which is located in a mysterious chapel to the right as soon as you enter.  Long red candles rise from the altar, giving it an almost spooky feel to it.  The kids were pretty freaked out by the experience.

         We went back to the chocolate place.  The line was shorter but not much.  Still, Susana decided to stay there with her kids as it was the highlight of the evening for them.  Jorge and I roamed around the center a little longer but realized it was nearly impossible to get any closer to the processions.  They had cut the route short due to the inclement weather and the streets were jammed below the Plaza Mayor.  So we returned, but not before stopping in the Convent of the Carboneras del Corpus Cristi, which has a small temple with a famous depiction of the Last Supper.  But the most striking feature was the iron grid separating where we were from another room where several cloistered nuns sat and prayed.  And by cloistered, I mean they basically never leave.  To say this was a throw back to another time in history is no exaggeration.  It was dark and gloomy inside and the sight was one of both impression and depression.  I didn’t now what to think.  But I felt we were intruding, so we left.

        Then we went back to the San Ginés café.  On the way, Jorge and I mentioned all the church buildings in the center ofMadridwe had not been to, but all the bars and restaurants we had.  There was a marked difference.  We walked by the San Miguel market which has turned into one of the hottest tapas spots in the city.  It was packed too.

         We joined the others at San Ginés.  They had found one of the characteristic marble tables and the two children were happily dipping their churros, the fried dough sticks, into the dark and thick chocolate.  This legendary food venue has been treating people to this delicious combination since the 1890s.  And I thought to myself “They’ve got the perfect business.”  They basically serve just two items: Hot chocolate and churros.  And they make millions.

        The rain and the mob scene had dampened the procession mood.  The churros made up for the letdown.

Holy Week in Madrid 5

If you are a tourist and are in Madridfor the first time, you may find it slightly jarring that Holy Thursday and Good Friday are holidays in the city.  It’s like that for much of the country, but not all.  The Basque Country, Catalonia, Valencia (and I believe the Balearic Islands – Mallorca and Ibiza, etc.) do not observe Holy Thursday as a bank holiday but do close down for Good Friday as well as Easter Monday, which is not the case in Madrid, unless you work at a school.  Commerical Madrid taes Thursday and Friday off, but not Monday.  Do you follow?

        And even so, the closed element of it all is relative, since many restaurants and bars stay open to reap in some business while the residents look for something to do.  That’s a remarkable change from even twenty years ago, when most of the city would shut down completely.  And if you go back to the Franco times, it was even more extreme.  One of the most cited examples of how repressive the regime could get was that during Semana Santa, you couldn’t even go to the movies.  This lamentation has been expressed to me by numerous people over the past two decades, so the despair seemed to be widespread.  That and the fact men had to cross the French border to buy girlie magazines.

        Now, when I think of hardcore dictatorships, other more shocking images and acts come to mind than having to stay at home and read a book.  Careful, I am not belittling the cruelty of the fascist rule here, which could be harsh and unforgiving, but it does fascinate me that these sorts of details, like being deprived of an evening at the cinema, are seen as such restrictive measures.  What about free speech and the right to vote?

        Oh, well.  Things have come a long way since then, and night life appeared to be hardly dented by the religious motive behind the long weekend, and that is because there are two Semana Santas: one is the spiritual period remembering the final days of Christ, and the other is a kind of kick-off to the coming summer months of revelry.  It’s vacation time.

        This was evident right after the first procession when me and two friends who were recent fathers for the third time respectively, went for a couple of beers at the nearby pub called La Fontana de Oro.  La Fontana was a classic turn-of-the-century café known for its enviable intellectual atmosphere.  Often tight-knit groups of men, mostly men, would get together and discuss the latest of anything…politics, religion, science, art.   These talks were known as tertulias.  They still are.  Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Hotel circle would be an American example of that.

        La Fontana resuscitated in the 1990s when it recovered its Golden Age feel to it while adding an Irish pub touch.  In fact, it was a hybrid and even prototype of the Irish pub that would invade the city not long afterward.  And it’s been going strong ever since…both bar and movement.

        But La Fontana hasn’t stopped evolving.  I was a little taken aback by the two huge and intimidating doormen limiting access, and the music inside was the kind you listen to in Ibizan August.  Some Spaniards but mostly foreigners, and ages of the clientele ranged from about 18 to…19.

        We felt a little out of place, needless to say.

        Downstairs, things were a little quieter,  but only in relative way, like being in a room that tests hammer durability.  I sat in a booth with my back to a big-screen TV the size of my living room beneath the deep and throbbing bass beat pumping in the floor above.  Not a single intellectual thought came to mind.

Holy Week in Madrid 4

The first major procession took place last night in the heart of Madrid, in a street called Calle del Carmen which starts at the Puerta del Sol and runs up to Callao.

        The procession is known as “Los Gitanos” (The Gypsies) and leaves from the Church of El Carmen.  When I arrived at 9:00p.m., a half hour before it was supposed to start, there was talk that it might even be cancelled altogether due to the rain.  It had stopped raining a couple of hours before, but the threat was ever-present.  Finally around 9:45 things got going.  Processions can be tortuously slow in getting moving, but the reason becomes evident once you see the floats emerging from the churches.  It is painstakingly process.  The floats are known as “Pasos”, and unlike in the States where they are motorized, these scenes or images of the final days of Christ are carried by manpower.  And they are very, very heavy.

        Each paso is cared for by a fraternity known as a cofradías or hermandad.  Its members are the ones in charge of toting the massive float around the town.  Forming a part of the team is not a punishment but rather a great honor, often passed down from one generation to the next.  Members immediately sign their newborns up so that they will have a chance to participate years later.  Kind of like reserving season’s tickets to Packers’ games, or opening a college tuition account.

        There is more than just the floats.  Here’s a quick look at the line-up last night:

  1. The initial hooded penitents (often hooded and known as nazarenos).  They are lead by a man holding a cross which guides the procession.

2.  One big float.  This was a beautifully hand-crafted wooden base with curly wooden candle holders and upon which was a large image of Christ bearing the cross.  The float was about the size of a Hummer and seemed to weigh as much too.  The bearers were supporting the weight from inside to give it a true floating appearance.    Here’s a three second video.  MOV_0110

3.   A band dressed in traditional military uniform.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.   A group of penitents with droopy hoods.  They dragged their own crosses.  Some went barefoot, which is a bold, if not foolish, thing to do in the middle of Madrid.

 

5.   Another group of penitents from a second fraternity.  These guys look a little creepier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6.  A second “paso” or float of the Virgin Mary.  This one was all white, seemed a little shorter but was much taller as a four-posted canopy covered the imaged.  The bearers were also beneath and hidden from view by a draping curtain, so to speak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7.   A second band to give support to the second team of carriers. (No pictures thank God.  I don’t think I’ll be doing this again. It took me an hour to set up.)

        All of Spain’s most emblematic elements could be found: priests, the guardia civil, the national anthem.  More than a spiritual event, it seemed like a gathering of all that tradition Spain held sacred.

       The scheduled route was to weave through much of the old town, but the actual path was far shorter.  The processioners slowly paraded down to the Puerta del Sol, turned around and headed up the Calle Preciados, which is parallel to the Calle del Carmen, and then turned back towards the church.  In real time, this walk could be completed in ten minutes max.  After frequent breaks to relieve the backs and shoulders of the bearers, the process took well over two hours from beginning to end.  I can’t imagine their trying to do the whole route.  Maybe the threat of rain was a factor.

Holy Week in Madrid 3

While back in the States, Catholics are begging for crucifixion in Nazi-style chant (please read the former post for a little context), here things look pretty gloomy too.

      Any good Semana Santa requires a solid dose of rainfall.  It kind of goes with the territory.  Every year, the television cameras send images to the universe of sour-faced onlookers and frustrated processioners as they hope for a change in the weather.  It rarely occurs.  So common is the dampness that I can’t really understand why everyone is so surprised.

       This year is no exception.  The atmosphere has withheld any precipitation for the past six months in anticipation of this week and, God bless it, it has come through in the clutch.  I feel this is all right as long as it doesn’t start pouring during this evening’s event.  It’s my first real procession here inMadridand I don’t want it to get washed out.  The thing is, it is.  And it won’t stop.

       I am eyeing the national weather service’s prediction and they keep saying there will be a intervals of sun throughout the afternoon and evening, But I’ve got to tell you, I keep thinking that these guys don’t stick their heads out the window enough.

       Tonight’s showcase, by the way, starts at the Church of the Virgin of Carmen andSt. Louis, in the Calle Carmen, right in the very heart of Madrid.

Holy Week in Madrid 2

One thing that makes Holy Week different from other moments in the Christian calendar is that the dates change from year to year.  After all, if can all agree on a day for when he was born, even though it was probably spring, why can’t they get the day he was crucified on right?  Well, believe it or not, it has to do with the phases of the moon.  Holy Week always falls on the week of the first full moon after the vernal equinox, or first day of spring, i.e. March 21st (though it is more often the 20th).   Established back in 325AD this tradition goes back even further to the Jewish holiday of Passover.

        Holy Week began last Sunday, known as Palm Sunday, which was a big moment in my church-going days as a child because we were all given a strip of palm leaf.  This was certainly good training to help me appreciate the smaller things in life.  Palm Sunday was also marred by the fact the Passion was read in church, which meant tacking on another twenty minutes to a service I already considered excessive in length and subject matter.  The passion was a review of the final days of Christ, told as a story, and the highlight came when we as a congregation would be allowed to actively participate.  The priest gave us the dubious honor of playing the crowd which had to choose between Barabbas and Jesus, so when Pilate would ask us what to do with Christ, we would all cry out in unison: “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”

        Now isn’t that a nice thing to do in church?  Oh, well, Palm Sunday kicks off the week, but things don’t really get going until Wednesday, as…as…death nears.

Mi Hernia Se Prepara

No sé qué hacíais en Semana Santa pero entre otras cosas disfruté de poder regresar al hospital donde hace poco pastaban vacas para realizar unas pruebas preoperatorias.   La verdad es cuando se llega a utilizar esos términos, la cosa suena seria, como diciendo que ya no se puede dar marcha atrás.   Y es así. 

         Como estábamos en vacaciones y tenía tiempo, cogí el transporte público para llegar.  Pensé que iba a tardar días en llegar a ese barrio limítrofe, pero luego uno se da cuenta de que la primera cosa en qué piensan las mentes pensantes del desarrollo urbano es en cómo pueden los futuros residentes viajar hasta allí, y hay que decir que no lo han hecho mal. 

         Iba con cierto apuro porque como la primera prueba era una análisis de sangre tenía que ir en ayunas, con lo cual no podía hacer nada de lo que suele hacer que la vida de esta ciudad sea lo que es.   Tenía que vivir como un monje.  Pero un monje de verdad, siguiendo las normas de un monje de verdad.  Y así llegué limpito y libre de todo mal. 

         Se puede decir lo que se quiera sobre los servicios, pero ya desde hace mucho tiempo las cosas han mejorado en casi todos los sectores.  Los días de Vuelva Usted Mañana han ido despareciendo.  ¡Coño! Que hemos ganado el mundial, ¿Acaso creéis que fue una casualidad?  Estamos en la nueva España.  Pues eso.  El hospital estaba listo para recibirme y así se hizo sin ninguna demora.  A las 8.15 la enfermera ya estaba sacando un tubo el tamaño de una barrica y armándolo con una especie de bayoneta. 

         “¿Eso lo vas a meter en mi brazo?”

         “Claro.”

         “Pero es no cabe.   ¿Tanta sangre se necesita?  ¿No basta con un pinchazo en los dedos?”

         “No va a ser para tanto.”

         “Vale, pero primero deja que haga una llamada a mi familia antes.”

         Salí cinco minutos sintiéndome violado por una panda de vampiros pero seguía con vida.  Tocaba el desayuno.