Business- or perhaps just life- took me to Madrid this weekend. It's not a place I'm especially fond of, particularly on rainy days in February. It's not so easy to have in as Barcelona or Sevilla or Valencia, say, and in any case, as regular readers will have gathered, the big city is not for Hickory. I like the country, wide, green, fascinatingly beautiful and filled with more life than you will ever find on a Saturday night in Lavapies (or Soho, or Sunset Strip, or whatever you happen to know).
Still, when you want a bit of culture down here the nearest place to find it is Madrid, of which more tomorrow (hope springs eternal in the blogging breast).
Madrid also has the park of El Retiro, which is probably my favourite part of Madrid. It's an interesting place for many reasons, and it's far more than an attempt to create a bit of country in the heart of the city. In fact, it isn't that at all, and if it were, it wouldn't interest me. I have the real thing on my doorstep. No, El Retiro is a square mile of pure Madrid, but with grass and trees and water instead of shops and cars and asphalt.
It contains a boating lake, very popular even in February, as the photo shows, presided over by a typically unimaginative piece of monumental 19thC sculpture. Impressive to row past, though- you can imagine you're Alfonso XIII, if that's the sort of thing you like (he was ugly and thick and was ultimately deposed by the communists, but he probably had a good time, on the whole).
On the path by that lake you can find people performing. You know the sort of thing, you can see it in Covent Garden, Times Square and a thousand other places where people make turn anything they think they're good at into a show in the hope of making a living.
There are living statues, quite a few of them- I saw a US Marine, Charlie Chaplin, a transvestite clown, one end of a pantomime horse (not sure which end, but that's what it looked like) an improbably fat superhero who looked as though he'd have trouble getting out of bed, let alone saving the world, and a selection of headless bodies, plus an invisible man, who was maybe not strictly headless in the same sense. And a tramp, but since looking dirty and ragged and not doing anything all day is what tramps do, it was hard to tell whether this was art or just another old wino praying he can make it till it's dark. Probably not, since most of the others have signs proclaiming their membership of the National Association of Living Statues, and would have drummed him out of town if he wasn't part of the union.
The balloon sellers, the gypsies trying the old heather trick, the bored-looking fortune tellers reading the gossip magazines, the portrait painters who all seem to have had Elvis as a recent client, the giant-bubble blowers, the clowns, the Donald Ducks and the Mickey Mice, all staples of this kind of place, but all creating a sense of life. A couple of puppet shows, a unicyclist, a very funny juggler who used a lion tamer's whip to get the crowd to stay close around him, and a man whose number was giving obedience classes to his labrador.
By a smaller, wilder lake not far away is a glass palace. Spare and elegant, it's often used for art shows, but on Saturday it was just an attraction in itself. So were the ducks.
As in many big cities, people in Madrid relax obsessively. In the park they practice yoga and tai chi as though their lives depended on it, everywhere there are runners and walkers and cyclers and stretchers and flexers, sweating themselves to thinness and long life with the help of an ipod and a designer tracksuit. Oh, and skaters, hundreds and hundreds of them. It seems that in Madrid, if you don't in-line, you are out of it.
On a broad part of the outer path is where they congregate to do all the things you can possibly do on roller skates. They slice swiftly and elegantly around the curves, they twist and turn and glide backwards and forwards with equal skill, they wobble ten feet before tripping over themsleves and falling heavily, they look good until they try something clever, they put lines of cones on the ground and slalom between and around them- the lad in the photo did the whole run backwards on a single wheel and you could barely see the skate as it flashed from side to side.
They play pick-up hockey games, but that's what skates were inverted for. But they also chat in pairs, they joke in groups, they encourage each other, or they push and shove, they give advice or shout in derision, they dance together, they 'walk' the dog, they throw a frisbee back and forth, they dance, they sing or they cut through it all in a world of their own. Oh, and they fall over a lot.
It's not the country. It's not really even a park. It's Madrid, and sometimes it's fun to be part of it.