A Walk in the Park

Finally the sun has come out for a day or two, and with it, the terrace tables. I could tell it was Spring because this morning as I walked past the Taverna La Mina, one of the cheapest local bars, the waiter, who was unstacking and arranging the outside tables and chairs, bid me a hearty ‘Buenos dias.’ It was the stocky, jovial waiter, rather than the other one who looks like an emaciated gnome, and serves the tables as though he were a kindly uncle, possibly with a secret drug or drink habit. A bit shaky but always friendly.

The other indicator of spring’s presence in the air is the sudden urge to fling oneself into outdoor exercise regimes. The Retiro this afternoon was packed full of people hurtling around on wheels. Normally, at least recently, at the same hour there have been very few people in the park- maybe an old man feeding the birds, a stray tourist, or the occasional married closet-dweller cruising for a furtive homosexual encounter in the shrubbery. Yet today, due to the appearance of the sunshine, within a short walk I was almost mowed down by people on rollerblades, skateboards, folding bicycles, one man on weird mono-blades that rotated freely beneath his feet, allowing him to glide around and change directions effortlessly (though the question remains – why?), a speed skater in aerodynamic helmet, very seriously bent double with one arm folded behind him and his lycra’ed behind up in the air, and a dogged roller-skier in full ski atire complete with poles who relentlessly ‘skied’ round and round in loping loops. Don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely for exercise, it is undeniably a good thing, I just fail to see what it is about parks that makes people want to fling themselves all over the place. I’m more of a sit and smell the flowers kind of person.

I also fail to understand why people feel the need to be so noisy in parks, although noise is a topic worthy of a slot all to itself. Madrid has unprecedented levels of noise pollution- everywhere you go there is hammering, banging, drilling, yelling, screeching, blaring, penetrating, headbanging noise. So I go to the Retiro to listen to the birds twitter and the leaves rustle quietly, the distant traffic roar of the city ever-present but distilled to a gentle hum behind the trees. But not today. As I entered the park I came across an Eastern European man playing a loud accordion who wished me ‘buenas tardes’ in the hope that I would drop a coin into his hat. Oh no, you got the wrong person there, mate, and I wouldn’t push it if I were you. I am on the verge of setting up a Facebook pressure group with a like-minded friend entitled ‘Death to acccordion players’ or something like that. The only reason I haven’t done it yet is because it’s been winter and they have left me in peace for a few months. I have grown to loathe the whining sound of the accordion, and more specifically, the accordion players who swoop on you the minute you sit at an outside café table like buzzards around a fresh corpse. I’d almost prefer it if they did pick at my flesh and eat my rotting eyeballs, rather than subject me to yet another dreary rendition of ‘those were the days my friend…’ or ‘besame mucho’. Why is it always the same sodding song? I might not mind so much if they learnt something else. And unfortunately they see the pale skin and blond hair and think ‘tourist!’ and home in on me for my holiday euros so that they are playing right beside my left ear, while I try to continue a shouted conversation that moments before was a calm and pleasant discourse. I would happily machine-gun the lot of them some days. I have, on occasions, when faced with the collecting-hat and the ingratiating smile, been known to reply (always politely, I must add) ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I didn’t actually ask for music.’

Just after the accordion player there was someone practising what sounded like a trombone, or at least some kind of massive horn, somewhere over in the bushes to my left (and no, that isn’t a euphamism.) Of course, everyone wants to hear you practise that on their Tuesday afternoon stroll. Not even play it- practice it. Then, quite touchingly, an elderly couple passed me, arm in arm, both with white sticks, carrying with them a small transistor radio which was on very low. That I can stomach. In fact it gave me a sentimental glow, just before the inevitable thought rose to my mind ‘the blind leading the blind’. I have seen groups or pairs of blind people walking the city on several occasions and can’t help myself from thinking it every time I see it. In Madrid there is definitely more visibility for blind or disabled people, who back in the Uk must all be locked up in sheltered housing or festering in institutions, as I never see them in public. (Is it ok to say ‘blind’ and ‘disabled’ by the way, or am I hopelessly out of date there?) The recurring delight at seeing an over-used cliche so literally illustrated must have something to do with the way my literary, word-obsessed brain works, added to the nerdish British tendency to get off on any pun or wordplay. I recently got into an elevator to go down to a subterranean carpark, and noticed the small metallic plaque with the German or Swiss manufacturer’s name on it and couldn’t stop myself from thinking ‘I’m going down in Schindler’s lift….’ I tried not to think it but it was already there as soon as I saw the name. Pathetic, I know, but inevitable.

But I digress. Noise….. Further along on my idyllic walk I passed a group of men and women in their sixties strolling and holding a conversation as if across a crowded dance-floor. One of the women had one of those piercing Hispanic voices that if you lived with her would make you want to punch her repeatedly in the face after a while. There was a South American father teaching his six or seven-year old son to ride a bicycle, who was on one knee giving him a little pep talk. (I’m not very good with childrens’ ages, they are either this high or about that high to me. Pre- and post-pubescent I can also manage, which is a relief). Scenes like this also give me a warm sentimental glow. Even when a few minutes later they came tearing down the path with the father jogging alongside the bicycle with stabilisers which rattled on the gravel pathway like an aircraft about to take off from the runway. I didn’t mind that, it was sweet. Noisy, but sweet. So there you have it, a gentle stroll in the park on a Tuesday afternoon. No, I still don’t understand the urge to make such a racket in the middle of nature, but I can only assume it is something to do with the Madrileños’ inbuilt ability and desire to turn everything into a party. And as long as we’re all invited that’s not such a bad thing.

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