Christmas may be a major annual event for some people, but for others it’s just another day of getting on with business.
The green digital clock on the farmacia on Gran Via trips over to 22.00, and a few moments later it tells me that the temperature is 12º. What it doesn’t tell me is that the gentle drizzle of half-an-hour ago has turned into a downpour, so that when I take a photo I have to reverse my baseball cap so the peak doesn’t drip on my camera.
It may be Christmas night, but business goes on, or at least has gone on during the day. The take-away cubby hole on the side of the market is cleaning up, ready for home, but still has a few plastic containers of paella, fideua and pasta left. Everything is cooked fresh daily, and whatever hasn’t been sold by seven in the evening is let go for one euro a portion, a bargain-basement meal during these mean times.
A young indigent who has been wandering the barrio for the last year or so has taken his station outside the take-away. His demons cause him to rant and shout sometimes, occasionally bursting into tears, but he usually just wanders the area quietly or sits in a doorway for hours on end. I’ve never seen him accost anyone or cause the slightest problem, and, somehow or other, he keeps himself very clean. This evening he has stacked his fortune in rows on the narrow outside serving ledge of the take-away, neat rows of one- and two-pence coins piled ten deep. I buy a portion of paella for him, and ask the girl serving for a fork. He may be crazy, but he shouldn’t go hungry.
Around the corner, just beside the entrance to the underground car park, is the laundrette I use every alternate Sunday between two and four, Spanish lunchtime, when I can usually be sure of getting a washing machine. I take a book and a bottle of water, and have always found it an agreeable way to spend an hour, particularly when the sun is shining and I can feel its warmth on my back through the window. This evening a lady and a young girl have caught the last wash at nine-thirty, probably assuming that late Christmas evening will by as busy as I assume Sunday lunchtime will be.
On my way up to Gran Via, the dual carriageway that separates the working class barrio of Ruzafa from the chi-chi barrio of Ensanchez, I watch the manageress of Panaria on Plaza Pare Perera tilling-up. The bakery opened about eight months ago, and is part of a small chain in Valencia that seems to be flourishing on loaves of fancy bread for around three euros. I’m glad we have such upper-crust shops in the barrio, but my bread buying is limited to the anti-crisis barra for twenty centimos from a small stall in Ruzafa Market.
The staff at Panaria may be winding down for the day, but at the Horno de los Borrachos the baker has only just brought his first loaves from the oven. For sixty-one years, the ‘Drunks Oven’ has served bread, cakes, pastries and sandwiches to the vecinos of the barrio, the local residents, drunk or sober, every single night from seven in the evening until seven a.m. without missing a single day. During the main annual fiesta of Fallas they are open twenty-four hours.
Gran Via sparkles with the moving lights of traffic, still busy despite the day and hour. The ornate cast-iron lamps with their yellow globes cast a glow over the glistening pavement – attractive, but as every second one has been disconnected on many streets as a money-saving measure, cyclists complain that the intermitant pools of light are disorientating and dangerous.
Until a year ago the streets at this time of year would be decorated with bright festoons of coloured lights, but this Christmas austerity measures have cut deep. Gone are most of the fanciful decorations, replaced with in-your-face publicity. I can’t help feel that a string of lights advertising one of the national gas companies or a local brand of rice are not exactly in the spirit of Christmas, but there are so few decorations on display this year that I suppose it’s best not to look a gift gas company in the mouth.
As I loop my way home I see Chiu, the owner of the café on the corner of my street where I take my coffee every morning, lowering the damp umbrellas and stacking the chairs and tables. He’ll be back there tomorrow morning at eight, and I’ll arrive a few minutes later. The routine doesn’t change, even if it is Christmas Day.