They say the two major days for road accidents in the US are April 15 (Tax Day) and the day of the Super Bowl. In one case it’s the stress and in the other giddiness or excitement that lead to poor and erratic driving. Here in Madrid there is no equivalent to Tax Day (you get a window of a couple months to get your fiscal affairs in order — maybe someone should tell all the tax-dodging politicians they’ve been arresting lately) and perhaps only the clásico between Real Madrid and Barcelona comes close to drawing one and all before their television sets in the same manner as the Super Bowl. But of late, the clásico has become a somewhat devalued currency. There are at least two per football season. And if Real and Barҫa happen to draw one another in the Copa del Rey or Champions’ League you’re looking at another brace of clásicos. Plus the derbies between Atlético and Real take some of spotlight away from however many clásicos there might be.
So we mightn’t have Tax Day or the Super Bowl to get that metal crunching on the highway but we do have . . . rain. When it rains in Madrid people go LOCO. Absolutely ape. Bananas. Doolally. Off-scale kerrrazy. Official statistics tell us there are fifteen per cent more road accidents when it rains, but we don’t need the bean counters to tell us that Madrileños go nuts at the merest whiff of precipitation: all you have to do is stand by the side of any road and watch. As the clouds let loose their sopping cargo, the already feverish and cranked-up macho driving is whipped up into a further frenzy of revs, tailgating, abrupt steering and manic cutting across lanes. Rather than slow down during wet conditions, your average Madrid driver puts the pedal to the metal and hand to honker even more than usual. It’s as if they feel the need to speed through the rain as they would if they were on foot, or perhaps generations of drivers reared on leaky old Seats have an atavistic fear of wet dashboards and upholstery. Add to the increased velocity the sheer panic your motoring Madrileño experiences when he hears the tap tap of rain on his sunroof and you have a recipe for sodden citywide chaos and alarm.
But what’s the story with your Madrileño’s fear of rain — the ombrophobia? How can a few drops of water instil in him such dread that he’s more likely to come a cropper on the highways when it rains? Well, rain is a rare event in Madrid. Only on fifty-nine days of the year does it rain in the city. That’s just about five or six days a month. And we’re not talking about west-of-Ireland, all-day patter-type rain. On the majority of the rainy days in Madrid, the H2O in question either falls all in one go during a thirty-minute doomsday thunderstorm. Or involves the sky clouding over for an afternoon and a few fat, dust-laden drops splashing onto the pavement at around tea time when the temperature descends. So, there may be only twenty days a year when a good soaking settles on the city — decent, honest-to-goodness rain — but on those select days . . . chaos reigns.
Besides the nightmare happening on the roads, over on the footpaths people scarper for cover and weave in and out of awnings and porches in fear of their very lives, it would seem. Maybe it’s not rain that’s falling but concentrated sulphuric acid? The Umbrella Wars begin as the spooked citizenry jostle and shove to keep their heads under cover and God help you if you yield an inch to oncoming bustling, rain-harried granny. She’ll have you upended and in the gutter before you can say perdón. There are probably more injuries among pedestrians when it rains than at any other time (eye injuries from umbrella tips predominating). Along with the first drops of rain, the Chinese emerge from the deep darkness of their convenience stores to hawk €2 umbrellas by metro and bus stops. And those without umbrellas take to improvising anything from plastic bags to books to keep their heads dry.
For an Irish man living in Madrid the odd rainy day is a godsend. As well as being reminded of home, the rain confers on me an evolutionary advantage over the locals. Because of their fear of the rain, they tend to stay in whereas I, brought up on a diet of constant, driving rain of all shapes, sizes, temperatures and frequency, can saunter through the streets — empty streets — sans brolly and a huge grin on my face. For someone who laughs in the face of precipitation, rainy days are a great time to get stuff done in Madrid. The shops are empty. The museums too. You’ll have the parks all to yourself. And as for government offices and the like . . . deserted. If you decide to do your tax return on a rainy day you’ll have the whole office to yourself.
So, as the expression goes, every cloud has a silver lining, and the next rainy day will find me planning trips to the town hall with a waterproof folder of documents to be stamped, or taking time out to visit my old segotias in the Museo del Prado, Picasso and Velasquez.