The exodus has begun! Now that August is upon us, anyone who can is abandoning Madrid, leaving only a skeleton crew to look after the place in their absence (and roast and sweat, and sweat and roast). I have no rigorously gathered data for this, but it’s my guess that this summer is seeing record numbers of Madrileños flee the city, largely owing to the unprecedented heatwave that has hung over us since mid June. People just want a break from the heat and are heading in whatever direction the mercury is riding lower (the mountains, for example) or where there might be water and a cool breeze (the coast). Airports and train stations resemble the set of a Spanish-language Fall of Saigon thriller, while the highways are clogged with a slow-motion facsimile of a scene from Armageddon or some other asteroid-about-to-hit-city movie where everyone is fleeing the predicted ground zero.
Since I am already dolling out un-backed up “facts” like snuff at a wake, I’m also presenting as gospel my belief that a significant majority of those leaving Madrid are bound for their native villages in the regions. I have previously written about the Spanish village and the lasting relationships that those who migrated to the cities in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s have with their birthplaces (this bond is also passed on to children and grandchildren), and at no other time of the year is your average city dweller’s strong ties to her or her parents’ village so evident as during August. Just as much as the lifeblood seems to drain from Madrid in August, villages that have been moribund and semi-deserted during the year enjoy an influx of new (and old) blood as the Feast of the Assumption (August 15) approaches. As harvests are brought in and duties around the farm tail off until planting begins in September, all-year-round inhabitants of villages settle into party mode, and their rejoicing is joined and augmented by returned city slicker sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts and cousins. Across most of rural Spain the weeks either side of the Feast of the Assumption are fiesta time, with normal village life giving way to what seems like a non-stop party. There are bull runs, processions, patterns, pilgrimages, concerts, coming-of-age ceremonies, and most of these revolve around food, drink and revelry, but are lended a smidgen of respectability by heavy religious associations. It’s hedonistic Iberian Catholicism at its best!
For those of us left behind in Madrid there are upsides and downsides to life in this temporarily ghost city. Commuting becomes a dream. You have the roads all to yourself. Down below on the metro there’s a distinct absence of jostling, mariachi buskers and in-your-face beggars. Open space appears in the parks and boulevards. Shops are practically empty, and in the airy calm of their uncluttered aisles you can browse at your pleasureful ease. You can waltz into a barbers, get your hair trimmed and be out on the street in mere minutes. In cafés and restaurants service is snappy and waiters are unstressed and attentive — but finding an open-for-business eatery is no small thing. Many premises close down for the whole month of August. Figuring that nobody is around anyway, a huge number of small businesses pin the Spanish version of “Gone Fishing” to their doors and it’s “Adiós, we’ll see you on September 1″. Government agencies maintain only the bare bones of a service during August, so if you’ve any paperwork pending that red tape is tightly wound until everyone is back from their holidays. This holds for banks, insurance companies and many large corporations. In the lab I work in, we do a big order of reagents and consumables at the start of July because experience has taught us that any order to a supplier put through in August will not be processed until September. In this regard, August is something of a hiatus in the country’s commercial life and it drives those of us unaccustomed to it slightly batty. Spanish people, however are used to considering the month as a mercantile dead zone. For example, a collaborator of mine, for whom I am translating a comic and who in return is doing a book cover for me has put everything on the long finger until September, so our project, which I was eager to clear from my inbox ASAP, is in suspended animation for the next thirty days. Exasperating!
The curious thing is that tourists visiting Madrid at different times of the year can come away with completely different impressions of the city. Those coming in August will be left with the idea that Madrid is a quiet, sleepy place, whereas those that pay us a Yuletide visit will experience a crammed, frantic, vibrant city centre (Madrid fills up with Christmas shoppers from the provinces during the holiday). Not to mention those whose visit to the city happens to coincide with the ginormous gay pride festival in early June!