A Madrid neighborhood in the Sixties

Another contribution from our guest blogger Clea. After taking us for a visit around Complutense University, we now get a description of life in Chamartín neighborhood in the 1960’s, when Clea, 4 years old at the time, moved to Madrid with her family.

If, for some unknown and unimportant reason, someone were to take the 51 bus to the end of the line, they would find themselves at a place called Plaza Perú.  The bus lets the last passengers out, then goes around the plaza to start its route downtown all over again.  What’s here?  Why are you here?  Unless you lived in the neighborhood, or were going to visit someone who does, chances are you’d never actually visit this part of the city.  But here you are.  Imagine you get off the bus, you’ll find yourself in a pleasant spot.  Shops, cafés, restaurants, a small park and in the center, a large and busy street.

But you didn’t come all the way here just to stand in the square, watching people and cars go by.  You’ve seen enough pleasant and lively streets, pretty squares planted with petunias or begonias or tulips.  Explore.  The visitor can walk down Pio XII and take the first left, or walk along Alfonso XIII and take the first right.  Either way will lead him into a completely different world.

Even today, forty years after I first moved here as a little kid, the neighborhood is charming.  Turning off those large and busy streets, you’ll find yourself strolling along quiet narrow streets lined with large houses that have survived since the beginning of the 20th century when most of them were summer homes for the well-off.  This was long ago a village on the outskirts of the city; long since, the city grew up and out on either side of the two parallel streets that delimit the neighborhood, wrapping around it like cotton wool.  Now it’s an exclusive, extremely expensive area of houses in a city of apartments.  Walk down one street, calle Triana, for example and up the other, calle San Telmo; you can cut through any of a number of lanes connecting the two streets too.  In these more affluent times, the houses have been bought up (or perhaps inherited in many cases) by affluent young professionals.  Exteriors are painted pale blues or pinks or sand.  Porches have been glassed in, with a glimpse of potted plants.  Fences are higher and gates are no longer flimsy wire but heavy with solid metal; little speakerphones now grace the stone columns.  Privacy and security is of course something people think about now.

But the houses are still made of stucco and stone and granite, just like they’ve always been.  Exuberant honeysuckle and ivy fall heavy over the high walls.  In the spring, when the roses are in bloom, the dusky air is light with their scent.  The stucco scrapes knees and elbows if kids still play out anymore, and the gates’ rectangular granite pillars, topped with flat stone, make great spots to sit.  A lighted lamp in a window reminds me that once upon a time it was lit in our own living room window from which we, from our privileged spot at the end of the lane, not angled or hidden behind trees but right out front, could see everything that took place in our realm.

I don’t remember the first time I saw the house, since I was four years old when we moved in, but there is a family legend about my mother visiting several houses in the area and shaking her head in disbelief at discovering that several of them had the kitchens in the basement.  No problem, one supposes, if one had servants to trek up and down the stairs, trying to keep the food hot but, for my family, middle-class Americans, the whole thing just fit into the impracticality – and incomprehensibility – of life in Spain.

But we did eventually find our house.  Madrid, 1959, a lot of American military were arriving to set up the base at Torrejon, about 21 kms north.  There was base housing, of course, but my parents wanted to live in the city.  They weren’t the only ones either; for quite a few years, a lot of our neighbors were Americans.  The street was San Telmo, a long long street broken up with dead-end lanes, and our house was at the very end of the very last lane.  Who “discovered” that neighborhood?  There’s no one left now to ask.  The houses were three storeys high and everyone had a yard, not very big, often just a patch in front and another one in back with a narrow strip running along the side to connect the two.  The trees were cottonwoods, thin and  sturdy, their branches low enough to climb on if the tree was close to a wall.  In the spring, white balls of cotton floated in the air and filled the corners of the gardens with soft fluff.  Roses grew wild and full and hardy.   The neighborhood was only a short drive to the center of the American universe in Madrid:  a city block of buildings, their drab beige backs walling in a large courtyard.  There we went to school on weekdays, church on Sundays, shopped for food in the commissary.  On Saturday mornings my father and I would drive over to buy the Stars and Stripes and the Herald Tribune at the newsstand, and we could get an ice cream at the small snack bar.

Well, I talk about all of the Americans and there were quite a few of us, paying ridiculously low rents.  We kids were naturally oblivious to the politics of our being there, the fact that many Spaniards saw the arrival of the Americans as the final definitive acceptance of the Franco government.  Others, less politically inclined, just saw us as brash and with too much money, living like kings because everything was cheap when you had dollars.  There were quite a few neighbors who were not happy with the invasion.  One man – he always seemed old to us with his white hair and metal-rimmed glasses – used to set his dogs on us whenever we went past his house.   Did he hate Americans or just kids in general?

Thinking back, I guess it was an odd life, living as we did in a small enclave that was neither totally American nor completely Spanish but rather a blend of the two that produced a wholly different universe.  No doubt it was awkward for the adults but for a child, we hardly thought about it, just accepted it.  There were always gangs of us playing out in the streets and in our yards, climbing trees, clambering over fences, riding our bikes up and down the quiet streets after school.  (There was hardly any traffic around there in those days, only the chauffeur at the Iranian Embassy at the end of the street who used to shoot out of the gates and drive up the street way too fast for our parents’ taste.  I bet they complained, another thing you could do in those days.)  It was a paradise for kids, a great place to grow up.

But we didn’t have just the streets and alleyways and yards to explore.  One of the best things about the house was that the wall in back gave on to a convent garden.  The convent itself was way off at the top, and all the rest was field.  We could jump over our wall and roam the field picking poppies, run after yellow and red butterflies and dodge lizards that scurried away, startled out of their sun-struck lethargy by our footsteps rustling through the wheat.  Most days a patient burro stood quietly in different parts of the field, the occasional twitch of its brown ears or the flickering of its tail the only sign of life it gave for hours on end.  Somehow, my mother got to know the farmer who tended the burro and everything else.  He often left fresh vegetables at our back door.

Down the center of the field ran a dirt path that started somewhere close to the convent and went down to our end where it skirted a cement reservoir, then turned right along a brick  wall, ending at a shallow grotto.  The grotto was shaped out of gray rock and inside, on a rock ledge, was a statue of the Virgin Mary.  Invisible from the house, we knew this because of course we’d been up there many times.

On summer evenings, at dusk, the nuns would go to the grotto to pray.  We’d sit on our porch in the quiet of the late evening and hear their voices far off in the distance before we could make out their dark figures.  Carrying torches that bobbed up and down and from side to side in irregular degrees of agility and height, the voices wended their way down towards us.  Directly across from our house was a large tree growing exactly in the middle of the path, causing the hundreds of feet which had worn down the dirt for years to follow a small half-circle around its base.  An orderly mind could find satisfaction in watching the dark flow of figures and weaving torches follow the path faithfully and neatly:  down the long straight part, making a tiny curtsey of respect to the trees, then going up the slight rise to the jagged interruption of the reservoir, singing hymns all the way.

At the end of the long days, we would lie in bed listening to the sounds of the house and the lane.  The glass doors to the little balcony open, I could hear my parents murmuring conversation.  Or my brothers with their girlfriends, talking softly and briefly, followed by long silences.  The neighbor with the creaky gate always came home very late.  A car would drive past loud in the empty street.  We’d be drowsy but what inevitably managed to put us kids to sleep was the sereno, Jiménez, going on his rounds around the neighborhood.  We knew him in the daytime as the person to call when a drain needed unclogging or a persiana rope broke.  The boys would be dispatched to find him and in he’d come, wearing baggy courduroy pants that lost their shape many years before and a dark green jacket.  His battered beret was perfectly molded to his head; the tip of his middle finger ended in a nail-less point; the collar of his shirt was frayed and full of tiny balls.  I don’t think he was much taller than I was at 10 or 12, but he was very handy and friendly to us.  At night, he walked up and down the streets, carrying a thick, heavy stick that sounded hollow but strong, scaring off thieves or malingers.  On that reassuring note, we slept.

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2 Responses to A Madrid neighborhood in the Sixties

  1. mike ingrisano says:

    Thats it…I’m renewing my pasaporte…did anyone ever really figure out what went on in the sanatorio at the top of the hill to the right of our backyard? Lol this is fun

  2. clea says:

    What do you mean, “figure out”? That’s where you and Tony told me they operated on people without anesthesia, which is why we always heard weird music coming out of there! Don’t tell me that you weren’t telling the truth???

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