Sunday, June 04, 2006

Princesses and espadrilles

Highlights of the past week (besides being able to connect to the internets in the national library!):

• a morning at the Madrid book fair, one of the biggest in the world. The setting is the lovely green Retiro park, where on the paths among the trees you find several hundred stands with every kind of book you can imagine (all at a 10% discount during the fair, of course), lots of author presentations and signings, and thousands upon thousands of happy Spaniards browsing through the possibilities. (I'm always impressed by how much Spaniards like to read; the book fair is one of the year's biggest attractions, and it's rare to see a commuter on the metro without a book in her hands.)

• an unexpected glimpse of Princess Elena (the oldest daughter of the Spanish royal family) at the book fair. She was dressed casually, and most people were focused on the books rather than each other, so hardly anyone recognized her (either that, or Spaniards are remarkably blase about their royal family). She was only about five feet away, and I wanted so badly to say hello just so I could say that I had, but I chickened out.

• a day in Toledo, with a deliciously slow and attentive stroll through the cathedral (which I've seen a dozen times, but it's so big and complex that every time there's something new to discover)

• several excellent outings with friends, over olives and cheese and little garlicky fishes and wine in cozy bars with worn tile floors and chunky oak tables. There are several chain restaurants here (and every day another Starbucks), but fortunately the vast majority of places are still little family-owned bars, each with its own character, that look like they haven't changed in the last two centuries.

• a morning spent waiting in line for shoes. Not the sort of thing that would usually be a highlight, but it was such an absurd situation that I enjoyed it immensely. There's an espadrille shop in downtown Madrid that for some reason attracts huge mobs of people; my sister-in-law had purchased some for her mother, but needed to exchange them for a different size, so we offered to go on a weekday morning since the place is too crowded on weekends. So imagine, a beautiful Thursday morning, we head to the neighborhood just south of the Plaza Mayor, and it's easy to find the shop because there are people standing in line outside the door. For espadrilles! We claimed a spot, settled in, struck up conversations with the other shoppers, developed a system of keeping people's places in line so they could wander off and window-shop down the street, and overheard the surprised comments of passers-by when they realized that we were all waiting for cheap shoes. Usually people start to get antsy about standing in line for so long, but I think everyone was a little embarrassed about waiting in line for espadrilles, so we all just laughed and enjoyed the morning and eventually wandered off with armloads of shoeboxes. (I didn't get any for myself, but we did get a teeny tiny pair of red-and-white Basque sandals as a gift for a friend's new baby.)

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