MADRID—One comes to this city, especially a wayfarer from the City of Angels and finds that it is exceptionally quiet. Even on a Monday. No banda blares from pickups. School is out, banks shut down early–2:30 in the afternoon. A softness pervades the streets and the parks, like El Retiro, where toddlers toddle and youths take selfies on pond launches, while heroic statues look on and benches on the Gran Via are filled by well dressed people who could be Americans. But they’re crypto-Americans who talk softly and bicker, but not ever loudly, and it would seem they are unsaddled by the woes of the world.
So Madrid is a respite and earthly escape valve for the overworked hordes of Chinese, German, British and American tourists who come here and want to piece of this quiet, calm place to take home.
“To be a tourist is not the same as living in a country,” says the man, a little smug. He is like Gabriel with a trumpet and a message, standing at the gate to a Catholic temple he zealously guards. He has smiling, squinting eyes, and paunch which almost fits into semi faded polo shirt. As if the first time weren’t enough, he sees fit to repeat his thesis, “Believe me, this is something that you may not realize. To be a tourist in a place is not the same as actually living in it.”
The church guard goes on to illustrate. “A piso, a flat costs 800 Euros, which is just what an average worker earns. It takes everything they have. Oh, I have seen some people make money here. Like the Columbians, they have a knack for making money,” he says, thus flattering the nationality of a member of our little entourage in Madrid. “One works in computers,” he opens a hand to evoke the pile of money this guy is making. “Another is an architect. There is a lot of construction here.”
We are in the forecourt of a privately owned temple in Salamanca, one of the tonier neighborhoods in Madrid. The church guard, who is a former policeman, looks over with gluttonous pride at the coach entrance to a Bauhaus condo a half block down. “There are rich people there. They are really something: they have a chauffeur for their Mercedes, a live-in housekeeper and even their own private doctor,” he says.
He quickly repudiates that the U.S. has anything on Spain in terms of addiction (“There are lots of addicts here”), dishonesty (“There are more thieves and liars every day”), poverty (“There are every day more people on the streets, begging.” He does concede on one issue when it comes to the social safety net (“We do have a good health system.”)
The man exemplifies something that Spaniards, especially elder ones, have more of: time. They have time to piece things together and explain their take on the world in firm words and dole out advice, to whoever is there to listen. It is a luxury for some travelers to stand where this web of words is being woven.
“I am sorry that you can’t go inside the church and take pictures, it is a real jewel box inside. And we have good priests here, Cubans. They are not like some other priests.”
The man stands, half smiling and squinting in the sun. It is half past eight a clock and the streets look like five o’clock in California.
“Whatever you do,” says they man, “do not speak ill of others. When you are down, the people will come back to do you harm. It will come back to bite you,” says the man. At the end of the encounter, the church guard presents himself: “I am Angel de Dios. That is my last name, de Dios.”
No better name for a former cop who provides security for this church slightly off the beaten path: angel of God.
Grady Miller is on assignment in Spain.