MADRID: THE DESTINATION FORMERLY KNOWN AS…

Spain’s capital has always struck me as the least vibrant of e-Spanish spaces.

Maybe the heavily overlay of vaguely Arabized government and army headquarters has done much to squelch and dampen all the frenetic fandangos and trill-like electricity of speedy speech that the country is known for. On a recent visit back to visit my cousin and her long-time mate, two honorary gypsies who, like surprisingly many others, have found their life-time satisfaction in adopting the lifestyle that goes by the name of the art form called flamenco, she an earthy dancer with non-Americanized handle, he a renowned guitarist whose hard-drinking and hard-strumming was never any sort of pose, living in a fourth-floor walk-up festooned in tiled plates and Arabic carpets that would go far to define the term “funky” in décor without even trying. All around on the streets is the persistent hard-edged grubbiness of Spanish life they seem to thrive in, with the usual packs of drunks, drug addicts, Gitano barkers and beggars, further amplified by Europe’s downward trending economics.

But what surprises and amazes this time is how much of the entire historic core of the city around the Plaza Tirso de Molina – upon which I look from a flowered hostal balcony readily had at only 40 euros or so – is entirely claimed and rented out by shop front after shop front of migrant Chinese. Not only that, not merely all the art deco bombast of the past replaced by Chinese calligraphy inscrutable to nearly all but themselves, but nearly all of these identical businesses are doing a bulk trade in the cheapest and cheesiest of scarves, jewelry, blouses, etc. – and sit empty all day, with two or three uncouth Cantonese clerks sleeping at their stations. How exactly did these blocks after blocks of illegal and irrelevant establishments allowed to come into existence? With what official looks to the side? And what purpose do they serve exactly, except as obvious fronts for more sinister purposes of money-laundering, people-enslaving and such?

More importantly, to travelers like me anyhow, what will become of the tiny bars and bakeries and bocadillo shops that formed the web of life that went by the name of Madrid? Are we about to designate spots on a map – the Google map, one presumes – as “places formerly known as…” The disappearance of place, of locus, of individual locality, is no different from the extinction of a species. Whither the Madrid fought over and balladized over in the Spanish Civil War? These unwholesome wholesalers know nothing of that and make for a sanitizing occupier far more efficient than all the battalion of Franco, who were, after all, at least Spanish in their casual brutality.

Still, I don’t think they are ever going to take anyone on guided tours of cheap Chinese groceries. And even if the Sino-ization of the planet reaches the all-encompassing levels of former American-ization, will they leave an imprint that is anything more than replicating their bad taste, their ignorance, their unadorned attempts at mere cash register survival? Maybe it’s only shades of mix-up, levels of cultural dilution, that count or ought to be taken account of now.  Or am I simply over-reacting as an old-fashioned old-timer who wants my destinations straight as most of us once used to take our whiskey?

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