Serenely Serene and the Sereno - Madrid 1974

It's 1974 and I'm staying in an apartment in La Puerta del Sol, Madrid. I hear piano music for hours and hours. It's a pleasure to listen to the young boy practising the scales over and over so many times, The sound of his music stands out over the cacophony of women's voices speaking loudly, of radios blaring forth long advertisements interspersed with occasional long-winded monologues about something or another. I know so little Spanish that it's easy for me to tune people out.

I have a temporary job tutoring English. Some of my students are wealthy children who live in fancy apartments with fancy furniture. Everything is perfect in their lives. They are all handsome and they have every material item you could wish for, from the tiny leather bound dictionary and the gold chain around their necks, to the expensive clothes purchased in boutiques. They float about serenely, with not a care in the world. They speak Spanish with the crisp Castilian accent that reveals their breeding and pride.  I've been told so many times that Castilian Spanish is the best Spanish, and so eager am I to impress people that I add 'ths' where they're not supposed to be. I end up saying things like, "Buenoth diath"! The haughty look of disdain of my students is tempered by polite respect for an older person.

During the day I enter the world of the rich with their antique framed tapestries, oil paintings, cooks and maids. It seems a stiff, cold  existence, regardless of how perfect everything is. In the evening I meet with more normal people who don't seem to be overflowing with riches. Some of them are American and even although they certainly are not poor, they don't have the finesse or the formal manners that the wealthy Madrileno children have. They're more relaxed and easy to be with.

The Americans and I hang out at the bars or in their apartments. We listen to 'Layla' over and over again on their record players until the sound of it spins around and around in our heads making us delirious. We marvel at how exotic everything is in Spain. How the people are so dramatic, as if they are acting in some tragicomedia.  The Americans call the 'peseta' a 'patata' and don't care that it's wrong. Come to think on it, quite possibly they don't even know that it's wrong! At least they get the sound of the strong A correctly. It's not so easy for English-speaking people to pronounce the letter A in Spanish.

At night, we wander through the streets of Madrid in search of the aroma of fresh baked bread that piles out on to the street like a dragon. The closer we get to the ovens the closer we get to the bar that sells hot chocolate way into the wee small hours.  We can smell the ovens in the distance and see the lights of the bar as we hasten our footsteps all the while anticipating the thick nectar of the hot chocolate.  On our way, we hear the clapping of hands and someone calling out,  "Sereno! Sereno!"  A sereno swaggers rapidly by us, his keys dangling and he nods to us. He unlocks the main door to an apartment building and lets the person in.

I stick my spoon in the hot chocolate and it stays upright. People have told me to do this, to prove how thick the hot chocolate is. But I don't care about any of that. I surreptitiously dip my fingers into the hot cup and help myself. The Americans laugh loudly. But nobody else notices. So many things that people never, ever notice.  The other patrons in the bar have their heads down as their feet kick the litter scattered on the floor. It's quite common to tear open packets of sugar and toss the paper on the floor.  We place our hands round the thick cup of hot chocolate and smile. How content and serene we are becoming.

Bellies full and a warmth caressing our bodies we go back out into the cold and wander the streets of Madrid once again, along the Calle Alcala and down to La Puerta del Sol where I'm staying.  We stroll slowly, as if we don't want the night to end. Lots of people are still out and about at three o'clock in the morning. It's safe and we don't feel threatened even when we hear footsteps running behind us. It seems to me that Franco's Spain is a safe Spain.

We walk by the statue of the bear, our footsteps ringing out just like the keys of the sereno jingling as he does his rounds. I clap my hands and I hear him respond immediately, "Voy!" Then he quickly appears and unlocks the main door to my apartment. He looks away.
"Gracias", I manage to mumble, being careful to pronounce the 'ci' as 'th'. But, lo and behold, without even realising it, I actually say, "Grathiath". I just can't stop trying to impress people with my Castilian Spanish!

The sereno doesn't seem to care about my mistake. There's another clap of hands and someone else is calling, "Sereno!"  He turns around and walks briskly along La Puerta del Sol, his voice echoing comfortingly in the cold night, "Voy!  Ya Voy!"

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