As parents we tend to think of our children are perfect as they are. We love their perfect skin, hair, smiles. Of course, children can’t wait for the chance to experiment with their appearances, dying hair, tattooing, piercing…I know. I pierced my eyebrow when I decided I was grown up enough to make such decisions. And I remember the look of disappointment of my mother’s face when she saw me for the first time, permanently altered.
Flash forward a lifetime. I am standing in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, and I have that same look on my face. I feel somehow let down that this once busy but quaint plaza has come into the 21st century in a way I don’t entirely get. And I don’t yet understand how I feel about it.I view the new metro station, dubbed by our tour guide, Jeanette Gelbard, the “cosa mas fea” (the ugliest thing), and, like her, I feel terribly nostalgic for the Puerta del Sol I remember from 30 years ago. I feel like a parent whose child has changed when I wasn’t looking.
Not that the Puerta del Sol I knew was perfect. I have a photo of a twenty-one year-old me standing at the dignified stone banister that used to ring the metro entrance, and there is behind me a recognizable slice of a Burger King advertisement. Yet, Sol was charming then. Flower vendors reigned, selling roses to young Spanish lovers. Sole guitarists played classic songs. Pigeons wreaked havoc on towering statues of venerable old men. There were souvenirs, but they were somehow less tacky. There were places in this public square where one could stand and feel transported back to the past. It was unlike any other place; it was the public face Spain showed to foreign visitors, and it was decidedly Spanish. Even three years ago, the face of Sol was not so altered.The new metro station resembles a pair of armadillos, steel and glass mother and offspring waddle clumsily across puddles on ancient cobblestone. The iconic symbol of Madrid, a statue of a bear nibbling on a strawberry tree, has been surprisingly displaced to make space for this spectacle of mirrored modernity. In the shadow of both, there is an obscene abundance of Chuckies, Michael Jacksons and Dora the Explorers alternatively “stabbing” passers by, moonwalking, or demanding cash when their photos are taken. Mickey Mouse is selling plastic souvenirs and a flamboyant Mariachi band performs for passing change. The plaza is dominated by the fluorescent facade of an Apple Store. The tourists seem to love it, the locals try to ignore it, but I am making THAT face of disappointment.
In the garish light of a twenty foot high neon Tio Pepe Sherry sign, all I think of is my mother’s face when I came home from college with a punk wardrobe, pink hair and an eyebrow ring. Most of my changes were temporary, and I was still her perfect baby, but I had made some permanent changes. She was affected by them in a way I didn’t understand. I do now.The Puerta del Sol was always a clash of the modern and traditional, the kitch and tasteful, but it displayed the best of what was unique to Spain. Now, it feels a lot like Times Square in NYC, and, I’m sorry to say, I am affected.
In life, and in cities, nothing is permanent. Pink hair grows out, and even tattoos can be erased to blurred and shiny new skin. New bridges replace worn-out ones. But even if a piercing is removed, an alteration remains, a scar. And that parade of glass armadillos is not the alteration to the tasteful metro entrance I would like to see. It too will give way to something else at some point, maybe something more elegant as the fashions evolve. But, the change has been made for me. And just as my mom realized that I was no longer a child when I made some unconventional fashion choices, I, too, recognize that Madrid is no longer a Spanish city but an international one. I will never look at this once beloved place the same way again. I still love it, but it has grown up in a way I wasn’t ready for. I still need to process what I am feeling exactly, but this new Sol has affected me.