Weeds: Memories of people-watching in Spain

You often hear someone say that the people-watching was good at a certain place. I think of malls, ballgames, parks, anywhere there are multiple representatives of our species. Urban Dictionary says people-watching is like bird watching except with people. Sounds about right.

People-watching is best practiced from a good bench or chair. It is preferable with people we don’t know. People we know limit our imaginations. Vacations are a good time to partake in people-watching. We have free time to set awhile. I’m like a lot of guys too, who get unstructured moments while our wives are shopping.

A couple times, we have been to see daughter Abby in Spain. Spanish cities of all sizes have town squares, or “plazas.” Plazas may not have been laid out for people-watching, but they are exquisitely perfect for that.

All the traditional cities of Europe have such a central gathering area. It is something American cities did not integrate into their planning, and that is our loss. The plaza (Italian “piazza,” German “Platz”) historically had many purposes. They were economic centers. Political rallies and military mustering occurred there. Usually an adjacent church meant processions on holy days.

Most every town we have visited in Spain, we spent time in the plaza. I have a favorite. That is in the city of Toledo. (Ohio Toledo is pronounced “To-lee-do.” Spain Toledo is pronounced “To-lay-do.”) Abby was there one summer with fellow students from the University of Minnesota. The old part of Toledo very much is stepping back in time with narrow cobblestone streets between centuries-old stone buildings, winding all sorts of ways. Getting lost is almost a guarantee for visitors.

The good news is if you are lost, all the streets wind back to the Plaza de Zocodover. It is a pleasant space, lined with scenic buildings and outdoor cafes. home to street vendors and outdoor markets. The comely environment belies the fact that in the 2,000 -year history of Toledo, it hasn’t always been so inviting. During the Spanish Inquisition; hundreds of Jews were hung there. It was the site of battles in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. Some of the elderly strolling there might even remember those.

We spent a week in Toledo, so got to know the city a little. We had our other kids with us. Everyone was old enough to run off on their own. We did some things together and other times split up. We knew we could find each other in the Zocodover. The apartment we rented was a block away. The weather was ideal, and I took to going to the Plaza when I had free moments.

A small café in a corner with outdoor tables and fruited Sangria was my favored spot. I always had a book, but never read too many pages. The people-watching was too good. In a way, it is better when you don’t know the language. Overheard conversation doesn’t distract from the visual. It’s like watching a play without words. You focus on facial expressions and body language.

Good people-watching is enhanced by a range of ages and types to observe. This was certainly true in Toledo, as all sorts drifted through. It is not surprising to find out that Toledo has been a meeting point of Christians, Jewish, and Muslims for a millennium. There were times of violence as I described, but other times Toledo was noted for the convergence of three cultures, often living in peace. From where I sat with my Sangria, many thousands had passed by.

There are shifts on the Zocodover as the day passes. Early, workers are meeting before heading to their tasks. Mostly guys, some standing, some sitting at tables, they could have been at Schultz Café in Sleepy Eye back in the day. I assume their conversation was a mix of sports, the morning’s news, and complaints about bosses and politicians.

Morning was a time for moms and nannies with young kids in tow. Little kids are a delight to watch, with their barely controlled energy. There is constant seeking of the outer boundaries, as children test their chaperones. The line between uncontrollable laughter and crying over a skun knee is often thin.

Afternoons meant tourists walking through, with their gaze casting about. The midday, traditional siesta time, was slow. Many Spanish stores close for a couple hours in the afternoon, then are open later in the evening.

You could tell when school let out as kids appeared in packs. Son Ezra was playing soccer back then. We had toured Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid, one of the meccas of “futbol.” I bought him a soccer ball there which he took with him everywhere on the trip. (That ball may or may not have been involved with the breaking of a lamp in our apartment in Toledo.) It was fun to see Ezra become a pied piper of boys on the Plaza who were impressed with the “Americano” soccer player.

Early evening was for families. Certain looks and actions reminded me of moments I’d had as a younger husband or father. Part of people-watching is, “Oh yeah. I remember that feeling.” With that comes the realization that we are more alike than we are different. As I watched a dad chase a child playfully, memories bubble up.

Older folks came out in the cool of the evening. Observing people in the last quarter of life is not so much remembering what was but looking what’s ahead. A decline between our sixties and our eighties is clear and undeniable. I can hope to be one of the spry older men, laughing at things and spending treasured evenings with friends. But that is not a given.

Teens and young adults take over the Zocodover as night falls. This might be the best people-watching as there is so much going on in those ages. Adolescence is a cauldron, always smoldering, sometimes flaming up. Within groups of boy and groups of girls, there is underlying competition as young people find their place in the world. Then, when the groups mix, the real fireworks begin. It’s almost exhausting to watch.

Abby had a summer boyfriend from Toledo, so we got to spend a bit of time with her friends from two continents. It was again a reminder, that no matter how humans try to separate themselves into groups, we are more the same than different. We should be suspicious of assumptions we make of others. And it should engender empathy for others. All that comes from good people-watching.

Spanish people are generally up later, and the Zocodover was still busy when I headed to bed. I’d like to go back there; I miss the Sangria. For now, my people-watching will have to be at Walmart and Target Field.