Life outdoors brings its obvious pleasures. Here in Spain, the sunshine and bright blue skies make it hard to stay inside, and for the first time in my life, my weekend plans are not dictated by the weather forecast threatening a ‘chance of rain’. Now, I leave home confidently without an umbrella most days of the year, and choosing appropriate footwear is much less of a challenge.
As a result, my mood is lighter and my outlook brighter!
Outdoors, there is life, and it is not only the mild temperature being enjoyed. On the streets and in the parks, people of all ages can be found participating in all sorts of weird and wonderful pursuits. Socially or solo, I have seen it all. From group martial arts classes for the elderly, to people using benches and trees as gym equipment. I even saw a couple practising some casual tightrope walking in my local park. I am in awe of this world of activity that I am sure can only exist because the good weather allows it.
Inspired by these people and their confidence to try new things, I was quick to jump on the band wagon. And so, I boldly ordered myself a pair of roller blades! As I waited eagerly for them to arrive, I shared news of my purchase with family who asked, without hesitation: “Do you have a helmet?”
Undeterred, I headed for the Madrid río where I strapped myself in for the first time in 20+ years and effortlessly glided down the busy walkway, weaving in and out of walkers and runners in the bright winter sun, thinking how lucky I was that this was my life!
At least that’s how I imagined it.
In reality, after 10 minutes of navigating the web of straps and laces, I rose tentatively from my bench and inched forward, unsteady on my wheels and waving my arms for balance, questioning whether this was really such a good idea after all.
But I had confidence that my elbow and knee pads would protect me from the inevitable scrapes and scratches I was sure to endure as an adult beginner. I felt as prepared as could be thanks to the useful YouTube tutorial I watched on “How to fall”. And looking around, it seemed that I wasn’t the only one who had ventured to their local Decathlon for cheap and cheerful protective gear before taking to the pathways of the Manzanares.
All around me, people were skating, scooting, running, and rolling; some with confidence and frightening speed and others, holding on to each other for dear life.
I watched them all in admiration, thinking that one of the many things I love about this country is the trait of not caring what people think.
Hailing from a society where it is drilled in from an early age that it is “rude to stare”, it takes some time to allow yourself the freedom to look for longer than a millisecond when you see something a little bit different. It also takes time to adjust to being stared at too!
Yet weirdly, no-one bats an eyelid at a couple performing circus tricks in the park, but God forbid you would don your summer wardrobe and flash an ankle any earlier than June. THAT will not go unnoticed.
And whilst I previously argued that it is the reliable sunny weather that allows for this broad range of activities to be practised, something happened earlier this year which made me question that theory.
When the heaviest snowfall in a century blanketed the country in January and brought the capital to a standstill, it won’t only be the buried cars or the number of inches that I will remember in years to come.
While the Madrileños who would normally anticipate a mid-Feb break in the Pyrenees were only too glad of the chance to dust off their skis and snowboards and take to the hilly parks, dodging fallen trees and broken branches, others had to channel their creativity to enjoy this once in a lifetime opportunity.
My personal highlights include seeing a whole family sledging on an air mattress and a man rowing himself down my street on a snowboard fashioned from a piece of wood.
[Scenes like this reminded me fondly of Glasgow – when some nutter would take advantage of extreme weather conditions to try something bold and ridiculous, make the headlines and give the city a laugh].
But the fun was short-lived and once the snow had melted, the runners, scooters and skaters returned to the streets once more (although a surprising amount of people can still be spotted with walking poles…)
Under normal circumstances, the Spring months would have been prime preparation for ‘operácion bikini’ when the race is on to get fit fast for the mass migration to la playa in the summer months. But it would be a misconception to think that outdoor life here just revolves around vigorous exercise since I am sure that this dedication to fitness we see must only exist to balance the good life of eating out and drinking.
When the people of Madrid are not pounding the pavements, you will find them on bar terraces before noon on a weekend, sipping a cerveza before la hora de vermouth, followed by a three-hour lunch shared with friends and family.
And beyond the buzzing terrazas and plazas, picnic blankets form a patchwork in the numerous parks of the city, where friends and families spend hours chilling, reading, eating, and socialising (and couples in shady spots often doing a lot more than that…)
So, it goes without saying that having such freedom taken away and locking up a nation so accustomed to being outside had a profound effect on this society. Cooped up for months in tiny apartments, many found themselves wondering how they had allowed their ski equipment to occupy so much square footage of their now limited home-office space…
And like most of life’s pleasures, it’s not until something is taken away that you appreciate it even more. For months, I, like many others, gazed longingly out of the window every day, desperate to share space with nature once more.
The return to life outdoors for some brought peaceful normality; for the older generation who could once again take their ritualistic evening stroll before dinner, and for the children who could once more play long after the sun sets while their parents enjoy late and lengthy meals. For others, like me, it provided the opportunity to get out there and try something new.
And for us all, the recipe of vitamin D, gentle exercise, fresh air and socialising makes for an intoxicating cocktail which boasts benefits of a healthy and happy mind, body, and soul.
Even for the most hardcore of fitness fanatics, this year has been about more than ‘operación bikini’. It is about feeling good, feeling free and feeling fortunate to be part of a society where time outdoors doesn’t just represent a way of life, but a love of life.
These days, I have opted to ditch my headphones in favour of some sensory running or rolling, taking the opportunity to soak up the sights, sounds and sunshine. And while I am often guilt-ridden for not using the time to squeeze in a Spanish language podcast, I am conscious of being in the moment.
And so, with this in mind, I strap up my skates and let the good times roll.