Madrid’s Plaza del Dos de Mayo was never the tidiest of squares. By day, the tree-lined plaza is firmly in the hands of children, pensioners and local hipsters enjoying a late morning coffee or afternoon beer. By night, it is a haven for teenage revellers, furtively lighting joints and passing around litre bottles of Mahou beer. The square also enjoys a loyal following among dog owners and homeless Madrileños, who appreciate its water fountain and benches. It adds up to quite a lot of debris.
This month, however, a 13-day strike by Madrid’s street cleaners turned Plaza del Dos de Mayo and the rest of the city centre into a truly sorry mess. Streets and squares were coated with papers, cigarette ends, beer cans; rubbish containers turned into foul-smelling volcanoes ringed by foothills of trash. Some residents resorted to wearing face masks. In the capital’s cafés, meanwhile, irate locals swapped tales of rat sightings and wondered when the authorities would declare a sanitary emergency.
Since Sunday, such worries are a thing of the past. The triumphant unions called off their strike after employers agreed to take back a plan to sack almost one in five street cleaners. Savings will instead be made through a cut in working hours and a salary and hiring freeze.
As the great Madrid clean-up gets under way, it is not just the smell of garbage that lingers, but also a sense of exasperation with Ana Botella, the mayor. Even followers of the centre-right Popular party, which rules both capital and country, say they were unimpressed with her handling of the crisis. The recent mess aside, many locals have long resented that Ms Botella (wife of José María Aznar, the former prime minister) was parachuted into her job less than two years ago without winning an election.
Of course, not all of Madrid’s current travails can be blamed on the mayor, who took over in the middle of an economic crisis. But Ms Botella has a tendency to play a poor hand badly, notably when her city suffered the rare humiliation of losing a third consecutive bid to host the summer Olympics. Madrid’s embarrassment was compounded by the mayor’s thickly-accented, cliché-studded speech to the International Olympic Committee. Madrileños cringed when they heard Ms Botella tell her listeners that “there is nothing quite like having a relaxing cup of café con leche on Plaza Mayor”, one of the city’s most hectic squares, filled with tourists, rip-off merchants and overpriced cafés. The internet lit up with jokes and videos lampooning her performance, many of them rehashed for the strike.
Despite the trash blowing in the wind, I found myself at Plaza del Dos de Mayo several times a week, usually accompanied by my two-year-old son. It boasts the best playgrounds in all of Malasaña, a scruffy but lively neighbourhood in downtown Madrid. In one corner, there is usually a chaotic football match right below the stern sign banning ball games. There is a selection of unfussy, well-run cafés, a kiosk bursting with papers and magazines and a trendy bicycle shop filled with shiny models that provoke gasps of excitement from my offspring.
Even at the height of the strike, the square proved a golden rule of Madrid life: nothing ever happens at home. Whether they meet their friends, play with their children or make a political statement, most Madrileños try to do so outside. Spain’s capital thrives on noise, late nights and mass demonstrations. Even in the November cold, surrounded by bursting sacks of rubbish, the café tables that spill out into the Plaza del Dos de Mayo were full. At least here in Malasaña, it takes more than a bit of trash to make people abandon the street.
The mayor of Madrid is not the only local leader suffering embarrassment. Last month, the village of Alhendín inaugurated a traffic roundabout, an event that would not normally attract national attention. On this occasion, however, the official photo was reprinted everywhere, inciting much hilarity. It shows no fewer than 14 local politicians crammed on to a tiny traffic island, beaming with pride. To anyone who lived through Spain’s disastrous property bubble, it struck an immediate chord. For more than a decade, ministers and mayors basked in the reflected glory of the building boom, opening grand new museums, airports, sports arenas, bridges and sometimes entire new cities. It is a habit they are finding hard to kick – even if all they have to unveil these days is a tiny, grass-covered traffic island in Andalucia.