Thursday, 18 August 2011

Yellow-shirt-and-red-rucksack blues

This is nothing if not a sectarian event. It is organised by Catholics, for Catholics to do Catholic things in a Catholic country. An alleged 1.5m young people from all over the world have squashed themselves together in the searing heat of a Madrid August - to see the Pope, to party, and simply to be together. Non-Catholics can also come ("everyone is welcome") but it would hard for them not feel excluded at a very basic level: this is a family get-together, a gathering of the clan. It's about belonging. I have seen little groups of yellow T-shirted, red-rucksacked teenagers from as far away as Japan, Indonesia and Madagascar, as well as large contingents from the Latin heartlands of South America and southern Europe, parading the streets waving national flags, singing, whooping, and occasionally attending the services and other events laid on for them. They bed down on the floors of church halls and other institutions to which they cannot return until nightfall, so they hang around the city all day, blocking pavements and doorways, lolling on kerbsides; sometimes marching, sometimes singing, always noisy.

If this were London, locals would be seriously irritated by the inconvenience of hosting so many religious teenyboppers with very little money to spend. They subsist on food vouchers for which they pay €6.50, and which they can exchange for €4.50 worth of food at participating outlets (guess who gets the other €2? El Papa! Viva! Viva!) Bar-owners and restaurateurs have been told they must allow their toilets to be used by them on request, even if they're not patrons. Roads are closed. The shops in the city centre - including the iconic El Corte Ingles department store chain - are bursting with moist and raucous youngsters not spending any money. And the noise! Yet Madrilenos seem to take it in their stride - although not perhaps out of any particular love or respect for the Church. "In Madrid, we care more about football than religion" our local bar-manager tells us. But surely you want to see the Pope? "Most of us would only stand in the street if we heard we might see Bruce Willis". The locals present in the bar last night did not look away from the TV screen as the spectacle of a huge crucifix, borne by city dignitaries, accompanied by acolytes and thurifers, and escorted by police, passed by in the street yards from where they sat. Yet they are not impatient or intolerant. "In truth, we feel a bit sorry for them" he says of the young pilgrims. Indeed many of them are far from home; but perhaps also away from less permissive environments than that enjoyed by most London teenagers. It may be stinking hot, they may be uncomfortable. But they are free and happy. Most of all, they belong.

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