MADRID — After I walked into a cafe here six years ago I realized that the Spanish cafe is a place to meet and pass the time, an academic arena or a therapeutic refuge from life's eruptions beyond the sagging velvet draperies.
Also, it is a barometer of the times, a place where events of the past 24 hours--or 24 years--are painstakingly reviewed and realigned.
When I first frequented these cafes in the early 1980s they were polarized along political lines.
One day, in a cafe in the affluent barrio de Salamanca , which was then by fits and starts coming to terms with the "regrettable" demise of Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator and general, I was reading El Pais, an upstart newspaper that was vigorously flexing its left-wing muscle.
I chalked up the harsh, curious stares that came my way to my unusual status as an unescorted woman--and a foreign one to boot.
But a Spanish friend explained that it was the newspaper I was reading that drew the glares; other patrons of that cafe read only the right-wing ABC.
Within a few years, however, democracy blunted the political edge of the Franco years, and cafe custom ceased to be dictated by politics.
The criterion for patronage became increasingly cultural, or socioeconomic. And cafes everywhere were catering to a more heterogeneous clientele.
Take Cafe Comercial, for example. It's in the Glorieta de Bilbao at the edge of the Malasana district, a bohemian barrio reminiscent of pre-gentrified Greenwich Village. This no-frills cafe was, in Franco's time, a hotbed of proletarian leftism.
Today, overflow punkers from Malasana, more concerned about hair color than politics, wave their stiff coiffures in heated conversation, while God-fearing grandmas in straight skirts and thick shoes gossip unruffled at adjoining tables.
One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the tertulia tradition, whose origins go back to groups of intellectuals who began to meet regularly at their favorite cafes.
Similar meetings in cafes all over town have been revived with a vengeance. The topics, of course, suit the times: the role of erotica throughout the ages, the importance of ecology, the evolution of parapsychology and just about anything you can think of.
Some newer cafes, hoping to capitalize on the resurgence of the tertulia trend, host art exhibitions or film screenings, with discussions afterward. These events are listed in the weekly Guia del Ocio, sold at newsstands.
Some tertulias, like upper-crust clubs, boast a close-knit camaraderie and require of prospective members a certain pedigree and "proper" letter of introduction.
Others of a more egalitarian nature welcome one and all into their pliant circle of experts and dilettantes. In either case the traditional hour of the tertulia continues to be 5 p.m.
In today's Spain there are cafes for the literati, for the film crowd, for pink-haired punks and for Mercedes-driving yuppies ("Youpees" in Spanish).
But while "in" spots come and go with collective caprice, some old-timers have weathered all manner of social storms.
In days gone by the legendary Cafe Gijon, Cafe Lion and El Espejo, all near Plaza de la Cibeles at the edge of the still-fashionable Salamanca area, were the stalwart, wood-paneled haunts of the aristocratic old-boy network.
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While the old boys still come around, now they rub elbows with growing numbers of trendy TV personalities, budding film makers, rock singers and gay artists and authors.
Just more than 100 years old, Cafe Gijon remains the premier Madrid cafe. Despite a recent face lift, an eminent gentility and fin-de-siecle flavor continue to spice the feisty colloquy that has always been its forte.
A new entry in the old plush-and-brass style is the Cafe de Oriente across from the Royal Palace.
Amid its beautifully orchestrated ambience of velvety romance, the lively conversations of municipal politicians, members of the Spanish National Symphony (who play at the Royal Theater across the street) and those who appreciate an outstanding Irish coffee, rhythmically pour out in a crescendo of flailing arms and a vigorous tossing of heads.
At the first sign of spring Madrid blossoms with open-air cafes. In recent years the Paseo de la Castellana, stretching north from the Plaza de la Cibeles into a concrete forest of corporate headquarters, has come under rampant cafe cultivation.
Each successive year its parade of terrazas gets longer. Even the opulent Hotel Ritz south of the Plaza de la Cibeles is in on the act. Its outdoor terrace garden is open to the public.
To keep up with their trendy new neighbors, veterans such as El Espejo have jazzed up their own outdoor offerings. Last summer, for example, El Espejo treated patrons to the polkas and waltzes of a live string quartet.
And I can't help wondering if the ubiquitous presence of buskers alongside Terraza Teide is sheer coincidence.