Dusk Glow in Winter

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There are only two good things about ending Daylight Saving Time and going back to Standard, where the days are shorter and the nights are stronger than moonshine. One warms my heart: farm kids get to walk to the school bus with dawn spilling over the horizon, which is safer than venturing out in pitch dark.

The other is my favourite thing about Barcelona: dusk glow in winter. The fading evening light melding with shop window radiance, and we walking through it.

It took me a long time to figure this out, since I had thought it all had to do with living in a tight, multi-faceted city, where so much urban and human overlaying keeps you pleasantly situated, rarely floating in between. It’s true, but it’s just the premise for something better: the subtle fusion of natural and artificial light that envelops every wintry passer-by. It’s as if a skillfully purposeful lighting designer had locked onto you – actor, user, agent – holding you in place as you stroll across an expansive theatrical stage. Only with the rooftop left open, though it’s not really cold, it’s cool.

It’s as if a skillfully purposeful lighting designer had locked onto you, holding you in place as you stroll across an expansive theatrical stage.

Not every town has a best part of the year, an optimal time of day, a moment that seems to be made for it. Many cities feel pretty much the same in the morning as five hours later; others will give you just as much in August as in May. Then there are places that really come through when you least expect them to, like New York at Christmas. Barcelona traditionally has been known to shine around the Mercè street party in mid-September, dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy; then it beams bright in late May and early June, also a time for festivals, like Sónar and Primavera Sound. Both are periods when the weather is warm and thousands take to the streets, generally in a good mood; neither has much more going for it than that. What happens to Barcelonans during these times is not particularly enlightening, nor aesthetically special, nor sensually gripping. You get out and have fun, and that’s about it.

Nothing to be compared to the beauty of this: half past five to quarter to seven, first fortnight of December. That time of day when sky blue slips to obsidian, when tawdry sunlight makes its final play on low-flying clouds, yellow inside and pink on top. It is lovely, if you want to look at it, our weatherly troposphere, though it is not where humans live. Most of us are down here along frigid hard edges, tinged by twilight tones from above, while around us halogens and LEDs meant to enhance the appeal of consumer goods reach out into the streets where we ramble, smearing the mist-slickened paving stones in ochre grey.

One of the things that makes this happen is the frequency of the shops, the dense urban core and even distribution of street-level merchants, all told a consequence of unshakable Catalan faith in doing neighbourly business. A bit earlier in the day it was just a city; sunlight took a stab at making it warm and gay, you changed to the sunny side of the street by way of gratitude, shop windowlight not yet meaningful. A little while later, when day’s afterglow has dissipated, the only thing illuminating you is mercantile optimism, hoping to draw you in like a fly to fire. You might even let yourself shop.

But we’re talking about in between, when it’s still light enough for you to be seen and recognized; you have not yet become a streaky shadow, flitting darkly through the cityscape. As you move horizontally along sidewalks, past the dotted line of businesses open to half past eight, storefront hues seem to breathe on you, exhaling in front of each shop, holding it in as you move past each building’s darkened entranceway.

It is as if you were activating the phases by your very pace, here sequential, there slow fade, next one twinkle, then random flash, like cheap programmable Xmas lights you can buy at any gas station. Though these ones are mostly white, or slightly yellowed, or a touch of blue.

The economic crisis made me rethink the city’s holiday illumination, which used to seem blatantly consumerist, prioritizing certain merchant associations over others. Now I think differently: most of us are not going to buy anything anyways, but we still get to wander a pageant tableau, bundled against the chill.

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