Archive for October, 2009

Don´t try this at home, kids

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by cockroach1


One boring Sunday afternoon at home with an overwhelming urge to ‘sort the flat out’.

One heavy suitcase full of stuff to be stored for the winter.

One metal stepladder.

One pair of hiking socks- thick, woolly and slippery.

One fitted wardrobe in a fairly narrow space opposite a fitted shelving unit.

Pick up suitcase, hoist onto shoulder, mount stepladder. Come down again slowly, thinking ´that’s a really bad angle and that suitcase weighs a ton. It might tip me off balance when I lift it up and into the wardrobe.’ Move stepladder back a step, hoist suitcase onto shoulder, again mount stepladder, lift suitcase and think ‘I´m still not sure that gives me enough….oh bugger, I’m losing my balaaaaaaa……… ´ THUMP. Fall backwards onto shelving unit then floor (luckily missing rack of glass shelves that could have severed arteries etc). Lie face down in a tangle of stepladder and, like Wily Coyote, wait a nano-second for the suitcase to fall, adding insult to injury.wily coyote

Like I said, DON’T try this at home.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Having worked for 7 years in tourism, escorting groups of British tourists all over the world, I used to find it unbelievable that people could so easily slip in the shower, throw themselves down steps, fall off pavements, trip over flagstones and so on. How the hell did they manage it? They seemed to be hurling themselves, like lemmings onto the ground and into casualty, as if to spite me – as if my days weren’t complicated enough. Now I see how easy it is to have an accident. But this is not a treatise on risk assesment or Health and Safety.

My foot hurt, but being British out came the stiff upper lip (and the wobbly bottom one). And the cockroach community scuttled into action. First the Incredible Ponce, the Mother of all Cockroaches was round feeding me, tidying up and rubbing Ibuprofen gel into the wounded foot. Then Cocky, to offer a generous helping of piss-taking and entertainment. Tito called round to leave me a little something to stave off the boredom and pretty soon the flat stank like a student basement and everyone was grinning inanely and eating crisps. Another friend offered to do a food shop today after work and to bring me some dvds. I may have been sqaushed and injured, but the colony were not going to leave me behind to curl up and die.

Meanwhile, enthroned like Jabba the Hut on the sofa I arranged a hosptial visit for an X-ray.

I am not here to criticise the Spanish Health Service – there are plenty of Spaniards who will do this for me, but having had a serious operation 2 years ago, which I decided to do in Madrid, I have no complaints. I was lucky in that election money was being ploughed into the Madrid health service at the time, there were promises of 40 day waiting lists, and I had a great surgeon. He even booked the exact week I asked for, to help me with time off work and sick pay issues. Then, when I askedTiredDoctor British friends and family whether they advised coming back for the operation, the common response I received was ‘Don’t, for God’s sake, come back and have it here. Whatever you do, DO NOT come back to the UK for the operation. MRSA, waiting lists, DON’T DO IT… stay there…’ Something told me I ought to stay here.

I knew there would be a fair amount of arsing around to get this done, but had to have the sick note and diagnosis, so took myself off to hospital, as advised by my GP.

I bumped into a friend in the waiting room at Urgencias, also needing an X ray, so at least had someone to gossip with, eyed sourly by the other people there who didn’t. The X ray was done, medical report handed over, and I was processed and out of there in a couple of hours. The worst humiliation was the scornful or indifferent treatment from the medical staff but when you live in Spain, you know that ‘customer’ and ‘service’ do not sit comfortably together so you ought to know what to expect.

Sympathy? Forget it. This is a country whose national ‘sport’ involves being gored by or trampled on by bulls. My wrist band was yanked onto my wrist so tightly my hand started to inflate. I was singled out and pointed at in the waiting room by a sneering security guard who thought he was a drill seargent- ‘I said family members out of here, no family members allowed in this waiting room, only patients. Are YOU a patient?’


are YOU a patient?

Heavily made-up nurses with perfectly tonged hair took my details while they continued a private conversation over me, not making eye contact and only half-listening to my responses. I asked the examining doctor a question as he stood up and dismissed me, but was presented with the back of his white coat receding as he walked away either ignoring me or not hearing me. I’m sure a lot of these things happen in British hospitals too, and much worse. So, all in all a relatively painless and efficient follow up.

I say relatively painless. Hobbling via metro to hospital and GP and back home (when I was told not to put any pressure on the fractured foot) has left me laid up today worse than before. An extra few days to recuperate. But then I could be blamed for not having a car, or friends with a car, or enough money to get taxis there and back. Or being stupid enough to get on that metal ladder in those slippery socks with that heavy suitcase. I’m not asking for better client care or sympathy here. I don’t need it- I have the love, support and sympathy of my own little colony of insects, and who needs love and support from The System when you have that?


Milky, Milky

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2009 by cockroach1

milk 1So how does a British cockroach scavenge a living on the mean streets of Madrid? I teach English to business people, scurrying around the city from one company to another, giving classes in offices and other bizarre but available places like Real Madrid Stadium anti-doping rooms, and even the mail room at a Very Big Bank.

As I was leaving class with some of the students the other day, we were walking through the inner courtyard of the bank which was lined with gleaming black audis.

‘Jesus, there are more chiefs than indians in this place.’ one of my students muttered.

‘Maybe the Governor’s in today’. said one of the others and informed me, ‘The Governor is very small.’ indicating around waist height.’ ‘He has the problems of a little man.’

‘And,’ confided one of the others ‘he has very bad milk.’milk 2

I have lived in Spain long enough to know exactly what this means. It means he is an evil little fucker. ‘Having bad milk’ implies that you are sour, curdled, and intentionally nasty. Reassuring to know our economic future is in the hands of a poison dwarf.

The expression got me thinking about the contrasting connotations of such a simple thing as ‘milk’ in both our cultures. Take expressions with milk in English:

milk 3‘He’s a milksop’. Does anybody know exactly what a milksop is? It could only refer to some cheese-loving, namby-pamby Northern European. You can’t help but think of her ‘milky white breasts quivering above the tight lacing of her bodice.’ You can? Oh well, must just be me, then.

‘The milk of human kindness.’ How very British. Human kindness itself quanitifiable in terms of abundant dairy produce.

‘Land of milk and honey’. Getting a bit sticky and middle eastern here, but along the same lines.

And ‘to milk it for what it’s worth.’ A little more vigorous as expressions go, but hardly offensive in any way.

And now for a look at the implications of ‘milk’ in the Spanish language.

‘Me cago en la leche!’ An expletive which literally translated means ‘I shit in the milk!’ But not just in the milk, guys, ‘in your mother’s milk’. Ten out of ten for boisterousness, descriptiveness and for being gloriously gross.

milkman 2So, mother’s milk is fair game. But be warned: there is plenty more natural milk waiting to be unleashed from the human body. And if the British subtly reference dairymaids and milk churns in our language, don’t forget the Spanish will have a macho equivalent. Here come the bulls, Baby. Oh yes, ‘milk’ is also a thinly-veiled (and sometimes not veiled at all) reference to spunk. What’s an English girl to do when faced with the question

‘Do you want my milk? Where do you want my milk? Do you want all of it?’ as if being interrogated on the doorstep by some rampant milkman.

And finally ‘Es la leche!’ ‘It’s the milk!’ which is a good thing, apparently. A bit like ‘the dogs’ bollocks’ but I’m not even going to go down that road. Not today, anyway.milkman 3

Oh no, not I, I will survive….

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2009 by cockroach1

hungry_cockroach_43475You may be wondering why the title ‘Cockroaches and Coffee’. This being Spain, the coffee should be self-explanatory, but the roaches….? Well, first of all, everyone has an opinion about cockroaches, don’t they? Hate ’em or hate ’em, they certainly don’t leave anyone cold.

I have always despised the little bastards, but the first time I came into close contact with them was while living in Ibiza. Like everything there, the cockroaches are more flamboyant, larger than life, and in your face. I am sure the only reason they don’t wear false eyelashes is that they can’t stick them on properly. (And are probably too busy eating the little tubes of glue). Otherwise they would be strutting around the island on miniature heels, adjusting their wigs, and lip-syncing to Cher songs.

A few days after a friend had moved into a new flat in D’alt Villa (The Old Town) we bumped into him in the street and he looked more like a recent war veteran with PTSD than someone taking time out to live it up for the Summer. He looked positively traumatised. We asked him what was wrong

‘The flat’s infested with cockroa.ches.’ he said, flinching, and glancing over his shoulder. ‘But they’re not like normal ones, these ones have got attitude. I’ve been fighting them for days.’ Fighting them? They fight back? I know it’s not easy to kill them but I thought you just had to stamp on them or poison them. He explained that every time he raised a shoe to smash one of them into the lino, it would look back up at him, cocky as anything, and instead of running for cover, it would eyeball him and assume a martial arts pose. He would raise the shoe ready to strike, and the roach would launch itself at him like Bruce Lee, and begin hand to hand combat in mid-air. And he was losing.

twinkie-cockroachI was working at the time in a restaurant run by an ageing, camp Argentinian. One night he and the other waiter, while I was setting up the terrace outside, decided to fumigate the place before it opened, only they forgot to tell me. Have you seen what happens to roaches when you poison them like this? After about half an hour they literally come running out of the woodwork and die a grotesque, drug-crazed death, breakdancing like body-poppers on Red Bull. Before opening the doors, the boss and I were leaning on the counter at the back of the restaurant and chatting. I was listening to his tales of Ibiza in the 70s. I thought to myself ‘Why is Alberto caressing my hand while he tells me this?’ I looked down and to my horror saw a large shiny roach attempting groggily to mount the back of my hand. I can still recall the gentle probing of its feelers, soft, almost sensual.

Later that night Alberto opened the ancient cashtill and pulled out a ten euro bill to give a customer his change, Sitting serenely on the note as though it was his very own flying carpet, at least until it launched itself at his face, was another roach. Alberto swore that it winked at him.

Cockroaches bring out the aggressive killer instinct in me that I didn’t think I had. I once spent twenty minutes, jet-lagged and almost hysterical in a hotel room in Bangkok chasing a cockroach around and trying to smash it to pieces. Eventually it eluded me and I gave up. When I was getting ready to leave later, I opened my handbag to take out a lipstick and there it was, celebrating its squatter’s rights inside my bag. I found myself pounding its mangled body into the floor with a flip-flop, shouting ‘In my handbag? Oh no you don’t pal…….die, you fucker, die!!’

Coincidentally, this morning as I got ready for work and was dusting the inside of one of my shoes with talc, I tipped it upside down (thank God) and out fell a huge roach onto its back. I made a noise like a puppy being trodden on. It was too early for the gratuitous violence of ‘The Shoe’ and besides, it had fallen onto my bedside table and lay there wriggling frantically, emitting little clouds of talc. While I dithered it managed to right itself and make a run for it. I haven’t seen a roach in my house for months, as the flat is positively land-mined with traps so I can only assume this one was on its last legs and had crawled into my nice warm shoe to die.2719_flying_cockroach.jpg

So everyone has a story when it comes to cockraoches. Everyone hates them and finds them disproportinately disgusting. They would rather fumigate the place and have done with them. What purpose do they serve? We’d all be better off without them. And you just can’t seem to get rid of them- whatever you do, they keep coming back. They live on scraps, creep around behind your back, and no matter how many times you stamp on them they seem to be able to pick themselves up, shake themselves down and live to hustle another day.Like those of us who live here.

That’s what endears them to me in the end despite my loathing, and what allows me to empathise: the humble cockroach is an outcast and a survivor. Therefore it has its place in Lavapies mythology. Because the inhabitants of Lavapies have certain traits in common with these insects. Take our natural habitat, for example:

Pest species of cockroaches adapt readily to a variety of environments, but prefer warm conditions found within buildings‘. Too vague for you? How about ‘Cockroaches are mainly nocturnal and will run away when exposed to light. Another study tested the hypothesis that cockroaches use just two pieces of information to decide where to go under those conditions: how dark it is and how many other cockroaches there are.’

If you go out on the street at 8 a.m. in Lavapies you will see only tumbleweed rolling across the plaza and maybe an old lady walking her dog. Step outside 6 hours earlier at 2 a.m however, and the streets are crawling. There is a lot of scuttling to and fro in and out of small, dark bars crammed with other warm bodies.

Regarding living conditions and group decision-making ‘:Research has shown that group-based decision-making is responsible for complex behavior such as resource allocation. In a study where 50 cockroaches were placed in a dish with three shelters with a capacity for 40 insects in each, the insects arranged themselves in two shelters with 25 insects in each, leaving the third shelter empty. When the capacity of the shelters was increased to more than 50 insects per shelter, all of the cockroaches arranged themselves in one shelter. Researchers found a balance between cooperation and competition exists in group decision-making behavior ….’

Lavapies is well-known for its housing crisis, for its tradition of squatters moving into abandoned buildings, and for the mind-boggling number of immigrant inhabitants per flat. Living on top of each other and sharing resources is nothing new for us. It is an extraordinarily co-operative neighbourhood, far more group-oriented than the nuclear-family ‘normality’ surrounding us.

One of the most notorious characteristics of cockroaches is their hardiness.Cockroaches are among the hardiest insects on the planet. Some species are capable of remaining active for a month without food and are able to survive on limited resources like the glue from the back of postage stamps. Some can go without air for 45 minutes. In one experiment, cockroaches were able to recover from being submerged underwater for half an hour.

Need I say more? However much you hate them, you can’t help but admire them for being tiny indestructible machines of malice. I would say that we Lavapeños (I made that word up) are also hardy, resourceful and can survive on next to nothing.cockroaches_cancer-11977

Let’s take a look at food: ‘…they are scavengers and will eat anything organic. They prefer food sources such as starches, sweets, grease and meat products, but other items may include cheese, beer, leather, glue, hair, starch in book bindings, flakes of dried skin or decaying organic matter (plant or animal).’ Now, there’s not that much difference between this list and the diet of the average Lavapies dweller at least until you get as far as leather. The streets of Lavapies are lined with Indian restaurants, kebab shops, Lebanese eateries and good old fashioned Spanish tapas bars (which covers starches, sweets, grease, meat products, cheese and beer.

One mustn’t forget that ‘cockroach’ characters have appeared in literature and drama at least since classical Greece, speaking for the weak, the underdogs, the outsiders, in short those who live on the underside of dominant human culture. In his book ‘Revolt of the cockroach people’ Oscar Zeta Acosta, for example, used them as a metaphor for opressed and downtrodden minorities in US society in the 60s and 70s.

I am a sucker for metaphor. Also useless trivia, so here’s the final pointless but impressive fact:

A cockroach will live nine days without its head before it starves to death. Starves to death?? I would have thought that would be the least of its worries. What does it do all that time? I know I will be haunted by this thought. But not for as long as I will be haunted by the other thought I had this morning:

‘Yes, but would I have felt it wriggling under my socked foot in the confines of the shoe (really bad) or would I have just ground it to a pulp all day only to find out when I took my shoe off? (Worse).

These are the reasons I chose the title ‘cockroaches and coffee’. I know what people outside this neighbourhood think of us. They think we’re roaches, and I’ve decied to be proud of it rather than offended. I know there are many people in Madrid who recoil at the thought of us all scuttling around down here and scavenging on the city’s scraps. They think we are vermin, we survive on next to nothing, we creep around after dark and no matter how hard you try, you can’t get rid of us. Worse, our numbers are multiplying to plague-like proportions. An infestation of immigrant hippies, artists, musicians, queers, crusties, students, druggies, poets, tramps and hustlers. Help!! Call pest control, quick!Cockroach_Halloween_Costume

Thieving Cows?

Posted in mean streets with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2009 by cockroach1

A few days after the Cow Parade was inaugurated in Madrid a group of 6 youths stole one of the sculptures on display in Plaza Lavapies . Somehow, in the early hours of Sunday morning, they managed to unscrew the base of the cow, which weighs about 400 kilos, and kidnap ithe sculpture without anyone seeing them. It was taken by the local kids to their apartment block a few streets away, and carried up to their fifth floor flat without the use of a lift. It was only at this point that a curtain-twitching neghbour alerted the police. They turned up the following day with one of the exhibition organisers, to liberate the cow. She was subsequently returned unharmed to her plinth in the plaza. The organinsers of the event were quoted as saying ‘You have to really have your head screwed on to unscrew one of these sculptures from its base.’ They also said it was most unusual for one of the cows to go walkabout during Cow Parade. But then, they didn’t count on the inhabitants of Lavapies, who are indeed unusual.

The international exhibiton, over the last ten years or so since its conception, has paraded through over 65 cities in three different continents, and there are only two other cases of kidnapping.

While the exhibiton was in Prague a cow was stolen and believed to have been dumped in the river.


...or the cow gets it

During the Stockholm event a Swedish Organization called the Militant Graffiti Artists of Stockholm kidnapped and decapitated one of the cows after releasing a video in which two balaclava-clad militants held power drills to its head, and proclaimed,

“We, the members of The Militant Graffiti Artists of Stockholm feel morally obligated to protect our city against the Cows that have invaded our streets…..The cows are Not Art. …. Advertisements can never be art….We have taken a hostage. We demand that the cows be declared Non-Art and… before 12:00 August 23rd, leave our streets.….If our demands are not met, the hostage will be sacrificed. Vandalism and artistic justice will be administered.”

The event organisers tried to negotiate with the kidnappers and offered them a white cow to decorate in exchange for the stolen one, so that they could clarify what “real art” was. They also offered to auction off this piece with the others at the end of the event. But the ac tivists were not impressed.Vandalism and artistic justice were soon administered. The pieces of the executed cow were sent in a black bin-liner to one of the Swedish daily newspapers and a video of the beheading posted on the graffiti artists’ website.

So, only three cases of kidnapping over a ten year period. But it is the Lava pies theft that interests me because it says so much about this neighbourhood and the character of its mixed bag of inhabitants. The Prague disappearance was an act of mindless vandalism. The Stockholm stunt was an ironic and well-planned poltical statement. In both cases the cows were destroyed. But the cownapping here was an inspired spontaneous decision by a group of mates, made in the early hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning, probably under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both. She was returned unharmed and there was no real malice involved. It is the equivalent of taking a traffic cone home on your head, or helping yourself to someone’s garden gnome on the way home from the pub, only it takes six to carry it, and it’s a far more prestigious trophy. The theft shows a certain ‘devil-may-care’ attitude to authority, (given the huge number of video surveillance cameras recording every second of our existence), and a great deal of initiative, problem-solving and teamwork (unscrewing the base, carrying it up to the fifth floor without a lift), It also demonstrates a sense of entitlement to public property, or to anything that isn’t nailed down. And to some things that are.

It reminds me of the history of my front door. Today we have a smart, laquered wooden door at the main entrance to my block, with a glass panel in it. But I was told that during the recent rennovations, the original brand new front door was dropped onto its hinges by the carpenters ready to be properly attached. When they arrived the next day to screw in the fittings there was no front door.

Theft of public property of this kind only re-inforces the negative opinions of those who believe Lavapies is no more than a filthy immigrant neighbourhood with soaring crime rates . In this city if you mention that you live in Lavapies to anybody ‘pijo’ (upper middle class/posh), eyebrows will most certainly be raised. Many people seem to see it as a dangerous no-go area. They have never dared to come down here and take a look for themselves, yet they have a clear picture in their head of what it is like, and this picture is a Hogarth drawing.

Gin Lane

Gin Lane

So why would anyone choose to live in Sodom and Gomorra? Even the neghbours association vecinosdelavapies pokes a wry finger at local delinquinecy in its glorious Lavapies Olympics project (more of that coming soon). But Lavapies is also a laid back, multi-cultural , democratic and vibrant neighbourhood. It has been compared to the Alexandria of the thirties immortalised by Durrell in his writing. I would bet good money that the Militant Graffiti Artists of Stockholm would feel just as at home here as I do. As would Banksy. The neighbourhood may have its fair share of scallies and thieving cows, but that, like so many things in Lavapies, you just have to take with a pinch of salt.