Archive for December, 2009

The Silence of the Hams

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2009 by cockroach1

A few months ago, while reading a local arts magazine, I came across a regular feature about cinema – ‘Films that could never have been based in Spain’. The film under discussion was ‘Silence of the Lambs’. I read with growing incredulity an argument that Hannibal Lecter could never have been a Spanish character, because in Spain the meat is so good and there are so many great meat dishes that he would never have had to resort to eating human flesh to get his kicks. But of course, Lecter was driven to torture, mutilate and devour his victims because he couldn’t get his hands on Jamon Serrano and chorizo. How stupid of us not to realise this! Nothing to do with sadism, abuse, perversity or horror; it’s purely a matter of vegetarian politics. The scary thing was that the article was not written tongue in cheek.

They do have a point, though- there are soooooo many delicious carnivorous dishes in traditional Spanish cuisine- to name just a few apart from Serrano ham and all the varieties of chorizo, there are pigs’ trotters, fried blood (Lecter would like that one, I’m sure), Zarazos de Cuenca, which are strips of pig intestine wrapped round cocktail sticks until you have a little figurine like a model sheep made of elastic bands, cocks’ comb soup, sheep’s lungs, bulls’ tail, bulls’ balls, sweetbreads, suckling piglet, milk-fed lambs only just ripped from their mothers’ wombs, and the madrileño specialities tripe (‘callos’) and ‘cocido’ , which is a kind of stew made with chick peas, beef, chicken, ham, belly pork, chorizo and black pudding (though a bit sparse on the meat front, that one). Yes, if Lecter had had all that to choose from, surely he’d never have ripped anyone’s cheeks off, fried their brains, or eaten their liver.

Yum yum

As you can imagine, vegetarians are looked upon here with a mixture of pity, incomprehension and suspicion. It can’t be fun being a visiting vegetarian in Spain. There are only so many potato omelettes and 70s-style salads you can eat (a salad here is like something your granny used to make- limp lettuce and crudely-chopped cucumber, tomato and onion hurled disdainfully onto a plate). I have lost count of the times I have asked waiters on behalf of visitors

‘Does it have any meat in it?


‘No meat at all? It’s vegetarian?’


‘Is that your final answer? You’re absolutely sure?…’

only for the dish to arrive with a sprinkling of chopped ham on top. When challenged the reply is always a shrug and the protest,

‘But it’s only a bit of ham, it’s not meat!’

There is also a tendency to overlook meat stock in ‘vegetarian’ dishes, as if they wouldn’t notice, or as if it’s a matter of one-upmanship to see if you can try and slip one by the stupid veggie, after all they’ll never know the difference. Another stock response here (pardon the pun) is,

‘But they can pick the meat bits out’.

The general attitude that all vegetarians need to do is try Spanish meat products and they will see the light, is so pervasive that it crops up unashamedly in tv adverts. There was a recent advert for a chain of restaurants or a brand of luncheon meats, featuring a family with a wan-looking teenage vegetarian son. First there is dinner at home, an uncomfortable affair (for the rest of the family) where he turns down meat dish after meat dish, and is handed his plate of beans or whatever his poor, long-suffering mother cooks up for him. The next shot shows him in the process of converting into a healthy carnivore, thanks to the delicious produce on offer by said restaurant or brand of hams. Finally the family are reunited at home again, all round the table tucking into a big meaty meal, with the son asking for seconds, and all the family laughing at the hilarious notion of vegetarianism.

If you say you don’t eat meat or you don’t approve of the cruelty to animals involved in getting it, you are seen as some kind of namby-pamby, pig-hugging communist ponce. Most children will have seen the annual traditional slaughtering of the pig back at the village, hunting is seriously big in rural areas, and bloodsports are popular. A child who finds any of this upsetting is likely to be given extra helpings of gristle, or sent to a therapist. This attitude is perfectly illustrated by the following story about town planning, told to me by a student of mine.

At her village the slaughterhouse used to be on the outskirts of town. As the town expanded and grew, like so many settlements here in the past few decades, a new secondary school was needed. So they built it right over the road from the abbertoir. The woman told me that as a child mornings at school were punctuated by strange squealings and screams from across the road that she never thought to ask about. In the afternoons when they left for home the street used to be literally running with blood. She said she was seriously distressed when she found out the noises were in fact the pigs being slaughtered daily; it had just never ocurred to her what those strange sounds actually were. And it had never even ocurred to the town planners not to build a school directly opposite the abbertoir. Hannibal, eat your heart out. Or someone else’s….

The Angel of Meat, Mark Ryden

mark ryden, the angel of meat


Floor Gymnastics with truncheon (2)

Posted in lavapies olympics, mean streets with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by cockroach1

Another quick word about the police, or more accurately, locals’ opinion of them-

While walking home the other day I came across this small poster slapped on a shop window at the top of my road:

(Left hand side) ‘The things they do because they feel like it’:

Use the siren so they can jump red lights

Drink in bars while armed

They’re cocky and full of themselves

Carry out extortion rackets on shops and bars

Nick your gear then they smoke it themselves

Let drug trafficers  get away with it but beat up the addicts

Park wherever they like but never have to pay a fine

They don’t even respect their own laws

Torture, mistreat, lie, kill, and enjoy total immunity

(Right hand side) ‘The things they are sanctioned to do’:

Hit your mother/father/child at a demo

Stop you, search you, and violate your personal rights

Fine you

Deport immigrants

Carry out armed checks in the street

Protect the order, law and money of the rich

Shoot you or hit you if they see fit

Live off the taxes you pay

Kill and get away with it


Watch out! It’s behind you!

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , , , , , on December 12, 2009 by cockroach1

Can you feel her laboured breath on the back of your neck? Perhaps you have heard her warning call- an open-ended muttered conversation with herself as she asserts her supremacy over the other animals? A classic aggressive warning call is ‘Quien es la ultima?’ (this means ‘Who’s last in the queue?’ and if you don’t own up, or worse, if you are confused enough not to know that it’s you, there’ll be trouble.) One minute she will be behind you, then- how the Hell did she do that? – she will be in front of you. The only thing you will feel is the sharp prod of her elbows as she shoves you out of the way. If she fixes her gimlet eye on you it’s best not to make eye contact, to melt, chameleon-like into the background, in which case you may be able to avoid an altercation. But don’t wind her up, for God’s sake, or you’ll be sorry. If you are unlucky enough to hear the approach of her vicious little hooves as she pounces on you I advise you to run. Like Hell. As potential prey in the urban jungle, this is one of your most dangerous predators and it´s best to avoid an encounter at all costs.

She’s easy to spot: Short and squat, like a matchbox with a sturdy leg attached at each lower corner. Weilding a handbag, monarch-style, at the elbow, and possibly trailing a shopping trolley. Hair is worn bull-dyke short in a ‘one-style-fits-all’ helmet, often sprayed into place with extra-strength hairspray, and it will be tinted a kind of squirrel-shit brown. The walking matchbox effect will be accentuated by the choice of boxy clothing: anything with mean shoulder pads. Her facial markings are usually pronounced- deep lines around a mouth which has been pursed for decades in disapproval and regret. And the eyes are the most terrifying of all. They are what give her away as a predator- roving, accusatory instruments of malice. She is small but lethal, so don’t be fooled by the inoccuous appearance. She has a deadly bite. I am talking about the Evil Old Lady.

First of all, let me point out that by no means are all old spanish ladies evil. Some of them are absolutely charming. Like the lady I queued behind at the checkout in Carrefour recently, whose (one-sided) conversation with the check-out girl went something like this:

‘Oh, thank you, dear, that’s very kind of you. Could you put it in the bag for me? Oh that’s so kind of you, thank you. I can’t do it myself, I’m 90, you know. Look at these wrinkly old hands! Eleven euros fifty-five? One moment, let me just get my purse out… Hard to see these days, you know, I am 90 after all. Here you are, you take the money, pick out the right change would you, my love, I can’t see a thing. I’m 90, you know. Oh that’s lovely, thank you so much. See you next week then, dear. Did I tell you I’m 90?’ She was the sort of old lady who makes you want to adopt her as your own pet grandma. Everything an old lady should be: sweet, fluffy, slightly scatty and delighted to talk to strangers. And believe me, if it was me who was 90, I’d wear it as a badge of honour as well, and would probably tell everyone. Every few minutes.

But I’m not talking about that kind of old lady. I’m talking about the Brothers Grimm kind . I am well aware of how pathetic this sounds, but I no longer shop at the spectacular open markets in Madrid, partly because of the fiendishly complicated queueing system, the immediate onset of The Fear as soon as the grocer/baker/butcher turns to you and asks for your order (it’s like a spotlight on you as you recite as quickly and accurately as possible the name and quantity of everything you want in a foregin language, to a background of sighs and impatient tuts. I never had a stutter, but I develop one in open markets), the collosal amount of time it takes to do the rounds of every stall, but mostly because I’m shit-scared of the Evil Old Ladies. If you dare to challenge them with a self-effacing,

‘Er… excuse me, but I think it was my turn?….’ they’ll have you. I have been pushed aside, growled at, shoved, insulted, and perhaps worse, given the evil eye by many an old lady here in Madrid. They hate me- I’m younger than them, I’m foreign, and a natural blonde. Well, more or less. More than they’ll ever be, anyway. And what really, really winds them up is the fact that I’m easy-going and possibly a happy human being who enjoys her life and is relatively content with the way things have turned out.

I am not devoid of sympathy. You only need to take a look at these women’s faces to see what hard lives they have had. The disappointment and bitterness are evident. But the fact that you are a dethroned matriarchal tyrant whose powers are waning and whose family doesn’t appreciate all the years of hard graft, and you are now forced to watch a generation of (semi) liberated young women rise up and enjoy all the things you never could IS NOT MY FAULT. Maybe the killer instinct is activated by the sickening scent of pheramones wafting from me, or the unbearable knowledge that like Carrie Bradshaw, I know good sex (and you don’t, and probably haven’t been anywhere near a penis for over thirty years, and when you last did you didn’t enjoy it much either), but please, none of this gives you the right to bite my head off. I doubt I will ever stop being a target for these pocket Eva Brauns, so in the meantime I am determined to hone my fight or flight instinct, and to steer well clear whenever possible. And I’d advise you to do the same.

The writing on the wall

Posted in mean streets with tags , , , , , on December 7, 2009 by cockroach1

Thank you for not thinking

A Country for Old Men

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2009 by cockroach1

Madrid. Sunrise over the city. At any watering hole  you will be able to observe the elder members of society sipping their cafe carajillo (strong black coffee with brandy), smoking, gazing at the television, making sexist jokes and holding forth on the day´s news. By lunchtime they will have moved en masse to the public squares and parks, weather permitting, where you will find them lined up on the benches smoking and passing comment on passing women. By mid afternoon they move back to the watering holes and can be found playing dominoes, pressing coins into the greedy-mouthed One Arm Bandits, smoking… well, you get the general idea. You can also find these elder statesmen at any construction site (not that there are many of those left these days), leaning in small groups with their noses pressed up against the railings watching the diggers, cranes and other heavy machinery with an almost child-like fascination. If you are vigilant, you can also come across them at any spontaneous parking event- again watching with interest, offering their advice, and sometimes even participating with excitable hand gestures and a general sense of entitlement. What would Madrid be without its army of Little Old Men? Well, quieter, less macho, less smoky, but also less amusing. I´m not afraid to admit it- they are one of my favourite urban animals  and I hope they aren´t about to be made extinct.

In the past week I have been up and hobbling with the aid of my trusty stick, noting reactions to me (and it) in the streets. The most vocal passers-by have been little old men, as always gleefully outspoken and endlessly entertaining. My favourite comments came this weekend. As I made my way down from Tirso de Molina to Lavapies village I crossed one on the street, also walking with a stick, who called after me,

´My dear, you´re far too young to have one of those!´

and on Sunday I passed another one with two sticks, who looked me up and down and exclaimed as we crossed paths,

´Ah, you´re just jealous!´

There is nothing more refreshing than someone who will quite happily strike up a conversation or make a comment to a passing stranger without shrivelling with embarrassment at the possible reaction.  That generally means someone not British. I love the fact that here you are never alone – even when some of the time you would prefer to be. Strangers turn to you in bank queues, bus stop queues, packed metro trains, and shop queues and say what they think. And nine times out of ten that someone will be one of these little old guys. So cheerfully un-self-conscious it is delightful. Nine times out of ten. The other time they are likely to make a comment, under their breath as they pass, like

´Nice tits.´ This, evidently, is not so delightful. This is the downside of rampant freedom of speech and respect for the elderly. I am perfectly prepared to accept a gentlemanly compliment (a ‘piropo’) which is traditional here, and meant as precisely that: a compliment. Many times I have been called ‘guapa!’  (‘pretty’) by an old gentleman with a beaming smile as I walk pass.

A half-Spanish friend of mine suggested a reaction she claims always works. An attractive woman who also happens to be stacked, she is constantly the butt of comments like this as she walks the streets minding her own business. And eventually she snapped. Once, she said she was squeezing her way off a crowded bus as one of these old men was climbing the steps, and he carried out what he thought was a fail-safe manoeuvre: rubbing up against her as she passed, and mumbling some deranged comment under his breath about her breasts as he did so, quietly enough so that no-one else would hear him. You see, the one out of ten has probably made a life´s work out of this, getting away with it all the time, counting on the shame and embarrassment, added to the respect for one’s elders, of the Good Catholic Girl. Not in this case. My friend exclaimed loudly so that the entire bus could hear her, something along the lines of

´How dare you! That’s disgusting! How dare you try and touch me up and say something so gross to me. You’re a disgrace-‘ just as the doors slid closed and he entered the full bus, red-faced and publicly humiliated.

Inspired by her example, I found myself reacting similarly when a few days after she told me this a little old man walked past me in the street and muttered under his breath another tedious remark about my tits. Instead of hanging my head and scuttling away I stopped in my tracks, and shouted after him,

´How dare you! You´re a dirty old man is what you are. Would you like it if someone spoke like that to your wife- or your daughter? You should be ashamed of yourself….’ Result. Madrid streets are always packed, even at 3.a.m, and this was mid afternoon. Shoppers stopped to look, traffic slowed, people turned their heads to see what all the fuss was about, peering to get a look at him as he hurried away while I played the Catholic Shame card with gusto.

Thankfully, for every derogatory comment there are nine encouraging or friendly ones. Like the time, years ago when wandering the Rastro flea-market I caught a gypsy girl with her hand clearly in my coat pocket. I was quick enough to grab her wrist and pull her round to face me so I could giver her a mouthful. About the only thing you can do under the circumstances- I was certainly not about to smile sheepishly and let her walk away after being caught in the act. Who were my most vocal supporters? Gathering round, rolling up their sleeves and air-boxing? Yes, you guessed it again- the Little Old Men. ´Yeah- you go for it, girl! You tell her! Don´t let her get away with it, the thieving cow, good for you!´Another positive side to the outspoken society is that it is also a ‘Have a go’ society, unlike ours, where you could possibly be raped and murdered in broad daylight with no-one raising an eyebrow. Here, even elderly people will wade in and help you out if there is a public scene of any kind and they can see you are in distress.

So let’s hear it for Little Old Men. May they live long and prosper! As long as they stick to genuine compliments or comments about politics, weather, sport, and any other topic of general interest which isn’t my breasts. This is going to sound very chauvinistic, but I would far rather deal with a Little Old Man than his terrifying counterpart- the Evil Old Woman. Why? Watch this space and I’ll tell you.