A Country for Old Men

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.

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