Archive for February, 2010

The rain in Spain

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 25, 2010 by cockroach1

It is the third day in a row that it has rained heavily. And, to be more accurate, the third month in a row that it has been raining unseasonably hard. In Madrid we have been lucky- no flash floods like in Andalucia where buildings are collapsing and roofs falling in under the flooding. But it is becoming persistent and intrusive. You disappear ankle-deep into the puddles that collect in the badly irrigated pavements. Solitary stacks of steel terrace tables remain by the side of the pavements dripping with rain where there should be laughter and tapas. The metro is crammed uncomfortably full and is humid, steam rising from damp clothes, a tightly packed wall of despondent faces , subdued conversation. The towels in my bathroom smell musty, and washing takes 3 days to dry, even with intermittent heating on. This place is not made for rain: it´s made for dust and heat, biting cold and white winter sunshine like a spotlight following you around. Grey clouds press down on us where there is normally a high and endless blue sky. The Spanish are not very good at coping with incessant rain- maybe in Galicia or up in the North, but certainly not in Madrid, which is virtually a desert. More than a day or two and they start to wilt. Welcome to England, my friends. Maybe now you might begin to understand the cynical, miserable character trait that runs through all of us like a message through a stick of rock. It doesn’t seem right that the rowdy, spirited Madrileños are so quiet and so gloomy. It seems, to paraphrase a Spanish expression, that everyone is up to their balls with it all.

Walking to the twice-weekly teenagers’ class that I give at a private college, I have to go through a narrow park flanked with faceless tower blocks. On the back of one of the park benches someone has pasted an A4 piece of paper with the words in large bold type and in English: ‘how much longer?’ As I carry on through the grey spittle to the school gates- a school that looks like a low prison building, its yard hemmed in with rainbow-coloured bars but bars nonetheless, this message plays on my mind. I find it perturbing. Who put it there? How much longer what? The crisis? School? The rain? The fact that someone is trying to communicate with me and I don´t know what they mean adds to my general feeling of unease. It’s such a poignant question and I´d like to know who went to all the trouble to ask it in such a fashion and why.  I’ll never find out the answers to any of these questions, but curiosity prickles like a cheap nylon shirt.

When I come out of the class an hour later it is raining even harder- huddles of dejected parents and children wait under the concrete porch for it to abate a little, while I stride through, umbrella-less. I get into a brief conversation with a parent- ‘Well, would you believe this weather?’ ‘Horrible, isn’t it? But, it doesn’t bother me so much, I’m English.’ ‘Hombre! No problem for you then, you must feel right at home.’ ‘Well, a bit of water never hurt anyone.’ and so on.  The school run is well underway, cars zig-zagging crazily, parents running bent almost double as though avoiding sniper fire. Fat raindrops slide down the back of my coat collar and into the nape of my neck. As I walk up the hill and past the bench the rain has washed the question away, leaving nothing but a striated blank page.

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Out and about

Posted in Uncategorized, Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , on February 21, 2010 by cockroach1

retiro park

The Retiro

An elderly man by the side of the main path, leaning on his walking stick and distributing crumbs to a small flock of sparrows. As he scattered the crumbs and the birds hopped closer, he looked like a kind of schoolteacher surrounded by tiny, eager pupils on a daytrip. He hobbled two steps to the left, they followed him, their beaks all pointing up at him. He held the crumbs in his open palm until one of the sparrows flitted up to rest on his wrist and take the food from his hand directly. Soon others followed its example and flew up to his hand and ate from it.  His patience and infinite tenderness with the birds was so touching. It made me want to be him: a gentle, elderly man in a park with time to feed the birds. Watching him was a lesson in time-management and priorities.

As I was leaving the Retiro by the Fallen Angel Gate the other afternoon, a rather portly fifty-something preening himself in the reflective pànel along the side of the door on the tubular portaloo. He was smoothing his grey temples down carefully, ducking and weaving to get a good view, then twirling his hair in his hands to form a perfect pony tail, beneath a pronounced bald patch. Feet in white trainers placed firmly apart, wearing a dark blue tracksuit. Lost to the world, engrossed in his own vanity reflected back at him by a plastic public toilet.

Don’t look now

Posted in The Writing on the wall with tags , , , , , on February 17, 2010 by cockroach1

Calle Embajadores

Closer, now…

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , on February 10, 2010 by cockroach1
Monday morning and a potentially-suicide-inducing class at 8 a.m. an hour’s metro ride away. To add insult to injury this morning it was a grim, grey, rainy day… ah, I dream of England…. After this class I usually stop for breakfast in the bar next to the metro, as nobody in their right mind can survive til lunchtime on an apple and a cup of tea. As I was sipping my coffee and munching my tostada (toast) at the long bar, one foot hitched, cowboy-style on the brass rail, a woman came and squeezed in next to me, so tightly that I was obliged to shuffle up the bar to the very end, and move my coffee cup, plate of toast, the briefcase at my feet, my handbag, brolly, and the coat that was draped over the rail. She was so close to me she almost fitted under my armpit like an old pal, and for a moment it seemed as though she might slip her arm round my waist , nuzzle me affectionately and grab a bite of my toast. I glanced down the bar, expecting it to be as packed as when I had walked in ten minutes earlier. In fact, there was an expanse of counter so long and empty I could almost see the tumbleweed drifting across the end of it. So why did she want to snuggle up with me?
Here lies a fundamental difference in our cultures and attitudes to personal space. We cold Northern Europeans shudder at the merest uninvited physical contact, jumping like a scalded cat if someone strays too close. We walk around surrounded with an invisible rope on gilded posts, which we unhitch only for those on the guest list. Your name’s not on the list- you’re not coming in. If you keep insisting I’ll just call security. The Spaniards, on the other hand, can’t get close enough. You see the difference in a packed metro train during commuter-hour, or in an over-crowded lift. Brits, standing stiff and expressionless as stacked mannequins will stare anywhere except at the person next to them and will suffer with gritted teeth the indignity of intimacy with strangers. Spanish people, on the other hand, may huff and puff and tutt, when squashed up against each other, but eventually this may erupt into either a heated argument where everyone has a good moan- ‘oy, get your foot off my toe!/ watch where you’re standing, you great oaf!!/ no need to push, come on!….’ or a jolly good laugh. Generally it is the latter, guffaws, raised eyebrows, giggles, and comments like ‘is someone going to hand out lubricant in a minute?’
Even more remarkably, whereas the British will choose to sit/stand as far away as possible from each other and everyone else, evenly spaced like chess pieces, the Spanish will instinctively huddle up like a pile of sleepy hamsters. The best place to test this theory is in an empty cinema. In Summer if your house does not have air-conditioning often the only ice-cold place to sit for a couple of hours is the cinema. A couple of Summers ago I even resorted to seeing Transformers 2 (I was desperate, I’d seen everything else) at a matinee performance. I was the only person in the cinema (also arriving, like a typical Brit, on time for not only the film but the trailers and ads). I sat slap bang in the middle of the row in the middle of the empty cinema. As the film started and Spaniards started to arrive, one by one they chose to sit to my left, right in front of me, to my right, in the row behind me, until I was surrounded by a cosy little huddle of people chomping popcorn, chattering animatedly, and answering their mobiles. Luckily I hadn’t gone to see a moody art film. The exact same phenomenon can be observed on lonely park benches, deserted trains, and underpopulated cafe tables. Enter an English person and he/she will head for the furthest table or seat, as if you are a sworn enemy. A Spaniard on the other hand will have no problem choosing the table or place next to you.
Annoying? Sometimes. Until you get used to it, and of course, it very much depends on who it is cosying up to you. Nobody wants someone else’s bad breath, b.o. or inappropriate physical contact. Luckily I am past the age where a casual frot on a busy metro carriage is any kind of probability. And as I get to know my hosts ever better, I realise that this kind of communal stalking is not done to wind you up or to invade your personal space in any way. It’s just that there is a totally different attitude to the concept of personal space here. Someone sitting alone is seen as intrinsically lonely, in need of contact. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, a Spaniard’s home is a free-for-all. The Spanish are an inately sociable race, and move in groups at almost all times. So next time someone slides up next to you and into your precious personal space, try to see it as a form of affection, or as a compliment. It’s kind of cute. ‘I don’t want to sit the other side of the cinema in the corner- I want to be next to you! I want to sit with you…’

Thank you for smoking

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by cockroach1

When I was 11 and my parents were divorcing, our mother took us children away to visit a glamorous friend who lived in a villa in the hills above Nerja. I have very vivid memories of this holiday on the cusp of the eighties. Glittering swimming pools and tiny lizards scuttling across hot rocks. Maybe this, combined with earlier childhood holidays in Spain is what hot-wired me to come back and stay.

One of these vivid memories is of visiting the local bar at the bottom of the hill, and seeing a boisterous Spanish family with a serious-faced baby which they were encouraging to smoke their cigarettes. Each puff on the cigarette made the baby splutter and turn purple, and the entire family collapse with laughter.

Fast forward a few years to the end of the eighties when I lived in Madrid as a student. The end of  ‘La Movida‘ (The Movement), as Madrid, like a sleeping beast, rolled over and awoke from the nightmare of dictatorship. Glorious chaos reigned. People smoked everywhere: in Post Offices, banks, on trains, in the metro, and that was just the staff. A statistic I overheard has stuck in my head for all these years- that each year on National No Smoking Day the number of smokers in Spain actually increased. You´ve got to hand it to the them- nobody tells the Spanish what to do. This was a classic example of the deeply anarchic and disobedient element in the Spanish character. ‘Telling me not to smoke, eh? Well, screw you, I´ll do what I like. In fact, I´m going to smoke two at once now, that´ll show you.’ Nanny State? Balls to that!

A familiar sound in the bars throughout the city- a sound that was so hilarious that it almost made you want to go and buy a pack of cigarettes just to be able to hear it- was that of the talking cigarette machines. A smooth, sexy-ish and appreciative female voice used to murmur, ‘Su tabacco, gracias.’ (‘your tobacco, thank you.’) as the packet popped out of the bottom of the machine. Barked at by officious porters, snootily ignored by bank tellers and insulted by shop assistants, at least you could always count on the cigarette machine to be polite and friendly to you.

Fast forward another couple of decades and what has changed? It would be unthinkable to make a baby smoke your cigarettes these days- actively, that is. However there are plenty of babies, toddlers and kids running around your typical Spanish bar even today, while people smoke, happily rotting their innocent little lungs and rolling around on the floor among the fag-ends, screwed-up paper napkins and pipas (sunflower seeds).

Sadly, the cigarette machines no longer speak to you and not only have they been silenced but also restricted in their favours- these days you have to ask the barman/barwoman to activate them with an electronic pager behind the bar- a very sensible measure to ensure under 16´s cannot buy cigarettes. You can no longer smoke in public buildings,  stations or at work. As I race from company to company to give English classes, it is a common sight to see huddles of expensively dressed business people fagging it outside the entrances to shiny new office blocks. Often you have to wade your way through a cloud of smoke to get to the door, and elegant flower-beds and potted plants wither as they are turned into ashtrays, their soil disappearing beneath a pile of fag butts.

For the past five years or so there has been a law in place regulating smoking in bars and restaurants. However, from what I can gather, it is a completely half-arsed measure which is open to many kinds of interpretations. Restaurants over a certain size (say 100 metres square, though this is a guess) must provide a non-smoking section (often a windowless room downstairs by the toilet). Bars on the other hand may opt to be smoking or non-smoking but must advertise the fact. What this means is nothing has changed except a small sticker on the door informing you that it´s ok to smoke here. They are currently debating a ban across the board, to step in line with most of the rest of Europe, but bars and restaurant owners are up in arms about it. There are dark mutterings that tens of thousands of people in the hospitality industry will lose their jobs. Perhaps more realistically and understandably many restaurant owners are angry at the money they had to shell out a few years ago to screen off and sometimes build special non-smoking areas according to regulations, and now they worry they will lose a huge amount of revenue if the law is passed.

The comment I have heard many times from smokers and non-smokers alike is ‘But it´s a Spanish custom to go to the bar and have a drink and a cigarette.  If you ban smoking nobody will go to bars any more. You can’t suddenly take that away from people.’ There´s no point answering facetiously ‘Ah yes, but in Saudi Arabia it´s customary to stone adulterers to death, in parts of Africa female circumcision is traditional, and in the States it´s customary to drink up to 4 litres of Coca Cola a day but it doesn’t mean it´s right or good for you…’

On one point I think we all agree- whatever the rights or wrongs it will not be easy to persuade the Spanish to relinquish their cigarettes. Despite the number of deaths a year from tobacco-related diseases and despite the fact that when you come back from a night out here you stink of stale cigarette smoke: your hair, your clothes, your underwear, even your skin. If you could sniff your own bone marrow that too would probably be impregnated with the cloying smell of smoke.

You may assume that I am writing as a non-smoker. Assume again. I am a ‘social smoker’ struggling to knock it on the head yet again for good. An occasional smoker (or, to use the other common term ‘total fucking idiot’).

I shall leave the last word to my local tobacconists’ where there are 2 discreet signs on the counter. One says ‘We believe it is the personal right of every adult to choose whether or not to smoke.’ and the other, faintly bizarre sign which reads,

‘It is intolerance, not tobacco, which kills people. More people have died in the world due to intolerance than to tobacco.’ Hmm… debatable, and pretty difficult to quantify, but a valiant try. Ok, actually I had to have the last word.

Strictly Cam Dancing

Posted in The Writing on the wall, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on February 4, 2010 by cockroach1

Calle Embajadores