Archive for March, 2010

Scary monsters

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by cockroach1

It is quite unusual for me to be rendered speechless especially in a professional context, but recently I was lost for words in a group class at the Very Big Bank. It was a low level group, and we were running a quiz in two teams. They had played the text book quiz, guessing the answers from clues like ‘American black and white comic actor, initials CC, Actress who defeats the Alien in the original Ridley Scott film, initials SW, Famous female nurse and health care reformer who started her career during the Crimean war, initials FN, and so on. Now the two teams were writing their own questions to challenge each other. As I circulated, helping with grammar and checking the questions over students’ shoulders, I came to Miguel. My heart sank as I read over his shoulder ‘Best political leader Spain has ever had, from the last century, FF.’ Oh Christ, surely not….. Miguel had been known to make some fairly outrageous remarks in class, for example, when the present King was mentioned once, he launched into an excited rant about how how King Juan Carlos is a traitor and should be dragged through Traitor’s Gate (at least he checked for the correct vocabulary). Zapatero’s name could not be mentioned in class without Miguel leaping to defame his character as ‘that socialist weasel’ whose name he could not even bring himself to pronounce, calling him only ZP. He also claimed once that it was a jolly sensible idea to screen immigrants to Spain by deciding approximately how many English teachers are needed and only letting that many in, and any other nationalities surplus to requirements should be turned back at the borders. You get my drift. I make him sound like a monster; there’s the dichotomy you see, he is in fact a kind, sweet-natured, fussily polite old man who dotes on his daughter and was very happy to give me a proud tour of his office just after I first started teaching him, fondly talking me through his family photographs and the history of the bank building.

So it was with a heavy heart I turned a little later to Miguel for his next question to challenge the other team in the quiz. They got the answer right, of course, most of them looking a little sheepish, and Miguel exclaimed triumphantly ‘Yesssss!’ Teacher replied quietly but firmly, ‘Well, that is a matter of opinion, Miguel, it’s not entirely impartial as a question, is it-‘ but he wasn’t listening and instead leapt out of his seat to give a hearty fascist salute and declare ‘Franco, Franco, Franco!’ while hopping gleefully from one foot to the other like a manic Rumpelstiltskin. It was at this point I lost the power of speech for perhaps two or three seconds. It’s not the fact that people still hold these views that surprises me, least of all in the Very Big Bank, which is a creaking old State Institution as conservative as they come. It’s the sight of someone performing the straight-armed salute at me without any shame, and in an English class that shocked me. To me it’s a filthy and abhorrent gesture, like the swastika it has become visual pollution, something to shudder at and shy away from. But what came next prolonged the lack of speech by several seconds more.

‘Ah yes, Generalisimo Franco Franco, the greatest political leader of the last century!’ he declared happily. ‘In fact, one of the best political leaders in Europe- him and Winston Churchill: without argument the two greatest men of the 20th Century.’

I must have turned a little pale, as his colleagues then started exclaiming ‘Give it a rest, Miguel, sit down-‘ ‘Come on, man, not this again-‘. Yes, of course, Franco and Churchill, like two peas in a pod. Except I don’t remember Churchill massacring all the poets, homosexuals, Leftists, gypsies, artists, bohemians, and activists….. or overthrowing a democratically-elected government…. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that the Spanish teach in schools that Sir Francis Drake was a British pirate while we laud him as a national hero. That makes sense to me in some kind of way, history can be subjective, but Franco and Church….. no……

Franco-adoration takes me back to the heady 80s- after all I arrived in Madrid and lived here for the first time a mere decade after his death. There was a day (the anniversary of Franco’s death, or his birthday, I never remember: an excuse for all his fans to crawl out of the woodwork anyway, when I emerged from Sol metro station into the middle of a Francoist demonstration, to find myself surrounded by fur-coated, hard-faced matrons, stern-backed upper middle classes and Dock Martin’ed skinheads marching, marching, marching relentlessly across the plaza and performing the dreaded salute en masse. I turned on my heel and scuttled back into the metro, the only thing missing the whites of my eyes and a flashing white bobtail. I felt sick; I was shocked. But it turns out there are (or hopefully there were, I prefer the past tense here) plenty of people who would like to have Franco back, given half the chance.

One of these was my old landlady Dolores. I rented a room from her for approximately two months while I was a student back in ’88 or ’89. I don’t remember the circumstances but I do remember I needed a room, and fast, so when I found this one – rented from a little old lady, I took it like a shot, choosing to ignore the crucifix nailed above my narrow monastic bed, the fact that my new landlady told me all about how she’d got rid of the last girl for being a ‘slut’, and even more worrying, the sheer volume of Poperabilia dotted around the house. There were Pope plates on the walls, Pope placemats (in the drawer), Pope thimbles, spoons, mugs, candles…. it was creepy but at the same time delightfully kitsch. Pure Almodovar. But the Pope had competition. Dolores had two men in her life. The other one was Franco.

She was a sweet old duck, always decked out in her wine red housecoat, her gnarled arthritic hands working away in front of her as she knitted, cooked, cleaned, reminding me of a wizened squirrel. She showed me how to make paella once, an experience that traumatised me (a pseudo-vegetarian) so badly that I have never since made it. In went the prawns, in went the chicken, in went the rabbit- the entire carcass slapped onto the chopping board, it’s jelly-ish eyes staring up at me, startled, its skinned, shiny red head a reproach, then thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! She chopped it into six or seven pieces and the dismembered body parts were tipped into the paella. Along with the head. I obsessed about that head the entire time it took for the paella to cook, right up until dinner time that night when I knew in my heart of hearts it would end up on my plate. Which of course, it did.

My time staying with Dolores was a short and quite frankly bizarre period of my life. A sublime example of how dangerous it is to tell lies, because, as the Italian saying goes, lies have legs. And they nearly trotted back to haunt me, although the option of telling the truth didn’t look so appealing either. Let me explain. Dolores, as I said, had thrown the last lodger out for being a ‘slut’. She confided in me how this girl had brought boys back to the flat, she’d seen them kissing goodbye at the door! She hadn’t even brought them inside. It seems so long ago and so unlikely, but at that time it was perfectly normal for no men to be allowed even over the threshold in all all-girl flat. Even a group of girls renting a flat was pretty unthinkable- young women, living alone? Not married or living with parents? Outrageous! So it became harder and harder to explain to my landlady why an older man was calling me constantly from the Uk. How did she know this? Mind your own business, you might think. But Dolores had the precious house phone locked in her bedroom, all calls were screened by her, then permission granted to take the call in her room.  Once, taking a call, I sat in the edge of the unmade bed and discovered to my horror that there was a large crucifix tangled in the bedsheets, meaning only one thing- that she actually slept with it. When I say large I don’t mean full-size, she didn’t exactly strap herself onto it after lights out, but it was at least the length of my arm. I had a much older boyfriend at the time who’d stayed in the Uk, and after the first couple of times he’d called, Dolores had come through to the living room one evening to tell me there was another call for me from ‘that man’, her mouth sharpening and disappearing like a knife turned sideways, and I don’t know what came over me, but I said ingenuously, ‘Oh yes, that’ll be Dad.’

After that, receiving calls was certainly not a problem. I explained how my parents were divorced, (a truth) and that my father called me two or three times a week (an absolute lie, we were currently virtually estranged). On the odd occasion my mother called she got a frostier reception than my ‘father’ from Dolores. ‘Terrible,’ she’d tutt and shake her head when I came off the phone. ‘Your father calls you every few days and you speak for such a long time. Your mother? When does she bother to call? Once a week? Poor girl…. I can see what happened in that divorce….’

As if this wasn’t enough deception, the soup of lies thickened and bubbled with the announcement of an upcoming visit from ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’. My mother and my partner were friends, and had decided to come and visit me together. Oh joy! How the effing hell was I supposed to explain that to my landlady? With another fat whopping lie, of course. Mummy and Daddy may have divorced but it was pretty amicable, and for my sake they sometimes still came on holiday together, and that’s what they were doing. Dolores insisted they came for tea. There was no way out of it. I won’t go into details, but there was a farcical tea party with my mother. Lover and I almost wetting ourselves laughing, while Dolores very sweetly brought out cakes and coffees, lavishing attention on my wonderful father and almost but not quite blanking my mother. The rest of the stay was spent creeping guiltily out of the neighbourhood to the safety of his city centre hostal, slapping his hand away if he tried to hold mine in the vicinity of the flat, and cowering in terror if he tried to kiss me anywhere there was even a remote possibility that Dolores, or one of her spies, would see me. The thought of that happening was a total passion killer, it didn’t bear thinking about.

I got away with it though; Dolores never found out that I was a slut, and probably a worse one than the girl before. We left on good terms- As I said, she was a sweet old lady in many respects, kind and good-natured. Before I left and found less restrictive living arrangements, I remember vividly a conversation we had a propos of nothing one day. Like sweet, kind, fussily polite Miguel, she was the proud owner of some pretty scary opinions.

‘Franco….’ she told me wistfully ‘in Franco’s time Madrid was a safe place to live. There wasn’t any crime, delinquency, there were no drugs, there wasn’t any AIDS, there was no prostitution, no immigration, no unemplyment. Spain was a safe country. Not any more. Look at all these problems the Socialists have brought with them! We never had them before, not in Franco’s time. Spain would be much better off if Franco was still alive.’ I was only just older than twenty, yet even I could have told her these are not problems the Socialists have brought with them, they are inherent problems of modern living. Welcome to the 20th Century. And even then I understood somehow the nostalgia that must inevitably come with the passing of a paternal dictator and the ushering in of a strange, dangerous new era. Dolores never exactly jumped out of her seat to perform the fascist salute, but she was behind him all the way, that much was clear. Dolores and Miguel, separated by twenty years but not by political beliefs. I expected it back then, behind net curtains, just ten years after his death, but today? Halfway through our English class? That I wasn’t expecting.


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United colours of Lavapies

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies with tags , , , , , , on March 22, 2010 by cockroach1

It is a common quirk that we humans don’t register something unless it is different from the norm. If there is a strong smell in the room you notice at first but you soon become accustomed to it and forget it’s even there. You only become aware of it again when you leave the room and come back in. When I was a child we lived near a railway station, and the sound of the trains and the freight carriages shunting in and out was a disturbance in the early days, though it soon became an inaudible hum that only other people noticed. For us it was normal. Eccentricity, difference, we forget to notice these things when they become our daily reality. So sometimes I seem to have forgotten that I live in the hottest part of a melting pot, and that every day I am bubbling down further in this stew of cultures and nationalities, each of us losing a little something of our own flavour but adding spice and depth to each other as the ingredients melt and merge. I have read that there are 86 different nationaliites living in Lavapies, or that there are 90, and there are approximately 90 streets, so one for each street, or that there are around 100 nationalities. Either way, that’s a hell of a lot of eccentricity and difference. To some people this could be their worst nightmare. To me it’s a glorious, irresistible, stinky stew and occasionally I need reminding to dip my finger in and taste it again.

The subject came up in conversation last night while I was having a quiet drink with The Incredible Ponce and some other friends, and I decided to open my eyes and ears again, to pay attention once more. We started out as one Brit (me) and four Italians – from the Rome and the South. We had a quick drink at the Taverna la Mina, served as always by our avuncular gnome of a waiter. Only this week the terrazas have been laid out in full force, the metal chairs and tables blooming here and there along the streets like Spring blossom. The Gnome was cheerful, as most waiters are when the season is gearing up and work is knocking at their door again (though unlike other elderly waiters I’ve never seen him looking grumpy). The Ponce confided in me that he thinks the Gnome is a cocainomono (cokehead) which surprises me given his advancing years, but would explain the quick, bird-like movements and the physical appearance- like a half-boiled chicken carcass. Anyway, this is Lavapies, so who knows? And more importantly, who cares? He looks after us when we go to his bar and greets us when we pass in the street like old friends, and what endears him to me the most is the easy way he has with the Ponce. As we were paying the bill the Gnome joked that he was looking very serene and calm this evening (the implication being that usually by this time of night he’s off his tits). It was an unlikely snapshot, but then in this neighbourhood most of them are- the elderly emaciated waiter joshing with the pierced and tattooed Mohican at least half his age.

From La Mina we walked down to the square, passing the Kurdish kebab shop, the Lebanese restaurant and the arabic tea shop, also run by Lebanese, but staffed by a combination of arab brothers- Jordanian and Egyptian to name a couple. Then we crossed the plaza, passing small groups of Africans in galabeyas who were sitting around on the benches chatting, formless muslim women in tent-like garments carrying shopping, and indian women in saris out dragging small children behind them. As we turned the corner we were criss-crossed by swift , trotting Moroccan boys in trainers and hooded tops, teenagers and young men whose heads permanently swivel like nodding dogs, checking out the horizon, the corners, the ends of the roads for signs of the police.

There was an unsuccessful attempt to have dinner at a Senegalese restaurant we had heard about, though it was late and they had been so busy they had run out of everything except chicken dishes. The waiter was friendly and apologetic and even offered to give us a couple of complimentary dishes but we left with promises to come back another time. As we walked to the door a dreadlocked African eating at the next table raised a hand and wished us ‘hasta luego.’

We took up residence at an outside table on Calle Lavapies, one of the most interesting streets to sit and people watch. Whereas Calle Argumosa is more gentle and cosmopolitan and has an almost Parisian feel to it, the cafes on Calle Lavapies give a more diverse and shifty view of the neighbourhood, and it is always somehow faster-paced. People amble along Argumosa. On Lavapies they hurtle past. While we sat and ate our tapas I watched a group of drunken doll-like American girls who were hanging around near our table in the street for a while, clutching cans of beer and bottles of wine and champagne. One of them had long, bright yellow Barbie hair, probably to make up for the fact that she was heavier than the others. They were indiscriminately pretty and indisrcriminately drunk, which made me worry for them, then I realised how old I am getting, and how not so many years ago that was me, only with less perfect teeth and hair. A straight-backed German couple walked by, her hair short and fashionable, his glasses expensive Boho chic. A small group of Spanish boys passed us, one of them on crutches, limping and turning to his friends and laughing ‘well, great bunch of mates you lot are!’ I overheard French, Italian, Arabic, Hindi and English being spoken in the foreground while in the background you could see the arab boys hustling and selling hash, darting past up and down the street, signalling to each other with a series pf whistles and cat-calls, Africans of all shapes and sizes shuffling up the hill in their leather sandals with soles as thick and spongy as slabs of meat, and Spanish ‘alternative’ types walking in safe groups and pairs, a cheap indian bazaar of tie-dye fabrics, silver jewellery, henna tattooes, stripey hippy-trousers and many-tiered cotton skirts like brightly-coloured, flowing cakes.

At one point The Ponce broke off conversation and turned to me, noting my relative silence, and asked ‘Are you ok? Are you bored?’

Bored? How could you ever be bored in Lavapies?

‘I’m fine Darling, just people-watching, don’t mind me, I’m in my own little world.’

Just tasting the stew. Just savouring the flavours, sometimes a little too rich and overpowering, but mostly delicious and like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. All I needed was a little reminder. I needed to step out of the kitchen for a second and then step back in. Wow, that smells good. Really good.

Sofia the Whore

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies with tags , , , , on March 16, 2010 by cockroach1

The Incredible Ponce lives on a street called Calle de los 3 Peces (Street of the 3 fish – don’t ask me what the significance is), and on the corner of his street and mine there is a shop called ‘Sin Pecado’ (‘Without Sin’) which is a good kind of joke if you know him at all. On the front of his building, next to the buzzers there is a recurring piece of graffiti which no matter how many times it is removed, always returns with a vengeance that can only be fuelled by a man scorned. And hell hath no fury, believe me, like this graffiti ‘artist.’ The message has been there for as long as The Ponce has lived there, which is over a year. You’d think the perpetrator would have got bored by now after the amount of times they have erased it, painted over it, even scratched it out with what looks like a key, gouging deep lines into the plaster. But no, back it comes, every time the message as furious as before.

It simply says ‘Sofia, puta.’ (Sofia. Whore.) Then her mobile phone number, a crude price list, and the number of her flat. Further embellishments change sporadically but to paraphrase: Sofia will apparently give you a great blow job. (I have never understood why when a man directs this at a woman it is some kind of ultimate insult. Surely it’s a great skill to have.) She has a good pair of tits and she’s a fantastic lay. (again, how in anyone’s mind can this be insulting?) The full works will set you back about 30 euros. Sometimes she is simply a ‘whore’, sometimes a ‘cheap whore’ and sometimes she is the ‘Neighbourhood Whore’, and I’m never sure which is meant to be worse. For a while, just in case you weren´t sure what it looked like, there was a crudely- executed drawing that resembled that primped triangle-headed cartoon character or a hairy clam until you got close enough to… oh, I see…..

A few months ago the graffitti started to appear on a wall on the side of my building as well, so not only is Sofia denounced on her own doorstep, but also on one of the main thoroughfares into the plaza. Poor Sofia. I wonder who she is, and I wonder what she can possibly have done to unleash this level of spite. I picture Sofia as an attractive, slightly slutty South American girl, trousers tight enough for a permanent camels’ hoof, maybe a spray-on keyhole t-shirt in lemon yellow with a slogan in glitter across the nipples, long hair and pretty eyes hidden underneath too much aquamarine eye make-up. Then again, Sofia could equally be a shy introverted girl, the sort who never wears make-up, hides behind her fringe and hunches her shoulders to minimise her bust. The sort who hardly ever talks to boys and giggles when she does. Sofia could have any physical attributes you care to give her, her appearance doesn’t matter. The only incontrovertable truth is that she broke some man’s heart, and if it wasn’t his heart, then she certainly broke his balls. She may have been a real bitch. This would explain his determination to slander her for so long and so insistently. I say Poor Sofia not because I am particularly on her side, she might have done something unforgiveable. Perhaps she was married to him and she slept with his best friend, or his father, or she left him for someone else and screwed him for everything in the divorce courts. Perhaps he wasn’t very well endowed, he had premature ejaculation problems or couldn’t even get it up and she laughed at him. I have no idea. I say Poor Sofia because we all behave badly at some point, we all trample on other peoples’ pride and hurt them deeply, but not all of us have juvenile graffiti and our telephone number scratched into the brickwork of our house afterwards.

You could equally say -Poor him, after all, she must have done something pretty terrible to him for him to resort to this. On the other hand, he could be a psychotic stalker with a restraining order against him or a creepy rejected ex-boyfriend who one of these days might catch her on the doorstep coming back from the supermarket and beat her brains out, or force his way into her flat and throw her off the balcony. That sort of thing happens here with alarming regularity. There’s just something so nasty and misogynistic about the graffiti that my sympathy for him shrivels and dies.

There are days when I am tempted to reply with my own message- ‘Get a life, mate’, or ‘How old are you?’ but I know really, there’s no point. This guy may be fourteen, forty-three, or past pensionable age, but there’s no stopping him. He´s hopping mad. Entering into a wall-side debate with him is akin to starting one of those lobotomised conversations you find on women’s public toilet doors – ‘you’re a slut’ – ‘Oh yeah? well, you’re a total slag’ and so on. No point at all. The only lesson to be learned from Sofia’s dilemma is that sometimes having a febrile imagination is a curse and not a gift. Other people could quite happily walk past this graffitti every day and not see it. I not only see it but internalise it until I have invented characters, motives, victims and outcomes, an entire soap opera running for several episodes in my over-active head. And like a soap opera, there’s never any end to it. Think yourself lucky.

A Walk in the Park

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna on March 11, 2010 by cockroach1

Finally the sun has come out for a day or two, and with it, the terrace tables. I could tell it was Spring because this morning as I walked past the Taverna La Mina, one of the cheapest local bars, the waiter, who was unstacking and arranging the outside tables and chairs, bid me a hearty ‘Buenos dias.’ It was the stocky, jovial waiter, rather than the other one who looks like an emaciated gnome, and serves the tables as though he were a kindly uncle, possibly with a secret drug or drink habit. A bit shaky but always friendly.

The other indicator of spring’s presence in the air is the sudden urge to fling oneself into outdoor exercise regimes. The Retiro this afternoon was packed full of people hurtling around on wheels. Normally, at least recently, at the same hour there have been very few people in the park- maybe an old man feeding the birds, a stray tourist, or the occasional married closet-dweller cruising for a furtive homosexual encounter in the shrubbery. Yet today, due to the appearance of the sunshine, within a short walk I was almost mowed down by people on rollerblades, skateboards, folding bicycles, one man on weird mono-blades that rotated freely beneath his feet, allowing him to glide around and change directions effortlessly (though the question remains – why?), a speed skater in aerodynamic helmet, very seriously bent double with one arm folded behind him and his lycra’ed behind up in the air, and a dogged roller-skier in full ski atire complete with poles who relentlessly ‘skied’ round and round in loping loops. Don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely for exercise, it is undeniably a good thing, I just fail to see what it is about parks that makes people want to fling themselves all over the place. I’m more of a sit and smell the flowers kind of person.

I also fail to understand why people feel the need to be so noisy in parks, although noise is a topic worthy of a slot all to itself. Madrid has unprecedented levels of noise pollution- everywhere you go there is hammering, banging, drilling, yelling, screeching, blaring, penetrating, headbanging noise. So I go to the Retiro to listen to the birds twitter and the leaves rustle quietly, the distant traffic roar of the city ever-present but distilled to a gentle hum behind the trees. But not today. As I entered the park I came across an Eastern European man playing a loud accordion who wished me ‘buenas tardes’ in the hope that I would drop a coin into his hat. Oh no, you got the wrong person there, mate, and I wouldn’t push it if I were you. I am on the verge of setting up a Facebook pressure group with a like-minded friend entitled ‘Death to acccordion players’ or something like that. The only reason I haven’t done it yet is because it’s been winter and they have left me in peace for a few months. I have grown to loathe the whining sound of the accordion, and more specifically, the accordion players who swoop on you the minute you sit at an outside café table like buzzards around a fresh corpse. I’d almost prefer it if they did pick at my flesh and eat my rotting eyeballs, rather than subject me to yet another dreary rendition of ‘those were the days my friend…’ or ‘besame mucho’. Why is it always the same sodding song? I might not mind so much if they learnt something else. And unfortunately they see the pale skin and blond hair and think ‘tourist!’ and home in on me for my holiday euros so that they are playing right beside my left ear, while I try to continue a shouted conversation that moments before was a calm and pleasant discourse. I would happily machine-gun the lot of them some days. I have, on occasions, when faced with the collecting-hat and the ingratiating smile, been known to reply (always politely, I must add) ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I didn’t actually ask for music.’

Just after the accordion player there was someone practising what sounded like a trombone, or at least some kind of massive horn, somewhere over in the bushes to my left (and no, that isn’t a euphamism.) Of course, everyone wants to hear you practise that on their Tuesday afternoon stroll. Not even play it- practice it. Then, quite touchingly, an elderly couple passed me, arm in arm, both with white sticks, carrying with them a small transistor radio which was on very low. That I can stomach. In fact it gave me a sentimental glow, just before the inevitable thought rose to my mind ‘the blind leading the blind’. I have seen groups or pairs of blind people walking the city on several occasions and can’t help myself from thinking it every time I see it. In Madrid there is definitely more visibility for blind or disabled people, who back in the Uk must all be locked up in sheltered housing or festering in institutions, as I never see them in public. (Is it ok to say ‘blind’ and ‘disabled’ by the way, or am I hopelessly out of date there?) The recurring delight at seeing an over-used cliche so literally illustrated must have something to do with the way my literary, word-obsessed brain works, added to the nerdish British tendency to get off on any pun or wordplay. I recently got into an elevator to go down to a subterranean carpark, and noticed the small metallic plaque with the German or Swiss manufacturer’s name on it and couldn’t stop myself from thinking ‘I’m going down in Schindler’s lift….’ I tried not to think it but it was already there as soon as I saw the name. Pathetic, I know, but inevitable.

But I digress. Noise….. Further along on my idyllic walk I passed a group of men and women in their sixties strolling and holding a conversation as if across a crowded dance-floor. One of the women had one of those piercing Hispanic voices that if you lived with her would make you want to punch her repeatedly in the face after a while. There was a South American father teaching his six or seven-year old son to ride a bicycle, who was on one knee giving him a little pep talk. (I’m not very good with childrens’ ages, they are either this high or about that high to me. Pre- and post-pubescent I can also manage, which is a relief). Scenes like this also give me a warm sentimental glow. Even when a few minutes later they came tearing down the path with the father jogging alongside the bicycle with stabilisers which rattled on the gravel pathway like an aircraft about to take off from the runway. I didn’t mind that, it was sweet. Noisy, but sweet. So there you have it, a gentle stroll in the park on a Tuesday afternoon. No, I still don’t understand the urge to make such a racket in the middle of nature, but I can only assume it is something to do with the Madrileños’ inbuilt ability and desire to turn everything into a party. And as long as we’re all invited that’s not such a bad thing.

Trouble at t’ mill

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies with tags , , , , , on March 6, 2010 by cockroach1

Watch out! They're watching you

There’s trouble brewing in our happy little building. I attended the comunidad meeting last week at which we were to discuss the sale of the porter’s flat next door, the re-distribution of maintenance and cleaning costs and other matters. Other matters sounded ominous, so I decided to attend. Also because I wanted to find out more about my eccentric neighbours and the building in which I live. So far I am on speaking terms with a middle-aged gay couple, an outspoken and forceful Andalucian with a hippy husband and a small child, who thankfully likes me (the mother that is- the child can take me or leave me), a South American couple whose young daughter sometimes plays in the courtyard and peers in my front door to talk to me, and of course the inimitable Presidenta who just happens to be an ex junkie prostitute. Sadly they’ve left but there used to be a couple of Canadian Sado-masochists as well. How do I know this? Ah, the walls have ears…. and so do the neighbours. It makes me wonder sometimes how much they know about me, and then I stop wondering because it’s not a nice thought. Probably somewhere between most of the personal details of my life and everything.

At the meeting, which started a mere hour late, I had the pleasure of getting to know Luis, the oldest resident in the building- he told me he had lived there all 70 years of his life. He was an affable, exciteable chap dressed in slacks and a formal blazer. He addressed me as ‘usted’ and asked very politely which flat I lived in, and when I confirmed his guess that it was the interior ground floor, he asked jokingly,

´The puticlub (knocking shop) giving you any problems? Oh, we all call it that, I know it isn’t really one.’ I replied that it was a little annoying at first to be constantly woken in the night by the buzzer, but that they had kindly resolved the problem by fitting a switch.

‘Ah, I know what you mean, my dear, I have the same problem.’ he assured me, ‘There’s a torero’s tailor in the flat next door to mine and they’re always ringing my bell by mistake.’ It was at this point I felt myself slipping even further into some kind of acid flashback resembling the film set of an Almodovar film circa 1991. Of course there’s a Torero Tailor’s upstairs! There just had to be. It was worth going to the meeting just to unearth that gem of information.

As soon as the meeting kicked off it descended into two and a half hours of people all shouting at each other at the same time. My head began to throb with the effort but I tried to follow the drift of it all. After a while it became clear that this was the perfect opportunity for all the neighbours to settle old scores, or if not settle them, worry at them like a dog at the end of the garden with some old bone it keeps digging up. The Andaluza has the biggest flat (120m sq). I have heard it said that envy is the national sport here, though I would argue this is the case just about everywhere. It was clear that all the other neighbours envy her immensely. All comments aimed at her started with ‘Well, we don’t all have 120m sq to live in…..’ She had brought one matter to everyone’s attention- that she was paying proportionately to the size of her flat for communal services like cleaning in the stairways, patio, maintenance to the front door and so on, facilities which we all use, and she no more than others. She was prepared to pay more for services that corresponded to the size of her flat but not for these ones. While some people pay €7.90 a month for these things, she pays €88. Everyone shouted mostly irrelevant comments at her for about half an hour. ‘We don’t all have 120 sq metres to live in, you know-‘ ‘My flat’s only 40 sq m,-‘ ‘some of us have to live in less space than you-‘ and then when the vote was taken, everyone democratically and selflessly voted to share the costs out among us all, each of us paying approximately another 2 euros a month so that she wasn’t saddled with that huge and unfair bill.

Luis was possibly the most vocal participant. He hovered over the brink of his seat and quivered with excitement like a malfunctioning Mr Whippy, never quite sure whether to sit down or jump to his feet so he could yell triumphantly at the Presidenta again. As he piped up for the umpteenth time I could hear half of the gay couple mutter under his breath ‘Pero bueno, joder…’ (‘Oh for fuck’s sake…’) Clearly, Luis has little to occupy his time, and eagerly looks forward to these meetings and the opportunity for a jolly good row.

The other matter was soon raised for discussion. And it turned out that this matter was the puticlub. The neighbours all agreed they were sick to death of getting up in the middle of the night to answer the buzzer and let drunks into the patio so they could illegally go through to the bar.

‘Yes! And the same happens to this Señora! And she lives right next door! They’re waking her up in the middle of the night, and it’s all the time-‘ shouted Luis, gleefully indignant on my behalf. The Presidenta shouted ‘Yes! And they broke her plant pots! How many times have they broken her plant pots? And they have the cheek to say-‘

My feeble Anglo-saxon ‘Ah, but they don’t really bother me, and they offered to replace it, and it was only once…’ was drowned out by the noise. The matter was discussed at length. The back door is only officially to be used for deliveries and by staff, not for constant to-ing and fro-ing of pissheads in the middle of the night. The front door lock is continually breaking with all the traffic, there are always fag butts in the patio, people smoking spilffs on the stairs, and sometimes they talk loudly as they leave. I’d say on the whole these are minor offences, but that didn’t seem to be the general consensus. One young woman explained.

Well, I’ve really had enough of it. What do they think the patio is? Their unlicenced terrace? I’m not joking, I came home one Saturday night about a month ago and there were about 30 people in the patio all smoking and talking. It was like some kind of botellon (street party), I mean he’s really taking the piss now-‘

I prayed the ground would swallow me up, but it didn’t. Instead the Presidenta pointed at me and informed everyone,

‘Oh no, that was her birthday party!’ Luckily they could see the funny side. The Presidenta knew it was my birthday party (and the Incredible Ponce’s) because we both took her up a portion of space cake and then dragged her into the flat after the party at about 7 am when she was putting the bins out and we were cleaning up. It had been one hell of a night.

The final decision was a hearty ‘Denuncia!’ although I abstained, and no-one even noticed. A police report which leads to an investigation, which could lead to him being closed down. I thought this was a bit harsh but then I haven’t lived with it for years. I am fond of the afters bar next door. To me it’s another quirky feature of the building. I enjoy the Alice in Wonderland set up. Looking now at my smooth, slate grey kitchen tiling it seems absurd that behind that wall and a little to the right in the back bar there are people snorting themselves stupid and staggering round the pool table beneath tatty Keith Richards posters. They may be slightly inconvenient at times, but I would miss them if they weren’t there.

I left the meeting with the girl who had spoken out about my street party. I apologised and she laughed it off and said she was embarrassed to have pointed the finger at me, she´d just assumed it was the bar. So all mates, then. I really have the best neighbours in Spain. She said as we made our way down the stairs,

‘You should see what the meetings are usually like. That was a relatively quiet one. All that shouting and we all agree in the end anyway.’ and she grinned. I arrived home with a request for English classes from another neighbour, and a thumping headache. Yet strangely, I felt elated and exilerated by the meeting, all that shouting, but also all that energy and all those opinions vocalised enthusiatically.

Two days later as I was coming back from visiting the Ponce at about midnight, the shutter was open on the street and the afters bar was up and running. I glanced round to make sure there weren’t any neighbours then ducked under the shutter. I had a quick chat with the owner, feeling as though I were passing some kind of resistance message across enemy lines. I merely wanted to warn him that there was trouble at t’ mill, and to keep his nose clean (well, his punters’ noses) as they were filing a denuncia and he may get a visit from our friends in blue. Perhaps if he is forewarned and cleans up his act we can all come to some kind of civil arrangement. After all, as the Ponce pointed out, the owner is getting on a bit, and it would be a tragedy for him to lose his business, or for there to be a raid and for him to be fined several thousand euros and face financial ruin. Call me a hypocrite, call me sneaky, I’ve been called worse. I’m just doing my bit to ensure that we all get on well in this happy little community. We all do it our own way- the Spanish by shouting and denouncing, me, in my British way by diplomacy and two-facedness. As long as we get the same result I’d say we’re onto a winner.

Red Nose Day

Posted in Uncategorized on March 2, 2010 by cockroach1

Calle Embajadores 26/02/10