United colours of Lavapies

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.

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