Archive for April, 2010

Who killed Bambi?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2010 by cockroach1

cherry blossoms, Yanguas, Soria

Another weekend, another visit to the pueblo. Like a good Spanish girl I now have my very own village to spend weekends and holidays in ‘con mi gente’ (with my folks). This time I took the coach up there with a friend after work on Friday, meeting, frazzled, at Avenida America station. As we settled into our fuzzy coach seats I noticed my handbag, normally clutched under my arm as tightly as a drill-instructor´s baton, had been slashed in transit on the metro,a gaping razor-blade cut all the way down the seam,so that it was almost spilling its guts. And here the old maxim is proved, girls: you get what you pay for in life. It was a quality handbag, soft leather with satin lining, and though the slasher had cut through both layers cleanly it appears his/her hand had been unable to slip inside due to the complication of the expensive lining. So after all they left empty-handed. After cursing the potential thief and the mutilation of a good handbag I began to relax as we pulled out of Madrid. Soon the sky was opening up, the slopes of the sierra falling back and the cares and stresses of the city falling away like sloughing off old, dead skin. I had been singled out from the pack; I had been stalked and hunted. But this prey had managed to escape.

Not so lucky if you happen to be prey in the countryside however. On the second morning as we ambled up to the bar we were met by a jaunty Angel Jr.

´What, you guys only just had breakfast? I’ve been up since 6! I went hunting with some friends of Dad’s.’ Please don’t show us what you caught, please don’t show us what you caught….

‘I shot 2 deer. Wanna see?’

‘Er, no thanks, I think we’ll just have a coffee.’

And we might have got away with not having to actually see the spoils had it not been for one of dad’s friends striding through the bar as we sipped our coffee and slapping Angel Jr on the back while telling us proudly,

‘He’s a good little hunter, this one, look what he caught this morning.’ As we glanced round to answer him we saw that behind us, without us noticing, Angel Jr had deposited a huge, grizzly chunk of deer on the metal table where we had eaten our dinner the night before. It was literally a chunk of haunch, something hacked off as if with a machete. Fur bristled along one side of it. Blood and gore oozed from the other side, across the metal table-top. My friend (a vegetarian) and I must have both pulled a ‘cara de circunstancia’ at this point. (A ‘Circumstance face’- one of those faces that says ‘Look, I really don’t know how to appropriately arrange my features right now. I know you were expecting something else, but this is all I can manage I’m afraid: a mortified grimace overlaid with the hint of a sickly smile. It’s the best I can do at such short notice. Sorry.’)

According to Pili it was a young deer, as was the other one Angel Jr had shot that morning. She went on to express her sympathy for it, telling me ‘Me da un poco pena, sabes?’ (I feel a bit sorry for it, you know?) She painted a pretty grim picture of hunting restrictions and permits out here in the back of beyond, hunters legally permitted to pick off older male deer basically shooting whatever takes their fancy. After all, who’s going to control who kills what out here? And it’s not as if they always eat the meat, either.

‘Oh no, sometimes they can’t be bothered to carry the carcass back- a deer’s quite heavy. So some of the time they just cut the head off as a trophy and leave the body out there.’ Food for the vultures, presumably. She then described how upset she’d been a while ago when the hunters brought back the ‘trophy’ of a very young deer’s head. Except they’d been unable to decapitate it cleanly for some reason, so instead of just cutting its head off they’d had to cut round its snout and under the eyes. Apparently it had retained its terrified expression.

‘And it was looking up at me with these big brown, pathetic eyes… poor little thing….’ So let me get this straight. Not only did they kill Bambi, they then had to go and cut it’s face off. Anyone would be traumatised under the circumstances. Even Pili, and she’s 100% Spanish.

Although I’m beginning to wonder. Perhaps she had some distant ancestor with British blood, as I have never met such a total Soft Lass around animals as Pili. Currently they have one rescue dog from Madrid (I ended up rescuing its sister, but that is another story). Now they have another rescue dog – an enormous hound of a mastiff which Angel calls ‘mi cachorrita’ (My Little Puppy) but is approximately twice his size. This second dog was snatched from the jaws of death, about to meet a watery end in a bucket with the rest of the litter. And these are by far not the only animals Angel and Pili have rescued in the years I have known them. They used to have a terrapin in the bathroom years ago which they fed jamon york (boiled ham) and which grew too big for its flippers, maybe as a direct result, so they released it into the wild. There are other dramatic rescue stories involving an oversized frog, and a small type of owl, and once, with the help of local authorities, after reporting the abuse, a mistreated donkey. I’m pretty sure the latter didn’t end up going home with them, whereas the others all did. Probably only because they didn’t have room.

But my favourite rescue story which perfectly illustrates Pili’s Spanish pragmatism combined with ‘British’ daft compassion is the story of The Snail. Recently they were offering a local speciality on the menu- snails. Pili had filled a cooking pot with cold water and deposited the live snails inside it to heat up slowly while she carried on cooking. Apparently this is the correct way to cook them, as at first they strain to escape. Then when it gets too hot it’s too late for them to retract back into their shells, so they are cooked half in and half out. Anyway, Pili turned round as the snails cooked to find one brave and tenacious individual hauling itself over the lip of the pan. Bearing in mind the hardships it had already suffered and the sheer improbability of it making it this far alive, she decided to spare its life and nicknamed it Sobreviviente (Survivor). Maybe she’d recently seen The Pianist, who knows? It had survived the Snail Genocide and was granted a pardon. From then on for the next 3 weeks it lived in the kitchen in a shoe box, fed on prime lettuce. A heart-warming story, most of us would agree. But, life being a bastard, and absurd to boot, Survivor only Survived 3 weeks, to meet an equally ghastly fate in a mean, Final Destination twist of fate. It may have escaped the frying pan but the Hounds of Hell were hot on its heels nevertheless. (Heels?…. slimey stump?….) One day one of the dogs bounded into the kitchen and Pili turned round at the sound of crunching to find Survivor gone and the dog wagging its tail and licking its lips.

So Pili is sentimental enough to rescue a snail, but pragmatic enough to slow-boil a panful of them live without batting an eyelid. And it doesn’t stop there. My friend was curious enough to ask what one of the items on the menu was- ‘pajaritos fritos.’ Now, translated straight, this means fried little birds. But surely it can’t actually mean?…. ‘It’s fried baby birds.’ she told us. ‘Quail chicks, but when they’re still really small.’ Somehow this shouldn’t have surprised either of us, yet it did. There is, after all, a great culinary tradition here of gobbling up baby animals- the younger the better. There is cochinillo (suckling pig), cabrito (baby goat), and corderito (little lamb). There are even chopitos (baby squid) which are battered and fried whole, and I must admit, totally delicious if you can handle the weeny tentacles, which I can. Oh, and there are also gulas (baby eel.) So no qualms about ripping tiny creatures from their mothers’ tit and slinging them into the cooking pot. And frying things whole and eating them with the head on and everything- that’s also pretty normal, and in some cases not as horrific as it sounds. Boquerones (whitebait) are eaten battered whole, as are the baby squid. But baby quails? Baby birds? Are you for real? Beak and all? Tiny little curled up feet and stumpy unformed wings? I just couldn’t get the image of their scrawny little necks out of my head, those wobbly necks and open beaks, bulging eyes and oversized bald heads. You’ve already killed Bambi. You can’t go and garrotte Tweety Pie and serve him up with chips as well.

‘Baby birds? Fried whole?’

‘Oh yes,’ says Pili, ‘They’re really crispy and delicious. I do feel a bit sorry for them, though, poor little things….’

La Casa de Abram, Yanguas, Soria

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Here is the news

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2010 by cockroach1

This morning on the way to work as I was coming out of the metro exit I was handed a copy of ADN, the free metro newspaper, by the handsome young man who distributes them outside El Pozo station. Given its limitations I rather like ADN: for a free transport rag it’s really not all that bad. I particularly like the cartoonist Ernesto Rodera’s satirical ‘La Viñeta’. He has a wonderfully sardonic vision. There was a cartoon before Christmas of two company directors discussing Christmas bonuses (of course, in the context of pay cuts and obscene handouts during the crisis) and expressing amazement that the workforce didn’t seem to think themselves lucky that, this year at least, the company had decided not to require the slaughtering of their fist born in addition to cancelling all bonuses. Another classic which I snipped out and kept was of a thick-set, brutish middle-aged man with his head in his hands bemoaning the equality laws for women with the cry of dismay ‘Jesus, I don’t believe it- now I’ve even got to respect the ugly cows! His comment on bullfighting was a bull brought to its knees, banderillas (barbed harpoons) sticking out of its neck, blood streaming from its mouth, with the torero in his suit of lights poised to finish the beast off. The torero’s speech bubble? ‘Come on, why the long face? You’re bringing everybody down; this is supposed to be a fiesta.’ However, my absolute favourite was a week or so after the hysteria and exhuberance of Euro Gay Pride here a few years ago. A young man and woman sit side by side on a sofa watching tv and reading the newspaper, ignoring each other, with the caption,

‘And here we can see a couple celebrating the wildly popular Day of Heterosexual Indifference.’

Today’s cartoon depicted two soldiers walking in a featureless wasteland, having the following conversation:

‘Are we heading for Democracy?’

‘All the while.’

‘And haven’t we gone past it?’

For me he seems to hit just the right note every time.

The actual news, on the other hand, made me rather wish I hadn’t opened the paper at all. After class I perched at the bar with my morning coffee and surveyed the main story on the inside cover: A twenty-four year old Ecuadorian girl, the latest victime of domestic violence in a ‘black’ April that has notched up seven bodies, bringing the year’s total to 20 already. That’s 20 women who have been dispatched by their partners or ex partners in just three and a half months. This poor girl, about to return to Ecuador, had been stabbed in the neck by her partner the day she finished the relationship, and had lain dead in their room for 20 hours in a ‘banana boat’ immigrant flat (piso patera) where the murder was not discovered due to the constant comings and goings of the multiple tennants. On discovery her 36 year old murderer ran into the kitchen and stabbed himself in the stomach, but was revived by emergency medical services.

A little further on, on the same page, there were the following stories:

  1. The coverage of the latest horrific earthquake in China, with accompanying photo of a victim being pulled from the wreckage by rescue services.
  2. The latest adamant declaration by some Vatican stuffed cassock that paedophilia is intrinsically linked to homosexuality, while having no direct link to celibacy. A cheap and ignorant commentary worthy of the pages of the Daily Mail (or ‘The Daily Hate’ as a friend of mine calls it). Mind you, this coming from an authority that declared that condom use spreads AIDS rather than contains it. It seems to me that paedophilia is more intimately linked to being a Catholic priest than a Friend of Dorothy. I hoped that the hissing sound of my blood coming to the boil wasn’t disturbing the other café customers. But then I came to this:
  3. In the Uk Primark has been forced after public pressure to withdraw its range of bikinis for seven year olds which feature PADDED TOPS. Yup. Padded bras for seven year olds. The short article went on to explain that Primark had apologised for the blunder and had committed itself to donating the proceeds from any sales up til now of the offending, discontinued garment, to charity. Correct me if I’m wrong, but apart from the despicable fact that some no-brainer designer actually sat down and came up with the concept, then designed it, then it was approved, went into production and finally made it onto the shelves, and in all that time not one person thought to say ‘Whoah, hold on a sec….’ but this also means that people brought this item of clothing for their daughters. And enough people for there to be a significant amount of profit to be donated to a charity. So far for those lucky pre-pubescent girls, we’ve had thongs, pole dancing classes and now padded bikinis. Yeah, great, what next, then? Nipple tassles for five year olds? Trainer stillettoes with stabilisers? In vitrio liposuction for foetuses? Does anyone have any rope handy? Electrical cable- anything… yeah, that’ll do. Excuse me, just off to hang myself.

Look out! It’s in front of you!

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna on April 19, 2010 by cockroach1

Having dropped my mother off at the airport the other evening I was travelling back to my neighbourhood by metro. I was reading one of the books which I had picked up from a musty old box of donated books in the staffroom, quite an esoteric collection of works on meditation, psychology and so on. This one was ‘Views from the real world- early talks of Gurdjieff’. Not exactly ‘Shopaholic goes to New York’ and, quite frankly, a little heavy-going in parts even for my tastes. But it had looked interesting, so I was persevering with it. My mother had sent me a goodbye text, to which I was replying, so I placed the book, open on its spine, face down on my thigh. I became aware that I was being subjected to a full body scan by a woman opposite me. I glanced at her- not your usual maruja (fishwife)- tall, slim, with long black hair and a face that could curdle milk at 100 yards. At some point in this woman’s life, I suspect a very long time ago, the wind had changed. She turned to her husband, also lanky, academic-looking, with glasses and a white beard, and said quite loudly and distinctly, probably because she imagined I was a daft foreigner who didn’t speak a word of Spanish,

‘Oh yes, look at that one, that’s a really intellectual way to read isn’t it, book face down on your knee, oh yeah, she’s really going to further her education.’

I chose not to respond or rise to it, as ‘he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ It’s normal to occasionally make sarcastic remarks about strangers, or to take the piss, it isn’t exactly personal. I picked up my book, glanced coolly at her over the cover and continued to read. But how wrong can you be? This was personal, as I was about to find out. I could hear her still talking about me as I tried to read, and eventually when she said,

‘That one’s German, no doubt about it, pure Kraut, look at the face on it, that’s German that is-‘ I decided it was time to engage in battle.

I looked up, laid the book carefully on my lap and said straight at her, and in perfect Spanish,

‘Actually I’m English. But I do live here.’

The woman froze, the sneer fixed on her face in mid sentence, and in a surreal twist of events, her mortified husband leapt out of his seat like a Jack in the Box. Virtually bending on one knee he took my hand to kiss it, smiling ingratiatingly and bowing like a courtier, while gabbling,

‘Oh really, how interesting, we are Spanish. How lovely to meet you. We are Spanish. From Spain.’

All the while the minx stared at me with a face that seemed to be crumbling in on itself with unadulterated bitterness and mala leche (remember the bad milk?) and still she neither moved nor spoke.

At this point in the stand-off the appropriate latino response between two women would have been at the very least a mud-slinging row, at worst a hair-pulling cat fight. I chose, like Mary Archer, to remain fragrant, because I believe that in the end this makes you the winner anyway.

‘How very nice to meet you.’ I replied a little frostily but graciously to the husband, who returned to his seat cowering and cringing as though backing away from my throne. The pressed bodies in the carriage around us peered in on the scene, itching for a fight, I could tell. Everyone loves to witness a stinking altercation. But I wasn’t going to give the public what they wanted today. Implaccably I said to the hateful face pointed at me like a loaded pistol,

‘Do you have a problem, Señora? What exactly is your problem? Because there’s no need for you to be giving me the evils like that. I was just sitting here reading my book. I suggest you keep your comments to yourself in future.’

At this point, and all praise to the Gods of perfect timing, we pulled into my stop. I snatched up my book, wished the husband a polite ‘Good day to you, Sir’ and swept regally out of the carriage. For once I didn’t walk away playing the scene over and over in my head on a loop and kicking myself for what I could have/should have said. I’d said it. And with the panache of a Victorian dandy. How sweet it was to have put the mean old bitch in her place, and humiliated her in front of the entire carriage, and her husband, without even getting hot under the collar. Come on, you evil old cows, come on then! You want some more? Do ya? D’ya think yer hard enough? Think you can take me? Think again…..

Death of a pueblo

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2010 by cockroach1

It seems fitting that as an Easter trip, my Mother and I found ourselves in the gorgeous bleak countryside of España Profunda witnessing the story of a kind of death and resurrection, a clear example of what is intrinsically cyclical about life, all things dying away and coming back full circle. The village we were visiting and the circumstances of the friends we were visiting there seemed to encapsulate that decline of one thing and rise of another. While the village itself, no different from thousands of others in rural Spain, clung to life with white knuckles, turning what was essentially a slow death-mask to the world, my friends who had moved there from Madrid last year and had opened a bar appeared to have found new life and at last, hope.

Having checked in at the Casa Rural down the hill we wandered up to the deserted main square where the bus had dropped us earlier. When we’d spoken on the phone I’d asked Angel the name of their bar and how to find it.

‘Oh, you’ll find us easily.’ he said. ‘It’s called Casa de Abraham. Everyone here knows us.’

Everyone here? Everyone where….? There was not a soul in sight. I would have happily asked a local for directions if I could have found one. Heavy stone houses, as dry and sturdy as Derbyshire stone walls waited silently with shuttered windows. The only sound was the sluggish trickling of the river by the main road. Beyond the village were austere mountains and an expanse of sky rarely seen from the city, so much sky it was exhilerating. Luckily, just then the returning school bus pulled up, depositing Angel Jr and Juan Carlos, their sons, who cheerfully greeted us and led us uphill to the bar, while filling us in on their new life in the pueblo.

‘We sledged down this slope in the winter when it snowed, all the way to the road. It snowed loads. There weren’t any cars for days.’ they informed us as we made our way up a snaking cobbled road.

‘That’s where we live, the other side of that mountain.’ pointing past a romanic bell tower and some crumbling ruins on a hillside the other side of a dip.

‘There’s our new car!’ they pointed to a shabby jeep parked just inside an ancient gateway.

‘And here’s the bar.’

We would have had to make a detailled recce of the entire village to have found this. It nestled, low as a Hobbit house on the corner of a steep cobbled street, the entrance a solid wooden door on iron hinges. A hand painted sign hanging unobtrusively overhead indicated it was Abraham’s casa. On the telephone I had joked with Angel about which son he was going to sacrifice and he had answered that he hadn’t decided yet but was working on it.

Angel and Pili had undergone a stunning and welcome transformation. They were like the before and after victims of a zombie attack, only the other way round. In Madrid, due to the pressures of running their own struggling business and a family, and the pressures of the city itself, they had become zombified, leading a life that was a downward spiral of missed sleep and meals, impossible working hours, and unbearable stress. They both ended up with grey complexions, frazzled expressions and panda eyes as dark brown as old tea stains. They had owned a summer house here for many years, and last Summer moved here for good, closing the business, selling their house and starting a new life. Being industrious it was very little time before they had negotiated the lease on the bar and had opened it as compliment (for this read competition, village politics are harsh) to the only other bar in town. Here in the countryside they had become their old selves again, hippies and country-dwellers at heart. They had both put some weight on, their city pallor was now a rosy-cheeked glow, and though they were working hard with the Easter rush of customers, they were laughing more than I had seen them laugh for many years.

Later that evening we went back to the bar. There was a complicated procedure involving desperate attempts to find the live Barcelona/Arsenal game on the internet, after Angel had unsuccessfully flicked through all 927 cable channels looking for one that offered free football, pausing only to stare in contemplative mood at the abundant tits on one of the freeze-framed porn channels. In the end they found an internet channel and hooked it up to the television, and a group of men gathered round the set earnetly. It was a draw, thank goodness, so after much joking and vying with them, no-one had to admit national defeat. Angel Jr showed us video footage of nesting vultures which he had filmed for a school project, he brought out sets of antlers they had found on the mountainsides and explained their age and the process of shedding them, and a little later asked us if we would like to go to the slaughtering of a corderito (baby lamb), which we graciously declined. Surprisingly the bar filled up with male totty; every time the door opened my mother and I exchanged glances as yet another strapping bloke came in from the cold. Then came Felipe, a tiny little old man with a stick. Angel explained that he had fallen on the ice this winter in the pueblo and had broken his leg, and they had rushed him to hospital where he was fitted with a cast. Felipe had been sent to a ‘residencia’ for old people to recuperate, but with a month still to go, he had checked himself out and done a runner, as according to him ‘it was full of old people and really boring.’

‘He’s quite a character. We love him.’ Angel informed us, and after a drink or two we were given a blast of Felipe’s showmanlike abilities, as he serenaded my mother with coplas (traditional songs), and then recited patriotic Antonio Machado poetry to us about glorious and unforgettable Soria (Machado was an Andaluz poet who spent time in the province). As he circulated around the bar entertaining everyone with his stories and songs the stick became more than a stick- a prop. I remembered how attached I became to my stick for a while after fracturing my foot last year, and how useful it was to prod people with. Felipe used his to poke at people the other side of the bar to catch their attention, at other times it became an air guitar and finally a bandleader’s baton to be twirled over his head and held ramrod straight sticking up in front of his nose until the other locals told him laughingly to put it down, he´d have someone’s eye out with it.

After another vodka, and in oratory mood, Felipe told us a little of the history of the village. When he was a child there used to be 90 children at the local school; now there were 50 inhabitants in total. There used to be two bakers, a chemist’s, four churches (of which two remain) and two local businesses. There were two Visigoth warrior kings buried in the churchyard where the ruins are. The village started to decline in the seventies, people moved away and no-one came to replace them, and now apart from the houses there were only two rural hotels and two bars, mostly to accommodate weekenders from the cities, tourists and passing groups of hunters and hikers.

The next morning we coincided in the bar again over coffee, and we left Pili and a couple of locals discussing a consignment of jars of asparagus. Felipe took us to the local museum, of which he was keeper of the keys. He gave us an interesting tour, showing us the statue of the only known seated Jesus in Spain, a portrait of the ‘Virgin of the Milk’ who was breastfeeding her Christchild from what looked like a fried egg slapped on the front of her robe, a statue of the ‘Moorslayer’ on horseback, battered wooden chests for taking ecclesiatical robes and paraphenalia into war in order to be able to perform mass on the battlefield, gothic crucified christs dripping with rust-brown blood and the piece de resistance: a disconcerting picture of angels and cherubs and suchlike stitched from devout womens’ hair. When I mentioned this later back in Madrid to some students, they told me that here in Madrid there is a church housing the Cristo de Medinaceli, who is brought out and paraded in the Easter processions, and this statue apparently has a ‘wig’ made of womens’ hair, which is constantly being added to by the devout. When we got back to the bar the discussion about the jars of asparagus was still in full flow. We donned walking gear (what we had of it, including a pair of hiking boots kindly on loan from one of the regulars,) and Angel Jr led us away on a 7 km walk to the village where the family actually lived.

One of the high points of the walk was the incredible proximity of the vultures. There were scores and scores of them, gliding directly overhead, circling the peaks and valleys or perched in rows along the rocky ridges watching us with beady and hungry eyes, twiddling their feathers and waiting for one of us to trip and fall. Angel Jr informed us that he had feigned a fall a few times while walking in the mountains and had kept quite still, his eyes half-closed, until he heard the helicopter-blade whooshing of their wings and opened his eyes to find them virtually nose to beak with him. Supposedly they go for the soft, vulnerable eyes first. As soon as he moved they flew away. It was a disquieting sensation; although I have travelled extensively, it was only the second time I was consciously aware of a group of living creatures actively wishing my death so they could make a meal of me. The only other time I was spooked by this kind of reality check was when navigating the Galapagos islands in a smallish boat with a tour group, and being followed for several miles by Hammerhead sharks, their fins cutting the water in the wake of the boat and keeping perfect pace with us. Even thinking about it makes me shudder. I am of the generation that saw Jaws too young, when it came out, and has had a pathological fear of sharks and deep water ever since.

We followed an ancient Roman path, part of the old sheep and goat-herding route leading all the way to Madrid from Logroño, the other side of the mountains. The final part of the walk was through a wooded glade, pine trees on either side, bracken and scrubby thorns everywhere. Angel Jr showed us deer tracks, lizards, miniature ‘scorpions’ under stones, samples of the naturally-occuring mineral in the rocks, which formed almost perfect cubes grey as graphite, and the rooting grounds of wild boar, big swathes of earth churned over by their snouts as they searched for what he called ‘wild garlic’.

We arrived at their village which nestled in pastureland next to a river with a small waterfall. If the village below was semi-deserted, this really was the village at the end of the world. Here there were only 25 of the houses renovated and occupied only at weekends and holidays, with Angel and Pili and their family the only people to live here all year round. Angel Jr said it was best when the holidaymakers had all gone and they had the village to themselves. It was beautiful but eerie. The thought of living up here made me feel uncomfortable. No running water- that had to be brought up here by the road and then by track in 1000 litre tanks, no electricity- that was provided by generators, and in winter no other people at all. Also no heating- Pili had told me that they went out one day and when they came back the water in the dogs’ bowl was frozen solid, and when they checked the temperature it was minus 18.

On the way back down we saw a startled deer, zig-zagging away from us, its white tail flashing. When we trudged back to the bar a couple of hours later we were treated to a hearty meal by Pili who was churning out home-made food for a full house. Easter was good business and they had to make the most of the rush. There were days, she said, when one person called in for a coffee all day and the rest of the time she and Angel watched tv and pottered about on the internet.

The next day, after fond farewells and after Pili thrusting jars of locally-produced honey at us, we caught the only bus of the day back to Soria and from there to Madrid. Apart from the sheer pleasure of seeing my friends happy and rejuvenated after their radical life change, I genuinely fell for this bleak, semi-abandoned pueblo in the middle of nowhere. There is no way a confirmed urbanite like myself could live in a place like that, but it was the perfect place to get away from the city. Much as I adore Madrid, those of us who live here all agree that you have to get out from time to time, and, as the Spanish say, ‘breathe another air.’ There was something noble and tragic about this place clinging to life in the midst of the rugged hills of the least populated province of Spain. And the sadness in witnessing the apparent slow death of the pueblo was cancelled out by the happiness of seeing Angel and Pili and their children coming back to life, yawning and stretching and looking about them with new eyes as though waking from a bad dream. Lives can change, people can escape the rat-race and reinvent themselves; there is hope.


Cockroach in Wonderland

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2010 by cockroach1

Spring has definitely sprung: the terrace tables are out for good and it is now impossible to know what to wear of a morning, given the teeth-chattering cold in the shade but the bite of approaching summer in the sunshine. Blossoms are out all over the city providing a backdrop of festive, candy-floss pink trees. Easter Saturday saw the Retiro bursting with activity and mad march silliness. My mother was over visiting, and we decided to take a relaxing stroll through the park. Yet the further in we went the more bizarre it became, like the onset of a hallucination, slowly at first, a few odd details glanced out of the corner of an eye, leading eventually to full-on visual mayhem.

First there was the posh but tacky family, on a scale of Strange only reaching about 2.5. The eight or nine year old daughter was skipping along in jodphurs and ballet pumps while the father wheeled a colour-co-ordinated pushchair. Over his shoulders there was a pillar-box red jumper slung in an Italian sort of way. Bryl cream kept his thick waves of hair swept back off his face. The mother tottered a few paces behind them in what were clearly expensive clothes which she managed to make tarty: the heels a little too high, the skirt a little too short and the fur collar a little too wide.

We entered the Palacio de Cristal, a wonderful glass structure a bit like a giant birdcage. There are sometimes exhibitions inside, but today there was a new gardening project underway so we popped in to take a look. It was certainly innovative. The main attraction was a round flowerbed about the size and shape of a traffic roundabout, which had been cultivated into a woodland knoll stuffed with ferns, midget daffodils and lily of the valley. On its grassy hump was a mini fir tree and then a bank of verdant moss, and nestling in the moss were several giant pumpkins. They gave the installation a kind of Jack and the Beanstalk, dreamlike quality. The centre of this rural fantasy was so idyllic and green that it made you want to climb up and lie down among the flowers, transported to the heart of a fairy story or a mythical English glade in summertime. There were people queueing to have photos taken of themselves with the pumpkins, and one camp young man insisted that he have his picture taken as he grinned for the camera like a ballroom dancer, hugging a pillar with his head thrown back and one foot cocked behind him.

Leaving the fairy tale greenhouse we walked up to the lake and the lakeside promenade which was bustling with activity.

‘What’s that?’ asked my Mum, pointing to a short figure with an oddly-shaped head dressed in a black cloak.

‘It looks like a midget Darth Vader.’ I replied, as though they are a common sight in Madrid. We began to feel the approach of a fit of giggles, rumbling up from the belly like bubbles rising in a glass of cava. We were approaching the ´living statue/children’s entertainment’ zone. Next on the conveyor belt, Larry, there was a dancing tranny with exaggerated breasts and buttocks that bounced with every movement. She wore a short, brightly-coloured sundress with canary yellow tights and a bubble-perm wig. She danced samba for a very long while with a solemn toddler who beat time with a sword made from a balloon, and who, when she stopped dancing, tried to take his change back out of the hat on the ground, only to be dragged away by his parents. As we walked away we passed a portrait artist sitting on a low folding stool by his stall. He was dozing with his head in his hand, and as we approached he nodded off and almost keeled face-forward onto the floor, jerking awake with a confused grunt and perfect comic timing.

The next part of our walk was the stage of the hallucination where you realise you are seeing weird things. Really weird things, and it starts to mess with your head a bit. The lakeside path began to fill up with life-sized cartoon characters who were actually people in ill-fitting costumes. It was as though someone had raided the costume cupboard of some provincial rep theatre that specializes in panto, but that is experiencing financial and artistic difficulties. The fur looked as though it hadn’t been dry-cleaned for a very long time, and has lain mouldering at the back of the cupboard. There was something seedy about the outfits, details which were only slightly ‘off’ but made for a visually disturbing effect. Winnie the Pooh, for example, had a wrongly-shaped head, too angular and bullet-shaped, making him look aggressive as a U.S. military hawk. Minnie Mouse had a grubby dress and puffy, stained shoes. Later on there was a creature that could have been a bear or could have been an otter. Either way it had no snout and a startled expression, and the face was squashed and mis-shapen as though someone had tried to kick its head in. But he had nothing on the Easter Bunny Nemesis who was so sinister it sent my mother and I fleeing down the path in a fit of nervous giggles that finally erupted. But more of him in a moment.

I have seen these ‘performers’ before in Madrid, they can sometimes be seen wandering around forlornly looking for children to hand out balloons to. In fact, I have had a run-in with one of them, and a close friend has witnessed a run-in with one of the others. I imagine it’s a stressful job, having to look like an anonymous buffoon every day. All work is prostitution of some kind, but this must mean really bending over and taking it on a daily basis. They must come in for a good deal of flack. Picture a bright sunny Saturday. I was being visited by a Swedish friend who lives in London. We had spent the morning smoking grass and then went for a walk near the Prado. At the crossing opposite us was one of these ‘bad’ animated characters, a really bad Bart Simpson with a lop-sided head. I made some comment like ‘Oh Jesus, not him. Look at the state of that! What a shitty Bart.’ and poor ‘Bart’ obviously overheard us, spoke enough English to understand and was aware of our stoned giggles. As he passed us on the level crossing in the middle of the road humming with impatient traffic he exclaimed, with a strong hispanic accent,

‘Yeah? Well fuck you!’ which of course, made our day and led to almost pant-wetting laughter. We had been insulted before lunchtime by a shitty Bart Simpson. Sublime.

The other set-to was more disturbing and I wasn’t even there. But I can visualise it. This was related to me by a close gay friend who saw Mickey Mouse one day in the Retiro being taunted by a group of passing teenagers: Mickey was wearing the top half of his fusty costume accessorized with shiny tracksuit bottoms, and as the teenagers jeered at him he grabbed a handful of cock and balls and shook it at them, which I can only assume is an insult. According to my friend it was an ample handful, and, after glancing round to check no small children had been subjected to this obscenity, he decided that he found it strangely sexually arousing and wrong all at the same time, as it was, obviously still Mickey Mouse.

But back to the Easter Bunny’s Nemesis. This was by far the creepiest and most unsettling of the beasts. As though we were referring to the Observer book of exotic shitty full-sized cartoon characters, we identified him as being of the squirrel species, though I was then confused by the tail when he turned round. It was nothing like a squirrels’ tail, more like a furry dildo hanging off the back of his outfit, or a claggy turd that refuses to be shaken off. Luxurious and fluffy it was not. So maybe it was a gerbil or some other rodent. Anyway, the front was a hell of a lot scarier than the back. Its expression was intense and manic- Squirrel Nutkin on speed. For no discernable reason it was carrying a Little Drummer Boy drum in front of it, and attached to its neck at the front, almost like the prized scalp of an enemy was a cute furry bunny with a miniature drum in its paws. Squirrel Fuckwit crashed and lumbered about the shrubbery, encouraging small children to bang its drum, while my mother and I tried to escape its attention and fled down a nearby path. There was no way we were going anywhere near it. The overall effect was more Donnie Darkoe than Easter Bunny. Had we not been laughing so hard it might at this point have started to turn into a bad headtrip.

The final leg of the walk offered us a moment of pure drama followed by a moment of pure beauty. Which is more than anyone could hope for, I suppose, on a Saturday afternoon. The drama was provided by two Samur employees (emergency medical services) hurtling through the crowds on motorbikes and screeching to a halt near a fountain. Mothers clutched small children to them, people reined in their dogs and there was a lot of milling about, pointing and exclaiming excitedly,

‘He’s over there!’ ‘There he is, with those two women-‘ The medics leapt into action. The casualty turned out to be a small boy who appeared to have fallen over and cut his lip, hiding behind his mother’s skirt and now devouring an ice-cream with nothing more serious than a tearful expression. So nobody died, there’s nothing here for you to see. You can all go about your business now. But everybody loves a drama, especially here.

The beauty in the midst of this heaving colourful circus was offered to us by a violinist playing Stravinsky and Vivaldi. He was excellent, far too good to be playing in the park, but times are hard, and who knows why people resort to anything. The most gorgeous detail was the group of toddlers sitting in a semi-circle right under his nose, almost as close as you could get, staring up at him and listening with rapt attention. Who says children have no taste? Not one of them fidgeted or got up to leave as he played the Four Seasons. Two small boys edged up even closer to the side of him, commenting to each other on his playing and then standing and watching in awe for a good ten minutes. It was an image that will stay with me, that surprised me in this age of Gameboys, MP3s, online gaming and gadgets I don’t even know the name of. These children were not being made to stay and listen. They could have been looking at midget Darth Vader, giant pumpkins, or at Donnie Darkoe Squirrel, or the dancing tranny, but instead they were entranced by the live classical music. Here was the welcome comedown of the trip, the sobering up, the moment all the pixies stop dancing. Here was something genuine and touching.

Thin line between love/hate

Posted in The Writing on the wall on April 7, 2010 by cockroach1