Archive for December, 2010

Twelve of the best

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2010 by cockroach1

It’s that time of year again – the very tail end, that sees tv schedules groaning with lazy ‘top ten’ lists and ‘best of’ compilations, so to round off the year and join in with the spirit of it all, allow me to present you with my current top twelve activities (one for every month, but in no particular order) in the glorious, smelly, colourful, exhilarating heart of Lavapies.

ONE

Sitting outside Taverna La Mina and watching the world and his hippy hamster go by. The Gnome is somehow intimately connected with the workings of this barrio, this can be seen in the patting of a passing baby’s cheek, the wave of a hand at unseen residents, the answering nod as he is repeatedly hailed by name, and the inclusion into this circle as soon as you have been there more than three times. It is one of the few bars left in Lavapies which has not hiked its prices stupidly, and where you can sometimes still get an outside seat in the Summer. Plus, the other waiter sometimes still calls me ‘joven’. Top marks!

TWO

Lazing around drinking apple tea at one of the teterias and watching the resident arab boys doing what arab boys do best: ie lazing around drinking tea, chatting, smoking shisha and looking languid and sultry.

THREE

Catching sight of the Lavapies Twins out for their evening stroll. These two elderly twins, who are not identical but who dress identically can often be seen strolling arm in arm or side by side, in perfect synch with each other. They may wear matching cocktail dresses and low heels, or suit jackets and skirts, but always the same outfit as each other. Characteristically eccentric and quintessentially Lavapies. They are women, by the way, so not that eccentric…

FOUR

Sitting outside Bar le Petit on Argumosa ‘crotch-watching’, although this is not always intentional, but those low tables and chairs give you little choice sometimes…. while being pawed at and playfully mauled by Luna the African hunting dog, although she has mellowed a little as she gets older.  One of my UK visitors claimed this was her ‘favourite spot in the whole of Madrid’.

FIVE

Discovering that the ‘Taberna Viva Chapata’ on Ave Maria is ‘nudist friendly’ (See posting ‘The Naked Protest’, Aug 2010)

SIX

Managing to walk past the resident South American alcoholics at the end of the street without being drunkenly side-stepped into a reluctant and rather wobbly salsa or merengue. My favourite is one old crooner who wears a transistor radio glued to the side of his head and dances with it as if it were his only lover.

SEVEN

Lounging around late at night in the fading glory of the Barbieri, sliding off the threadbare velvet seats, checking your hair in the pock-marked and stained mirrors, elbows resting on the marble table-tops, cracked tiles beneath your feet.

EIGHT

Going to the Chinese shop in your pyjamas. This is keeping alive a true madrileno tradition; I vividly remember in the late eighties the housewives who could be seen beating carpets to death on balconies over the street, wearing rollers in their hair and ‘batas’ (housecoats). Then they could be seen a little later in the day at the supermarket in the same get-up. The Ponce is so dedicated to the keeping alive of this tradition that he has been known to visit the corner shop in his silk Chinese dressing gown accessorized with outsize leopard-paw slippers (given to him by yours truly).

NINE

Chatting to the Nepalese waiter who works at the Thai restaurant next door to my house, but who is, in fact a qualified teacher who cannot teach here in Spain, and managing to make him briefly happy by telling him I have visited his country and his home town and found them beautiful and fascinating.

TEN

Eating fried doughballs and ‘maffi’ at the Senegalese restaurant surrounded by hospitable Africans, watched over by a strange back-lit picture of a waterfall with a creepy spirit figure hovering above the water.

ELEVEN

Calling in to buy meat and cheeses at the butcher’s on Calle de la Fe, eavesdropping on adjacent conversations and greeting the guys who run the shop, hanging around in there with about half the barrio, the elderlies seated on tiny stools in a miniscule space, the number of stools growing by the day. Soon they’ll be selling tickets for the stools. Underneath the poster of the aerobics-sweaty couple in headbands and leg warmers, and the legend ‘They eat meat’.

TWELVE

Sneaking around late at night crouching in piss-soaked alleys to get a good shot of the local street art. A big thank you once again to all the street artists for their contribution to the look and feel of the barrio. As soon as I can find my digital camera (mislaid during a recent flat ‘tidy up’) I’ll be out there again looking for more.

My best wishes and a very Happy New Year to everyone!

We Three Kings

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2010 by cockroach1

The Christmas Season, or ‘silly ‘season is upon us, a time when myths and traditions materialize in our daily lives out of nowhere like the apparitions of Christmases past. Some of them are old friends, and others are strangers. One of the more curious Spanish traditions is that of the Three Kings or Three Wise Men (Los Reyes). Everyone knows them, everyone defers to them, but no-one seems to be able to explain where they come from exactly, or why they are so important in Spain and not anywhere else. Spanish children have gifts from Papa Noel, who comes on the 24th rather than the 25th, then pretty soon after that, as we are packing away the tinsel and have been back to work for a week, the Three Kings come on the 6th January and bring more presents.  Spaniards are very enthusiastic about traditions and fiestas, but are often unaware of their cultural origin or importance. Also, they are more pragmatic and prepared to just get on with enjoying it because it’s a fiesta, rather than questioning the finer points, the why’s and wherefore’s. But I can’t help questioning everything, having grown from a curious child into an insatiably inquisitive adult.

‘Why do you celebrate the three kings then?’ seemed like a logical question, but was answered with,

‘I don’t know. Well, they brought Jesus all the gifts, didn’t they, and now they bring us gifts.’

‘And how do they get into your houses?’ I asked naively, confiding that, ‘Father Christmas comes into our houses down the chimney.’

I was met with a blank stare.

‘Through the front door.’

‘So… do they have keys to everyone’s houses, then?’

A shrug. ‘How do I know? They can get in. It’s not difficult for them, they just work it out; they’re wise.’

One teenage student shared a story about a friend of hers years before, who, with a child’s logic had a hissy fit when her parents told her the three kings would let themselves into the house during the night while she was asleep to leave the gifts under the tree. ‘But I don’t know them!’ she protested. ‘I don’t want them to break into our house. If they can get in then any old rapist can get in as well.’

‘But only they can get in, nobody else can. They’re the three wise men, they’re magic.’ they assured her.

‘And what if there’s a magic rapist? I don’t want a magic rapist creeping around my house in the middle of the night while I sleep. Tell them not to come!’

In honour of the three kings on the 6th January every local council organises a ‘Cabalgata de los Reyes’; (Three Kings’ Parade). Local businesses sponsor floats, and people dress up as kings, elves, fairies and pixies. The kings are issued with sacks full of sweets and as the floats roll pass, it is traditional for them to hurl handfuls of sweets into the expectant crowds. It is a typically Spanish fiesta- boisterous, fun, and of course, with an element of physical danger. First of all the children have to fight the legions of old ladies who scrabble over them to get to the caramels and boiled sweets. Adults get carried away. I am told the best way to collect sweets is to take an umbrella which you upturn and use as a funnel. Someone’s father once had the lense of his glasses smashed by a direct hit, another girl nearly had her eye out when a sweet hit her directly in the eye socket one year. All good clean Spanish fun.

In Germany the gifts are brought by a special child, a fusion of the Christ child and an angel, called the Christkinder. Suitably solemn, sentimental and religious. In Norway the gifts are brought by a naughty elf who dresses in red and white, and has a long white beard. He must be appeased with a bowl of porridge left outside for him on Christmas night or he plays practical jokes on the children. In Italy it is a special witch who delivers the presents and shares them out, and whose wrath must be avoided at all costs by being a good little boy or girl. (Oh, how little it surprised me when I discovered that there was a female figure bossing the Italians around and controlling the goodies). And in Spain, there are three gift-givers, and nobody knows their significance, or quite why they are there, just that they’re coming, they’re on the way, they’ll be here in a bit. The Spanish don’t like to do things solo, something they must have learned from the arabs that has persisted over the centuries. It’s always better to go everywhere as one big homogenous group, whether that’s going to hospital for a check up or nipping down to the pharmacy. The Kings just illustrate a common Spanish social custom: ask a friend to join you for a coffee or even dinner and he or she may turn up forty five minutes late with three other mates, possibly with a call first to let you know they’re coming, sometimes with no notice at all.  You invite one king, you get three. If two’s company and three’s a crowd, then four or five, or what the hell, the whole family, everyone you know, and half the barrio is even better.

I remember when all this was fields

Posted in mean streets on December 21, 2010 by cockroach1

 

Emerging from the metro exit at El Carmen, to visit a friend, brings back memories of twenty years ago. I lived round the corner then, in a street I have walked along occasionally since moving back to Madrid, but I have never managed to identify the front door. The number has long since slipped from my memory and these days all doorways look the same. I do remember the meeting my flatmates and I had with the owner of the flat. We had spoken to a husky-voiced lady on the telephone, answering an ad in the local paper Segundomano, (Second Hand), which used to be the place to find rentals back in those days. She had agreed to meet us outside the flat. It was a winter’s afternoon and we saw a tall woman with bouffant hair approaching, swathed in a fur coat and wearing heels. She was heavily made-up especially around the mouth, which was lined as if with a marker pen. She was tall, it was if she grew in stature as she walked up to us, and she had a pock-marked complexion. She shook my hand and her grip was firm, her palm leathery like a pork chop. We chatted in the living room after she had shown us round.

‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘I’ve been to London, I know King’s Cross quite well. I spent some time in hospital there.’  Her adam’s apple bobbed in her throat and she cocked her head and maintained eye contact. I smiled at her. She knew I knew, and she also knew I didn’t care. She offered us the rental and we took it.

I caught a metro out here once, before I moved to the barrio, to visit a boy I had met in a club, who had given me his phone number. His parents must have been away because he invited me over one Sunday afternoon. He had a beautiful name: Isidoro. I remember the doorman of the building stopping me like a little Franco on my way in, and questioning me about who I was, and where I was going, and who I was going to see. I was indignant, knowing nothing about police states or Comunidad meetings. I answered him back cheekily, and was unable to offer Isidoro’s surname. Eventually he grudgingly let me into the lift. Years later I realize he must have thought I was a prostitute. I had sex with Isidoro on a narrow single bed. I was self-conscious about the small roll of fat around my middle. He grabbed it and squeezed, and said ‘Don’t tell me you have a complex about this? Really, don’t. You’re perfect. You shouldn’t worry about that.’ He was handsome but he wasn’t very good in bed. We didn’t see each other again.

Just outside the metro exit there is a bar which has barely changed in twenty years. It used to be my local. Back then it was run by three or four men in their fifties. They were gruff but would flirt mildly with me, and most days, for sport, used to give me weird tapas to accompany my beer. This means some days I would get a small plate of unidentifiable shellfish, black snotty curls that had to be coaxed out of their shells with a pin, or zarajos de Cuenca: pigs’ intestine wrapped round a cocktail stick like a wound rubber band, other days it might be fried pig’s ears. One day I recoiled in horror at a large cockroach poised nonchalantly on the wall beside me and gestured helplessly at the waiter, who shrugged, bunched a tea towel up in his hand and crushed it in front of me, flicking the body onto the floor behind the bar and continuing to serve drinks with the tea towel slung back over his arm.

I was running a few minutes late but decided to stop and have a quick coffee there for old times’ sake. The current waiter was younger, probably in his thirties, and he was clearly South American, but the clientele were the same: old ladies with helmet hairdos and even older men smoking incessantly and growling amiably at each other across the bar. They were pontificating about Sherry, which the waiter seemed to know very little about. The décor was the same: white tiled walls with a couple of bullfighting posters curling at the corners, a stone floor littered with cigarette ends, paper napkins and prawn heads. I downed my coffee and soaked up the atmosphere. There was a subtle difference: the men in the bar were not watching me with naked curiosity and none of the old buggers was trying to draw me into the conversation, something which would have been inevitable when I was twenty years old. That was a change that I could be thankful for at least.

Leaving the bar and walking into the brightly-lit street crammed with cheap shoe-shops and takeaways, I had a vivid memory of standing at the bus stop all those years ago, waiting for a bus into the centre of town. It was summer and there was an endless refuse-collectors’ strike. Rubbish had lain rotting in the street for days, maybe weeks, piling up in obscene, stinking mountains by the side of the road. Aged twenty I found this chaos liberating and exciting. Now I would find it repulsive and inconvenient. In those days Calle Alcala had few shops and bars: there was a Telepizza and a ‘todo a cien’ (pound shop). Even the route into town on the bus was radically different- over the M30 and past Ventas bullring. Now there is a modern bridge spanning the motorway and scores of shops and businesses en route that didn’t exist back then. Mind you, in those days I used to leap up the metro step three at a time, instead of climbing them with acheing muscles and an early-onset, slight arthritic limp. I smiled at myself- if I could listen to my own thought-processes I would sound like my grandfather. He used to say of Nottinghamshire ‘I remember when all this was fields.’

Am I beginning to sound like an old fart? But these perceptions are precious to me because these changes: the Chinese restaurant and the Cuban bar and the cheap shoe shops where there used to be only a Telepizza and a pound store, the fact that old men now ignore me when I stand alone in a bar sipping my coffee, the fact that I ache, these are the only markers I have to indicate the passing of time and the normal, healthy progression of my life. I am more closely tied to the external world and its caprices than other people. The external and the internal: the wrinkles and the stretch-marks on my own body and that of the city I grew up with. ‘Normal’ people have courtship, marriage, babies, growing children, perhaps divorce, then adult children and the whole cycle begins all over again and repeats itself. Not necessarily a good or a bad thing, just something I have chosen to opt out of. I have only the changes to my own body and to the world outside, a world that I relate to perhaps more closely than they do, not having any other point of reference. Madrid and I have grown together. This is how I watch the world turn and mature. Madrid and I have a few wrinkles in common, a few tales to be told over a glass of wine. This city is my touchstone and my mirror. She’s getting a bit long in the tooth, but she’s still got plenty of character, she’s still game, and she’s looking pretty good all things considering. Hopefully the same can be said for me.

The stone with the thin blue string

Posted in mean streets, Uncategorized with tags , , on December 16, 2010 by cockroach1

In my absence over the summer the city seems to have transformed itself into a hateful monster, roaring with traffic, belching obnoxious fumes, yawning with its cantilevered metro mouths, its innards slithering with the squeal of metal on metal. We scurry across its surface and in and out of its dirty orifices like parasitic organisms feeding off our host. We get up in the dark and the cold, and come home under heavy orange/grey skies and drizzle. Autumn disappeared round the corner with a rustle of dry leaves. Winter is here in full force. Furry blankets are unearthed from the back of wardrobes, summer clothes stored away and inefficient heating cranked up to the maximum setting. There are days of bright blue skies, the unforgettable sapphire skies of Madrid, but other than that it has been a descent into cold, damp industrial night.

Over-worked and under-stimulated I head for the mountains one Sunday. The Ponce was still in bed when I called, another friend suggested the Retiro, but I know this will not satisfy my hunger for open spaces and solitude. Too many people, the distant hum of traffic audible even from the centre of the park. Another friend would love to come but is away for the weekend. I set off on my own, catching the hour-long train to Cercedilla in the Sierra.

I am joined on the train by a few hikers, muffled up against the cold and crinkling with waterproofs. It is a heavy grey day, which also explains the reluctance of some of my friends to join me. Let it rain; I don’t care. Rain in the countryside is an entirely different matter to urban rain. We roll out of the city, out of the apocalyptic tangle of pylons, tunnels and towers. Madrid fades, after dreary outskirts it becomes a silhouette, the four high towers like uneven teeth sticking out of its upturned face. Later, as we approach the Sierra and I glimpse mountains, woods and snowy peaks, I begin to strain at the leash, a thrill inside me incited by the green valleys and open skyscapes.

There are very few people at the station and in the centre of the village, there is a Sunday lunchtime hush. First I wander around the old summer houses by the station; an elevated pathway lined with sturdy villas indicates ‘This way to the centre of town’. The plaques by the locked gates ring with past glories: ‘Villa Electa’, ‘Villa Victoria’. I have seen so many of these types of houses in so many parts of the world that I no longer even bother to work out ‘Chosen Who?’ or ‘Victory over what?’ One villa has an elaborate shell-shaped alcove housing a plastercast Madonna, just inside the main gate, flanked by steps zig-zagging up the house through the gardens. I can’t help smiling to myself, it reminds me of the Ken and Barbie kitsch-ness of Naples. The villas begin to bore me, as I head back toward the station, only stopping to peer into a dilapidated barracks-style building that must also have been a boarding house at one time, perhaps the grandest of them all. Shuttered windows and crumbling brick-work is all that’s left now. I poke my nose in through the slats at one of the windows, and there is a chaotic and poignant interior: old, dusty, and ancient metal-framed bed pulled at an angle into the centre of the room, filthy bedding and mattress still in place, around it an abandoned shoe, a notepad splayed open face down but no pen. Two windows down, perusing the kitchen in the same manner: rusty old appliances huddled as if for safety in the middle of the room, I hear a creak, a bang- possibly a shutter blown to by the wind, but the notebook, the shoe and the bedding have made me skittish and I hurry away. What if someone was squatting in this squalor? That would make my curiosity intrusive and possibly dodgy.

Back at the station I take the opposite road, heading out and away from the centre of town. After all, I came here to get away from people. This road says it is an ‘Ancient Roman Road’ which sounds much better. Within five minutes I am noting and savouring the smells of the countryside. The air itself is clear and crisp, with the bite of the mountains. We are higher up here even than Madrid, which is at 650m above sea level, making it the highest capital in Europe. I sometimes wonder if this slight reduction of oxygen makes us all a little light-headed and brain-impaired as a result. It is also the most polluted city in Europe. You can’t see the poor air quality when you are down in the rat-runs and the wide avenues, looking up at a bright blue sky. From this perspective you don’t see the choking cloud of contamination. But you can see it when you approach Madrid through the mountains, glimpsing it across the plain. Then you see clearly that it wears a brown-grey beret of pollution and woolly fumes. From inside the city you are aware that something is amiss as you breathe, everywhere people cough and splutter all year round, there is a constant grime in your nose and throat, and a feeling of general malaise. It isn’t a healthy place to be, by any stretch of the imagination. Here in the hills I inhale as though I am advertising mint mouthwash. The air out here smells so good. I want to bottle some of it. I want to eat it, absorb it into my body somehow.

Later, as I climb a wooded slope, I catch the sharp, pungent stink of funghi. It’s a known scent, but the smell of grocery mushrooms compared to this is like the smell of chemical pine toilet cleaner compared to that of a real glade of pines. Heading along the side f the road, which follows the voluptuous curve of the hills, I also catch bitter, dusky wood-smoke, a fragrance so nostalgic and rural that I am transported back to Ibiza in Winter, and further back to Nottinghamshire in late November. Bonfire night and country cottages, chestnuts and the feeling of flames on your face, the cold at your back.

Next to hit me in the face are the colours: the hundred autumnal shades of orange- in the rusty, coppery clay soil, the tufts of dried-out grass, fallen leaves, low banks of dessicated ferns and the rich orange-mousse colour of clusters of funghi. There is the particular furry silvery-green of the moss which covers walls and rocks, and the sea blue of the luminous storm-clouds above, a murderous midnight colour with a velvet tone to it.

But then human intervention creeps in upon my rural idyll, inevitably. Sign-posted just ahead on this deserted country road out of Cercedilla is the Banesto Escuela Corporative (Banesto Bank Corporate Training School). As I round a bend it looms into sight: a sleek, gated mansion with ample parking and all mod cons. How depressing to come out here to these beautiful surroundings to be faced by a breeding ground for banking and business. After twenty minutes of walking in the light rain I decide to take a breather and spy a stone bench by the side of the road. As I approach this I make out the words ‘Islam Terror’ sprayed onto it in huge spidery letters.

I take a path up a steep wooded slope to get away from the road, picking my way past fenced and walled gardens, sheltering squat, silent houses with no lights on and no smoke emerging from their chimneys. A large alsatian leaps  at the fence as I walk by its home and barks, barks, barks. I keep walking for another ten to fifteen minutes up through the trees, aiming for the top of the hill, and even when I am out of sight it still barks, barks, barks,. I can hear it running backwards and forwards. Nobody comes out of the house. I am now well above the building, screened by trees, yet every time my foot crushes a twig the dog barks, barks, barks, voicing its boredom and territorial fury even though nobody is listening. I feel sorry for it but the sound makes something inside me snap for a moment. Everywhere I go in this damned country there is noise, chaos and noise. Even in the middle of the countryside on a deserted rainy Sunday there is incessant, intrusive noise.

Eventually the dog gives up after I have sat quietly for a few minutes. I huddle up beside a rock, my waterproof acting as a groundsheet and I stay here for an hour or so until I get too cold, half-meditating, staring at the sky, the distant mountains and the closer details: the engineering of a curled fern leaf, the face of a stone, the creamy underbelly of a nearby fungus. I decide to leave my cares, stresses and city-worries up here on the hilltop. My money worries, my growing sense of isolation and creeping age in the heaving mass of millions of people, my health issues and broken fake friendships of the past few years, my disappointments not so much in love, as that has barely come close enough for me to feel its breath, but in lust, all of these worries and anxieties I decide to leave behind me. Let them disappear into the rain; I can leave them here, they’ll be safe without me.

Walking back down the hill to the cacophony of barking I notice a stone with a thin blue piece of string tied round it. The stone is hanging over the side of a garden wall, suspended on its thin blue line. I look closer and I find the cord is tied to a creeping plant, weighing it down over the wall so it grows in a certain direction. The image makes me immeasurably sad for a few moments. It strikes me that we all have a rock tied around our hearts and lives, forcing them to grow in a certain direction, not necessarily where we would like to creep and flourish, where our nature would have us grow, but in the manner someone or something else dictates.

Piccolo Napoli (part 5)

Posted in mean streets on December 1, 2010 by cockroach1

The taxi driver was grey faced and miserable in a grumbling, uniquely Southern Italian way. The kind of man who presses his palms together in supplication and casts his eyes heavenward while cursing and beseeching the saints to deliver him from idiots and late night fares. He turned his sinking face to us as we climbed in, and evidently didn’t much like what he saw. Still he accepted the fare grudgingly.

‘Can you turn on the meter, please?’ asked the Ponce as we settled into the back seat and the vehicle veered off into the night-time traffic, a somewhat sparser version of the daytime chaos with the added excitement of darkness, poor street lighting and hidden potholes.

‘Meter.’ he repeated when the driver ignored him, this time in one of his acid tones, (and there are many). ‘The meter.’

Our driver hurumphed and turned it on.

‘You said just under ten euros, right?’ Again the Ponce was ignored. I had been instructed not to get involved.

‘A  Neapolitan taxi driver will eat you alive and spit the pips out.’ I’d been told. ‘I’ll deal with this, I’m Italian at least. He’ll still try and take the piss.’

By this time I was so tired I became compliant. Sit me in the back seat like an upright piece of luggage and pull me out when we get there. After a few minutes the driver found his tongue, but he wasn’t chatting or sharing any of his opinions with us. He began to mutter under his breath, a habit that seems peculiarly latin/Mediterranean to me. It is a Spanish trait as well, to carry on a lengthy and whingeing conversation aloud with yourself. I caught the occasional word only:

‘…. Late at night for this sort of thing…. People like this…. Madonna……. Do this, do that…’

Of course, when we arrived at the agreed piazza where our host was going to meet us, and we handed over our precious last fifty euro note, he began to have a meltdown.

‘A cuesta hora?! You need change at this time of night? Are you kidding me? Why didn’t you tell me when you got in… Madonna!…. People like this, and at this time of night….. messing me about. Well, I haven’t got any. You’ll have to get some.’

‘No change at all?’ queried the Ponce. ‘Really? At the end of the night you have no change at all?’

In answer he swerved the car round and headed back to the previous piazza, jerking the steering wheel so we careened right and left down the middle of the black street.

‘Try there.’ He slammed to a halt opposite an ice cream parlour where a bored looking woman was running a cloth over the counter top.

‘Stay here. Don’t move.’

The following twenty minutes were spent stopping and starting the car, screeching round corners, driving aimlessly looking for somewhere that was open and that would change us a fifty. Not an easy job. As I sat silently in the back listening to him griping away in Italian which I pretended not to understand, I noticed the meter was still on. As did the Ponce when he finally came back with a pocket full of notes and change.

‘Out the car.’ He hissed through the open door and I obeyed.

‘So, that’s ten euros then.’ he said to the driver, extending a ten euro note. Immediately he started shouting.

‘No, no, no, look, you said turn on the meter, I’ve been waiting here for you, working for you all this time, while you’ve been off looking for change. Oh no, it’s eighteen euros now, and fifty cents. See?’ He slammed his palms onto the steering wheel and gestured at the meter display which glowed greenly in the interior of the scruffy little car.

‘I don’t think so. (Get away from the car, don’t worry, I’ll deal with this.) You said the fare was about ten euros and I’m giving you ten euros, that’s what we agreed. You can’t keep the meter running like that and think I’m just going to pay for it all. You should have switched it off when we got there. I saw the fare when we arrived, it was eight euros and ninety cents. I’m not giving you eighteen bloody euros.’

By now the driver’s door was open and he was half in and half out of the car, his voice rising steadily.  At the same time his little feet shuffled and kicked excitedly at the floor of the car, and his arms began to pinwheel.

‘And how am I supposed to turn the meter off? I can’t just switch it off.;

‘With your finger. Like you turned it on…. eventually.’

I wouldn’t exactly say a crowd was gathering, but there were peripheral night-time people listening in by now, drifting closer very slowly and softly, like zombies closing in.

‘Eighteen euros! Do you think I’m doing this as a hobby, young man? At this time of night? Don’t mess me around; pay me my eighteen euros otherwise-‘

‘Or what? You’ll call the police?’ I could see the glint of the Ponce’s eyes now, the whites gleaming, the flash of white teeth in the darkness. He was gearing up for a good one, I could tell.

‘Don’t take the piss, mate. I may be a tourist but I’m not fucking stupid. And I’m Italian, so don’t even try that crap with me.’

Here he began hunting through his ample trouser pockets and jangling small coins, then counting pennies into his hand.

‘What are you doing?’ demanded the driver suspiciously.

‘Hang on.. seven euros, seven fifty…. Er… eight euros… eight twenty…. Me? I’m looking for your fare, for the exact fare. It was eight euros ninety, wasn’t it? I was going to give you ten but as you’re being such an arsehole I’m giving you the exact money now-‘

‘Give that to me.’ That solved it once and for all. The taxi driver gave in, and snatched the ten euro note. He knew he was beaten. There was a squeal of tatty tyres, and he drove away, shouting out of the window at us as he went.

A cry went up behind us.

‘Yeah! That showed him! Screw him!’ Two teenage girls were sitting on a low wall, our closest spectators, cheering us on. One of them punched the air with her fist.

‘Nice one!’

A phone call was made, and our generous host who had offered us his sofa for the night instructed us to wait there and he’d be down in five minutes. We sat on a bench by the side of the piazza, both feeling a little dazed, and people-watched while we waited. By this time I was beginning to get the notion that Napoli didn’t want us to leave so soon. It seemed to be holding on, digging in with the tenacity of a tick, insisting that we stay just a little bit longer.  I was annoyed that we had missed our train and I was tired and fed up yet there was part of me that didn’t want to leave just yet.  This night was by turns inconvenient, complicated, and vaguely sinister, but I was enjoying the ride. The place itself was a kind of infection, an itch that could only be scratched by close proximity. It was like listening to the song of a mermaid: vile but fascinating.

To our left there was a low wooden table on a patch of scrubby park land, round which were seated a group of nervy-looking young men. They were playing cards. Occasionally another one would pull up, either in a car which ejected him and speeded off, or on a motorbike or moped which he would park angled to the kerb, then he would swagger over to the group, and after a short preamble join in. A boy of about fifteen strutted over to the group and took his place at the table.

‘They’re playing for money, look, can you believe it?’ I nudged the Ponce.

‘Yeah, I can. Look at it, three in the morning and they’re running a little gambling racket out on the street. Welcome to Napoli. ‘ and he began to laugh.

I don’t remember much about the rest of the night, which we spent on a sofa. Our host was kind, affable and sympathetic, offering us drinks and food, clean towels and pillows, and listening sympathetically to the account of our strange and frenetic day. I could tell he was proud and pleased when we insisted that we still loved the place, not despite its nightmarish weirdness but because of it, and he added, with a shrug,

‘I love Napoli. It’s madness but you have to take it with a pinch of salt. It’s a great place to live, if you like that kind of thing. It’s got something other places don’t have. The people can be a pain in the arse, but it’s never boring. Never ever boring.’

 

What I do remember is the sign above the moped shop opposite his house, when we came out of his flat blinking in the sunlight on the way to the station the following morning. In the dark we hadn’t seen the approach to his flat the night before, we hadn’t seen the elevated bridge with its view of higgledy-piggledy spires, topsy-turvy roofs, rotting churches and walls, and narrow streets tumbling with refuse that was almost picturesque and beautiful.

‘RIP Motos.’ said the sign.