Archive for January, 2011

Surprised and Confused

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 26, 2011 by cockroach1

You have to hand it to the Spanish for being passionate about everything they do, whether that is serving a coffee correctly, scoring a goal, or discussing where to go for the next drink. The latest outlet for their passion is the smoking ban, which, against all odds, is still in place and seems to be working.

According to Dionisio Lara, of the Spanish Service Industry Federation, Spaniards are ‘reasonably’ compliant with the ban, most of them taking to the streets- not in protest, but to light up outside at the terrazas, even in this month’s -3 degrees. It’s ok though, they won’t freeze to death- according to Metro television, local government is setting aside 100,000 euros to help restaurant and bar-owners with the cost of installing heaters, so that smokers can still smoke outside comfortably. Even local government is passionate about enforcing the new law, and at the same time passionate about protecting the rights of smokers. According to Lara, smokers have reacted in 3 different ways when told by bar owners to stop smoking: with ‘surprise’, ‘confusion’, and in some cases with bare-faced cheek, taking advantage of being asked to step outside by leaving without paying.  They are not being quite so compliant when it comes to health centres, where the new law bans smoking within 100m of the entrance. Madrid hospitals still provide a welcoming committee of staff and patients, shivering and smoking en masse around the doorways.

And yet the bars, the endless bars and clubs and restaurants which are the pulsing heart of this city, remain smoke-free, huddles of people indulging on the doorstep in the cold, but inside, clean air, floors no longer littered ankle-deep with fag ends, no danger of someone taking your eye out with a stray cigarette gripped carelessly like a poison dart at eyeball level, no more mysterious holes in your clothing, those tell-tale circular burns at the end of a night, in the favourite item of clothing, no more taste of smoke as you chew and try to savour your food. Of course, there are pockets of resistance, the right to kill yourself defended passionately as if it were a basic human right. In the local papers, photos of defiant clients at a bar on the outskirts of the city, fags held high for the camera on the premises, the owner’s declaration that he will pay the fine in order to protect the human rights of his customers, and if the ban is not lifted, or he is continually prosecuted, the promise that he will go on hunger strike.

So what fine will bar owners like him have to pay if clients smoke on their premises? Anything between the odd number of 601 euros and a whopping  100,000. If you are the culprit, the smoker, it is another matter,a s long as it’s a first or second offence. In this case, you will only have to pay 30 euros. However, if you are caught being naughty more than three times it is considered a serious offence and you pay the same as the bar owners: between 601 and 100,000 euros. Perhaps this explains the ‘reasonable’ compliance with the tough new laws.

And how is the situation being policed? Firstly, if you enter a bar or enclosed public space and someone is smoking, you can report it to the owner, then if nothing is done, you can fill in a complaint form and report them to the Health Ministry, and/or to the municipal police. Complaints are anonymous even if you report someone by name. This gives me wonderful, twisted visions of communist-style, police-state reprisals, back-stabbings and betrayals to the authorities. Revenge of the non-smoker! A purge, a purge on filthy smokers, or at least the ones you personally don’t like and happen to come across with the evidence burning between their fingers. I have been told that here ‘envidia es el deporte nacional’ (envy is the national sport) but I disagree: this could be said of any settlement where humans live together in close proximity. Even so, having attended ‘Comunidad’ meetings in my building, I can only imagine how many petty, personal dramas are currently being played out in local bars all over the country.

Outside bars, restaurants and health centres, what then, are the rules exactly? The reason the last ban feel flat on its face was because it was confusing and half-arsed.  This year’s ban is, in part, a revision of the last one, and a clarification. Perfectly clear, then? No smoking ‘…. In all enclosed spaces that may be shared with others.’, though there are exceptions: covered spaces where it is permitted and open spaces where it isn’t.

Enclosed spaces which are exempt include hotel rooms set aside for this purpose, and only 30% of total rooms can be designated smoking. And don’t even think of carrying your cigarette out into the corridor, lift or lobby. As exempt open spaces, where the ban is in place, there are educational or health complexes, playgrounds, courtyards, at the entrance to health centres, and around children’s play areas, so the mother who complained to me of not being able to watch over her child playing and have a smoke at the same time, will have to watch from a safe distance, or- shock, horror, refrain while her toddler is in the playground. You can do it on the beach, in the covered areas of boats, but not on top of double decker sight-seeing buses, as these are classed as urban transport.

And that pretty much sums it up. As resistance dies out, as police officers turn up and slap fines on everyone, as bar owners grumble and deal with ‘surprised’ and ‘confused’ customers, as fellow drinkers secretly report each other for lighting up, as you start to notice the particular fragrance of the place, whether that is bleach, floral scent, cleaning products, stale beer or farts, we all come home smelling fresh and clean, our clothes free of that diluted ashtray stench, so cloying and persistent, bar staff’s life expectancy about doubles, nicotine gum sales go through the roof, and smokers make new friendships in cold doorways and shared hardship, and that, surely, is something we can all be passionate about.


Woof, woof, Amen

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 18, 2011 by cockroach1

I met a friend yesterday for coffee, near the office at Alonso Martinez. He was walking up via Fuencarral through Chueca, and I was restless, ‘Black Monday’ lethargy driving me out of the stuffy office in favour of a walk in the ‘fresh’ air. We met at the bottom of Plaza Santa Barbara, in a large cerveceria. As we sat at the bar an elderly couple entered, carrying a dog’s transport case, the sort with the wired front, I always want to call them ‘doggy bags’. A small, fluffy face peeked out at us from behind bars. It was a very quiet dog; you wouldn’t have noticed it was there, which is probably why the waitress didn’t notice it was there, saving her the inconvenience of pointing out the ‘no dogs’ sign on the door. The elderly couple were jolly, joking with her as she served them their glasses of wine (well before lunchtime) accompanied b a small plate of patatas bravas, that they were out celebrating their divorce. Meanwhile, the dog made no sound; it didn’t even rustle around in its padded cage, prompting me to comment to my friend:

‘What the Hell have they done to that dog to make it so well-bahved? Do you think it’s sedated?’

‘No, more likely to have been blessed by a priest. Before God.’ He replied, shifting back up onto the high, slippery stool.

‘You what?’

‘Nip down the road after we’ve had our coffee.’ He suggested. ‘I’m heading up to the office, you won’t catch me going back down there, I was getting The Fear. You know there’s a little church next to that building they’ve been doing up for ages-‘

‘Colegio de Arquitectos?’

‘I think so, yeah, very long, brick façade. Well, I had to walk up there on the way and you couldn’t get past, the street was jammed with pensioners and their pets, waiting for the priest to bless them. Some crazy religious shit, you should go and check it out; you’d love it.’

It was indeed some crazy, religious shit. As I headed down Fuencarral, toward the church, I was faced with a sea of berets, slacks, sturdy, flesh-coloured tights and helmet hairdos. There was a high, regular yapping, not from the old people, but from their yappy-type dogs in cages. A black Labrador dragged its owner through the crowd on his leash, and a huge golden retriever sat gazing adoringly up at its mistress but otherwise the dogs were diminutive, many of them in their best coats, one or two of them with hair clips to hold back the bangs from their eyes. The crowd was packed tightly around the entrance to the church; two television cameras followed the pooches’ progress up the steps of the church to the small chapel on the right hand side of the main door. Bright white flashes of press cameras illuminated the priest in long, pale robes, half-smiling in the way only top-dog religious people can, scanning the crowd blandly like the Pope himself. As the owners brought their pets before him briefly, holding them up to him like sacrificial lambs, or babies to be baptised, he raised a small silver object on a staff, with a globe on the end and shook it over them. It reminded me of a salt-shaker: lightly season before… Or a magic wand.

Hugging the walls and spilling back into doorways and courtyards were the obligatory vultures with folding tables hawking pastel-coloured crimes against art. Pill-boxes (not, I presume, for your ecstasy tabs), calendars depicting a googly-eyed, drippy Jesus with flowing blond locks, bracelets, key-rings, postcards, and posters of a multitude of saints. I stood and watched for a few minutes, praying for one of the little yappy-type gremlins to snap at the priest, or nip him, or even better, grasp the silver magic wand in its teeth and begin to tussle with him playfully. Then I walked back up Fuencarral to Alonso Martinez, smiling inanely and muttering to myself,

‘Only in Spain, only in Spain….’

Holy Smoke, Batman!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 9, 2011 by cockroach1

The restaurant was packed full. A push-chair jammed up against our table made escape difficult. There were families with small children, a mix of ages, young couples, well-heeled fifty-somethings and groups of forty-somethings like us. The waiters were impossibly handsome- and this wasn’t even a gay place, and nowhere near Chueca. We were in Huertas, at Lamucca, apparently the ‘hottest’ new place in Madrid, possibly because it has a Trainspotting poster on the wall on the way downstairs to the loo, and industrial toilets where the tap is a rusty tube over a wooden barrel, activated by standing with one’s hands underneath the spout. The food was decent, the music good, the décor smart, and the atmosphere lively. But there was something that jarred and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t until late into the meal, probably because we’d all just come back from the UK and therefore hadn’t noticed at first, that somebody turned in their chair, and said, in an awed voice,

‘Look…. nobody’s smoking….’ We looked around. The cavernous space was clear, no haze hanging over our heads, you could see the ceiling and the far walls, and the people sitting opposite you. Not one person had a cigarette on. It was glorious and unnerving at the same time. For a few seconds I wasn’t sure where I was, which country I was in. Surely this couldn’t be the result of the no-smoking law just passed? The Spanish were actually taking heed! This was it, finally, the Brave New World where you could breathe clean air, where non-smokers’ rights were respected, where people obeyed the law…. Like I said, it was quite unnerving. I thought Hell would freeze over before people stubbed out their fags in public in Spain, but here it is, and apparently it’s happened.

Later, at the Ponce’s house, even he, a confirmed smoker, enthused about the new law. He had been out a couple of times in Madrid since the ban.

’It’s great, you can see the ceiling, you can see across the bar, you don’t stink when you leave, your eyes don’t hurt… everywhere smells nice and fresh. I went to the loo in a club and thought this is going to reek, and do you know what, for the first time in Madrid I smelled perfume, air freshener, it was all fresh and clean smelling, like incense or something….and…. And there aren’t fag ends all over the floor everywhere you go. Not one ashtray! Unbelievable.’ he reported, his eyes glittering with excitement. He was right. The city is markedly different already. He did add,

‘It kind of doesn’t feel like Spain any more though….’ But all tyrannies are briefly missed just after their passing, until people realise how much better off they are. This is just normal, healthy nostalgia.

I had heard of the ban, it had been spoken of for many months, but knowing the Spanish attitude to being told what to do, and having seen the ineffectual last ban, which changed precisely nothing, except bar and restaurant owners spending a fortune on constructing no-smoking areas, and small signs appearing on the doors of bars stating that ‘it is permitted to smoke here’, I thought this new law would come and go, unheeded as previous attempts had been. It seems to have been planned sensibly, coming into force on the 2nd January rather than the first, to avoid the overlap of New Year’s Eve into Jan 1st, and the Big Night Out. But here it was, no smoking in public. It had arrived and apparently it was working.

I am not familiar with the ins and outs of this new law, and there has been some propaganda. What I do know is that if you are caught smoking in a public place, like a bar or restaurant, you will be fined 30 euros. The establishment, on the other hand, will be charged a fine of 600 euros. Somebody has to report the smoker or the restaurant, and this is where it could get tricky to enforce: inspectors must them come and inspect, and find someone smoking to enforce a fine. But there must also be no evidence of smoking- ashtrays, ash, fag ends on the floor, etc. Esperanza Aguirre, the Iron Lady President of Madrid local government, had been heard to sabotage the ban recently on television, in answer to disgruntled complaints from the catering industry, who see this ban as their death knoll. She was heard stating that the government would not actually enforce the laws, in the same way she has tried to sabotage other statutes and laws passed by the Socialists. But people are obeying the law anyway. There were rumours: I was told that it will now be illegal to smoke inside your own car, especially if there are children in it, and that it will be illegal to smoke within a certain distance of playgrounds. A parent complained to me that she thought this was ridiculous, after all, this would mean if she took her small children to the park to play she would have to stand fifty feet away to smoke. The idea that perhaps she might not smoke while taking her kids to the park apparently hadn’t occurred to her.

Three days later, sitting at a local bar in Lavapies, a typical Spanish place that does great home-cooked tapas, I notice the clear air, the lack of smoke, the absence of ashtrays. A man perches on a bar stool looking forlorn, as though not sure any more why he is here. Perhaps he isn’t a smoker but he looks bewildered, at a loss with his hands, and has a sallow, grey complexion. On the television the local news reports that Sanidad (the Health Service) will now subsidise nicotine patches and schemes to help people give up smoking. The kitchen porter, a young lad with a shaved head, threads his way through the wooden tables and stands outside in the rain on his cigarette break. He returns with a grin and a shrug. A woman who I have seen before, a local in here, sits at the bar with her son and his dog. I see her holding a cigarette and think –Ok, here we go… but on closer inspection I see it is a false cigarette, one of those metallic ‘stop-smoking’ aids. Even the transsexual waitress who has a smoker’s face and voice, is not smoking inside as usual, though she has just demanded a cigarette and slung her green wool coat around her shoulders and headed out into the wet and the cold. In the doorway of the bar opposite there are a couple of people huddling and smoking in the rain. Inside, on the floor around our feet there are a few stray paper serviettes, some crumbs, and a twist of plastic wrapping. Otherwise the floor is clean.

I feel a pang of nostalgia myself. Can this really be Spain? I wanted this to happen, but it seems unreal now that it is. What I have always liked about Spain is that it’s different from anywhere else, rebelliously, staunchly, irrepressibly different, At least there is a huge television screen blaring away above the bar, two one-arm bandits flashing and providing an instant epileptic fit to viewers, one of them illustrated with busty cartoon tarts in micro-bikinis. At least there is the stink of cooking fat coming from the kitchen, a small ugly dog with a displaced jaw, who belongs to the transsexual waitress, a wall full of greasy ham legs, a tray of illuminated tripe and sausages, paper tablecloths over the checked cloth ones, framed bullfighting photos of ‘El Cid’, titled ‘Arte puro’ (poetry in motion) and ‘Asi se torea’ (that’s how you do it). At least there is an ultra-violet fly-trap suspended above a naïve-art (or plain bad, depending on your tastes) oil painting of a vase of flowers, a lime green payphone on the wall reminding me of the times I had to call my mother before mobiles, before locutorios (internet cafes/telephone exchanges), feeding coins into its greedy mouth and shouting over the one-arm bandits and the talking cigarette machines, the shouting customers and barmen, the sheer operatic cacophony of the Spanish bar. At least there is crockery as thick as your finger that can be slammed down with a satisfying smack! onto the counter top. At least there is a pale blue plastic waste paper bin at the corner of the bar, under the tv screen, there is a photographic sign behind the bar advertising unappetising multicolour plates of grease, there are plastic toothpick dispensers and metal paper serviette dispensers, there is a large vase of garish plastic flowers, and now the transsexual waitress is sitting at the bar tucking into a plate of ‘callos’ (tripe) and drinking a bottle of Mahou.

At least there is all this. Madrid is safe for the time being. I overheard a friend describe it recently:

‘Madrid’s an adolescent city. The type of place that attracts adolescent characters, it’s perfect for kids, I mean, you can drink all night, you can smoke everywhere, everyone’s off their head on drugs all the time, you can chuck your litter on the floor because someone will always come along and tidy it up after you, you can basically do whatever you like and nobody gives a shit. Not a very grown-up place, but great when you’re a teenager…’

Well, Madrid has taken its first baby steps toward joining the other European capitals as a big boy. And growing up normally means letting go of old habits that really aren’t all that good for you. Let’s see how long it lasts: last time it was about three weeks before people started totally ignoring the ban. In the meantime I propose to be out and about breathing clean air in the bars and cafes and supporting my local businesses, to help prove to them that business will not, in fact, collapse if you stop smokers smoking. We are saying goodbye to one of the things that made Spain really Spain, that made it stand out from other countries. But there are plenty of other less harmful and unpleasant quirks that Spain has, and will always have to offer. I remember when I gave up smoking full-time, thinking ‘But all the interesting people are smokers, the rebels, the mavericks, they’re all smokers, not goody-goodys.’ Eventually I realised it’s perfectly feasible to be a rebel and not kill yourself with tobacco to do it. You can be a non-smoking rebel too. Spain is not Spain just because everybody smokes. As the tourist board pointed out, ‘Spain is different’ and it can still be different without everybody smoking everywhere.