Archive for February, 2011

Stealth and Safety

Posted in mean streets with tags , , , , on February 22, 2011 by cockroach1

Never has getting to school been such a hazardous and chaotic experience. One of my younger one-to-one students, who is at High School, told me about his eventful ‘bus escolar’ (school bus) experiences, a story that made me laugh and wince at the same time, as though I had trapped a nipple in a door in a particularly comic manner.  (Coincidentally, I did that once, in a very small attic flat I was living in just off Tirso de Molina. The shower was built into a corner of the attic, with those concertina doors that rattle back and forth, meeting in the middle and, if you aren’t careful, trapping your nipple in between the join. But that’s another story…)

First of all, the bus is always at least fifteen minutes late, but this is a capital city, and a Spanish one at that, so who’s counting a little tardiness? Except one day it was over 2 hours late, and the students waited patiently in the cold, to arrive at school just in time for the mid-morning break. I refuse to go along with the notion that Spaniards are all hot-headed, impatient Latinos, having seen for myself their flexibility and good-natured, laid-back reactions to situations like this, which would give your average Brit an immediate embolism.

So who was the driver responsible for the two hour delay? A character the students nick-name the equivalent of ‘Fag Ash Bill’ (Spanish term instantly forgotten, sorry), due to his permanently having two cigarettes on the go at once.

I remarked,

‘Yes, in English we call that chain-smoking, when they put one out and immediately light up another one’ and my student replied,

‘No, he has one burning down almost finished and the other already lit. All the time. Two cigarettes literally in his mouth all the time. And he speaks with such a heavy smoker’s voice you can’t understand a word he says.’

Apparently the condition of the bus itself isn’t much better than that of its driver. On an almost daily basis there is either a problem with the accelerator or the brakes, and occasionally both of them at once. The school is on a steep hill, which there are often problems climbing. More than once the accelerator has given out halfway up the hill and the driver has had to reverse back down the hill using the brakes on the way; recently as he was doing this the brakes also gave out. Luckily there were no casualties. Inside the bus is no better. On opening the ancient air conditioning vents above their heads for the first time students were delighted to find insect eggs showering their heads, and antique puffs of dust emerge from the seats when you sit on them. Not one seat belt works, and the door sticks sometimes, trapping everyone inside until it can be forced back open.

After a while this particular jalopy was removed from service and they were sent another bus, apparently not much better. The driver this time they nick-named ‘El Matador’, given his enthusiasm for playing bullring ‘brass band’ music all day long. Sometimes he plays the radio commentary from bullfights as well, throughout the whole bus, whether you want to listen or not. El Matador is apparently just as bad a driver as his predecessor. My student told me,

‘Oh yeah, the only time we had a real accident (as if this were something to be grateful for, the only one time) he missed a turning on the roundabout and instead of going round again he decided to reverse back to the turning. He hit a car on the way.’ Then he told me about the other time there was an accident, but not a ‘real’ one, when the bus hit a car on a straight road with nothing else coming, apparently the driver the only one on the bus who didn’t see it.

‘It was a red car as well,’ said my student regretfully. ‘It’s not like it was white or something, you could really see it. We were all going – hey, ….hey –WHOAH! CAR! And after we hit it just shrugged and said – oh, I didn’t see it.’

Accidents like this could have been averted by the careful attention of the school ‘chaperone’, his wife, but apparently she is more concerned with bringing him chocolate con churros in the morning (muddy-thick hot chocolate and coils of fried dough which you dunk into the drink, like a loop of doughnut, a delicious serving of early-morning cholesterol but so worth dying for). When he is treated with chocolate and churros, he normally rests the cup of chocolate on the steering wheel so he can comfortably dunk, and steers with his knees.

I naively asked why they didn’t report the bus company to the school and was told,

‘Well, we don’t say anything and neither does he, it’s kind of reciprocal. He lets us run around like maniacs on the bus and do whatever we want, climbing on the seats, opening the emergency exit to let some air in, playing music, shouting, and so on. He knows if he tells us off, ever, for anything, we’ll report him to the school. It’s chaos on that bus. But you know, ssshhh… I won’t say anything if you don’t. Reciprocity.’

‘Nod’s as good as a wink.’


And finally we got down to some language work.



Definition of multi-culturalism

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2011 by cockroach1


A wonderful moment in London last Summer, while visiting a close family member and his boyfriend. It took place in a small but smartly-minimalist flat in South Ealing, which now sports an extension with a newly-built Japanese tea-house in the attic. Our host, a Japan-obsessive who is a highly qualified tea master and now gives classes, including to Japanese people living in London, was keen to show off and use his new teaching facility. Before dinner and drinks we had been treated to a tour of the cleverly-designed room with its sliding screens, clean white walls, single vase with one season-specific flower below a hanging scroll in an alcove, and ribbed, corn-coloured tatami matting. Also present at dinner, visiting for a few days, were his close friend, who is Hungarian, and his girlfriend. These friends had met, in fact, while studying tea together for a year at a school in Kyoto. After several gin and tonics and then several glasses of wine, somebody suggested giving us a tea ceremony, as it is traditionally a welcome ceremony to honour guests. I’m not sure the ritual is normally offered in this peculiarly British way, while half-cut and over-excited, but off they stumbled, and there was much fumbling into full ceremonial kimonos, followed by a giggling and tripping procession up the winding wooden stairs into the attic.

Fernando, our host’s boyfriend (a wiry, shrewd and dry-as-a-bone Aragonese he met when visiting me years ago in Ibiza), tottered up the stairs after me, huffing and puffing at the ridiculousness of it all. I heard a couple of ‘joder’s (‘screw this…’) By now he has come to live with his partner’s obsession with Japan, even find it endearing, though I would hardly say he shares his enthusiasm for geishas and Tea. Mind you, in return, his partner tolerates his own obsession with Eurovision, so I think fair’s fair. The ceremony was incomprehensible and somehow touching in its generosity and sincerity. The Tea Master sat to my right, giving us a slightly slurred running commentary so we knew what we were supposed to do next, and why. He instructed us to sit any way we liked as long as it was comfortable. I took up the meditation position, legs crossed and back a little slumped.

‘No, not like that, darling, come on.’ The Tea Master told Fernando, who had thrown himself onto the matting in the corner, one leg slung out into the expanse of fresh tatami, the other curled under him, leaning back onto one hand. ‘That’s a little too informal, come on, at least sit up straight.’ A Spanish sigh, the rolling of eyes felt rather than seen, and Fernando shuffled into a more ‘respectful’ position.

The bowl of vile, frothy green tea was eventually passed round. After we had drunk, we were supposed to pass it on to the person to our left, or, in Fernando’s case, as he was last in line, to the Tea Master to my right. My little Spanish friend sipped, and pulled a monkey-face.

‘Now you bring it back to me.’ He was told gently. ‘No, not walking, don’t stand up, not yet, just bring it over as best you can and lay it in front of me. ‘ Another sigh, and Fernando, gripping the bowl before him in both hands, set off shuffling, in a hunched-over gait, on his knees. As he passed me he raised his eyes, we made eye contact, and he almost lost his balance. I had to look away and he knew why. I could not look at him a second longer, otherwise the peace would have been shattered by laughter, possibly emitted from my nostrils. He was like a Calcutta beggar with the bowl aloft, his back bent, his knees painfully scraping the rush matting as he clumsily tried to ape the fluid, elegant Japanese movements of the Tea students. And he was doing it on purpose.

This was my favourite moment of multi-culturalism, this Spanish huffing and puffing, but despite the rolling of eyes, a willingness to participate, with good-natured, gentle piss-taking in the midst of the rather earnest and mysterious Eastern ceremony, conducted by his inebriated British partner and Hungarian sidekick, the joke shared by the loosely-related Brit who has swapped places with him, coming to live in his country while he goes to live in mine. Everything about it was sublime – the cherry-picking of complex other cultures, the economic and social immigration performed like a trapeze artists’ somersault in mid-air as Fernando and I exchanged countries, the incongruous surroundings, Kyoto in a suburban flat in London in late summer, the evening sunshine slanting through the windows and the white paper screens, and above all the ability to love and laugh at someone at the same time, while only half-understanding them.