Archive for May, 2011

Lost in Translation

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on May 28, 2011 by cockroach1

Recently I was at a family lunch in the sierra: friends of mine, an Italian/Spanish couple, were celebrating birthdays, at his parents’ house in the country, and her parents were over visiting from Northern Italy. Consequently the lunch was delicious and convivial- we were in the hands of a small but efficient army of mediterranean matrons, so how could it be any different? Spanish hospitality and Italian food; a long, long wooden rustic table heaving with wine, good food and laughter, the sort of afternoon you don’t forget easily.  After eating, everyone headed outside for afternoon sunshine and beer, while the parents moved in to clear the table. I went to thank the Italian mother for her citrus risotto and home-made tiramisu, and we chatted in my pidgin Italian. A little later, in the garden, my Italian friend came over to comment,

‘My Mum said it was nice talking to you. She said you’re a bella donna.’ She then looked quite confused when I laughed and said,

‘I’m going to take that as compliment. I assume she doesn’t mean I’m poisonous!’

But of course, how is an Italian, talking to a Brit, in Spanish, going to know that a perfectly innocuous compliment, meaning ‘beautiful woman’, for us means Deadly Nightshade, the poison used by the ancient Romans, and before that, to make poison-tipped arrows, and even ingested by women in the weird cosmetic practice of mild self-poisoning, which dilates the pupils, hence the name?  This is what happens when one language steals from another, a habit the all-consuming dragon that is the English language has been doing for centuries. One should never assume that the meaning of the terms we use is clear, or that you are always using them correctly yourself. There’s even a name in language learning for those foreign words you think you know because they are similar to words in your own language, but in fact they are waiting with tiny daggers to stab you in the back. They are called false friends.

Take ‘je suis pleine’, in French, which literally translates as ‘I’m full’; to someone learning French this might seem like a perfectly appropriate comment for the dinner table, but it is likely to raise a few eyebrows, as it is, in fact, a declaration that you are pregnant. Or ‘sensible’ which in Spanish means ‘sensitive’, and the corresponding word is, in fact, ‘sensato’. There are many, many examples- and that’s without delving into the differences and confusions in the same language: look at American and British usage of words like ‘bum, fag and fanny.’ So, language is not always your friend, not always to be trusted; it likes to have a little laugh at our expense sometimes.

All this prompted me to tell my Italian friend the following story, which she found highly amusing:

On my first ever visit to Italy I was working in the Dolomites. It’s a long story, but I got invited out for the night by a fantastically handsome young man some years my junior. (I was in my early thirties, he was probably in his mid twenties). Strangely, we ended up at a rave party in a village in the mountains. As we made our way through the impeccably-dressed crowds of ravers he bumped into a friend of his. Italians are always very polite, and his friend asked to be introduced to me, quipping,

‘Cuesta e tua sorella?’ which I correctly understood to mean,

‘So, who’s this then, your sister?’

My date replied smoothly,

‘No, e mia nonna.’ Which I incorrectly took to mean, ‘No, she’s my girl.’ It was a fair assumption- ‘nena’ in Spanish means ‘babe’. Consequently I smirked and batted my eyelashes at the compliment, while they laughed heartily. It wasn’t until quite a long time later, when I actually started learning Italian, that I discovered that ‘nonna’ does not mean ‘babe’ at all, it means ‘granny.’


Don’t drink. Think.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2011 by cockroach1


In most developed countries the general complaint is that ‘no-one has any respect for the old.’ However, one of my expat friends, after the umpteenth drubbing from a sharp-elbowed and knife–tongued old lady in the supermarket queue once remarked to me, ‘the trouble with Spain is that old people don’t have any respect for anyone else’, turning this neatly on its head. Today, after a landslide victory for the PP in the local elections, and the ‘Indignados’ in Puerta del Sol voting to stay on for another week, I have seen what looks like a symptom of this disregard for others from those advancing in years.

There is some debate here, over your morning coffee, mid-afternoon beer, evening copa, or the equivalent of the garden fence, about the Sol demonstrations, and whether they are legitimate political protest, or merely the excuse for one big ‘botellon’ (street party). To me, this attitude diminishes what the people there are trying to say, even if their message isn’t exactly clear, and it is an easy accusation rolled out any time you wish to discredit any crowd of young people.

‘Yeah, I’m sure it was quiet today,’ remarked my neighbour when we crossed paths yesterday in the doorway, I mentioned I had been up to Sol to take a look, and remarked how peaceful the demo seemed. ‘They’ve all got hangovers, haven’t they? I can’t take this lot seriously, they don’t even seem to know what they’re up in arms about. I’ve lived through real political protest, not this half-arsed communal piss-up. I’ve been watching it live on the internet and all they’re doing is getting off their heads. Spanish Spring, my arse.’

This wasn’t the impression I got when I visited. In fact, the first thing to strike me was a huge banner strung across one end of the plaza proclaiming ‘Esto NO es un botellon’ (This is NOT a street party). There were polite signs asking protesters not to drink and to take the campaign seriously, I read ‘No Beba, Piensa.’ (Don’t drink. Think.’, exhortations like ‘Lee mas’ (Read more) and even ‘Refuse alcohol, it just makes you a puppet of the system’. There were young men bashing pieces of corrugated iron together to make shelters or to cordon off ‘debate spaces’, there were sealed-off public toilets with apologetic notices not to use them ‘for the good of everyone…’, beds under tents with hand-written signs offering Reiki, and the occasional body laid out on them, receiving a massage. There was a banner hanging vertically from a building opposite, behind the ‘oso y madrono’ stating simply ‘Feminismo’. There was someone on a microphone and distant cheering, boys bearing brooms tidying up the litter, people from their teens up to their seventies mingling and exchanging ideas, and families strolling with push-chairs, taking a look. What I didn’t see were drunk people or anyone obviously off their head. Sure, there were the ubiquitous chinese hawkers flogging cans of beer and soft drinks, but certainly no botellon.

The lady who runs the cafeteria at one of our centres, and is a fellow Lavapies resident also remarked sourly, when I asked her what she thought about the protests:

‘Well, the only people there are layabouts who haven’t got a job to go to. They wouldn’t be able to camp out there all week if they had jobs to go to.’

When I pointed out that this was the point, wasn’t it, that young people didn’t have jobs, and this is one reason they were campaigning, she launched into the argument that,

“No, they haven’t got work, because Spain’s had such an influx of immigrants there aren’t any jobs left,’ missing the glaringly obvious point that she was saying this to an immigrant. I tentatively asked,

‘So… er, do you think young Spanish people would do the sort of jobs immigrants have come over here to do?’

‘Oh no, they’re a lazy bunch, the youth of today, they just want to sit about on their arses. None of them wants to do an honest day’s work.’ Then she asked me if it was fair that if someone had worked hard all their life, and happened to have an empty apartment, it was their choice to keep it locked and empty, wasn’t it? It wasn’t fair that these dread-locked hippies could come and smash the door down and squat in that apartment just because they had nowhere to live. She then finished her remarks with the rhetorical question,

‘But then, what do I know? I could be wrong, Soy del campo y soy paleta.’ (I’m just a hick from the countryside).

So it seems no-one is quite clear what the young people on ‘Plaza Solucion’ are trying to say. Still, I think it’s unfair to dismiss them all as pissheads and layabouts. Every big demo attracts its fair share of miscreants, hedonists and trouble-makers, and t’s unlikely that you can avoid a massive piss-up when there are 30,000 people on Sol on a Saturday night. As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s encouraging that young people are finally making their voice heard- after all, they have as much right to an opinion as the rest of us. The important thing is, they have an opinion. I choose to see it as evidence that Generacion ‘Ni-Ni (Neither/Nor Generation – those who neither work nor study) are finally getting off their backsides, out of Mummy and Daddy’s house, and mobilising on the streets. And not just to get hammered.

PP = Police Presence?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2011 by cockroach1

no, not after a protest, this is the bank on the square, on a normal day

This evening the results of the local elections will be out, a vote that may have been affected by the ‘Spanish Spring’ or not. There was something moving about the protests in Sol, the pacific, ‘democratic’ atmosphere, the hand-written signs, the calm, quiet groups of policemen standing and watching. I walked past a man in his fifties there this afternoon, selling clothes pegs for the vote.

‘Why the clothes pegs?’ someone asked him.

‘For your nose,’ he informed him, ‘because they all stink the same.’

The truth is, we are all a little sick of politicians, wherever we’re from. For days now the city has been festooned with their insincere, smiling faces. Esperanza Aguirre’s enlarged, doll-skull feautures flashed past me on the metro several times one day last week as I travelled to classes, with every station her image changing – here, graffiti’ed into a vampire with dripping fangs, there, grinning with those thin lips and cleverly made-up eyes, and here, rather worryingly, with a red marker pen inking in a bullet hole to her forehead. Preppy Gallardon with his greying eyebrows assures us that he ‘likes Madrid and likes you’, and other lesser-known faces, staring off into the middle-distance, sport the usual tag-lines about ‘pueblo (people), gente comun (‘man/woman on the street) and ‘del barrio’ (of your neighbourhood). I have always been wary of anything that claims to be ‘of the people’ or ‘for the people’ because if you have to label it so insistently it normally means the opposite, like a heavy-handed Chinese Communist Party moniker.

You claim to be ‘of the people’? Well, how about you come down to our level, walk the streets, and talk to some of us? Which is exactly what the Partido Popular tried to do in Lavapies a few days ago  (Popular Party, again – do you really have to call yourselves popular? It smacks of Facebook desperation to me). A classic case of electioneering gone wrong. The Partido Popular is the equivalent of the Tories, if you like, while the PSOE or Socialist Party is more or less Labour. So, a brave or stupid move on their part to campaign in Lavapies Square, even though a student assures me they won Lavapies by a small majority last time. It reminded me of the somewhat inappropriate placement of an advertising hoarding on the side of the bus-stop in the Square I spotted a while ago, one of those louche offerings with a teenage pouty face beside a huge Prada or Gucci bag, I forget which. I mean… come on! What were you thinking? Isn’t that a little insulting? Who exactly do you think is going to buy a hideously expensive designer handbag in Lavapies? Or are you just rubbing our faces in it?

So, it might have been a brave or idiotic move to set up a PP stall on the Square, in front of the theatre, and directly underneath the pair of trainers slung over the telephone wires, with ‘Paz’ painted on one sole and ‘Peace’ on the other. I was walking to the Square with the Ponce and another friend of his, the Broken Fairy, to go to lunch on Calle Argumosa. As we approached we heard a terrible din.

‘Is that a San Isidro fiesta?’

‘I don’t think it’s a party, that sounds like a demo….’

And what a demo. A heart-warming example of Pure Lavapies Spirit. On the stage stood an individual with a microphone, trying fruitlessly to talk, while a small crowd, no more than 100 people, stood in front of him bashing frying pans and wooden spoons together, shouting and generally causing a fracas, and then flipping him the bird simultaneously in a mock fascist salute. As usual, around the periphery another crowd of onlookers and gawpers gathered. And around them looking nervous and frisky, a swarm of police. I counted at least four vans.

‘What the-? The PP are campaigning here? Are they crazy?’

‘Come on, let’s go and have a look.’

Within two or three minutes the disruption moved organically in the direction we were going – towards Argumosa, and we found ourselves in the middle of the mass of yelling, hyped-up protesters and bewildered residents. Apparently the trouble had kicked off when the PP had shown the gall to bring a ‘token immigrant’ on to the stage to talk.

‘Fascistas Fuera… De Lavapies!’ (Fascists Out… Of Lavapies!’) the protesters chanted in unison, pointing and gesturing, with every minute gaining momentum. Suddenly a line of twenty riot police blocked the street, glancing left and right, blocking the Banco Santander on the corner and shifting to guard the innocent beer-drinkers at the tree-lined terrazas a few feet further up the street.

‘Excuse me-‘ the Ponce took my work briefcase from my hand, and approached a man built like a tower block in a helmet, poker-faced, holding steady with his shield. I began to feel a little infatuated, intoxicated by the energy and butch hilarity. Spain is many things, but it’s hardly ever dull. Sometimes all pretence at femininity can take a hike. It’s time for the boys to play. Here we go.

‘I’m trying to get to work…. Could you let us pass?’

It was hardly a convincing impression of a young-buck executive, coming from a pierced midget with insomniac eyes, that Charles Manson stare, and the complexion of a teenage vampire. He stood, nose at belt level, while Goliath stared straight ahead, scanning the crowd.

The policeman shook his head almost imperceptibly, refusing to make eye contact.

‘Racists!’ screamed a black woman with a shopping trolley parked against the wall, loaded with her possessions. ‘The Mayor threw me out onto the streets, it’s his fault. Fascists! Racists!’ She looked desperate; she had a tooth missing at the front of her mouth.

‘Racists!’ She barked out the word, her eyes unfocused, her head turning on its sinewy neck like a wolf howling.

‘Fascistas Fuera….. de Lavapies!’

The riot police fidgeted and stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the bank. A wall of tight-trousered, soft-faced boys in blue. I suppose they had a point, despite their heavy-handed approach. When trouble kicks off, the cashpoints are the first to get torched, then public bins, and if it’s serious, maybe cars. If it’s really serious, police cars. But it wasn’t going to kick off today. The residents of Lavapies had had their say. Within a few minutes the rabble disbanded, and something like calm descended on the barrio. Behind the riot police a body lay slumped in the doorway of the bank. Someone, possibly a journalist, possibly an enthusiastic citizen, took a photo of the line of riot police and the body in the doorway of the bank just behind them. I imagine it was a good photo.

One of the policemen nudged the body with his polished boot, then walked away, commenting to a colleague,

‘Esta borracho.’ (He’s drunk). No shit, Sherlock. Behind us in the square, hands pulled the PP tent to the ground and began dismantling it, as if toppling the statue of a deposed tyrant. Just another afternoon in the barrio. Job done. Welcome to Lavapies, and now kindly piss off. The people of the barrio, the gente comun, have spoken. They like Lavapies, they like Madrid, but they’re not too keen on you.

Big, Fat, Gypsy anecdotes (4)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2011 by cockroach1

Sara was an ‘amiga de copas’ (drinking buddy), a girl I used to go out with occasionally- more, I felt because she needed company than I did. She looked more English than I, and sometimes was mistaken for a German or an American. She was blond with a round, moon-face, her hair cut in a chin-length bob, and she dressed casually , was a touch plump and had a laid-back, unflappable manner. She took me one night to Cardamommo, a Flamenco club tucked away in the heart of Huertas.

‘You’ll like it,’ she told me, ‘it’s a bit weird.’

There were few women, and all the men looked like Joaquin Cortes clones, dressed in tight-fitting trousers, cuban heels, shiny, bright-coloured shirts, and waistcoats. They all wore their hair long, tied back in pony-tails, and had meticulously-tended facial hair. Sara assured me they were genuine, albeit ‘pijo’ (posh) gypsies. In the dark of the club there was a wave of cologne, and the discreet flash of gold jewellery. We made our way through the gloom, two blond girls keeping our heads down, our route into the depths of the establishment followed by many pairs of dark eyes. It was an odd night. I expected them to behave like typical Spanish men, to approach, seduce and conquer, but they seemed far more shy in general. There was one who was more fearless than the rest, a short, curly-haired boy, and he danced with us a few times, slinging one arm round each of our shoulders and hanging on in the middle, trapping us in a kind of Greek dance, for the sole purpose of looking up above our heads to the angled cornice-mirror so he could admire himself sandwiched between two blond women. I caught him doing it a couple of times, maouevring us round into position, and even making eye contact with himself. At one point he smiled at me and asked,

‘Would you like a drink?’

‘Sure.’ I followed him to the bar, where he lent one arm on the counter, crossed one ankle over the other, and, glancing away noncholantly, informed me,

‘I’ll have a whisky and coke.’

I laughed.

‘I see, so you mean, would I like to buy you a drink, is that it? Very chivalrous.’

He grinned back and nodded.

‘Yep.’ I admired his cheek, so I bought him a drink. He probably thought I was a rich tourist. Whatever I was, I was probably richer than he was.

Every time Sara and I started to dance, the men around us would form an admiring circle, and would stand, watching and clapping, egging us on with sharp cries of ‘Ole! Esssooooo!….’, which made us quite self-conscious, as you can imagine. Very few men talked to us at all, though once or twice I would turn, feeling something brushing against me, to find one of them stroking my hair surreptitiously.  When I worked in a language college in the UK, I remember one of the English-teaching students who was studying Japanese, telling me about a trip to Japan, when he had travelled with his girlfriend around the country, not just Tokyo and Kyoto but also to rural, remote areas where they had probably never seen westerners. He was a handsome boy, with stunning, flaxen hair which hung pale and curly halfway down his back. He told me one day he and his girlfriend were looking in a shop window and they felt people gathering around them, and they turned to find a shy, grinning group of villagers in a semi-circle, quite close, one of them reaching out in wonder to stroke his bright yellow hair. It reminded me a little of this. When I turned to find one gypsy man trying to sneak a fondle of my hair, I reached out to do the same back to him, but he shied away like a frightened horse. Later some gypsy girls turned up. They wore extremely tight clothes and heavy make-up, and seemed to be architecturally constructed of torpedo bosoms, teetering heels and huge corkscrewed hair. They stuck in tight groups, eyeing the men with contempt, and us even more so.

‘They don’t have sex before marriage,’ Sara told me, ‘but the men will try and sleep with ‘payo’ (non-gypsy) women, but only for sex, not as girlfriends. We’re seen as easy prey.’

‘Oh, right.’

We were not snapped up as ‘easy prey’ that night, however, and in a way I was quite relieved. I only wanted to sneek a peak anyway. With every passing year, the idea of an exotic, dangerous lover who will desire me but treat me with disdain,  like a blond trophy, becomes less appealing.

Big, Fat, Gypsy anecdotes (3)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 14, 2011 by cockroach1

About two years ago I was robbed at the cashpoint in Tirso de Molina, which, as I now discover, is a notorious spot for street robberies. This wasn’t late at night: I was hardly making a risky transaction alone in a dark street. It was at five in the afternoon on a busy Sunday. ‘…At five in the afternoon.
 Ah, that fatal five in the afternoon!
 It was five by all the clocks!
 It was five in the shade of the afternoon!’ (Lorca). There were plenty of people around, the bars were bustling, the winter sun was out. It was a few weeks before Christmas. It’s amazing how you can fall for a trick you are perfectly aware of, and I had heard that there were a lot of robberies taking place at cashpoints by teenagers, mostly on solitary foreign women. They watched you, and as soon as you keyed in your pin, they distracted you and quickly withdrew cash. One of my colleagues at work had fallen prey to this scam at a city-centre cashpoint, although she had pushed the kids away, shouted at them, and eventually they had left her alone without getting hold of any of her money.

‘But we’re hungry,’ said one of the little boys, pointing at his mouth and feigning tragedy. ‘We’re poor, we haven’t got any money.’

‘Neither have I, I’m a poor English teacher. Now, piss off.’ she’d replied.

I always suspected that if I was ever attacked in the street I would react with Amazonian fury, and here was my chance. Two teenage gypsy girls, (they spoke, looked and dressed like Rumanians,) jostled me just as I had keyed in my pin. I jostled them back. They fronted up to me, and I hugged the wall, bodily blocking them from the mouth of the cashpoint. I grabbed my card with trembling fingers.

‘Touch me again and I’ll smash your face in!’ I yelled, as one of them pushed me again. ‘Don’t you dare touch me! I’ll call the police! Thieves! Bastards!’ I shouted at them at the top of my voice. I’d heard one is supposed to do this if threatened in the street, attract as much attention as possible. And surely enough, a second later a police-car screeched to a halt and two officers leapt out. The girls didn’t seem particularly fussed about this development, but slouched, bored, against the wall when ordered to.

‘Please check your account, Senora, make sure they haven’t taken anything.’

‘It’s all right,’ I replied, my heart beating like the soundtrack to a jungle basement rave. ‘They didn’t get anything. I’ve got my bank card as well.’ I held it up.

‘But please check, they’re very quick, they could have taken it out without you realising. If you check your balance for me, and find they have withdrawn money I could search them right now. Are you all right? Did they hurt you?’ the policeman said.

It’s difficult to concentrate in a foreign language when you are in shock, I don’t know if you’ve tried to do this. I think this is what he said, in retrospect. At the time I just heard something like ‘Blah blah bah.. they’re very quick…. Blahblah…  Search me…. Money…..blahblahblah…. all right? …. Hurt?’

‘No, no, I’m fine, really. Thank you for coming so quickly.’

‘Be very careful at this cashpoint, Senora, it happens a lot here, these two are known to the police.’

This I understood.

‘Thank you, I will be careful in future.’

‘Right, you two, down the station.’

They led the smirking girls away and, shaking like I had the DT’s, I left the business of withdrawing money until the next morning, headed down the hill into Lavapies village, into the nearest local bar, and ordered a large brandy.

As it happened, the following morning, when I did check my balance on the way to work, and then, horrified, called my bank manager to confirm the theft, they had taken 300 euros, the maximum you can withdraw at one time on my account. How they did it I still don’t know, I was convinced they hadn’t got close enough to take money out, but I guess I must have been distracted by the element of surprise and the pushing and shoving for the split-second long enough for them to key in the amount and pocket it. It was obviously the job of one of them to distract, and the other to finger the money. Come to think of it, one girl had been more in-your-face than the other. It was three weeks before Christmas. I had saved and scraped that three hundred euros from my paltry salary for gifts and holiday spending money. The bank manager sorrowfully told me it wasn’t normal bank policy to return the money, but if I went to the comisaria (police station) that morning and got a proper police report and brought it to the branch, he would see what he could do. He was very sorry. He couldn’t promise anything.

I called my bosses, who sympathetically told me to take as long as I liked to go and report the robbery, and I walked around Fuenlabrada asking for directions and looking for the police station. On the way I had to cross a park, and to my right I saw a young man in a tracksuit, standing against a tree. Apparently he was having a pee, so I looked away again, but as I passed him, he turned to me, and glancing at him out of the corner of my eye I saw he quite clearly had his erect penis in his hand, and was smiling at me.  He was young and good-looking, and extremely well-endowed. I had ambiguous feelings about being flashed at like this by a well-hung stud, in a park, at 8.30 in the morning. I don’t remember my reaction; I think I just rolled my eyes and tutted, as if to say, I really haven’t got time for your engorged member, now put it away, and he casually zipped himself up and strolled off in the other direction, past the ambling grannies and the dog-walkers. It took me until approximately lunch time to get my police report.

I was seething for days. I had been robbed by a couple of girls, how pathetic was that? Those bitches! I kept seeing their smug little faces, the way they lolled against the wall by the cashpoint, eyeing me indifferently, like I wasn’t even a person, just some easy target, fat-cat walking wallet. And all the time with my cash in their pockets. Had I done what the policeman had said, I would have found out immediately that they’d robbed me, got my money back on the spot, and had the satisfaction of knowing they would be taken away and booked, rather than given a caution and let off, to saunter away with my hard-earned money. At least I had the pleasure of knowing I had shouted back, had not cowered like a victim. I had vented my anger on the spot, I had yelled insults at them and even physically pushed them. But they had tricked me and they had my money, and I’d been a split-second away from getting it back. Now I had no money for Christmas, and lines of credit were not forthcoming. I was fucked. Merry Sodding Christmas, the little Grinches had spoilt it for me. After a few days of driving myself absolutely mad over it, pacing and breathing fire, I stood stock still in my flat one day and thought,

‘Let it go. Who’s got a house, an education, family, friends, enough money to eat, a job, a future? I have. And what do they have? A shitty life, with no opportunities, that’s always going to be shitty. (Yeah, and my three hundred euros, but try and look at the long game.)’ Somehow, this realisation made me feel much better. They may have won for now, but I’d rather have my life than theirs. After this the anger subsided and I started to feel sorry for them. I imagined they had an alcoholic, gambling father back at the dismal ‘campamento’ on the outskirts of town, who would take his belt to them if they came home empty-handed. Someone once told me they’d seen a documentary about Rumanian gypsy camps on the outskirts of Madrid, and they had interviewed a policeman who had commented that visiting these camps during the day was an eerie experience, as there were no women or girls, only men sitting about drinking and playing cards. Where were the women? All out in the city robbing or prostituting themselves, sent to work by the men.

A couple of days later the bank called me to let me know the bank manager had argued on my behalf, wangled it somehow, and the insurance company had evidently been filled with the spirit of Christmas, because the bank had credited my account with the three hundred euros. The festive season was back on again! Christmas wasn’t ruined after all! I called and left him a message that was almost tearful with gratitude, an unusual sentiment these days toward one’s bank manager, or any banker, which therefore, ought to be acted upon immediately.

Big, Fat, Gypsy anecdotes (2)

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

My Italian-American friend was moving back to the States and had to get rid of the contents of a fully-furnished flat at very short notice. He asked me if I wanted to buy a massive plasma screen telly (which I couldn’t afford), or if I knew anyone who could house a vast coffee table, a double bed, a bathroom’s worth of towels and a load of cooking implements. Being half Italian he had everything a kitchen could possibly need: a mini-grill, strainers, drainers, pasta-makers, shot-glasses (which I graciously accepted but have never used), rolling pins, wooden spoons, garlic-crushers, wooden toast extractors, suede pan-holders, bottle-stoppers for those bottles of wine you allegedly open but don’t finish, chefs’ aprons with the logo of Tuscan cookery schools on the front, above illustrations of fat-faced cherubs, oven-gloves, slicers, dicers, graters, shakers, every implement you could imagine.

‘I’ve got books, dvds, sheets, cushions, I don’t know what the hell to do with it all,’ he said. ‘I don’t even care if people can give me cash or not, or if they give me whatever they can afford, except for the tv.  I need to sell the tv, I can’t give that away, it cost a fortune. I just don’t want to leave it for the landlord, he’s a mean old bastard, he wriggled his way out of giving us back the deposit, like they always do. I don’t want him making money out of us.’

‘How about giving it to a charity?’ I suggested. ‘I’m working at the Gypsy Charity, I can ask if they have some kind of system if you like, I’m sure they’d come and pick it up for you. Someone must be able to use all of that stuff.’

‘Gypsies?!’ he exclaimed incredulously. ‘Are you kidding me? They can all drop dead, they’re not getting a thing out of me, I’d rather build a big fire and burn the lot of it.’

He lived in the heart of tourist night-life Madrid, in a busy street between Huertas and Sol.

‘Do you know how many times those fuckers have robbed me and my girlfriend round here?’

‘Yeah, and me too, I’ve been robbed, but isn’t that just a bit racist? And this charity is to help them get educated and integrated so they can work, and so they stop-‘

‘Nope.’ He was adamant. One of the most compassionate and kind people I know was intransigent on this point.

‘Fuck ‘em. No way am I giving anything to some Gippo charity. Like I said, I’d rather burn it.’

‘Todos somos un poco racistas’ (We are all a little bit racist) one Spanish saying goes. And I am not claiming moral superiority over anyone. Once, in Tirso de Molina, which twenty years ago was nothing like the cheery, terrace-lined plaza full of flower beds and water features that it is today, in the days when you had to step over clapped-out junkies shooting up in doorways to get to your hostal, I was accosted by a mournful gypsy woman while climbing the stairs with my mother and a male friend.

‘Please…’ she moaned, her head on one side and one hand outstretched pitifully, clutching at my skirts, while the other furtled, unnoticed, in my handbag, ‘Please, give me some money, just a few pesetas, so I can eat, I’m hungry, please help me, for the love of God….’ Our male companion chased her down the stairs with a sharp cry of,

‘Oi, fuck off, you!’ My mother was as equally outraged by the hammy acting as by the sneaky attempted robbery.

The only time I have ever had a knife pulled on me was when I was a student, living in Madrid. One of the few places then where you could buy hashish was near Plaza Santa Ana, now a gentrified tourist-trap, crammed with café tables, accordion-wielding buskers and scuttling waiters, overlooked by a sleek, plastic-fronted hotel, alledgedly owned by some supermodel’s boyfriend. Back then it was dark and sleazy, like much of Madrid, badly-lit, with figures lurking in doorways and in the shadows. A friend and I went to score there, and a teenage gypsy dealer sold us some hash, except he refused to give us the change from our note, when we had haggled the price with him down to a reasonable one. In reply to our protests, he pulled out a small and rather pathetic pen knife, but a knife nevertheless. We backed off, obviously. It was not worth getting stabbed over 300 pesetas. I remember not being particularly scared, more surprised. It was the way he did it, he just showed us the blade, looked at it, and then back at us, hardly a lunge for the jugular- more of a nod and a wink. I could use this on you, you know. Don’t make me, but I could.

What have we ever done for the Romans?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2011 by cockroach1

You may assume that there is very little social life, and that exciting local events are few and far between if you live in a semi-abandoned vilage in Soria. You would be correct. Once a year there is the traditional herding of the sheep along the Cañadas Reales, the ancient Roman routes to Madrid. There’s the quirky annual fiesta in the nearby village, San Pedro de Manrique, which involves the men running over hot coals with their womenfolk slung, fireman-style, over their shoulders. Alegedly last year the local cura (priest) took part, though he had to enlist a willing young lady in order to participate. At least, I’m assuming that’s what he did, rather than bash a parishioner over the head with a club, caveman-style, and carry her off on his back. The year is punctuated by the usual religious celebrations and Saints’ Days. A charming, resurrected Easter custom takes place in a small village half an hour or so away, which perches like Dracula’s castle on a rocky outcrop. The village stood empty for many years, but was recently repopulated, and now, as in times past, at Easter weekend every household builds a fire in its fireplace which emits a different-coloured smoke from its chimney.

And on the weekend before Easter there really is something to look forward to in Calahorra, a small town about an hour’s drive away, over the border in La Rioja, in a landscape of fertile, allotment-filled valleys. Calahorra is famous for its vegetables: in fact, we just missed by a week the annual gastronomic ‘festival de verduras’ (vegetable festival), announced the year before with a technicolour poster of a succulent dish of cooked vegetables, which, on closer inspection, was, of course, sprinkled with chopped ham. But we were visiting in time for an event which Angel and Pili suggested we all attend: the Roman Market. Picking up on their enthusiasm, and sensing that they perhaps don’t get out much, we agreed whole-heartedly. Any misgivings I might have had were quashed almost immediately on arrival. Emerging from a side alley onto the main thoroughfare which was thronged with stalls selling ‘Roman’ food and nick-nacks, we were startled by a loud fanfare and then crushed against the stalls as a legion of Roman centurions yomped past, scattering pushchairs, hand-holding couples and meandering grannies. A stern-faced messenger-boy preceeded the swarm of swarthy soldiers, bearing a golden staff with which he pushed people aside, clearing a space for them to march through. My mother and I were man-handled to one side, and stood watching admiringly as the conquerors stomped past in their tunics and breastplates, eyes focused forwards, standards high, like the cut of their hemlines. It was a blur of regal purple, fluttering flags, gold, leather, flashing swords, hairy legs and unshaven chins. If there was a paradise on earth, this was it, as far as I was concerned.

After the initial excitement, we wandered around perusing the stalls, which offered silver jewellery in unusual designs which I now wish I had bought, huge, round cheeses which let off a pungent smell , home-made cheesecakes, honey, spices, dried teas, leather sandals, and tacky garden ornaments including horrendous Bill-and-Ben flowerpot men made out of wood with Pinocchio noses and dried flowers for hair, objects I suspect your average Roman would have recoiled from in as much horror as we did. We sipped wine from terracotta cups and ate rich, deep red, sweaty chorizos. Then we headed up to the square as there seemed to be a bit of a commotion going on up there. On the way we passed a cross-section of a wooden Roman galley-ship which had been converted into a kid’s climbing-frame and was swarming with excited toddlers, a roped-off area strewn with straw in which a rather portly gladiator was training two very small boys to hit each other with real metal swords, and a side-stall selling beautiful headpieces of woven flowers, both fresh and artificial, where a man held up a mirror so that a coquettish four year-old in the crook of his arm, wearing one of these garlands, could admire herself. There was something uinversally pretty and historically nostalgic about these traditional crowns of flowers that drew little girls to the stall as if hypnotised, each one of them wanting to be a princess. I felt myself slipping into a trance as well: some genetic memory of maypoles and cornfields, a flash of medieval hey nonny-nonny, but I was awoken from my reverie by the sight of a small, tubby girl in hot pink leggings and a horizontally-striped t-shirt that made her look like a strawberry humbug, grabbing her mother’s hand and demanding a garland for her own head, her eyes shining with princess-lust.

We were not disappointed when we arrived at the sqaure. First of all there was an open-air compound housing a selection of impressive birds of prey, tagged and tied loosely to waist-high stands: various types of eagle, several owls who surveyed the crowd at almost 360 degrees with their stunning, cold, yellow eyes, and even a vulture with white, cotton-like bumfluff around its neck, and a pastel pink and blue head. But even better than this, a gladiator contest taking place before our very own eyes, where, in a circle of sand close enough to touch, beefy men, stripped to the waist, beat each other with swords or with their bare hands. Acted with convincing gusto, and one suspects, some pleasure in the physical brutality, there was also a scene where the losing gladiators were roughed up by their Roman handlers, and ‘sold’ to spectators.

‘Who will buy this slave?’ spat a thick-necked, bald-headed brute, covered in not very authentic tattoos and wearing heavy gold earrings, grabbing one of the losers by the arm and heaving him to his feet before casting him back down into the dust.

‘I will….’ I breathed wistfully. Now, where was that bag of coins? But the slave was sold to a rich man in a white tunic and red cloak, and dragged away into a tent. The fighting continued, with much fanfare and grunting, the sun toasting sweaty backs and arms red, swords and shields clashing, and flesh slapping with a sound that reminded me of the noise our local butcher in Calle de la Fe makes when he slams his hand with satisfaction onto a juicy side of meat he is about to carve up. I surveyed the crowd, privately concluding that there were a lot of very happy women and gay men in Calahorra this fine afternoon.

Later in the afternoon we met a friend of Angel and Pili’s for a drink, a local man who is apparently ‘very big in vegetables.’ He has several pickling and canning plants, and his wares apparently sell well in the gourmet club at Corte Ingles. As we sat in the plaza sipping cool beers he told us of a local custom which is peculiar to Calahorra, and takes place (according to him) only between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, (according to the internet, Easter Thursday and Good Friday) due to a dazzling bit of Catholic logic: this is precisely when Jesus is dead and can’t see what you’re up to, so you can get away with it. The activity is a billiard-style game called Juego de los Borregos, played on a table with only one pocket, and with eight small balls and a cue which is used horizontally like a handlebar to push the balls at the pocket. I am still at a loss as to which balls one is supposed to pot or not pot. The game is played only in the two casinos in the city, and women are strictly forbidden to attend, even as spectators. It draws huge audiences, and even huger bets, often groups of friends betting a massive sum of pooled money. The man who was big in vegetables told us of nights in his youth when he and groups of friends bet several thousand pesetas at a sitting, and normally lost. He was usually the treasurer.

‘I always kept a sum aside after it had gone in the kitty,’ he told us, with a wry smile, ‘all my mates, they said no, put it all in, bet the lot, come on, but I always insisted on keeping some back. Then at the end of the night, when we’d lost the lot, at least we had enough to go for a slap-up meal together and a few drinks.’

For some reason this game produces a kind of gambling frenzy in its followers, perhaps fuelled by all-night drinking, and there are a lot of rumours in Calahorra about fortunes made and lost, none of which are proven, but it is recorded that people have bet their cars, their businesses, and even their homes, and in most cases, have lost them. I didn’t like to say it, but I suspected that women weren’t allowed because although there are women gamblers, in general they are less likely to bet the house away from under them and their children.

‘Oh, I know a man who bet his wife once!’ said the Big Vegetable man, but I think he was joking.

After a day of strapping Romans and weird Easter customs, we headed back through the valleys full of allotments and away from Rioja province. Before lunch we had sat at another local bar in a side plaza next to a ‘Peña’ – a building with a roll-up metal door that looked a bit like a bus station, watching the ‘romans’ go in, and come out as unremarkable men in track suits, carrying sports bags with metal breast plates sticking out of them, feathered helmets carried in plastic bags, swords under the arm. In the car Angel told me that it’s very common in Calahorra for people to find Roman remains when carrying out building work at home, or on work premises.

‘Wow, do they get someone to come in and excavate, then? I asked, naively.

‘No.’ replied Angel. ‘What normally happens is, if they alert the authorities, they take about three years to come and do anything about it at all, seeing as you’re dealing with lazy-arsed civil servants who don’t give a shit about anything. In the meantime, your business is at a total standstill because you can’t do anything, you can’t carry on, you can’t call the renovations off. So instead, what most people do, if they find something, is they come in, in the middle of the night and they smash it all up so no-one knows there was ever anything there. Then they can carry on with the building work as planned. Otherwise nothing ever gets done. That’s Spain for you.’