There used to be a smell I identified with Madrid- a vaguely unpleasant, smothering smell that made me happy. There were many years, after my intial sojourn in the late eighties, when I returned only sporadically to the city, to touch base, and to watch it shape-shifting, coping with change after change. But the smell stayed the same. It was the smell of the underground. As you descended the steps into the mouth of the metro the odour would waft up into your face: a kind of hot drainy smell reminiscent of bad plumbing, heat, and mysterious urban filth. I loved it. As soon as my nostrils filled with this hot, noxious metro-breath, I knew I was back in Madrid.
Now the smell of the metro is gone, there is ventillation and good plumbing, and there are armies of cleaners keeping the place hygeinic. Like the city, the underground has cleaned up its act. Madrid has de-toxed from the inside, undergone a kind of colonic irrigation. But things on the surface are not quite so clean and orderly. There is a new odour in the air, one which you can find on street corners, down little alleyways, next to Municipal flower pots, lamp-posts, in doorways and the stairwells leading down to the metro. I am not talking about the ubiquitous smell of cigarette smoke, I am talking about the smell of pee.
Free-style pissing seems to have become a city sport, so I can absolutely see why it appears in the Lavapies Olympics shortlist. People here- oh all right, men here (you don’t see many women dropping their knickers and squatting) have no problem whipping it out and marking the neighbourhood as their territory. Madrileños are known as ‘gatos’ (cats) so I suppose they are only behaving true to form, like stinky, strutting tomcats. Next time some pisshead who has come down to Lavapies from his clean, crime-free, safe, tidy middle-class barrio (neighbourhood) and decides to piss outside my front door, I will be very tempted to ask ‘Excuse me young man, would you do that at home?’ I would be tempted to believe that all this street weeing is a symbolic symptom of the locals not having a pot to piss in, but generally it isn’t the locals, whatever nationality. We live here, we don’t piss on our own doorstep.
So free-style pissing got my vote as one of the top sports in the Lavapies Olympics. The Incredible Ponce agrees with me in part, as he has been known to say things like ‘Ah, the smell of Spain- garlic… and sometimes piss. And deep fried food. No hang on, deep fried air, that’s the smell of Spain for me. Deep fried air.’ Like Posh Spice he has no qualms about expressing his distate, but he has a valid excuse, he’s Italian. Incidentally, I was told that after Mrs Beckham’s infamous ‘it smells of garlic here’ gaffe, she found it very difficult to order food in many of the city’s top restaurants. According to rumour, each dish she requested, waiters and waitresses would advise her very politely ‘I’m terribly sorry, Madam, but I don’t think you would like that dish. It is prepared with garlic.’ The charade continued often right through the menu, racked up to ridiculous proportions, so that she couldn’t even order a simple salad or dessert without being warned that it contained garlic.
So there you have it, the smell of new Madrid- for some it’s pee, for others it’s garlic, or fatty fried food. Lavapies, like a Third World enclave, is an oasis of gritty, unadulterated smells. Of course, statistically you are bound to come up with some good pongs as well as bad. Between my house and the plaza, for example, in just half a block, I regularly smell Turkish kebabs from the Kurdish cafe with its service window onto the street, incense from the Egyptian bazaar, Lebanese food and shisha smoke, the heavy sweet cologne of pomaded arabs and Indians, Patchouli oil trailing from some urban hippy, the fresh sharp sting of the desert air with a hint of mountains, traffic fumes, the rich stink of rubbish bins not cleaned out properly, flowers from window-boxes, the occasional overpowering stench of good weed, and of course, fresh and not so fresh pee.