Archive for the mean streets Category

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.



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.



Piccolo Napoli (part 4)

Posted in mean streets with tags , on November 18, 2010 by cockroach1

The station policeman looked back at us impassively as though our story could not possibly have interested him any less than it did at that precise moment. He was playing the part of the bored, tired-eyed night-duty policeman. In fact, everyone in Naples seemed to be playing the part of some pantomime Neapolitan. He was short of stature, with grey hair and an oversized moustache, from the same mould as the old bird who’d given us directions to the first mythical trattoria, and, more relevantly, the same as the left luggage man, who was now nowhere to be seen, his handy kiosk currently no more than a metal box with the lid pulled down on the front, securely locked and padlocked. With our precious bags inside.

‘But he didn’t tell us it closed at eleven!’ insisted the Ponce, ‘and our luggage is in there and our train goes in…. oh bollocks…. twelve minutes. Is there no way to contact him to get our bags back? I can’t believe this! It should be open like the one at Rome station, all night- twenty four hours!’ (As if the policeman needed reminding these were the same thing). ‘How can he just shut the office like that? What are we supposed to do now?’

‘He didn’t say he closed at eleven…’ I echoed. ‘We can’t stay here all night, we need to get the train. And we haven’t got any money.’

The policeman glanced from one of us to the other and shrugged. He was a strange half-pressed, half-crumpled little man- it was as though someone had run an iron carefully across his uniform, rendering it neat and perfect in every way, and all that care that had gone into ironing out the creases in his clothes had not been extended to his face, which sagged over his collar like a cartoon bloodhound’s.

‘There’s probably a notice on the door with opening times.’ he said, stifling a yawn. ‘You’ll have to come back tomorrow morning and get the first train.’

‘So there’s no way to contact the left luggage guy? Can’t somebody call him or something? Get him to open up for us?….’

This time he merely shook his head wearily and glanced over behind our backs at something fascinating going on the other side of the station concourse.

‘So what are we going to do until then? We’ve got nowhere to stay and we haven’t got any money…’

Shrug. The long, slow, expressive Neapolitan shrug that says –well, there you go, nobody ever said life was going to be easy. It’s tragic, but… what can I do? What can any of us do?…

We might have just made it, had the Ponce not dithered over coffee at the restaurant. Had he not veered off into the bakery as we hoofed it back to the station, so we could stuff traditional Neapolitan pastries into our faces while we walked, giving ourselves indigestion. Had we not lost our sense of direction and had to stop and ask the way several times. Maybe it would have helped if I hadn’t had a hysterical giggling fit in the restaurant and had been able to eat faster. I’d started to get the giggles after the waiter asked me to move to the opposite side of the table, to allow him unimpeded passage past us, between the tightly arranged dining tables. They were big tabletops, placing me so far away from my dining companion that we had to shout across the expanse of white tablecloth to each other, prompting him to urge me at the top of his voice,

‘What? Tell me in English!’

‘I am!’


‘I said I am! I am speaking English…’

‘Sorry? I can’t hear a bloody word. What’s so funny? Come on, let me in on the joke.’

But then I couldn’t holler at him what I was trying to communicate because then the whole restaurant would have heard us, including the objects of my mirth, and that was highly undesirable. How could I tell him that just to the left of his face, in my line of vision every time we tried to hold a conversation, was the enormous backside, clad in dragon-scale green, of the matriarch of a caricature hoodlum family seated at the table behind him? That she sat with her legs planted firmly apart either side of her seat, spreading her wide bottom sturdily across it, almost crouching, when seen from behind, like a massive brooding frog. I began to worry that if the Ponce carried on eating the way he was, he would end up like her very shortly. I couldn’t shout any of this across our conspicuous centre table at him, neither could I tell him that the rest of the family comprised of balding, menacing men chewing toothpicks, bursting out of their cheap suits, and eyeing the rest of us with bored, toad-faced languor. So instead I cried laughing and shrugged helplessly at him across the table.  Then I tried to eat my way through the second pizza of the day. We might have made the left luggage office on time had we not done these things. But the truth was we had. So we’d got here about thirteen minutes too late to reclaim our bags.

And now, twenty minutes after our train had left, here we were in a seedy side street by the station at midnight, me clutching nervously at the passport and handful of banknotes in my pocket which seemed to have grown conspicuously so that they bulged and weighed my trouser leg down as if they were a bar of gold bullion. There was a woman the other side of the street; she was large and seated on a small chair, which you could hardly see beneath her. The effect was somewhat like that of an elephant perched on a circus stool. She sat by a dank building with no discernable windows or doorways, illuminated by a feeble splash of light from the streetlamp overhead.  She glanced at us, huddled in a doorway opposite her, then her gaze, the empty, bright stare of a lighthouse beam, swept slowly past us and down the narrow street.

‘So if this guy doesn’t call me back in the next fifteen minutes, he’ll know somewhere, he’s Napolitano, then we just find a cheap hostal round here somewhere for the night.’ suggested the Ponce.

‘Okay, sounds good. I’ve only got about for-‘

He jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow.

‘Yeah, you told me, keep it down. Let’s ask her, hang on, she might know somewhere. Scuza?-‘

The woman turned to look at us slowly, very slowly, her head revolving like a stand-alone fan. Her face in the dim yellowy light was as weary and sluggish as hot candle wax.


‘Er, do you know of any cheap hostals round here? Like, thirty euros or something?’

Her face twitched without mirth but I could tell it was meant to be a smile.

‘Thirty euros? You’re joking, aren’t you?. Not round here, Love’

She spoke as slowly as she moved, as though she was talking to us through a mouthful of treacle, with great effort.

‘Nowhere at all?’

She shook her head, her expression tragic.

‘Ok, thanks.’

She gave us a torturously slowed down version of the Neapolitan shrug, As if to say- you really shouldn’t be hanging around the station at this time of night, you’re probably going to get raped and robbed out here, and you seem like such nice people. That’s a shame, but there you go, nobody ever said it was going to be easy… As we thanked her she was joined by a small figure, stooped, with nervy mannerisms, his hands thrust deep into his pockets and his neck twisting this way and that, rotating his small head to observe the street and the corners nearby like a prairie dog scouting for predators. He had narrow shoulders, saggy clothes, and a face like a chimp.

‘Come on, let’s go….’ I said quietly, ‘Not really a good place to be hanging about. Why don’t we try calling him back? Or just walk till he rings us. But let’s go to the main square or something?…’

‘Yeah, you’re right.’

We rounded the corner and headed back to the station.

‘What on earth can she be doing sitting there in a side street at this time of night by the station? A woman on her own?’ I mused. The Ponce turned to me with a contemptuous look- the one he uses just before explaining how to cook an egg, metaphorically, and replied,

‘You know, for someone highly educated and with a fair bit of life experience, you can be a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. Haven’t you just answered your own question?’

‘Oh….. right. Poor thing, she didn’t look very enthusiastic about it.’

This time I got a double helping of that patronizing look.

‘She was off her head on smack.’

With that he grabbed his pocket suddenly and I heard his mobile ring. He answered, and as we wandered through the dim streets I caught snatches of the conversation.

‘Yeah?…. Right, uh-huh…. Just me and my friend….. Are you sure? Really? … yes, we missed the night train…. Ok… about fifty minutes…. Taxi, all right.’

Clipping the phone shut, he turned to me triumphantly.

‘He says we can stay at his on the sofa, he’s got room. We’ve got somewhere to sleep! It’s a bit of a way though, the other side of town. He’ll come and meet us at the piazza just by his house. All we have to do now is find a taxi.’

Piccolo Napoli (part 3)

Posted in mean streets on November 8, 2010 by cockroach1

‘Pasta? A cuesta hora? (Pasta? At this hour?) The little man shrugged until his head disappeared into his chest like a bird’s, and he was nothing but shoulders, his wispy grey hair sticking out, his eyes wide and tragic with regret.

‘A cuesta hora? That will be very difficult, my friend. Let me see, let me think…..’

Then he began gesticulating up and down streets, round corners, turn left here, follow this, stop when you get to… and then it’s up there. Past the piazza with the church, turn left. Nice little bistro, they should see you right. The old bird looked happy with himself. He was going to help us find not only a place to grab a bite to eat, he was going to send us to the best little bistro in town, which would cater to our bizarre, Hispanic desire to have pasta, At This Hour. It had occurred to us that it might be time to find some dinner. It was only about nine o’ clock at night. That gave us two hours to eat and get back to the station in time for our night train. I was starting to check my watch compulsively every so often now. Time to get organized, if that is ever possible with the Ponce in tow. We thanked him and wandered off in the general direction he had indicated.

‘I just don’t think I can eat another pizza.’ I reiterated.

‘No, me neither, I want pasta. Okay….’ muttered the Ponce, so it’s up here, up a bit, turn left when you get to the piazza with the church… oh for God’s sake, but which piazza, which church?…’

Every piazza in Naples has a church on it, and there is probably a great little bistro if you turn left and go up a bit. Always up, never down, although you never ended up anywhere higher than you were before. It defied gravity and logic. We wandered the streets in approximate circles as the colour seeped out of the buildings with the onset of dusk, like old photographs turning sepia. Mopeds with wonky lights chased us. Gargoyles grimaced down at us, water dripped from open pipes, and side streets and alleyways vanished into slivers of blackness strung with invisible washing and cables, as if they had slipped behind a thick, velvet curtain obscuring backstage from view. In the wings, in the silent rat-runs, the bit-part actors waited for you. These rickety, medieval slivers of darkness were the perfect environment to get your wallet lifted or worse, your throat cut softly.  In the busy Baby Jesus street, where we had seen Mother Teresa holding hands and dancing with the children, we passed restaurants suddenly sporting queues of people, most of them dressed up like gypsies, plenty of sparkle, bright colours and tight clothing. The main streets were well-lit, with garish colours and washed out shop fronts, and if you walked quickly enough past the light and dark contrast of these and the thin black alleyways you gave yourself the impression of watching an old, stuttery film reel.

A little later the Ponce had to ask for directions again, as all we were doing was retracing our steps. He stopped a large family who were blocking the pavement, and asked politely if they knew of anywhere to get pasta, at this hour. The woman he asked turned to answer him and her first reaction was to veer away when faced with his piercings, tattoos and non-serious haircut, but then she saw his smiling face, and the fact that he was with me, and heard him speak Italian, and she relaxed and engaged in conversation,

‘Pasta? Where can they eat pasta at this hour?’ she asked the rest of the clan urgently, and in less than a second the Ponce was surrounded by a crowd of diminutive grinning people, all of them trying to catch his attention, all of them speaking at the same time, excited and animated at the prospect of being able to help. I had to step back out of the limelight to hide a smile, as looking at them encircling him, all looking up at him with curiosity, civic pride and a kind of glee, it was like watching a children’s orchestra poised waiting for a gesture from the conductor. I couldn’t count how many of them there were, but it seemed to be about fifteen: uncles, grandparents, teenagers, sisters and brothers, the group was endless. What must it be like to come from a family like that? A Southern Italian family. Wonderful and stifling, I can only imagine.

‘Yes, yes!’ a grey-haired member of the clan was describing with his hands where we must go, ‘Yes, that’s right! You go up there, up there, see? Up a bit, keep going, then when you get to the piazza, with the church…. The one with the death’s heads on the columns, that church, then you turn left. Up there. You’ll find the trattoria, no problem.’

‘Grazie, grazie mile, ciao….’

They were still calling after us as we left,

‘-Up the street…. The piazza with the church with the death’s heads on the columns, got it? Left there….’

‘I have no idea what he’s on about. Death’s heads on columns…. oh hang on, I think I know where he means….’

‘They were friendly, weren’t they? What a funny little family.’

‘Yeah, they were nice. After they realized I wasn’t going to stab them.’

‘It’s quite easy to upset you lot, isn’t it? Just grow your hair, refuse to wear Dolce and Gabbana….’

‘Yep. This is a country for old men, my friend, don’t forget that, they run everything. I wonder what they think you and I are doing together. We make a pretty weird couple.’

There was no disputing that. We came to the conclusion that people generally think he is my toy-boy and I’m the one with the money and unusual and perhaps very specific tastes. I like to think they don’t assume he’s my son, although find it hard to decide which would be more humiliating: to be taken for a liberal, young-looking parent with a tearaway son (when he’s only twelve years younger than me), or for a desperate Sugar Mummy who chooses to ignore that her plus one is probably staring at the waiter’s crotch rather than into her eyes.

We never found the piazza with the deaths’ heads on the columns, or the street to the left, or the promised plate of pasta. Time ticked by, darkness seeped down into the old town like a cloud of black ink dissolving in water. I began to feel that non-specific sense of unease connected to the clock as the obsessive-compulsive side of my brain calculated over and over how long it would take to order, eat, pay, walk back to the station, pick up the bags….. our easy two hours turned into an adequate hour and a half, then a pinched and frail-looking hour and a quarter.

‘I just don’t want another pizza, but you know, we need to be eating now fi we’re going to….’

‘Me neither. Oh, sod it, let’s just eat here?’

‘Here’ was a nice-looking restaurant cordoned off from the street in that continental way, with a low wall of potted shrubberies. We checked over the menu, open like an almighty bible on a lectern at the entrance, then winked at the waitress to indicate we’d wait and took our place in the queue. As we waited for a table the diners inside looked up at us with lazy curiosity, chewing and staring, chewing and staring, like a corral of dopey sheep. The young waiter and waitress charged round and round and in and out of the tables like over excited sheepdogs nipping at their heels. Laughter began to rise in my throat but I held it back.

‘Look at them, you’d think we stepped out of a space ship or something. Take a photo, it lasts longer.’ Muttered the Ponce.

After ten minutes or so (ticking clock, ticking clock…) the waitress called out to us. At first we didn’t realize she was talking to us.

‘Here! You two, over here! Two- HERE!’ she shouted, waving and pointing at us over peoples’ heads and hopping impatiently on her heels like a cheerleader on Red Bull.  We jumped obediently and threaded our way through the restaurant to our table.

‘Oh no, no…. not the middle….I hate sitting in the middle, I feel like I’m on stage… shit, they’re all looking at us now.’

The sheep turned blankly, chewing and staring as we walked past them to sit down.

‘Too late now, let’s just get something to eat.’ I said efficiently. ‘We’re running out of time.’ As if to reinforce this I checked my watch again. Another five minutes gone. ‘What’s the quickest thing we can order? What can they make quickly?’


Pizza it was, then. Again.


Piccolo Napoli (part 2)

Posted in mean streets with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2010 by cockroach1

There was a worrying gaggle of backpackers outside the place, all clutching guide books thumbed open to a certain page. That didn’t bode so well.

‘He said it’s the best and cheapest pizzeria in Naples…’ the Incredible Ponce shrugged, and elbowed his way through the stragglers to ask how do you get a table, do you stand around and wait to be called in, should you come back in half an hour, do you leave a name or what? Apparently you left your name and they called you, and it would only be five or ten minutes’ wait.

‘Want to go somewhere else?’ he asked, as he sparked up a cigarette on the doorstep.

‘No, it’s ok, let’s wait, if he said it’s this one, then it’s worth waiting for, I should think. And all these people….’

‘Yeah, all these people…’ he muttered, the cigarette clenched between his teeth. ‘I don’t like so many er… tourists… know what I mean? That means it’s probably in some guide book, and it’s shit. It should be full of Neapolitans, then I’d be a bit more excited.’

‘Mm-Hmm. Well, let’s see.’

‘I’ve had a look at the menu. There are only two types of pizza: Margarita and Marinara. That’s no mozzarella. I’d order the Margarita.’

‘You’re the boss.’

In theory I approved of the spit and sawdust décor, the white tiling, the paper tablecloths and the choice of two pizzas. It seemed awfully French, and showed a lot of confidence. As my brother is fond of saying, he loves any unpretentious bistro that tells you what you will be eating today. I approved of our tiny table tucked next to the kitchen door, where we could watch the industrious to-ing and fro-ing of the white-jacketed waiters, spinning on their heels and wielding pizza after pizza. I liked the tarnished mirror on the wall, the framed newspaper clippings and the old, old photograph of the original Michele, smiling proudly in front of his restaurant. It’s just that the pizza, for me, wasn’t all that great. I prefer dry, thin-crust pizzas, which I’d eaten in Puglia and sometimes in the North. The outer edge was great, the topping was okay, the flavours all right, but it still sagged damply in the middle, like a wet sock. I ate it and said nothing.

‘Huh. Had better.’ The verdict was delivered when the Ponce had finished. ‘Somebody’s got lazy because they’re in the guide books now. Probably used to be fantastic pizza, but look at the number of people they’re serving. I think they’ve gone off the boil. Tourists…. spoil everything.’

After lunch we headed back into the old centre again for some more exploring.  There was graffiti everywhere, on dank walls next to alleyways tall and skinny like models, threaded with the infamous washing and crazy cables. ‘Hands on the pieta!’ read one illustration of a priest with his hands raised high, stick ‘em up fashion. By inference hands off our children. There was a prolific grafitti artist called Diego Miedo, (Jimmy Fear) who’d left the city strewn with naked, cubist figures and faces, and a series of rocket-propelled penises flying off walls, round corners, up doorways and down side streets.

The children of Naples were fascinating. Older than their apparent years, knowing in a way that was disquieting, or perhaps simply ‘chulo’ which translates as ‘cocky, flashy, nervy, a pimp’, and in Colombian Spanish as ‘a black vulture’.  All of the above could have applied. Not only to the seven year old moped drivers, pumped up and alert, but also to the street kids, who apparently unaccompanied, roamed the alleyways and main thoroughfares. Sitting at a café table as the hectic, sleazy world went about its business, we watched two boys and a girl. Ridiculously grown up and romantic, the two attractive children walked hand in hand beside their overweight, mean-spirited friend. They gazed into each other’s eyes. She even clutched a rose in her other hand, was a pretty gamine thing with straggly hair, in a slip and miniature heels. Her ‘husband’ steered her gallantly through the crowds, while the fat kid strutted resentfully, catching my eye and tipping a can of Pepsi over on the table next to us, turning with a satisfied shrug, a clear ‘screw you’, to watch the can spill its contents across the plastic table top and roll onto the pavement.

A woman pushed a pram decorated with all the reserve of a gypsy caravan, a baby as round and plump as a dough ball nestling somewhere inside the frilly confection of white lace studded with pink flowers. It was a slice of wedding cake on wheels. Later we passed her again, paused behind glass in a bakery. Surrounded by all those cakes and truffles, nothing but ribbons, fluff and flowers. The baby was gift-wrapped, warm as toast and all plumped up nicely ready to be served. An ice cream stall with its shutter down but a technicolor poster of a boy devouring a multi-coloured ice cream, burying his face in it, one eye squinting manically out at you, malice in his appetite.  A chubby man with a greasy look about his chops clambered off a bike and hustled into the crowd, wearing a greying t-shirt with the slogan ‘God’s gift’ on the front.

A moped skidded past us out of a narrow alleyway as we queued later at a street stall, to buy pastries. The woman swiveled off the back of the bike, standing with her hips thrust provocatively, her chest out like a drill seargent. She had glossy black hair and was painted like Cleopatra, a pouting, wet mouth and her eyes so overdone they stared out of her head with the intensity of a freshly-heckled drag queen. Her boyfriend was cadaverously thin with sunken knife-ish cheeks and sinewy hands. He was a caricature of a seedy backstreet hustler, dressed in tight-fitting trousers and winkle pickers, wearing a rakish cloth cap on top of hair greased down close to his head. A bent old lady scuttled past us and up an alleyway like a startled crab skittering up the contours of a rock.

‘Ha. The lookout.’ said the Ponce. ‘Did you see the other guy go up there just before? To score smack? Granny’s the lookout, waits on the street till the deal’s finished, ‘case the cops come. Being nosy and that, watching everybody, everybody expects old ladies to be nosy, don’t they? That’s Neapolitans for you! Got to hand it to them.’

‘This place is freaky.’

‘See? I knew you’d like it.’