Archive for the Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna Category

Blot on the landscape

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , on October 3, 2010 by cockroach1

Late in the afternoon we set off for Sperlonga, a little way along the coast in the direction of Naples, where Federico has a villa by the sea. I took the back seat, and was instantly transported to the passive, detached watchfulness of childhood, lulled into a trance, half listening to parental conversation up front, counting the orange flashes of the streetlights marking our journey. I kept slipping into a safe and contented doze, stewed into drowsiness by the heat, the whup-whup of air juddering through the open windows, and the joints we had smoked before leaving. As I opened my eyes the outskirts of Rome made way for familiar Italian roadside scenery: scrubby allotments, trailing bougainvillia and oleanders, tall pines which always seemed to come in threes, stretching and holding up the sky, sheltering a little building- a restaurant, a garage or a house. Garden centres flashed past, one or two of them with an array of preposterous statuary. Behind all this were distant blue mountains that had huge layered sections cut out of them as though someone had helped themselves to a massive slice of Black Forest Gateaux. On approach you began to make out the terracing, the heavy machinery, the whiteness of the exposed rock like a part of its skeleton revealed. I didn’t know there were quarries here around Rome as well as up in the North of the country. Olive trees contorted themselves by the side of the road alongside low-slung vineyards and rows and rows of fir trees. On a twisty mountain road later we passed a figure paused by the side of the road. A chubby middle aged man huffing pinkly on an expensive mountain bike, poured into brightly coloured, labeled cycling gear as tight as a wetsuit. I remembered the ‘piropo’ or ‘compliment’ the Huertas Pirate once told me had overheard in Madrid, from a gang of construction workers as a girl walked past in sprayed-on clothes:

‘Oye, guapa, tienes esta ropa tan apretada como el tornillo de un submarino!’ (Hey, Cutiel, you’ve got those clothes on tighter than a submarine screw!’)

We stopped halfway there at a local shop, or what we would refer to as a ‘deli’. Our mission was to stock up on mozzarella, which is particularly good quality in this region. I had been hearing about this famous mozzarella for quite some time prior to the trip. Federico ordered a couple of kilos of the stuff, and they were handed over in brine, in a sealed plastic bag, which was heavy, the smooth globes knocking against the side. The boys also ordered tomatoes and fresh basil, which filled the car with its perfume.

I drifted off to sleep again as we drove, climbing steadily, passing small towns, stretches of open coast road and holiday homes. When I awoke we were nearly there. We were in an area of high hills covered sparsely with fir and pine trees. As we rounded a corner there was a swathe of blackened, burnt land, covering several hillsides and dotted with twisted tree stumps.

‘Shit, what happened?’ I asked.

‘I didn’t know there’d been forest fires here.’ said the Ponce.

‘There haven’t.’ replied Federico grimly. ‘It wasn’t like this the last time I came, a couple of weeks ago. This is the mafia. Bastards.’

‘Why would they do that?’

‘Oh, who knows? They’ve always got some reason. Either to punish a land owner for something, or because they want to devalue the land so they can buy it at a cheaper price… they do it every two or three years. They’ve really screwed up the countryside round here. Let’s not talk about it, it pisses me off too much.’

We drove past walled villas protected by clumps of firs, olive trees and pines, huddled around them on the top of bare hilltops which appeared to have been shaved all the way up. I wondered if the fires had killed anyone or burnt anyone’s villa to the ground. It seemed miraculous that they hadn’t reached the houses. We pulled up at the front gate of one of them and drove in underneath a canopy of vines, the driveway lined with plant pots bursting with flowers. We began to unpack the car and Fede took us round to the front of the villa. Round the front of the property was a vast covered terrace, giving onto an open sundeck, with a couple of rolled up hammocks and sun loungers. There was a large brick barbeque, a heavy plant pot in the middle of the terrace with a primary-coloured windmill sticking out of it on a long pole, which Fede adjusted absent-mindedly, so it could catch the breeze and turn silently. A wide, three-armed fan hung from the wooden ceiling and sliding glass doors lead into the living room and open plan kitchen.

‘I’m going to start calling you Rapunzel.’ I told him. ‘You always have the good views, don’t you? Fede in his tower with the great view, wherever he is. It’s a bit of a trademark. Look at this, it’s gorgeous!’ There was open sky above our heads, the tops of fir trees shading us from view all around, a steep, tree-covered hillside on the left, and in front the soft line of the sea merging into the sky as if done in broad water-colour stripes. We could hear the sea clearly, breathing and whispering far in the background.

Later that evening we sat outside and chatted, to a soundtrack of sea, birdsong, the flapping of pinned up sarongs in the wind, and the occasional passing car, the subdued noise distorting as it weaved in and out of the trees.

At the long wooden table on the terrace we ate some of the mozzarella with a tomato and basil salad, bread, olives and the fluffiest, creamiest ricotta imaginable. I had to agree with the boys- these mozzarella were like nothing I’d ever tasted outside Italy. They were heavy and dense, off-white, reminding me of an elbow joint, a smooth bone out of its casing. When you cut into them there was resistance, then the knife pierced the skin, and thick, full buffalo milk spilled out of its heart.  The body of the cheese was solid and rippled like wood grain. The taste was enormous. It was difficult to compare these cheeses with the jellyish pellets you buy pre-packed in the rest of Europe, something raw and flimsy about them like shucked testicles.

‘You have to eat them within twenty four hours really.’ Fede told me. ‘That’s why you can’t export them. They don’t travel: you have to keep them in liquid as well, otherwise they dry up. D’you know, plenty of people from this region don’t even eat them any more.’

‘Too heavy.’ Agreed the Ponce, shoveling another half mozzarella into his mouth. ‘There’s only so many of them you can eat. And full of fat….Ha! Those people who go all holier-than-thou: I’m going on a diet, I’ll just have a caprese salad, please… yeah, ok, that’s about 9,000 calories right there, good luck. Wow, these are fantastic, though.’

As the sun went down I walked over to the corner of the railings, at the edge of the platform and stared out to sea. There was a blurring of the line between sky and sea. Pinpricks of light appeared on the horizon, sliding silently from one side to the other, boats and ships crossing far away. Lush, green trees framed the sea, and sheltered the terrace from other nearby villas. From here you could only see a tiny section of the ruined Apocalyptic hills that were all around us. The ravaged black scenery was not noticeable enough to ruin the view, but you were aware it was there in the corner of your eye, a literal blot on the otherwise serene landscape. The view was spectacular, the ambience very Ibizenco, bringing back memories of mountain villas and Summers with endless chill out sessions. But this wasn’t Ibiza, this was near Rome, heading down south, ever closer to the mafia. From Rome up, everyone pretends they don’t exist, they are merely a Southern problem, but they were there, the mafia, just round the corner, even this view marked with its black spot, its stain spreading over everything. Look closely enough in Italy and you will always find them, burning the country up and consuming it piece by piece with their own particular brand of Hellfire.


When in Rome…

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2010 by cockroach1

'you are what you see'

One of the abiding images I have of our short trip to Italy (and in this case, of the first day in Rome, as there were many more quintessential and just plain weird images connected to other places) was the expression on the priest’s face as he glanced down the Ponce’s exposed and hirsute cleavage. His companion, one of those church-loving women as dessicated as a gutter full of flaking leaves, also recoiled as she walked past, in the same way you might open a seedy toilet door while travelling in some unspeakably unhygienic far away place, and recoil at the bugs, the filth, the stench of untreated human waste. You knew it was going to be unsavoury, but Good God!….

Perhaps it was our unfettered joy and exuberance they found so offensive. Or the fact that the Ponce has long hair, piercings and tattoos and was dressed like an unwashed hippy in green combat pants, massive steel-capped boots, and a dark blue diaphanous cotton top with a very open neck. This on a Saturday afternoon when everyone else in the centre of Rome was dressed for the catwalk. Or maybe it was our conversation at the outdoor café table, sprinkled liberally with semi-hysterical laughter, which went something like this:

‘Italian food….  Oh God, Italian food…. It’s so good to be eating real food again. I mean, you just can’t go wrong when you look at a menu here, can you? What shall I have today? I don’t know…. And guess what- it doesn’t matter what you order because it ALL tastes good! Order what you like! You know it’s going to be fantastic because it’s Italian. It’s all delicious.’ You can guess who said this. From the moment we arrived the day before the Incredible Ponce had morphed into Pacman, roaming the streets of Rome with a gaping mouth devouring everything in his path, every few steps interrupted with ‘I want pasta. I want pizza. I want arancini. I want ice cream….’ The only thing that put him off his food momentarily was when we stopped at a place famous for arancini –breadcrumbed rice balls with paremsan, meat, tomato sauce, a little like eating a whole meal wrapped up in an overgrown meatball- and he caught sight of its advertising board outside, filled with shots of famous people, politicians and so on, indicating their favourite variety. Turning to see a grinning photo, he exclaimed,  ‘Jesus, why do they have to do that? That’s enough to put anybody off their food!’ The photo showed the fat, false, face-lifted, false-toothed face of Berlusconi.

He sighed, patted his belly proudly, (a gesture I was to see repeated by Italian men many times over the next few days) and declared,

‘I don’t mean to be funny, but even fried stuff doesn’t smell and taste like fritanga here. And it’s healthier. Not like the cancer on a plate they serve in Madrid.’

Here, holiday silliness took over, culminating in a ridiculous restaurant role-play:

‘Good evening, and how is Sir this evening? Well, I hope. The usual table? So…, how would Sir like his cancer served this evening? Rare? Medium rare? Well-done?’

‘Well, I’m not very hungry, I think I’ll just have a little tumour tonight, thank you.’

‘Very well, Sir, just a small tumour. And for your wife? May I suggest today’s special? Rocketing cholesterol. It’s very good.’

‘I’m actually on a diet, thank you. Could I just have a small portion of pre-cancerous cells and a green salad?’

We carried on like this, laughing until eyes, nose and mouth wept wetly. Grinning idiotically, the Ponce added,

‘I’m so sorry, we appear to be living in a vacuum, we have run out of air. There isn’t anything left to deep fry…no more deep fried air…’

And it was here, slouched over at the café table, water running snottily from my eyes, nose and mouth, grimacing with stupid laughter at the sheer joy at being in Italy and on holiday with my friends, that I looked up and saw it flapping down the street toward me like a faded and very tall crow. The Ponce was unaware of its approach; he was facing the other way, in my direction. Federico, our host, also had his back to the pavement and was watching over us, a bit like the parent of naughty toddlers, happy that we were enjoying ourselves, but a little embarrassed we were doing it so noisily. The priest was walking toward us along the pot-holed pavement, his dry little companion beside him, looking up at him like a rare species of obedient, flower-arranging poodle.

And he tripped in the gutter when she looked away for a second as though it was her devotion that had been keeping him upright. He tripped, stumbled, with a flamboyant flap of sleeves and skirts, then righted himself, all the while with a pious and self-satisfied expression that said,

‘I meant to do that. God meant for me to do that.’

He smoothed his surplus down with one hand, and turned to resume conversation with her. They walked alongside us and behind the Ponce (it was a narrow pavement, and he had to pass with a little delicate sideways trip-step like an airhostess manoeuvring a packed aisle, shoulders and head back, stomach in, arms raised at the elbows a little effeminately).

And here, at this angle, poised for a second as if in an action replay, he looked down the Ponce’s lush, hairy cleavage. It would have been pretty hard to look anywhere else, come to think of it, given his position. He was pressed up behind him for a second, though not actually making contact, leaning as close as a hairdresser. If that priest’s nostrils had had a spare set of eyeballs inside them, then that’s what he would have been looking down at my friend with.

There were other memorable snapshots as we hurtled around the city for two days either in Federico’s squashed-arsed yellow car, on foot or on one of the buses between the centre and his flat: Three immaculately suited businessmen, for example, in a piazza somewhere near the Pantheon, resting elbows on a railing, standing a in a row, watching a digger furrow the earth of a small construction site. They were lined up like sparrows on a branch. Their suits evoked board meetings, pension funds, designer labels and important lunches, but their faces were the faces of six year olds, beaming with delight. As we wandered around we came across many Harry Hill Italians: a brilliant reminder that if you happen to be squat, bald, shiny-headed, with a large nose and in need of glasses, you’d better wish you were born Italian, because there is a niche for you here, and a very fashionable one at that.

Strolling through the streets in the centre I spotted an incredibly camp young man with his arm slung around his girlfriend’s neck, the other arm bent at the elbow, his moped helmet dangling coyly from his middle finger.

‘There are no gay men in Italy of course.’ I reminded Federico as this couple minced past.

‘She must know. Doesn’t she know? I mean, look at him.’ Federico is straight, a laid back product of the clubbing years, times when straight dolly birds are palling up with dikes, bisexuals rubbing shoulders with the gay community, camp boys hanging around with strutting, scrapping straight lads. After all, who cares? Who’s threatened any more by these kind of differences? The only taboo these days seems to be lying about it.

‘Ha! Then who was I sleeping with all those years before I left?’ queried the Ponce, though he didn’t use the term ‘sleeping with’. ‘Hypocrites!’ he declared, glancing into the window of a shopfront covered entirely with false ivy. I couldn’t see if the display shelves inside were lined with silk ties or cakes, but they went by in a pastel coloured, elegantly presented blur.

‘Come out of the closet, darling, we all know you’re in there.’ he commented to nobody in particular, ‘… and stop making everybody else’s lives a misery. Rome is full of poofs anyway. Crawling with them.’

We drove past a freshly-crumpled car angled by the side of the road next to a moped on its side, a figure lying in the pavement in the middle of a circle of onlookers, with an older woman crouched over her, gently stroking her hair. At the drinking fountains all over the city the three of us stopped to bend over, block the end of the spout and drink deeply. It was a hot day so we stopped at almost all of them. Every time the Ponce laughed at my inept attempts to angle the water into a thin stream and into my mouth, and not as a hosepipe blast in my face. I was aware of people, tourists sitting at café tables and restaurants nearby watching us, smiling as the Ponce splashed me yet again and we horsed around in the dust and the cold, clear water. Everybody watches everybody else, and somehow even more so in Rome than anywhere else.

Evening and night-time were equally packed with people watching.  At the bar we went to that night, at the outside terrace, a full table overturned with a mighty crash as a waiter passed it, spilling about ten cocktails, glasses, and two bottles of wine. People moved aside, carried on talking, swivelled to look then turned away almost at once. The debris, shards of glass, melting ice cubes and squashed lemon slices were left where they fell for the whole evening, people stepping over them in their label trainers or vertiginous heels, and there was something about this lack of care, this flash of brittle drama in the midst of all these people, left to be tidied up later, that was characteristically Roman.

At the same bar there was a woman who stood a short way away from me, in a crowd of friends, her back arched and one foot in front of the other like a dancer. She was attractive, but what was noticeable about her were her amazing breasts, which were accentuated by the folds of the top she was wearing, in a dove grey jersey material. It looked like a halter neck, and was heavily draped around the front, reminding me of the delicate pleats of a Grecian or Roman gown. She had long, high breasts, was obviously not wearing a bra, and the whole structure of the top seemed somehow to be hanging off one perfect nipple.

Next to us was a group of young people sitting in a large circle on the floor. Sitting on the ground here was de rigeur, as the bar was ‘alternative’. Finally I saw the Ponce’s tribe, his fellow pack members. Here, in this bar in Rome, at least, he was among his own species. Everyone was dressed in black. Pretty young punk girls with glamorous haircuts sat cross-legged, wearing t-shirts meticulously slashed by fashion designers to reveal smooth backs and slender arms. Equally pretty boys sat beside them, one of them with a cleanly shaven head and a Mohican drawn back in a pony tail, heavily plucked eyebrows, black liquid eyes, and a faintly lipsticked mouth. There was something bird-like about him, New Romantic and half drag queen.

A beautiful boy joined the group later and there was an interesting sociological moment as he went first to greet a platinum blond girl who held onto him tightly as he hugged her, her face glowing with love and possession.  This girl pouted like a French film star when people were looking and also when they were not. Their embrace was watched by the other members of the gang with fixed grins as they waited their turn. Then the boy went to kiss other people, other boys and girls, before slipping into the group. All eyes followed him even when he had settled, cat-like into his place in the circle. He was stunningly handsome and had a very high cock’s comb haircut, He was all angles as he moved, easy, loping angles inside his casual black clothes. I watched them watching him and it was like following the mating rituals of a strange pack of animals or birds, almost as though the cock’s comb quiff, the fact that he had the highest and the most carefully-tended hairdo, was as important biologically and as likely to land him a mate as the bright feathers on a bird of paradise. I couldn’t work out if he was gay or straight, but suspected gay, despite the fierce inter-crossing glances of the girls.

That’s the trouble with getting older: you want to go over and say,

‘Listen, girls, a quick word of advice. Don’t bother being faghags. You’ll be a handmaiden for ever and you’ll probably end up single. Ok, you get to hang around with lots of beautiful men, but none of them is ever going to go home with you at the end of the night. And whatever you do, don’t fall in love with a gay man, because it will end in tears, and they won’t be his.’ The other problem with getting older is that you know the likely response would be a sneer and,

‘Fuck off, Grandma.’

As I was mulling this over, another boy turned up, a skinny, skinny thing in baggy clothes, chunky trainers and a baseball cap. This one was all elbows, knees, shoulders, very expressive and energetic. There was nothing to him, really he couldn’t have been more than 6 stone soaking wet, and his clothes seemed to move without him, move for him, prompting me to think that, more than any other nation, the Italians sometimes are their clothes. However can they function naked when clothes are so important to them? A friend of mine who is American-Italian, or Italian-American depending on the day, once commented that all young Italians move and behave as if they expect a crowd of paparazzi to leap out at them any minute and start snapping fashion photos.

‘Even in the shower,’ he said, ‘they’re posing, turning around, checking out to make sure their own arse looks good from this angle. Just in case.’

At the end of the night I rolled up the shutter in the bedroom at Federico’s flat before going to bed. It was the last view of Rome for ten days or so. The next day we were going to Federico’s villa at Sperlonga, a couple of hours down the coast. There was a sickle moon, and the hills of the city were laid out illuminated beneath it, glittering with lights as fiercely as flames, like a view obscured by waves of heat. The hills flickered, could have been made of smoke, or dust, or the smoking ruins of another city. Rome looked like a blazing, shimmering disaster, equally something imminent, or that had already happened a long time ago.

Look out! It’s in front of you!

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna on April 19, 2010 by cockroach1

Having dropped my mother off at the airport the other evening I was travelling back to my neighbourhood by metro. I was reading one of the books which I had picked up from a musty old box of donated books in the staffroom, quite an esoteric collection of works on meditation, psychology and so on. This one was ‘Views from the real world- early talks of Gurdjieff’. Not exactly ‘Shopaholic goes to New York’ and, quite frankly, a little heavy-going in parts even for my tastes. But it had looked interesting, so I was persevering with it. My mother had sent me a goodbye text, to which I was replying, so I placed the book, open on its spine, face down on my thigh. I became aware that I was being subjected to a full body scan by a woman opposite me. I glanced at her- not your usual maruja (fishwife)- tall, slim, with long black hair and a face that could curdle milk at 100 yards. At some point in this woman’s life, I suspect a very long time ago, the wind had changed. She turned to her husband, also lanky, academic-looking, with glasses and a white beard, and said quite loudly and distinctly, probably because she imagined I was a daft foreigner who didn’t speak a word of Spanish,

‘Oh yes, look at that one, that’s a really intellectual way to read isn’t it, book face down on your knee, oh yeah, she’s really going to further her education.’

I chose not to respond or rise to it, as ‘he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ It’s normal to occasionally make sarcastic remarks about strangers, or to take the piss, it isn’t exactly personal. I picked up my book, glanced coolly at her over the cover and continued to read. But how wrong can you be? This was personal, as I was about to find out. I could hear her still talking about me as I tried to read, and eventually when she said,

‘That one’s German, no doubt about it, pure Kraut, look at the face on it, that’s German that is-‘ I decided it was time to engage in battle.

I looked up, laid the book carefully on my lap and said straight at her, and in perfect Spanish,

‘Actually I’m English. But I do live here.’

The woman froze, the sneer fixed on her face in mid sentence, and in a surreal twist of events, her mortified husband leapt out of his seat like a Jack in the Box. Virtually bending on one knee he took my hand to kiss it, smiling ingratiatingly and bowing like a courtier, while gabbling,

‘Oh really, how interesting, we are Spanish. How lovely to meet you. We are Spanish. From Spain.’

All the while the minx stared at me with a face that seemed to be crumbling in on itself with unadulterated bitterness and mala leche (remember the bad milk?) and still she neither moved nor spoke.

At this point in the stand-off the appropriate latino response between two women would have been at the very least a mud-slinging row, at worst a hair-pulling cat fight. I chose, like Mary Archer, to remain fragrant, because I believe that in the end this makes you the winner anyway.

‘How very nice to meet you.’ I replied a little frostily but graciously to the husband, who returned to his seat cowering and cringing as though backing away from my throne. The pressed bodies in the carriage around us peered in on the scene, itching for a fight, I could tell. Everyone loves to witness a stinking altercation. But I wasn’t going to give the public what they wanted today. Implaccably I said to the hateful face pointed at me like a loaded pistol,

‘Do you have a problem, Señora? What exactly is your problem? Because there’s no need for you to be giving me the evils like that. I was just sitting here reading my book. I suggest you keep your comments to yourself in future.’

At this point, and all praise to the Gods of perfect timing, we pulled into my stop. I snatched up my book, wished the husband a polite ‘Good day to you, Sir’ and swept regally out of the carriage. For once I didn’t walk away playing the scene over and over in my head on a loop and kicking myself for what I could have/should have said. I’d said it. And with the panache of a Victorian dandy. How sweet it was to have put the mean old bitch in her place, and humiliated her in front of the entire carriage, and her husband, without even getting hot under the collar. Come on, you evil old cows, come on then! You want some more? Do ya? D’ya think yer hard enough? Think you can take me? Think again…..

Cockroach in Wonderland

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2010 by cockroach1

Spring has definitely sprung: the terrace tables are out for good and it is now impossible to know what to wear of a morning, given the teeth-chattering cold in the shade but the bite of approaching summer in the sunshine. Blossoms are out all over the city providing a backdrop of festive, candy-floss pink trees. Easter Saturday saw the Retiro bursting with activity and mad march silliness. My mother was over visiting, and we decided to take a relaxing stroll through the park. Yet the further in we went the more bizarre it became, like the onset of a hallucination, slowly at first, a few odd details glanced out of the corner of an eye, leading eventually to full-on visual mayhem.

First there was the posh but tacky family, on a scale of Strange only reaching about 2.5. The eight or nine year old daughter was skipping along in jodphurs and ballet pumps while the father wheeled a colour-co-ordinated pushchair. Over his shoulders there was a pillar-box red jumper slung in an Italian sort of way. Bryl cream kept his thick waves of hair swept back off his face. The mother tottered a few paces behind them in what were clearly expensive clothes which she managed to make tarty: the heels a little too high, the skirt a little too short and the fur collar a little too wide.

We entered the Palacio de Cristal, a wonderful glass structure a bit like a giant birdcage. There are sometimes exhibitions inside, but today there was a new gardening project underway so we popped in to take a look. It was certainly innovative. The main attraction was a round flowerbed about the size and shape of a traffic roundabout, which had been cultivated into a woodland knoll stuffed with ferns, midget daffodils and lily of the valley. On its grassy hump was a mini fir tree and then a bank of verdant moss, and nestling in the moss were several giant pumpkins. They gave the installation a kind of Jack and the Beanstalk, dreamlike quality. The centre of this rural fantasy was so idyllic and green that it made you want to climb up and lie down among the flowers, transported to the heart of a fairy story or a mythical English glade in summertime. There were people queueing to have photos taken of themselves with the pumpkins, and one camp young man insisted that he have his picture taken as he grinned for the camera like a ballroom dancer, hugging a pillar with his head thrown back and one foot cocked behind him.

Leaving the fairy tale greenhouse we walked up to the lake and the lakeside promenade which was bustling with activity.

‘What’s that?’ asked my Mum, pointing to a short figure with an oddly-shaped head dressed in a black cloak.

‘It looks like a midget Darth Vader.’ I replied, as though they are a common sight in Madrid. We began to feel the approach of a fit of giggles, rumbling up from the belly like bubbles rising in a glass of cava. We were approaching the ´living statue/children’s entertainment’ zone. Next on the conveyor belt, Larry, there was a dancing tranny with exaggerated breasts and buttocks that bounced with every movement. She wore a short, brightly-coloured sundress with canary yellow tights and a bubble-perm wig. She danced samba for a very long while with a solemn toddler who beat time with a sword made from a balloon, and who, when she stopped dancing, tried to take his change back out of the hat on the ground, only to be dragged away by his parents. As we walked away we passed a portrait artist sitting on a low folding stool by his stall. He was dozing with his head in his hand, and as we approached he nodded off and almost keeled face-forward onto the floor, jerking awake with a confused grunt and perfect comic timing.

The next part of our walk was the stage of the hallucination where you realise you are seeing weird things. Really weird things, and it starts to mess with your head a bit. The lakeside path began to fill up with life-sized cartoon characters who were actually people in ill-fitting costumes. It was as though someone had raided the costume cupboard of some provincial rep theatre that specializes in panto, but that is experiencing financial and artistic difficulties. The fur looked as though it hadn’t been dry-cleaned for a very long time, and has lain mouldering at the back of the cupboard. There was something seedy about the outfits, details which were only slightly ‘off’ but made for a visually disturbing effect. Winnie the Pooh, for example, had a wrongly-shaped head, too angular and bullet-shaped, making him look aggressive as a U.S. military hawk. Minnie Mouse had a grubby dress and puffy, stained shoes. Later on there was a creature that could have been a bear or could have been an otter. Either way it had no snout and a startled expression, and the face was squashed and mis-shapen as though someone had tried to kick its head in. But he had nothing on the Easter Bunny Nemesis who was so sinister it sent my mother and I fleeing down the path in a fit of nervous giggles that finally erupted. But more of him in a moment.

I have seen these ‘performers’ before in Madrid, they can sometimes be seen wandering around forlornly looking for children to hand out balloons to. In fact, I have had a run-in with one of them, and a close friend has witnessed a run-in with one of the others. I imagine it’s a stressful job, having to look like an anonymous buffoon every day. All work is prostitution of some kind, but this must mean really bending over and taking it on a daily basis. They must come in for a good deal of flack. Picture a bright sunny Saturday. I was being visited by a Swedish friend who lives in London. We had spent the morning smoking grass and then went for a walk near the Prado. At the crossing opposite us was one of these ‘bad’ animated characters, a really bad Bart Simpson with a lop-sided head. I made some comment like ‘Oh Jesus, not him. Look at the state of that! What a shitty Bart.’ and poor ‘Bart’ obviously overheard us, spoke enough English to understand and was aware of our stoned giggles. As he passed us on the level crossing in the middle of the road humming with impatient traffic he exclaimed, with a strong hispanic accent,

‘Yeah? Well fuck you!’ which of course, made our day and led to almost pant-wetting laughter. We had been insulted before lunchtime by a shitty Bart Simpson. Sublime.

The other set-to was more disturbing and I wasn’t even there. But I can visualise it. This was related to me by a close gay friend who saw Mickey Mouse one day in the Retiro being taunted by a group of passing teenagers: Mickey was wearing the top half of his fusty costume accessorized with shiny tracksuit bottoms, and as the teenagers jeered at him he grabbed a handful of cock and balls and shook it at them, which I can only assume is an insult. According to my friend it was an ample handful, and, after glancing round to check no small children had been subjected to this obscenity, he decided that he found it strangely sexually arousing and wrong all at the same time, as it was, obviously still Mickey Mouse.

But back to the Easter Bunny’s Nemesis. This was by far the creepiest and most unsettling of the beasts. As though we were referring to the Observer book of exotic shitty full-sized cartoon characters, we identified him as being of the squirrel species, though I was then confused by the tail when he turned round. It was nothing like a squirrels’ tail, more like a furry dildo hanging off the back of his outfit, or a claggy turd that refuses to be shaken off. Luxurious and fluffy it was not. So maybe it was a gerbil or some other rodent. Anyway, the front was a hell of a lot scarier than the back. Its expression was intense and manic- Squirrel Nutkin on speed. For no discernable reason it was carrying a Little Drummer Boy drum in front of it, and attached to its neck at the front, almost like the prized scalp of an enemy was a cute furry bunny with a miniature drum in its paws. Squirrel Fuckwit crashed and lumbered about the shrubbery, encouraging small children to bang its drum, while my mother and I tried to escape its attention and fled down a nearby path. There was no way we were going anywhere near it. The overall effect was more Donnie Darkoe than Easter Bunny. Had we not been laughing so hard it might at this point have started to turn into a bad headtrip.

The final leg of the walk offered us a moment of pure drama followed by a moment of pure beauty. Which is more than anyone could hope for, I suppose, on a Saturday afternoon. The drama was provided by two Samur employees (emergency medical services) hurtling through the crowds on motorbikes and screeching to a halt near a fountain. Mothers clutched small children to them, people reined in their dogs and there was a lot of milling about, pointing and exclaiming excitedly,

‘He’s over there!’ ‘There he is, with those two women-‘ The medics leapt into action. The casualty turned out to be a small boy who appeared to have fallen over and cut his lip, hiding behind his mother’s skirt and now devouring an ice-cream with nothing more serious than a tearful expression. So nobody died, there’s nothing here for you to see. You can all go about your business now. But everybody loves a drama, especially here.

The beauty in the midst of this heaving colourful circus was offered to us by a violinist playing Stravinsky and Vivaldi. He was excellent, far too good to be playing in the park, but times are hard, and who knows why people resort to anything. The most gorgeous detail was the group of toddlers sitting in a semi-circle right under his nose, almost as close as you could get, staring up at him and listening with rapt attention. Who says children have no taste? Not one of them fidgeted or got up to leave as he played the Four Seasons. Two small boys edged up even closer to the side of him, commenting to each other on his playing and then standing and watching in awe for a good ten minutes. It was an image that will stay with me, that surprised me in this age of Gameboys, MP3s, online gaming and gadgets I don’t even know the name of. These children were not being made to stay and listen. They could have been looking at midget Darth Vader, giant pumpkins, or at Donnie Darkoe Squirrel, or the dancing tranny, but instead they were entranced by the live classical music. Here was the welcome comedown of the trip, the sobering up, the moment all the pixies stop dancing. Here was something genuine and touching.

Scary monsters

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by cockroach1

It is quite unusual for me to be rendered speechless especially in a professional context, but recently I was lost for words in a group class at the Very Big Bank. It was a low level group, and we were running a quiz in two teams. They had played the text book quiz, guessing the answers from clues like ‘American black and white comic actor, initials CC, Actress who defeats the Alien in the original Ridley Scott film, initials SW, Famous female nurse and health care reformer who started her career during the Crimean war, initials FN, and so on. Now the two teams were writing their own questions to challenge each other. As I circulated, helping with grammar and checking the questions over students’ shoulders, I came to Miguel. My heart sank as I read over his shoulder ‘Best political leader Spain has ever had, from the last century, FF.’ Oh Christ, surely not….. Miguel had been known to make some fairly outrageous remarks in class, for example, when the present King was mentioned once, he launched into an excited rant about how how King Juan Carlos is a traitor and should be dragged through Traitor’s Gate (at least he checked for the correct vocabulary). Zapatero’s name could not be mentioned in class without Miguel leaping to defame his character as ‘that socialist weasel’ whose name he could not even bring himself to pronounce, calling him only ZP. He also claimed once that it was a jolly sensible idea to screen immigrants to Spain by deciding approximately how many English teachers are needed and only letting that many in, and any other nationalities surplus to requirements should be turned back at the borders. You get my drift. I make him sound like a monster; there’s the dichotomy you see, he is in fact a kind, sweet-natured, fussily polite old man who dotes on his daughter and was very happy to give me a proud tour of his office just after I first started teaching him, fondly talking me through his family photographs and the history of the bank building.

So it was with a heavy heart I turned a little later to Miguel for his next question to challenge the other team in the quiz. They got the answer right, of course, most of them looking a little sheepish, and Miguel exclaimed triumphantly ‘Yesssss!’ Teacher replied quietly but firmly, ‘Well, that is a matter of opinion, Miguel, it’s not entirely impartial as a question, is it-‘ but he wasn’t listening and instead leapt out of his seat to give a hearty fascist salute and declare ‘Franco, Franco, Franco!’ while hopping gleefully from one foot to the other like a manic Rumpelstiltskin. It was at this point I lost the power of speech for perhaps two or three seconds. It’s not the fact that people still hold these views that surprises me, least of all in the Very Big Bank, which is a creaking old State Institution as conservative as they come. It’s the sight of someone performing the straight-armed salute at me without any shame, and in an English class that shocked me. To me it’s a filthy and abhorrent gesture, like the swastika it has become visual pollution, something to shudder at and shy away from. But what came next prolonged the lack of speech by several seconds more.

‘Ah yes, Generalisimo Franco Franco, the greatest political leader of the last century!’ he declared happily. ‘In fact, one of the best political leaders in Europe- him and Winston Churchill: without argument the two greatest men of the 20th Century.’

I must have turned a little pale, as his colleagues then started exclaiming ‘Give it a rest, Miguel, sit down-‘ ‘Come on, man, not this again-‘. Yes, of course, Franco and Churchill, like two peas in a pod. Except I don’t remember Churchill massacring all the poets, homosexuals, Leftists, gypsies, artists, bohemians, and activists….. or overthrowing a democratically-elected government…. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that the Spanish teach in schools that Sir Francis Drake was a British pirate while we laud him as a national hero. That makes sense to me in some kind of way, history can be subjective, but Franco and Church….. no……

Franco-adoration takes me back to the heady 80s- after all I arrived in Madrid and lived here for the first time a mere decade after his death. There was a day (the anniversary of Franco’s death, or his birthday, I never remember: an excuse for all his fans to crawl out of the woodwork anyway, when I emerged from Sol metro station into the middle of a Francoist demonstration, to find myself surrounded by fur-coated, hard-faced matrons, stern-backed upper middle classes and Dock Martin’ed skinheads marching, marching, marching relentlessly across the plaza and performing the dreaded salute en masse. I turned on my heel and scuttled back into the metro, the only thing missing the whites of my eyes and a flashing white bobtail. I felt sick; I was shocked. But it turns out there are (or hopefully there were, I prefer the past tense here) plenty of people who would like to have Franco back, given half the chance.

One of these was my old landlady Dolores. I rented a room from her for approximately two months while I was a student back in ’88 or ’89. I don’t remember the circumstances but I do remember I needed a room, and fast, so when I found this one – rented from a little old lady, I took it like a shot, choosing to ignore the crucifix nailed above my narrow monastic bed, the fact that my new landlady told me all about how she’d got rid of the last girl for being a ‘slut’, and even more worrying, the sheer volume of Poperabilia dotted around the house. There were Pope plates on the walls, Pope placemats (in the drawer), Pope thimbles, spoons, mugs, candles…. it was creepy but at the same time delightfully kitsch. Pure Almodovar. But the Pope had competition. Dolores had two men in her life. The other one was Franco.

She was a sweet old duck, always decked out in her wine red housecoat, her gnarled arthritic hands working away in front of her as she knitted, cooked, cleaned, reminding me of a wizened squirrel. She showed me how to make paella once, an experience that traumatised me (a pseudo-vegetarian) so badly that I have never since made it. In went the prawns, in went the chicken, in went the rabbit- the entire carcass slapped onto the chopping board, it’s jelly-ish eyes staring up at me, startled, its skinned, shiny red head a reproach, then thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! She chopped it into six or seven pieces and the dismembered body parts were tipped into the paella. Along with the head. I obsessed about that head the entire time it took for the paella to cook, right up until dinner time that night when I knew in my heart of hearts it would end up on my plate. Which of course, it did.

My time staying with Dolores was a short and quite frankly bizarre period of my life. A sublime example of how dangerous it is to tell lies, because, as the Italian saying goes, lies have legs. And they nearly trotted back to haunt me, although the option of telling the truth didn’t look so appealing either. Let me explain. Dolores, as I said, had thrown the last lodger out for being a ‘slut’. She confided in me how this girl had brought boys back to the flat, she’d seen them kissing goodbye at the door! She hadn’t even brought them inside. It seems so long ago and so unlikely, but at that time it was perfectly normal for no men to be allowed even over the threshold in all all-girl flat. Even a group of girls renting a flat was pretty unthinkable- young women, living alone? Not married or living with parents? Outrageous! So it became harder and harder to explain to my landlady why an older man was calling me constantly from the Uk. How did she know this? Mind your own business, you might think. But Dolores had the precious house phone locked in her bedroom, all calls were screened by her, then permission granted to take the call in her room.  Once, taking a call, I sat in the edge of the unmade bed and discovered to my horror that there was a large crucifix tangled in the bedsheets, meaning only one thing- that she actually slept with it. When I say large I don’t mean full-size, she didn’t exactly strap herself onto it after lights out, but it was at least the length of my arm. I had a much older boyfriend at the time who’d stayed in the Uk, and after the first couple of times he’d called, Dolores had come through to the living room one evening to tell me there was another call for me from ‘that man’, her mouth sharpening and disappearing like a knife turned sideways, and I don’t know what came over me, but I said ingenuously, ‘Oh yes, that’ll be Dad.’

After that, receiving calls was certainly not a problem. I explained how my parents were divorced, (a truth) and that my father called me two or three times a week (an absolute lie, we were currently virtually estranged). On the odd occasion my mother called she got a frostier reception than my ‘father’ from Dolores. ‘Terrible,’ she’d tutt and shake her head when I came off the phone. ‘Your father calls you every few days and you speak for such a long time. Your mother? When does she bother to call? Once a week? Poor girl…. I can see what happened in that divorce….’

As if this wasn’t enough deception, the soup of lies thickened and bubbled with the announcement of an upcoming visit from ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’. My mother and my partner were friends, and had decided to come and visit me together. Oh joy! How the effing hell was I supposed to explain that to my landlady? With another fat whopping lie, of course. Mummy and Daddy may have divorced but it was pretty amicable, and for my sake they sometimes still came on holiday together, and that’s what they were doing. Dolores insisted they came for tea. There was no way out of it. I won’t go into details, but there was a farcical tea party with my mother. Lover and I almost wetting ourselves laughing, while Dolores very sweetly brought out cakes and coffees, lavishing attention on my wonderful father and almost but not quite blanking my mother. The rest of the stay was spent creeping guiltily out of the neighbourhood to the safety of his city centre hostal, slapping his hand away if he tried to hold mine in the vicinity of the flat, and cowering in terror if he tried to kiss me anywhere there was even a remote possibility that Dolores, or one of her spies, would see me. The thought of that happening was a total passion killer, it didn’t bear thinking about.

I got away with it though; Dolores never found out that I was a slut, and probably a worse one than the girl before. We left on good terms- As I said, she was a sweet old lady in many respects, kind and good-natured. Before I left and found less restrictive living arrangements, I remember vividly a conversation we had a propos of nothing one day. Like sweet, kind, fussily polite Miguel, she was the proud owner of some pretty scary opinions.

‘Franco….’ she told me wistfully ‘in Franco’s time Madrid was a safe place to live. There wasn’t any crime, delinquency, there were no drugs, there wasn’t any AIDS, there was no prostitution, no immigration, no unemplyment. Spain was a safe country. Not any more. Look at all these problems the Socialists have brought with them! We never had them before, not in Franco’s time. Spain would be much better off if Franco was still alive.’ I was only just older than twenty, yet even I could have told her these are not problems the Socialists have brought with them, they are inherent problems of modern living. Welcome to the 20th Century. And even then I understood somehow the nostalgia that must inevitably come with the passing of a paternal dictator and the ushering in of a strange, dangerous new era. Dolores never exactly jumped out of her seat to perform the fascist salute, but she was behind him all the way, that much was clear. Dolores and Miguel, separated by twenty years but not by political beliefs. I expected it back then, behind net curtains, just ten years after his death, but today? Halfway through our English class? That I wasn’t expecting.

A Walk in the Park

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna on March 11, 2010 by cockroach1

Finally the sun has come out for a day or two, and with it, the terrace tables. I could tell it was Spring because this morning as I walked past the Taverna La Mina, one of the cheapest local bars, the waiter, who was unstacking and arranging the outside tables and chairs, bid me a hearty ‘Buenos dias.’ It was the stocky, jovial waiter, rather than the other one who looks like an emaciated gnome, and serves the tables as though he were a kindly uncle, possibly with a secret drug or drink habit. A bit shaky but always friendly.

The other indicator of spring’s presence in the air is the sudden urge to fling oneself into outdoor exercise regimes. The Retiro this afternoon was packed full of people hurtling around on wheels. Normally, at least recently, at the same hour there have been very few people in the park- maybe an old man feeding the birds, a stray tourist, or the occasional married closet-dweller cruising for a furtive homosexual encounter in the shrubbery. Yet today, due to the appearance of the sunshine, within a short walk I was almost mowed down by people on rollerblades, skateboards, folding bicycles, one man on weird mono-blades that rotated freely beneath his feet, allowing him to glide around and change directions effortlessly (though the question remains – why?), a speed skater in aerodynamic helmet, very seriously bent double with one arm folded behind him and his lycra’ed behind up in the air, and a dogged roller-skier in full ski atire complete with poles who relentlessly ‘skied’ round and round in loping loops. Don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely for exercise, it is undeniably a good thing, I just fail to see what it is about parks that makes people want to fling themselves all over the place. I’m more of a sit and smell the flowers kind of person.

I also fail to understand why people feel the need to be so noisy in parks, although noise is a topic worthy of a slot all to itself. Madrid has unprecedented levels of noise pollution- everywhere you go there is hammering, banging, drilling, yelling, screeching, blaring, penetrating, headbanging noise. So I go to the Retiro to listen to the birds twitter and the leaves rustle quietly, the distant traffic roar of the city ever-present but distilled to a gentle hum behind the trees. But not today. As I entered the park I came across an Eastern European man playing a loud accordion who wished me ‘buenas tardes’ in the hope that I would drop a coin into his hat. Oh no, you got the wrong person there, mate, and I wouldn’t push it if I were you. I am on the verge of setting up a Facebook pressure group with a like-minded friend entitled ‘Death to acccordion players’ or something like that. The only reason I haven’t done it yet is because it’s been winter and they have left me in peace for a few months. I have grown to loathe the whining sound of the accordion, and more specifically, the accordion players who swoop on you the minute you sit at an outside café table like buzzards around a fresh corpse. I’d almost prefer it if they did pick at my flesh and eat my rotting eyeballs, rather than subject me to yet another dreary rendition of ‘those were the days my friend…’ or ‘besame mucho’. Why is it always the same sodding song? I might not mind so much if they learnt something else. And unfortunately they see the pale skin and blond hair and think ‘tourist!’ and home in on me for my holiday euros so that they are playing right beside my left ear, while I try to continue a shouted conversation that moments before was a calm and pleasant discourse. I would happily machine-gun the lot of them some days. I have, on occasions, when faced with the collecting-hat and the ingratiating smile, been known to reply (always politely, I must add) ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I didn’t actually ask for music.’

Just after the accordion player there was someone practising what sounded like a trombone, or at least some kind of massive horn, somewhere over in the bushes to my left (and no, that isn’t a euphamism.) Of course, everyone wants to hear you practise that on their Tuesday afternoon stroll. Not even play it- practice it. Then, quite touchingly, an elderly couple passed me, arm in arm, both with white sticks, carrying with them a small transistor radio which was on very low. That I can stomach. In fact it gave me a sentimental glow, just before the inevitable thought rose to my mind ‘the blind leading the blind’. I have seen groups or pairs of blind people walking the city on several occasions and can’t help myself from thinking it every time I see it. In Madrid there is definitely more visibility for blind or disabled people, who back in the Uk must all be locked up in sheltered housing or festering in institutions, as I never see them in public. (Is it ok to say ‘blind’ and ‘disabled’ by the way, or am I hopelessly out of date there?) The recurring delight at seeing an over-used cliche so literally illustrated must have something to do with the way my literary, word-obsessed brain works, added to the nerdish British tendency to get off on any pun or wordplay. I recently got into an elevator to go down to a subterranean carpark, and noticed the small metallic plaque with the German or Swiss manufacturer’s name on it and couldn’t stop myself from thinking ‘I’m going down in Schindler’s lift….’ I tried not to think it but it was already there as soon as I saw the name. Pathetic, I know, but inevitable.

But I digress. Noise….. Further along on my idyllic walk I passed a group of men and women in their sixties strolling and holding a conversation as if across a crowded dance-floor. One of the women had one of those piercing Hispanic voices that if you lived with her would make you want to punch her repeatedly in the face after a while. There was a South American father teaching his six or seven-year old son to ride a bicycle, who was on one knee giving him a little pep talk. (I’m not very good with childrens’ ages, they are either this high or about that high to me. Pre- and post-pubescent I can also manage, which is a relief). Scenes like this also give me a warm sentimental glow. Even when a few minutes later they came tearing down the path with the father jogging alongside the bicycle with stabilisers which rattled on the gravel pathway like an aircraft about to take off from the runway. I didn’t mind that, it was sweet. Noisy, but sweet. So there you have it, a gentle stroll in the park on a Tuesday afternoon. No, I still don’t understand the urge to make such a racket in the middle of nature, but I can only assume it is something to do with the Madrileños’ inbuilt ability and desire to turn everything into a party. And as long as we’re all invited that’s not such a bad thing.

Out and about

Posted in Uncategorized, Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , on February 21, 2010 by cockroach1

retiro park

The Retiro

An elderly man by the side of the main path, leaning on his walking stick and distributing crumbs to a small flock of sparrows. As he scattered the crumbs and the birds hopped closer, he looked like a kind of schoolteacher surrounded by tiny, eager pupils on a daytrip. He hobbled two steps to the left, they followed him, their beaks all pointing up at him. He held the crumbs in his open palm until one of the sparrows flitted up to rest on his wrist and take the food from his hand directly. Soon others followed its example and flew up to his hand and ate from it.  His patience and infinite tenderness with the birds was so touching. It made me want to be him: a gentle, elderly man in a park with time to feed the birds. Watching him was a lesson in time-management and priorities.

As I was leaving the Retiro by the Fallen Angel Gate the other afternoon, a rather portly fifty-something preening himself in the reflective pànel along the side of the door on the tubular portaloo. He was smoothing his grey temples down carefully, ducking and weaving to get a good view, then twirling his hair in his hands to form a perfect pony tail, beneath a pronounced bald patch. Feet in white trainers placed firmly apart, wearing a dark blue tracksuit. Lost to the world, engrossed in his own vanity reflected back at him by a plastic public toilet.