Archive for madrid

A very Uncivil Servant

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2011 by cockroach1

one kick to that re-inforced steel door....

I knew I was back in Madrid: it had been approximately thirty six hours, and already I had been for drinks in Chueca, smoked about two packets of cigarettes, accepted an illegal substance, smoked a joint at a party, I had a hangover, the beginnings of a migraine, I’d had drinks in Lavapies, a delicious and nutritious dinner consisting entirely of fried items and/or garlic: croquetas, calamares, patatas bravas and gambas al ajillo, I’d slept less than is humanly advisable, not eaten a single vegetable, been startled out of my wits by an unfeasibly large cockroach, been regaled with a horrible story about a robbery, and now I was being shouted at by a civil servant with serious mala leche.

‘Well, don’t bite my ears off because Jorge went and made a mistake! That’s not his job. He shouldn’t have told you that, Madam, that’s not how it works-‘

‘That may not be how it works,’ I replied ‘but that’s what I was told, and you can hardly call that my fault, I tried to organise this weeks ago, and that’s what he told me.’

‘Well, it’s not my fault. It should have been dealt with by a different department, that’s not how we do things round here.’ He stood up, looming over me in the small airless room with its smart formica table-top and its wilting pot plant. I wasn’t really interested in whose fault it was anyway, I didn’t want to play the Catholic blame game, I just wanted someone to sort it out.

‘Look, can we just try and sort this out?’ I asked him wearily, my migraine starting to throb like some alien life force taking up residence behind my left eyeball.

He agreed grudgingly to try and ‘do something’ and I went for coffee.

‘But,’ he reminded me as we walked down the corridoor toward the bright outside,

‘I can’t guarantee anything, and I don’t know how long it’ll take. If you come back in an hour I might be able to do something, but I can’t promise.’

What was my problem? Halfway through the process of renting my flat with the Sociedad Publica de Alquiler de Vivienda, a Government rental agency which manages flat rentals for absent landlords, we seemed to be sinking up to our necks in beurocratic nonsense and incompetency. Back in Madrid from a Tuesday to a Tuesday, I had pleaded for a pre-arranged appointment to sign hand-over paperwork. After chasing this up for several days I had been granted (very efficiently, I thought) an appointment on the Friday morning. Which I then found out was a national holiday. Three days of further phone calls and emails revealed that it was, in fact, in the system for the Thursday and this was a typo in my email. Lucky I had checked. Then on arrival at this meeting to sign the contract, on opening it and reading it, it appeared that there was a mistake with the proposed rental amount, which was at the original sum, when I had been told it had been raised after I had negotiated it with the agent. Mr Uncivil Servant was now going to re-negotiate my rental amount for me with the correct department.

He wasn’t ready after an hour, so I waited in the waiting room then I sat on the grass bank outside the office on the Castellana, baking in the high sunshine and watching people go in and out. Oddly, the waiting room by reception was the same for property owners and tenants, and I was treated to a cabaret of distressed ex tenants pleading for their deposits. One young woman sat defiantly in the waiting room with a large suitcase, stating,

‘I am not leaving here until I get my deposit back. I left that flat three months ago. That’s my money and I want it back, you’ve got no right-’

A young man wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Running sucks’ shouted,

‘You people! I’ve been calling twenty times a day every day for three weeks, the same number, nobody every picks up the damn phone, so I come down here, all the way across Madrid to speak to someone in person about this, and all you can tell me is they’re not picking up the phone and there’s nothing you can do for me? I want a complaint form.’ Another family sat, grim-faced and muttering darkly between themselves. They were all ‘served’ by a hard-faced receptionist with a straight line of lipstick for a mouth who raised the receiver to her ear and listened into it, shaking her head and refusing to make eye contact. Her replies were curt, defensive. Again I heard ‘…not my fault… nothing I can do about it…..Ya. what can I do about it?’ She probably dealt with this level of hassle every day, but these were clients. Distressed clients.

Was I doing the right thing renting my flat through these people? Mr Uncivil Servant called me back into the office finally, and informed me he’d been able to raise the rent by twenty euros a month. He informed me of this as if he expected the same level of gratitude for having raised it by three hundred a month.

‘You’ll never rent it at that price,’ he said, sliding the contract at me over the table.  ‘You may have an inflated idea of what your flat’s worth, but believe me, Madam, we have far better apartments than yours on our books, flats in Goya and Serrano with swimming pools, flats which are not ground floor, which have light, terraces, and are much bigger than yours.’

‘Well, you can take my lovely, cosy, little designer flat off your books and shove it up your arse, can’t you?’ I said. Actually, I didn’t, I opened the contract and next to the drooping pot plant I signed my name. I’d come too far now to back out. As we walked once more down the corridoor to the bright entrance-way, and he coldly shook my hand, he said,

‘Your flat won’t rent for ages, you know. I shouldn’t be surprised if it sits empty for a long time. And another thing- Lavapies is a dangerous barrio. A very dangerous barrio. It’s full of squatters. All it takes is one kick and they’re in, one kick to the door and they’re in and squatting, and then there’s nothing you can do, they’ll trash it and you’ll never be able to get them out. So I would ask an amiga to come in and air it and put lights on, because you don’t want them to think it’s empty, do you?’

‘Thank you so much for your help.’ I told him, tight-lipped.

If my flat looked like this:

'After 12 we don't want any noise, please call the mobile.' Wonder what they do in this squat, then?.....

I might have understood his cautionary words, but it doesn’t. And believe me, it takes more than one kick to knock down a puerta blindada (reinforced steel door). And they’d have to get past Carmen. So, thanks for the vote of confidence, mate. Just another case of Lavapies as Soddom and Gamorra from some uptight middle-class Madrid snob. And these were the people who were going to be marketing my flat to prospective tenants?


Big, Fat, Gypsy anecdotes (4)

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

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

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

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

‘Would you like a drink?’

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

‘I’ll have a whisky and coke.’

I laughed.

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

He grinned back and nodded.

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

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

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

‘Oh, right.’

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

Big, Fat, Gypsy anecdotes (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I understood.

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

‘Right, you two, down the station.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall of the House of Franco

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

Shafts of Friday evening sun spear us through the windscreen of my friend’s sportscar, stuck in the middle of the herd of metal beasts, crawling and jostling their way out of Madrid. She has invited me for the night to stay with her family in Galapagar, a little town in the mountains that circle the city. We stop on a motorway bridge, hemmed in by traffic, and as the engine thrums, I notice something.

‘Hey, isn’t that Franco’s old weekend house?’

It perches atop a hill to our right, a little crown on a perfectly round pate. I recognise it now, other friends had pointed it out to me a few weeks previously on the way to Torrelodones, to another family visit.

‘Is it?’ My friend strumms her fingers on the steering wheel and peers across me, squinting into the sun.

‘The one they tried to turn into a hotel, or sell, or something?’

‘- And they weren’t allowed to, because it’s Patrimonio Nacional.’ (A heritage site). ‘My mates told me they tried to go up there and visit it in their car a while back. Look at it, stuck right on top of the hill, you’d think it was easy enough to get to. But they said once you started driving up there it’s all overgrown with trees and stuff, all twisty and turny, lots of fake turnings and dead ends, like it’s designed to stop you getting to the house. Probably for privacy, or more like security. They never made it up there in the end, they said they gave up, going round and round in the woods. And they said it was really creepy. Then when they went back another time, it was all blocked off anyway and you couldn’t even drive anywhere near it.’

The car nudges forward no more than an inch, growling at the glittering bodies that surround us.

‘Then they stopped at a turning, this second time they were looking for it, and they asked some local for directions, yeah, I know, it sounds like the beginning to some really bad Horror story, and this local guy started talking to them about the house. Apparently, after Franco died there were squatters in there, in the eighties, and they built fires in the main hall, and ruined all the ceilings, smoke-damaged the lot. And there was an entire church organ, ‘stolen,’ and all the fittings from a church in Valencia, and brought up here and installed in his house. That was ripped out after he died and returned to the original church.’

The house broods on top of the hill, overseeing the wide open hills all around us.

‘It looks like the Adams Family house. Gives me the creeps. Nice scenery though…’

‘I prefer that scenery,’ observes my friend.

A young man strides past the car on the motorway bridge. He is dressed in tracksuit bottoms, a tight t-shirt, and his hair is messed up, as though he has been playing tennis, or swimming maybe. He cuts in front of the hilltop house, going who knows where, his arm curved powerfully to grip the sports bag slung over his shoulder. He is handsome, and slightly sweaty. This image stays in my mind for the rest of the drive to Galapagar. It sums up so perfectly what Modern Madrid can be: the hot yellow of the late sun, the glitter and choke of traffic, the ghost of the toppled dictator hovering in the background like some Hammer House joke, personified by this sinister-looking, isolated mansion reduced to a shell, its insides gutted, rotten and laid low by squatter-hippies, and here in the foreground- beautiful, bristling, masculine bravado in a tracksuit, a glimpse of fading machismo, passing quickly, just out of reach.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 19, 2010 by cockroach1

'When I grow up I want to be a kid'

The moment that I knew for sure we were heading upstream without a paddle was when the Ponce started to provide an impromptu and ever so slightly patronising cookery class to the confused and possibly frightened Filipino waiter. Actually, he wasn’t even a waiter, certainly not our waitress (more of her later); he was probably a busboy, and as this restaurant was connected to a cookery school, he was most likely a trainee bus boy. I looked at the Ponce in profile opposite me and could see even from that angle his eyes gleaming with evangelical zeal and I could hear the cutting down of the syllables, snip snip snip, as he clipped them, steadily warming to his theme.

‘Could you please ask them in the kitchen… kitchen? Yes? You got that bit? Ok, good. Ask them to do the pasta…. al….. dente…… please. Do you know what I mean? Al dente?’

The busboy may have shrugged slightly and when I say slightly I mean it. The tiniest shift in demeanour to indicate his lack of understanding as tiny as one single pulse in the vein on the inside of a wrist. Otherwise he retained his classic ‘oriental inscrutability’ that always transmits to us westerners as sullenness, full-on stupidity or unwillingness to co-operate. His face was totally static, a couple of beads of sweat on his forehead, an immobile and smart figure in his head to toe black outfit and apron, only his eyes moving, only the eyes saying,

‘What do you want from me? Stop asking me questions! I don’t know what you want. I don’t even know what you are,’ in the face of this little pierced, tattoed, Italian devil with his pistacho green sunglasses on the top of his head, his expressive hands and his intense eyes under thick, black eyebrows.

‘Al dente.’ repeated the Ponce, with a sigh.

‘That means that if it says on the packet to cook it for ten minutes, you cook it for eight. Then you take it out. Any kitchen can do it, it’s not difficult. Just ask them please. Then the pasta is not too soft, you see? I don’t want it Spanish style.’ He pulled a face, a grimace to illustrate his disgust. A small line as faint as a pencil-stroke appeared in between the busboy’s eyes.

‘Al dente. You put the pasta in the water…’ here he mimed throwing pasta into boiling water ‘….. and when it’s still a bit hard but cooked, before it turns to mush….’ Here he mimed picking up the pan and removing it from the heat, ‘….you take it out. Cookery school stuff, you ought to be able to manage it even in this restaurant.’

The busboy was dismissed with a turn of the head and he fled, his apron tails flapping behind him.

‘It’ll be a fucking miracle if they get it right.’ the Ponce confided, smiling at me serenely, sipping his wine, then topping up my glass for me. ‘I’m not eating it if it comes out like mush.’

‘I know you’re not.’ I replied, shifting my bottom to get comfortable on the plush leather bank seating. Above us an enormous lampshade hovered like a hooped skirt or a UFO waiting to abduct us.

‘Oh God, now we’re screwed.’ I thought. ‘Now we’re well and truly screwed. How could I not see this coming?’ I downed half of the glass of wine he had just poured me, smiled back at him, and sat and waited for Pastageddon…. any minute now.

My mind flitted back to one evening last Summer at the Turkish kebab shop round the corner from my house, staffed by Kurds, most of them related to each other, and one grinning pirate in particular: the poster boy who graced all the photographic menus, pointing at plates of hummus, kebabs, falafel and rolled vine leaves, turning back to smile seductively at the camera. Handsome and stocky, his luscious black hair always pulled back in a pony tail, a permanent bandana topping his head. He would stand in the doorway, feet firmly apart, muscular arms crossed, or hands on hips, and hail half of the barrio as they passed. We had become almost-friends, after a few months of my living a couple of houses up. In that Eastern way he used to invite me to join him for a glass of mint tea and a chat when he had time. It had become a little ritual of ours, the smiling, the coy glances, the stilted conversation, calling each other ‘guapa’ and ‘guapo’ (gorgeous). His kurdish brothers also always greeted me warmly when I passed the cafe. There was a group of six or seven of us who had gone in to eat and after our four euro kebabs I remember the Ponce, who was in a foul mood for some reason, began to harangue one of the brothers.

‘When I ask for mayonnaise, I mean mayonnaise, not this horrible yellow stuff full of garlic. If I want garlic I’ll order it, I mean, I know this is Spain, but this stuff…. what is it? What is that? It’s not mayonnaise, is it? It’s not even ali-oli. Do you know how to make mayonnaise? You need eggs, right? Then you put…..’

‘Ah, here it comes.’ declared the Ponce, referring to the pasta rather than our waitress who was a rather thick-waisted and broad shouldered lady who spoke in a high soft voice that was obviously affected, and who had clearly not always been a lady. She had initially brought us both menus in English, and the Ponce had queried this decision and asked for them in Spanish. Which is a fair point when you get translations like ‘Hind of leg in roast oven‘, but she had stiffened at his request and smiled ingratiatingly with one of those smiles that suggested she was imagining us raped and abandoned by a highway. Then I had thought, mentally rubbing my hands together ‘Oh, this is going to be fun, the Ponce versus a tranny Filipino waitress with attitude.’ But in fact it wasn’t going to be fun, not at all. Not until hindsight made it hilarious.

‘Your pasta.’ she lisped, depositing a plate in the middle of the table between us. As a starter we were going to share a plate of penne with seafood. I looked at the plate, looked at the Ponce’s face, and started to wither inside. He pushed a fork into one slithery piece of pasta and bit into it, ordering me to,

‘Try it. Go on.’

I did. He was right. This was like a 70s macaroni cheese, overcooked and baked to within an inch of its life, making the texture viscous and slimey, like eating sections of snotty, chopped-up entrails.

‘That’s going back.’ he said, his fork falling with a determined ‘clink’ onto the table by his plate. ‘Unless you….’

‘No, no.’ I murmured, ‘you’re right, it’s gross. They obviously didn’t get the message on time. I don’t want it either.’

‘Excuse me. Excuse me!’ Our waitress appeared by the side of our table, her teeth clenched in a rictus smile.

‘Er, excuse me, I asked for this al dente and it isn’t. We can’t eat this, it’s really overcooked. Could you send it back please and ask them to make it al dente?’

‘Certainly, no problem.’ she replied, her tone suggesting that it very much was one.

‘By the way, this is how this pasta dish is served here. The pasta is pre-prepared.’

‘I can see that.’ replied my companion, ‘but could you ask them in the kitchen to do a portion al dente for us, please? I don’t want my pasta pre-prepared and microwaved to Hell, not when I’m paying for it.’

‘No problem, I’ll ask them to do it again. But you didn’t tell me when I took your order. Let me take that…’ She took the plate.

‘But I did ask the other waiter.’ pointed out the Ponce.

‘Yes.’ she replied, ‘but you didn’t ask me when you ordered it. He doesn’t speak much Spanish, he’s the busboy, not the waiter.’

‘I didn’t know that-‘

‘You should ask me. I’m your waitress. And you can ask me in English as well, because I understand you better in English.’ With that she turned and strode away, bearing the offending pasta dish before her.

‘Stroppy cow!’ said the Ponce, topping up our glasses again and lighting a cigarette. ‘Who does she think she is, talking to me like that?’

I think then he must have caught my frightened rabbit expression, and said,

‘Oh… yeah, hang on, you hate me right now, don’t you?’

‘No…’ I lied.

‘I know, I know, you’re English, and you hate this kind of thing, but sometimes you have to complain. And she should be more polite, I’m the customer. Would you have eaten it? Did you think that pasta dish was all right?’

I shook my head.

‘Well, then.’

He was right. The problem is, just as in life, in her way and in her eyes she was also right and in my way I was right as well. Truth, opinion, conviction, putting aside absolute truth, all these things are mostly subjective. Sometimes I wish I only saw things my way rather than in some twisted cubist fashion, from every possible angle and then some. It would make things so much easier.

In the way some people go for a run, or carry out retail therapy to let off steam, the Ponce’s favourite way to release tension is to bait incompetent restaurant staff. Sometimes I wonder if he shouldn’t have trained as a restaurant critic rather than as a chef. I had to sit back and let him, today of all days; it was understandable that he would be a little tense. But I couldn’t help myself.

‘You know, I don’t understand why you ordered pasta if you know they’re not going to cook it right.’ I commented.

‘Because I fancy eating pasta today.’ he replied simply.

‘Yeah, but Italians never like Italian food outside Italy, so why bother ordering it? Why not order something they can cook here, you’re fighting a bit of a losing battle, aren’t you?’

‘It is a cookery school. I thought they might have half a clue.’

‘I think you just enjoy complaining.’

‘You should see me in restaurants in Italy.’

‘Well, at least they understand the concepts there, they know what you’re trying to say.’

He sighed morosely, and said,

‘All I want is a nice meal today. It’s not much to ask, is it? I am paying! I feel like a condemned man for God’s sake. Just one nice meal before tomorrow morning and they shove a bloody great tube up …. ah, here we go, what is it now, I wonder…..’

Priscilla was back, just behind his chair, standing with her hands clasped sternly before her like Torquemada about to pass sentence. They were large hands for a Filipino ‘lady’, veins running over the backs of them like rivulets of rain down a window pane.

‘There’s no pasta left.’ she announced, with evident satisfaction.

‘Sorry?’ The Ponce’s eyebrows rose quizzically, he hunched down in his chair and bared his teeth in an incredulous smile, a little bit like a dog or a fox does when cornered.

‘There’s no pasta.’

‘What, none at all?!’ He looked at me across the table and I rolled my eyes like a startled horse, partly in fear. This multi-cultural web of wind-ups was beginning to hurt my finely-tuned sensitivities now. A picky Italian chef in a black and dangerous mood, ordering Italian food that would never be good enough anyway in a Spanish restaurant, served by a Filipino transexual. And here I was, caught in the cross-fire, glaringly English in my deeply ingrained distaste for conflict and ‘causing a scene’, dreading the inevitable hissy fit. I knew the Ponce was already reigning himself in to accommodate me. Otherwise there’d have been feathers flying by now.

‘No. There’s none left.’ said our waitress, with a twitch of the mouth that could have been a smile.

‘I suggest you order another dish from the menu but not pasta. Anything else.’ Her face was like a stone, silent and unyielding, with rough, open pores.

Having worked as a waitress myself I already knew the strategic conversation she’d had in the kitchen, ending with the Filipino version of ‘- and tell table four to go fuck himself!’ from the chef. I have also seen enough ‘fly on the wall’ restaurant documentaries to know that we were probably lucky not to get the pasta, as after this performance it may well have come plus a garnish of secret snot, spit, floor fluff, well, you name it.

‘I see. So all the pasta has been pre-cooked to mush, every last bit of it. Is that because they are incapable of cooking it al dente in this kitchen? Too diffiicult for them? Did they miss that bit out in cookery school, then?’ asked the Ponce.

I slumped a little on my slippery bank seat, looking up to the open mouth of the lampshade. Please beam me up. I noticed the ceiling was painted black, a very unusual colour for a restaurant ceiling. Candles flickered around us, light glinted off glassware. Had we not been arguing like this, the atmopshere would, in fact, have been very congenial.

‘Listen,’ hissed our waitress, shoving the menu at him as if swotting a wasp off a windowsill, ‘That’s the way we serve the pasta dishes here. If I know that’s how it’s served here and if I don’t like it that way then I don’t order it. And if I want pasta al dente, a special way or something, I cook it the way I like it at home.’

As she spoke she was glancing from one of us to the other, knowing that she could appeal to me and receive a hypocritical cringe and a smile, while her eyes filled with cold fury as she observed the Ponce. I had the fleeting thought that perhaps she would have been less prickly had she known the Ponce was a gay brother, but then, how was she to know that? He was hardly your typical queen, more of a raver/punk/freak. For all she knew, I was his Sugar Mummy and he was some spoilt little straight rent boy, which may have enraged her even further. She had stood back a couple of paces and had one hand on her hip. The other, now empty of the menu, was beginning to turn on its wrist as she spoke. Any minute now she was about to wiggle her head from side to side and purse her lips, snapping her fingers in his face. Or tell him to talk to the hand. Her meticulously pencilled eyebrows were already arched and ready for battle.

‘Ok, I’ll order something else then, shall I? I mean, after all, I’m only paying for it. I’m a trained chef, you see, sorry, Love, I just like things to be done right. And that’s not right.’

As she sneered and swivelled to leave, the Ponce muttered after her retreating back,

‘Drop the attitude, uptight ladyboy….. If you can’t be civil with people as a waitress I think you’re working in the wrong place. Go and get yourself a job dancing on the bar at el Boite or Black and White. Or even better, get yourself down to casa de campo, I’m sure you could make a few bob there, and you don’t even have to smile. Rude bitch…

Despite or maybe because of my churning embarrassment I snorted with laughter. Black and White. A vision of Hell far scarier than any Bosch triptych. I had been there one night when the Contessa was visiting, with a mutual friend Carlitos, after downing various bottles of wine at home and dancing around the living room to Eartha Kitt. How we ended up there I don’t know, but we made our way down the glittery stairs and round the dance floor then through a thick curtain, following Carlitos, who navigated the place like a sniffer dog following a scent. I thought he was taking us into the dark room and held back, but he pulled me through the curtain after him. It was just the downstairs bar. We propped up the bar for a while, drinking and laughing, glancing around at the television screens showing sweaty pornography, until suddenly on the counter beside the Contessa’s elegant hand there appeared a dizzyingly high silver street-walker’s stilettoe, filled with a gnarled foot with bright crimson toenails. I will never forget the way the Contessa pulled away his hand as if from the jaws of a snapping dog, looking up fearfully at the apparition behind him which reared up from nowhere, reminding me of a slow motion version of the scene where the original Alien spreads its arms wide and is glimpsed for the first time. Venus emerging from the waves she was not. What followed the shoe and the foot was a figure as sinewy as a butcher’s dog, dressed in a bikini top and obscenely short and tight denim hotpants. As she gyrated above us I couldn’t help glancing at the boob job. Like two ill-matched grapefruits shoved underneath cling-film, the curved tops as defined as a clown’s eyebrows. And then beneath a mat of permed hair the shape was replicated in her arched, pencilled eyebrows, accentuating acne-speckled features so frozen by Botox they were about as expressive as a cupboard door. When reminded of this later, la Contessa admitted he had snatched his hand away so quickly and fearfully because he had been wearing his diamond ring, and apart from the fear of having his hand crushed by the approaching stiletto, it had also crossed his mind in a fleeting second, in a moment of panic, that an incoming drag queen might want to snatch and steal the diamond for herself.

We’re leaving.’ declared the Ponce.

‘Oh God, oh please don’t start shouting, I can’t stand it, this is so embarrassing…’

‘Who’s shouting?’ he replied, with a grin. ‘We are leaving, though. Let’s go and eat somewhere else. I’m not having any more of this. Excuse me!-‘

This time the bus boy reappeared; possibly our waitress was in a back room somewhere having a pep talk and a tooth guard fitted, her brow mopped with a towel, ready for round two. The Ponce mimed a scribbled bill and very quickly it appeared.

‘Drink up!’ he said cheerfully, indicating the half carafe of white wine which was to accompany our pasta, and the half carafe of red which was to go with our steaks which would now never appear. He glanced at the bill, and called the bus boy back.

‘Could you take the bread off this bill please? We didn’t have any bread. We didn’t order any and we didn’t eat it.’

Less than ten minutes later we walked unsteadily up the stairs, holding on to each other, the Ponce calling over his shoulder a cheery,

‘Hasta luego!’ at our waitress, who replied with a wordless glance as sour as mouldy yoghurt. I cringed and walked faster. It wasn’t possible to get out of the place fast enough. As we emerged into blinding sunlight, the Ponce threw back his shoulders, drew a deep breath and declared,

‘Do you know, that was just the ticket! I feel so much better than I did earlier. Let’s go and get something proper to eat, there’s the Gallego restaurant I went to with Tito round the corner. Great steaks. Well, we’ve had our ‘starter’, let’s go for the main, shall we? Incredible. I feel good as new. Just what the doctor ordered.’

He was a changed man. The black mood brought on by his imminent hospital visit had lifted and hunger had been replaced by the thrill of the chase and a sense of righteousness. I was glad he’d recharged his batteries, but in some vampiric way, that had only been possible by sucking me dry and leaving me weak with embarrassment at the public shame and inconvenience caused. It had also involved frightening a semi-literate busboy to death, and igniting the wrath of our transsexual waitress.

‘This,’ I thought, ‘this is the Brave New World we have created. Welcome to multi-culturalism’. And it was only then that I started laughing, on the way to the Gallego.

Lavapies Olympics (3) Long Distance gobbing

Posted in lavapies olympics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by cockroach1

olympics10Not so long ago I was walking up from Tirso de Molina toward Sol and as I passed a doorway a huge blob of gob flew out into the street at about thigh-level, narrowly missing me, followed by the spitter himself. Now, I am not one to cause a scene but in this case I made my feelings perfectly clear.

‘Hey! Do you mind??! That could have hit me! Look where you’re spitting, for God’s sake. In fact, even better- don’t do it, it’s disgusting.’ He was suitably bashful and apologetic, and hopefully will think next time before launching a pavement oyster. Unfortunately you would have to make it a full time job remonstrating with all those who clear their noses and throats in the streets of Lavapies. Like China, the streets often ring with the charming sounds of hawking and gobbing. But even China tried to clear up its act a few years ago during the SARS crisis, as the realistation finally dawned that it isn’t the most hygeinic of practices, and can contribute to the spread of diseases like Atypical Pneumonia, (which is more severe than common or garden Pneuomonia and doesn’t respond to antibiotics), Tuberculosis and other contagious respitatory illnesses. As we are currently at risk from another apparently deadly virus, this time originating from pigs, you’d think people might think twice before depositing their phlegm on the streets for us all to share, but no, the practice continues here.

Culturally it’s something we Brits have not done for years- centuries even, apart from a brief return to fashion during the punk era when it was part of the punk ritual to spit on live bands. While it was a common practice in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, by the early 1700s it had become a habit best concealed publicly, and by the late 1800s it was seen as vulgar, especially in mixed company. The Nineteenth Century gave us the Spittoon, though even the use of these began to die out after the Influenza epidemic of 1918, and today it’s merely seen as gross and socially unacceptable. Unless you are a footballer. It’s not the only sport where spitting has been noted- baseball player Frenchy Bordagaray was once suspended for spitting at an umpire, and remarked drily that the punishment was ‘more than I expectorated’. Yet even footballers are now coming under attack for the habit of spitting on the pitch due to the danger of spreading swine flu. The Health Protection Agency in October this year said spitting ‘could increase the risk of passing on infection’ and also claimed ‘Spitting is disgusting at all times. It’s unhygeinic and unhealthy, particularly if you spit close to other people…. Footballers, like the rest of us, wouldn’t spit indoors so they shouldn’t do it on the football pitch.’ Hear hear, I say. poster_spitting

I have tried to be tolerant and culturally aware, but this is one thing I cannot abide. Maybe it’s because I was once spat on in the face during an argument in a restaurant kitchen. To spit in someone’s face is a universal sign of anger, hatred and contempt. For me it was far worse than being slapped. It made things revoltingly personal. I lose my temper approximately every five years or so, and on this occasion I literally saw red- a red hot rage that made me hurl a bucket of garlic mayonnaise followed by another bucket of olives at the spitter. I was then hustled physically through the restaurant, past rows of startled diners, forks raised in mid-air, and hurled like a sack of rubbish onto the plaza with the cry of ‘and don’t come back!’ Let’s hope the same thing happens to this vile habit- hustle it out of the back door and make it perfectly clear it isn’t acceptable, and isn’t going to be making a come-back any time soon.

But you are a cripple, Blanche…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2009 by cockroach1


But you are a cripple, Blanche...

For the first time in three weeks, I have picked up my stick (lent to me by MacGuiver from the bar next door) and walked. Out there- outside. Yesterday I had my follow-up x.ray at a medical centre and in the afternoon, another visit to my GP to be signed back on for work, all things being well.

The x ray was a fairly efficient affair. We were sitting in a small bay with plastic seating, at right angles to a corridoor with many doors leading off it into various x-ray and consulting rooms. Along the corridoor hurtled medical staff in a self-important flurry, occasionally calling out names, then barking the order ´this way, please´. By the time I followed my nurse she had disappeared, and I stood peering into open doors, thinking ´yeah, but which way?….´ until she found me. Back in the waiting room I heard ‘Maria Milagros Martinez’ called out, and a woman of about 30 years old came forward. Mary Miracle Martinez. That means she was named in the eighties sometime. I understand older Spaniards having religious names – it was a decree of Franco´s that all babies christened after a certain date must have a religious name, hence the glut of Mary Josephs, Joseph Marys, Jesus, Mary of the snows, of the pains, Pains, Consolation, Immaculate, etc etc. But what were her parents thinking? Mary Miracle Martinez? Sounds like a specialist hooker or a girl who fires herself out of a cannon for a living. Nowhere near as bad, however, as my favourite ghastly name which is Circuncision, shortened to Circun. An old lady’s name originating in Andalucia, apparently, thankfully dying out these days.

Following the x ray I was told I could go home and it would be sent to my GP electronically. I asked for it to be sent that day so as not to waste a visit to my GP that afternoon and was assured it would be done that morning. Knowing in my gut that something in the process would screw up, I hobbled home. At the doctor’s later (by this time with a sore-ish foot due to all the walking) I was told the xray had been sent but in the wrong format and I’d have to go back again the next day. Deep breath….

Today I made a visit to work to sort our paperwork. I went by metro, perfecting my authentic Dr House limp with stick.


''Make your own cup of tea.''

Reactions to the stick are interesting. At the best of times it´s hard enough to get someone to give up their metro seat for you. I was offered a seat twice, once by an older gentleman and then by a young woman. Suddenly there were other walking wounded everywhere. In the carriage with me a young man with a wheelchair, another man at Sol metro station with a zimmer frame, a girl on crutches, in Plaza Lavapies another man resting on a bench with his crutches. As the metro carriage door opened and the wheelchair guy and I tried to leave, the usual press of bodies stopped us leaving before they piled into the carriage, and one bitter old cow tutted loudly at us as we tried to push pur way through and onto the platform. I reacted in true Spanish fashion, snapping at her,

´Well, let us get off first, then!’ Sometimes being half Spanish has its advantages- you are allowed to answer back, to have a damn good whinge when you need to, to push and shove, and you can permit yourself not to apologise when someone else shoulder barges you in the street.

After calling in to work I went to the office where the Ponce pays his rent and sorted that out for him. The doorman to the building rushed out of his little booth as I was leaving- a red-faced balding midget with a huge grin, and asked me how I´d done it, then why didn’t I have a man to do these things for me, then next time I should call him and he’d lift heavy things for me, finishing our short chat with the statement ´God, but you’re gorgeous, you are.’ Thanks very much, but no thanks….

It feels good to be out and about again. It´s as though I have been away in another country, or in a chrysalis, emerging blinking into the light. Over the past few weeks it has become winter. The walk back from the x ray yesterday morning was glorious. My appointment was at 8.10, and I saw the sun rise pink over the Puerta de Toledo. The streets are quieter, the terraces are almost all brought inside by now and there are even a handful of Christmas decorations up. Winter in Madrid is bitterly cold but exhilerating. It felt good to be back. Enough of this crippled house arrest. I think I might keep the stick though, as an affectation, and as a handy way to get a seat on the metro.