Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cold and Wet

Cold and wet as I write this. It is colder inside the house than out, for some reason, perhaps because I’m hardly sitting still when I’m in the garden, cutting down some wood. Our house is quite old and far too large, well-built with thick walls, high ceilings, small windows and tile floors which all work to keep it cool in the summer, but this tactic is rather less successful in the winter. The wooden doors and windows have a small but inevitable gap between themselves and the lintels or the frame and a merry gale shoots through these various weaknesses in our defence. There’s a window that must be kept open for the cat, only this often changes from one window (the one in my study) to another (the one in the sitting-room) according to who is doing what and where. The cat will, of course, make his own arrangements if he can’t get outside for a pee.
It’s a large house – for sale if you are interested – and among other sundry attractions, we have three fireplaces. But no electric chainsaw. This means that we may have as much as one fire burning, hopefully somewhere near where I am shiv- I mean sitting, depending on whether anyone has been out sawing and gathering…
There are other solutions to keeping warm like the handy Spanish gas fire thingy on wheels that follows me about on a piece of string wherever I go, producing what it insists is something called ‘black heat’; the electric fire bought in an unthinking moment from Lopez a few years ago which the children unfailingly leave ‘on’ when they are out; and the heat from the ‘cocina’ which leaks from our enormous French oven and mixes with the tantalizing smell of dinner, keeping us all sat in the kitchen around the breakfast table for a genteel and civilized amount of time.
Any other solution to staying warm in our house during the winter snap is either to do with eiderdowns, wool, a hot bath, booze, cuddles or some passing physical exertion. We manage. A handful of crumpled up newspapers, a few twigs, a lump or two of orange-tree or pine root, close all the windows and Bob’s your uncle.
And, as long as it’s outside, I say to hell with the cat!
It is true to say that, if it’s cold in Mojácar, with its warm Mediterranean microclimate, then it will definitely be colder everywhere else. From my house I can see that there is snow on those high hills of the Filabres, no doubt great drifts of the stuff blocking the roads and covering the trees. I don’t think I’ll bother to go and look. The mayor of Vélez Blanco – which is still in Almería, you must visit their castle one day, and try the trout at the restaurant up there – was obliged to get his bright red tractor out over Christmas and put a snow-plow scoop on the front of it to help free some villagers in the nether parts of his pueblo. Their front doors and windows were buried under two metres of snow. Their wails of terror echoing up through their chimneys. I look forward to reporting an anecdote one day of our own intrepid mayoress doing something similar.
We are only a few hours from the Sierra Nevada (apparently only 55 minutes once they build the AVE route to Granada) where there is snow five months of the year. It’s a great place for skiing and drinking hot rum. I once went out walking with my father while staying in a hotel up there and we got quite lost. There was a blizzard and the road had disappeared. We were seriously contemplating the condition of our souls when, suddenly, a fellow carrying a wedding cake loomed out of the darkness coming from the other direction and we followed him several kilometers to a large and rather merry bar where we stayed the rest of the night.
Spain is famously a warm country, now even more so thanks to the disappointing results of the Copenhagen talks on CO2 controls, and it is always a surprise just how cold it regularly gets. This is primarily because most of the country is on a high plateau and somebody cut down all the trees several hundred years back while planning an invasion of England so there’s the wind-chill factor to consider as well. Icy city views appear on the television together with some old lady being interviewed and laughing ruefully about the cold. Mountain passes are often closed for a day or two at a time. Even the A4 motorway out of Madrid heading south was cut a few days ago because of the snow.
Rain is another thing you don’t expect to see much of in Spain, apart from Galicia where of course it rains every single day. We have a few clouds here and there, a rare damp afternoon in Roquetas de Mar, reports of a sprinkle in Lubrín, and then one night there’s a blue moon shining over Albox and suddenly we have a really good gully-washer.
So, despite the adverse weather patterns, every now and again, it rains. The garden needs it. The farmers need it. The roof-repair people need it. Especially in Mojácar where, for esthetic reasons, our roofs are, by law, entirely flat. But, come-on, who in their right mind is going to build a flat roof? Tilted ones with tiles stop the rain coming in and help insulate the house. I think it’s because our early builders here weren’t great shakes. So leaks are commonplace. Small pools of accumulated water on the roof. Eventually a trail of water drips menacingly through some weakened spot. Those nights of sloshing about in the guest-bedroom in one’s pajamas and slippers trying to move the bookshelf. Ah, happy memories!
Not any more though, no more leaks or drips. I had the roof fixed a couple of years ago.

It rained in every town
Except Mojácar,
A very damp and soggy
Thing to do.
It rained in every town
Except Mojácar
And then one day,
It rained in Mojácar too!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Old Glories

I started a newspaper here - 'The Entertainer' - in 1985. It built its way up to three editions and 40,000 copies weekly, plus a Spanish monthly edition ('Entertainer en Español') until, in 1999, I signed a ... (*removed by court order*)... well, it all ended in tears. At least, for me.
Anyway... checking through old web-editions of The Entertainer (I started the first web-edition of an English-language paper in Spain in 1998), I found this:

'Living in Spain, the Foreign residents' (November 1998)
While figures for the foreigners living in Spain are hopelessly inexact, it is known that 1,200,000 properties are registered in Spain as belonging to foreigners. This figure gives an approximation of 3.6 million foreigners, at three per property, with some relationship with the country. Surprisingly, the Spanish authorities themselves appear to be indifferent to the numbers, and even to the income derived from this group. If we accept the low figure of 600,000 English speaking residents on the Costa Blanca and in Andalucia, who each spend £1,000 per month - a not unlikely figure which includes a percentage of their house and car price, their taxes and purchases - their annual spending power would come to £7,200 million (1.5 billion Pesetas). All brought in as foreign exchange.The Spanish authorities would be well advised to consider this form of 'tourism' and to encourage its growth. For a foreigner, living in Spain is now far easier than in the past, particularly for EU citizens. 'Work permits' and 'residence permits' are now just a formality, since all Europeans have the right to live and work where they will inside the European Union. However, the majority of foreigners who live in Spain are, of course, retired. They have lived a full and fruitful life elsewhere and have decided to retire to what can only be described as the warmest, safest and most comfortable part of Europe - the Mediterranean coast of Spain and her islands. They live in or near the small towns dotted along the coast, away from the cities, and evince little interest in returning 'home' again. Those that do eventually move, move inland into the 'real Spain' - to the Andalucian hinterland or elsewhere. The Mediterranean coast of Spain could be likened to southern Florida twenty years ago - a place of opportunity, beauty and tranquillity (well, it's a lot prettier!). Many foreign-run businesses now operate along the coast and in the islands with everything from dentists and doctors to English food supermarkets, realtors, builders and, um, newspapers. There are theatre and choral groups, clubs, associations, golf, bowls, water sports... life need never be dull. Spain itself is a fascinating and beautiful country to get to know, and residents make keen travellers. Certain foreigners have already voted in local elections, and by May 1999 - the time of the next local vote - all European citizens resident in Spain, and possibly all non-Europeans as well, will be able to vote. This will give the foreign residents a greater say in how their community is maintained and developed, as well as better protection from the occasional town hall 'excess'. Communications in Spain have improved dramatically in the past few years, and there is now a coastal motorway that runs from the French border, down through Barcelona and Valencia, and along the Costa Blanca and Costa de Almeria. This motorway will soon be completed on down to the Costa del Sol and Gibraltar. A second motorway through Granada currently connects with Malaga and continues to 'the Rock'. The rail-system is adequate, but slow, with the exception of the high-speed AVE link between Madrid and Seville (and on to Cadiz). Air-links are good, with airports in every main city, plus Gibraltar, although it must be said that the Almeria airport is a 'horror'. Prices in Spain are average, with both housing and labour rather cheaper than elsewhere, and clothing, cars and gasoline rather higher. The weather, however, is better here than anywhere else, and that's the main thing.

Not bad - eleven years later I'd only make a few minor adjustments to the above.
It's still warm.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Demolitions, Demonstrations, Democracies.

It’s a funny place, Spain. There are now so many levels of authority, with so many public servants (‘funcionarios’ as they are amusingly called), that no one is ever quite aware of what to do, scared of ‘doing the wrong thing’, panicked by those situations which are not covered in the ever-changing handbook (ever more of us are said to be ‘en situación irregular’) and, in short, the country appears to limp along from one crisis to the next, with no firm judicial or political presence anywhere in evidence.
Let’s look at our local problems, and leave the country’s larger conundrums, like whether a maverick judge should try and sue Franco for genocide, or the attempts to re-open the wounds of the Civil War, or whether the Catalonians should secede from the rest of Spain and have a glorious non-bullfighting cava-swilling Catalan speaking mini-state all of their own, or even if our best-of-the-year sportsman plays on an American team in a game practically unknown here in this country (the NBA), all for another time.
Two years ago, the ‘delegado provincial de la Consejería de Vivienda y Ordenación del Territorio de la Junta de Andalucía en Almería’ – the Junta’s homes and council house poobah – apparently waiting until the normal judge (who ‘has never signed a demolition order and never will’) was away on holiday and a substitute judge was in charge, obtained a fast-track demolition order on a home in Vera. This killed two birds with one stone. Or maybe three.
First of all, Vera is a town run by a small political party at odds with the ruling PSOE. The mayor has been in power there for some time and, well, politics is a dirty business. Then, the house in question belonged to a retired British couple, Len and Helen Prior. Britons aren’t likely to turn around and bite. They will have no useful cousins in politics, relatives in the judiciary or immediate family in the Spanish media. No one will know, or care, if something happens to such an unimportant family, especially if the action is legal.
But was it legal?
Spain’s mayors have always exercised the ultimate power in their towns. You could argue that they are the stewards or representatives of the just and rightful aspirations of their townsfolk (and we shall all fall over laughing while you do), but it could be argued that they would best know their way around locally and precisely what their community needs most.
Then, with the advent of the ‘autonomies’ in 1979 (Almería was the only province in Spain that voted against its proposed autonomy of Andalucía with Seville at six hours away as its capital and master), new powers and centres of interest were created.
So, as a mayor allows building in his municipality, bringing in much needed taxes to help pay the ever-growing number of ‘funcionarios’ working flat-out in his town hall (and remembering, together with their families, who put them there during election times), the autonomous government begins to discover an interest in these activities and, ahem, opportunities.
On the one side – and we shall leave corruption or special interests or politics out of the equation – we have the limits of water, space, ecology, the number of school-teachers, local police, health-workers and so on to consider. Can the town expand and in which direction? On the other hand, as we are talking about small moribund pueblos generally (in this case) in the interior of Almería, towns which have little or no agriculture, industry or tourism, where the old are dying off and the young are leaving, then what could be better than an influx of apparently wealthy foreign retirees who not only buy a house (and a car and a washing machine and a sofa and a television) but continue to bring in money from abroad twelve months of the year, keeping local businesses afloat and creating jobs.
Almería currently enjoys 30% unemployment.
What is a mayor to do?
While Vera, the town of the Priors, is close to the playas and can aspire to some seasonal tourism, the interior towns of the Almanzora Valley have serious concerns to address.
So now, as our friend the gauleiter from Seville declares 11,000 properties in the eastern part of the province to be illegal (the Junta’s delegado provincial is actually from Oria, a small town in Almería), putting many economies at risk and rubbishing Almería’s name abroad, another eight British homeowners in Albox are told, over Christmas, that their houses are to be demolished.
Did the cops carry candles and wassail them before they handed over the demolition papers? Perhaps not.
How can you build 11,000 illegal houses? Somebody? You there at the back?
Are these people mad?
A house, with all its papers from the town hall in order, is nevertheless arbitrarily demolished. So where is the compensation? Well, we have the courts for that. Len and Helen Prior actually had their case in the Constitutional Court in Madrid when the bulldozers went in. Eighteen months after the fact, the court ruled in their favour. Now the Junta de Andalucía is appealing. After that is all sorted out, the Priors are free to sue either the Junta de Andalucía, or the town hall of Vera. Depending.
This will take the rest of their life. They are, after all, elderly retired foreigners. European. But, alas, foreign.
They have no heroes: no representatives, no ombudsman, no MP or MEP. Only a local foreign home-owners association, the AUAN, to do what it can – demonstrate, write letters, hold candle-lit sit-ins. The British media will often cover these stories, but it naturally has its own agenda; the Spanish press won’t touch the subject with a bargepole. It’s politics.
The problems regarding compensation are, in fact, far worse than the agony of going through the Spanish legal system. Many building companies and promoters have limited liability of just 3,000 euros and the ‘president’ is, as often as not, someone without patrimony to chase after.
It is clear that some houses need to be demolished. They have been built in flood areas, dry river beds or other dangerous or unsustainable places – and, yes, of course the town hall knew about them. But these homeowners must be compensated fully. This modern European country, ultimate destination for many hundreds of thousands of Northern Europeans, needs an agency to protect, advise, inform and defend the foreign property buyers – precisely because it is in everyone’s interest to do so.
Meanwhile, the Priors, two years on, are living in a garage.
Nice one, Spain.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Day in the Life of Lenox Lenoxovitch

Zzzz. I slowly discover that my dream has once again taken me to a strange bathroom. I wake up with the pressure on my bladder and stumble slowly and carefully – there’s a large dog asleep on the floor somewhere – to our en-suite to siphon the python. My wife wakes up as I fall over Ginger on the way back and switches on the light.
‘What time is it?’ She asks.
I have a rule. If it’s four o’clock I try and get back to sleep. If it’s six, I’ll get up and make a coffee. I used to have a very good internal clock which could tell me the time to the minute, which is why I’ve never had to wear a watch. These days, it just clanks gently on the hour somewhere in my brain like an old but well-wound railway clock.
Unfortunately, it’s five.
Since it will be six long before it’ll be four again, I decide to make an early start to the day. Coffee, a slice of toast and some orange juice squeezed from the in-law’s fruit.
Well, at least we have water this morning. The other day, fresh – or not so fresh, come to think of it – from our drive home from the Madrid airport, we found that the water had been cut. So, the following morning I drove down to the water company’s headquarters in Vera – across a track and following a road-works gang, and in to sort the thing out.
My first remark, there was an audience of Spaniards waiting their turn behind me, went down well. ‘Lady’, I said, ‘I’ve come to take a shower. Where do I change?’
The water had been cut, it turned out, because they had found an old bill from 2004 and (apparently anxious to cash it before the statute of limitations ran out) had gone to my bank only to discover that I had failed to budget for this eventuality and, despite being a regular customer who wasn’t particularly going anywhere – apart from a well-earned holiday after the Great Fire of Mojácar last summer – decided to cut the precious life-giving fluid to my finca. The result – whatever hadn’t died in the farm the first time round was shriveled up and dry by the time I was sat in the water company’s office coughing up not just the 230 odd euros they wanted, but another fifty reconnection charge.
Bastards! I got my own back though. I think my audience were appreciative as I noisily filled out my first ever ‘complaining sheet’.
But today, no water problem, no bucket by the loo. All friends again. Instead, a quick and violent shower, followed by me mopping the floor where I’d made a poorly judged squirt.
I went to the shop this morning to get in some food and drinks. The choice was between my usual supermarket, which, since December 1st, has taken to playing a grotesque collection of muzak Christmas songs and ‘villancicos’ (high-pitched whiney children’s songs for Navidad and, don’t forget, the Three Kings) and the other, larger one where the shop assistants interrupt one’s shopping experience by periodically bellowing instructions over the in-house tannoy system like something out of a Butlins holiday-camp. Normally, I’ll shop with an iPod stuffed into each ear.
I had made my way to the queue at the front (I’m in the bellowing shop-girls supermarket) and was waved past this fellow. ‘You go ahead’, he said in Spanish. ‘Why, thank you’, I answered politely. ‘I’ve just been having a drink with Jacky Mankewitz’, I added, under the impression that I knew this fellow, who looked faintly like the Postman, ‘and, do you know, at his age, he’s still playing tennis’, I finished.
No, on closer inspection, definitely not the Postman.
Now I have to queue for another five minutes as the lady in front of me pays for her trolley in patiently counted out pennies, all the while aware that the Spanish bloke behind me is convinced that I’m barking mad. I’m not really; it’s just that, in a tourist town, everyone starts to look alike.
I drive home with my shopping, including a rather suspicious English fish pie which I am already regretting having purchased. Some chap in Pieland has spent millions making this thing, doing the packaging, the design, the flakes of – one hopes – fish wrapped in monosodium glutamate and so on and, lo! There’s a box of it in a supermarket in Spain. The picture looks like Captain Nemo wrestling with a deep-Atlantic squid. I nuked it in the microwave and it was, indeed, horrible. Again I remind myself to eat Spanish stuff in Spain.
Thanks in part to our water-company-induced drought that followed the summer conflagration, we have lots of firewood. Blackened, sooty and dead. It just needs scooping up, cutting, breaking or uprooting and the chimney is stuffed to bursting for the evening. Our house is a country-house, nice in the summer, cold and drafty in the winter. A good fire in the bedroom to keep everything toasty.
So I get down and dirty with a saw. There’s a lot of work to do. Some of the trees are beyond me: I’ll have to get the neighbour and his chain-saw over. Perhaps I could invite him to some spare fish-pie. There, a wheelbarrow load should do it. I down tools and head for the house; my hands black with soot, my shoes full of ash.
Sometimes, it’s like living in one’s own junior plague. Heaven forbid that I ever see a proper one.
Inside, there’s a message on the phone. Our phone number is, unfortunately, very similar to a popular local restaurant. I discover that I’m having a party of six at 8.30.
The fire warms us as it slowly gets late, and the book falls to the floor. We lie in bed; a stray hair from the cat tickles my nose. The dog growls at some dream-figure and a gecko stirs and stretches quietly behind a painting.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Forums

Hello Lenox, sqwerlie has just replied to a thread you have subscribed to entitled - loadabollocks. - in the XYZ forum. This thread is located at …. There may be other replies also, but you will not receive any more notifications until you visit the forum again.
That’s right, a message on the email to go and check the forum.
The idea of a forum is sound enough, especially for those living some similar kind of life, whether its musicians, scientists or, in our case, people who’ve moved or moving – by and large – from Northern Europe to come and live in Spain. The ‘expats’, ‘Europeans’, ‘Brits’ or what have you. We could start a thread on the correct nomenclature if you like.
The forums, or ‘fora’ I suppose would be more correct, offer the chance for people with generally silly nicknames to ask questions, make announcements or comments, to complain or criticize or to support or disagree with threads which, in theory at least, are something to do with Spain.
Usually, this falls down pretty fast.
The first line of defence against the ‘trolls’, people who write – at best – mischievous comments, disingenuous arguments or provocations, are the moderators. They can erase threads or comments and, one can only suppose, they must be dedicated to reading everything that comes along on their ‘watch’ before things get out of hand. The only time that I have been pressed into this particular service, things were quiet enough until some foul porn-linking Russian tosser found his way to the site – posting maybe forty or fifty rather terrible pictures every day and so on with me solemnly removing them again – before the site-owner managed to fix the problem once and for all by closing the forum to new subscribers, which didn’t do much for the whole enterprise. Moderators on larger sites (this was a small specialist one) must have quite a job. We sometimes criticize them for their actions – or lack of them – but they need to be ‘eternally vigilant’. Well done, Ahana!
Moderators also need to know their subject. One site about Spain I sometimes post on has a ‘mod’ and enthusiastic poster who is so dumb that she flies all through an argument, missing the point, adding trite remarks, brainless gushes and regular doses of solipsism as if she was more a troll than a moderator.
There are around twenty forums I’ve linked to on The Entertainer Online (a site I maintain with notes and items about Spain) and these vary in quality from ‘busy’ and ‘useful’ to vague, unvisited and clumsy. One popular site, which served Almería foreigners well enough for some time, was so thoroughly tweaked to death by its webmaster last year, the inevitable result was that visitors fell away. Currently it has little ‘snowflakes’ coursing down the screen. No one, at least among the expat population of Almería, who are probably on average in their fifties or so, likes change.
While some threads or sections seem concerned with ‘life back home’, with generally negative comments about the foreigners who are moving to England (!) or how the British ‘need to pull up their socks’ for some reason or another which the writer would be only to happy to contribute towards if only he hadn’t chosen a life – apparently – of exile, most threads are to do with living in Spain. These divide into the good and the bad and, with the issue of ‘illegal homes’ to spur us on, they may move into white-hot agitprop and (usually poorly informed) politics. One very active forum, based in the Almanzora Valley, got so heated on the subject of ‘capitulation or confrontation’ regarding these illegal homes (the Seville government, who has chosen to describe those foreign-owned homes in Eastern Almería as ‘ilegal’ puts the number arbitrarily at 11,000), that the forum eventually took a particular position of what might be sententiously described as ‘working within the system’ while those in disagreement with this policy started a new one. These two forums sum up how the Europeans think: they are locally known as the ‘blues’ and the ‘purples’.
Forums can have much to say and they offer the opportunity to say it. Some take this chance to fool about, write meaningless patter, post endless ‘smileys’ or even write in ‘fool’s English’ using misspellings and poor grammar for some peculiar reason of their own.
Most if not all threads are eventually ‘hijacked’. A thread that starts about ‘smoking in bars’ will, by the third page, probably be about the price of salt, or bullfighting, or how some ‘forum character’ was once a sea-captain.
But, it’s the numbers which work against the forums. Check out a thread and you will see the number of visitors, or readers. You can then divide that by the number of posters to give you an idea of how far some subject has actually dissolved into the expat consciousness.
Sadly perhaps, it won’t be many.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Spanish Maid Service

It’s a standard conversational piece at any get-together: a chance to show one’s true worth at the negotiating table, an opportunity to display one’s in-depth arrival into local society.
The hourly price of a maid.
And no matter how wealthy you are, anyone who pays fifty cents more an hour than you do wants their head examined; and as for anyone who pays fifty cents less... Jeez Louise!
Every morning, except Sundays, thousands of maids make their way across the Spanish landscape. Poor things. They arrive by bus or on foot. Some few are long-sufferingly picked up by the patron from their apartment on the other side of town, and then there are a small number of them that arrive in a better looking car than the house-owner has.
These are the unsung heroes of Spain. They make the bed, they wash the dishes, they polish the silver, they do the laundry and they wipe the baby’s ass. They sometimes get into the gin.
They don’t dress up for the occasion, however, like the French ones do. Oo la la.
There are two schools of thought about the preparation of one’s house for the domestic onslaught. The first type has it that the maid should never suspect what a scruff they are dealing with, and so these proud home-owners will set to with a will to make the bed, dust, wash up and hide the empties and all the rest of it leaving the bewildered maid when she arrives with nothing much to do at all. Perhaps they are right – after all, maids gossip freely about their employers.
Then there is the second type, which is impervious to criticism and figures to get their money’s worth. They will leave everything in complete chaos.
Good Lord, I’ve just described myself.
Spanish maids are useful for teaching ‘kitchen Spanish’. There is many a foreign housewife whose command of Spanish might best be described as ‘inadequate’ and who has learnt just a hand-full of useful words and yet at the same time, and with the modest help of a dictionary, knows the name of more different vegetables in Spanish than the green-grocer himself.
In Madrid, the fancier establishments will have a live-in maid from the Philippines (for no reason that I can fathom) and, if there are children present in the menagerie, then there will be a nanny from Dublin. Furthermore, a ‘lady companion’ for abuela (Granny) will visit every day and will need to speak proper Spanish (and be immensely patient as she takes her out for walks). Ideally, she should be the same height as well. She’ll almost certainly come from Ecuador.

Here in Almería, you might discover after a few months that you in fact have a Romanian maid: but then come to think of it, you might have a Romanian green-grocer, so be sure to check your dictionary.
As one’s Spanish (or Romanian) improves – it can take a while for recent arrivals to discover which language they are in fact learning from the kitchen staff – the maid – or ‘the cleaner’ as they are sometimes called these days – can also fill you out on the ins and outs of life in the pueblo, as a sort of ambulatory and knowledgeable Who’s Who. When you have finally mastered the history, intrigues and relationships between everyone from your Spanish maid’s barrio, you will be ready to enter into polite society, local-style. Your maid, needless to say, will by this point have become your master.

Maids often come from extensive families. Their joint estates, pieces of land or tumbled down cortijos way to hell and gone in the hills, inevitably coveted by adventurous foreigners, can make them potentially more wealthy than the Duke of Wellington. The social history of Spain is wrapped up in that land and your maid knows the stories.
Spanish maids are often very useful as babysitters, too. The kids disappear with her for the weekend while the liberated parents go off for a trip or to a party. The children will be returned, spotlessly clean, on the Sunday night having taken part in some particularly bloodthirsty pig-killing at the farm of old ‘Tío Antonio’ and clutching a small packet of oil paper wrapped sausage as a souvenir.
Christmas can be tricky. Your domestic will expect an extra month’s pay and a day off and you’ll probably end up with an expertly wrapped humorous ashtray from that new Chinese emporium. Decency prohibits you from accidentally breaking such an item until Lent. You will also need to budget for saints days, fiestas and other dates in the calendar when no one, maids included, show up for work. On those festive occasions, stick to sandwiches is my advice.
But these are small concerns.
So, aside from the potential problem of language which, as we have seen, can sooner or later be straightened out, the only remaining hurdle is a decent cup of tea. Tricky. While much could be forgiven of a maid back in the United Kingdom (assuming you could afford one there) as long as she could come up with the goods in the char department, here you will just have to make it yourself. Come to think of it, tea doesn’t go down to well with a piping-hot tortilla, which a Spanish maid will happily prepare for you and serve... therefore, for refreshment, you should probably stick to a nice glass of wine.
So, as you climb into your bed tonight, brushing off the chocolate mint from your pillow, consider how lucky you are to have found a teacher, a cleaner, a chum and a companion.
Who doesn’t snore.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

El Mundo Está a Nuestro Alcance

Another old article from the vaults - this one in Spanish.

-Buenas tardes. Me llamo Josefina. Quisiera hablar con el abonado de este número, señor…
-Buenas tardes…
Son las tres y media de la tarde, pero de buenas, nada. Estaba envuelto en una sábana mojada, intentado pegarme una siesta, cuando el máldito teléfono no dejaba de sonar.
-Mire, Alberta, no queremos nada. Estamos enormemente satisfechos con su servicio, así que…
-…con el abonado de este número.
-Oiga Penélope, está de viaje.
-¿Cuándo puedo habl..
-Mire usted Genoveva, está presa en la Torre de Londres. ¿Por qué no vuelve a llamar cuando esté libre, dentro de diez años?
Lo difícil que es dormir una siesta. Los mosquitos están tranquilos por las tardes, probablemente gozando de sus digestiones de la velada anterior, y solamente tengo que luchar con las inoportunas moscas que se matan entre ellas por el placer de frotar sus patas sentadas en la punta de mi nariz, y, de vez en cuando, con algún listo que pretende hablarme.
Desconecto el aparato antes de que Josefina busque refuerzos y, envuelto en una nube de amables moscas, me voy a la cocina a prepararme una taza de té.
El telemarketing es peor que el spam - los mensajes basura - que recibimos diariamente en el ordenador. Llaman en el momento menos oportuno (lo mismo que hace el director del banco) y exigen o suponen que les debemos recibir con cortesía. Aún cuando se trata de una causa obviamente perdida como lo del otro día, cuando pretendían venderme un cursillo de inglés (”sí, señor, pero usted podría mejorar su idioma”). En los Estados Unidos, el gobierno ha abierto un registro para los que no quieren recibir este tipo de llamadas, denominado ‘Do Not Call’ (No Llamar). En la primera semana se registraron más de un millón de afiliados. Pronostican unos sesenta millones de abonados en el primer año. Únicamente exentos de esta barrera están los encuestadores (‘Hola, ¿qué piensa usted de la nueva ley contra el telemarketing?’), y es de suponer, los políticos.
Luego, están los mensajes de Telefónica que trastornan el móvil. Pocos más usan estos ajetreadas mensajes, exceptuando las empresas grandes – que una, en Inglaterra, llegó al desagradable extremo, hace un mes, de despedir a mil empleados, mandándoles un mensaje a su móvil-. ¡Esto si que es ahorrar tiempo!
El único sector que también los usa son los jóvenes, que mandan tonterías entre ellos.
El teléfono móvil ha penetrado al sector joven con tanto éxito que ninguno de ellos se plantearía salir sin este accesorio tan emblemático. Hay horas de placer escondido detrás de veinte botones, y la satisfacción de saber que ningún adulto puede manejarlas. Miles de jóvenes han sido engañados el mes pasado por un timo de una falsa Operación Triunfo. Estaban allí, en plena calle, cantado ‘A mi manera’ a un operativo en Singapur. Como nosotros, los padres, generalmente tenemos que afrontar el coste de llamada, les ofrezco una táctica para frenar su uso. Mande a su heredero eventual (si queda algo) un mensaje como que tiene que hacer alguna tarea (k ACE n tarea) y verá como, asustado y mortificado por haber recibido un mensaje tan poco orientativo del viejo, no volverá a coger el artilugio en varias horas.

Mi bisabuelo estaba presente cuando inventaron el teléfono. Fue periodista. Graham Bell, el autor del terrorífico invento, llamó – evidentemente con paloma mensajera – a todo el cuerpo de periodistas para presentarles su nuevo artilugio.
-¿Cómo se llama esto?, inquirieron los asustados periodistas.
-Se llama teléfono, respondió el autor.
-¿Y qué hace?
-Hasta que construya un segundo ejemplar, la verdad es que no sé.
Han avanzado mucho las comunicaciones desde entonces. Ahora todo el mundo está pendiente de su teléfono o su móvil, donde no se oye mucho más que ‘no te oigo’, o ‘¿qué?’o ‘no tengo crédito’ o ‘maldito invento, estoy fuera de cobertura’.
Pero, según mi experiencia, el momento no es de lo más idóneo (estoy en el baño, el ajo, el jardín, la otra línea…) y el llamante generalmente quiere algo.
-¿Oiga? Sí, ¿Lenox? Mira, has dejado tu móvil en el bar…
Antes, había un cacharro hecho de un plástico negro llamado bakelita que dominaba una mesa en el vestíbulo. El mayordomo siempre lo atendía.
–¿Pennsilvania 65000? Es para usted, señor…
Ahora están en cada habitación, en el coche, en el bolsillo.

Mi bisabuelo, alertado por otra paloma mensajera, volvió al año siguiente a ver al inventor.
-Miren, ahora funciona. En breves instantes sonará un timbre.
Sonó un timbre.
-¡Sí, diga!
-Hola. Me llamo Josefina. Quisiera hablar con el abonado…

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Night Has a Thousand Aies

I found this on an old 'New Entertainer' posting (there's a useful site for old, deleted web-pages at - yes, nothing is ever truly lost...)

I was sorry to note, while whipping through the local news in one of our ‘newspapers’, that Tony Meehan had died. Although his connections with this area were decidedly slim (having never been to Spain in his life), it was good to know that I wasn’t his only fan south of Calais. Tony Meehan was the drummer for Cliffie for a short while, before breaking into stardom (of a type) with another ex-Shadow musician, a guitarist called Jet Harris. They had two minor hits (reminiscent of Hank Marvin) called Diamonds and Scarlet O’Hara, under the name of ‘Jet and Tony’. Tony went on to become a bus conductor. I have a copy of their EP (two songs a side) with those two aforementioned pieces (Where are you Spectrum when we need you!) and two rather uncertain ‘flip side’ numbers called Footstomp and Doing the Hully Gully, where the two musicians were unwisely persuaded to sing.

I mention these two forgotten treasures here as the titles refer to particular dance-styles which must have had some short and fleeting fame in 1963 (Yep – we’re going back a-ways). I started my own dancing career on a rather low note a few years after the Hully Gully had returned to obscurity and the popular lurch of later years was still a twinkle in a Hippie’s brain. That particular evening, I had escaped the confines of school by climbing out of a handy window and I had gone down to the local ‘Townie’s club’. Public school versus the local community, in case you missed the point. So, I’m dressed in a suit and tie, drinking a Coke, which was all that Len was going to serve his customers at the social club, smoking a most enjoyable fag – which explains why I’d vacated the school for the nonce – and ‘eyeing the talent’.
After a long space of teenage angst, I eventually summoned up the nerve to go and ask a pretty girl over in a clutch on the other side of the room for a dance to Len’s record, which it seems to me might have been Norman Greenbaum, who I believe has also never been to Spain. ‘Cooee’, I said, ‘wouldja like to dance?’ She opened her mouth to reply something along the lines of fook orf or whatever. The accent! The voice! Crushed, I barely noticed the beating I got an hour later having returned to school-life through the window and into the presence of the House Master.
My next attempt at dancing occurred in Mojácar. I was a few months older and it was the holidays. I was at Trader John’s drinking and dancing establishment on the playa, locally known as ‘The Congo’. John Benbow, reputed to have Killed a Man, ran this truly original bar, built of stone and thatch like a jungle hut. Another fellow, Carlos, an ex bodyguard and killer from Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, worked the record player. A really quite enormous, tall and cheerful Australian, known inevitably as Big Sue, and equally inevitably attached to a tiny boyfriend, pulled me to the dance floor. ‘Aw, there’s nothing to it!’ She was spot on. I danced for six hours straight. It was the time of Soul music. Sam n Dave and Wilson Pickett. Yes, this stuff was good (makes another note to call Spectrum).

I was wondering if people still danced these days. The music of these times is truly awful. Not bad or uninspired like Bubblegum. Not gloomy like Leonard Cohen, or dated like Blood, Sweat and Tears or too bloody long like Inna Gadda Da Vida. Just numbingly, unspeakably, cripplingly dire. You can’t dance to this crap! You can’t even listen to it. Some bars run this stuff (preferred by the kids, and good luck to them) for their middle-aged customers. What are they thinking? So, I asked the kids. OK, pretend that you like this stuff. Pretend for the sake of argument that it’s good. My question is this. Do you dance to these horrid computer generated riffs with thumpy-thump backing and the poetry of a public lavatory? Or how about, can you hum one of them for me?
Come back Jet and Tony, come back The Shadows, come back Billy Fury, Come back Bobby Vee. All is forgiven.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Self Medication, with Socks

Concluding my holidays in the USA

Flying across the heavens, in one of Mr. Boeing’s fine vehicles, at 600 miles an hour. I am wearing a ‘support stocking’ on my right leg, one out of a packet… of one. I must ask the stewardess as to when we get half way across as I will need to change it to put it on the other leg. This is to combat ‘deep vein thrombosis’ which is the last thing I want to get, as my legs ache enough as it is.
I had asked my wife to get a set of stockings from the farmacia before we went, supposing that, like most other garments worn below the waist, they either come in pairs or, at the very least, in the plural form. The price certainly suggested at least two, with possibly a spare third one, in case I got a run.
I was reading about an ingenious invention in the free airline magazine while cooped uncomfortably in my small seat flashing across the sky: it seems that somebody has come up with tights with three legs. The idea is that the fashionable young things wear them with two legs duly rolled on, and the third, the spare one, tucked modestly under the belt. Then, in the event of a ladder or some other unforeseen accident, you merely do a quick change and ¡voila!
This itself reminded me of another invention, jolly nearly as clever, made by me while doing the laundry one day and searching for The Missing Sock. Washing machines, as everyone knows, have a special feature that subtracts one sock out of every wash. They are apparently all waiting for us after we pass on. Paradise is quite warm, but it is said that the souls up there like to cover themselves with a nice pair of woolly socks.
My invention was simplicity itself. Sell socks in packs of threes. You could wear two and save one against the inevitable loss, and, better still, as you waited for one of them to be taken by the sock-pixies, you could rotate the entire set. Today’s left foot goes onto tomorrow’s right foot and today’s right foot will be in tomorrow’s wash. Clever, you’ll agree.
Once arrived in New York, or at least its airport, which is the size of Huercal Overa, we got onto a second, smaller plane, and headed inland. A third flight in a tiny prop job followed this and the final two-hour hop was in an aircraft so small they practically gave us a leather helmet and goggles along with the peanuts.
We eventually arrived in a modest mid-western town, about the size of Turre, furnished with sixty two churches, three burger joints and one enormous Shop. So large was this store that fat people (of which there are a grate meny in America) would cruise slowly around the aisles on enormous battery-run shopping trolleys/seats which look something like the dumpers which plague Mojácar building sites. These clearly highly-prized customers would scoop their shopping off the shelves in armfuls into their trolleys, much to the satisfaction of all concerned. I was hoping that there would be an aisle of support stockings somewhere inside that gigantic shopping-warehouse and so I followed a large schooner of fat person around until we finally came to the self-medication department.
Much has been written about American health-care – or lack of it – and it is true that a visit to a doctor is prohibitively expensive as you have to buy his lawyer a three-month cruise around the Caribbean at the same time. To combat this, rather as we obtain pretty much anything we want from the farmacia here in Spain with a merry ‘yes, I’ll bring the prescription along tomorrow’, over there many of the pills, unguents, capsules, powders and teas available on the shelves of the larger supermarkets are labeled as ‘untested by the FDA’. Almost faith-healer stuff. You are, as it were, on your own. Yes, you can buy aspirins (a box of 600 of them for a very satisfying five dollars. Compare!) or cough syrup, or chewy antacid tablets but I couldn’t help treating myself to a box of the intriguingly named ‘Queasy-Ohs’ (guaranteed to hit that hangover on the head, thanks to its secret ingredient, a South American root), along with a packet of ‘Stay-Alert’ pills with 8,500 times the recommended daily dose of Vitamin B12 plus the equivalent of a dozen American coffees – come to think of it, about the same as one Spanish one.
Oh, and a gun.
The Americans, inveterate television watchers all, consider themselves quite savvy about medicine. Naturally, they are helped in this by the big pharmaceutical companies both in scripted chat on certain TV shows as well as the astonishing number of medical adverts.
‘Well BJ, you seem to have deep vein thrombosis’.
‘Figured as much. Can you write me a prescription for Vainothrob?’
‘That guy on the TV with a beard, huh? There you go, that’ll be 20,000 dollars…’
The support stockings were on the next aisle, and near them was another clever invention. A thin cotton sock-bag. You put your socks into this before putting the little bag into the washing machine and they will be there waiting for you after their wash. All three of them.
I’m home now and my legs are fine. Unfortunately, I took one of those ‘stay awake’ pills when I arrived in Madrid so that I could drive all the way down to the coast and I haven’t slept since. My eyes are red and sore and it’s five in the morning here.
About eleven in the evening over there. Right now in Texas, they’ll all be shopping.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Re-inventing Water

Life was so much easier before someone invented 'inventing'. In those far-off days, if there was something useful to hand, you grabbed it and used it. Take the humble wine-bottle. They've been stripping off their shoes and socks and hopping up and down in a large bathtub full of grapes since the first ever drinking song was introduced ('I belong to Lorca') and putting the resulting liquid into wine bottles. Which are, whichever way you look at them, bottles for storing and serving wine.
Now, if such a thing had of been introduced since someone invented 'inventing', and copyright, and trademarks and patent registration and, well, a legal framework for greed, each winery would have needed to market a different bottle: round, square or oblong; fat, skinny or wobbly; white, brown or green. Yet. all wine bottles – except those cheap cartons of dubious plonk which Mrs Hardy at Number Six still insists on storing upside-down – are interchangeable until you come to the label.
Unlike, say, water-bottles. Now water has been around for as long as wine, but here in Spain, the idea of actually drinking it in a genteel sort of way is comparatively new. It dates, in fact, from the times that the good people of Lanjarón in Granada (ghastly town, by the way, don't bother to visit) decided to put some of their product, which springs out of the rocks there, into bottles to sell to the people on the Costa del Sol to pour into their whiskies. They probably considered using wine-bottles to start with, but then decided on their own, watery design. With a nice label that said: 'Lanjarón, Water!' Whoever it was, Paco el Aguero or some-such, promptly made himself a fortune and had soon ordered himself a dozen donkeys from the Corte Inglés. It was bound to be only a short time before others followed his trail. I mean, said the envious neighbour, the damn stuff comes out of mountains and all I need to do is stick it in a bottle.
Not with my bottle, said Paco. Get your own.
Now look at us, there must be a hundred different types of water in the supermarket, each and every one in a different shape of bottle. I have to say, of all of those designs, ridges, spouts and fasteners, the silliest comes from Paco el Aguero's descendants, who obviously haven't followed the Old Boy's flair for simplicity. It's got a special top that pours the water in two different ways. Enough said.
Returning to wine and its associated paraphenalia for just a moment, imagine that whoever first introduced the corkscrew had the far brighter idea of registering it as a patent. We would be reduced to either paying through the nose, or pushing in the cork with the wrong end of a fork, or bashing the bottom of the wine-bottle against the bar to avail ourselves of its contents. Come to think of it, been there.
Water, in whatever strange container it is served, either an old weeping cántaro, or a jug, or a gaily designed plastic bottle or, as I saw the other day, in an incredibly expensive 'designer' flask at a euro a sip, is still pretty much water. It is still diluted with somebody else's ice, or is merely a junior and un-respected ingredient in somebody else's beverage like beer or Orange Fizz. When the manufacturer gets all fancy with his giant list of ingredients, sodiums, minerals and whatnots, it's still just water to me. A laboratory has taken a cup-full from the spring, lugged it away to Barcelona, and established its chemical breakdown to a nicety. Whatever for? Tastes good, Paco old sausage, but could do with a bit more aluminium silicate.
This aqueous treasure is honoured by all right-thinking Spaniards. Have you ever had to stop on the side of a road next to some healthy looking nettles to try some miracle 'fuente' which is ummhum, good? ('That's OK', says your bucolic friend gesturing towards your shirt, 'it'll soon dry off in the car'). Eight pints a day keeps the doctor away, and, if those eight pints, listed in the ingredients merely as 'agua' (I mean, who cares), are just there to make up the 99% by weight of a beer bottle, which in most bars works out cheaper anyway, then make mine a Mahou.
You see all those different water bottles spread across the shelves at the supermarket, and then you see them again at the public fountain as cars stop and the different sized and shaped plastic containers (good for several hundred years according to my ecologist friends) are topped up with agua de la fuente. Good water... and cheap! This stuff is good for making ice, boiling up for tea and, unlike the stuff that comes out of the tap, is reasonably tasty.
The stuff from the tap, reputed to kill garden flowers – to say nothing of most household germs – is all right for doing the dishes, flushing the loo, squirting the cat, or even showering and bathing, and that's why in most homes around here, Sr Roca's sundry bathroom articles come as standard.
So, we are agreed, I think? Keep it simple. Water from the fuente and wine from the store – unless you plan to make your own. Tell you what, I'll design the bottle.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Office/Apartment for Sale

That's the tower at the Parque Comercial, the shopping centre on Mojácar Playa. It's fitted out as a radio station at the moment. The top floor is a small apartment with bathroom. Fine views! The mid-floor is an office, with a circular metal stairway up to the top. Downstairs, the main part of the set-up (that's on the third floor of the Parque), there are five rooms, a bathroom and a large terrace (on the left of the picture).
Here's the view from the terrace:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Red-Eye Flight

Sat in the car at the airport, doing a swing past the guards every so and along so as not to get stuck in the park and queue to pay and lug the suitcases across and up the steps. It’s worse inside with huge hangers full of marble and Germans. I park on the flowerbed for a piece. They arrive. The girl looks nice. We leave with the windows down and papers blowing around and out. No air-con in this old car.
With friends staying you want to show them around and impress. That’s right. It’s too early though. I was once in there having a drink, you know, and Dennis Hopper came in so I pretended I didn’t know who he was then we bought each other beers and stuff, and laughed at the girls, then it turned out it wasn’t him anyway.
Right, come on, they’re a lot cheaper than on the coast than here and the company is nicer.
Sandwiched between a tour-bus and a cement truck, we pull off the road at the first opportunity. A few houses stand around, looking unconcerned. The car cools down over another flowerbed, this one rather tatty, as we enter a building through an enormous barn-door. We’ll have a couple of beers and tapas. I’m all knowing as the host; role-playing as a tour-guide with witty answers to all the queries.
‘…That’s right, donkeys!’
Some blond fellow watches us from the far end of the bar. He probably works down at the cowboy town film-set. A young girl with a bruised face works the beers and the customers. The blond looks like he wants to start something. The residents here have an easy way to measure themselves against each other: how long you bin living here? You have to watch their eyes when you face up for this one. It’s a kind of pissing contest where there can only be one winner. I try and avoid this, as the loser can get sore.
My friends are looking at the sad range of entrails lying under the glass counter.
Sí, una ronda de cañas. ¡Oiga!’ The little barmaid brings the specie and goes ‘t’ree beer?’ and I’m deflating like a spare tyre on a Renault. Kinda place is this anyway? ‘Thank you dear child. And where are you from?’
Rumania. Well I’ll be buggered. All these years living here, trying to blend in with the locals and to pick up a few words, and do you know, I can’t even say: I am a secret policeman, where is your sister?

A Rumanian friend had been telling me about his work permit and the paperwork he’d given in. He’d prepared and written up the document himself on a sheet from a Bucharest cigarette company with fancy headed-paper and had covered it with stamps made with ceiling wax and the metal top from a Chivas Regal bottle. We need people like this in Spain.
We’re into some of those beers in dark glass and feeling the kick. The blond fellow has joined us. It’s too hot to take an attitude.
From the terrace you can see a piece of a wide, sandy riverbed. It was here that they shot the film Lawrence of Arabia in 1966. Well, a small piece of it. A Welshman, cashiered from the Horseguards, once told me the story of how the producer, Sam Spiegel, had obtained a thousand horses and camels to attack the papier mâché town of Aquaba on the Carboneras coast. The Welshman led the charge dressed in suitable togs but for some reason, with no saddle. One mistake and I would have been trampled to death noted the Welshman sadly as I solicitously bought him another drink. It is told that, after the shoot, they asked Sam Spiegel what was to be done with the camels and horses. He answered laconically: ‘Can ‘em!’
A machine gunner shot the whole herd. Some reward for being in an Oscar film.

My friend notices that the bar has a sign to say that This Establishement has Complaining Sheets. We order a few to take away with us.
A man in a string vest comes through a door behind the bar. He’s scratching himself with a kind of reserved enthusiasm. ‘You boys look like you would like the coast. You ever been there?’

It’s about an hour’s driving to get to my place. I reckon it’s going to take us a little longer.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Barefoot in America

I was visiting my daughter in the USA during the early part of this month, when the fine town that she had chosen to live was experiencing a heatwave; what might be known as an Indian Summer, if I'm not stepping on any Native American toes by using that expression. You see, I'm from England, where the weather is always foul and the automobiles are tiny. I was having a great time, marveling at the farmland and the generous rate of exchange. So, what with one thing and another, I was putting in a good deal of walking, whether through the aisles of some of the larger commercial establishments over on the Miracle Mile, or up and down the High Street known there as Muskogee Avenue, or borrowing my daughter's enormous car and trailing off into the surrounding countryside for walks to admire the changing and autumnal colours of the trees together with the rich and varied local animal and bird-life. Man, I love those armadillos. They are like small tanks with the digging strength of a Spanish wild boar.
One creature that fails to induce a rush of friendly emotion in my breast is my daughter's dog, Dawg, who is a large and tiresome black puppy that gambols around your feet in an irritating way.
I had nevertheless managed to forget about him one afternoon as I lay out on the deck with a beer and a book. Catch a little sun. My shoes were tossed nonchalantly under my seat.
I was thinking about a visit the day before to one of the town's finest bars where I had caused a small sensation amongst the habitual clientele by sitting on a stool near the door and putting a bright pink 'Breast Cancer Awareness Month' bag with some laundry in it onto the bar while asking in a fruity English voice for a lager and lime. Guaranteed to make friends, experiences like that, once the misunderstandings have been cleared up.
I awoke to find that Dawg had eaten my shoes.
Now, before leaving for America, my wife had packed my suitcase with the usual tea-bags, brightly coloured beads, malaria tablets and alka-seltzer pills, along with the special polar outfits that she thinks are appropriate for all my trips wherever they may be - from Canada to Kansas to the Sahara desert. All this, together with some string-vests, y-fronts, socks and other 'smalls' packed firmly yet lovingly into my case meant that there wasn't any room left for inessentials like, for example, some spare footwear.
That evening passed with some television: me in socks.
The next morning, I borrowed the car to go and buy some shoes. The warm and dry weather had spectacularly changed overnight to a heavy rainstorm and my daughter had got up early to take off for work. I was barefoot in charge of a heavy vehicle, which, and Bless my American friends, is not something you are allowed to do in Spain. Terrorists, you know.
The lady greeter at the big store told me I couldn't come in. No shoes, no shirt, no service.
'No, but I've come to buy some shoes. You have them there over in the back'.
No shoes...
I could sort of understand her concern. Despite my particular emergency, it is true that those sweaty Brit tourists who walk around the supermarkets of Mojacar and Turre during the summer in nothing except their Speedos and flip-flops, showing off their flab and tats, are hardly an advertisement for our country's dubious charms and, although I was wearing a jacket and tie, I was nevertheless decidedly and blatantly unshod.
I drove back to the house to think this through. I threw a cushion at Dawg who began to tear it to shreds and I had an idea. I opened up my case and put on three pairs of socks, one after and over the other – to give my feet some bulk and maybe even keep them dry. Back to the gigantic store, park near the front and... hah! - in through the other entrance.
I ambled over to the shoe isle secure that my footwear would look 'natural', if a trifle European. I had just chosen a likely looking pair of brogues when my nemesis happened by. I must have inadvertently left a damp trail across the store.
'Feet like that', she said, 'you'll need a sixteen'.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Poppy Day

We had spent an uncomfortable yet amusing few days in clink and were now out on bail. My mother, who had been supportive during the ordeal, smuggling in Casera bottles full of vodka, while we lounged about reading books and listening to the World Service, was now angry with us about the whole experience and my ever-so-slightly contrite dad was ready to ‘put things right’.
We had been spotted sawing down four of Mojácar’s first-ever billboards in a late-night drunken spree – this was in 1971 – and, a mere three months later, the Guardia Civil had told us to report to the Vera hoosegow and to bring a change of clothes.
When we got there, early and excited, the cop told us to go and have a drink in the bar while ‘our beds were being made’. On our return, we bumped into the carpenter just coming out, while brushing some sawdust off his trousers. ‘They’re ready now’, he said brightly.
But, five days down the line and with an uncomfortable interrogation with the judge behind us, we were now out and reinserting ourselves back into society as hard as we could in the bar opposite the town hall while my mother gave me some parental grief about ‘being an old lag at seventeen’.
She had borrowed the money from friends to make our bail and we were able to go home, with some vague threat of a court-case hanging over us in the future. It appeared that we could get three months in the old Almería prison, a thing that looked like a fortress from a foreign legion film. Things were, indeed, beginning to get a bit ‘serious’.
My dad called the embassy in Madrid and they began the process of smoothing things over (ah – the good old days!). I don’t know how far they had gotten with this – I mean, they still hadn’t Asked a Question in the House – when General Franco surprised us all by declaring a general amnesty on everyone except ‘politicals’ to celebrate his thirty-fifth year in power. We were free.
For some reason, the ambassador considered that it was a propitious time for him to visit the far-flung corners of his empire and so he wrote to my father telling him to put him up in the Parador and to entertain him and his wife when they arrived. A jealous friend of my father, a retired air-vice marshal and Rex Harrison look-alike with a withering sense of humour and a nasal accent, heard the news and rushed down to our house to see us. ‘I’ve brought you a present’, he whinnied, clutching a plant in his hands, ‘it’s a type of yellow creeper’.
The ambassador and his tweedy wife were duly shown around the pueblo (there wasn’t much on the playa in those days) and were gamely patient with some of the odd people who lived here then, including a very drunk and alarmingly homosexual American called Sammy who surprised the ambassador, who had clearly dealt with a few odd types himself, by saying that he wanted asylum together with a British passport, preferably a pink one.
The ambassadorial entourage had departed, the charges against us had been dropped, the ambassador’s influence had caused the judge in Vera to be transferred to a less agreeable destination (Algeciras), the billboards were back up on the beach and all was well.
Until, a month later, a package arrived from Madrid with a covering letter from the consulate. ‘The Ambassador has recommended you to be in charge of the Poppy collection’ began the note. The box, of course, was full of Poppies and pins.
The Poppy, a red paper flower with a plastic hook, is used by the British and many other nations to remember those fallen in the different armed conflicts of the past hundred years. It is worn on the left lapel to remember ‘the field of poppies’ (‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row…’ from a poem written by a Canadian from the times of ‘the Great War’) and services are held throughout the Commonwealth on Armistice Day, which is on November 11th.
The box, unfortunately, had arrived in the Mojácar post office sometime in mid November, and there was little chance of catching up. My dad threw the box into a drawer somewhere and sent a cheque for ten thousand pesetas and a covering note back to the Consulate explaining that everyone had been thrilled to buy a poppy.
The next year, another box arrived, and poppies found their way into a couple of bars, where, without too much exaggeration on my part, they gathered dust. In due course, a second cheque was sent out. This continued for some time, with the cheques sometimes a bit more and other times (when the pound was down) perhaps a little less.
Some years later, when my father was ill, the package somehow found its way to me. Despite having, in those days, a lively reputation for handing out cheques to all-comers, I instead left tins in various bars and discovered, the hard way, that if you want donations, you have to go and ask for them. I do remember Charlie Braun, a large German from the seventies and eighties, once taking a Poppy from some box and putting in a few coins. ‘If it wasn’t for us’, he explained, ‘you vouldn’t have a Poppy Day’.
Luckily, somewhere around that time, the British Legion formed a much-needed chapter in Mojácar and, much to my relief, the key word ‘efficiency’ came to the Poppy collection.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Advancing with a Suitcase

Now, all we need is a taxi
They say that traveling broadens the mind. Certainly, having lived abroad since I was thirteen besides fingering the old bucket and spade a few times even before moving to Spain, I have never been at a loss when in the company of foreigners.
It probably helped that I came from an area which has no particular tradition of either superiority or paranoia; an area best known for being flat and cold: somewhere in the east. Our most famous son, you’ll want to sit down for this, being the Singing Postman. They say his guitar picking wasn’t up to much, but that he was known for his First Class Delivery.
There weren’t any foreigners in Norfolk in those days (‘them days’) except, of course, for the odd Londoner that had got lost. This was probably, along with the flatness, the cold and the terrible music, just another good reason for leaving. Years later, when driving my new wife along a Norfolk lane (a rare visit to England), we came round a corner and bumped into a troop of Nazi soldiers with their collars loosened, having a fag. While my wife wrestled with the possibility that the English were odder than she had originally thought, I asked an amiable-looking feldwebel the way to Downham Market as we were lost.
‘Somebody hass removed all zer signs’, he agreed, pointing vaguely East.
It turned out that they were shooting a piece from ‘Allo Allo’.
Living abroad, you need to be flexible with your language, your ideas, your culture and your understanding. People, you soon discover, are pretty much as friendly (or as disagreeable) regardless of where you happen to be: despite their sex, race, age and golf handicap.
We all pretty much know this by experience, so there’s not much point in banging on about it.
Traveling, for me, has a purpose. Usually it means that I am going to see someone for some fairly solid reason. The days of going on vacation with a rucksack and a copy of Lonely Planet seem to have passed and the opportunity to go on a group-holiday - a package - has, in my case, yet to arrive. Then again, I doubt you learn much from this latter kind of experience beyond knowing to watch out for the Shepherd’s Pie.
And the people in the room next door.
I live in a traveler destination anyway: making sure that I’m not taken for a tripper by mistake. I go around stoutly wearing sweaters when the tourists are in tee-shirts – which is bloody uncomfortable I can tell you during August. Hell, I’ve been here so long I need a holiday.
Travel might be good for you, it may remove some of your day-to-day stress and it can be agreeable, exciting or instructive. It is no doubt wonderful once you’ve got there and taken your boots off with a satisfied groan; but for me, the actual process of traveling has become increasingly arduous. I don’t mind driving the two kilometres or so to the beach, but driving to Madrid has lost its charm. Nowadays, the stress of having one eye on the speedo, one on the mirror and none left to look out of the forward porthole is beginning to take its toll. The thought of driving all the way across Europe quite undoes me (and it’s not because of the French, who I get on well with). It’s more to do with my back.
The headaches.
That disgusting motorway coffee.
Those friggin’ lorries!
Flying is, of course, uncomfortable, violent and embarrassing (ohmigod, I forgot to put on fresh socks and they’re going to think it’s a Nerve Agent). If you are flying to the UK, you are certain to be searched by some pimply redheaded bastard from Slough. I’ll grant you that, while the flight is cramped, it is, at least, cheap. Somebody told me they flew to Heathrow for 99 pence the other day - plus airport taxes and an extra pound for the lavatory. This, of course, doesn’t include the interminable waiting, or the last bit - the taxi or train to your final destination. Don’t forget the two-mile walk as well, lugging a heavy suitcase and a bulging plastic bag.
Why do prices never make the least bit of sense? Are the airline accountants drunk the whole time? The girls at the Vera travel agency told me that the flight from Almería to Madrid can cost 600 euros return ‘but there are special offers for just 75’. Well, I’d rather pay the 75 euros but, what is it going to cost me? The Americans make the joke about obtaining cheap tickets or ‘upgrades’ that means you have to ‘wear a purple leisure suit’ which is, presumably, something of an imposition. When I can, I’ll take the train.
One day, there will be a high speed train that will take one in comfort from the Vera train station to Madrid in the blink of an eye. It all sounds very exciting and novel. Until then, there’s the Murcia/Madrid Talgo which will do. Some time in the bar, plus a few turns walking up and down through the carriages as the train deposits you, after four hours, in the middle of the Nation’s capital. Ver’ civilized, yes. Ah, the hurly burley of the city, where the finest sights and Man’s most noble attractions can be enjoyed while swivelling the wire postcard stand in your comfortably appointed hotel!
So - these days I prefer a good armchair, a reading light and a small side-table, upon which the very best travel awaits me between cardboard covers. The characters and guides in the books piled on the table besides me are guaranteed to always be stimulating, refreshing and different. They will take me to the very best places, place me firmly into the most remarkable situations, introduce me to quite the most peculiar people and, in short, show me everything. They will know to offend, impress or attract me and they will have the good sense to leave me alone when the mood has passed.
I have made a lot of friends that way.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Chicken Who Crossed the Road

There is a particular spot on the beach near the office which is especially recommendable for those lost souls who wish to enter into a semi-conscious state of Zen. I refer of course, to the zebra crossing in front of the farmacia. Many a time, while driving, I have seen people standing there, on the lip of the road, staring into space with their eyes part-way shut in some kind of philosophical ecstasy. It would be wrong to stop and join them in meditation and worse still to startle them with a modest burst of the horn. One should merely drive-by with one hand on the wheel as you absently dial somebody on your mobile-phone.
Other times, if the participants forget themselves so much as to take a step off the pavement, their minds far away in transports of bliss, I think it is fair – assuming you notice them – to steer them back to the side of the road with a yell and a generous honk on the horn. Sometimes, as they lose their concentration and return to reality, they playfully shake their fist at your passing and shout some small prayer of gratitude at your departing rear.
So, other times, stripped of my wheels, it is me that stands there, lost in my thoughts, with cars racing past over the black and white lines before me.
And then, out of the blue, one of them stops.
The driver smiles, and gestures for me to cross. I may perhaps be able to worship all the better from the other side with the sun no longer in my eyes.
Or then again, he may simply be an Englishman stopping on a zebra crossing to give way to a pedestrian.
Let me say this: as a driver you soon learn that many people stood on the side of the road in front of a zebra crossing have merely found a pleasant place to pause, often for a refreshing gossip, and show every sign of surprise when you stop in front of them. I mean, local people cross the street when the feeling takes them, not when there are black and white lines stretching away from their well-shined shoes. They must dimly suspect that these lines are for the convenience of the visitors, to perhaps help them navigate their way across the road. But, who wants to cross at this moment anyway – even to be polite – when Consuelo is in full flight about the goings-on in the apartment upstairs.
I even remember stopping once as my car approached the black and white lines, with people (on this occasion) evidently ready to cross, when the car behind me (you could almost hear the tsk) accelerated and overtook me, narrowly missing the small and doughty herd of walkers.
So, the other day, I was not at all surprised while standing by the crosswalk at the farmacia, my mind full of the pills I was intending to purchase, when a car stopped in front of me. Not, near me, or, before me in preparation for me to cross, but actually in front. Blocking my way. Now here’s a new one, I thought. The car would have parked on my toes if I hadn’t of been standing on the elevated pavement.
Oiga’, shouted a small and hirsute gent with a black moustache as he lent across his wife’s chest and peered up towards me, ‘¿dondé está la salida para Murcia?
It’s strange isn’t it? There are some foreigners who, by a happy chance, can blend right in. They are both accepted and ignored at the same time. They would have black hair, perhaps, and might be short. They might have a decent tan or lean towards short-sleeved button-up shirts with small alligators embroidered on their chests. They could wear a heavy gold watch or sport a gold tooth. They might have a generous paunch and be wearing an old but lovingly preserved woolly bullfighter’s hat. I’m not saying that Spaniards look like that; it’s just that you might blend in a bit if you had that sort of appearance. People might confuse you for a local person, who both speaks the King’s Spanish and, Por Dios, knows the way to Murcia. However, when you are tall, blond and with a peeling nose, when your teeth stick out and your upper garment is a tee-shirt that says ‘Gibraltar is British’ (well, all right, I’m embellishing this a bit here), then the chances are that you might be a foreigner. Added to this, when Don Francisco is driving along the beachfront with his señora past a series of hotels and bars with ‘British Breakfast only 18 euros’ written monolingually on a blackboard stuck on the street for the elucidation of passers-by, you may want to be on the lookout for someone, well, more your own size.
So, here we have a fellow who wants to go to Murcia. He’s Spanish and he’s just stopped on a zebra crossing and persuaded this tall foreign gentleman to stoop down and stick his head in the motorist’s open car window. It seems that no one has considered that there might be a language problem – which there isn’t, you see, because I can speak Spanish and I know which way Murcia is.
I was in Murcia once, with Juan and Alfonso. We’d been to see some people on business and, following this, we were settling down in a bar for a beer and a tapa. Juan is a tall red-head, with a beaky nose and freckles. Alfonso has a beard and is blond. Me, well, you know that I don’t look much like Julio Iglesias. So Juan orders the drinks and the barman is pretty impressed. ‘Man’, he says, ‘your Spanish isn’t bad. It needs a bit of work maybe, but it’s not bad at all. Where are you from?’ ‘I’m as Spanish as you are, I’m from Malaga’, says Juan, whose full name is Juan de Dios Diez de Oñate. ‘I’m from Granada’, Alfonso pipes up from the darts machine, ‘and I’m from Valencia’ I added (with my gentle English accent peeping around the words).
He didn’t believe any of us.
So, here we are. I want to get to the farmacia, the motorist wants to get to Murcia and the caravan of cars behind him, all by this time tooting, honking and shouting, are clearly in a hurry to be going somewhere too.
Well, I say, savouring the moment of power over all the traffic before relenting slightly, ‘you just carry on until you reach that huge sign there in front of you and follow the gigantic arrow painted on it which is pointing towards your destination’. I said it in Spanish and I’d like to think that a small blink of surprise crossed his face. ‘Gracias’ he said and put his car into gear.
Do you know, I had almost forgotten why I was standing there, on the edge of the pavement, staring across the street at the farmacia. It was of course to cross the road and get my pills.
But before I could put a foot onto the zebra crossing stretching invitingly in front of me, the whole cavalcade of cars, lorries, bicycles and a fellow on roller blades, all accelerated across my path.
In Andalucía, a zebra crossing is just a street decoration.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mercury Rising

I had to meet someone the other night and we had agreed over the phone that I would come along to Paco’s Bar for a chat. Parking in Spain is never easy: the rare parking spaces are filled with any number of items and reasons which will keep you away – unless of course, you ignore them. Parking spaces here have rubbish bins, bell-shaped metal bottle banks, trees, traffic signs, rubble, skips, tables and chairs, elevated wooden bar terraces, disabled parking, old broken cars, some bastard motorcycle taking up a whole space and, of course, everybody else’s cars. So driving in Spain usually involves a fair amount of walking.
Paco’s Bar has one of those wooden terraces outside, which illegally takes up at least four parking spaces, but no one seems to mind much, certainly not his brother Pedro, the mayor. I arrived, slightly out of breath, and walked across the empty terrace and into the bar. Which was full. Full!
There was a football game on the television and what looked like another football game just about to kick off on another TV. My friend was at a table, wedged in with other fans: he gave me a brief wave before returning to the game. I shoved my way to the bar and caught one of Paco’s Romanian girls. ‘Un tercio’, I shouted over the din. A bottle of Beer.
‘Who’s playing?’ I asked somebody.
‘Real Madrid against Tenerife’ he said.
I pushed my way outside again and sat on the lonely wooden terrace to watch the cars go by looking, no doubt, for a parking space. The sound of the football came through the door, with the odd shout and cheer as something happened. Perhaps my friend would mosey out at half-time and we could discuss our business.
I’ve never cared for football, either playing it or watching it. The game is too intense for my liking, and when the bars put up a big screen, the players become the same size as the viewers. It’s hardly conducive to a quiet gargle when there are sweaty people in green or red and white stripes tearing past you shouting ‘mine’.
And then, once the game is over, almost all of its pleasure evaporates. Fans want to see another, but have no interest in what went before, short of a lingering memory of the final score. ‘Who won’, I ask automatically, over and over again.
They say that soccer is one of the few endeavors in life that one can become an expert in a short time. I mean, just watch a couple of matches and listen to the knowledgeable commentators droning on. I sometimes dwell on this as some fellow at my side enthuses throatily about the current game on the telly which I am determined to ignore. ‘Kill the ref.’ is my stock answer, which almost always works.
If I’m still there after an hour, God forbid, then ‘Which ones are the whites?’ can be a satisfying question to the inevitable chain-smoker squeezed in next to me.
There are bars which only cater to these beer-sportsmen. One on the beach has six different household TVs with, presumably, six different sporting events going on at the same time. Who needs to talk about anything else? A new one in the ‘town next door’, called the Sportsbar, has a large screen with a football-green pitch and people rushing about, visible from the door. I hope they do well.
My suggestion for those who like a quiet drink and don’t wish to be pushed in the back by some cretin shouting either ‘goal’ or indeed ‘gol’, is to come along to my new saloon. It’s a ‘Weather Bar’. We show nice and peaceful weather forecasts on the television with the sound turned off. On the wall we have autographed pictures of José Antonio Maldonado, the iconic Spanish weather man who always faces the map and talks to the viewers over his shoulder, of Francis, who has a house locally, of Hazel, Joe and the Black lady with the oversized heels.
It’s a peaceful atmosphere in my ‘Weather Bar’ and I sell a lot of ‘pink gin’. The advantages are, I hope, clear. In the sports bar up the road, they watch their football and they all go home with a headache. In my place, where the entertainment is just as ephemeral (‘did you see the weather forecast last Friday – hell of a thing. When Francis pointed at Spain on his map, I almost fainted’), where the language is slightly technical, yet full of those comforting clichés so beloved by meteorologists everywhere (‘should lift by the afternoon’, ‘somewhere over the Alps, a cup of tea is brewing’ and ‘looks nice down there in Spain’), and where the very greetings themselves are weather-related: ‘Nice day today, might rain later’. Now that’s the kind of bar which does a good round-the-clock trade and you can drink without worry.
‘Just popping down to the Weather Bar, Darling, don’t wait up’. How could anyone possibly be upset by that?
Best of all, you’ll even know whether to bring an umbrella when you return tomorrow.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sex Ed

Apart from some quiet giggles from the back row, anything to do with sex was met with silence or a certain suspicion from the boys in my classroom. We were about twelve or thirteen years old and the infantile books read by the majority in ‘library’ didn’t go near the subject at all – especially in the sixties – while the type of novel harvested from my father’s collection at home – if allowed past ‘inspection’ by the English lit teacher – inclined towards a handy and moral dot dot dot just after the unsurprising end-of-chapter clutch between the hero and his new (yet infinitely mysterious) friend.
Not much there then.
For a while, I had a black and white French postcard which, at tuppence a look, was keeping me in sweets, but demand was so high I had little time to examine it myself. A continental couple fastened together in coitus, you know the form.
A friend of mine had got into trouble for looking up the worst word there was in the dictionary – a blue-stocking pre-war Oxford thing. He’d just read the entry for ‘copulate’ and was reeling from the possibilities when a teacher noticed his expression and asked to see what he had been looking at. Dimwit told him, too.
So, as the final term at my prep-school ground towards the end, some ‘leaver’ or other would be taken out of class for the obligatory and highly embarrassing ‘sex talk’ given by the headmaster. You would sit in the same leather chair he’d bent you over for the previous five years while giving you ‘six of the best’ for a poor showing in Latin or talking after the lights out. Under those conditions, and considering the risk, you can see why I had such a high price on my postcard.
It was a couple of days before the end of term. I had given up on ever being told anything about sex but, since my parents were shortly moving to Spain, I reckoned I’d find out my own way.
But then the call came. Titters (from the back) from the Latin class as I was called to see the headmaster. Who started this delicate subject with ‘I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed a tassel-like thing hanging in front of you?’
Blimey, no wonder the English are famous for everything except sex.
Spain was, indeed, much more racy that my prep school in Wiltshire. The first person to give me what appeared to be a passionate kiss was, unfortunately, the chief-of-police’s son from Vera who caught me in the corner of my parent’s sitting room while I was still in the first flush of youth. I did better a couple of years later when I initiated proceedings with an American girl who my dad said looked a lot like Harpo Marx. She talked a lot more, as I remember.
But enough about me. Franco still held Spain in his catholic grip and sex was not something that nice girls did, which was why tourism was so well received by the Spanish, especially when the tourist was a young woman looking to have some fun with some local fellow (Gaaar – the kid was covered in spots and still she preferred him to me…). I usually ended up translating. Thanks to some strange films breaking ground in Sweden at the time (‘I Am Curious Yellow’ for example), which were most definitely not shown in Spanish cinemas, willing foreign girls were known as ‘suecas’, ‘Swedes’, even though most of them were British.
So, on the hunt for suecas, gangs of youths would take up foreign ideas like ‘going to the beach’, ‘dancing to soul music’, ‘wearing Varon Dandy (an eye-scorching gentleman’s perfume)’ and even ‘having a pet – look, he’s called Chico’. All very healthy and, as long as they didn’t get too involved, little damage was done. The alternative to chasing the tourist girls – where available – was a Saturday evening trip to the nearest whorehouse, of which Spain, both under Franco and beyond, has been remarkably blessed.
What the average Spaniard sees in ‘casas de putas’ or bordellos is something a lot different from the soulless ‘half an hour dearie’ version in Soho. Here, everyone goes for a drink, to show off and to enjoy a slap n’ tickle with some houri from Eastern Europe or South America. It’s reasonable but not de riguer to go upstairs. What happens to those poor moth-eaten girls who stand on the side of the road near a convenient bush will remain, I hope, a mystery. Boys will be boys, according to the ultimate authority: mama.
Recently, such innocent pastimes by a generous part of the Spanish male population have fallen under a cloud. A PP councilor from Palma, in Mallorca, maxed out his town-hall credit card to the tune of 50,000 euros on massage parlours and other extra-marital fun while he should have been at work. He has just got two years of prison to look forward to (and the opportunity to discover a whole new ’nother kind of sex).
While ‘puticlubs’ and so on have not changed much after Franco’s death and the power of the Catholic Church’s passing, despite perhaps a small hike in prices in the Nation’s ‘prostíbulos’ (there are over 130 of them in Almería province alone), the advent of pages of newspaper adverts for all kinds of erotic services (a tip of the hat to a friend called Steve for pointing them out) and a new kind of private club in some horrid villa (a group of friends etc), we now have ‘Russian Brides’, Viagra, display cabinets chocked full of condoms, french ticklers and battery-run penis rings on display in our supermarkets; and, above all, we the wonderful limitless power of the Internet.
Bring forth the Bluestockings. No booze, no fags no sex…
Erotica itself, in the shape of big-production cinema, was available just across the border into France but, again by the mid seventies; you only had to go to your local flea-pit, or indeed watch it on the late night telly.
Pornography is now a far cry from my French postcard and is sold as DVDs (in place of cigarettes) in petrol stations across the land. I was told by a local manager that lorry drivers (for some reason or other) often rush up to the counter where an unabashed girl is posted at the cash-register to ask if the latest triple x video-gruesome has arrived. Dear God!
But sex, one on one. Mano a mano. Besides being very good for one’s heart and so on, it is, of course, the single best way to learn another language.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Trim Little Number in Yellow

(Spain: somewhere on a narrow and dusty road to nowhere). I was driving along just this side of safe, with one eye on the speedo and the other on the rear-view mirror. Half asleep and all bored. Then, the mobile phone rang. One of the kids had been messing with the damn thing so I wasn’t immediately aware what was going on. The CD was belting out some fine blues and there was a thin weepy sound running below, just on this side of conscious. A mild arrhythmia over my heart finally helped me put it together – the damn phone in my shirt was vibrating and… yes… actually crying to be answered.
Which was a relief in one sense: I’m not going to keel over the steering wheel with a cracked pump and disappear with the old banger over the cliff. At least, not this time.
Talking on a mobile phone in Spain is illegal when you’re driving. Like many other agreeable activities that one can get up to behind the wheel, yes… many agreeable activities…
Whoa! I almost left the road there. And there’s one helluva drop on the right, down to a distant valley full of olive trees. Jeez – that was close.
So, since I don’t have a chauffeur like the head of the traffic department, an ambitious political oaf called Pere Navarro, and therefore can’t answer the phone and plan my next piece of business; and, unlike Mr Navarro, who is concerned about the heady mixture of saving lives, pissing people off and furthering his brilliant career in the ruling PSOE, all I’m after is a bit of peace and quiet, getting on with life and following the Spanish dream of being left alone. In fact, I just want to sell another set of encyclopedias without any interference from nobody to some family that probably doesn’t want them, can’t read and write properly and… Oh Hell! I'd better pull off the road.
Last thing I need is to lose some more points off my licence. They already took three last month for driving in carpet slippers instead of the approved brogues. Drivers don’t get corns and blisters in that cute fantasy life dreamt up by the city-living fat-cat pink champagne swilling socialist jerks that get to invent all these new intrusive laws while helping themselves to another brown envelope and, in passing, running our country into the ground.
There’s a handy lip on our roads, called the ‘arcén’. That’s where you go when you need to stop the car and do something else besides driving. Like kick one of those hidden speed-cameras to death. You don’t want to spend too long on the traffic-curb as it can be quite dangerous, with truck drivers thundering past your narrow ledge of safety or perhaps, if they are nodding off as their tachometer clicks into the red, they might drive straight in, through and over you.
Thumpity thump. The sod never even noticed. Probably thought it was a new kind of ‘sleeping policeman’.
Then, there are the Guardia Civil road-cops; ‘los primos’, we call them. The cousins.
You can’t loiter with your vehicle on the ‘arcén’ unless you have your emergency lights on, are wearing a kind of high visibility yellow fluorescent jacket, available at a store near you, and have placed your warning triangles both fifty metres before and behind to warn other drivers of your untoward immobility.
Pere Navarro is really looking to be remembered by history.
If they show up, the sheriff of Nottingham’s men are going to want to see if you carry a spare pair of glasses, an inspection sticker, a shoe-press, anything at all on the back seat (apart from mother), a nice clean driving licence and the rest of it – and of course, while they are there, they will be looking for illegal immigrants hiding under the spare wheel, traces of narcotics in the ashtray and an illegal radar trap apparatus stuffed down your jumper. Don’t worry about your insurance papers; they’ll have checked you already on their dashboard computer.
Now we have the ‘points system’, just like in real countries. How many times do second-rate politicians do that trick to help down the medicine ‘Oh, and in Finland you have to carry an extra pair of snow-shoes, so it’s not just here’…?
We start with twelve gold stars on our licences and the police are under strict instruction to start the carving. Aggressively. That and collect money like a carney at a fun-fair. They take any more off me and, shit, I’m walking home. It’s all right for the crazed traffic tsar; he can always get another chauffeur.
All this to answer the phone, which has stopped ringing by now anyway. Still, when you work for yourself, pay a fortune in gas and social security, you don’t want to miss a phone call – it might be a sale.
So, I hide the half-empty flask of whiskey under the seat, next to the crowbar; pull the stupid yellow day-glo number on, up over my head. Look like a booby. The price tag is flapping on my chest so I wrench it off and (no one looking) throw the bloody thing off the edge of the road.
To the boot of the car to get the triangles. You need to carry two of them – one for ahead and the other for behind. They had better not blow over; the cops might think I just threw them onto the road in a fit of bad temper.
I take the first one up the road and pace out fifty metres, forty-nine, fifty. Then back to the car and repeat the same process the other way. I will have walked over a quarter of a kilometre by the time I'm through with this but, anyway, I’ve dumped the second warning sign on the ground here on the curve and I've brought the phone and am now gonna…
Eh, Oiga’!
There’s some bloke up-road from me. The hell he came from? He’s standing a hundred metres away, just by my front triangle. It trembles in the slight wind. ‘You wanna buy this thing off me?’ he shouts.
‘What’s up?’
‘This triangle, you wanna buy…? He repeats.
‘You can sod off, you bastard!’
A huge trailer rumbles past and the triangle, grateful for the distraction, is blown off the border and flitters down into the valley below.
I’ve picked at the phone now for the re-dial and am walking back to the car, one eye on the chancer and the other out for the cops. I’ve got my surviving triangle tucked protectively under my arm where it gently rips my fluorescent pajama top.
It was a wrong fucking number. But you already knew that.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

So Many Names

How good are you on names? I have a small problem with remembering them which dates back to school times. I attended a place with eight hundred other boys, 120 of which presumably in their leaving year, a large number somewhere in the middle, and another 120 just arriving. All dressed in the same uniform and haircut. All to be known by their last names. Then there were the masters and the associate staff. And Matron. There was a little ‘blue book’ that listed the whole lot of them by house, name and dates. There were twelve ‘houses’ of which, by the time I left, I could confidently locate four. But, the ‘blue book’ knew. Some fellows learnt the whole thing and could put the right name to everybody. People like that, we knew, would one day excel in public life. Now, I wasn’t as game at this as I might have been, never knowing by name more than about twenty people, students and masters, and by sight, perhaps another thirty or so (plus the tea-lady).
This didn’t prepare me very well for adult life, especially a place like Mojácar which, in a way similar to the old school (‘Gloreat Rugbeia’) has lots of both new-boys and, indeed, leavers. The difference being, according to my mum, that here is more like a lunatic asylum.
Which is why they won’t let us do sports.
Spain has its own way of dealing with names. While we get by with a first name, a middle name that no one knows and a last name, the Spanish go for a first name (un nombre), the more generic the better, and a handful of last names (los apellidos). Here, a woman’s surname doesn’t change on entering into the holy state of matrimony (unless the husband’s name is rather smart in which case she’ll tack it on the end of her own). She’ll keep her old collection and, if pushed, might accept being ‘la Señora de so-and-so’. Any children take the best bits from their two parents’ surnames and weld them together into a fresh and different name. Thus José López Rodríguez marries María Pérez Muñoz, who keeps her name as always it was, and the children are called María López Pérez and José-Luís López Pérez (who may call himself, quite correctly under Spanish logic, Pepe Pérez). I’ll explain that in a minute, but suffice it here to note that the Spanish authorities will always want to know the first-name from one’s parents. Francisco, son of José and Alicia.
You may notice, if you have one of those absurd green A4 documents, to be carried at all times, unfolded and together with your passport and a psychedelic orange pajama top (or is that for driving?), that the useless paper (‘this document is not valid as identification or nationality without an accompanying passport’) may not carry your photograph, or thumbprint, or inside right leg measurement, but it will solemnly list your parent’s first names. Doris and Percy. Like anyone knows or cares. They don’t list the middle ones though (which don’t exist in Spanish anyway), as these are just used in police reports to cause confusion when leaked to the press (‘Richard Waverly B was arrested yesterday in connection with…’). I mean, how many Dicks do you know?
My dad was known as ‘Chick Napier’ at school, not because there were many others with his name, but because ‘he had eyes like poached eggs’. Most people, equipped as they are with first, middle and a variety of last names, also enjoy an ‘apodo’ or a ‘mote’ – a nick-name. Somebody goes to work in Germany for six months in 1925, as happened in Mojácar, and the whole family to this day is called ‘Los Alemanes’. Another well-known family is Los Marullos, and one of them, Francisco Gonzalez ‘el Marullo’, was mayor of Mojácar. Marullo means ‘sneak thief’. Nobody from around here finds that peculiar. It makes it easier for people to identify one another. Another family from the hills is known as ‘Los Pajules’, the tossers. They may make one think of Onan from the Bible, whose unconventional sexual activities duly (and inevitably) wiped out his line, but the Pajules clearly have a wider repertoire, since there are quite a lot of them. In fact, every local family will have its own ‘apodo’ which, as we have seen, they will be fiercely proud of.
Small towns have a reduced number of ‘apellidos’. Here in my town, we have Flores, García, Gonzalez, Haro and a couple more. I had an employee called Paco Flores (Paco is really Francisco) and one day I went down to the bank to pay him something. The manager looked pityingly at me, ‘there’s twenty six Francisco Flores with accounts here’, he said. Turned out later that my chap wasn’t one of them anyway, being called Francisco-José Flores instead.
Spaniards, like the Welsh who apparently all share the same surname, are obliged to invent different nicknames, or just use different variations of their first name. Francisco can be Franco, Francis, Pancho, Paco, Paquito, Frasquito, Ico and Fran. Actually the most famous Pancho of them all, Pancho Villa, was really called Doroteo. Who would have guessed?
A friend called Diego has a sure-fire solution to his poor memory for names. He calls all the men ‘León’ and all the women ‘Guapa’ – Lionheart and My Pretty. It’s so much more elegant than the British ‘Ahhh, this is Errr-um…’ And then the Brits expect us to know the names of their children and their dogs as well.
Until ‘La Democracia’ arrived in 1975, you had to call you child by a nice Christian saint’s name, or two would be even better. Sometimes a boy’s name followed by a girl’s (which isn’t generally worth making fun of, unless you can show a good turn of speed). Like José María. Or, of course, María José. I can’t see those names working at my old school, even though, since my day, it’s apparently gone co-educational.
So here in Spain your married parents are separately named (father's name) (mother's name) and you legally take their two first surnames to make up your own set. You may use just your father’s name in the street or, both, or indeed, if your father’s name is a bit humdrum, then you can use your mother’s surname. Take our president for example. He’s called José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. He uses his mother’s surname. However, his kids won’t technically be able to call themselves ‘Zapatero’ which is a bit of a swizz. They’ll probably use it anyway.
Spaniards, for their part, are confused about us having two first names and one surname, which the ladies among us will change on getting married. Same surname? They sometimes confuse us as brother and sister.
If you are called Juan and you bump into another Juan, you’ll call him ‘Tocayo’ which means ‘namesake’, which in English, as far as I know, doesn’t work. Of course, I’ve never met another Lenox.