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.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Scare Tactics

There is a story today in El Mundo about the reporter who smuggled a gun on board a ferry to Ibiza. He had it stuck under the seat of his car and he got away with it.
Proving that the security is not up to scratch and that any mad bomb-wielding fiend or ETA hoodlum could do the same. There is nothing for it, says the shocked and scandalized reading public... all cars must now be searched!
This type of crap journalism is part of the justification for more rules, searches, outrages and irritations, together with new departments, gadgets and tax-money to pay for them.
Oh, but what if... cry the bourgoisie as they cower behind their wheels, I've got it so good and I don't want to lose it all...
The press returns to the attack. A journalist got a job working in a secret factory, or tested the fecal content of a meat patty from a famous burger-chain or is pretending to be the Queen's footman (all revelations in tomorrow's News) or has helped initiate and organize a civil protest (see Fox's 'Revenge of the Tea-baggers'). The authorities must tighten up - we could be in danger from a commie takeover!
The Media, to fill pages or screens, has taken to making us nervous and afeared. Better stay home... and watch the news.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What If?

The idea behind insurance is obvious. You pay a little out on a regular basis and it will save you worrying about an unexpected piece of bad fortune. You will be covered if something goes terribly wrong. Wikipedia (taking the larger picture here, I feel) defines insurance ‘as a guaranteed and known small loss to prevent a large, possibly devastating loss’. In Spain, of course, this is not entirely the case.
Here, you pay your insurance and everything goes fine. Keep up the payments why don’t you. However, if the caca hits the ventilator, it’s amazing how often the insurance company will smilingly explain why they don’t, actually, have to cough up a penny, see, because of this or that fascinating and little-known escape clause often referred to as ‘an act of God’.
In the old days, it was a ‘do as you would be done by’ arrangement with your neighbours. Their house burns down, then it follows that you must help them to build them another one. ‘Must’, because, what happens if it’s your house that has been immolated? Insurance is therefore a very civilized arrangement.
So we have Neighbourhood Watch. It’s in our interest to keep an eye out for strange faces, or cars, or people with black eye masks, striped jerseys and carrying a large bolt cutter from Lopez. We have rejas on our windows, a telephone on the night table and, for American readers, as likely as not we have an arsenal of well-oiled and fully loaded semi-automatics under the bed. You never know when you might need them.
Community insurance makes sense, but what about when the driving force is not social, but commercial? We are obliged to carry various different types of insurance thanks to the law, yet the cover comes from commercial companies. I have a car, a ton of metal that thunders along at 70kph while I’m fiddling with the CD player, so I must insure it, at least against me having an accident (while listening to Beethoven). Yet, the government allows different private insurers to essentially fight over the right to be my shining beacon in troubled seas. A few years ago, and thanks to the new rule of not having to actually carry an insurance receipt in the car (don’t worry, the nice policeman knows), it became clear to me one day after checking my bank statements that I had two policies on the same car. One was 200 euros more expensive than the other. Indignant (and mystified), I told the bank-clerk who then wanted to know which one did I want to cancel. Well, how about the more expensive one, hey?
Some of the readers of this piece will have worked (or still work) in the insurance business and they will no doubt argue about the obvious and overriding benefits of ‘peace of mind’. But, thanks to the profit margin, insurance is still stacked against the customer. For example, if I have three cars, how can I be driving more than one of them at any one time? Insure me, the driver, rather than the vehicle! Charge more for the young or inexperienced driver, but not for the car. I will grant you that here in Spain, we all pull a fast one on the insurance: ‘yes, it’s for me’, we say, patting some sporty little motorcycle with distaste, ‘the boy may just use it occasionally…’ But, have you seen the premiums on those things?
So, we must carry insurance, fundamentally, in order that we are seen to do so by the traffic police. That’s moving far away from the basic and logical reason to be covered, isn’t it?
Unlike car or work insurance (which is bloody expensive and almost utterly useless if you happen to be autonomo - self-employed), house insurance is voluntary. Well, I think it is. I have a mortgage, but when the fire came, I was told that the mandatory coverage I must pay for the pleasure of borrowing was, in fact, a life insurance.
I did have private home insurance for a while. A high wind blew the roof off the stables and the insurance perito, the assayer, said that they would only pay out if the wind was over a 100kph. I said that if the roof fell off, it didn’t matter if the wind was 1kph, but luckily, a contact from Garrucha Port gave me a certificate to say that the wind on that day had been 110kph. So the company coughed. Another time, when part of the ceiling fell in on my sleeping son, who was saved by little short of a miracle, the company went with the ‘act of God’ routine and I gave up bothering.
In several cases following the recent fire, home insurers found out that their outbuildings or land were not insured. Some of Spain’s major companies – who spend a suspiciously large amount on television advertising – were talking quickly about ‘the small print’ to their bemused customers.
Sevillana is meant to pay when there’s a power surge, but when the recent fire blew the electric and fried my computer and the telly, the man on the phone assured me that it was ‘a fortuitous act’ and therefore not covered by their service contract. They obviously don’t believe in God at the Sevillana.
It’s clear that a commercial company doesn’t make money by handing out for claims, and the perito’s job must be to minimize the insurance company’s obligations. It’s just strange, with this in mind, how Lloyds of London, for which my batty old step-mother was a ‘name’, always managed to report the most alarming losses. When she died, I discovered that she practically single-handedly had insured the twin towers, which seemed on balance rather unlikely. They cleaned out her account though…
I do have one insurance which is quite excellent. This is the Sanitas, the Spanish private health which has stood by our many problems and innumerable hospital visits over the past few years. So, with this fine company in mind, insurance can sometimes be a life-saver. Just don’t forget to read the small print.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Small Business

Having some time to kill today, I went down to visit a friend who has a store on the beach here in sunny Mojácar. How's business? It's the question you have to ask. Now, there are a few places who say they've done really well, and why not, good luck to them and all that - but most store-owners, bar-keeps and restauranteurs say that it's been a very lean summer, and the autumn doesn't look very promising either. Many emptied shop-fronts are showing the 'se alquila - for rent' sign and the nervous owners (usually local mojaqueros) are beginning to get worried about whether they should continue to ask for the usual higher rent from the next customer.
There are simply too many places. Each apartment block in Spain is built over a ground-floor of potential shops and bars, and like anywhere else, we have too many businesses chasing too few clients.
When the tourists are here, the night clubs do good business (the owners spend the rest of the year in Madrid or Berlin), and the restaurants do what they can. Unfortunately, most of our local hotels offer a three-meal deal so who's going to go out for an expensive steak?
But after the short season is over - the bars, restaurants and stores have only the residents as customers. Now, we don't buy many tee-shirts, plastic squid bottle-coolers or humourous ash-trays and, as my shop-keep friend drily noted, the local population for their part never go to any of the foreign owned businesses if they can possibly avoid it.
Today we hear that this absurd government is going to put up taxes and the IVA (sales tax) which isn't going to help our small businesses much.

Friday, September 04, 2009


The day would start with a small libation in the plaza. Late, perhaps, but it had been a long night. There were two bars, facing each other across the square decorated with a few mangled orange trees, a couple of old cars, several corrugated-sided Citroen vans, as often as not an orange dumper - Spain’s motorized pack animal - and, when not in service, a giant Chrysler from the fifties painted egg-shell blue which served as the village taxi. No one ever went to the smaller establishment, which sold ice-creams and was run by a succession of daughters from one of the local Families. We would use the old Indalo, hotel, restaurant and bar: the clubhouse, assembly room and social hub of the pueblo.
We had stayed there for several months – the price was a hundred pesetas a day for the three of us, rooms, food and drink included – when we had first arrived, and still regularly used the services of the upstairs restaurant where culture-shock and chips were served with a bottle of gritty red wine. We'ed all dine together. Tabs Parcell, the retired air vice marshal, would take his plate and put it under his shirt, next to his skin to ‘warm it’. Sammy, the flamboyant Italian-American homosexual from the merchant navy would handle the translation, under the impression that his bad ‘brooklinése’ would be comprehensible to a mojaquero waiter. Norma, another American expat, who ran an antique shop under the arch, would mutter ‘no, no’ to herself as we kept her glass filled. My dad, tall, freckled and red, known locally as ‘El langostino’, the lobster, would be sticking to whisky – he said the wine gave him gallstones. My mother, practical and in charge, would wander into the kitchen and pick up the lids on the various cauldrons to organize lunch.
The morning session, starting round about twelve, would place the small foreign community, British, French, American and a few others, around the wobbly metal tables of the Indalo, outside on the pavement, or inside, if the weather was bad, at the high marble bar. The inside bar was gloomy, dark, painted in shades of brown and stain, with a big mirror behind the bar together with a few bottles of strange cheap versions of better known brands. Diana, a retired nanny who had taught generations of children how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, appropriated the Green Fish, an unfortunately named Spanish gin, as her own. Diego, whose son these days has a bar on the beach, El Rincón de Diego, where there’s a large photograph of the bar from the old Indalo, would serve his motley crowd with a suggestion of pride. At a few pesetas a drink – a very large brandy cost just a ‘duro’ – the foreign customers soon got high-spirited and only the blistering sun managed to maintain any kind of order. Turkey Alan, a youthful cockney pocket thief, might be telling a story about his dog, a grateful looking greyhound, or perhaps old Cicero, a pungent American professor who lived by himself and spent his money on ‘whiskey and putas’, is noisily standing a round. Tony, a friend of my dad’s, drones on about women while nobody listens and Fritz, the dapper artist with the beard and the terrible laugh, might be sketching an approximation of the party while smoking a ‘dookeedoo’. David, a bald anthropologist who could speak several different North African languages, would be rubbing his short goatee gleefully and telling obscure and very filthy stories about his subjects in the Rif while his wife, Ursula, she of the gravelly voice, is asking me about school in a rather threatening manner as if she was seriously considering the job of ‘Matron’. Another round of drinks arrived. I had a Fanta.
Perhaps, if it was a hot day – it usually was – there would be a move towards the beach; not to swim, in particular, but rather to drink in one of the few places that existed in those days. Beach-land, traditionally inherited by the younger or dumber or less greedy members of the Families over the decades and centuries, was worth nothing. In 1967 we heard of land going for one peseta for ten metres. There were few takers.
There was one really good restaurant on the beach, however, run by French Algerians (they were known as ‘pied noirs’ and Franco smiled favourably on them). This was the Rancho del Mar, where Maxime’s quality food went for McDonald’s prices. Cheaper places, with simple menus, were the Puntazo, the Flamenco and the Virgen del Mar. Salad. Crotchmeat and chips. Sangría.
By three in the afternoon, the group would be building up again outside the Indalo. The post-office, ineptly run by Martín, who couldn’t read or write much, but spoke a bit of French, was open from three to five. I’d be sent to collect the letters, which would be passed to me with their stamps wrenched off by the old man, with the instruction to bring back the ones I couldn’t deliver, ‘…or throw them away’.
In the square, an elderly platinum blonde called Franny and her son Eddie, a semi-retired fifty-year old female impersonator, might perhaps have joined the group, both insisting on drinking Manhattans which they had long ago taught Diego how to make. Roger, who opened the first British bar, La Sartén, in 1968 could have shown up as well, together with Pop-eyed Peter (who was to run away with a mojaquera girl), Alan the Tin Miner and ‘Friggit’, a Swedish woman of doubtful morals. Giggling into his brandy, here's Chris with the long hair and moustache, a pink Mini Moke and a Danish girlfriend called Gitte. As the drinks continued, the group might have felt persuaded to sing, initially simple songs accessible to both the British and the Americans (‘I wonder whose kissing her now’, for example) followed, in the fullness of time, by numbers like ‘My little sister Lily’ and ‘Cats on the Rooftops’ (both also available in Spanish upon enquiry).
The evenings were more of the same. In La Sartén, where Roger would companionably allow you to ‘help yourself, Sport’, or the Zurri Gurri, a sensuous cave-bar run by a couple from Madrid, or the Witches Brew (captained by an American lesbian called Pat and her German friend, the scorching Rita) which also sold leather goods. Today, it’s the ‘Time and Place’.
In those far off times, when the Guardia Civil came in to a bar, conversation died. You had your papers ready. They could hand out some rough and ready justice. We were all a little worried to see them. My dad used to bribe them. ‘Have a drink with me’, he’d say and they’d have a brandy or a whisky and affably call him by his surname.
Later, after the bars closed at one, the only place open was the Pimiento, a disco run by Felipe, another pied noir. Drinks were slightly more expensive, but you could always dance to his collection of scratchy imported singles.
Far into the night, there was only one bar that had a license. It opened at four in the morning for the Garrucha fishermen. Thanks to its neon lights and white tiling, it was familiarly known as ‘the Lavatory Bar’. Pedro ran it and sold carajillos, black coffee with brandy, to the fishermen and, as often as not, the same thing for the surviving foreigners. I stayed with the Fanta. As the last members of the Mojácar Jets downed their drinks and raised their voices in song, while the municipal cop looked through the door and Pedro went ‘Shhh!’, an age slowly and drunkenly made its way to its final bow.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009