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.