Saturday, 28 March 2009

Southbound

The Autovia del Sur heads out of Madrid through January fog and June's ochre-ing heat towards Andalucia: it's the route to the three dowager cities of the South; Sevilla, Cordoba and Jaen. Their younger, upstart sibling, Malaga, sprawls all steel and concrete a little further south still, on the Costa del Sol. Busy people - important people - they take the RP-4 toll road which forms the tangent to the meandering curves of the older, toll-free road. Maybe you've driven from Bilbao, maybe from France. Maybe you're a guiri fleeing routine and responsibility in Britain. Whatever, by the time you get past the Aranjuez turn-off, it's time to pull over for food or a bed, perhaps both.

Pulling in to one of the myriad Hostals by the side of the A4 you note it's one part of the holy trinity of roadside businesses in Spain: somewhere not-quite-grand-enough to be a hotel or even a motel, a filling station and a whore-house. Sure, that's not what the neon shouts at night. No, pink, green or blue tubes flash 'Night Club' at passing cars, as if they might U-turn at the prospect of an overpriced drink and the company of the exploited.

I pull over to the Hostal. It has a 24hr cafeterĂ­a on the ground floor. It's a cross between one of Hopper's diners and a transport cafe. A long rectangular room, the bar/counter runs the length of the back wall. Parallel, between the formica-topped tables and plastic chairs, is a long levee of cigarette butts, discarded sugar packets and peanut shells; carefully brushed into this long line of debris, it's waiting for a South American woman to appear with a dustpan. Two in the morning; tired transportistas are adding caffeine to the benzedrine; travelling salesmen are debating 4 hours drive - one through the mountain passes to Jaen – or a utilitarian bed in a room like a soldier's bunk; and, as in such places everywhere in Spain, there are little family groups in transit to who knows where; Ukranians, Albanians, Romanians, there's even a ragged dog roaming outside the plate glass doors, maybe it's a Pomeranian.

Over at the bar are two women in skirts too short for the stools. Most likely they're 'night club hostesses' - although no Spaniard would bother with such a euphemism. It's likely that they're some kind of -anians too. They're smoking, as everyone does in these places; dead-eyed and bored, perhaps they have a shift break, maybe the brothels are unionized.

Me, I order a coffee with a sticky, sweaty pastry and sit at a table with a notebook and pencil.

Learning to Fly

Like Arthur Dent learning to fly, I have to trick myself into writing. The imitation page on the screen blanks me, when I ask it what I'm going to write today. So I think about something topical: filling in a tax-return, perhaps. Although I don't have to fill one in anyway. Or I'll pick up a free newspaper and read the latest mis-reported story about the Mayor's corruption trial. Luckily, spring is here more or less, so after 10, with the sun a little higher in the sky, I can sit outside and watch cars and people pass the gate. Whilst not writing.

It's Friday, today. Normally, I'd go for a beer about 5. Talk most ungrammatical Spanish with Txema the builder and watch Andres as he demonstrates how not to run a roadside bar. Not today though; Andres has retired. Markus has taken on the lease. I hope he didn't pay too much. The building is falling down, really. Markus has plans; karaoke, riding club breakfasts, bingo, bratwurst, schnitzels, eisbein. I am looking forward to the British Enclave's reaction to these developments. Some of them are old enough to bear a grudge, it's a fact – although I doubt any of them remember much about the war. Anyway, no Venta today: it's closed for renovations, but it's a rebuild it needs.

Well, I'm looking at the page. Surprise! It's no longer blank. I don't suppose you could call it writing, but – like Arthur throwing himself at the ground and missing – imagination beat gravity again.

Caveat Emptor

Out in the campo, among the bedstead gates and the poppies, every day sees a new plot fenced off. I remember one smallish tract being fenced off four years ago, when I first came to C___. It would have been late summer, so no poppies at that time perhaps, just burned grass and dry soil. It starts with the chicken wire fencing. A few weeks later there’s the old bedstead converting public space into private access. Later still, it might be a couple of months, the first ramshackle building goes up.

This particular plot bypassed the house made of straw, but only just. The following March you might have thought pig number two had moved in. There was a building made of wood, though it apparently housed a horse: an equine of culture presumably, judging by the satellite dish. In common with all of these guerrilla property developments, at that stage rows of tomato plants surrounded the building. Of course, you might say this gives the lie to the TV addict horse, and you’d be right.

Not long after, generally, a swathe of tarmac goes from the bedstead down the side of the wooden shack and some of the tomato plants are sacrificed - and this place followed the schedule. Soon an old car appeared on the tarmac, in this case a very old Seat, but I have seen Renaults and Citroens too. What is sure is that none of them are likely to be insured, but since the person driving them won’t have a driving licence it doesn’t matter.

Come the following spring a slightly bigger blocky shape of concrete and brick appeared. There was no longer any evidence of a horse. But this time piles of agrochemicals sat outside the building, indicating a surplus too large to be contained in what obviously was a storage building. With a bigger, newer satellite dish. By the end of the Summer, bang on schedule, the bedstead gates had gone. The usual two concrete pillars and manually operated wrought iron gates appeared.

Last April, as expected, a large patio and an outdoor kitchen appeared. Building continued all summer. As October threatened rain, two or three illegal Sudacas – South American immigrants – painted the exterior. A beautiful store for agrochemicals, fit for a gentleman farmer, perhaps.

Yesterday, I passed the walled perimeter of the plot, smelled the chemicals of the pool. The orange and black sign on the gate said ‘Se Vende.’

Semana Santa

Semana Santa in our town is noisy, colourful – in many senses – and a time of opportunity. Officially, our town is a ‘pueblo blanco’ – a white “village”: it’s scarcely that. Too many northern Europeans have moved into shoddy, get-the-promoter-rich-quick apartment blocks that injure the skyline. Town planners think if the concrete’s painted white the traditional look of the town is preserved. But one thing is true: the purple and the green of the rival brotherhoods in the town show up brilliantly against the white of the buildings, when it gets to Holy Week.

Not much work gets done. On the Saturday before this holiest of weeks, the members of the brotherhoods are putting the finishing touches to the floats for the procession. These floats - or Tronos (thrones) as they are known locally - usually, but not exclusively, depict a scene from the Passion – in the gothically gory style beloved of most Catholic religious image makers. There may be something blasphemously humorous hidden away on the float. After all, this is the country where some figure, somewhere, in every nativity scene, is graphically shown in the midst of a bowel movement. In the towns official Nativity Scene - or Belen - last Christmas, the mayor’s likeness was used for the ‘Kakador’. This may have been just a bit of fun, but, since he was under investigation for corruption at the time, it may have been waspish political satire. And there is some work involved in maintaining these floats: they are over a hundred years old.

High ranking members of the Purple and Green brotherhoods receive the honour of carrying them on their shoulders through the town on Good Friday. As many as 18 per float. More people carry in Malaga City where their Tronos can weigh in the tonnes. Leather-covered pads, or costales, are attached to the poles to make the couple of miles of the procession more comfortable. During the procession itself other members of the brotherhoods, dressed in some camp-Hollywood designers idea of maroon and loden musketeers’ uniforms march behind. They actually have muskets. A band consisting entirely of valveless trumpets and drums follows them. They have been rehearsing all week: the noise proper starts on Palm Sunday. About 2 a.m on Monday, after a relaxing beer one final musket volley signals bedtime or at least the dispersal of the dedicated performers. They’ll reconvene later the same day for more marching, shooting, parping and drumming. The bands and musketeers are followed by Penitents - or Nazarenos - sinister figures in long purple (or green) robes and pointed hoods. The effect is like a made-over KuKluxKlan convention; ‘yes, yes I think it just needs more colour, don’t you?’

And yes, it is colourful, fun and even spectacular. It happens in every town, so it’s not strictly a tourist attraction, although World Heritage seems to think so. Nevertheless, the town heaves with bodies by Friday; even though the next nearest town is only 8 kilometres away. But families, generations from outlying fincas, ganaderias, ranchos and villas converge on our town. If you want to be able to park at all, never mind legally, you’d better come in four hours before the procession starts.

So people do, Jose Maria takes time off from the bank and drives 6k down a rough track and picks up his mother-in-law’s mother from a two-room house. Granny or Abuela Rueda has been dressed for hours. Traditional andalusian dress. Not black, not this time of year. She’ll have a handbag and a formidable carpetbag and a tubular aluminium deckchair that’s seen better days. Abuela Rueda will talk all the way into town and Jose Maria will listen because he has to, because that’s what you do. They’ll park the car in front of the integral garage of Jose Maria’s smart town villa. Like most bankers of 40 or so Jose M has 3 or 4 houses, he’ll retire at 55 and do very nicely thank-you. The rest of the family is there already: Inma, Jose Maria’s wife, who as part of the new-wave of 40ish Andalusian women actually does something about her figure; her two daughters, one at Malaga Uni and the other going next year. It’s a fact that there is a shortage of middle-class boys in our town. Maybe that’s why the girls end up marrying their cousins. Jose M’s widowed mother in law is there too. Obviously; even though Jose M has several houses, Inma’s mother moved in as soon as her husband died, of course.
Jose M is the manager of the Bank, a big cheese in the Purple Brotherhood and if he’s disappointed he’s no son to follow him into the brotherhood, he never says – just hopes for a suitable son-in-law one day. Anyway, with 4 hours or so to go until the procession starts, he’ll pile all the family into the BMW X5 and drop them off at Alegria, where they’ll have a 3 hour lunch. Jose M will then relax; go and join the other float carriers to get ready for the procession.

Others’ days are different. Miguel Fernandez Guerrero of the Policia Local is lucky this year. He’s got the day shift. He has spent most of it putting out ‘no parking’ barriers all over town, watching as people knock them over to park. His shoulders ache from shrugging. 3 hours to go to shift-end and procession-start and Miguel is now removing the town’s three beggars from the street. Again, there’s little point: the beggars have been at it for years and will make sure that each of them will be in the prime locations come the procession’s start: at the Stone Cross roundabout, outside the Green’s church in Plaza Baja (which -despite it’s name- you walk up a hill to get to) and in front of the Purple’s church, just a few hundred metres away as the crow flies but several kilometres as the float’s carried.

Semana Santa is also a time for hedonism. Respectable matrons meet younger lovers in the afternoon; the ‘Night Clubs’, neon-lit bordellos on the main roads miles out of town, do their best business of the year, and the morning default setting for anyone under 30 is 'hangover', even the new priest in the Greens’ church.
Burglary increases. Opportunities provided by empty country and town houses are too tempting to pass up. Miguel Fernandez is not the only local policeman diverted to sysephean tasks. The Guardia Civil only turn up for the procession itself, on the lookout for a free drink and tapas. The Civil still stick to the ban on serving in your hometown for recruits, so they’ve no vested interest in the proceedings themselves. They probably watch and think to themselves how it’s not as good as in Sevilla or Leon, while they flirt with the teenage girls of the town.
These processions go on all week: from Palm Sunday, through to Easter Sunday itself, with the serious business being on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. If you really want to hear the sound of depression try listening to the singing accompanying the procession on those two days.

But the best thing – the very best – is to walk down Camino Gerald Brenan across the Cruz de la Piedra roundabout and up the hill towards Plaza Baja on the Monday after Easter. Do it at 8.00 a.m. It’s an ordinary working day. The shops in the south don’t open until 10. You will be quite alone. Litter will decorate the street; los basureros don’t come overnight for once. There won’t be any stray piles of vomit; although in a couple of hours the supermarket check-out girl’s hangover will be painful to witness - if she’s not asleep on the conveyor belt when you get there. And it will be so quiet. Until the next Fiesta, in a couple of weeks time.

A Person Of Note

It was, temporarily, a hole-in-the-wall operation. El banco; the bank. Renovations. The old entrance now had two ugly, galvanised-metal doors; they stood agape to let the workmen wheel their barrows out and through the queue of customers. Customers waiting patiently to enter via a ragged arch knocked through the wall further up. The builders were a week behind. It was January the 2nd , after all

The queue snaked past the shoe-shop, failed video-store and the fishmonger’s: black clad matrons; smoking campesinos in threadbare jackets; every woman under 30 with a pushchair to the side. All of them catching up on the news after the holidays.
‘Are you the last?’ I asked the automatic question. You can’t be sure you see. Lawyer and client, young mother and grandma -anyone really- could be off for a coffee or a pee. I once stood in a post office queue and it moved up 3 places while the old lady I’d asked listed all of the people who would return to claim their turn before I reached the desk.
‘Si, senor.’ He confirmed ‘I am the last.’

I sort of knew him. I saw him walking by the side of the ring-road, from time to time. Every day about 11 he would walk 3 miles to pick up his bread: trousers flapping in the wind, one hand keeping the straw hat on his head. I often waved as I drove past. He’d lift his hat or wave the plastic bag of baguettes in salute .

He didn’t recognise me though. I supposed he waved at the car. He was smoking, naturally. All the men, matrons and mothers would chainsmoke until they passed through the hole into the bank itself. His cigarette had been self-built; paper too coarse for a Rizla. It looked suspiciously like, although it couldn’t have been, Izal. I’ve never seen that in Mercadona supermarket.

The queue inched forward. I enjoyed the soap opera of the Alhaurino lives playing out before me. The overpowering welcomes for cousins last seen a few short days ago; the sudden, explosive arguments as one or other party realises the bank book has been left on dark, dark furniture on the other side of town. The agente of the Policia Local stopping for a few words with his grandmother whilst patrolling the streets, the gun at his side as natural to him as a belt.

Finally the old man in front reached the cashier. His shaky hand pulled out a ten-euro note.
‘Cambio.’ He said. Change.

The exchange in heated Spanish was too rapid for me to follow. But the old man shrugged and turned away. The young female cashier rolled her eyes at me. I touched his arm and said:
‘Espera,’ wait.

I did my business and gave the man the coins in my pockets in exchange for his grubby and slightly torn note. After he left the bank I watched him enter the state monopoly lottery shop. I like to think the Once came up for him that week.

That Andalucian Moment

'One oh six point EIGHT, ACE FM.'

The cheesy 80's jingle blares over the car radio. Have these people never seen Smashy and Nicey? The Brummy-accented fugitive from hospital radio tells me the name of the sponsor. Estepona Autos, Manilva; best price left- and right-hand drive. Brummy man doesn't stipulate for whom, naturally enough.

I'm driving a ten-year old Ka, it's a violent green. It still draws a stare, RH drive, Spanish Plates, one careless owner; me. I'm passing the poligono, the wagons loom, waiting to lurch out of the entrance onto the ring road. I reflect I haven't seen the old man in the hat. Haven't seen his trousers flapping in the wind for some time. Maybe he's dead, maybe he just blew away, like a dried leaf. It's hot. Generally is, in a car with no air-conditioning, in July. The green hills have started to burn brown.

It's six o'clock. In the evening. I'm on the way to a class on the other side of town. Spoiled little prince of a boy. Older father's second family, you know how it goes. Dad has been in Brazil for six months. 'On business'. Actually, he's the anonymous source for the corruption case against the current Mayor. I think he's laying low on the far side of the world. Little Alvaro speaks to him once a week, so I know he's not in the pylons for the new bypass.

Alvaro lives in La P___. It's a dodgy looking urbanizacion on that aforementioned other side of the town. It's off what they call the Malaga road. I take another route to Malaga myself, as a rule. There are some beautiful houses at La P___. Positively mansion-like. There are also empty plots, half-built houses that'll never be finished and a disused restaurant.

An advert comes on the radio. I know the guy who's recorded it. He's done some am-dram in the past. It's a dire rewording of an old Chas and Dave hit. I think it's been retuned, or detuned, too. Can't remember what the advert is for. The advertising sums up the radio station. That and the dead air for hours at a time as the electricity goes off. Sevillana probably aren't cutting them off for non-payment, but they could be.

The venerable Ka negotiates the potholes on the La P____ streets. I pull up in front of Alvaro's family's admittedly beautiful home. My mobile goes off, it's a text. It's not in Castilian, rather in the corrupted vernacular of the A_____ area. It tells me Alvaro and his mum are at their flat on the coast.

The Ka's engine starts with a disaffected grumble. I know just how it feels.