Monday, 28 November 2011

The ´there and then´ or the ´here and now´...

Although I tried to keep an open mind when I went to my first Kundalini Yoga session at the Brixton Rec last Saturday, I was instantly dubious when the teacher pitched up wearing a hemp shirt, a cotton flat cap and an armful of wooden bangles. I was tempted to make a quick getaway before the class started, but before I could roll up the mat and slip out he had carelessly flicked on a CD of Enya, assumed a meditative position and begun preaching about Ying and Yang. When, after near on an hour of spiritual babble, uncomfortable ´fire breathing´ and several inexplicable references to the ´love nerves´ we still hadn’t done one basic yoga sequence, I decided to abandon ship: hood up and head down I snuck out the back door mid-chant.

  The early exit turned out to be a blessing: stepping out of the sports centre, I stumbled straight into the foot-tapping rhythms of Rock Around The Clock Tonight and the buzz of an impromptu dance floor. A twirl of swirly skirts, tapping of patterned winkle-pickers and rolling of padded shoulder pads, four couples were spinning and smiling arm-in-arm in a lively jive. A toothy-grinned scruff with a can of Red Stripe bounced enthusiastically on the balls of his feet in their midst and a teacher stood by the music decks directing the steps with a cheesy smile and an American twang. Stockwell Swing Patrol had commandeered a corner of the street as part of Brixton’s Vintage Market and Atlantic Road had been transformed into a colourful jumble of low-hung bunting and stands of antique furniture; the street bubbling with head-bobbing spectators, oversized cardigans and tweed suit jackets, loud retro patterns, random knick-knacks and antique trinkets.

I felt as if I had morphed straight into the 1950s: my yoga-fuelled huff lifted instantly. A fan of rummaging around the clutter of second hand shops, I find that there is something instantly appealing about things from the past and am instantly drawn to anything with a story behind it. In fact, I spend a disproportionate amount of time imagining life as it was generations ago, dreaming of discovering a time-travelling DeLorean to zoom me through the ages Marty McFly style… I recently went to see Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a slightly off-the-wall tale about a man who discovers he can teleport through time to the 1920s. No question about it, I would leap at the chance for a night of 1920s revelry. As much as I love the 80s (headbands and comfy fashion), just imagine swooning about in a Europe where everyone is an artist: the roaring twenties, the golden age, the crazy years…

However, as a wide-eyed and innocent Owen Wilson shows us in Woody´s latest romp, is it simply a case of ´the grass is always greener´? In every era Wilson visits the contemporaries he encounters are pining for a generation-past: the previous Golden Age. Is it that, no matter where – or when - you are, the past is always perceived to have been better than the present? Looking back wistfully on school days or university years as the best time of your life certainly seems to be a habit inherent in society. I often smile back on my schooldays and reminisce about fumbling together coloured maps for geography posters or messing about with Bunsen Burners… Warm and fuzzy reflections. That however is certainly a case of selective forgetfulness. I don´t have to strain my mind much for memories of missing the train every morning and doing battle with balanced equations to sharpen up those rose-tinted lenses.

Perhaps perspectives of ages-past are similarly forgetful. Put the 1920s in context as a decade sandwiched between two world wars and it’s instantly clear that it can’t have been all cultural dynamism and hedonism; economic collapse and the rise of fascism must have featured somewhere. But who wants to read about unemployment and social misery when you can get lost in the glitz and glamour of the artist (even if it is superficial)? It certainly makes it easy to be sentimental about an era you never lived through - simply because you´ve not experienced the cold, hard reality of it. Similarly, when bogged down by pessimistic press and mundane day-to-day monotonies, it’s easy to overlook the present.

Last Saturday, moving on from the 1950s time warp of Atlantic Road, I walked home through Brixton Village. Spread through the maze of arched tunnels under Brixton Station, it’s just as good as the nostalgia of vintage markets. A rabbit warren of restaurants and shops, it’s squashed full of everything and anything: from boutique fashions to deluxe sweets, cheap home ware to specialist Indian spices. On one corner you might pass a display of exquisite cupcakes, at the next a counter-top of iced pigs heads placed. You can dine on the greasy slap-up Chinese served from a mobile counter or share a tapas platter of pinchos from the Spanish taverna, sample freshly prepared noodles or experience the best pizza in London. I doubt they had that sort of a selection in the 1920s.

Even so, as much as I can appreciate the perks and quirks of the hear and now, I’m still dreaming about the DeLorean…

Friday, 18 November 2011

Brain Blank

I have now been back in the UK for a couple of months. Returning home in September after a four-week-walk, I had high hopes of being on the cusp of a creative burst. I expected that, following a few weeks of home comforts, I would be writing reams and reams of inspired, pilgrim-themed prose...

Sadly, the pending novel is still non-existent and even short-stories or artistic articles are proving elusive. It seems that any imaginative impulses have been bludgeoned by the unwelcoming reality of working full-time: spending eight hours a day writing web-optimised content is certainly an effective way to numb the brain into blankness. However, before the memories recede too far into the distant past, I have cobbled together some words about the pilgrimage for Spanish company Letango Tours.

Though a fairly disappointing yield considering that when walking I scribbled my way through two journals, at least it is a start - if a little tentative... You can read it here: El Camino

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

El Camino...

Now sitting in an internet café in the South of Spain, it is hard to believe that less than 2 days ago I was standing on a craggy cliff on the edge of rugged Galician mountains, gazing out at an Atlantic that stretched onwards endlessly and merged with the sky in a blurry line on the horizon. I was in Fisterra, an idyllic, unspoilt stretch of coastline in the North West corner of Spain. Also known as the "Coast of Death", it is more or less the final destination on the ancient Jacobean pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela - El Camino de Santiago. Though the route culminates officially at the cathedral in the city, some pilgrims continued until they reached the coast in order to bathe in the sea be cleansed of their sins. For me, the simple prospect of reaching a beach was ample encouragement to pause only briefly in Santiago and continue for a further 3 days until I reached the coast. It was certainly worth it: finally arriving at the ocean, dumping my pack on the beach and running (or hobbling) into the water, was quite a powerful moment.

 However, over the 28 days that I was walking, I came to realise that meaningful moments are almost Camino-fashion. I met no end of people keen to share their life-changing camino experience: some had found spiritual enlightenment, others (often men) described how when walking on their own they suddenly found themselves sobbing uncontrollably. Sadly, as far as I know, I´ve had no such experience. Granted, the Baywatch-beach-entry was a special moment, but on a physical rather than emotional level - after 800km my weary, aching muscles and blistered feet were in dire need of attention and a bracing ice-bath in the Atlantic was the ideal remedy. I can´t help but feel slightly short-changed: despite walking at least double the distance of some I wasn´t met by any dramatic bout of self-realisation. If I did find my inner-self, it´s not had much of an impact: I´m still vegetarian and enjoy gin and tonics...

To be fair, I didn´t embark on the pilgrimage with any spiritual goals. In fact, one of my main motivations was the hope that I would be struck by creative genius and return with all the ingredients for a bestseller in my head. The unquestioning simplicity of the day certainly allowed for thinking and writing time- get up when you wake up (unfortunately often pre-dawn), walk in time to the sunrise, stop whenever you find a shop, talk to whoever you meet, sleep whenever you feel tired, stay wherever you end up. The unthinking routine set the mind free to reflect on anything, everything and nothing. However, I seem to have fallen short of that aim as well: though I have filled a diary (and overflow notebook) with scrambled descriptions, any coherent prose remains elusive. In fact, the only comprehensive sentences I have written were disappointingly mundane - the result of a frustrating, sleepless night...

I was staying in a particularly grotty government hostel - a dingy, damp room with white-washed walls and bunks squashed in as if it was a battery farm. Despite my surroundings, after a 36km day my exhausted limbs felt as if they were literally dissolving into the bed and I was asleep almost as soon as I lay down. However, shortly after the lights-out curfew, an elephant-like snotty rasp dragged me from my dreams and in the space of minutes, the hostel was filled with a cacophany of room-shaking snorts coming from two or three chronic snorers. By no means can I claim to have never snored, but this snorting-chorus, puncuated periodically by an offensively persistant trumpet ring tone that someone decided not to mute, must have been scraping the top of the decibel register, and the combined efforts of Nick Cave, Tom Baxter and Enya on high volume on my ipod all failed against the onslaught.

I spent a painfully long night smarting with the injustice that some troll-like beings behind me dreamt soundly while their incompetent breathing denied others some much-needed shut-eye and when I stopped for an extra strong coffee the next morning, a tirade of abuse simply flowed from my pen. Unfortunately, cutting through line upon line of uniformed vineyards in La Rioja, stomping across the stark, barren plains of Castilla y Leon and climbing through the luscious valleys of Galicia has failed to unleash similar verbosity from my pen... An indignant rant about a bad nights sleep is a fairly disappointing yield from a 28 day plod across the breadth of Spain. I can only hope that my current weariness and raggedeness is temporarily inhibiting the inevitable creative burst and that it is just a question of digestion time before the erratic scribbles in my diary become legible paragraphs.

Spiritual enlightenment may have eluded me but perhaps a few duvet-clad nights and PG Tips mornings will tease out something mildly creative...

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Dropping off the radar

I often feel tied to my laptop. I´m not sure when I started checking my e-mails two or three times a day, and when it became seemingly imperative to do so, yet rarely a day goes by when I don´t. Though free from mobile internet access (using a reliable if slightly antique Nokia handset) I still instinctively switch on my laptop every morning.

When I was living in Spain, the need to be connected was clear - frequent facebook perusals, daily e-mail checks and skype chats staved off pangs of homesickness. However, now back in the UK, it is harder for me to justify - particularly as I´m unemployed and thus free (thankfully) from the barage of work e-mails that greets most of my friends every morning.

I suppose that in the age of blackberries and iphones, romantic notions about being completely disconnected - of “dropping off the radar” - are unrealistic. Even so, I often ask myself why I log onto my laptop every morning. To confirm that my job applications remain unanswered? To delete the circulars from vouchercodes.com? To gossip needlessly with a friend who I´m meeting that evening?

Returning to Spain for a month today, this time to walk the Camino de Santiago (a route that runs from one side of Spain to the other) I´m anticipating that disconnecting will be easier – mainly because it will be largely enforced: I´m not taking a phone charger (minimalist packing given added inccentive by the prospect of having to carry everything I take) and doubt that the church halls where I´ll be staying and the sleepy pueblos that I pass through will have internet.

However, as much as I´m looking forward to being lost and unreachable for a month, and plan to embrace “dropping off the radar”, I predict, perhaps pessimistically, that within a week of walking I will have rang, texted or e-mailed my family. I´ll tell myself that it is simply to reassure them that I have arrived and am surviving, but I know deep-down that I´m expecting a reply and will be disappointed not to get one.

Perhaps I´m not cut-out for detachment... Only time will tell!

Sunday, 7 August 2011

MADRID SNAPSHOTS: The route without a trail

I was stood on the doorstep of Cercedilla train station, peering up and down the road bemusedly and hoping to spot the waymarked trail. According to the internet blog I had read over breakfast that morning, there was a clear off-road route from the station to the mountains. Predictably, the supposed stone archway meant to mark the start of said route was notable only by its absence, and I soon resigned to chance my luck just walking up the road in the general direction of the mountains. However, on spotting a slender figure waiting at the bus stop while looking thoughtfully at a map, I paused.

Wearing a latex sports T-shirt, Gore-Tex walking boots and a chunky, digital stopwatch, he looked every ounce the proficient, professional hiker. From first impressions, his appearance wasn´t deceiving: on asking him directions, he nodded authoritatively and traced an elaborate route with his finger. Unfortunately, the muddled patchwork of greens, browns, thin blue stripes and swirly contours, and the squiggly line he drew with his finger across it, left me none the wiser. I set off apprehensively in the general direction of his gestures, and was already 30m away when I heard him call me back. Running to catch up with me, he explained that the bus wasn´t for another two hours and so he too would be starting out from the train station. He drew another maze of invisible lines across the map to indicate his plans, a route equally confused as the one he had initially shown me, and asked if I wanted to follow him. A quick glance at the altitude counter attached to his belt and the walking poles fastened in a cross on his backpack washed away my doubts: I promptly decided to abandon my hazy, blog-led explorations and follow the expert.

As it turned out, he was something of a professional - a mountain guide preparing a route for a group of tourists he was to take out the following day - and for the next 6 or so hours I felt like I was on some kind of freebie guided excursion. He described the trails through the national park, named every hillock on the mountain crest and identified just about every tree we passed. In fact, as we walked it soon became clear that he nursed a passion for trees. He was bilingual in tree types – trilingual in some cases – and would stop sporadically to tenderly embrace the knarled trunk of a pathside Pine or Beech. At other times, he would fall dramatically to the floor and seize a stone to carve a small trench at the edge of a puddle, allowing the water to trickle away from the path and “feed” the trees lower down. We occasionally passed knotted tangles of branches, where trees had collapsed into each other and grown intertwining. On passing them, he would marvel at their form and stroke the branches lovingly with his fingers. “It looks so peaceful, but there´s a f**ing battle going on here. It´s a brutal fight - they´re locked in nature´s battle.”

I have to confess that after the third or fourth tree-hug I was starting to doubt his sanity and question whether my snap decision to follow him was perhaps somewhat foolhardy. My apprehensions were not eased when, on pausing for a snack, he rolled up a fat, herby spliff to puff on while I ate a banana. Unfortunately, being half-way up a mountain with little idea of how to return, I had little choice but to quash my misgivings and plough hopelessly after him in blind faith. Whether a result of this herby roll-up or not, I couldn´t help but notice that he stumbled with worrying regularity. Though exuberantly enthusiastic, bounding along with bouncy strides, he tripped clumsily over his own feet even on the best laid paths. Similarly, though reassured by his regular authoritative glances at the altitude counter and map, it soon became apparent that despite his orienteering equipment and credentials, he had little idea of where his pre-planned route lay and was simply inventing his own. “No problem, its a route without a trail,” he reassured me, amid the head-scratching and doubling back.

To be just, we did eventually reach the crest we were aiming for - albeit after wading through endless expanses of scratchy knee-high heather, scrambling over rocks and boulders wedged into the curve of the mountainside and sinking into swampy marshes and bogs. Similarly, though he tripped dopily with alarming frequency, he proved surprisingly footsure over difficult terrain and more than once he had to grab me to stop me slipping off one of the sharply sloping slabs of rock, or offer a hand to pull me across the widely spaced stones in a mountain stream. He even gave me a quick tutorial on the best technique to descend steep gradients.

Eccentricities and unplanned diversions aside, he was undoubtedly mountain savvy, and I´m certainly pleased I ran into him. Even so, if I had paid for an excursion that turned out to be an improvised “route without a trail”, led by a passionate, partially stoned tree-hugger, I´m not sure I´d be too happy.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Location Location Location

I have now been back from Madrid on unofficial summer holidays for three weeks. Despite romantic visions of spending long summer days reading, the time has slipped by in a slightly blurry haze of gin and tonics, glasses of wine and mugs of tea. Preoccupied with dog walks, lie-ins and lengthy trips on London´s creaking public transport system, the pile of Spanish books lugged back from Madrid have remained undisturbed in a pile on my bedroom floor. Unfortunately, any spare time - potential reading time - has been swallowed by increasingly panicked investigations into what to do and where to go come September - a question that seems to have boiled down to a London versus Madrid conundrum.

Having spent the past few weeks commuting to town in reverse, spending evenings at friends´ houses and nights on their sofas, I can´t help but feel that if it came to sink or swim in London, I´d struggle to keep my head above the water. Even if you push aside the exorbitant prices and astronomic size of the city, London is stressful. For one, evenings out in London become a stressful test requiring military organisation. Though I was undoubtedly spoilt in Madrid, living on the same road as several laid-back, late-night terraced bars, I think that it is justified to feel indignant when turfed out of a bar pre-midnight. I was booted out of a pub last Friday. My glass of wine sloshed unceremoniously into a plastic pint cup and the door closed and locked abruptly behind me, I was left standing listlessly on the street outside. Unwilling to commit to a boozy night in a noisy nightclub, but equally reluctant to return home, I wandered around aimlessly for a while (plastic pint cup in hand) hoping somewhat optimistically to stumble across a pub with a late licence. It didn´t take long before I conceded defeat and made for the nearest bus stop. Unfortunately, although the night had been bought to a premature end, the wearying wait for an overcrowed night bus and the painfully convoluted route that it took meant that it wasn´t until the early hours that I flaked into bed.

For another, unless late evening or very early morning, strolling seems to be something of an impossibility in London. In Madrid, I came to love the custom of “dar una vuelta” or “taking a turn”. Though the English translation sounds distinctly 19th century aristocracy, I have come to love the practice of simply walking without purpose or direction. However, in London, the legions of people that invade every corner turn a leisurely ramble around the city into an exasperating challenge. Vision blocked by an unbroken sea of heads, seeing where you´re going is an impossibilty and the congestion is such that any attempts to sidestep the crowd are hopeless. All you can do is fall into step and shuffle along blindly behind the mass. By no means is Madrid free from crowds: the central semi-circle of Sol is always a crush after 7pm, the latin quarter heaves and swells on a Sunday and the park is rammed every weekend. However, not only are the crowds less dense, but they are confined to certain hotspots leaving nearby streets refreshingly clear to amble along. Of course, if you´re keen to stretch your legs in London, you can always make for a tubeline. Londoners are reknowned for their speedy gait and nowhere is it more apparent than when they are rushing to wait on a platform. On the Waterloo & City line in particular, shifting up a gear is essential if you want to avoid being jostled by suits jockeying for position on the escalator.

On the flip side, last weekend I remembered why I love the Big Smoke. London had its sun hat on: bathed in soft sunshine and enjoying balmy temperatures, the city was smiling. By actively avoiding the centre, targeting green spaces large enough for frisbee and the arty markets and second hand vintage shops of East London, I found the London where I could happily live. Spending a fuzzy-headed Sunday morning perusing the flower markets of Colombia Road proved to be the perfect antidote to the congestion of Piccadilly. Meandering between wide flower stalls, all crammed with leafy greenery and vibrant, multi-coloured blossoms, it was hard to believe I was in central London. Only the incessant hollers of “Come ooon gals, five roses fer five pound. Y´er not buyin´ today y´er stealin”, reminded me that I was in London. The market was sandwiched between two neat lines of small, two-storey terraces - a collection of tiny boutiques. Some sold customised homeware, others handmade clothing or antiques. A few had thrown open downstairs windows to sell cups of nibbles for a pound or had hung quirky advertisements for their shop from upstairs balconies - on one terrace I noticed a fox sitting on the windowsill sewing a tapestry. Lively trios serenaded the street with energetic, foot-tapping jigs, adding to the buzz. One such group – composed of an enthusiastic clarinettist in a tweed jacket, an accordion player with a flat cap and a barefoot double bassist - attracted a semi-circle of spectators, some perched on the kerb with a take away coffee or - the braver of the crowd - circling in the middle arm-in-arm in a bouncy two-step.

As you can tell, in the throes of a love-hate relationship with London, I am no further forward in solving my September quandary. However, given the growing pile of unanswered cover letters for jobs in London, I can´t help but feel that the decision will be taken out of my hands. The option of a bohemian lifestyle and easy employment as an English teacher certainly trumps months of rejected applications and failed interviews!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Gotham City

It was only after I had booked a four-day stint in Naples and bought the guide book that a friend forewarned me it was a city infamous for its filth and notoriously dangerous. Told that it was alive with rats, stagnant garbage and organised crime I was quickly made aware that, though the city is a World Heritage Site, I wouldn´t be sight-seeing my way around a series of polished and picturesque monuments. As such, I arrived with mild curiosity about what a Mafia stronghold looked like and fairly low expectations about the city´s urban facade. To be honest, I couldn´t think much beyond a Peroni and a plate of pasta.

Fortunately, my food and drink cravings were satisfied almost immediately - within an hour of landing from Madrid I found myself in a local trattoria that was brimming with rowdy rabbles of local Italians. In fact, though I had booked a full four days in Italy´s third city, the lure of spending a few days beach-side on an island meant that my Napolese experience was squashed into this one evening - a jam-packed night kicked off with generous servings of Peroni and red wine sloshed into plastic cups, a succession of antipasto and spaghetti and a family of big-bellied, broad-smiling waitors who sporadically cranked up the volume of the music and plucked girls from their table for a two minute salsa-style spin. It was the perfect introduction to the other half of Latino Europe (which also confirmed that shouting to the person next to you is a trait shared by Italians and Spaniards alike).

Perhaps fittingly, the bubbling trattoria where I ate was in the Spanish quarter of the city. A vast, chaotic jumble of criss-crossing streets that, unsurpisingly, echoed the old quarter of Madrid. However, compared to the sleepiness of Madrid´s narrow lanes, where cars are an infrequent occurrence, the ongoing assault of Vespas zipping along the streets of Naples was overwhelming. Luckily, the general rule seemed to be that if you walked, motorists waited – or at least swerved easily around you. Notably,when exploring this labyrinth of narrow lanes, it was actually quite difficult to find a bar. Instead of the array of small locals that are scattered across Madrid, the doors and windows of downstairs flats were simply thrown open, revealing families lounging in the kitchen, sipping bottles of beer or preparing the food, occasionally shouting across the street to their neighbours. Though probably the result of an over-active imagination fuelled by mafia stories, it was all too easy to imagine that the whole district was linked in some kind of Godfather-esque extended family.

Walking home that night provided a taster of the different districts in Naples, revealing just how big and sprawling the city is. On route, we stopped for a coffee (in a classy, late-night cafeteria) and a cocktail (on a bustling street overflowing with drinkers), passed through an enormously grand, indoor market and along streets awaft with the mouldy, sweet stench that emanates from decaying garbage. On the way to the bay, we passed several small mountains of said garbage. Apparently a hangover from a 15-year-old problem with the binmen, such mounds, which are slowly but surely devouring the pavements, are commonplace in the city. Interestingly, in some areas it seems to be randomly categorized – the bus station looked like a recycling depot for old shoes. The sheer size of the city became even more evident when, after following the distinctive curve of the Napolese coastlines for over half an hour, we still had to hitch a lift to the station to catch the once-hourly bus (albeit it was a 50 minute wait until an antique model rattled into the station).

As much as I´d like to contradict the fairly negative press about Naples, from first appearances, the city certainly fitted the briefing I´d been given- un undeniably dirty, sprawling mess. However, though a far cry from the picture-perfect elegance of Rome or Paris, Naples had an appealing charm. It was raw and gritty, and free from touristy pomp and pretension. It wasn´t necessary to visit one of the 448 historical and cultural monuments to appreciate Naples as a historical centre - it was so steeped in its past that it was literally crumbling into memory as I walked around it. Completely unsanitised by even the slightest efforts at conservation, it was a dilapidated muddle of crumbling buildings and rubbish-strewn passages.

As such, it was fertile ground for the imagination: throughout the evening I spent there I found myself repeatedly envisaging a shadowy, smokey underworld more reminiscent of Gotham City than one of Italy´s Big 3. Indeed, far from feeling disappointed that I hadn´t spent a weekend perusing the Southern equivalent of Florence, I left hungry for more.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Classy horses, feudal landlords and a Robin Hood wannabe

“In Spain we have well-behaved horses and badly-behaved children,” he said, glancing over his shoulder and smiling. My mind flitted back to the snotty-nosed ten-year-old I had had the misfortune to encounter on the metro the week before. Shouting “hija de puta” (“son of a bitch”) at the top of her voice, an entire carriageful of commuters had recoiled into their seats from her screams. As if to illustrate his point further, he popped his horse into a short, bouncy canter, travelling no more than 5m before halting abruptly and executing a neat pirouette to unlock the gate. His horse, a wispy black mare wearing an elaborately knotted coloured cloth on her forehead (the traditional answer to fly repellant spray), was obediently attentive to his every move. Delicately playing with the bit in her mouth, the long, metal shanks on either side clinking gently as she did so, she spun easily on her haunches as he swung open the gate and held it open for me to pass.

He was immaculately turned out, wearing a sharp, broad-brimmed hat and an elegant brown suit. Cut in the traditional style, the jacket was short-bodied and the trousers high-waisted, belted with a coloured scarf that had been fastened around his middle like a cumberbund. On his boots, recently shined and resting in large, bucket-style stirrups, he sported some fearsome looking metal spurs that bent unforgivingly towards his horses flanks. Sat easily in the deep curves of a Western saddle padded with thick sheepskins, he held the reins casually in one hand, the other hanging loosely at his side. In short, a picture of Spanish equitation. A sorry comparison, I was wearing stone-washed jeans and an unglamourously oversized Adidas waterproof: notably scruffy.

I had long since given up the hope of finding any affordable riding options in Spain, and as such could hardly believe my luck when I found myself astride a classy, Hanoverian gelding in the midst of the Sierra last Friday. The result of a curious series of chance encounters, I have now enjoyed three such horseback excursions. It began a few weeks ago when, somewhat optimistically, I gave my number to a man-on-a-horse in the hope of securing a stable-based summer job. To my surprise, a few days, later one of his acquaintances rang to invite me on a four hour trip through the outlying valleys of Madrid - an unforgettable outing that led to two further trips (and a long afternoon spent writing about it).

Though at first glance, the horses seem rather skinny and shrunken compared to the fleshy specimens I´m used to in England, there can be no doubt that the Spanish breed and raise a special class of horses. Versatile and suprisingly hardy, they climbed up steep, rocky inclines and slid down sharp drops laced with tree roots without once stumbling, crossed rivers and jumped ditches without batting an eyelid and slalomed through pine tree forests at a measured in-hand canter just as easily as they lengthened their stride to a ground-covering gallop in the clearings. As fresh and spirited after four hours as they were at the start, I felt like I was sitting on a very narrow, explosively energetic goldmine. I found myself alongside this exemplar of Spanish equitation when, following a horsebox malfunction, we had to abandon the planned mountain excursion and reroute to a closer location. It was only on being informed that the well-dressed horseman beside me was the owner of the estate on which we were riding that I realised that I was rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy - the Marquess  Patoso del Arco to be precise (otherwise known as Jaime).

When, after initial introductions, he justified his extravagant garb by explaining that he had been hunting wild pigs the day before and didn´t want to dirty two suits, I assumed he was joking. However, it soon became apparent that, bizarre as it seemed, Jaime was speaking in all seriousness. As we rode, he indicated the borders of his territory with casual sweeps of his arm that seemed to cover entire swathes of the mountainside (just one estate of many scattered throughout Spain of course) and regaled me with fantastical tales of his ancesters adventures in England in the 1500s. Occasionally he would draw to a sharp halt and swoop down easily from his saddle to snatch a handful of grasses and offer me a generous bunch of sweet-smelling lavendar or thyme. Needless to say, it was a surreal experience cantering behind such a character through his meadows of long grass flecked with white, purple and yellow flowers.

One such meadow was home to numerous horses running free across the valley - the yearlings he had bred last spring. Like a scene out of Black Beauty, we were rapidly surrounded by the young, inquisitive noses and excited snorts of three of four youngsters, all shooed away by Jaime with a firm “yah” and unconcerned flick of his stick when they came too close. In the valley beyond we passed the outer shell of a grand stable block pendant in mid-construction. Large enough to house 20 horses and equipped with two arenas, it was suitably stylish, decked with a fitting plaque that read: “Por Necessidad Batallo, Y Cuando Puesto en mi Silla, Voy Ensanchando mis Castillas, Encima de un Caballo" (For necessity I battle, and Once in my Throne, I will Widen my Castles on Horseback).

I have to say, I felt as if I had been teleported back to the fifteenth century. Jaime was the model of decorum and propriety, holding open gates (when on horseback) and doors (when on foot), helping me to put my jacket on and insisting on addressing me in English when possible. In exchange, I had to make a concerted effort to use the polite “you” form when speaking to him – an unexpected test for my spanish. Predictably he was also ultra-conservative, and more than once the conversation veered onto passionate rants about council restrictions and the interference of conservationalists on his land. Combined with a few toe-curling moments of political incorrectness, I spent a large part of the day biting my tongue or feigning incomprehension.

Naive as it sounds, I didn´t realise that such families still existed - the whole thing had a slightly feudal feel to it. In fact, I frequently found myself imagining Jaime to be the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham, insatiably greedy, ruthlessly squeezing every last penny from the commoners in the village and on occasions when I found myself cantering more or less on my own, it was all too easy to picture myself as the female equivalent of Robin Hood galloping through the territory of the enemy. All I needed was a bow and arrow... and perhaps a catapult.
 

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Spinning it out...

It´s now June and it is apparent that the Spanish revolution that exploded on the 15th May (dubbed 15-M) has no inclination of pettering out gradually. On the contrary, the protesters´ camp in Puerta del Sol is showing all the signs of permanence and longevity: the motley conglomeration of tents has been slowly multiplying, an efficient rubbish collection system and street cleaning rotation has developed and the temporary rest zones have become increasingly well-furnished. Weaving through the paraphernalia that constitutes a resident makeshift village is now a daily normality.

One can´t help but admire its staying power. Two weeks on from the initial outburst and Sol still becomes a congested hotspot every evening, each night built around a structured program of talks. At different hours, various speakers are encircled by a mass of spaniards. Some sitting on the concrete listening avidly, others watching avidly from scaffolding erected on the roadside, they all periodically they raise their arms in the air, waving their fingers in a spirit-fingered-style salute or jingling a bunch of keys to show their appreciation or agreement (an unobtrusive tactic employed, somewhat ironically, to minimise disturbances and noise pollution).

However, though it is undoubtedly refreshing to see a society shaken out of indifference and roused to indignant action, I can´t help but think that the impact of 15-M, two weeks on, is starting to fade. Though developed as intentionally broad and non-political - an all-encompassing protest against a worn-out system - for being so directionless it seems to be losing its way. In fact, as far as I can tell, it has become a forum for anything remotely alternative. The signs bemoaning unemployment and political corruption are now interspersed with an array or irrelevancies – accusing exclamations unveiling the 11th Sept conspiracy, optimistic calls to repeal the anti-tobacco laws and, of course, the standard slaughter house horror stories from animal rights activists. Surely it would have packed more punch if it had been cleared up before it spiralled into a vague hippie protest about everything. Surely using the momentum of the initial demonstration to take steps towards achievable changes would have been much more constructive.

On reflection, spinning things out beyond a reasonable timeframe seems to be something of a Spanish characteristic. The prolonged parties of my housemates, for example, seem to follow an extended timetable that is beyond all reason: their return home at around 10am after an all-night party has become a common-place event about twice a week. Most recently, they have inaugurated “Sunday, the day of Fiesta”: a file of hard-core party-goers storm into the flat and Sunday morning is assaulted by repeats of Shakira and Rihanna played at full volume. Showing incredible staying power, the party often continues until gone midnight that night. In comparison, on the occasions when I roll home after sunrise, I usually just manage a slice of pizza and a pint of water before crashing out - Sunday lost to sporadic snoozes and general inactivity.

Their party-stamina is a physical feat that I could never hope to achieve – not that it is an ambition I particularly aspire to. Indeed, I imagine that the perpetual party is fairly reliant on a dirty white powder. Even so, what is perhaps most surprising about “The day of the Fiesta” is that, dubious choice of music aside, it seems a fairly civilised affair. No-one seems particularly drunk, rowdy or out-of-hand. Consisting largely of babbling chatter, music videos and periodic trips to the shops to stock up on cigarettes and drinks, it´s a far cry from the war zone that appears outside English chippies at 3am on a Saturday night.

I suppose that using my housemates´ party endurance (undeniably extreme in every sense of the word) to make sweeping generalisations about the Spanish as a nation is a slightly flawed technique. Similarly, considering the longevity of 15-M (an angry outburst triggered by an acute economic crisis) as a reflection of the Spanish character can hardly be described as accurate. Even so, I can´t imagine many English people losing more or less three days in a sleepless party-continuum. Neither can I imagine a makeshift revolutionary camp becoming an indefinite resident in Trafalgar Square.

Then again, given that I´m from Surrey and that most of my friends now live in Clapham, perhaps it is simply that I don´t move in the equivalent circles in England.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Nobody expects the Spanish revolution

It was a student who explained to me that Tirso de Molina, the little district where I live, is something of a hotspot of political activism. A large, open square bordered by a main road and a Lidls, its not particularly attractive. The stone benches are scribbled with graffiti and the corners are home to pungent aromas and empty Mahou bottles. However, on the other hand, the rush of water from the corner statue, the splash of colour from the flower vendors and the excited giggles of the children on the playground make it a nice place to sit. The two restaurant terraces, permanently buzzing with people, are perfect people-watching posts. Though I have never really noticed it, on reflection, there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest the left-wing, anarchist currents of Tirso. Every Sunday the flower stands are interspersed with fold-out tables, laden with political pamphlets, and there are always a few interesting characters loitering in the middle – most recently a mean-looking punk with a severe mohawk, plentiful piercings and a spotted red and white flamenco skirt worn over his leathers.

It was on Friday evening when walking home from the station that I passed a disparate looking procession ambling up a local side street. A demonstration rather lacking in numbers, I weaved easily through the well-spaced crowd to overtake, and continued stomping up the hill towards my flat. A quick glance of the motley gaggle and the felt-tip scrawl on their banners seemed to confirm that it was just a fringe group making a song and dance about very litte. However, two days later I found my doorway blocked by an enormous overturned rubbish cube. On squeezing past it and picking my way through the profusion of smashed bottles and crumpled cans, I was engulfed in billowing clouds of foul-smelling smoke – the recycling bins had been set on fire in an unexpected burst of activism.

Though I didn´t realise it at the time, the fringe demonstration of Friday and seemingly random anarchism of Sunday night were part of the build up to the mass demonstration that has paralysed Puerta del Sol for the past week. It began on Tuesday night. Immersed in back-to-back episodes of The New Adventures of Superman, I remained blissfully unaware that hordes of unhappy Spaniards were gathering in the centre of the city and planning to camp there overnight. In fact, I didn´t realise that the city had been gripped by protest until I picked up a freebie newspaper on the Metro the next morning. The following day, slightly more on the ball, I made a point of passing through Sol at about 10pm. It was an impressive sight. Under a dramatic sky - heavy storm clouds illuminated by the sunset – a sea of bodies milled around expectantly bubbling with fervent energy and jostling together as if waiting for something. Some gaggles of demonstrators had clambered onto the fish-shaped dome that marks the Metro entrance, while others had scaled the scaffolding of the main buildings, punching holes in the advertisments to a crescendoeing roar from the crowds. The atmosphere was electric.

Though it began spontaneously, the protest has now been resident in Sol for about a week. The unruly mob has morphed into some sort of makeshift village – with impressive infrastructure - at a startling pace. In fact, though Spaniards are infamous for their lack of organisation, the impromptu construction of a camp seems to have been conducted with military precision, and it hasn´t been done in half-measures. The face of Sol has been transformed. The statues are invisible beneath a wallpaper of slogans, an uneven canopy of blue tarpaulin shades the random array of stands and the flowerbeds that normally surround the fountains have been trampled into compact, brown earth. There are medical tents, one homeopathic and one conventional, categorised storerooms brimming with vegetarian food and toiletries, a press tent kitted out with laptops and microphones, cushion-laden rest zones and an excess of informative signs stipulating the food timetable, the program of speakers and procedures to be followed in the case of police violence. Stewards marshall pedestrian traffic aong the road, journalists interview self-annointed spokesmen, resident protesters stretch across sofas to catch up on sleep and musicians strum relaxing tunes...

On Saturday night I spent the evening sitting in the square with a friend, sipping a drink and soaking up the atmosphere. Though I did feel twinges of guilt for buying a litre of sangria when there were a plethora of posters encouraging abstinence, we weren´t alone: the surrounding streets were like a local bar on a Saturday night. However, the atmosphere was notably calm and relaxed. In fact, generally speaking there is an overwhelming spirit of co-operation and solidarity. My housemate, who last featured in this blog as the full-grown man wearing a babygrow and sipping a cocktail on a Sunday morning, bounced home on Wednesday flushed and excited after donating 10 pints of milk to the resident protesters. He´s not alone – a variety of restaurants are donating food and drinks. It seems that the entire Spanish pueblo - from jobless students to retired grandparents – is contributing in some way to this spur-of-the-moment display.

Cynics may argue that it is a meaningless charade with no demands and no answers - a theatre conducted by the unemployed with nothing better to do. Indeed, I do wonder what the government could possibly do to appease protesters. However, it is also refreshing to see a society finally shaken into action. Though criticised for being directionless with no political slant or concrete list of demands, this characteristic of the demonstration seems to have been a purposeful decision – a protest against the whole system, wanting sweeping changes and not simply more excuses and finger pointing.

Only time will tell whether it is merely a hippie-haven and a pointless theatre or a defining moment in history. Either way, it´s exciting to be living in the middle!


Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Ringmaster

Sunken in a comfy, dreamy slumber, the shrill and persistant bleep of my alarm clock seemed somehow more offensive than usual last Monday. Unsuprisingly, contemplating the unappealing prospect of a full day of teaching when snugly wrapped in a cosy duvet didn´t little to animate my enthusiasm. Pressing the snooze button repeatedly was similarly ineffective, merely resulting in a fuzzy head and a groggy start to the morning...

 I have attributed this exaggerated bout of Monday gloom to a “holiday hangover”, triggered by the unwelcome return to reality after the lazy May Day holidays, known in Spain as "San Isidro". Madrid´s equivalent of England´s Spring bank holiday, San Isidro - in true Spanish style - is spun out to last a full week. As such, with the majority of my classes cancelled and a refreshingly empty timetable, I felt like I was on holiday. The long, free afternoons soaking up the atmosphere were definitely worth being a few euros down next month. Whether strolling around the city centre, reading on a park bench or sipping a tinto de verano on a terrace, the city was heaving with people and buzzing with freebie concerts and displays. As businesses closed at lunchtime and offices emptied, the parks and plazas swelled. It felt like the population of Madrid had doubled within the space of a few days.

In Plaza Mayor, people gave up table-stalking the restaurant terraces or hovering hopefully by the stone benches and simply flopped onto the cobbles, picnicking in circles on the stones or leaning against the pillars to bask in the sun. The circus of street performers also seemed to grow, the glut of tourists tempting a handful of new hopefuls to the square. A series of novel fancy dress outfits appeared: a dumpy, oval-shaped fruit bowl, spinning on her finger a sombrero laden with plastic bananas, a "headless" sailor, the necktie of his faded suit swollen in a tell-tale bulge, a theatrical Charlie Chaplin, his curly, black wig lightly dusted with the white powder that coated his face. Some exuberant, young travellers also made brief appearances, attacking the swollen plaza energetically - loudly rallying a crowd of curious onlookers, setting up an array of props and mounting a noisy spectacle.

Amidst the carnival, Spiderman remained a stoic presence throughout the week, quietly confident with his sun-bleached suit and sagging stomach. Distinctive but unobtrusive. Incongrous but effective. An expert at work, he effortlessly attracted a steady flow of snap-happy tourists, conducting a roaring trade – even administering change when necessary. Perhaps in honour of San Isidro, he had added to his trademark repertoire of photo poses, debuting a new posture: the Beer-Belly-Rub. Any unsuspecting passerby with an ample gut was liable to be coaxed into position (legs hips-width apart in a wide stance, pelvis pushed forwards and hands behind back) to partake in a belly-bump with Spiderman. Admittedly, it was a move with varying degrees of success, some of the more bashful targets blushing red and hastily retreating. Even so, the colourful array of extravagant costumes and dramatic spectacles couldn´t detract from Spiderman´s success.

Recently, when passing through Puerta Del Sol, the official centrepoint of Madrid situated a five minute walk from Plaza Mayor, I happened across another "spiderman". However, though sporting the trademark suit (his a shiny, bright red and blue with padded shoulders) he had a rather shrunken, pathetic aspect. Wandering listlessly around the main statue he appeared poignantly uncomfortable instead of easily self-assured. Jostled by the passing crowds, he was a pale imitation of the booming character in Plaza Mayor. In contrast, the Spiderman of the Plaza, the undisputed ringmaster of the circus, seems to be slowly cementing his status as an official emblem of Madrid. Most recently, he has acquired a miniature statue of himself. Though only a foot high, the glazed waxwork is in perfect proportion to his figure: globular, with peachy protruding buttocks and a proudly round stomach.

I´m just waiting until he appears on the Top 10 Must-See´s in the Lonely Planet!


Thursday, 5 May 2011

Boredom breakers

Just to prove that I don´t spend all of my free time snoozing on park benches and going for walks, here are some links to articles that I have written recently: The Spanish Taberna and The Bolevan Plateau (p. 40). For if you ever find yourself aimlessly perusing the internet or twiddling your thumbs at work...

Friday, 29 April 2011

Every cloud...

Despite the lengthy precautionary paragraph in the Lonely Planet and the wealth of warnings from helpful locals, most of my valuable possessions have been nicked since my arrival in Madrid. Camera, mobile, jacket and wallet (stuffed full of wages, ID and bank cards) have been successively lost to the sticky-fingered experts that stalk the metro and prime Plazas of the city - all sneakily swiped by well-practiced hands and scurried away before I had even noticed their absence. I imagine that within the hour they were padding out the stock of the illegal mobile markets that circulate the city.

I shouldn´t be suprised really. Often tottering about amongst a gaggle of tipsy Brits, or noticeably flicking through an English textbook, I´m probably the perfect profile for a pickpocket. To make matters worse, I don´t think I´m particularly aware of my surroundings when out on the streets. Probably as a result of the herby-smelling wave of smoke that greets me every time I enter my flat, I seem to be passively stoned and slightly spaced out most of the time. I may as well be wearing a post-it on my forehead reading “Rob me please, I won´t notice.”

In an effort to see the silver lining on every cloud, I have tried to convince myself that succesive sacrifices to the street thieves of Spain has at least taught me to place less value on material possessions and to embrace carefree detachment. In some respects, I suppose it has worked: surviving for a few days with no recognisable ID and a strictly limited supply of money could, at a push, be described as liberating in some ways. Similarly, since the loss of the mobile phone I have resorted to a prehistoric Nokia handset on a Pay As You Go contract, which certainly has its benefits: the constant lack of credit provides a good excuse never to reply to messages. In fact, combined with the recent mysterious disappearance of our letter box, for the past few months I have been temporarily unreachable – at least when I want to be.

However, despite best efforts, my attempts to adopt the hippie mindset have only taken me so far. Although I generally only react with weary resignation when something inexplicably disappears from my handbag, I can´t help but bristle with frutation and annoyance inside. Even if initially ´liberating´, after just a few days of coping with a fast diminishing cash supply and no bank cards, the novelty had worn thin. Similarly, a recent three-day stretch without internet has confirmed that being unreachable is only enjoyable when it is optional. In fact, being internet-less left me feeling isolated, melancholy and homesick, merely emphasising my reliance on daily contact with friends and family back home. Indeed, at times I find myself hovering on Facebook or Skype longing for a friendly voice to log in for a chat. So much for carefree hippie detachment.

Perhaps the cloud doesn´t have a silver lining after all...

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The wheels on the bus go round and round... and round

Although my work schedule can heardly be described as arduous, when I finished teaching on Wednesday I felt like a child who has just broken up for the summer holidays and I practically skipped home, happily anticipating satisfying my beach-side cravings and enjoying a week of much-missed home comforts - understandable enthusiasm given that I had gone four months without returning to the Big Smoke. My inexplicable excitement about the eight hour bus journey to Cadiz however is perhaps harder to explain; yet for some reason I had high hopes of a productive trip, taking with me reams of unfamiliar spanish vocab and an empty notebook, ready to be filled with the fully-formed plot of my first short story and a vague plan for the future.

Unfortunately, I did little more than stare vacantly out of the window. Sat directly behind the bus driver, enjoying panoramic views, it was all too easy to simply gaze idly at the scenary. There was certainly no shortage of things to look at. As well as the rocky valleys, sloping rolls of farmland, wind turbines and solar panels, the countryside was dotted with enormous metal cutouts. Every now and then a pair of black horns would appear on the horizon, growing into the hulking outline of a bull as we approached. Not only bull-shaped, occasionally the looming silhouette was that of a donkey... or even a hat-wearing cucumber. Needless to say, the short-story remained non-existant, as did the life plan.

In fact, eight hours day-dreaming - largely about holidays - has merely confirmed that I'm not ready to get a real career yet. Though I never thought I'd admit to enjoying teaching, the perks are plenty. As well as weekend hurrahs in and around Spain, the midweek timetable isn't exactly taxing when compared to the rat race. Take last week for example, when I spent a grumpy Tuesday evening wearily contemplating a hectic Wednesday. To allow for my four-day-weekend I had squashed all of thursday's classes into one day. However, relatively speaking, it was hardly a manic day. None of my students turned up to one class - time for an ice-cream and a bench-side snooze - and I spent most of my final class busily planning with students the fancy dress costume to be worn for a forthcoming fiesta in their village.

Though I do teach a few brokers and traders, who often arrive at class somewhat harrassed and full of sighs, it seems that Spain walks at its own pace work-wise. I know at least half a dozen spaniards who only work four hours a day, lots finish work at 3pm and one has a midday beer and tapas with his boss every day. I suppose the price of such a style is lower wages and a weaker economy... either way, I know which I prefer!

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Solitude, squats and spliffs

As most of my friends will verify, I am a naturally early riser. At the end of long evenings and late nights my eyes, lids swollen with sleep, become narrow slits and I involuntarily fade into incommunicative absent-mindedess. On the other hand, I naturally wake up relatively early and, incapable of lazy morning snoozes, am usually impatient to get going. Life as an early riser is a lot more difficult in a land where everyone else seems to run to a different time; it has made impromptu catnaps and general drowsiness a fact of life. On a recent weekend in Granada my particularly stubborn body clock and dubious sleeping arrangments ensured that, despite two boozy nights, I was able to explore the city in the tranquil solitude of the early morning (relatively speaking).

Albeit dry-mouthed and heavy-headed, ambling alone around the streets of Granada as they were slowly waking up was the ideal way to see the city. It showed me a completely different side to the city. A few people were out for a leisurely stroll, newspaper under arm or bag of groceries in hand, waitors weaved idly between the neatly laid tables of empty restaurants, waiting for the lunchtime influx, and shopkeepers shuffled around in their doorways chatting to eachother. The plazas, that a few hours previously had been throbbing with the boisterous activity of late-night drinking, were serene and calm, now occupied by the older generation (the abuelos, as they are known in Spain). All well-turned out in suit trousers and shirt, perhaps puffing a cigar or pipe, they had congregated on the benches to resume the casual chit-chat from the morning before.

There were, however, a few tell-tale signs of the lurid revels of the night before. As I passed one plaza a slightly dishevelled looking Italian caught my eye: a lone survivor from the night-time fesitivites. Swaying uneasily, he was engaged in animated conversation with the abuelos, who, wary to keep their distance from his enthusiastic gesticulations, were either nodding patiently or tutting between their teeth disapprovingly.

I have long since realised that forsaking sleep in favour of the fiesta is a a feature of Spanish nightlife. In Granada in particular, days and nights seem to blur into one long spliff-a-licious, booze-heavy continuum. On the Friday night I stumbled into one such neverending party. Judging by the laundry hung on the roof terrace and the assorted heaps of bedding, the tumbledown building also served as a squat. The three floors were heaving with the fervent buzz and slightly disorientated confusion of people who have been enjoying a non-stop party. Energetic gaggles bounced in sync to a clapped rhythm, singing spontaneously to the strum of a guitar, famished drinkers devoured slices of free pizza dished out from the makeshift kitchen (unfortunately located alonside the only toilet) and those woozy from days of endless indulgence draped themselves over motheaten sofas, spilling over the collapsed arm rests. Add into the mileu a plethora of abandoned dogs that, gladly adopted by the resident party goers, weaved easily through the forest of wobbly legs, tails thumping enthusiastically.

During the night one particular character stood out from the chaos. His face was framed by a thick mat of dreadlocks, accentuating the high-arched curve of his cheekbones, and a patchy beard revealed an elongated jawline. Wearing a simple threadbare shirt and brown hareem pants, it was his eyes that set him apart from the crowd. He had painted elaborate decorations around the sockets: when you looked at him the glimmer of his eyes was lost amongst the vibrant streaks of blues, reds and greens. That night, he seemed to occupy every corner of the squat at once. Rather than shuffling awkwardly through the multitudes, mumbling muffled ´perdonas´, he crouched down low and darted nimbly through the crowd, expertly traversing the squat. At one moment he was perched on the arm of a sofa, spliff in one hand, can of Alhambra in the other, and a few minutes later he was frantically strumming a makeshift bass in the midst of an impromptu jam session. Despite such relentless activity, he showed no sign whatsoever of tiring. As I prepared to leave, resigned to the fact that I lack the Spanish staying-power, he was smiling giddily amongst a gabbling huddle of rastas, half-submerged by clouds of cigarette smoke.

On route to the exit, my eyes slid over an apparently empty corner of sofa, occupied only by the faded black case of a guitar. It wasn´t until I tripped over a pair of legs protuding from beneath it that I realised there was a body sunk deep into the sofa. Half swallowed by the well-worn sofa, with his arms stretched around the neck of the guitar in an affectionate embrace, a man was sleeping soundly, almost invisible behind the guitar.

His figure was some consolation that even Spaniards succumb to sleep eventually.

Monday, 4 April 2011

An update on the Plaza

I´m sad to admit that over the past few weeks my visits to Plaza Mayor have become more widely-spaced. Uncharacteristically cloudy skies and sporadic dribbles of rain have made window-seats in cafés a more appealing prospect than bottom-numbing stone benches and, as a consequence, long afternoons of people-watching in the Plaza have been replaced by a brief stroll across the cobbles on my way home.

I certainly regret that the hours spent whiled away soaking up the ambience of the city´s centrepiece have been curtailed. The everchanging face of the square meant that every afternoon spent bench-side had a different vibe, each day defined by the assorted gaggles of tourists, the random rotation of street performers and the distinct mood imposed by the weather.

The last time I lingered there, about a fortnight ago, the square was buzzing with the jaunty swing of a jazz band. Normally afloat with the melodious tunes of accordion players, the plaza was alive with a relentlessly strummed, rythmic riff and the lively counterpoint of two saxes. Rare visiters to the square, the group injected an energetic, foot-tapping bounce. Of the street performers, some of the regulars looked distinctly put-out: a broad-bellied, heavily moustached violinist retreated morosely from the square, his violin resting over his shoulder, and a sullen-looking Spongebob Squarepants retired wearily to a bench, lighting a cigarette. Even Spiderman, normally the commanding, central figure of the square, had been relegated to a shaded corner, temporarily defunct.

On subsequent visits, when I hurriedly skirted the Plaza en route to class, I did not see the jazz band. However, neither did I see Spiderman. His habitual corner remained empty, his hulking figure nowhere to be seen. Usually such a reliable presence in the square, the absence of his distinct, rotund silhouette was poignant. Given that the last time I saw him he had been uncharacterically unanimated, I started to worry.

Granted, there were an abundance of logical explanations for his temporary absence - perhaps he had wondered off to get a sandwich as I had passed, or had simply taken a day or two off with a bout of flu. However, I struggled to imagine Spiderman tucked up in bed with a snotty nose and a temperature. In fact, it was difficult to imagine the-man-beneath-the-suit at, making it all too easy to dismiss any rational reasoning. I began to fear that he had finally tired of Plaza Mayor and so taken his unique business elsewhere. At first glance he may appear to be something of a peculiarity, out-of-place alongside the majesty of the square. However, his unwavering occupation of the square has cemented his position as an essential resident. For me, he is an essential personality in the Plaza, a defining idiosyncracy of the square. It seems to lack something when he´s not there.

However, my fears were extinguished last Saturday when, with a free afternoon and a forecast of “sunny spells”, I gratefully returned to my favoured bench. Even before I had passed under the arched entrance to the Plaza I could hear the welcomingly familiar bellows of, “Now, scaaaary... now, seeexy!”. Spiderman had returned, and was in his element. As I watched that afternoon, he never paused from his personna. A day of non-stop business, he worked through his trademark repertoire of postures without pause for breath. Contesting a relentless flow of business, on one occasion he didn´t even bother to roll down his mask and stub out his fag before coraling an unsuspecting tourist into position - I am sure that a weathered, overweight Spiderman miming flight with a fag hanging from the corner of his mouth made an illustrative picture of the streets of Madrid.

When I had been seated for about half an hour a group of 16 American señoritas meandered into the square, each sporting a red, silk sash declaring that they were on “Sarah´s Hen Weekend”. Spiderman made a beeline for the group. He ambled slowly towards them in broad, easy steps, and paused a few metres away. Rolling back on his heels, his back slightly arched, belly potruding round and proud before him, he spread his arms wide, palms open, in a welcome gesture. Though a giggly and somewhat apprehensive group at first, being an expert at his trade he had soon coaxed them into semi-circle around him. With his audience in place, he lowered himself awkwardly to his knees in theatrical mock worship of the bride, his heavy belly grazing the cobbles. After, having won over the sceptics in the group, he struggled laboriously to his feet and began authoritatively herding the group into collective poses.

As I walked away, his booming bellow fading into a distant rumble, I smiled to myself. The ringmaster had returned!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Sod it, I´ll sort it out later

Living la vida loca here in Madrid, the good times come in swings and roundabouts. Facing my first visitor-free weekend in six weeks – for which I had carefully organised two days of blank space – I was looking forward to being blissfully lazy and unsociable. However, probably due to a combination of overtiredness and drowsiness (caused by antibiotics taken for a piercing that went badly wrong) I found myself at the wrong end of a trough. Rather than revelling in a weekend of guilt-free nothingness, I was friendsick and craving a night giggling in front of a mindless English gameshow - Take Me Out or Total Wipeout to be precise.

However, by now accustomed to pangs of homesickness, rather than throw myself hopelessly on my bed after work on Saturday, I somewhat reluctantly put on my trainers and went for a run. Although afterwards my body was grumbling with uncomfortable twinges, it had the desired effect. After twenty minutes of puffing my way around Retiro Park I stopped yearning for a night of Total Wipeout and began chewing over a basic blueprint of what to do with myself until 2012. I returned mentally revitalised with a vague plan. Although my hazy ideas will undoubtedly be redrafted several times over, one feature that I am fairly confident will remain constant is travel - albeit as yet I don´t know who I´ll go with, where I´ll go or when.

With travel on my brain, I am now in quandary. Is time to quit my weekend job and start exploring Spain: living right in the middle, I´m ideally placed to explore the four corners. However, it is just as tempting to continue using the welcome wodge of Saturday school cash to pad out my backpacking piggy bank. Just how much should you skrimp and save for a rainy day? When is it okay to think “Sod it, I´ll work as little as possible, live cheap, enjoy myself as much as possible for as long as possible and deal with the problems later”?

Living an adventure is certainly an appealing prospect. I recently found myself sharing a bench with a familiar-looking guitarrist: as I pass the hours between classes rotating between different benches in the city, he strums his way around the tourist hotspots. Curious about his story, I started a conversation. After the obligatory polite chit-chat about the weather, he started to tell me that travelling as a living is easily doable: all you need is a skill that is universal and can be employed wherever you are. For example, he had previously worked as a chef, and many of his friends now scrape a living as clowns or performers. Floating from place to place unburdened by responsibility is indeed a romantic notion, and I´m certainly not against living without luxuries: when travelling I relished the simplicity of living out of a backpack. Similarly, considering that since arriving in Spain I´ve had my wallet, coat, phone and camera nicked, I´m learning (albeit the hard way) to attach less value to material things.

However, a quick glance around at the sorry collection of human statutes attempting to squeeze a euro out of sceptical tourists in Plaza Mayor is enough to expose the rough reality of what is just a romantic idea. When my wallet was swiped and I lost a good chunk of my months wages, not only was I lucky enough to have generous friends, but I also had enough cash in the bank to pay them back. As much as I don´t mind swapping flights for overnight buses and restaurants for market stalls, I don´t think I could forgo the emergency cushion of cash in the bank. When returning from Barcelona recently, I somehow found myself on the verge of missing my flight home with no credit on my phone, no bank cards and less than a fiver in my purse. To say it was a stressful morning is something of an understatement. As such, the thought of being stranded in a foreign country without the emergency option of plastic money is enough to squash any urges to take to the road. I suppose the “I´ll live for the moment and sort it out later” physche is just one step too far for me.

So, it looks like the Saturday job will continue for now... at least until I get dreadlocks, shop exclusively in hemp shops and become a real hippie!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

A step beyond slap-stick comedy

More a fan of action movies and comedies than films with any sort of artistic standing, it is fair to say that until a month ago I was almost wholly ignorant of Spanish cinema. Aside from Amenábar´s much-coveted ´Abre Los Ojos´ , my movie repertoire was dominated by flicks featuring Bruce Willis, Hugh Jackman or superheroes. However, surrounded by friends who live opposite a Spanish arts cinema, I felt slightly bashful at my inability to contribute to any cinematic discussions that went beyond X-men or Terminator. My subsequent initiation into Spanish cinema, ´The Spirit of the Beehive´ (El Espíritu de la Colmena), didn´t exactly inspire confidence. Although described by critics as ´profound and affecting´, to me the film was simply two long hours of little dialogue, minimal action, even less camera movement and no obvious plot. More used to the crudely obvious, I think I simply failed to capture the deeper subtleties of the film.

As such, for my second foray into Spanish cinema, I went for something completely different: Airbag. I was warned it was an off-the-wall absurdity, but even so, I wasn´t prepared for such an outrageous, non-stop romp of bawdy sex and clumsy seduction, drugs and alcohol, high speed car chases, random violence and yet more bawdy sex and clumsy seduction. With only a limited command of Spanish it was nigh-on impossible to follow such a vibrantly ludicrous film. Even if I had understood every word, I doubt I would have grasped the plot of this hair-brained rollercoaster of debauchery. England and the United States are by no means short of slap-stick comedies, but the Spanish equivalent explodes the genre onto new levels.

Perhaps this is because the Spanish themselves are that little bit more outrageous.. The film certainly seems to have parallels with my flatmates. Take last Sunday, when I woke up groggily to a thumping electronic bassline coming from the lounge, as an example. Initially, head heavy with sleep, I thought I must still be in the midst of a drunken dream. However, on venturing warily out of my room, I was engulfed in a foggy haze of cigarette smoke and the smouldering blurry light of soft red lightbulbs. The lounge had been taken over an array of unknowns garbling rapid, incomprehensible Spanish, some dancing suggestively, others draped over the sofa, sprawled across the floor or on perched on various pieces of furniture.

Confronted with such a scene at midday on a Sunday, I seriously considered the possibility that someone had slipped something into my glass of wine the previous night and I was having some sort of delayed trip. However, reality was soon confirmed when my housemate, who was wearing a giant, white babygrow (he had obviously pyjama-ed up in anticipation of going to bed), bounded over anxious to check I wasn´t irritated by the impromptu Sunday morning booze-up. Slightly dazed and confused about time-of-day and day-of-week, I mumbled some sort of reassurance in Spanglish and bid a hasty retreat to the nearest café for a hot chocolate and a croissant.

Two drinks and three hours later, I was still somewhat apprehensive about returning to the boudoir: I whiled away most of day in the city and finally returned home at about 7.30pm. I was greeted by the ankle-nips of a scarily hyperactive dog (who I imagine had been making the most of the party´s fuel) and a lounge still bathed a brothel-esk red and abuzz with lively chatter. It wasn´t until about 10pm that the party died down to a manageable rumble and only four were left still standing.

No-one knows how to party quite like the Spanish: clubs don´t fill up until 3am, arriving home at 4am is considered to be a quiet night and it is not unsual for a wild friday night to blur into Saturday – possibly even Sunday as well. In this respect, I suppose that Airbag, for all of its absuridites and hedonism, is simply proportional to life in Spain.

If this is the case, interpreting ´Spirit of the Beehive´ is completely beyond me.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Brits Abroad

In recent pre-match rugby banter, French coach Marc Lievremont claimed that England was the most hated team in the Six Nations, emphasising the common understanding between the French team and “their Italian cousins”. Though he was admittedly just stoking the fire in the build up to a deciding match (a tactic that had little success), Lievremont had a point: the latinate links between French, Italian and Spanish and the resultant cultural ties are undeniable. In comparison, the English seem to inspire hostility across all of Europe. In particular, English tourists have a notoriously bad reputation, commonly viewed as sunburnt, rowdy lager louts, the likes of whom spawned phenomenons such as ´balconing´ (what must undoubtedly the epitome of stupidity). Considered to lack modesty, restraint and respect, ´Brits Abroad´ are infamous for causing general havoc and offence wherever they land.

I can empathise with this: I have never been a fan of intimidating groups of boisterous, boozed-up ´lads on tour´. However, having just returned from a short break in Barcelona, I have found myself coming out in defence of the English. The weekend was a shamelessly Brits Abroad holiday: on landing in Barcelona I was greeted by a friend who, despite the winter temperatures, was proudly sporting light pastel boardies and flip flops (“I´m on holiday!”). He took me directly to an English-heavy international bar just off Las Ramblas to introduce me to his friends - polite handshakes and awkward waves rather than the european double kiss. I soon was glugging the first of several pints of Heineken, from which the weekend drifted by in a tipsy haze of Irish pubs, sing-alongs to English pop songs and McDonalds (one of my friends managing to eat an impressive four cheeseburgers in one day).

However, although we undoubtedly indulged in stereotypical English pastimes, we were still a relatively polite, respectful rabble and as far as I know, we didn´t cause undue offence to anyone: valid proof that not all rowdy British tourists wear matching Magaluf 2011 T-shirts and cause a raucous. After spending five months intensively immersing myself in tapas, siestas and all-things-spanish, I have to confess that I relished this weekend of wholesome britishness. Whereas I usually jump at the opportunity to practice Spanish, when in Barcelona I eagerly retreated to an English bubble, reluctant to exchange even basic Spanish with barstaff. On reflection, although it sounds somewhat paradoxical, living on the continent has strengthened my English idiosyncracies. Granted, I have always been slightly obsessed by a good cup of tea, but now, living in a land commanded by the coffee culture, regular imports of English brews have become essential. Similarly, being a rugby fan in a country completely indifferent has not dampened my enthusiasm, but amplified it.

Living the European lifestyle, as much as I´m enjoying it, has magnified my attachment to the English. Replace national pride with a self-deprecating sense of humour, european argy-bargy with a staunch grin-and-bear-it attitude and over-the-top friendliness with reserved propriety... Even if beer-guzzling-Brits-on-tour didn´t have such notoriety, with so many character quirks is it any wonder that our European “cousin´s” don´t relate well to us?
 
On another note, I have written another article for Letango Tours. Ironically, it describes one of the biggest benefits of living on the continent: The Countdown to Spring.