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!