lunes, 24 de marzo de 2008

A hole lot of trouble

There’s so much building work going on in Madrid at the moment that I barely batted an eyelid when my friend Fernando told me his neighbour was having a Metro station built in his back garden.

But then I realised that Fernando lives in Alcala de Henares, a small city to the north of Madrid famous for being Cervantes’ birthplace. A small city that is half-an-hour’s drive away from the nearest Metro station. Thinking I must’ve misunderstood, I gave Fernando my bewildered nod of agreement (if you nod slowly, while looking thoughtful, the speaker thinks you’ve understood what they’ve said and doesn’t know that your brain is desperately trying to work out how something that sounds like one word with fifty consonents - and most of them the letter “r” - could possibly be the answer to “A kilo of tomatoes, please”), but then had to admit defeat.

“A Metro station?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“I came home yesterday and saw half his garden had gone and now there’s a huge hole. He must be making a new Metro station - it’s the only explanation.”

He then laughed at my stunned face (Fernando and I tend to talk Spanglish, neither of us having sufficient confidence in speaking the other’s language fluently, and consequently conversations can become very surreal at times) and explained. Turned out his neighbour had decided to extend his house and so was digging out a new garage/basement in his garden. He also planned a new bedroom on top of the garage/basement – something that would completely destroy both the view and the light into Fernando’s house while knocking several thousands of euros off the price.

“How did he ever get planning permission for that?” I asked.

“Planning permission?” said Fernando, with an “oh you British” look. “He doesn’t have planning permission. He’s just digging.”

He went on to explain that although the council knew about the work, and although it was highly illegal, nothing could be done until somebody made a denuncia - a complaint. Until that happened, the neighbour could dig his way to Australia and no-one would stop him. I explained what would happen in Britain. Fernando just grunted. “Spain is different,” he said.

Over the next few weeks, the tale of the neighbour’s garden grew as much as the foundations he was laying. Fernando made the denucia, but nothing happened. Then he received news that an official was going to call. “Want to come and see my neighbour have to fill in his Metro hole?” asked Fernando, a smug grin on his face. He didn’t need to ask twice.

We waited at Fernando’s house - number 24, Calle XXX – with bated breath. And waited. And waited.

After a while, we heard a disturbance outside, And then saw the flashing light of a police car. Fernando went to investigate and came running back in.

“The man from the council is down the road, and the police are talking to him.”

True enough, a smartly-suited man from the council was stood inbetween two policemen and an old woman, who didn’t look happy. She was furious.

We joined the group of neighbours who’d also come out to see what was happening in this normally quiet street.

“Someone made a denuncia about the work in your house,” the man from the council was saying. “I have to investigate.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my house,” the woman was answering. “Who made the denuncia? Who of my neighbours would complain when I’ve done nothing wrong? Who would do this?”

Fernando gave a small groan.

“What is it?” I asked.

“This woman, she lives at 34. The man from the council went to the wrong house,” he answered.

He was right. When we got to talk to the council man, he’d been told to go to number 34, not 24, and, as fate would have it, the old woman who lived there was also having work done to her home. Work which had permission. And she didn’t like having some bureaucrat suddenly turning up and demanding that she stop. Which was why she had called the police.

I slunked away to the back of the crowd, leaving Fernando to sort things out. After a while, he motioned for us to go back to his house, alone.

“What about the council man?” I asked.

“He won’t come. He said they were told 34, not 24, and he won’t move without the right paperwork. I have to make the denuncia again.”

My jaw hit the ground.

“Do not worry, Liz,” continued Fernando. “My neighbour can do all the work he wants. He will just have to undo it all when it gets sorted. These things happen. Remember, Spain is different.”

miércoles, 5 de marzo de 2008

A kiss is just . . . not on!

Love is in the air - and on the escalator, the Metro seat next to you, the middle of the pavement . . .

One thing I’ve noticed in my time here is that the Spanish love snogging. Everything you’ve ever heard about Latin lovers is true (well, almost everything. Thankfully they’ve left the medallion and the skintight leather trousers far behind, although, sadly, hairy chests are still proudly puffed out whenever a J-Lo lookalike is in view) and believe me, they leave Parisians in the shade when it comes to romance. Young, old, straight, gay, couples everywhere in Madrid take any opportunity they can to tickle each other’s tonsils, no matter where they are. I’ve seen elderly men “old enough to know better” balance on their walking sticks to give their wives a kiss in the middle of their evening paseo, middle-aged couples giggle like schoolchildren as they snuggle up together in the supermarket queue, and even the youngsters in the playground drop their toys to pinch a peck when it’s time to say goodbye. The only ones who don’t seem to snog are the expats, who make sure it’s only their stiff upper lips that are on display as they cough discretely and push their way pass the passionate pairings.

However, sometimes you’ve have to join in - whether you want to or not,.

Ged and I recently celebrated our wedding anniversary with a meal at one of our favourite restaurants, Bazaar, in the centre of Madrid. It was a lovely evening and we billed and cooed as all good Britons do - discreetly holding hands and lovingly offering each other a taste of the fabulous food before scoffing the lot (although I did notice the mouthful Ged gave me of his beloved chocolate dessert was so small it made our free tapa at the bar beforehand look like a four-course meal). At one point, hubby looked as if he was going to buy a rose from the flower-seller who came round the tables but Scottish sensibilities (and an overdose of hair gel on my part) prevailed and we watched on as all around us, women proudly placed their floral tributes of love in their hair in a way that you just can’t do when your barnet is short and spiky rather than long and luscious. Things became even more loving when we realised that our local, La Terraza, was showing football on TV that night and we could make the second half if we got the Bingo Bus home.

The Bingo Bus? You know the one - in Britain, it’s the second-last bus home on a Saturday night which is always filled with older merrymakers making their way from the Gala. We have the same bus here, except it’s usually bullfights instead of bingo. The noise level is about the same. Being a late-night bus, it quickly became full, leading to Ged offering his seat to a woman who was standing, and, being a late-night bus full of people who’d just been to the bar, it wasn’t long until she started a conversation with me. (I learned several months ago that saying “I’m sorry, I don’t speak very good Spanish” to a Spaniard makes absolutely no difference. They’ll fix you with a smile, acknowledge what you’ve said, and then babble away fifty-to-the-dozen regardless. All you can do is nod, smile manically, and hope they’re not saying anything too tragic.)

The woman asked what I had been doing and I explained I’d been out with my husband. “Aaaah,” she replied, turning to give Ged her full, unashamed attention, “Con guapo? (With handsome?)” “Yes,” I answered. “It’s our wedding anniversary.” “Aaaaaaah,” she squealed with delight. “Your anniversary? How sweet. How loving! How long? So young! You should not be apart tonight. Come, come - you should be sat here, next to your wife.” And, despite Ged’s protests, she began giving orders to the rest of the passengers to move so she could give the seat back to him. And with every order, she announced it was our anniversary, until it seemed the entire bus was grinning at us and we had no choice but to look loving, grin back, and count how many stops we had to endure until we could escape.

A few days later, I recounted this tale to my friend Carlos, who has also just been married a few years. “I once read about a British couple who had just celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary,” he said. “But the newspaper didn’t say how many affairs they must have had to make this life sentence bearable.”

After so much loving, it was good to find a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek, British-style cynicism. So good, in fact, that I could have kissed him. But I didn’t. I am, after all, an expat . . .