martes, 26 de agosto de 2008

Baby, you can drive my car

It is with a heavy heart that I write that the streets of Madrid are no longer safe.

Especially when I have to admit it’s my fault that the streets of Madrid are no longer safe.

You see, I have joined the ranks of drivers. I know, I know, after my last paint-scraping escapade I vowed never to darken the driver’s door again but needs must when a regular journey takes one and a half hours in the bus and only thirty minutes by car.

And so, one 5.45am start too many, I scoured the pages looking for a bargain. Except that I forgot bargains only happen twice a year in Spain and I’d obviously missed the car season. Old vehicles are hot property - with hot prices to match - but eventually I found a Ford Fiesta that sounded good. I drove it, managed not to hit anyone, and told Santiago the owner I’d take it, proffering the money at the same time.

“Ah! No. You cannot pay me yet - first you have to pay a tax.”

“Pay a tax for buying a car?”


“And then I get the car.”


Doh, of course not. How could I have been so stupid? After all, this is Spain and if bureaucracy is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing in triplicate. Turns out, after going to the tax office to pay a transfer tax, I then had to go to the jefatura de trafico (the central car agency) with Santiago to pay another tax, of course, to transfer the ownership, as well as pay for all the forms that we needed to use. What did I say about a bargain?

After leaving me, Santiago had pointed at some strange handle, muttered something about “frio” (cold) and I had nodded like the dumb guiri I am. Five minutes later, after sitting in a car that wasn’t doing anything, I realised it was the choke. Yup, my car is so old it has a manual choke.

The next day I decided to take my maiden voyage on the motorway. Route planner in hand (or rather on the passenger seat), I turned the ignition key. Nothing. I tried again, and a faint chug-chug-splutter came from the engine. Pulling the choke out turned the chug-chug-splutter into a healthier sound and I pulled out gingerly.

Five minutes later and Ferdie was moving beautifully. We’d never left the slow lane and I had no plans of ever doing so . . . until a bus pulled to a halt in front of me and, with that wonderful way they have of doing so, just stopped.

I checked my mirror and indicated. And checked again. And one more time. It doesn’t do to rush these things. When even the dog in the distance had safely left my field of vision, I pulled out to the central lane and glided to a halt at the traffic lights.

And I had done all this with the choke left on.

The lights changed to green. My engine changed to stop. There was nothing. No matter how many times I tried, the engine refused to give anything and the only noise I could hear was the “beep beep” from the drivers behind me.

Close to tears, I tried to move the damn car myself, when suddenly I was rescued by a knight in shining armour (or rather, a white van). He quickly realised I was a female guiri in distress, commandeered another driver to help, and pushed Ferdie to a turning spot so the rest of the traffic could move on.

“This,” he said, pointing to the bonnet, “Kaput?” I nodded. “Please, open it.”

What? Open the bonnet? How? Where? With what?

I began scrabbling about the normal points for the bonnet release key but it was all in vain. There was nothing there. Wiping the tears away, I tried the key one more time.

Success. Ferdie sprung to life and my knight sprung into his van, smiling broadly as I blew kisses of thanks, using both hands to show my intense gratitude.

His big, wide, happy smile as he left kept me glowing all the way to my destination.

At my office, I stepped into the ladies’ for a quick touch up of my make-up. Hmmm, my hands were dirty too - must have been from scrabbling on the floor looking for the bonnet. The same hands that I had buried my face into. The same hands from which energetic kisses of thanks had been blown.

The same hands that had, the mirror now showed me, covered my face in large smudges of tearstained black dirt. So that explained the white van driver’s smile.

Since then, my confidence has grown, and now I toot horns, switch lanes, forget about indicating - all like a true Spanish driver.

And who knows, perhaps someday I can do it when there are other cars on the road.

sábado, 2 de agosto de 2008

Handbags and glad rags

What - you expected something over July, when temperatures hit so hot it was all I could do to sit by the pool with a cocktail . . . ?

The heat in Madrid over summer is unbelievable, and I’ve had to relegate my dark clothes to my winter pile and buy new, light-coloured ones, like the Spanish. Not that it helps me to blend in. We are instantly recognised as the new “guiris” (foreigners) in the neighbourhood and our progress around the barrio is keenly watched to see what these “mad Brits” will get up to. While I’m all for individuality, it can get a bit tiring at times so I was determined to follow Spanish fashion and fit in - checking out the other women in our local bar and taking their lead. They have long hair, so do I - now (well, it’s slightly longer than it was in the UK, a major achievement for this urchin-cut girl); they like little handbags, so do I; they like red trousers . . . ok, some things are beyond the pale. But I can cope with wandering around in cute vest tops with drawstring straps and gypsy skirts.

That was how I was dressed the other morning when I popped into my bakers for our daily bread (a task containing both pleasure and pain - pleasure in that the bread is fantastic, pain in the look on the baker’s face when I try to speak Spanish). Despite it being 25C at only 9am, the baker’s wife looked at me curiously. “Don’t you feel a bit chilly, just wearing that at this time in the morning?” she asked. The Spanish like discussing the weather almost as much as the British. I tried to make a joke about it feeling like a baker’s oven outside, but the perplexed look on their faces as I stammered my words made me turn my sentence into a simple “Not really”, and I headed back to the flat, bread in one hand, little handbag in the other.

Waiting at the traffic lights to cross (and feeling chuffed that I’d finally remembered to look the right way - as in the wrong way), I noticed a man wind peering at me from out of his window. “Señora,” he shouted, “It’s very hot. Do you have far to walk?” I shook my head and said I was nearly home. He asked if I was sure I wouldn’t like a lift, then drove off as I walked on, amazed at the kindness I constantly encountered in Madrid and smiling happily to myself as I happily swung my little handbag.

A few days later we visited La Terraza. Finding somewhere close-by to have a coffee or a cana had been important to us, but we’d had trouble locating one. In we would go, perch ourselves at the bar, only to get a look of disdain and a feeling that we were something the dog had dragged in. It took a little time to be welcomed at La Terraza, but finally Ged has been given a free lighter and I can go in by myself to work, read or just people-watch. Santi, the owner, grumpily teases us about having to turn his bar into a Spanglish-speaking one - winking as he says it - and the staff greet us when we bump into them in the street.

It was through Santi that I learned about Paul, a fellow Geordie, who lives in the next calle to us - we can even see his flat from our garden. We had chosen to live in Ciudad Lineal, a nice, well-to-do, very Spanish area, and at first didn’t want to mix with ex-pats as we wanted the “Spanish” experience. But after a while you feel the need to talk to someone with whom you share a common culture and language, and Paul quickly turned out to be a good guy.

He was in La Terraza when we popped in, laughing with Santi, and invited us to join him. Intrigued by the giggling, I asked what the joke was.

“Oh, Santi just had one of the girls in asking for a discount on their meals as they eat here so much,” said Paul. “He told them he would give them a discount if they gave him a discount. She wasn’t very happy.” We looked perplexed, and he explained: “You know - the ‘ladies of the night’ who live around the corner. It’s all legal here in Spain. Look, there’s a couple over there - with the small handbags. That’s how you can tell who they are.”

I looked at my tiny bag with horror, while Ged almost fell off his bar stool laughing. It’s since been relegated to the recycling bin and I’ve decided I’m happy being known as the guiri of the neighbourhood. There’s a lot to be said about individuality, after all.