jueves, 9 de abril de 2009

The best drive-in show in town

There are some abbreviations that are simply lovely. M&Ms, for example. or BYOB and DKNY. Then there are those that fill us with dread: OHMS, BMI (Body Mass Index, not the airline, and it always makes me depressed) and now there’s ITV.

That’s right - ITV. No . . . not the television channel that brings us Corrie and Ant and Dec. It’s the Inspección Técnica de Vehículos - or to put it simply, your MOT.

Yup, Ferdie the Fiesta and I had successfully made it through our first year together and it was time for his fitness to be assessed. Actually, it had been time for a couple of months but when your beloved car is in his late teens, it doesn’t do to rush these things. You never know how expensive it could be.
Unlike in Britain, where you drive off to your local garage for an MOT, you have to attend a special centre in Spain and there’s no need for an appointment. “Just drive in,” Paul informed us - although he changes his car more times than a matador changes his pants so how he knew I have no idea. “Just drive in and hey presto - no problem.”

Well problem right there, actually Señor New Car. It’s a bit much to assume that just because I can navigate my way to the supermarket every week - yes, even by myself - that I can find my way around the impossible road system of Madrid. So we decided to head further out of town to get our ITV, to a place called Tres Cantos where I had worked and knew quite well. And really, what’s a 40 minute drive these days? Or 60 minutes, by the time we’d got lost.

“A family car?” said the guy in the ITV information centre. “Numbers three or four.”

“And then?”

“Then drive through the test,” he replied, with one of those “bah, guiri” looks.

Drive through the test? Ged and I looked at numbers three and four, at the cars politely queuing (and there’s a phrase I never thought I’d hear myself say when talking about Spanish drivers) to drive through the test.

“What do you do in Britain?” asked my non-driving, haven’t-a-clue-about-cars husband.

“Hand the keys over, have a coffee, go back.”

“That’s not what’s going to happen here, then.”

We joined the queue. I mean, it couldn’t be that hard, could it? All these people in front were doing it with no problem.

First up, a guy checked the lights. Or rather, he stood in front of Ferdie and shouted: “Enciende los faros.” I started wishing I’d brought a dictionary. He shouted again. I looked blank again. Ged just looked like he wasn’t with me. The guy came over, leaned through my window and switched on the headlights.

Then: “La intermitente para la izquierda.”

“He said ‘izquierda’ - left,” piped up Ged. “Something for the left.”

Indicatators! I flipped it on, only to hear: “No, la izquierquirda! La izquierda!” Now that wasn’t my fault. I get my left and right mixed up in English, never mind in such stressful situations as this. My examiner had had enough and leant into my car to flick on the indicator and test everything else I needed, saying each word to me. It was one of the best vocabulary lessons I’ve ever had.

Eventually he grinned and left, directing me on a couple of metres to have my exhaust examined. Thankfully, all I had to do was sit there, Ged and I both giggling at the whole thing.

A few minutes later, the giggles turned to hysterical laughter. Cleared from the exhaust man, we faced our final hurdle: manoeuvring over a great hole in the floor from which a man shouted instructions through a megaphone at the driver before me.

“I hope he can climb the stairs out of that hole damned quick because I have no idea what he’s saying,” I told Ged.

I’m not sure what alerted the man to the fact that I wasn’t entirely confident about the whole thing, although it could have been my almost driving straight into the hole, but he decided to take the safe option and explain the procedure to me Janet and John style.

“First,” he said, holding up an index finger, “take the steering wheel (he mimed holding the wheel) and turn it quickly (which he did, rather like a child pretending to be driving) then two, (two fingers up in the way that gets you a black eye in Britain but means nothing over here) press the brakes up and down (foot slamming into the floor) until I say stop. And nothing more.”

By this time I fully expected Jeremy Beadle to appear but no, we went through the procedure and - looking relieved - the man waved me on with a sheet to take to the main office.

The laughter stopped. This was the moment of truth. The man looked at the document, pulled open my ITV record, and stamped . . . “Aprobado”. We’d passed!

Now the ITV can join the list of nice abbreviations. And next year, I’m going to sell tickets for the funniest show in town.

miércoles, 8 de abril de 2009

A guiri abroad

It wasn’t until a recent visit to the UK that I realised just how Spanish I have become. No, I haven’t started wearing red trousers or grown my hair into a mullet (a crime worthy of instant execution). I mean in my everyday behaviour - I now act in a completely different way and didn’t even realise it until I suddenly couldn’t do it anymore.

First, I had to remember to apologise if I accidentally bumped into someone in the street. In Spain, nobody bothers because they’d be doing it all the time. Walking along the narrow pavements of Madrid is like a duel: they’re coming towards you, taking up all the room; you’re heading in their direction, your bags hanging at your side like a gunslinger’s holster; the pavement is only wide enough for one person to walk on and you’re both deter mined - who will win the Gunfight at the Calle Mayor? OK, it’s always me that loses, sliding to the side to allow the other person space and then scowling to myself as I’m invariable nudged by a bag (or a large Latin bum). I’m British; we deem this behaviour to be polite and even apologise to the offending bag (or her bum). Just don’t expect the Spanish to return the sentiment. You have to have been forcibly manhandled out of the way and thrown into the path of an oncoming bus before you’ll get an apology out of them.

Then I had to relearn not to say: “Hello, good morning” whenever I entered a shop. It wasn’t so bad in my mum’s corner shop, but the security guard in John Lewis looked a bit disturbed and watched me during my entire visit (somethings never change). I won’t even mention the faces of the people in the lift when I left them with a cheery: “See you later”. You see, in Spain we have to do that when we see a shop assistant, and we always have to say goodbye when we leave a lift. Not to do so is considered maleducado (uneducated). I have to admit that the lift one got us at first. It just didn’t seem right that these strangers were saying “hasta luego (see you later)” when we’d never even been introduced, but now we do it all the time - we’d be the talk of our apartments if we didn’t.

Finally there was the bus - and the bus queue. There are very few words with the letter “q” in them in Spanish and now I know why - queueing is an alien concept. At the supermarket tickets force them into orderly lines to get their fruit, fish or jamon, but in the bus queue there is no such numerical dictatorship. Anarchy rules and it’s survival of the pushiest. Long gone are the days of standing idly by as I watched the entire population of Ciudad Lineal barge past me and into the best seats. Now I’m there elbowing my way in with the best of them, usually pulling Ged behind me. (It’s not his fault he’s always behind. I get over my inhibitions by imagining there’s a cut-price pair of Manolo Blahniks on the bus waiting for me. Somehow Ged just can’t share this image.)

Not that it ends there. Once on the bus nobody moves from their seat. If they are sitting by the aisle and the window seat becomes empty, they stay put and you have to squeeze past to get to the only empty place left (because, of course, you weren’t quick enough in the - ahem - queue). It’s the same when you then have to leave that seat. “Move? You’re joking? Can’t you limbo dance your way out without disturbing me?” Even after all these months I’m still glad I live near the end of the line and the seat next to me is always empty. There are some formalities a Briton can never abandon.

This is not to say the Spanish are not polite. After all, this is a country with two ways of saying “you”, depending on how formal you wish to be. As I learnt on my journey back from Barajas airport. The lady in the bus seat next to me was very indignant at the young air steward on her flight addressing her as “tu” (the more familiar form) when she should have been “usted”. In fact, she was so indignant about it that she discussed this “maleducación” for the entire journey. And then she got off - pushing her Latin bum in my face as she clambered out of the seat next to me before I had time to move.

It was good to be home.