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Equality of smell

I’m not sure what to make of all these smelly men I’ve been looking at recently. I look at them because I smell them first, then turn my head in the direction of the most subtle scents and stare into the face of one of those ubiquitous metrosexual types who insist on wearing perfume during daylight hours.
There used to be a time when one could take genuine macho pleasure in the smell of a woman, fairly safe in the knowledge that the wearer of any scent other than Old Spice was female. And the more subtle the smell the more stylish the female, one could be sure. But these days one just doesn’t know. I blame television advertising, showing beautiful young women manhandling beautiful young men just because they smell like beautiful young women. What young man could resist that?
Real men used Old Spice. Everybody knew what it smelled like and nobody mistook it for perfume. It came out of a sturdy little bottle with a drawing of a ship on it, conjuring up images of adventure and romance in faraway places. Whenever I see a bottle of Axel or Diesel, two of the many male perfumes now crowding the market. I think of hours spent freezing to death in a garage while a mechanic squirts grease at my car, or the short time I spent as a fishermen getting sick over the side because of the stink of diesel fumes and gutted fish.
I’d be more inclined to wear perfume if the smells were more down-to-earth. For me, there is nothing more reminiscent of time and place than a smell. The pungent whiff of curry passing an Indian restaurant, the aroma of fresh coffee first thing in the morning, the smell of freshly cut grass before the field comes into view or of salt water and seaweed before reaching the coast. And sometimes, perhaps only once or twice in a lifetime, the smell of something unidentifiable that brings one back to one’s early childhood.
One of my favourite smells is that of a new car, and I know this is a smell many other men enjoy. So why not bottle it and sell it? Why not market the bouquet of a newly-opened bottle of vintage wine, or the delightful smell of a good cigar being smoked? Those with an artistic bent could smell of linseed oil and turpentine, while academic types could walk around smelling of mouldy old books or brand-new ones, as they choose. Businessmen on the make could smell of parquet flooring and sporting types could smell of healthy sweat by simply not washing.
But there is a bright side to all this nonsense, as anybody who has ever sat on a crowded bus in the rain will know. No longer does it smell like the locker room of a rugby club after a game, but more like a cocktail of deodorants, after-shaves, colognes and perfumes, with not a hint of the sweat and dirty socks of days gone by. And perhaps best of all in a country which has still not achieved full equality of the sexes, one step in the right direction is that we all smell the same.

Obstinate resolution

New Year resolutions are a funny thing. They serve no purpose, because we break them as soon as we make them, and in any case, if there were some challenging resolution that would change our lives, we are surely not likely to make it in the cold light of January. For me, perhaps as a result of having been a teacher, the year starts when the balmy nights of early autumn still allow me to sit on the terrace with a gin and tonic and dream of making a better person of myself.
But try as I might to ignore resolutions of all kinds, I simply cannot, and about this time every year I find thoughts of self-improvement invading my brain. Usually, these thoughts are the same as those I had when summer last turned to autumn.
They vary from the material to the sublime, their common thread being that they vary little from year to year.
At a material level, I resolve to work harder, thereby becoming more successful and earning more money. To do so, I resolve to stop watching idiotic late-night films on television and go to bed earlier so that I will get up earlier and start work earlier. I resolve to concentrate more on what I do and stop stopping every half hour for a cup of coffee. I resolve not to repeat the same mistakes time and again, but to learn from them once and for all.
These are resolutions I should be good at, due to many years of practise, but it never seems to work out like that. It could be because the longer hours I then put into becoming less successful as the years roll by tend to have a debilitating effect on my concentration, leading to more cups of coffee and more of the same mistakes. But come the New Year and I will have resolved, once more, to improve my lot through a complete overhaul of my work ethic.
At the sublime level, I resolve to improve my mind. This also I should be good at, if practice makes perfect, but here again, reality clashes with resolve. One way of improving my mind is to learn another language, but after all these years of effort over short periods of time, I speak no more than a word or two of German, Russian, Italian, Portuguese and Arabic, and my French was better at school than it is now.
There have been other resolute forays into the sublime over the years, including the study of mythology, ancient history, Latin, Indian cooking, car mechanics and, most curious of all, the study of handwriting. An indication of my knowledge of the last, accumulated over a day or two following the making of the resolution, is that I cannot even remember what the discipline is called.
I will, of course, be making more resolutions this year, and will certainly not keep them. But who cares? Obstinacy marches to a constant beat. As Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Christmas story 11

The mother lay with the new-born babe in her arms and cooed at him.
The father watched them both with pride. It was their first-born.
He wasn’t sure how it happened.
Must have been drunk that night.
Outside, the shepherds gathered.
“Hey Mick! What’s going on in there?” said the first shepherd.
“Jaysus, I haven’t a clue,” Mick replied. “Maybe they’re opening a shopping mall or something.”
“No, I don’t think it’s a shopping mall. Not in a cave. Maybe it’s the Real Madrid-Barcelona match on television. What do you think, Mick?”
“Christ, How would I know? I’m not religious.” Mick replied again. “It’s something important, but whatever it is, it’s not going to change our lives. Whatever effect it has on the rest of mankind, guess what we’ll still be doing.”
“I know what we’ll still be doing, Mick. We’ll still be minding sheep.”
Far away, three men trundled through the desert on their camels, following the brightest star in the sky. They bore gifts. They did not marvel at the dawn of a new era of peace and goodwill for all men and some women. They knew better, because they were wise men.
“I’ve got incense,” said the first wise man.
“Wise choice,” said the second. “Incense will certainly make the new-born babe smell good. But I’m doing better. I’ve got myrrh. A superior form of gum resin, I believe, that will make the new-born babe smell divine.”
“You idiots!” said the third wise man. “Call yourselves men of the world? Have you no sense of values? Who cares what the child smells like as long as he’s being given the most important gift of all?”
“Oh, that’s what you have, I suppose. And what might it be, wise man?” said the first wise man. “Good health? Love? Intelligence? Or wisdom, like we have?”
The third wise man just smiled. He was a very wise man.
Further away, a fat man with a white beard and red lumber-jacket, pants and boots sat with his head in his hands.
“What’s wrong, Nick?” said Rudi. “Christmas blues again?”
“Damn right,” Nick replied. “I’ve just read through the list one more time. What on earth are we going to do with all these toys?”
“Well, Nick, you insisted on stocking up on the old favourites like train sets and teddy bears and dolls and guns. You can’t say I didn’t tell you so.”
“I know, Rudi, you said so. But I don’t even know what they mean. I’ve never seen a computer game in my life. Warlords Battle-cry 11, Hordes of the Underworld, Zork and his Demented Perverts, Island of Evil 111, Zombie Fairytale…”
“Well, it is the season of peace and goodwill for lots of men and some women and a small proportion of the world’s children,” said Rudi.
And meanwhile, back in the cave, the new parents had a problem. They would have to name the child.
The father scratched his beard.
‘Jeysus, what’ll we call him?’ he said.

Pandora’s box

An advertisement on Spanish television offers en electronic mental game aimed at maintaining the mind in good working order. It was making me uneasy, but I couldn’t think why, so I asked my three-year-old grandchild.
“It could be because the advertisement is directed exclusively at the elderly, and that offends you, perhaps at a subconscious level,” my grandchild explained with a malevolent smile. She could be right.
The gadget, named (or misnamed, as anybody with a passing knowledge of Greek mythology will know) Pandora’s Box, is indeed directed only at the elderly, given that all the actors used in the advertisement are one step from the grave, and while I am not yet in this category, I will be. And if fortunate enough not to suffer some disease that affects my mind in the years to come, I expect it to be in good working order when I get there.
Evidently, the manufacturers of the electronic mental game do not share my optimism. Like too many people these days, they assume that with the passing of the years, the mind automatically degenerates. This may be biologically true, but as more enlightened and intelligent societies realise, the elderly tend to make better use than the young of their remaining brain cells. That is, unless they have been conditioned by society into believing themselves to be mindless idiots.
The advertisement is probably an attempt to draw us older people into the mind-numbing world of video games and the like, so beloved of the young. If successful, the fabric of this still sane society we have chosen to live in will change. No more will we see old women sitting on chairs in the plazas of our towns and villages chatting amicably, or old men gesticulating wildly while they discuss the affairs of the world, because they will all be inside wearing earphones and poking electronic gadgetry with their fingers.
The real problem is not the death of brain cells, but the growing acceptance of age as some socially unacceptable disease. Even the use of words to describe the old as anything but old is constantly changing, ranging from “senior citizens” and “pensioners” in English to “the third age” and “mayores” in Spanish, although the Spanish people are honest enough to refer to the very old as “ancianos,” which has a satisfying ring of political incorrectness to it.
Television is to be blamed for much of this, and not just television advertising. On Spanish television, even serious news and current affairs programmes are more usually hosted by beautiful young people than knowledgeable and experienced older people. Meanwhile, the writers of Hollywood imports portray people in senior positions in all walks of life as ridiculously young.
Of course, all of this may be no more than my own perception of a reality clouded by a mental condition I myself suffer, given my age, without knowing it. Christmas is around the corner, and maybe one of my children will have seen the offensive advertisement and will give me the offensive mental game. The worst that can happen, I suppose, is that I might enjoy playing it.

Unkind thoughts and forms

I dropped into the bank last week to ask them to change my Social Security account.
“No problem,” said the man behind the computer. “Just call to the Social Security office down the street and they’ll tell you what to do.”
So I dropped into the Social Security office to ask them what to do.
“No problem, just fill out this document,” said the man behind the computer, handing me a five-page form with fourteen sections to be filled out, making a sum total of 165 pieces of information to be written in pen or biro in block letters, requesting data ranging from my second surname (which I haven’t got) and my commercial name (which I haven’t got) to the personal data of my business partners (whom I haven’t got) and my representative (which I haven’t got). I decided to keep the old bank account open.
Then I had to apply for a new driving licence. This was easier, as it turned out, because after I paid a secretary sitting behind a computer 50 euros to have a doctor sitting behind a computer ask me if I was taking any medicines, I dropped into the post-office to send off photocopies of my old licence, my residence card and two photographs of myself. And to fill out the form.
“Here’s a pen,” said the man behind the computer. “You can fill it out here and now.”
I couldn’t. A brief glance at it was enough to know that there was no possibility of me understanding the questions, let alone the answers. For me, a driving licence is a driving licence, and I have never asked myself what class of vehicle I now wish to be permitted to drive, or any of the other numerous questions that have to be answered before a driving licence can be renewed.
“No problem,” said the man behind the computer. “I’ll fill it out for you.”
While doing so, a young couple walked in and asked for the same document to fill out, and then I realised why the doctor’s do-you-take-any-medicines clinic was beside the post-office. They spent a few minutes examining it carefully before admitting to the man behind the computer that they didn’t understand it. He agreed to fill it out for them when he had finished filling out mine.
I was curious as to why we all had to fill out so much paperwork at a time when the political leaders of the world were in Copenhagen trying, among other things, to get us all to use less paper, but there was nobody to ask, given that the only employee in the place was sitting behind his computer with a biro in his hand filling out a form.
On my way home, thinking unkind thoughts about the state and its utterly confusing forms to be filled out on paper, it occurred to me what the real problem is. It’s computers. And until somebody designs one that can fill out forms in block letters with a biro, there will be no solution.

Me and Mr Bean

Every day about lunchtime I sit on a dining-room chair with a crimson satin seat amid the sand, bags of cement and scaffolding in the ruin I’m restoring, open a plastic bag, take out two jam sandwiches and eat them, pour a cup of tea out of a flask and drink it, view my morning’s labour and for some reason that continues to escape me, think of Mr Bean.
I also think occasionally of that Englishman who wrote a best-seller about the building of his house in Provence. I keep waiting for something funny to happen while I’m building mine, but I haven’t laughed so far. Unlike him, I have no funny neighbours to say funny things, no stupid tourists to make fun of, no inefficient bureaucrats to wrangle with and no hilarious incidents to write about.
No doubt, the two builders who do the heavy work look at what I’ve done and think of Mr Bean as well. They must have noticed that it took me two weeks to build one small section of wall that would have taken them two days. They must have seen me spend half an hour measuring the space and searching for a stone to fit it, another half hour chipping at it with my hammer and chisel, a further half hour trying to fit it in place and another hour and a half repeating the entire performance because it still didn’t fit. They glance at the space, select a heavy stone from the pile, hit it a few times, slap cement on it and slot it in place, all in a few minutes.
But I suppose there was something funny about the way they looked at me when I told them I was going to make the windows and doors. I spent the first few weeks making the window frames, which they put in place in a day or two. Then they got worried about the wind lifting the roof because of the large holes in the wall where the doors should be, and suggested blocking up the window frames until I had the doors made. That was two months ago. The windows are still blocked and I’m still working on the doors. And thinking of Mr Bean.
Carpentry on this scale, I’ve discovered, is measuring precisely, or to be more precise, knowing what to measure. I love it. In a world of uncertainly, this is a paradise of reason.
It also, I suspect, alleviates my compulsive-obsessive disorder.
I start in the morning by sharpening my pencil to a fine point, checking my drawings for the umpteenth time, measuring to the half millimetre, drawing the line and then checking it again, and again, and again. Then I cut, and then see it’s time for my tea and jam sandwiches.
The architect dropped in for a visit the other day. She was very impressed with the door that took me a month to make.
“You know,” she said, “It’s not easy to get skilled carpenters around here. You could make a good living from it.”
If only she knew, I thought to myself. And thought once more of Mr Bean.

Duel

I was on my way to work during the week, trying to alleviate the pain of having to do so at my age by having fun on the road with the lorry drivers.
Hardly anybody else uses the roads around here, I’ve noticed. The lorries thunder along at a speed adjusted to maximum engine power on the way up hills and the power of gravity on the way down, oblivious of any foolish non-lorry drivers who might be using the roads as well.
Like the motorist in the early Steven Spielberg film, one never sees their faces, because when in front of them, one’s view is a close-up of the engine grille, and when they pass, one’s concentration is fixed on surviving the experience and nothing else. I do my best to ensure that any overtaking is done by me only.
This gets tricky at times, but therein lies the fun. Long experience has taught me never to attempt overtaking on a downward slope, where all those tons of inertial force give the edge to the lorry driver. Overtaking on level ground is usually out of the question too, because however much distance one has to do so, the road ahead will be packed with more lorry drivers, all centimetres apart from one another. One’s only chance of success is to get them at their weakest: to calculate carefully and pass them on an upward slope.
At one point my concentration lapsed, and before I had the chance to move out and stop him, one driver passed me on a particularly dangerous bend. I must be getting old, I thought, filled with admiration for such skill at the wheel.
When I got to work – teaching an English course in one of the country’s biggest haulage companies – I found my students in an unusually sombre mood. Why the long faces, I asked.
“Another of our drivers died on the road this morning,” I was told. In France, as it happened.
I offered my condolences and asked if anybody else had been hurt in the accident.
“No, I was told. “It was not an accident. Very few have accidents. They are drivers with many years of experience. He died of a heart attack.”
“What age was he?” I asked.
“Sixty four,” I was told.
“Was he not old to be driving a lorry long distance?” I asked.
“No,” I was told. “Most of our drivers are old, and are prone to heart attacks. After all, they sit for many hours doing nothing but driving. Many are overweight.”
“And why are they all so old?” I asked.
“The pay,” I was told. “It is not a well-paid job, so it is mostly done by older men who can do little else.”
“And the last driver who died, how did that happen?” I asked.
“He fell asleep at the wheel. It happens a lot with lorry drivers.”
My journey home again was not quite as much fun. A lot of lorries passed me on the way.

Dog’s life

My father once came home from work to find nobody at home and a stew simmering on the cooker. It was delicious, he told me afterwards, even if the meat was not quite as tender as he would have liked. But not worth the annoyance of our houseguest when she came back to discover he had eaten her dog’s dinner. She was English, of course.
Our dogs are not as pampered as the rat-like animals beloved of the kind of people who cook stews for their dogs, but despite all the good intentions we have when a new dog joins the family, they still manage to make an ass of me in the eyes of my more sensible neighbours.
In the Spanish countryside, dogs are more farm animals than domestic pets. In Andalucía, they are generally used as guard dogs, and in my area, they are used to herd cows and sheep. They run alongside the heels of their owner until he gives the word and they obey instantly.
My dogs run in all directions except the one I am taking and I jump up and down screaming my head off like an idiot while they chase any cows or sheep they see along the way.
Their dogs stand to one side when a car comes along and ignore pedestrians on the road. My dogs jump up to bark at the drivers and scratch the paintwork if they slow down and chase them if they don’t, and frighten pedestrians we meet along the way while they haul at the leash we have to put them on when anybody appears.
In recent years, more and more people in the area have been keeping dogs as pets, and they really put me and my dogs to shame. They take the keeping of dogs seriously, training them as they would working dogs and building huts for them in their gardens. My dogs have been trained not to pee in the house, and that’s about it. And as for sleeping in a hut in the garden, painful suicide would be a more attractive option for them.
It starts in the sitting-room. As newcomers to the household, they are banned from the armchairs and couch. That lasts about a week, until we find ourselves fighting for space while our dogs watch television. Then it moves on to the bedroom, from which the dogs are banned from the start. That lasts another week or so, until they edge their way in and begin sleeping at the foot of the bed. Then they discover the delights of a soft mattress and start hopping up on the bed during the night. In the space of a few months, our dogs have taken over the household completely, masters of the best seats downstairs and arbiters of exactly who sleeps where on the bed upstairs.
I know none of this is as it should be. I used to watch those programmes about dog trainers on television, but soon realised they were science fiction with special effects. I stopped when one of the trainers said a dog’s character reflects that of its owner. I wish it were true.

Freedom falls

About forty years ago, a member of the Guardia Civil approached me while I was working in the streets of a town somewhere on the Costa Brava.
“Our excelentísimo mayor,” he said, “would very much like to speak to you, if you would be so kind as to accompany me…”
I felt it churlish to decline such a polite invitation, so I went with him. A comrade (in arms), he assured me, would keep an eye on my easel.
We reached an imposing building and walked through long corridors before coming to the mayor’s office. He got up to greet me with a smile and a shake of the hand, inviting me to have coffee with him.
“I must explain,” he said when we were both seated, “that we in this town welcome artists of all kinds. But as it happens, we already have a street portrait artist who is clearly not as good as you are, and I fear he will get no better. He is, sadly, quite old and has no other means of income, and is much loved by the people of the town. We would be eternally grateful if you would move on to the next town, where I’m sure the problem of unfair competition does not exist.”
It was worth being banished for the pleasure of having coffee with the mayor in such splendid surroundings and listening to such a moving speech. I moved on, free to practice my trade in every other town and city in the country. It was partly what had attracted me to Spain in the first place.
It is also one of the reasons I love Granada, the city of free tapas, students and tolerance of the eccentric. Where else would one see a Scotsman in full tartan dress stride through the streets without anybody casting a second glance?
But now, I heard on the news tonight, they plan to banish prostitutes from the city and demand that all beggars and street musicians be licensed. Have they learned nothing from all those centuries of tolerant Moorish rule?
I can live with the banishing of the prostitutes – the poorest will simply move out to the industrial estates where the tourists cannot see them, and the richest will pay somebody off and stay in business in and around the city centre. It is the licensing of the beggars and street musicians that really upsets me.
People have a natural right to beg. And since begging, by definition, cannot be done anywhere but in the streets, they have a natural right to beg in the streets. Obviously, the City Hall does not see it that way, but how are they going to decide whom to license and whom not to? Only the best-dressed and most presentable beggars will receive a permit, perhaps.
And which street musicians will be deemed worthy of a license? Will they be invited to perform in front of a culture committee, I wonder, or pay to perform free in the streets. It reminds me of the words of an Irish poet whose name I cannot remember:
“While children played and old ones prayed
and politicians told us what to do,
freedom fell another notch or two.”

Talking

One of the things I miss about Andalucía is the exuberant friendliness of the people. As in Ireland, talk is regarded as a cultural asset worth maintaining, and people talk both to each other and to strangers. They have little respect for privacy. They want to know who you are and what you are up to, and they ask. If they happen to be curious about how much you earn, they ask. They ask about the most intimate details of your health, as anybody who has ever waited in a clinic in any small town or village anywhere in Andalucía will know. Bank employees will discuss the state of your account with you in a voice loud enough to be heard by the last person in the longest queue.
I once thought of going to confession in a church in Andalucía, but knew that passers-by outside in the street would be listening in to my sins. Hell seemed a less embarrassing option.
Here in Cantabria they are more reserved, if just as friendly when you get to know them. You will not be automatically saluted while walking on a country road, for example, and you may be served in a shop or restaurant without words being crossed, unless you initiate the conversation. And sometimes, even if you speak first, you may simply be ignored or looked at as another idle curiosity that crawled in from the street.
It took some getting used to after twenty years in Andalucía. Given my upbringing, I quickly fell into the Andalusia custom of conversing with anything that had ears and could make sounds. Being ignorant of local customs when I first arrived in Cantabria, I saluted everybody, but very few saluted back. I soon took to minding my own business and not frightening the locals any more with my excessive friendliness.
But the wife was determined that she would continue to talk to people, and even more determined that they should talk back. She finally achieved her aim, but at some cost to my sense of decorum.
Now, apart from being unable to have a quiet drink in a bar without being approached and conversed with by somebody, we are both waved to or stopped for a chat by the kind of people one would have crossed the street to avoid in Andalucía. The local drug dealer waves from his Mercedes as he glides by. The local drunk raises a bottle to us whenever he sees us. The teenage graffiti artists who gather in the back streets to view their work salute us politely as we walk by. If there were a lunatic asylum in the town, the patients would undoubtedly be waving at the two of us from the barred windows.
I’m not complaining: the alternative is worse. I’m just happy to be living in a country where friendliness given means friendliness got, and where it is quite impossible to go about one’s business without somebody wanting to know what one’s business is. I’m just happy that in Spain – even in the cold north – people still talk to each other, and to strangers, in the streets.