Saturday 18 April 2009


Renoir's "Lady with fan".

When I first arrived in Madrid, like thousands of other arrivals I took the metro into town. It was seven o’ clock in the evening, there were thousands of Madrileños also using the metro, and I swear they were all in my carriage!

This was las horas punta, the rush hour. People were on their way home after a busy day’s work and the business suited, strap-hanging throng looked like any bunch of tired commuters in any other city in the world. Some spoke, but most had that appearance of fatigue and relief that most of us feel after a hard days work.

I had had no idea of what to expect on this first visit. I didn’t know if Spain was like other European countries and was only vaguely aware of its history.

I read nothing into the fact I had just arrived at a modern airport or riding on one of the world’s leading transport systems. The capital cities of Africa have some fine airports that are a façade hiding the poverty behind.

It was early May. The carriage was very warm and the sardine-packed crowd had loosened ties, jackets, and were mopping their brows. Again, a scene no different from that happening in cities all over the world.

Two metres from where I was standing, rocked by the motion of the train and observing my fellow travellers with the suspicion and nervousness of a stranger in a strange land, I noticed a smartly dressed lady, sitting straight backed on one of the few available seats, reading a book. As I watched her, she reached into her elegant handbag and withdrew what I thought at first was a cream coloured pen.

With a practised flip of her hand the “pen” opened into a fan and she began cooling herself. I stared, fascinated, watching the rapid fluttering. No one else took a blind bit if notice, yet for me this was a sight that seemed anachronistic, something out of some historical costume drama.

Of course, today, the sight of ladies fanning themselves is something I take for granted. Lady friends have even turned their fans around and blown the warm air from my face. On a sticky evening, the effect is very welcome, but I would not own a fan myself. Apparently, while men might indeed dry their perspiration with a quick flick from a newspaper or office file, it is not done for men to use a fan.

One young man of my acquaintance, seeing several of the women in our group using this ancient device shot off onto the local village and got one for himself. Then walked around using it – quite openly. Until someone took him aside to point out that should he continue, the ladies he hoped to impress would now see him in a very new light! We never saw the fan again.

In Pedro Almodóvar’s film, Volver, there is a wonderful scene. A dozen women, dressed in funeral black, sit around a room gossiping, counting their rosaries, genuflecting, while all the time flapping their fans without missing a beat. Fans, which are often brightly coloured, or painted, in this scene are funereal black. The speech in the scene is punctuated, almost lost in the rapid, rhythmical click-clacking of the fans. The next scene shows the funeral car with the mourning ladies following, fans flapping and clacking under the hot Spanish sun. One gets the feeling that these ladies would feel naked without their fans, that it is not something they use, but something that has become a part of them. In fact, I am convinced some of the women have a third hand just to operate the device.

In Madrid’s hot summer the sight and sound of rapidly oscillating fans is a commonplace. You can buy a cheap plastic Chinese import for a couple of euros from a street trader or in bone with beautiful designs from specialist shops for considerably more. Tourists buy them and never use them, but a crowd of Spanish ladies resemble a swarm of fluttering moths. I have been here so long I hardly notice them, except if someone is using one in the adjacent seat in the cinema. Then that infernal click-clack is really annoying.

Fans on Sale at Madrid's Rastro Market.

But they do more than just keep you cool. Carefully observed, the fan is an indicator of mood and of expression, and where an English or American women night use a tilt of the head, a rise of an eyebrow, a purse of the lips in silent communication to another, the use of the fan has a language all its own. It’s a secret language, a silent communication of love, expectation, and sometimes, of disappointment.

Of course, this is a language in which only women speak and men listen, but then, since when has that been otherwise? And so, so as not to have any misunderstanding, gentlemen should know what is being said to them.

Therefore, if a women catches your eye and you see she is running her fingers through the vanes of the fan, is means that she wants to talk to you. Be warned though that if the fan is only half-open and covering part of her face, it signifies you and she are being observed, so don’t do any thing rash.

Resting the fan over her heart is telling you are breaking her heart, closely regarding the fans design means she likes you, and if she drops it you are hers forever.

Lady with fan by Giovanni_Fattori

But women are fickle, so beware if you see any of the following. When she rests the fan on her lips, she’s telling you she doesn’t trust you. Using the fan to shield the sun from her eyes suggests she considers you far from being the most attractive man in the room, which, followed by a slow wave of the device, is saying she’s not interested, look elsewhere.

On the other hand, rapid, small movements declare that she is definitely interested and slapping the fan against the arm of her chair or some other object declares her impatience. Check the fan is fully open, so you are sure no one is watching, and make your move.

Mindful of Shakespeare’s words that “Hell hath no fury like a scorned woman”, watch out for the rapid passing of the fan from hand to hand. You have been looking at other women, and she’s not happy. If she opens and closes it repeatedly and quickly there’s jealousy in the air. Be afraid, be very afraid.

You might think it’s a good sign if she is slapping the fan in the palm of her hand. This is saying, “Love me, take me now”, but if she walks towards you with a closed fan in her right hand she looking for diamond rings and commitment. Hmm! Run like hell!

So, if she looks closely at the design then quickly fans herself, tonight could be your night. But she might just be cooling herself and “A View From Madrid” is not liable for any circumstances, matrimonial, legal or injurious, caused by you misreading the signs.