Sunday 28 November 2010

The Things That People Do.

By Richard Morley.

I think it is time to book my room at the tanatorio across the road. The Tanatorio, for those of you who don’t know, is where they take the dead people en route to the grave. A grey, forbidding place, it is where relatives and friends to come and pay their last respects. When I eventually go there I want all my friends to come and shout at me, poke me, sing to me and make sure I am really dead before they do with me whatever they will. It’s just a precaution.

My local Tanatorio is about three hundred metres away from my apartment as the spirit flies and as I often walk past it I can say that I have already made my final journey many times.

But why do I have these thoughts about my own mortality? Something terrible happened today. A young man, sporting a New York Yankees jacket, Silver and blue Nike Trainers and an expert juggler’s set of rings in his left earlobe, offered me his seat on the bus.

Ok, my hair is grey and the skin around the eyes is showing signs of age, but inside I haven’t aged a bit since my twenty-first birthday, but by outward appearances obviously this young man thought I am getting on a bit.

As the bus emptied and filled as we went from stop to stop the young man would find a seat, but immediately offer it to some ancient who shuffled on board at the next stop. A well brought up, polite young man, who seemed to have a mission in life as a seat warmer for wrinklies.

I was on my way to give a lesson in Castellana. I was early and so found an empty banco, or bench, to while away the minutes with a cigarette and a quick review of the lesson of prepositions I was about to give. A few metres away stood a water fountain, a thing of cold, dull, cast iron with a sprung-loaded tap. A very dishevelled – unshaved, raggedly dressed – middle-aged man approached the fountain and removing a reclaimed yoghurt pot from his stained pocket, proceeded to rinse it out; throwing the water in all directions. He then took a drink and, thirst assuaged, stumbled a few metres to a tree and urinated, totally oblivious to my presence and that of passing office girls on their way to lunch.

I have a feeling that British office girls would have reacted with cat-calls and loud comments. Their Spanish counterparts walked past as if nothing unusual was happening.

A couple of hundred metres north, where Castellana intersects with Ayala an old man, his head swathed in a threadbare woollen scarf, a grubby raincoat flapping about his knees and a crutch, waited for the traffic to halt for a red light. He would then stumble his way through the stopped cars, leaning heavily on the crutch, while banging on windows and thrusting a plastic cup in the faces of drivers, begging for money. He would, perhaps, approach seven or eight cars before the lights began to change. As the engines started to roar he would make his way to the kerb and walk, quite unaided by the crutch, back up to the lights and await his next queue of victims.

The things people do sometimes astounds me. And travelling around Madrid from lesson to lesson, I see a lot of people.

Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. Like the time a gang of leather-jacketed, chain jangling youths swaggered towards me taking up every centimetre of the width of the pavement as if they owned it. But just before they reached me, two of them stepped down into the gutter allowing me to pass while begging my “perdón, señor”. My landlady’s teenage son, who shouts and slams doors while at home, approached me in the local supermarket recently and insisted on shaking my hand before politely asking for a loan of my house keys.

Sometimes I am surprised by rudeness, like the old ladies who consider, unlike the youths above, that the pavement does belong to them and that four women walking abreast should not give way to oncoming pedestrians. And don’t get me started on their use of umbrellas or shopping trolleys.

And sometimes I am just perplexed. I watched a young woman the other Saturday morning try four different seats in an uncrowded bus until she was happy. I was reminded of the way that dogs go round and round in circles until finally flopping onto their beds to sleep, or will sniff every bush or tree before finding just the one to relieve themselves against.

Others board the bus and take an aisle seat, leaving the inner seat, next to the window, empty. At the next parada a new passenger gets on and despite there being a plethora of other empty spaces, insist on taking that free window seat. This sets me wondering on two levels: One, why did the first passenger not slide across to avoid the business of getting up, standing aside, and retaking his or her (and usually it’s a her) original seat? And two, why did the second passenger not just take one of the available empty seats?

And while I am on the subject of taking the bus. Why can’t those with abonos find their ticket before the bus arrives, instead of climbing on board and only then, with a queue behind them, begin to search pockets and handbags for that elusive red plastic wallet? ¡Qué fastidio!

Or those who hesitate before stepping on to a metro escalator, as if waiting for just the right step to come along before they will use it. As my Facebook friend Sophia once asked, “What are they waiting for? A shiny one?”

But worse are those who reach the top of the escalator, step off, and then stop, dead, while those coming up behind them have to swerve or leap around them. What are they doing? Planting a flag and claiming the lobby for Spain?

But it’s while they are riding the metro that you will witness the unexplainable. There seems to be an unwritten rules that the end seats of a row of four will not be left unattended. Imagine, four people sit in a row. The train arrives at a station and those occupying the end seats get up to leave. Immediately those in the centre seats will slide over to take the freshly vacated, still bottom-warm, seats of the just departed.

Ok, I’ll admit I have done it myself if, say, a couple get on and want to sit together. So I will ask the question of one of life’s little mysteries: Why do ladies leave warmer seats than gentlemen?

Then moving upwards to the surface and Madrid’s busy, traffic tangled streets, I might ask the purpose of traffic lights as at junctions not under surveillance by CCTV. No one seems to obey them at all. Red or amber lights seem to have the sole purpose of telling the drivers there might be crossing pedestrians to weave around. They don’t seem to be there to inform the driver he has to stop and let people on legs cross the road safely.

A few months ago I was actually hit by a car as, with the permission of the little green men, or flashing viejos verdes, I was crossing a road when this car swung round the corner and came straight at me. The driver slammed on his brakes and did manage to stop just as his front bumper came into contact with my leg. No harm done, no bruises, not even a scuff mark, but I left the driver in no doubt what I thought of his ability and, to give him his due, he signalled his apology with that praying hand sign they seem to know, and probably practise, so well.

My friends told me I could have sued. That I should have acted terribly hurt, leaping up and down while holding a supposedly injured limb, while promising the driver that if he slipped me a hundred euros I wouldn’t call the police. Hey ho! Another lost opportunity.

This has happened just once, but almost happened a hundred times. It might not be old age that books me that one way trip to the Tanatorio!

But why do drivers ignore the lights? And come to that, why do pedestrians? They step out on to the road at the first twinkle of changing colours with no thought to the tons of metal hurtling towards them as their drivers attempt to cross before the lamp turns irredeemably red. Perhaps they have a suicide wish. In fact I am sure of it. I know one lady who will grab my arm and say, “Quick, let’s suicidarse” at the slimmest break in the traffic. Another, given the choice of two crossings a hundred metres apart on the busy Calle Conde de Penlaver, thought the best place to cross was almost exactly halfway between them.

And sometimes the things that people do are just amazing. The generosity of the Madrileños is not confined to being quickest on the draw when it comes to picking up the tab. Ask directions and chances are you will be taken there, or at least to the right intersection and have a landmark pointed out to you. Admittedly their willingness to engage in conversation can be a little annoying when you are in a hurry, but you can’t fault them for friendliness. Then again, I have had many a Spanish lesson from waiters and waitresses in cafés and restaurants. I still remember the waiter in the Plaza mayor, in my early naïve days here when I thought that was a good place to eat, who taught me “postre”.

For that matter, I am amazed at the patience they show while attempting to improve my abysmally bad Spanish, sitting for hours speaking s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully so I can understand and putting up with the ungrammatical nonsense they get in return. And that includes the assistant in the pharmacy who wouldn’t let me pay for the painkillers I needed for a bad back until I proved I could pronounce “Ibu-pro-feno”. She made me repeat it three times before relinquishing her hold on the packet.

As I write this, although I won’t publish for a couple of days, it is Thanks-giving day in the United States. In the five and a half years I have lived in Madrid I keep finding more and more things that I should be thankful for.

My sister once asked me how I could live in a country where I felt like a “foreigner”? The answer to that is that I don’t. And for that, to all the people who reside in this fantastic city, with all their strange – and suicidal – ways, I want to say thank you.

And I should say it now, before I die. A thousand curses on that polite, well-bred young man. Why couldn’t he have just let me stand. The Tanatorio is not far, and should this be my Last Post, remember this, in that place, one room will be forever England.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Life in the Colonies

By Richard Morley.

At eleven o’clock, one Monday morning, I boarded a number seventy-seven bus that took me all the way to the End of the Week. And when I got off, I found myself in December.

No, I wasn’t smoking something illicit. I had been searching for a bus route that would take me to one of Madrid’s large out-of-town shopping centres and noticed on the itinerary displayed on the EMT’s (Empresa Municipal de Transportes de Madrid ) website, that the final destination of this particular route was a place called the “Colonia Fin de Semana”, and the more detailed listing of the paradas de autobús named the final stop as the Calle de Diciembre.

The stop I was searching for, the nearest to the shopping mall, is actually half a kilometre away from the centre and why the public transport companies, EMT or Metro cannot provide a service that would actually take the shopper directly to a popular shopping centre is something I just can’t understand.. (The nearest Metro station is half an hour’s walk away on the opposite side of a busy motorway crossed by a high footbridge.) I was checking prices for a heavy printer I have my eye set on, but the sheer distance I would have to carry the thing to the bus stop has decided me against buying it from there. This failure to provide a good transport link to this part of Madrid is a rant for the future, but why was my eye drawn to the last stop of the route?

Scattered around Madrid’s neighbourhoods of high rise dwellings are some curious links to the past. I can look down on one from my fifth floor apartment window; A collection of some thirty, small, two storey houses set on about a hectare (roughly two acres for my non-metricised readers) served by two narrow streets. Each house has a high wall to protect the inhabitants from the eyes of the curious. Over every wall can be seen the straggling stems and branches of mature gardens. Peering through gaps one can see private patios and personalised entrances.

Surrounded on all sides by eight, ten and twelve storied apartment blocks these compact houses seem very much out of place. But in fact, it is the high rises that are the usurpers. This small colony of houses was here long before the developers began building in the mid fifties. And it has a name; La Colonia de los Carteros. Yes! The Colony of the Postmen (or mailmen – again for my US readers.)

These “Colonias” are dotted all over the city. As in the case of my neighbours, some were built to provide housing for workers in one sector or another. They are not all pretty little houses. Some are more utilitarian like the Colonia San Cristabal, occupying a few streets opposite the Cuatro Torres, and was designed to provide housing for employees of the bus company. Some were built just to provide affordable housing for anyone.

The Colonia de San Cristabal. Built in the first half of the 20th century, they are now dwawfed by the monsters of the 21st.

The key word here is “affordable”. Actually that’s not quite right. In December 1921 and July 1922 two pieces of legislation were passed known as “El ley del Casas Baratas”, or the Cheap Housing Law. These laid down in Spanish law some principles that were sweeping Europe at the time, which were to provide housing for workers that had to be of good quality, sanitary and low cost. The bywords were “Simple construction with economic materials”. In the late 1800s the United Kingdom has legislated the “Labouring Houses Act” and France saw the creation of la Societé française des habitations à bon marchè.

In Spain these laws specified minimum build quality, cost, and, and this really drove the movement, gave subsidies and tax breaks to companies who provided such housing.

The narrow streets of the Colonia de los Carteros

Given that low cost was the major factor, it is not surprising that these “Colonias” were built outside of the city on previously unused land. My neighbours in the Colonia de los Carteros, built in 1922, are nearly five kilometres from Madrid city centre. I have been told that prior to the 1950s my part of Madrid consisted of open fields with only scattered housing. It’s different now! The Colonia de Retiro, which was built on new land off the South East corner of the famous park is just three kilometres from Sol, yet at the time of its construction was completely isolated from the city and is now completely surrounded.

The Colonia de Retiro: Quite isolated when it was built (top), now, as shown in this Google Earth image (bottom), totally absorbed into the city.
Seven kilometres south west of Sol you will find the old Colonia Militar Arroyo Meaques. Lying within sight of Colonia Jardin metro station on line 10, it fiercely maintains its independence from the encroaching high rise apartments.

Colonia Arroyo Meaques seen across the carpark of the nearby Colonia Jardin metro station
Rows of pretty cottages in Arroyo Meaques

A stroll around the Colonia quickly shows that this was almost a self contained village. At one time the colony had its shops, its bar and it church. The old town hall reveals its village like status before the approaching Medusa like tendrils of the city. The cottages have been maintained or restored the way they were built and it really is like going back in time.
It would almost be a village scene if it wasn't for the high rise beyond

A fig tree escapes its confines. Away from the city's bustle, perhaps just two hundred metres away, it's like being out in the country.

There is a reason behind this. The reason why these tiny enclaves continue to exist and have not been demolished in the path of profitable high rise apartment blocks is because they are protected by law. In 1997 an act was enabled that enforced on them a “listed” status, as it is called in the UK. The insides may be modernised but their exteriors must be preserved. There are by-laws which protect and extend beyond the properties to the streets outside with restrictions on parking, and what you can and cannot do.

When you consider what the value of the land would be to a developer, these very houses that were built as “casas baratas”, have now become very valuable indeed.

What this has done, of course, is to create enclaves of small, expensive housing. If you were lucky enough to inherit, you would be sitting on a gold mine. Otherwise, if you want to live here, and I think I could very easily, then you will have to wait for that lottery win.

But the people who live in the Colonia Militar Arroyo Meaques are not so rich. A couple of blocks away is a disused army base and the houses are owned by the ministry of defence. The residents are ex military personnel who, amazingly, rent their homes for the grand sum of two hundred Euros a month. Originally built to house officers the houses are quite large. In recent years the colony has been refurbished at a cost of three and a half million euros. The pavements are neatly block-paved, the roads freshly asphalted and many of the one hundred and thirty three houses have been completely renovated, while still maintaining the old external appearance. There are a few houses still in the process of renovation and signs affixed to the walls of empty properties proclaim them to be “Almacén del Invifas”, which means they are the property of the “Instituto para la Vivienda de las Fuerzas Armadas”, or army property, and is a legal necessity to stop squatters.

A cottage in the (very) early stages of renovation
The cost of renovation, incidentally, was shared by the Ayuntamientos of Madrid and Pozuelo as the colonia lies on the boundary of the two, leading to the somewhat ridiculous matter of there being two different designs of lampposts in the streets. The military, whose personnel benefit from the renovation, paid nothing.

However, as well as providing living accommodation for workers, some of these colonias were nothing more than holiday homes. In the same way that well-off Madrileños today have second homes on the coast or in the cool hills north of the city, the pre-motorcar age required these week-end “get-aways” to be closer to home.

That very philosophy is, obviously, reflected in the name of the place where I began this article: La Colonia Fin de Semana.

Situated some twelve kilometres east of Madrid and a good couple of kilometres beyond the advancing tide of high rise apartments, this “Colonia” still betrays its origins as a “get away” place. It’s central plaza is wide and gardened.

The cetral plaza in Fin deSemana
There are open spaces used for growing vegetables and old houses with sprawling vines and crawling roses. But its artificiality is apparent. The streets are laid out on a strictly regimented grid and named, (by lazy, unimaginative planners) in order, after the months of the year. Hence my untimely arrival in “Diciembre”. Unlike the bucolic joys of the Colonia Arroyo Meaques, which strives to maintain a timeless quality, the Colonia Fin de la Semana is undergoing development.

Ancient dwellings resist the encroachment of new development.

Regimented rows of modern houses, obviously for the well to do, stand cheek by jowl with the ancient cottages. Untended wildernesses wait for the developer’s bulldozer. Much of the northern half of the Colonia is industrial, with builder’s yards and ironworks. Not as pretty as I thought a weekend retreat should be.

I suspect I was not the only one to be disappointed. Within minutes of arriving I was approached by a back-packing Australian couple who, with not even a faltering attempt at Spanish, asked me for directions. Am I so obviously a guiri? Well no, because their surprise was palpable when I replied in English, “Sorry, I haven’t a clue”, when they were expecting a Spanish reply. I would never, in any non English speaking country, approach a stranger without some attempt at the local language. I wonder why this couple, well, the woman, thought it was ok. However. I don’t think the Colonia was the tourist sight they expected to see.

Fin de Semana now provides housing for all of the week.

A close scrutiny at any map of Madrid will reveal many of these “Colonias”. There are, in fact, forty two designated, and protected, as “colonias históricas madrilènes”. Some don’t actually have “colonia” in the name, but they are there. And you don’t have to go far to find them. The top end of the Calle Serrano will put you right in the centre of where Madrileñillos used to spend their weekends. There are four just behind the Real Madrid stadium; El Visto, Cruz del Rayo, (built to house civil servants), La Prensa y Bellas Artes (to house writers, journalists and artists – obviously) and Iturbe IV for professionals.

The Chamartin district boasts seventeen. Prosperidad, a lovely name, for one, was built under the 1927 law of cheap housing for labourers. The list also includes Socialista, Jardin de Rosa, Los Pinares, Las Magnolias, Los Rosales and so on. While Iturbe III was constructed by the Cooperativa Madrileña de Casas Baratas y Económicas slap bang in the middle of the Salamanca district for who knows who, but just think of the prices these properties in that area fetch now!

I can sort of tell you, although the documentation I have found is about six years old. In Salamanca the prices for the houses in the three colonies of Carteros, Iturbe III and Fuente del Berro were around €4,800 per square metre. So, half a million each, which actually isn’t bad for that area, but the places are tiny.

Some of the properties protected by the 1997 law are not parts of colonies, but individual holdings. For this reason you will find many ancient, slightly rickety, little houses completely swamped in a sea of high rise blocks.

Some are quite charming, if not seeming a little lonely. However, a quick glimpse thought a chink in a wall, or through a half open gate, reveals well cared for properties and a view of how Madrid used to be before apartment living was the norm. Long may they last.

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