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.


  1. The real question is....did you take the seat?

  2. Enjoyed the story Richard. I love how you weave stories of the ordinary into interesting tales to which we can all relate. Keep writing and stay away from the Tanatorio for awhile, we need you to remind us of the little pleasures in life and entertain us with a momentary literary escape with a "Richard" twist from time to time.

  3. Wonderful observations Richard and I am thinking that the Madrid traffic lights are only as a suggestion, somewhat the same as here in Korea.

    This of course is quite the oposite to Norway and Newfoundland. In Newfoundland, I remember on a number of occasions that the “green man” was very red and I was just waiting for the lights to change. The next minute, a car who clearly had the right of way stopped and insisted that I should cross. Traditionally in both Norway and in Canada, you stand at the side of the road and raise your arm to signal your intention to cross and motorists will screech to a halt to give you the right of way.

    As another reader has said, please keep away from the tanatorio as would like to enjoy your articles for some time to come.

  4. Excellent post - entertaining, insightful... made me think of my own countrymen, who naturally have so much in common with madrileños I enjoyed it! :D

  5. This is a perfect example of why and how people who have never lived in Spain will not understand the hold that Spain has. I spent two years there and although I have moved to newer stranger lands, I miss Madrid regularly.
    Thank you for summarizing with such careful explanations and wit.

  6. I can sense that your blog had been cultivating a head of steam for a number of days before you sat down and put finger to keyboard. People are indeed very strange creatures. Give me the company of animals anyday.