September 7, 2008


Oh joy! Vacuum cleaners in full throttle! Never did I believe I’d be woken up by such a welcome din last Sunday.

Let me explain: I’ve been living for almost two years now in Andalusia in a block of flats owned mainly by Spaniards together with a sprinkling of North Europeans. I say ‘owned’ since you never see these owners from one year to the next, the only evidence of their existence being the junk mail piling up in the post box. Except, that is, for August when the whole of Madrid - probably the whole of Spain - descends on Andalusia.

Then the roads are jammed, the restaurants packed, the supermarket beggars on vacation and East European drug rings in clashes with the police and each other. In the latter case, I assume it’s all a question of turf war tactics. Russian and Albanian criminals seem to rotate between resorts along the Mediterranean coast. Doubtlessly they get hounded out of Italy and the Côte d’Azur and consider the southern Spanish resorts as a decent stopover for the summer. In much the same way, I suppose, as the Saudi Royal family moves its entire entourage here every August to its palace, El Rocio. Though why anyone would want to transfer from an ambient temperature of forty plus - in the shade - to one here of merely ten degrees less is an ongoing mystery. You would have thought a palace in Norway or Iceland would have been more practical…

The month of August then is a different animal. Cars drive bumper to bumper, their owners unfamiliar with the volume of traffic and finos downed in celebration of the holidays, suddenly swerve in all directions and shoot off into the dusty distance. Restaurants where normally you could get in with two days’ notice now require two weeks, their owners becoming increasingly precious about reservations, insisting that only early and late sittings are available when you know this is a ploy to fill them to standing room only. And this from restaurateurs who know they have to rely on expats like you in November and February when their establishments are deserted…

But don’t let us forget the chiringuitos, or beach bars, forced to operate in August like school canteens with swathes of Germans entering for lunch at noon, followed in strict order by Brits at one with the Spanish taking up the rear at three or four. And the whole culinary musical chairs repeated every night for dinner with Germans in at six, Brits at eight and Spanish at ten… One month’s profits to cover the rest of the year! Not to mention the North African street vendors selling everything from carved ibex to fake Louis Vuittons. Last night I overheard a British woman haggling, successfully, over an ugly, outsize lace tablecloth after which one of her precocious brood retorted: ‘And who’s going to inherit that then?’

I’m being too harsh though. Life as an expat in Spain has a lot to be said for it. Ask anyone who has tried it and you’ll hear great tales about the climate, the people, the lifestyle, the prices... so what’s the catch? Anyone who has spent more than a few weeks here will tell you that, too. It’s the bureaucracy. Whatever it is, you simply can’t do it by post - replying to letters is not a Spanish custom anyway - and you can’t do it by visiting just one desk in one government office, either.

Anyway, to return to the vacuum cleaners. Last Sunday, 31 August, is the day the whole of Spain traditionally returns home from its month-long vacation. And, from early morning, the din of cleaning, packing and screeching kids permeates the whole block as Spaniards lock up their apartments for another year and wistfully make their way back to Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

And, at long last, peace returns to this tiny corner of Spain and I can get back to my writing. Apart, that is, from the American expats with their customised alligator cowboy boots and bomb-shelter bellies for whom I’m about to do some fundraising on behalf of Barack Obama. But that’s, as they say, another story…

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