January 18, 2009


I’ve been needing for some while now to get my hair done again here. The last time was a complete disaster. And not because it was in Spain. I can only too well recall the time I had my hair done very expensively at a top salon in London - only to emerge looking like one of the stylists who all had the same ‘house’ style and obviously practised on one another. And this despite explaining very clearly beforehand what I’d wanted…

So, it was with some trepidation that, just before Christmas, I approached a Spanish hairdressing salon called Mary where I knew Señora Noriega (coincidentally, another Mary) went. Now Mary may be an English name but that’s where any similarity ends. Spanish Mary speaks only Andaluz - the local, well, Andalucian patois - and I speak broken, self-taught Spanish. Imagine a conversation between a Geordie and a Martian who’s learnt basic English from a BBC language course and you get the idea.

Mary, who runs her small salon on her own, made it clear she didn’t like the interruption from a potential new client. She had one client’s hair to wash and another to tint. She scowled as she tore herself away from them to check her appointments book. No, she couldn’t possibly fit me in until well into the New Year. Why not, when her appointments book still showed a few gaps?

The reason, she added disparagingly while grabbing a tuft of my hair, was that it was in such a bad condition she would need at least several hours to hope to make anything of it. I couldn’t wait another month - I was beginning to resemble Geoffrey Howe’s mauled sheep - so I racked my brain for any recommendations received in the past year and called around friends.

"There is someone I like a lot but, of course, I do have thick hair which is so easy to manage," purred one, a beautiful Dutch girl. Great! So it’s an open secret I’ve got lousy, difficult hair! "Look, I’m getting desperate so give me her number or I won’t speak to you ever again!" I wailed into the phone.

An hour later, I was sitting in the tiny, shoe-box salon of hairdresser number two. Like hairdresser number one, she worked alone and was in great demand but, unlike Spanish Mary, she spent the half hour of her lunch break talking through the options including dietary advice. Yes, by now my hair was running the risk of becoming so self-important it might even have got its own show in the UK.

The bottom line is that the second hairdresser, a smiling Scandinavian, has booked me in for a long, therapeutic session before my research trip to Cambodia and Laos next week. And her name is…Mary.

Now, this isn’t a mini gripe against Spanish hairdressers - after all, the disaster I mentioned earlier was at a British-run salon - but at the difference in customer care. Spanish Mary is surrounded by customers for now - as she has been throughout all the boom years Spain has enjoyed. However, even Spanish Mary can’t have failed to notice that times, they are a’changing and that, in a failing economy, attitudes need to change too. Towards customer care in general - not just in service industries but in the professions too. As the other Mary so effortlessly demonstrated.

And so - perhaps appropriately as the time of year of my initial visits - a tale of two Marys…

January 11, 2009


The local paper this week led, not with the ongoing carnage and mayhem in Gaza, but with two news items of a quite different kind.

On the one hand, there were the full-page colour pictures of los Reyes Magos celebrations - each one a mini Rio carnival - taking place throughout Spain and costing millions of euros (left). And, on the other, the story of a British man identified as David George Bush, arrested in Malaga on January 6th on charges of alleged assault on his wife, Lady Diana.

The victim, named after the late Princess of Wales and from Ecuador, accused her husband of several episodes of violence, culminating at Christmas when she says he took their children to England, after first beating her up and changing the lock on the door, and threatening to break her leg. Lady Diana, who had been staying with the children at the house of a friend, changed the lock to gain access. When Bush returned earlier than expected from the UK, she alleges she found him again drilling the door to change the lock, watched by their crying children.

When I next see Sra Noriega, I’ll have to ask her if she knows this ‘Lady Diana’ since Sra Noriega prides herself on knowing all the local socialites. All the socialites worth knowing, that is …

January 7, 2009


The first Spanish class after the Christmas break and Jesús was in buoyant mood. Ecstatic almost. In fact, after his depressive state towards the end of last year, his mood swings - at times verging on the extreme - would bring to mind, in anyone else, thoughts of bi-polar illness. But Jesús has, after all, been through the mill recently - financially as well as emotionally - so wouldn’t that test anyone’s strength of character, resilience, not to mention mental state?

What he was specifically pleased about was the way he’d been feted by his home town during their annual los Reyes Magos celebrations. Chosen as one of the Three Kings - a huge honour - he laughingly described how, with the help of dancers, magicians and musicians, he'd paraded on his beautifully decorated float through the streets on Monday evening in long processions tossing out handfuls of traditional sweets to the hundreds of assembled children lining the route. When he was a child, he recalled, he’d been glad to catch a sweet or two. Yesterday though all the kids were holding out outsize carrier bags and holdalls to increase their takings. Yet another sign of the credit crunch beginning to bite here?

Another factor that had, somewhat surprisingly, cheered him up was an article he showed us from a local newspaper. It recounted the well-worn stories about town hall corruption, coupled with administrative incompetence, leading to tens of thousands of illegal properties having been built in Spain during the recent boom – 19,000 in Marbella alone. Thousands have been bought by unwitting homeowners, who now live under threat of demolition and are trapped because they can’t sell. One elderly couple even had their Andalusian home demolished before their eyes last January, despite having planning permission from the town hall. And, have been denied any compensation, are still living in a garage without water or electricity.

We all looked at Jesús speculatively. What on earth was there about this news that made him so cheerful?

Well, he replied, at least I’m not trapped for the rest of the year in that illegal apartment under threat of demolition. At least all I lost was my deposit… I’m one of the lucky ones. Yes, this new year is going to be a good one for me. The best ever. I can sense it already…

As we left, none of us spoke. We were all probably having the same thought. About Jesús’s true state of mind.

January 3, 2009


Christmas and New Year may be over but the celebrations here are far from over for children because los Reyes Magos (the Three Kings/Wise Men) have yet to arrive. And Jesús may not have been one of the winners in the recent Christmas lottery, El Gordo, but he’s nevertheless struck lucky in his home town in northern Andalucia where he’s spending the holidays. For this year he’s been invited to be one of the Reyes - an honorific title as important to him for his participation in this civic celebration as Mayordomo del Trono de la Virgen de las Lágrimas y Favores must be to Antonio Banderas for his during Malaga’s Holy Week.

So Jesús, together with all the other Kings, will parade across towns throughout Spain on the evening of January 5th before visiting households - like Santa before them - to leave yet another stash of gifts traditionally opened the next day. However, if children have been naughty in 2008, they get a piece of coal instead of the presents they asked for. Could this be one of the reasons Spanish children are so well behaved in restaurants and other public places - infinitely better than their British counterparts? Perhaps Britain should introduce this stick and carrot approach too …

To Jesús’s disgust, the European Parliament has even tried to muscle in on the Reyes Magos celebrations. Traditionally, the Roscón de Reyes ("Epiphany crown"), a sweet bread baked in the form of a crown, is eaten on January 6th and has always contained small toys or coins. A porcelain figure of a baby wrapped in foil and a dry bean are hidden in the dough together with other surprises. Apparently whoever finds the baby will have good luck and be the Rey of the party, but the one with the bean has to pay for the cake! (Spanish infants learn early on the art of winning and losing.) The European Parliament, however, recently approved a motion preventing toys being concealed in food items but this was circumvented in Spain by reclassifying the toys in the roscón as "trinkets"! Much to Jesús’s satisfaction….