El Corte Ingles translates as The English Cut. It is Europe’s biggest department store chain and is headquartered in Madrid. I’d rate it somewhere between John Lewis and Selfridges and, for me, it is the only option when I want quality comestibles in one convenient location without having to haggle, bid, wrestle or whatever it is that people do in markets. (I avoid markets unless with a local guide/bodyguard, even in London. I don’t like being accosted by vendors or having to elbow through crowds. Feel free to persuade me that this isn’t always the case.) El Corte Ingles started out as a tailors offering The English Cut, a testament to the Great British Suit of Saville Row. You can, and gentlemen certainly should, read more about finely tailored suitings here.
I mention El Corte Ingles because it was there I was queueing on Friday evening when my weekend offered up it’s first Sounds of Spain. Suddenly, above the hubbub and piped muzak rose the ominous, familiar whooping of surely the most odious and obnoxious of groups, the British Lads-on-Tour. Unmistakeably (unashamedly) Mancunian, they were atrociously dressed, drunk at 7pm and offering swigs of Jägermeister to a bewildered teenage couple. (And I do condone the shooting-on-sight of people who open foods and liquids before reaching the till, it is a hairsbreadth from outright theft and an affront to those of us with the good grace to wait until we’re home before pigging out.) Meanwhile Madrileño onlookers exchanged expressions of pity and knowing smiles and I offered my sincere Spanglish apologies to my immediate neighbours. Say what you will about the Europeans, and I do, you don’t hear them drunkenly hollering in the aisles of Marks & Spencers.
For the benefit of any morons, ingrates or louts that might be reading this, the Spanish kindly built Benidorm especially so that Little Englanders like you can get wrecked, sun burnt and neanderthal whilst turning them a tidy profit. Please use it.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon Madrileños make for the paved plazas of La Latina for botellon (open-air drinking), or to the city parks. The expansive scrub land of Casa de Campo is really only suitable for hardcore cyclists, runners, swimmers, and sexual deviants. As you soar over the brush-tundra in the Teleferico you can often spot transsexual prostitutes loitering beneath the trees. It’s the closest I’ve come to being on Safari. Parque del Oeste is home to an Aswan temple, a gift from Egypt that, in typical Spanish style was re-built with the gateways in the wrong order. It squats in a filthy pool that tourists inexplicably like to paddle in. Having said that, the temple’s verdant, palmetto surrounds are a delight on a sunny day and the northern part of Parque del Oeste with it’s rambling shaded footpaths is often curiously empty save for a handful of dedicated sun-worshippers, rutting couples and the odd lunatic tramp. It’s my favourite that I’ve visited so far.
Parque del Buen Retiro is by all accounts the grandest of Madrid’s parks and certainly the most popular. Along with strolling family groups, weaving roller skaters and wandering intellectuals are the many Spaniards who choose Retiro’s avenues in which to let off steam. Something about which they have no qualms, to the chagrin of an Englishman trying to immerse himself in a book.
A stone’s throw (though sadly none were to hand) from my grassy knoll, a troupe of Zaragozan folk dancers struck up a most unholy din, making up in enthusiasm what they patently lacked in talent. Clad in white robes (as traditionally favoured by such dangerous extremists as the KKK, Al-Qaida, The Pope and Morris Dancers) they proceeded to gambol and shimmy to the strains of an out of tune guitar and some manner of percussion that sounded for all the world like a sack of gravel falling off a lorry. Accompanying the Folking Zaragozans, from out of sight in another corner of the park, heralded an amateur and clearly asthmatic hornist. At five minute intervals (I assume to draw from his inhaler and temper his breathing) he would take his French Horn (I’m no expert but only something French could prove that much of an irritant) and give it ruddy. I half expected the Berkshire Hunt (the mounted hunters, not the hornist) to burst from the tree-line in hot pursuit of a red-tailed Charlie*.
Added to this was the usual Spanish cacophony that, like tinnitus, one has to learn to live with. The wailing beggar-women, the shouted obscenities (the Spanish C-word litters full-throated conversation, often within earshot of children), football commentary and reggaeton music blaring from tiny speakers, and leathery old men who wander about the park, in varying states of undress, crooning old Flamenco numbers to no-one in particular.
Of course, there is also the requisite accordionist who tirelessly flogs out La Cucaracha, which incidentally, deserves some kind of award for stupid lyrics:
‘La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
Ya no puede caminar
Porque no tiene, porque le falta
Marihuana pa’ fumar’
‘The cockroach, the cockroach,
Can’t walk anymore
Because it doesn’t have, because it’s lacking
Marijuana to smoke.’
Or how about,
‘Cuando uno quiere a una
Y esta una no lo quiere,
Es lo mismo que si un calvo
En la calle encuentra un piene.‘
Which, mistaking unrequited love for irony, reads,
‘When a man loves a woman
But she doesn’t love him back,
It’s like a bald man
Finding a comb in the street.’
Whilst I lay beleaguered and palpitating in the sun, unable to focus on Giles Tremlett’s Ghost’s of Spain (somewhat ironic in the circumstances), The Brunette studied a weighty tome on social psychology, impervious to the surrounding bedlam as only a Spaniard could be. After the first trickle of claret from my eardrums we beat a retreat to the quiet, shady boulevards of barrio Salamanca, Madrid’s answer to Belgravia, or Chelsea. The Brunette strode ahead whilst I skittered nervously through the shadows ever fearful of marauding Hare Krishners until we arrived, mercifully unmolested, at Ayala Japon for a tranquil late lunch of Maki, salmon eggs and ice-cream tempura. I recommend it if you happen to stray into the posh end of town.
Of course, the sounds of Spain, depending on your tastes, aren’t all bad. I’m currently immersing myself in the murky waters of Spanish 80’s Pop, and Mexican Hip-Hop (which I’m counting as Spanish since it’s in the same Castilian language). I’ll report back in due course.
*Charles James Fox, 18th century parliamentarian. i.e. Fox.