Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Chocolate con churros--Meet the Neighbors

This is my favorite Spanish breakfast--Spanish hot chocolate is very thick and soupy and churros are sort of like string shaped donuts with no sugar. It is in no way heart-healthy and the first time I tasted it, I thought it tasted weird, but it grew on me. I've finally found an unpretentious bar--Cafe Simpatia--on my walk back from taking the children to the school bus--where this costs two euros twenty centavos and the barman automatically knows what to bring me.

My biggest preoccupation in Spain is the details of daily life and raising four children in a foreign country. Any insights I might have will reflect that, so if you are expecting to read about the latest, coolest nightclub or the most up-to-date cultural offerings in Madrid, this is not the spot. "Chocolate con churros" is a metaphor, for me, of adapting to a different place and the quick sketch writing that most suits my schedule and interests.

Meet the Neighbors

We live in a nineteenth century building in the Barrio de Salamanca whose twelve units (mostly still owned or rented out by various descendants of the original family) are occupied by older inhabitants, who never had children or whose children are mostly grown up. My husband now has proof of my laughable American naivete in wanting to invite the neighbors over for a get-to-know you drink. Apparently the neighbors, at least the across-the-hall and floor-below inhabitants, don't like us, or rather they don't like our noisy children. Nobody in this building seems to really talk to each other (I speak more to the live-in help than to some of their employers, whom I have never met), so the central point of communication is the "portero" (doorman). He transmitted the neighbor's complaints to our landlady, who communicated them to us. To know us (or our children) is not necessarily to love us; the cultural quirkiness lies in specifically why our neighbors consider us to be deviants. It all hinges on our schedule, which is "desfasado" (off kilter) with that of self-respecting Spaniards.

While they politely note that our children are mostly silent after 8pm, they particularly resent the fact that the children get up at 7am and trample around the apartment like a herd of wild elephants. This is a necessity during the week since the children have to be on the school bus on or before 8pm. Unfortunately, getting my children to sleep much past 7 or 8 am on a weekend is luxury I have yet to enjoy. My childless neighbors don't get up until 9 or 10am and the older children of the other neighbors happily sleep in on the weekends as well.

If you are going to live here and don't come from some Latin or other country with a similar timetable, the first thing that takes some getting used to is the schedule. People don't seem to work much before nine thirty in the morning, many shops don't open until 10 am. Lunch is at 2pm instead of 12 and most of the shops and public services close from 2pm to 5pm. If it's a public service, it usually opens at 9 and closes down for good (to the public) at 2pm. I don't know what kind of lunches working people take here, but most stay in the office until 7pm or much later depending on their profession and level of responsibility. 8pm is the happy hour and nobody has dinner until 10pm. Most restaurants don't even open until 9pm, and even that is considered a rather uncivilized "giri" (foreigner) hour.

It seems that if I were Spanish my children would adhere to a more civilized schedule, or at least be more silent and better behaved, but also I wouldn't give much of a damn what the neighbors thought anyway. I discussed the neighbors' complaints with some of my husbands' local family members and their feeling was why in the world would anybody care about getting to know their neighbors? They have lived in compete anonymity, or, barring that, a detente of mutual dislike with theirs for decades, exchanging nothing more than the requisite hola (hello) and hasta luego (see you later) on the elevator. They told me that the official noise ordinance is from 12pm to 8am and, as long as I generally respected that, there's nothing anybody can do.

This point was really brought home to us by the story the landlady told us about the previous tenants who lived in a state of open war with her family for generations, protected by some grandfathered rent control law, whereby tenants can inherit apartments and inflation-indexed rent from their parents and spouses. The grandfather of the deceased spouse of the last tenant rented our apartment in 1931. As the years passed, land values and rents increased dramatically beyond the official inflation index, but nobody could kick the tenants out as long as they paid their ridiculously low hereditary rent. The landlords couldn't sell the apartment because the undesirable tenants and their low rent went with the property. The only thing they could do was prevent the tenants from doing any work to the apartment, so at the end they had to wait until the widow of the grandson of the original tenant died to recuperate an apartment, that was in shambles.

Sidenote: The portero also inherited his job from his father. He seems to occupy an executive function over invisible subordinates. In his case, doorman is somewhat of a mis-nomer, since he is present at unpredictable hours, spends most of his time smoking outside and gives me a look (with my baby carriage or shopping bags) that dares me to ask him to open the door. Other times, he relies on a tactic of turning the act of opening the door into an exaggerated parody that brings home just how inconvenient my presence is, accompanied by a smirk of satisfaction in being the central dispatch for the neighbors complaints about us, and the certitude that he (or his descendants) will outlast us.


TF said...

I went to a public swimming pool with my first son (2 years old) recently. When we got back to the changing rooms my son started "singing" and "calling", he continued to do so for minutes. I could hear some guys in another changing room comment it with something along the lines "this is worse than at home". I was tempted to "answer" them with "Yes, children are too hard for people with weak nerves." :-)

Andrew C. Oliver said...

Some things can be excused by "cultural differences"...but some things are universal. You have crotchety old coots and biddies for neighbors. Being well traveled as are you, I can tell you that there are few cultures that will produce children who are more well behaved. My father-in-law also has crotchety neighbors who complain even when there are no kids around. Have the kids make some kind of craft door hanger thing with chocolate in it. Hang it from their doorknobs. Kill them with kindness...if that doesn't work try cyanide.

Andrew C. Oliver said...

BTW all the news channels here are running 30th anniversary of Jonestown. "Drink the Kool Aide" and all...

Nathalie said...

Advice from my Uncle who lives in NY:

I have spent years trying to
get doormen to serve and have found that the only way is through irregular tips that are totally out of proportion. Give them $50 two days in a row then do nothing for several days followed by some $20 and $10 tips followed by nothing then you give the them the addiction and give them $100. They
should serve you well from here on in and then will share with you the
horrors of the other residents. I would be curious if it works is Spain.

Bill Pyne said...

Tipping seems to work.

Bill Pyne said...

Sorry, seem to have a line size problem.