Saturday, September 25, 2004

Una cerveza por favor

Three months ago I quit teaching English in order to try my hand at bartending in Madrid. In doing so I have finally proven to myself that I can now earn a living through Spanish as opposed to forever having to depend on my native tongue. Given the number of Irish Pubs located here, it is of course a line of work that was always available to me. However serving pints of guinness in Spain never seemed to make any sense because I feel that to work in such a bar would defeat the whole purpose of ever moving to Madrid. There is very little culture or language that you can learn in a place where you are foreign if you are Spanish and hence I have made sure to only work in local bars with local clientele.

As an English teacher you are quite limited as regards the type of people you meet through work, whereas bartending on the other hand exposes me to a far greater cross section of the Spanish public. Students of english are generally well educated, ambitious and not poor, while those who pass through the bar can more often than not come from a very different Spain. Fortunately the places where I now work were always my favourite to visit as a customer. For almost two years they have served as my local haunts which means that my job is all the more enjoyable given that they are frequented by many friends and former neighbours. The first of these is Cafeina which lies at the bottom of the street where I originally lived. The second is La Canalla which has a popular summer terrace, beside which I also resided for a spell. It is in these very establishments that I learned my first Spanish words, made my first Spanish friends, and caused my first Spanish hangovers. In fact it is a surprise to find myself working in Cafeina as the owner, a good friend, swore that he would never again employ an Irishman, after numerous employees stole from the till in an Irish pub he once ran.

Cafeina is a very popular daytime cafe where people come to pass lazy hours with friends or simply to read alone. However at night both the atmosphere and people change dramatically, with many coming especially for the music which is predominantly jazz and flamenco. For some strange reason it is not uncommon for clients, especially girls, to jump up on the long marble bar top and break into flamenco dancing to rapturous cheers from the crowd below. Looking up at spectacle I often feel that I m an extra in a 1950's musical.

Regardless of the hour there is always a very loyal clientele who with time you get to know quite well. Among this group I have encountered some very curious characters, the most interesting being Antonio who arrives each evening at around 6 o clock . He is in his late sixties and can always be spotted by his white hair, white beard, and white linen suits. The tanned and wrinkled Antonio is one of Madrids wealthiest men whose business card once read the words, " Antonio Gaston, Architect and Rich" . Gaston was a great patron of the arts and neighbours tell how he payed for the music lessons of any child with talent in the area. Money being no object, he also funded the first films of two times oscar winning director, Pedro Almodovar. The driving force behind the legendary 1980´s Movida ( Spanish equivalent of 60´s San Francisco ) Antonio was architect and owner of La Sala Sol nightclub, infamous nucleus of this 80's movement. It was here that he even befriended the likes of Andy Warhol who often visited the club in order to sample at first hand the raw energy of a newly reborn democratic city. Antonio, who refers to himself as The King of the Night now suffers from a schizophrenic condition, believed to be the unfortunate result of too much drug taking. Along the way he has also alienated most of his close friends who he felt should sign up to his sexually ambigious hedonistic way of life. Nowadays a tamer Antonio likes sit at the bar each evening browsing books and popping out every once in a while to smoke a joint, which he has to ask other customers to roll due his unsteady hands. He is proudly one of the principle characters of a recently published book about 80's Madrid entitled " The Angels of Neon ". What I enjoy about the man is his never ending chat and the fact that he is the owner of one of the greatest smiles that I have ever seen. Preferred drink: Expresso by day. Bacardi and Lemon by night.

Each evening, deliberately at the opposite end of the bar to Antonio is the muscular Jorje. He is our unofficial, unecessary, undercover, self-appointed bouncer, who was born and bred in this very barrio. Jorje is guilty of daily fashion crimes and likes to discuss at length beautiful women, how great the neighbourhood is and Atletico Madrid football club. To my disbelief he is a former heroine addict which for a long time I found hard to believe given his very healthy living and image. Mr Muscles is a civil servant currently on sick leave for six months due to an ear infection which he never had. When not in our bar or in the gym, Jorje is nursing his elderly mother whom he adores. Preferred drink: Strong expresso or Bacardi with coke.

Often on a high stool beside Jorje sits Jose, owner of the bar around the corner named The Sitting Bull. Jose with his leather waist coat and hair to his waist is a life long friend of Jorje, as were their Mothers before them. Small and overweight he is physically the complete opposite to his fashion struggling buddy. A true gentleman, he drops in throughout the day for a smoke. Preferred drink: Bacardi with lemon in a wide cider glass.

Then comes Thespian Paul, former Cafeina barman. Paul has quit the bar job in order to concentrate on his acting career which appears to be going very well. He is currently the main character in Vodafones latest TV campaign and also stars in a memorable Spanish ad for Nescafe. Last week we were celebrating his first significant film roll. Preferred drink: El Jimador Brown Tequila.

No longer a regular customer but still a frequent topic of converstion is Alex the German. Alex returned to Dusseldorf a number of months ago but will always be remembered for the many stunning girls he brought into the bar. Each week our Alex had a different date and it is still a regular argument over who we reckon was the nicest of his companions. The German had come to Madrid to chill and and do nothing for two years after profitably selling his bar in Germany which he opened when 25 and ran for over 10 years. He was the undefeated champion of back gammon in the bar and was perhaps my best friend in the city. Every now and again he returns to see us all with his newest girlfriend. It was Alex who sold his scooter to a neighbour which then broke down within a week and is now parked permanently outside our door. Strangely it was his bar that I used to hang out in when I lived in Dusseldorf a number of years ago. Preferred Drink: Whatever the girl on the night was having. When alone with us: Beer

Our first customer each day is Ernesto the gambling Cuban. I am guessing he is in his sixties at this stage and appears to have spent most of his life in Madrid. Ernesto who uses a walking stick is a very sharp dresser and is never sitting more than five minutes before dozing off. He is an intelligent and humerous man who passes hours upon hours in the bar reading the newspaper, asking me about Ireland or as I said...snoozing. The reason for this is that Ernesto lives on the street. He would rather spend his money, of which he has plenty, on poker than pay any person rent. Each morning he drops by the house of Jose for a shower, breakfast and to wash and press his clothes. In winter he sleeps there on the sofa. It intrigues me how so sane a man can choose to live life the way he does. For how long he has been doing this I'm not sure. Preferred drink: Slightly diluted expresso.

Other patrons include Javier the computer programer who also has a masters degree in photography and a yacht captains license. At weekends he takes photos which his mother, an artist, then paints over and sells at extortionist prices. He likes bottled beer. Another established character is the half Spanish, half Japanese, ice tea drinking Shinji, who speaks five languages fluently and sells self sharpening hairdressing scissors priced at 400 euro each. Weekly we can also expect John, the overly camp United Nations translator from New York, while each day at five o clock enter the five gin tonic business men. By night comes the bald man who doesn t talk but frowns, the french girl I dated, many Spanish girls who I didn t date, and others who I dont write about because they happen to be normal.

Never once in either of the bars, which attract huge crowds, have we had to stop serving or request someone to leave due to drunkeness. To my memory we have had only two bad cases of intoxication and on both occasions the people left before we felt the need to ask. The measure we pour is left completely to our own discretion, but will nevertheless always be at least two and a half times more than you will receive in Ireland. A whiskey and coke or similar will cost 6 euro in both bars, while a shot of anything from whiskey to tequila will cost 3 euro. Vodka is the least favourite while rum, gin and whiskey are equal. The preferred whiskeys are all scotch such as Ballentines, Cuttysarks, White Label, Johnny Walker and JB. Remarkeably very few Spanish have ever heard of or even ask for Jameson. There also exists a locally distilled whiskey called Dyc which groups of "male english speaking clients" never grow tired of offering to each other, to ever more hysterical fits of laughter. The more popular rums are Pampero, Cacique, Brugal and 7 year Havana Club while Bombay Saphire, Larios and Beefeater are clearly the choice of the gins. Spanish bars will usually only ever have one beer tap serving the Madrid brewed Mahou or the Andalusian Cruzcampo. It is common practice for all beer glasses of a considerable size to be kept in the freezer as the Spanish are very fast to return their beer if they feel it is not cold enough. Very often people quiz me as to how my fellow countrymen can possibly drink warm beer (for which we are very famous in Spain). At night however it is alot more common to drink spirits than anything else. Wine is popular with both sexes and when someone asks for a white they invariably mean to say Rueda. The only red wines considered are their very own Rioja and Ribiera del Duero which are also served chilled in small glass tumblers. No stigma or machoism is ever attached to the size or type of drink that a person takes.

As a waiter you earn 6 euros an hour and tips are more or less non existent. The Spanish if they even leave a tip will never give more than 10 cents. This is also the case when you wait on the terrace tables of La Canalla. The system of buying rounds is generally non existent as we do not charge until the end of the night when each pays his own way. We all agree that the more monied looking the customers the less likely it is that they will leave a tip or be pleasant to deal with. However in general the Spanish love to chat and joke and so it is normal to have a good rapport with the people. Of the foreigners who accidently wander into the bars the English are easily the most pleasant and generous. However never do they make any effort whatsoever to speak the local lingo. Americans can be of two kinds, those who are a joy to serve and really try hard to use Spanish or on the other hand those who get quite angry if my colleagues don t speak any English. The Irish always drink the most, ask for beer in the largest glass we serve, and leave good tips. However they are only slightly better than the English in attempting the language.

I have great fun working as a barman here and it is not unusual to walk home from work feeling as if I have been all night at a party. Being Irish you get a fantastic reception from the customers whose eyes light up with interest on realisation of this. Hearing my nationality, the Spanish clearly become a lot more friendly and talkative. Most customers who I chat to seem very anxious to tell me how in their personal opinion the Irish vary so much from the English, while they reckon that the Spanish and ourselves have a very similar history, humour and personality. I enjoy the fact that I am treated so much more as an equal amongst the locals, who are amused that they are being served in their family's barrio by a red haired Irish man who speaks their language and understands their slang. May the fun continue.....

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