So after I arrived in my new neighbourhood of Ruzafa in mid-February, I spent three weeks throwing myself into the cultural life of El Barrio. I built up a crew, collectively known as the Ruzafa Massive – we have the T-shirts to prove it. We consist of Pim (‘Dutch Piet’), his girlfriend Louise (‘Streets’), Mwenya (‘Notorious BMG’), girlfriend Carmen (‘Bizet’), Fr Louis (‘L’il Louis Fada’, genuinely an Anglican priest, couldn’t make it up), Yailin (‘Lay Lay de Playa’) and Jorge (Jorgito).
To that number, we are adding Ignacio (‘Il Sudaka’, slang for South American, he is from Santa Fe in Argentina), a barman at Jardin Urbano, a regular haunt and conveniently located on my street so I get 30 seconds of exercise going there. That said, as I might have mentioned passim, I have eight flights of steps (81 of them, since you ask) back up to my flat so it’s not a walk in the park.
I seem to be quite well known by barmen around the barrio. My cleaner says she knows when I am out and about because she can hear the cries of Eugenio echoing around the streets. As well as Ignacio, there is Carlito at Los Cuatro Monos (the four monkeys, they must have got one in as cover to make sure they do not hear, speak or see any evil, it’s a sort of belt-and-braces approach, possibly “Think No Evil”, which I might flog to Google as a new company slogan) and Pau and Sofia who run “el chino” at the other end of my street.
A word about chinos. No, not the smart casual trousers beloved of my dad and gentlemen of an advanced age. I mean the various little cervecerías around the place that are run by Chinese. My mate Charlie (‘Carlito Sway’), a chemistry teacher who lives a five-iron from me, explained the phenomenon over a beer at Pau’s.
“Back in the Eighties, after the demise of Franco, who understandably didn’t exactly welcome visitors from a Communist country, what with him being a fascist dictator an’ all, and with a property slump that meant cheap premises, the Chinese began coming over to buy up cheap restaurants for takeaways. Soon, the sector was saturated so they turned to retail, corner shops becoming ‘chinos’, stocking anything and everything, kind of ‘pile it high, sell it cheap, open all hours’ unlike the highly regulated mainstream shops that are closed on Sundays, between 2 and 5pm and in the evenings.
“But there was a whole bunch of shabby local tapas bars that had pretty much fallen into disuse. So enterprising tourism and growth bodies put on road shows to China to say to people, we have a bunch of tapas bars that are doing no business, you’re not earning any money here, why don’t you come and take over these places? You won’t earn any money there, of course, but at least you’ll be in Spain and in the sun, and there is nothing we can teach you about frying food, after all.
“And so they came. In droves. And the remarkable thing is that they turned them around. They do breakfast. They do lunch. They do dinner. Tapas. Burgers. Chow mein. Whatever you like. And of course, cheap beer that draws old retired men to while away the afternoons in the sun drinking cold ones and playing dominoes. Bosh. Job done.”
You’re never more than a pitching wedge from a chino. Pau and Sofia work so hard. On the rare occasion I am out and about at 8am, I see them serving coffees. By 10am, the beers have started – the Spanish see nothing wrong with having a beer for breakfast, yet there is none of the binge drunkenness you see in the UK – and they are still at it when they throw me out at 1am. They live with their teenage son in a flat 20 yards from the bar. He spends all his time there in the bar, too, studying and helping out.
Pau doesn’t speak English – apart from “fucking hell” which I am proud to say I taught him, to Charlie’s dismay (Charlie, being a teacher, taught him his one other phrase, "You're welcome", which I fail to see how it can be of any use), and he doesn’t really speak Spanish. They don’t take holidays generally, thought they did go back to China for two weeks in February. He says, “When I retire, I will go back to China. They make me pay tax to be here but that doesn’t mean I will get a pension, I am not entitled. I like it here but I don’t belong here.”
As well as “chinos”, which are either afore-mentioned cervecerías and bares de tapas, there are “indios” (these refer to the shops, rather than the people) who sell fruit and veg and essentials such as spices and alcohol. These all seem to have the same signage and all claim to be called Patel, which I find frankly to be testing my very credulity. Very friendly people, though like the Chinese, speaking Spanish appears to be an optional extra, and – again, like the Chinese – they seem happy to let their Spanish-schooled children do the heavy lifting on the linguistic front. The rule of thumb is "fried food and beer, a chino will see you clear" or "curry and spice and all things nice, an indio will sort you in a thrice". But I digress…
After two weeks assembling my crew and becoming known to most of the barmen and a few restaurateurs in my barrio, I spent the third week on the afore-mentioned press trip to Anguilla with my new bessie Laura Marfell-Williams of White Tiger PR, who was my flatmate for the week in a superbly appointed beachfront apartment with all mod cons. Wonderful.
At the end of the week, we read that it was getting increasingly difficult to get back to Europe so I was fretting that I would be stranded in a gilded cage. We cracked it, though. Boat to the neighbouring island of Sint-Maarten (jointly ‘owned’ by France and Holland), took a seriously delayed Air France flight to Charles de Gaulle in Paris, whence I got on a flight to London Heathrow. There, my saintly dad picked me up and dropped me off at Victoria to catch a train to Gatwick. The last flight to Valencia would be leaving in a few hours so I used by business lounge membership to have a rather good chicken chasseur and a flotilla of Bloody Marys.
I managed to get into a row with an American woman who asked me not to sit near here because she didn’t want to “catch goddam coronavirus”. Naturally, I explained that if you don’t want to catch coronavirus, probably best not to sit in a crowded business lounge and that in any case, since the only spare plug socket was by her table, I would not be moving. I pointed out that there were empty tables at the far end of the dining area. She glared at me and said, “But I was here first”. I said, I am not making you leave but she gathered up her belongings muttering to herself and left me in peace to enjoy my six – count ’em – Bloody Marys and a perfectly passable well-peppered chicken chasseur. Unsurprisingly, I slept through the two-hour flight and took a taxi from Valencia Airport to my barrio, Ruzafa, only a 15-minute fare or less.
It was eerie. The thronged streets that I had left a few days before, full of revellers getting into the Fallas spirit, were now deserted – “Zombieland”, as I joked to the driver.
A mistake. Trying to explain the concept of “Zombieland” in Spanish rather killed the pitiful joke it was to begin with. He looked at me earnestly in the mirror and said, “But señor, this pandemia maldita is going to kill many people. From 8am tomorrow morning, you will not be allowed to leave your house except to go to your nearest farmácia o supermercado. Es muy serio.”
I muttered, “Yeah, yeah, whatever”, and got home, climbed the 81 steps to my flat and shut the door. The day before I had been on a Caribbean island and, against all odds, had managed to get “home” to Valencia, passing through only five sovereign territories, four airports and a reservoir of Bloody Marys. I was a winner, I told myself, as I poured myself another one using my collection of Lidl Batt’s Worcestershire sauce. I’d done pretty, pretty well…