An Andalucian community
Submitted by Jaime, a 62 year old retired male living in Scotland and Andalucia.
Sunday 12 September in an Andalucian community
Communities may be inclusive or exclusive, defined in terms of geographical or social boundaries. They may also refer to supportive networks. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people may find their support amongst each other, but also outwith their community.
On Sunday 12 September I observed life in a town in Andalucia where my partner and I live for part of the year. Most of the year we live in Scotland. The contrast is great. Life in this Andalucian town is lived much more in public. For observation you are spoilt for choice.
This is a seaside town frequented largely by Spanish people, and tourists from elsewhere would find it difficult if they did not speak some Spanish. There are no linguistic ghettos in this town, unlike in other parts of Andalucia where incomers relate primarily to each other. With all our friends and neighbours here we speak Spanish. Conversations that are mentioned in this observation were all in Spanish.
The observation took place on Sunday 12 September, the last Sunday of the summer holidays for secondary school students in Andalucia. I didn’t modify my life to suit the observation, except for taking a mental note of what was happening around me in public places. The main area for public observation was in and around a chiringuito (an open-air café-bar) on the beach. I returned the next day for some contrasting observations, and to take a photograph, that I am uploading separately.
This Sunday my partner and I decide to go to the chiringuito around 1.30pm, before most people would have their lunch, which is normally around 3pm. The chiringuito is packed full but we find a table at a corner furthest from the bar and closest to the beach. The man who runs the chiringuito is also the sole waiter today. Some people are just ordering drinks, others are eating early. He takes notes of some orders, but others he just remembers. It is some while before he sees us. He remembers what we normally have. The chiringuito is there only in the summer, but he remembers also from one year to the next. As they will pack up and leave on Tuesday, they are running down the stock. Selection is made from what is left and everyone is good humoured. He is incredibly busy taking orders and fetching them, and telling his daughter behind the tapas bar which bill to make up for which table. Families are there, couples, friends. There is laughter and plenty of conversation.
The chiringuito provides some shade from the sun that is still fierce at this time of year: today’s temperature is around 35 degrees centigrade. Around the chiringuito, people are lying out in the sun, even when the sun is at its highest. We see our neighbours Mariluz and Alvaro coming up from the beach. He waves and she blows us kisses. I flip through the local paper. One of the items is on the weather. Here as in Britain the weather is a major topic of conversation. In the newspaper they had a story on the first raindrops after the summer, which caught people by surprise without their umbrellas. It occurred for a few minutes earlier in the week and was just enough to dampen the pavements, yet it becomes a news item with photos. Later I joke with my neighbours that raindrops would not normally make the news in Scotland.
The next day we return to the chiringuito and I make some observations on the contrast with the busy Sunday. On the Monday there are just two or three tables occupied, and the beach has few sunbathers, even though the weather remains hot and sunny. The waiter is more relaxed. He can even sit with customers and talk about where they live and what it is like. There is a feeling of hilarity and fun, like school packing up for the summer, except this is the opposite, summer packing up as the schools go back. One man comes dancing into the bar skilfully balancing a bottle of sherry on his head. People encourage him by clapping flamenco rhythms, very infectious, and this rhythmic clapping is taken up at the other tables. They appreciated that we join in. They sing too, and include in their singing a reference to Spain’s world cup victory.
The World Cup had felt like a victory for all of us. My partner and I were made to feel part of the excitement, the tension and anxiety, and the relief and joy at the victory. We watched it here in Andalucia with our neighbours and their friends in a bar/restaurant where the management was giving free tapas and beer, though people were not abusing the generosity. No-one was drunk. The bar was packed, and many people couldn’t bring themselves to watch because they were so nervous. I have never felt part of a football crowd before, and doubtless never will again. It’s surely perverse that the only time I can enjoy flag-waving and a celebration of ‘our’ team is when my belonging is manifestly fake. Of course they were wonderfully welcoming, encouraging us to sing ‘yo soy español’ (‘I am Spanish’), to a Russian tune I think (but they are proud of their mixtures here) and to wrap ourselves in the flag. Afterwards, as the cars went round town hooting and the people thronged the streets and impromptu bands started playing, we accompanied my neighbour Lola down the main avenue towards the sea, and found the fountain packed with youngsters celebrating the special pleasure of getting soaked in a hot climate. The amazing thing was that we saw nobody drunk, nobody throwing up, no fighting, no violence, just happy faces. All that was also on a Sunday, two months ago on July 11th.
This September Sunday we leave the chiringuito and go to the water’s edge. It is low tide and the sea just ripples gently to the beach. There are lots of small fishes that like to feed in the shallowest of these calm waters. Yesterday two boys tried to catch them with nets. The fish are so numerous, but really fast, and the boys caught only a couple. They were so excited. Today one larger fish, about 25cm, is acting strangely, coming much too close to being stranded. We notice it has red at the side of its mouth. It has probably been wounded by a fish hook. It is distraught and we watch powerless to do anything to help it. It strands itself. Seagulls nearby seem nonchalant. A few other people come up to watch. One man tries to pick up the fish and throw it back in the water, but it soon inevitably strands itself again. People are concerned about it.
We go back home and our neighbour Lola invites us in. Her house almost seems like a public space as the patio is visible to all who enter the block of flats, the door is so often open, and she is so welcoming. We talk to her husband Miguel about the stranded fish. Another neighbour Fernando is already there. He talks to us about an owl he rescued recently when it had trapped its claws in a henhouse: Fernando freed it and took to the recuperation centre.
We are joined by two of Lola and Miguel’s four children. Lola knows we are vegan and has prepared local dishes that are suitable for us: salmorejo (like thick gazpacho) and papas aliñadas (a tapa of potatoes, onion, parsley and olive oil). The others have tortilla too and cheese. Later Mariluz and Alvaro come round bringing a dish of rice and prawns. The Mediterranean diet of fish and vegetables is most common here, without much meat. Most of us are drinking beer or dry sherry with the meal.
We talk of the difference between Anglo-American attitudes to alcohol, and the attitude here in Spain. Here people drink for the taste, usually with food, and to get merry. It is rare to see drunks, and rare to see anyone being sick with alcohol. I spoke of our meeting Lucia who married an American and went to live in the USA two years ago. We met her last night in the centre of town as she celebrated reuniting with her female friends. She is here for three weeks holiday. She spoke of how, in the town where she has been living in the USA, the people drink as much as they can as fast as they can in order to get drunk and forget. I said that the same attitude to alcohol is found in Scotland, and indeed in Britain more generally. Drinking to get smashed, to obliterate, and a successful night defined as one you cannot remember, is alien here. Talking with Miguel and the others, you could tell they found it strange, difficult to comprehend as a chosen form of enjoying yourself.
Although it is Sunday, Juan the painter turns up to continue working on redecorating a bedroom. He is invited in and joins the meal. People drift off as they finish eating. Miguel and I talk of the chance of the general strike (planned for 29 September) being successful, and more generally of ‘la crisis’ (the recession). I tell Miguel about our visiting our friend Jose and her son at the end of the month. They live in Scotland but have a house in Catalonia, and we shall stay with them a couple of nights. I say we shall tell local people there that we can’t speak Catalan but we can speak Andaluz (the Andalucian dialect of Spanish). He says that many of the people in Catalonia are originally from Andalucia but distance themselves from their origins to avoid being seen according to the stereotype of Andalucians as lazy. I point out that people here work very hard, long hours, with few vacations. I know this is especially true of waiters, people with small businesses and small shopkeepers like Miguel. As today is Sunday, I ask Miguel if he will have a siesta. He won’t, as he likes to keep busy doing odd jobs around the house. Lola gets up and down from the table a lot, making sure people have enough to eat and drink. Later she talks of another local dish that is vegan and that we’ll all eat together soon. They make us feel part of the family.
When we first came here we thought we should be especially discreet about being partners, in case of prejudice and hostility. Later we thought people were innocent and naïve and didn’t realise we were partners. One day a friend of Lola’s came straight out with a question about whether homosexuals can marry in Scotland (as they can in Spain), and we realised that they knew all along. We told them that my partner’s sisters don’t accept us and ignore me, and Lola spontaneously said she didn’t like those sisters and that they were ‘maleducado’ (bad-mannered). Her friend said her family had little interest in her. She was seeing parallels in our situation. People here often try to find ways to see connections with us rather than differences. This is one way in which they make us feel at home. They encourage our Spanish (or even Andaluz), they declare we belong to their town (‘claro’, of course) and they involve us in fiestas. We are not made to feel that our relationship is strange or inferior. This is a highly gendered society, so the questions we are asked are about the division of labour, which in most households runs along gender lines. They ask who does most of the cooking, cleaning, clothes washing. They don’t need to ask about shopping as they see us do it together. When we join a large round table at a fiesta, the seating is usually according to gender: men at the far end. At first they encourage us to sit at the far end with the men, but usually we get talking to female friends of Lola and the pattern breaks up.
This Sunday evening I return to the chiringuito to meet Santi on the promenade nearby. People are strolling up and down the prom or talking in small groups leaning on the railings or sitting on benches. It is a warm night. Santi tells me about his travels. He has made lots of gay friends through the internet and visits them in various European countries. Now he has a chance to visit China as one of his friends has gone to work there. Santi is waiting to hear about a job opportunity here in his home town. He doesn’t know if he is hoping more for a job to come up or for the chance of a holiday in China. He is very expressive with his language and gestures, but happily does not feel obliged to constrain himself to fit a masculine stereotype. He seems a happy person. He says he cannot imagine living permanently anywhere else but here. I walk up the main avenue with him, amongst many other people enjoying the cooler air of the late evening.
As he goes off home, I turn back down the avenue and see Lola parting from her friends. She usually sees them twice a day, for breakfast and for a drink in the evening. She takes my arm and we walk arm in arm back home. She talks of her recent worries about her husband, who is such a good man and works so hard: he had a test showing a rise in blood pressure and she thinks it is because of worry about keeping the shop going. The children don’t realise the economic sacrifices the parents make to give them the educational chances that they themselves never had. I say that it’s normal, that most children when they are young don’t realise what their parents do for them. She is very warm and affectionate and it feels totally natural to stroke each other’s arms as a sign of closeness, simply as good friends. This may be an advantage of being gay: there is the possibility of a disinterested expression of affection with a woman. If the man had been heterosexual, I wonder if Lola would have been able to walk arm in arm showing such tenderness.
See Andalucia photo.