FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS
10. Granada Tango
I live in a tiny street above the Moorish tea-houses, and below the gypsy Hobbit-holes, on the hill looking across at the Alhambra. Mornings are punctuated by the cries of hawkers of honey, pots and pans, and canisters of butane for cooking. Large deliveries are made by donkey. When I step out of the front door, I meet a street at 45 degrees. Up to the left is a fountain inscribed with sensual verse, down to the right is a bar whose only food is spicy snails.
Tapas are served the old-fashioned way, free with drinks. There is usually a sequence, so that you do not repeat food with subsequent rounds, the bar staff shouting your ranking to the cook. It is theoretically possible to come full circle, though. Who doesn’t like a challenge?
After lunch, the siesta. On hot and sticky afternoons, windows are left open to let air in, blinds pulled down to keep eyes out. But what reaches the ears in the Spanish afternoon is so much more interesting than the banalities visible to the human eye. The air is already swollen with the life of the internal courtyard. There is a background of snores, with the occasional yelps and groans typical of old age- or is it exuberant youth? A trained ear can track rhythms as they emerge: is that disco music, flamenco or football commentary? All three come and go. There are periodic climaxes to the symphony, during which all of this disappears: a loud, brutish, villager’s voice, insensitive to distance, careless of the proximity of others, summons each family member repeatedly and insistently from a seated position in one corner of the house. Luíííííís. Ramóóóón. Pili. ‘Sabeeeeeeer. Ramóóóón.
Maybe some classes, if it isn’t a week containing a public holiday, local feast day, or religious festival, and the teachers turn up. I’ll probably see them out tonight anyway.
An Argentinian exile, an anarcho-nihilist, and a Communist walk into a bar. No, hang on, they run the bar. La Tertulia was founded by Tato (Horacio Rébora), who was fleeing the “Dirty War” and Videla dictatorship of the late 1970s. In newly democratic Spain, he found a welcoming, politically engaged artistic community in the city of Granada, and in 1980 he opened a bar where he organised poetry readings and book launches (Rafael Alberti and Vargas Llosa were among the visitors), as well as political meetings. He also founded a Tango Festival which has become the biggest outside Argentina.
More importantly, La Tertulia is, well, a tertulia. This means many things to many people. To me it is a place where I can write and talk to writers, read my work and discuss translations, listen to the best and develop comical impersonations of them with a tango soundtrack, and workshop with young students. It’s hugely successful as a cultural reference point, but, unlike anything I’ve come across in Britain before, its people do not measure success in commercial terms. Yes, it sells drinks and books to keep the conversation flowing, and I run up a crippling tab when my first term’s grant runs out. But when I come back after Christmas, Paco tells me he hasn’t kept the accounts book from the previous year. “Fresh start,” he says, with a wink, and draws a sketch of me. I have no debts.
Paco is a great friend, something only made possible by my diplomacy and tact. He is a hard-line Communist, atheist, and fan of bullfighting; interestingly for an atheist, he believes in the superiority of Man over other animals (which until then I had thought of as a Biblical concept), and that their sole purpose is to serve our needs. He is entirely uncompromising in his beliefs, always says exactly what he thinks, and brooks no argument. If I were anywhere near as dogmatic as him, any kind of friendship would be impossible, since I am a romantic agnostic, politically uncommitted, and vegetarian. I can’t help thinking that he is sometimes almost Roman Catholic in his dogmatism, but I never dare tell him.
Alfonso is an even better friend, because as well as being a great poet and social activist, he has subtle self-deprecating humour, and a sophisticated sensitivity to wine and food (in that order). We give poetry readings together, but also explore the back-streets and hatch literary plots in tiny bars run by old men, all of whom he knows well. He takes me to a very brisk anarchists’ meeting, run by another Argentinian exile: he is proud to announce that “What sets anarchists apart from other left-wing activists is our common-sense adherence to practicalities”. When the agenda is exhausted, and action plan drawn up, we adjourn to the filthiest bar I have ever seen. I am by now quite used to customers dropping cigarette ends and paper tissues on floors which are regularly swept, but here there is a thick layer of prawn and snail shells, sawdust, olive stones and spit, with dogs constantly nuzzling through this pungent sub-soil in search of nutrition.
One night, a brick smashes through the window at La Tertulia, and we hear a voice shout “I am a disciple of Adolfo Hítler”. We have just held an anti-racism rally, with poet Luís García Montero, and actor Paco Rabal, both of whom are in the bar. Tato, Alfonso and Paco stop serving and sprint for the door. The bar next door is having work done and there are bricks lying around. Paco picks one up and throws it at the fleeing attacker. Alfonso and I are half-hearted and only make it to the end of the street. The others catch him and pin him to a car. It is Alfonso who calls the police. The man is arrested, but greets the desk sergeant by his first name, and is released the same night. Still, the anarchist did his duty- it was the system that let him down.
I walk back up the hill in the moonlight.