The Barbers of Madrid

Hairs are sprouting on my chin. It is pruning season again. We have the word “pruning” from prunus, the genus which includes the plum, and its ugly daughter and near-eponym, the prune, as well as its fabulous and malodorous grandson, Slivovitz. The earliest of the prunus family to bear fruit is named for that precocity: it bears fruit “a praecox” , hence “apricot”. Shakespeare calls this fruit “apricocks”. But I digress.


Our hotel, the imposing Madrid Intercontinental, sits on the majestic Avenida, seemingly the aorta of this most masculine city.


The Intercontinental is a place of gold surfaces and plush furnishings. In its grand foyers an espresso doble costs nine euros. That translates to fourteen of my Aussie dollars.


The Intercontinental swallows the money of the incontinent spender. It is all a little uncomfortably grande for this Aussie.  Gilt-ridden, I open the door to the street and run the gauntlet of liveried door openers and greeters and bowers and scrapers, the accouchers who deliver us residents to the world.


I am glad to get outside.


There is a narrow side street that runs next to the Intercontinental. Here Toorak encounters Springvale. Every third premises sells expensive fashions that you can buy.


There are elegant beauty shops where you can exchange expensive euros for beauty, beauty which must die. Fine cake shops and smart restaurants compete for the custom of coutured tourists and people on fat Spanish pensions.


And then there are ill-lit cafes where working men come to smoke and drink strong coffee in the early mornings and after work. The closest of these is three doors from the Intercontinental. This place  is narrow, its roof low, it is a cave where denizens sit in their ones, taciturn, scowling at the football news or the racing news or the political news. All the news, I gather, is one.


It would be a hardy soul who’d break into their silo of quiet. That person turns out to be the young daughter of the owner, a cheerful elf in black apron, black leggings and black t-shirt. She glides around the shop, replacing ashtrays and taking orders.


I open the door to this subterranean place and the elf smiles a welcome. Her smile is perfectly delightful except for the gap where someone or something has knocked out a lateral incisor. Most of her smile expresses her simple, innocent delight in seeing you, but the gap speaks of unsaid dark things like assault or dentistry.


I drink a thimbleful of thunderbolt espresso. It is affordable. People slip in, drift out. No-one looks up, human speech in the cave is low and short; people are here for their serious purposes of quiet solitude and customary chemicals.


On the next block there is a not-very-super market. I pass it by day, and in the evenings and during my early morning run. There is a short man who sits on a low balustrade outside the not-so-supermarket (NSS). He has a smooth face, baby-pink, baby-fleshed, that extends beyond his absent eyebrows to his hairless scalp. It is a face that is opaque to my searching gaze. Taciturn, he sits, nothing more, sits like patience on a monument.


He is there most times I pass. Does he live here? What does he live on? What is he thinking?


Eventually my questions are answered when I pass the NSS at lunchtime: he is lunching from a clear bottle of clear liquor; and that evening, when he is insensible, spread out along the length of his balustrade.


Every block has its coffee shop, its shoe shops (Toorak elegant and Springvale basic respectively), its mixed business, its tobacconist-cum-keycutter, and its barber shops. I am bound for Caribbean Unisex  to attend to the pruning. I avoid the elegant establishments; I am more at home in the unfashionable joints.


Regrettably, every block has its dogs, whose owners (generally Toorak) are not socialized in the matter of dog pooh. While I am no veterinarian, I am confident that canine constipation is rare in this part of Madrid. These dogs are overfed. The rain softens yesterday’s leavings and renders the going slippery.


I weave my way between the hazards to “Caribbean Unisex”, a place of haphazard décor, where the young lady asks: “Can I help you?” She is tall and slim and black. Her clothes are close-fitting and her short hair dances out from her scalp at very angle of curl and spike. Her hairdo is delinquent and eloquent: this is a funky joint.


Espero que si, is my attempt to say I hope so. I run my hand through the chin


Madrid Barber Shop

Madrid Barber Shop (Photo credit: enric archivell)


No es para senores, aqui. Solo senoras y senoritas.


So much for unisex: they cut the hair of every gender here excepting the masculine.


The lady from Caribbean waves me in the direction of the men’s hairdresser a little further up the street. I saw it when I passed earlier; two gentlemen peered at me from the dim narrow space of the interior. They looked hard and unsmiling. Their shop was not prepossessing.


I retrace my steps to the shop of the barbers who do not smile. The shop is small. There is a narrow wooden bench which might, at a pinch, accommodate six waiting buttocks. I lower mine to the timber and sit and wait.


The two hairdressers are hard at work. They don’t acknowledge my arrival. They are short, swarthy men, stocky and powerfully built. Their customers look the same.


There is time to look about me. The large church opposite, occupying an entire block, looks as if it were built in the 1950’s. For the first time I study the geometry of the brickwork on its façade. Framing a large cross is an even larger six pointed star, the Star of David! A puzzle.


I return my musing gaze to the barber shop.


There is a mirror in front of the barbers, arranged so we customers can watch our transformation. Below the mirror, on a benchtop, the barbers keep their tools of trade. Between duplicate sets of cut-throat razors, clippers, scissors, brushes, combs, and jars of unguents, stands a topless young lady. She is about 18 inches tall and is made of black wood. She wears a grass skirt and is slim, sinuous and tall for her height, if you know what I mean. Her hair is styled after the manner of the young lady in Caribbean Unisex.


Although she is slim, her breasts are full and they defy gravity. So does her face: alone in the shop, she wears a smile.


My time approaches. The customer on my left rises from the barber’s chair, takes money from his pocket and pays and leaves. There is no conversation.


My man turns to me and indicates the empty chair. He signals me to rise and occupy the chair. Does he  sense, from my dress or my deportment that I am un Ingles, un estupido, who does not speak Spanish? Or does all this taciturnity reflect an establishment run for the deaf by the mute?


I honour the custom of the house, by showing in dumb play that I want a haircut and my whiskers trimmed.


My man nods.


As he reaches for his weapons, I study his profile. He is about forty, serious but not unfriendly looking.


He cuts my hair – numero dos is the length I specify – then raises the cut-throat blade. I signal my aversion to the cold steel, pointing and nodding at the beard-trimmer clippers. The prince of silence obliges me, now holding his breath as he mows through a regiment of my stubble, now breathing audibly in his concentration on the next attack. His rhythm is reassuring. I feel safe to look around and contemplate the black lady who smiles at me intimately, from the close distance of the bench.


A new silence breaks the silence, as the trimmer falls quiet and movement stops. I look up at the barber. He looks down at me.


Es finito? – I ask.


The man shakes his head, extends his index finger and touches the aperture of my right nostril, then the left, raising an eyebrow in interrogation.


I don’t get it. Is he offering to pick my nose?


Now his finger broaches my ear hole, now its opposite number. Again the interrogative eyebrow.


Suddenly I understand: the peso has dropped: would I like the hairs of my ears and nostrils trimmed?


I really am indifferent to hairs that I cannot see and that cause me no trouble. But my wife and daughters do notice these hairs and find them unattractive and they tell me so. I am inclined to believe that all body parts have their purpose or function, especially hair. On the scalp and limbs it insulates; on the upper lip it strains soup; in the umbilicus it catches lint; and inside the undies it attracts and stimulates.


My womenfolk are not convinced that ear hairs are necessary to save wax and that nose hairs protect me from inhaling locusts and other airborne plague species.


So I nod, say Si, and gesture for him to proceed.


Abruptly, Mister Silence leaves the room, passing behind the curtain that separates the shop from quarters in the rear. Voices are heard, one male, one female, and another one, piping.


My man returns, leading a toddler, a moon-faced little girl of unusual plainness. The man sits on the bench, pulls her onto his knee, holds her adoringly, puts his mouth to her ear, and pays me no further attention.


Movement from behind the curtain and a woman appears, bearing a can full of dark liquid – molasses? – and a fistful of supersized cotton buds. I catch only a glimpse of a round face that closely resembles the little girl’s, before my head is tilted sharply backward, and my nose is pushed upwards from beneath, flaring my equine nostrils even further. I look up into two dark eyes that are gazing deep into my nostrils – at what? My soul, probably.


Surprised, uncertain, uncomfortable, I gaze back. The lady plunges a long cotton bud into the jar of liquid and withdraws it. I catch sight of it, dripping darkly, in the moment before it is thrust into my right nostril. The liquid is hot, very hot. I am under attack, both surprised and amazed.


I do not cry out. This is not a place where a man would cry out when a mujere, a woman, hurts him. And I don’t want to be a crybaby in the presence of the topless beauty.


My lady assailant now twists the cotton bud, while simultaneously pinching my nostril closed around it.


Now she pulls her fiery appliance from the constricting nostril, which burns like my lips after eating chilli.


I glimpse the face of my depilator. It is empty of remorse, guilt or apology, Not even mirth.


For my part, I am too slow of wit to rise, pay and flee.


Already, my left nostril is being flattened and widened, already the cotton bud, dripping molten wax is about to penetrate a cavity that has only previously accommodated my excavating finger.


Fire flames within me, but once again, moral cowardice stills my voice. I don’t open my mouth in case the lady with the wax decides to beautify my uvula.


I stand, reaching for my wallet. But a strong female arm presses me back into the chair.


Es finito, no?


Apparently not. The lady is shaking her head, pointing to her ears.


My head is flung back, the woman bends and reaches across me, then in one swift movement, sets fire to my right ear hole. Tears fill my eyes. I sit and wait for the coup de grace, which is not long in coming. Both ears burn.


I am hairless, speechless, witless and stumbling inside my brain for the moral enlightenment that must surely follow such sensory extremity.


Across the road, the large brick church looks down at me implacably. The Star of David – in Hebrew, Magen David, the shield of David – has not protected me.


I pay, managing to extend a hoarse gracias, as I take my tearful leave of mother, father and daughter, and of the wooden lady; and breathe fresh air into my hairless nose, and feel the cool night of Madrid offering comfort to my smooth, unoffending ear holes.


A Trip to Cuba – Part 3

The People – kind, bright, gracious.

In Cuba, time is not money, money is not time. The people have not realised that they should exact a money price for the gift of time. Time is not (yet) a commodity. It remains a gift.

The Body – in Cuba, the body is nowhere repressed; everywhere it is expressed, accepted, celebrated. A fat, fat lady will wear body-defining lycra, in stripes that accentuate her plenitude. She hears music, and like everyone else, she’ll dance. It hasn’t occurred to her that she is unfeminine, unpretty, not sexy. (Marie Claire costs twice her weekly earnings, so she hasn’t read the truth about her body.) So she lives and dances, innocent of the truth. An unliberated woman.

A man stands facing us in a public place, his eyes and mind are elsewhere. Idly he scratches his balls. He takes his time, doing the job thoroughly. Like a long-legged fly upon the stream, his mind moves upon silence. He finishes his scratching, looks up, his eyes and mine lock, while Annette looks away to spare him embarrassment. She need not bother: the man looks into the distance again and loosens his three piece set from the grip of his undies.

The cityscape of La Habana – so rich in architectural beauty, frequently neglected, never abased.

The pride of these humble people.  There is no cultural cringe in Cuba, no sense that authentic life lies somewhere else. What they lack, what exists across the sea, is affluence, not life.

A feeling of security wherever we go in Cuba. No street is too dark and lonely to walk. Encounters with strangers are not alarming.

They say there is petty crime against property, but we see no sign of it. Crime against persons is rare.

(Perhaps, after the embargo, things will change: the Mafia will return, and introduce World’s Best Practice.)

The black Cubans – tall, beautifully made men and women, the men broad, the women slender. They carry themselves like aristocrats, their movement fluid and graceful.

The music – it is everywhere, and almost everywhere it’s live – performed before you or beside you or behind you. You can’t eat or drink, shop or walk without a chance encounter with music.

The music is of the people: it creates them as much as they create the music.

A music scholar wrote that Afrocuban music is the fruit of the love affair between the Spanish guitar and the African drum.

Music and pride are mutual creations in Cuba. Cubans know that their small nation creates a musical gift enjoyed and valued far beyond their homeland.

The Spanish Language – they’ve got words in Spanish for just about everything: it’s a whole nother language, you might say, and a wholly beautiful language. And the Cubans don’t laugh at you when you try to speak it.


A Trip to Cuba – Part 2

English: Apartment building facade and residen...

Habana Vieja, Havana. December 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 December 2, 1999.

We land at Jose Marti airport in La Habana on a mild and sunny day. In the course of this day we will learn a lot about the country during our hours at the airport. We learn quickly that the hot, steamy Cuba of fiction is just that: the truth is an anti-climatic surprise. We learn that Ron de Cuba is not a person but a beverage, rum to be precise. And we learn that Capitalism is rapacious, that a Capitalist will sell his mother if the price is right.

This last little lesson is learned by watching the large TV screen which is set up in the spacious area where incoming passengers are obliged to spend their first day in Cuba. We see a brilliant little cartoon in which the hero outwits all rivals, enemies and friends by his cleverness and ruthlessness. His mother congratulates her boy who rewards her by taking all her life savings then selling her to a band of passing Ishmaelites. Although the manner of presentation is lighthearted, the subject matter is food for serious thought, and soon I am wondering what price I might get for my own mother in Cuba…

Annette and I stand patiently in one of the dozen or so long lines of travellers waiting to be interviewed by IMIGRACION. Every twenty minutes or so a new visitor to Cuba is admitted into a closed booth for interview. The official is apparently a member of the military, to judge by the uniforms and the moustaches. The booth is constructed so that the interviewing officer is seated above the interviewee and largely concealed from view. I surmise that the interviewers are Army Intelligence operatives and are meant to be intimidating.

 While standing in line I read the word BANOS printed above the doorways which lead respectively to the Caballeros and the Damas. In the doorways stand two pretty young women. Every dama and every caballero must pass by them to enter.

 After a little while spent waiting in line, passengers become bored and begin to think that a visit to the toilets will be a welcome relief or a change of scenery. One or two venture to the Banos, others follow out of curiosity, yet others out of lavatorial solidarity. Soon a trickle becomes a movement as we are visited variously by inspiration or simple genital envy.                                                                                                                                  Sooner or later many of the caballeros and every one of the damas will ask one of the young doorladies is there any toilet paper. And the young lady will sell some to her captive customer, a foreigner who pays in foreign cash. Now I begin to realise how the Cuban Revolution gets its hard currency. The longer the delay before we are interviewed by IMIGRACION the greater the cashflow. The cameras track our movements and we are only admitted once we have succumbed to this systematic brownmail.

 At last I am admitted for my interview. My inquisitor is a little jockey of a guy in a uniform far too big for him which badly needs a wash. He is half my age and not fierce at all. I start to feel sorry for him, not least because he must put up with my Spanish. He decides, after a wrestling match with his computer, to let me into his country. Muchas Gracias, senor, I say, and wait to see whether mi amiga Annette will likewise be admitted. Luckily, she is, and we go off together in search of a taxi driver to rip us off.

We have been forewarned that in Cuba there are taxis and taxis, some official, some otherwise. Among the official cabs Panataxi is the name to go for. So we go for it, and find ourselves seated in a tiny little Citroen driven by a bulky lady of about my age. We give her the address of the Casa Particular (literally, “private house”) where we have a reservation. Our driver takes a look at the address and snorts: “Habana Vieja! Why do you want to go there? Centro es mejor, muchas mejor!”

Well, there are lots of reasons why we want to go to Habana Vieja – Old Havana: Annette has researched this city and determined that Habana Vieja is close to the Sinagoga, close to the places of interest to us, and furthermore we have contracted with a Mister Selim Tache of the Havana Jewish Community to stay there. He has reserved the flat for us.

But our lady driver knows better. This Boadicea brooks no dissent. She knows a very fine casa  particular in Centro. She will take us there. By now we have been driving for about fifteen minutes, in who knows what direction?  For my part, I have a strong prejudice in favour of the Old City – any old city – because it will be authentic, and (hopefully) charming, even if it turns out to be an authentic slum. So I tell Boadicea to drive her chariot to numero 518 Aguacate in Vieja, and bugger Centro.

While we drive, we watch the scenery. Quickly the countryside gives way to a built-up area where Comrade Stalin has designed some atrocious, soulless blocks of flats in an attempt to quell the Cuban spirit. They certainly quell mine.

We come to a large roundabout in the airport freeway where la campanera conductora (our comrade driver) points out the Institute of Sports. This ugly circular block of cement is the home of the bureaucracy that administers fun-running (and sport in general) in Cuba. One look at this deadly structure tells me that it exists to take the fun out of running, and that my dream of running in a race here will be difficult to realise.

 The Cuban Consul in Sydney had advised me that I would encounter this office on my way into town from the airport. So at least I have my bearings now, but the Consul’s advice that ‘the esport in Cuba is centrally planned, senor,’ tolls a doleful sound in my imagination.

I watch our driver. She has a singular method of fuel conservation whereby we crawl up hills then cruise down with the gearbox in neutral. Although we save fuel, we do not spare the horn. The horn is sounded at every lane change, at every turning and when a Vespa or a horse and cart or a cyclist impedes our passage.

Now we are passing through an older area, with crumbling colonial dwellings and narrow little streets. If drivers were horn-happy on the freeway, they are like Joshua at Jericho here. The slower the passage the greater the hornplay, but curiously, it is a message without menace that says simply: “I’m here, citizen cyclist/sister pedestrian/ diesel-belching truck/ancient chevvy/pony cart/mother with pusher; be careful, merge right please, and I’ll pass you on your left.” In this way, a heavy truck overtakes a pedestrian at close quarters, and the walker doesn’t even turn around to assess the hazard coming from behind.

I notice that our fearsome conductora is actually a benevolent fellow-citizen on these inadequate calles, as the streets are called. This is our first experience of how poverty in Cuba creates an amity and freemasonry  between the men in the street.

 The roads are buckled, the footpaths broken, and all are congested with movement and with lack of movement. Broken down people, cars and bikes slow the traffic, but no-one gets heated, no-one gets hit. It all works.

 Eventually our driver parks on the footpath of a little side street, honks her horn, lowers her window and bellows someone’s name. A window is opened a crack, some shouts are exchanged and our driver discovers that the person she is after is not at home. Then the centavo drops inside my head: we are not in Habana Vieja at all; this is Centro, and we are here at the casa of our driver’s particular friend. Sudden indignation gives me sudden fluency as I emphatically direct the panataxista to Aguacate, 518.

Unabashed, muttering mildly “Vieja mas mal, Centro muy bien”, she drives us to Aguacate and help us with our luggage. Will she rip us off for the detour to her friend’s place?, I wonder. No, there’s no extra charge for the extra tour. Smiling and friendly, she departs, the first of a number of benevolent bandidos we are to meet in Cuba. They try to con you, and whether they succeed or no they hold no grudge against you for their trying.

It’s like a sport: you acknowledge the effort of your opponent and you honour the contest and play in good spirit.

We knock on the door of Aguacate 518, identify ourselves to the young girl who admits us, and go inside where we meet Jesus and Maria.