The bus that I take from Tarifa to just outside Algeciras where I teach in an English academy is regular but infrequent – I’m left with over an hour to kill before I start work and I kill it in a roadside venta with a café con leche and a slow, bad-tempered netbook. Since my previous job was in the same area I’ve been a regular there now for three years and the coffee is often plonked in front of me before I’ve opened my mouth. I take it to the terrace and sit in the deafening noise of the port traffic – juggernauts and container trucks – trying to concentrate on whatever it is that day.
The neighbourhood is called Los Pastores and the one behind it, where I work, El Cobre. Neither of these places will ever feature heavily in Ideal Home or Town & Country and the latter in particular raises eyebrows when I tell people I work there; they often seem mildly surprised that I’ve lived to tell the tale. I’ve never experienced anything on my way to or from work but a few curious looks and a laid-back family feel to what is undeniably a down-at-heel barrio. I would concede though that a number of the inhabitants appear to be interesting.
I’ve written about the venta before and the tortuously slow process through which I eventually came to feel accepted and comfortable there. Nowadays it’s a fait accompli; I’m more or less treated like royalty. I’ve seen staff come and go and whenever a newbie arrives he or she is taught quick sharp that mine’s a coffee. I’ve had knowing conversations with the dueña about how the ideal olive is a cracked one with the stone in, marinated in the Málaga style. I have tutted at news items on the (blaring) telly with the best of them.
In fact it isn’t the same bar as it was. Literally – they moved next door about a year ago, from the ground floor of their hostal into a single storey building at its side which was theirs already but had been lying unused. It was in that first bar, with its green andaluz tiles, that I learned just how noisy a game of dominoes can be in this country. The place seemed to attract the same huddle of middle-aged men every day, each of whom would take a hot drink or a pacharán over to their table and nurse it all evening while they screamed at each other.
One of them in particular, a white-haired man with a bulbous drinker’s nose, seemed to live in a permanent state of apoplexy. I have seen him go through a range of dramatic colour changes, culminating in a deep purple. I have seen him rise to his feet and physically threaten an opponent. I have seen the others gather around him with hands on his trembling shoulders, trying to calm him down. I’ve never seen him win a game of dominoes though. Not once.
He seemed to be under the impression that everyone’s name is ‘coño’, also the term with which the landlord, another shouter and a dangerously overweight man, habitually addressed his wife. A stony faced, inscrutable woman, she didn’t seem in the least bit put out and managed to give the impression of being almost unaware of him, even as she brought him sandwiches. I’d been coming to the bar a good three months before she decided to stop overcharging me for my beer – I’ll never forget the day I got an extra twenty-five cents in my change and a sly smile out of her.
The only time I see them in concert, behaving like a couple as it were, is when they team up to pick on their put-upon barmaid (and cook, and cleaner…), which is rare because she gives as good as she gets and those arguments, even in this bar and this country, make everyone a little uncomfortable. When they finally peter out the relief is palpable.
In the new place things have been a little different. The domino men didn’t make the migration; they now gather in a place in El Cobre that I walk past on my way to and from work, able to hear them from one end of the street to the other. So it’s been a little quieter, though I use the term advisedly. The original premises have been given over to their son, who has spruced them up a bit, introduced wifi and who seems to spend an awful lot of time making sure the terrace tables are in a nice, straight line.
Quiet means merely having to cope with the full blast television and the people shouting at it. I can never quite understand what animates them – they’re always watching the same segment of an early evening news show that focusses on the food industry in Andalucia – slots on cheese factories and bakeries and so on – but evidently there are heartfelt opinions.
And, recently, another change; when I wander back up to get the bus home in the evenings, the place is now closed. I find myself worrying about the landlord’s health, which seems the most likely reason for their absence. Maybe his weight has finally got the better of him, or maybe they’ve just gotten too old to be hanging around in their own bar all day. A part of my daily life for the last three years, I miss them. I’d hate to think that one of them had toppled over like another domino. The put-upon stalwart is still there in the afternoons and piles up a plate of olives for me whenever I give her the nod, and there’s a new one who calls me hijo and who is utterly shocked and delighted when, on leaving each day, I return my coffee glass to the bar.
If anywhere in Spain can be said to encapsulate it, it’s these places. Roadside bars and ventas, superficially devoid of charm but essentially full of it – they are vessels for all that’s typical and all that’s eccentric about daily life here and, as if to underline the latter, there’s a dog-eared piece of A4 paper taped to one of the pillars that announces the only house rule:
Prohibido: El cante.
I’d love to have been here the night they felt it necessary to stick it up; I bet it was a good one.