When we moved to Spain in 1999 we bought a flower shop.
It resided on a corner in a pedestrian area a few hundred yards from the main Arroyo de la Miel high street. Perfect location and the corner frontage meant plenty of space for displays of wares. It was charming, pretty, had an exotic name – Las Mimosas and we were going to be so happy! I arrived for the first day’s trading early and eager to please if not a little nervous, what was ten thousand pesetas again?
I knew the Mama’s of the surrounding shops all cleaned the front pavement area before opening and I was prepared and ready to show one and all that I would fit in with the local customs. I was even prepared to get down on hands and knees with a paint stripper thingy and chip away at left over and trodden in chewing gum if I absolutely had to. There I am, pristine mop and bucket in hand, I was early and the first to commence the ritual. I was mopping away and the Matriach of Mamas arrived. She literally heaved her hefty bosom with her arms folded and stood and watched, a faint tutting sounding emitting from her lips and a frown deeper than Niagarra Falls in response to my hola, buenas dias. The lesser mamas arrived and joined her. Much frivolity and laughter ensued all clearly at my expense and I slunk back into the shop nervously, front terraces mopped.
After a period to allow the terrace to dry and to gulp a large dose of “courage building” caffeine I could see everyone else mopping and chatting happily. I ventured out heaving the big metal display rack that was like a ton weight in those early days but became lighter as the twice daily ritual of lugging it in and out became habit.
As I successfully placed the damned thing where I thought it should go I became aware of that tutting sound again. The matriarch of all matriarchs (Anna) was making her move. Ten minutes later, the heavy metal display rack was back in the shop and I was showing Anna what bleach I had used. I was marched to the opposite end of the narrow walkway and hustled into the ferreteria where I gathered I was expected to buy all such purchases in future, I sought of understood it was a “we look after each other” message and the kindly wizened old shop keeper assured me he would buy his flowers from me in future. Which he did – a single carnation for his Sunday suit every month!
Correct bleach bought, confident of my first sale to the ferreteria I let myself be propelled back to my shop and watched intently as I was shown how to correctly prepare my solution and mop the terrace. Yep, for real, true as I’m stood here now. It happened.
The point of this little reminiscence is that because of my somewhat compliant and ever eager to please attitude that morning I was “in”. In with the “in” crowd, I was looked after, cossetted and advised on all nature of things. Matriarch of all matriarch’s Anna was my friend and God forbid anyone who should upset me. I love that woman deeply and the memories I have of raucous conversations in pidgeon Spanish / English and dance lessons on the terrace are many. I think I knew I could live as an ex pat from that day and I still bow to local customs and cultures whenever appropriate.
What Anna did do (apart from insisting the heavy display rack went on the opposite terrace where it had always been) was to expel my first beggar and teach me the protocol in Spain. What I gathered was that there was assistance for those that really needed it and there was no need to beg. Most that did would squander monies given on their alcohol or drug problem and set their rehab back. So don’t give to beggars. This was borne out when my good friend Jackie and I went for coffee one afternoon and she nearly choked on her café con leche as she watched a scruffy beggar like looking man feed the fruit machine.
“That’s my money he’s pumping in there! He said he needed to buy dog food for a mangy mutt that was at his feet!”
Because of that life lesson and the often publicised tax scam of beggars and windscreen washers I have never given a poor soul on the street here a shilling. Not once and I feel bad about that. In eighteen months I have passed the guy with one leg, the ancient bibi (grandmother), the sad-looking man with doleful eyes that can tell a thousand tales, and never spared a copper. I will admit to not really knowing how to give freely, my British sense of reserve still kicks in and although I do try not to be the person in the Phil Collins track In The Air Tonight, I may not look away but my greetings are always shallow and embarrassed.
I admire most of the local people who I mix with here. I admire some of them a great deal. Those who I admire most are the ones I have witnessed giving to beggars in the street. On the occasions I refer to the beggars were there because of my white skin. My friends had conversations with them and gave words of advice and consolation (on one occasion the person concerned gave a heartfelt plea for the young woman not to continue to drag her babe in arms around on her back teaching her to reach out to mzungus with a winning smile and the word money forming before the rightful first utterance of Mama) but then they put their hands in their purses and pockets and gave freely. These are not the rich or even well off in Tanzania, these are ordinary folks struggling to put a meal on the table or provide education for their kids. These same people give of their time to help others. They don’t expect the flood of young mzungu volunteers and the odd old’un to do what they will not. They volunteer and help their own, they give when they can. This is humbling and leaves me with a sense of shame re my Englishness and embarrassment in dealing face on with the street beggars.
I do realise that everywhere in the world there are such people and that there are hordes of good souls helping within their own communities all over the world. My point is that we don’t see them. Do you?
I lived my life for 50 plus years in the suburbs of London, England and on the Costa del Sol Spain, I watched the odd TV documentary about the homeless, the poor or the sick and I was sub consciously aware that were organisations to help. But on a conscious level, an active “how can I help level”? No. The incessant replay of the distraught faces of little children in the NSPCC or Save the Children adverts desensitise us to the real need just as the violence portrayed daily in video games and on the TV make it seem normal and real. It is all too easy, even for me here, to lie easy in our bed letting the subliminal assurance that there are others “dealing” with the horrors of life.
Right now as a volunteer with no income I have little to give but I resolve over the next month to overcome that shyness/reserve and to learn how to give freely.
Even if it only a smile and a few words of encouragement.