Main beach with Levante beach beyond the rocks. At its best in winter.
Torrential rain in Spain for the past couple of days. Not good enough, we think, even if it's a rare event in this parched region. We decide, on our way to the supermarket, to forgo the shopping and swan off for a few days. We have our mini cases permanently in the car boot and it's a gloriously sunny day today so off we go.
By lunchtime we're in a very different place. We’re ‘enjoying’ a rare visit to one of those coastal towns beloved of the package holiday fraternity. I don’t imagine we’ll be staying here long. There’s a great beach, with no crowds, and the sun is warm enough to have us slap on a fresh layer of sunscreen. It’s less than a week to Christmas, but we've not jetted off to find Caribbean sunshine. We’re in of all places Benidorm.
Yes, I know it's one of the best known holiday destinations, but this is the depths of winter. Winter in Spain can be a mite chilly, it rains now and then, but most days are like today, warm and sunny.
Benidorm looks good. Not crowded at all, but if I’m forced to be picky a great beach almost to ourselves can never compensate for all that high rise development.
In December the vast beach is virtually deserted, the lager louts are long gone and it's completely different from the madness of high summer. Even so, it's not really anything more than a stop off point for us. There are better places close by.
The only other people on the beach are a mixed group of German PE fanatics doing strenuous exercises at the behest of a strapping young woman. We skirt around them, both of us fearful of being asked to join in. Marigold conjures up a convenient limp while I rely on their good sense in recognising my state of general debility.
Safely past the danger area we knock vast quantities of sand from our sandals (so-called ‘intelligent’ auto correct feature repeatedly insists I mean ‘sandwich’ not ‘sandals’. I don't, so butt out) and head for a bustling pavement café outside one of the big hotels on the front. There's only one free table and we have to dash to get it.
The setting is good, but it's incredibly noisy and crowded.
Marigold settles herself in and we order a drink and congratulate ourselves on getting the last available table. It doesn’t stop me grumbling about the sheer number of our fellow Brits already in residence, but with spousal nudges well to the fore, I keep it to a bare minimum.
In this location at least, we’re discovering that racial stereotyping is alive and well in Spain. An unwanted British export.
Disclaimer: None of the national stereotypical views expressed in the following paragraphs, or elsewhere are mine. I happen to disagree, vehemently in some cases, with each and every one, but am just reporting what assailed our lug-holes as we tried to have a quiet conversation.
Here’s a brief summary of some of the views expressed by fellow patrons of this particular café this morning. The English abroad, at their worst, commenting at full volume on the characteristics of our European neighbours.
Welsh – have unnatural relationships with sheep and imagine they can sing.
Scottish – Tight fisted, ginger-haired drunkards .
Irish – Argumentative drunkards, but also stupid, liars and lazy.
French – Arrogant, effete, unhygienic, and rude, always think they know best.
Italians – Cowards, mammas’ boys, vain, excessively emotional, disorganised, and elect a new government twice a week.
All this and much more from a large group of customers sitting outside a beachfront cafe, all tucking into a Full English Breakfast and reading the Daily Mail. We ignored them, as we normally do when meeting Brits en masse abroad, but it was hard to ignore the conversation, carried out a level somewhere between a screech and a bellow, depending on the sexuality of the speaker.
They all belonged to the same socio-economic group: middle-aged and middle class – surely the epitome of the Daily Mail’s target readership. The words they used revealed a fair degree of intelligence; however the unenlightened prejudice they revealed demonstrated the polar opposite.
An initially calm discussion on the prospects for ‘Ingerland’ in the forthcoming six nations rugby tournament – which I’d eavesdropped on with some interest – soon denigrated into racial stereotyping with each speaker attempting to upstage the other.
When they moved past the Dutch – who wear only wooden clogs and have no fashion sense, presumably a reference to their love of anything orange, the national colour – and Germans – hoggers of poolside loungers, robotic, anal retentive and living solely on knockwurst & beer – to people whose only ‘crime’ was having darker skin we couldn't take any more. You can't reason with people like this, especially when they're in an inebriated group, but, not for the first time, I was ashamed of my fellow nationals.
Of all the nationalities we come across in our travels, only the English, with every word they utter, make us want to move as far away from their company as possible.
I just had a terrifying thought: because I don't have any great understanding of other languages, what if their conversation is as xenophobic and racist as our Daily Mail reading fellow citizens? Best not go there. Far too frightened a prospect. A table some distance away becomes vacant and I’m off like a shot to lay claim to it. It's more peaceful here and we finally settle down.
We're trying to decide whether to head up the coast to Calpe and Javea or return from whence we came. Yes, I know our life must appear to be constantly beset by problems such as this, but the free will to wander wheresoever we please affords us far too many choices sometimes. Anyway, we’re chatting away, perfectly amicably, when the couple sitting at the next table lean over and say ‘are you by any chance able to give us a lift as our friend's car has broken down?’
Honestly, the gall of some people! Marigold, being Marigold, naturally says, ‘yes, of course.’ I wonder whether a few more details would have helped, such as where they want us to take them as for all we know it is hundreds of miles away, but the request has already been granted. Turns out they only want to go to their friends’ villa, up in the hills, and were unwilling to get a taxi as they don't speak Spanish and were worried about giving the driver instructions on where to go.
Okay, no problem then, and they draw up chairs and order a round of drinks. I ask for a Coke as I’m now to be a designated driver, but Roger, partner of Claire, adds four bags of crisps to the order so I’m happy enough. They're on holiday, just for a week, to celebrate Claire’s divorce going through. Oh well. It turns out there are eight of them in the villa, including the ex husband and his new partner. Interesting.
Benidorm in late December; is this the first choice destination for those ‘celebrating’ a recent divorce? Evidently so.
We arrange to drop them at the villa and then we'll carry on to wherever we end up next. It takes a while to find the place - ‘They all look the same, don't they?’ – which explains why our passengers were unsure about taking a taxi. It's a large modern villa with a big pool and room for a dozen cars on the drive. Impressive, but just about right for a celebration party.
We're persuaded to come in, meet the gang, have a drink, perhaps a bite to eat, all that and more. Okay, we're in no rush so we go and meet ‘the gang.’
An hour later, we're still there and we’ve made friends. People we’ve met ‘on the road’ are either gregarious or utterly distant and there’s rarely any middle ground. This lot, comprising three very different couples plus Roger and Claire, are the former. Beer and wine arrives, a few biscuits and slices of cake and we divide into two camps. Boys to the left, girls to the ras Claire puts it. Boys and girls always appears an odd nomenclature when applied to people who have achieved adult status many years ago, but when in Rome…
Now let me make something absolutely clear: I’m comfortable in male company, played sport for many years so am familiar with ‘locker room’ banter and worked in predominantly male environments, but I relish the company of women. I know what men are thinking, most of the time. Women are far less predictable and hence far more interesting.
Marigold is also far more comfortable exchanging quips with a mixed group than one composed of just her own gender, but this was no time to rock the boat. Off she went to hear other women talking about cystitis and the fascinating achievements of their talented offspring and I was left with a seemingly endless ration of football talk and badly told dirty jokes. Hey ho!
We men sat in mostly companionable silence, sipping our drinks and watching the world go by. Talk was confined to football and light banter. No sensitive talk of our inner feelings or dealing with relationships; we’re blokes, right? The group begin a convoluted argument about where they should meet up for a meal tomorrow and I tune them out. They're just a bunch of blokes on holiday and I’ll be on my way soon and forget all about them.
A thin man – thinner than me, anyway, but that’s most people just lately – whom I imagined on first sight to be a geography teacher (he has the look) turns out to be something very different. He turns to me and asks ‘Are you happy?’
Nobody else is bothering with us, but I say ‘yes, I am’ and wonder how much longer it will be before we can leave.
My new friend appears eager to talk. ‘Call me Pete,’ he says. Does this mean his name actually is Pete or merely the name I should call him? Does it matter? Not really, I suppose. He tells me he’s originally from New York – he pronounces it Noo York so it must be true – but has lived in Bolton for the past twenty years. Okay, I think, if you want a change of scenery, why not go the whole hog?
Pete sports a hair style – okay, so maybe ‘style’ is an overstatement – designed for concealment where the hair takes on the appearance of a pair of curtains usually obscuring at least one side of his face or the other. Now you see me, now you don’t. He’s been pretty quiet up to now, but then announces he’s been on the sick for six months after being stabbed at work. Okay, now he’s interesting, I think and shuffle perceptibly closer.
‘What were you stabbed with?’ I ask.
Interesting, I think as I ask the question. Not ‘why were you stabbed, but what were you stabbed with?’
‘A teaspoon,’ he says, ‘a bloody sharpened teaspoon.’
‘What job did you do?’ I enquire, still not having asked the most obvious question, ‘why were you stabbed?’
‘Nurse in a Secure Unit. Stabbed by a nineteen year old girl for spilling her tea, or so she reckoned. Intensive care for three weeks, been on the sick ever since. Thing is, I can't seem to get over it. Panic attacks, all of that stuff and just sitting around feeling miserable.’
‘Hmm!’ I’m looking over his shoulder by now, trying to catch Marigold’s eye, but to no avail.
Call-me-Pete had a fair few tales to tell and dominated ‘conversation’ for the next half hour or so. Some of what he had to say would probably make compelling listening, but not for me. Naturally I didn’t contribute anything.
He was giving the impression he worked amongst dangerous ‘lunatics’ –his word, not mine – and was lucky to finish a shift alive. I wasn't impressed, but what would be the point of responding to this nonsense? One of my former job took me into a fair few dangerous places, certainly far more than Call-me-Pete, not to mention prisons and Ashworth Hospital (the Broadmoor of the North) where ‘criminally insane’ offenders - as it says on the ‘welcome pack’ handed over as you enter - are detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure and about which Call-me-Pete knew next to nothing, but this was neither the time nor the place to start banging on about it. I’d be gone from here soon enough. The sooner the better actually.
‘Is it worth it? What's the point of it all? What's the point of anything really?’ By now call-me-Pete was into intense philosophical territory, unburdening himself to a captive audience of one. Me.
‘You look happy,’ he said, more than once, making it sound rather sinister. Part factual statement, part accusation. Uncertain as to whether I should defend myself against a charge of happiness or just plead guilty I said nothing.
‘Why are you happy? What’s your secret?’
Ah, I thought. How to answer that one?
At that precise moment, Marigold came over to join us. She looked quizzically at me and a man who’d been a complete stranger an hour ago sobbing into his beer.
‘There’s my secret,’ I said to Pete, waving our goodbyes to the others.
‘What was that all about?’ Marigold said as we reached the car.
‘Oh, nothing much. Just some thoughts from Noo York Pete on the American Constitution. You know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?’
Marigold frowned. ‘He didn't look very happy.’
‘Well, he lives in Bolton now,’ I said.
We drove away and as we reached the end of the road I said ‘left or right?’
‘Left,’ Marigold said and we carried on towards Calpe and points beyond.