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Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Boys of Summer

Contributed by my truckbuddy Tim from England, now resident in Spain:

Tim’s Take on Spain – The Boys Of Summer

One of summer’s simple joys for Partner and me is pizza on the beach of a Sunday evening, washed down with a glass or two of chilled wine, naturally! We’ll watch the sunset and the people, and we’ll chat with the boys who own and run the place – our ‘boys’ of summer. Which is a good excuse to play our first musical piece.

This version of the old Don Henley classic is by German DJ Ole Van Dansk and was filmed in Lagos, Portugal, so it has a suitable Euro-Iberian feel to it. It is in the ‘House Trance’ style apparently . . . no, I don’t know either, but it does grow on you!

Whilst many other blogs have already marked the official end of summer, the tourist ‘summer’ season here on the Costa del Sol actually runs on into late October. So this ‘Tim’s Take’ is my own ‘seasonally adjusted’ contribution to mark the event! But first, dear reader, some introductions. This is Sergio . . .

. . . and this is his elder brother, Carlos.

Together they run one of our favourite chiringuitos – Royal Beach.

The upstairs restaurant has a ‘Pirate’ theme; hence Carlos’s get-up. When Partner and I visited the west-coast of America a couple of years back, Carlos and Sergio asked if we could bring back some ‘Pirate’ paraphernalia for the restaurant. Monterey and San Diego provided plenty of fine samples. I can only imagine the customs officers faces when they found the ‘booty’ buried in our suitcases – a cutlass, a flintlock pistol, even a hook for a missing hand, plus pieces of eight and an eye patch! All plastic, I hasten to add, and today they join a lot of other piratical bric-a-brac decorating the walls and ceiling. Not to my taste perhaps, but the kids love it! And happy kids = happy customers = more doubloons!

Besides pizzas, it also serves the most wonderfully fresh seafood. Both brothers are keen fishermen, and Sergio is always keen to display the latest catch! Here he is with a couple of magnificent candy-striped urtas, red-banded sea bass. They have soft, white flesh, with a subtle, delicate flavour, and are one of the restaurant’s specialities. They might be called Red Snappers where you live.

‘The Royal’ as we call it, is just a short ten minute drive down the hill from our home, and has become a favourite destination for Partner, Lulu and me on a summer’s Sunday evening. We have known Carlos and Sergio since we moved here nine years ago. Carlos can appear quite stern, but underneath he has a wickedly dry sense of humour. He is the business man of the two and takes his responsibilities very seriously. And he still ‘looks out’ for his younger brother, even though they are now both in their thirties. Sergio is always happy, a natural joker and an excellent chef. A perfect foil to Carlos.

Over the years we have watched them take over the reins of the little family business from their late father, and grow it into one of the most popular chiringuitos in the area. We have shared many happy times with Carlos and Sergio, and some sad ones too. We are very fond of them both, although saying hello can sometimes be a painful business. Both brothers are quite strong and when your arm has been punched, or your shoulder squeezed in friendly greeting, you know it! But the pleasure is worth the pain! I think this studly gentleman might give as good as he got though! Probably one of their ‘martial arts’ friends (see later).

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So what exactly is a chiringuito, I hear you ask? Well, back in the late 50’s, early 60’s, when cheap air travel introduced the world to package holidays, Spain became the No. 1 destination for thousands of northern European holidaymakers seeking sun, sand, sangria and more sun. Enterprising Spaniards would set up little huts on or close to the beaches and serve cold drinks and simple snacks. Perhaps some tables and chairs would be set up on the sand, but otherwise facilities were minimal. In those days, the Spanish military held title to all the shoreline, so these little shacks operated illegally, but without too much interference from the law.

Over the next decade, they gradually became more permanent, with mains services, and gas or wood burning fires, so more substantial meals could be offered. By the beginning of the 80’s they had become an indispensable part of the Spanish holiday experience, for residents and tourists alike, with well-stocked bars and shady terraces – some even had a toilet! Of course, such success did not go unnoticed by the authorities, and questions over their legality and ownership began to be asked. Sadly, many were forced to shut down before common sense prevailed, and these cherished institutions became properly legalised.

But there was a price to pay for such legitimacy. The provision of showers, separate toilets, access ramps and the like, whilst laudable, means that many chiringuitos have now lost their romantic character and the feeling of simplicity that they once had.

When we first visited Royal Beach it was very much a simple lock-up, with the shutters on the bar forming part of the exterior of the building. Carlos and Sergio have since developed the small enclosed dining area into a much larger restaurant, with adjacent terraces and a second bar below on the beach. It’s been a hard struggle for them, especially during the economic crisis of the last few years, but they have persevered and now provide employment for over 20 people at the height of the summer; many are from their own extended families, for this principle is always at the heart of any small Spanish business.

And here are the rest of the ‘boys’, well some of them at least! From left to right we have: Curro, Antonio, Sergio, Partner (getting his shoulder squeezed by Sergio again!), Javi and Jonathan. Palaye is kneeling in front. We’ll talk a little more about each of them later.

The outdoor wood-burning fire is an essential ingredient to any true chiringuito. Many types of fish, but especially sardines, are put on wooden skewers, called espetos, and cooked on them. The smoke and smell from the burning olive wood and gently cooking fish pervade the air, and add to this much loved alfresco dining experience. Traditionally these fires are set up in the disused wooden hull of an old boat, filled with sand to support the fire and with the name of the chiringuito painted on the side.

These fires are often tended by a portly old man, the espetora, invariably named Paco. The lad above seems much too young and handsome to be a proper Paco, so he must be in training!

The fire at Royal Beach is tended by Curro, a loveable rogue with twinkling eyes and roaming hands. He loves the ladies and they love him in return – there’s something bacchanalian about him that attracts them, I think. But whatever the distractions, he keeps a close eye on his fire and the fish cooking there. An espeto of sardines might only take ten minutes to cook. Larger fish, a silver-scaled lubina or sea bass for example, with its firm, white meat, or one of those candy-striped urta, may take up to half an hour and require frequent turning if they are to be cooked to perfection.

Curro is normally the first to greet us when we arrive, which is usually about an hour before sunset. The rest of the boys will then come over in turn and say hello and make a fuss of Lulu. It’s quite a formal ritual and one that always makes us feel special, for we are considered familia, family. Occasionally, when the boys are not so busy and more relaxed, we will get a hug as well. Partner doesn’t hold with this ‘touchy-feely’ business, but never one to pass up an opportunity, I always like to respond in kind, another of life’s simple pleasures!

Later on, in-between serving and clearing up, the boys will come over and squat down on their haunches beside us to chat, but only briefly. Cap’n Carlos keeps a close watch for any slackers from his crow’s nest in the restaurant above. Too much chatting and not enough work could mean a ‘lashing’!

Once we’re seated, we order our wine (plus a bag of potato chips for Lulu), and take in the view. There’s always a different set of holidaymakers, mixed with some other regulars like ourselves. One group that always attracts our attention is the regular crowd of young Spanish muscle jocks who, when not throwing one another in the sea (Oh! those wet shorts and t-shirts!), congregate around the bar. The Royal always carries adverts for the local gyms and martial arts competitions which it sponsors; and it seems to attract this set of extremely fit and handsome young men in return. Partner and I consider this a most equitable arrangement, which should be encouraged in the other establishments that we visit!

After half an hour or so, we usually order a couple of different pizzas, tuna, pepperoni, ham and mushroom, whatever takes our fancy at the time. Sometimes we share, sometimes not. Lulu, however, always gets some of each! Except for the pizza diablo, that is, the one topped with fiendishly hot green chilies and red peppers. Experience has shown that this mix can have serious repercussions on Lulu’s digestion – enough said!

BTW, Lulu’s eyes really do light-up like that when the food arrives. With pizza on the table we have her undivided attention! Usually we sit up near the bar, back from the beach, since strictly speaking, dogs are not allowed on the sand, and it will be Javi or Palaye who will have taken our order and served us.

Like Curro, Javi is one of the Royal’s stalwarts, an older, wiser head, controlling the youngsters. A doting father, he has the birth dates of his two children tattooed on his arms. I asked him what would happen when he had more children; he laughed and said two was enough. I’m not sure if he meant tattoos or kids! Javi is normally the butt of Curro’s jokes, quite literally. If Javi is up a ladder, fixing a bulb or doing some routine maintenance, Curro will creep up and in one swift move pull down Javi’s pants and shorts, especially if the girls from the kitchen are about. Sadly on this occasion I was too busy looking and too slow with the camera, for Javi quickly re-covered his (hairy) dignity! You can see that Curro enjoyed the joke, as did Javi, partly hidden by the wooden post here.

Palaye, the tall, gentle giant from Senegal, is another family man. Originally from Senegal, he spent some time on the east coast of America, Massachusetts I think, and so speaks very good English. He works hard during the summer so that he and his young family can visit their relatives back home in the winter. Like the Spanish, the Senegalese have a very strong sense of family, and the ties know no borders.

As with Curro, he is very popular with ladies of ‘a certain age’ shall we say! He splits his time between various tasks, but his main duty is making the cocktails so beloved of the tourists. Occasionally Partner and I will see some ‘creation’ pass by on the tray, and we will ask Palaye what it is. He normally returns later with a small taster for us to try. Wonderful Strawberry Daiquiris and Mojitos to die for! Sadly, and much as we might like to, we try and avoid having Slow Comfortable Screws or Sex on the Beach – too expensive LOL!

When he’s not mixing excellent cocktails behind the beach bar, Palaye is also the resident House DJ. He has an uncanny knack for matching music to the mood and the moment, plenty of reggae and beach chill-out. One tune that’s been very popular this summer, and catches the feel of the warm evenings and the setting sun is this one by Dutch artist Bakermat – One Day. This is Saxo Deep House style, so now you know!

One of the other things we enjoy watching is the people dancing. It is intriguing how it seems to typify and reinforce the national stereotypes. The Germans, for example, seem to find a waltz in every tune, and will dance stiffly with their partners, as if in a ballroom. The Russians remain in their 60’s rock-and-roll time bubble, and twist and jive to the beat, whatever it may be; whilst the Brits all seem to think that John Travolta and the Bee Gees still rule under the twirling disco ball!

Only the Spanish dance with style and flair, possibly because they haven’t drunk as much as the others! But that passion they always put into life shows through. The women are sensuous and seductive, and those young muscle jocks . . . well, all that time spent learning to flex their muscles and shake those butts certainly pays off! Young or old, the locals seem able to find the Flamenca in any rhythm. They are always watched with much admiration, and not a little envy, by the others, and richly deserve their applause when the music ends.

The ‘Beach Masters’ are Antonio and Jonathan. They look after the customers lying on the sun loungers that line the sand beneath the coconut beach umbrellas. They collect the money, serve the food and drinks, and when the day is finished, clean and stack the loungers and tables, then rake the beach of the day’s detritus. This means they are both physically fit, but lean and wiry rather than muscle-bound like the guys at the bar.

Antonio is an earnest young man from Cordoba, just 20 years old. Rather serious by nature, he found it difficult to settle in to the chiringuito lifestyle when he first started at Royal two or three years ago. But once he was teamed up with Jonathan, he adapted very well. Sadly, though, this may have been his last season at the Royal. Like so many Spanish kids, he is desperate to get a permanent full-time job. Youth unemployment for the under-25’s in Spain is 56%. He said he was trying for the army, and I asked why not the air force? Apparently the air force only has 30 vacancies for 2015 and the navy even less. The army has more vacancies, but even so, thousands will be applying for every single position. I wish him luck, and I hope he comes and visits in his uniform next year!

Jonathan is another youngster like Antonio, but much more laid back in character. He likes to think himself the style guru amongst the boys, though his ever-changing hairstyles usually draw more laughter than followers! He enjoys the beach life, though, and seems totally oblivious to any criticism. ‘Johnny’ supplements his income with painting and decorating work, and hopes to get a permanent job in this line as the local housing market picks up. Currently there is a boom in sales to Northern Europeans looking for bargains in the low property prices of the Costa del Sol; so the chances of his finding some steady work are good. Hmm, come to think of it, Partner and I need some decorating at home!

Aside from the pleasures of our friends and the food, the drink and the dancers, it’s a joy just to chill out and take in the ambience of the beach at night. Whilst we finish the wine and pizza, the sun will have begun to set behind the mountains that run down to the Spanish port of Algeciras in the west, their jagged peaks silhouetted against the fiery sky. A cool breeze, refreshing after the heat of the day, blows in from the sea. The pace of the music and conversation slows as everyone stops to enjoy the moment. Starting in the east, the sky gradually darkens from pale to midnight blue, passing through all the myriad shades in-between: indigo, green, purple. The changes draw slowly at first, like a heavy curtain pulled from the Mediterranean over Gibraltar and to the Atlantic beyond. Then, seemingly at a stroke, the whole sky becomes black, and only now can you properly see the stars. They appear just in time to guide the way for the tiny fishing boats whose lights now flicker and dance on the distant, invisible horizon, where the inky velvet of the sky meets and fuses with the oily jet of the sea. It’s a show that always draws a crowd and one that never fails to please. Spellbinding!

It’s dark now, so whilst Partner has his coffee, I take Lulu for an illicit walk along the beach. In the summer heat she spends most of the day flopped out, but in the cool of the night she comes alive, chasing the waves as they break along the sand, shaking bits of seaweed like a terrier with a rat. Here’s a picture taken earlier – Lulu doesn’t photograph too well in the dark!

Well, dear reader, we’ve chased the sunsets and sampled some of life’s simple joys during this halcyon summer. Personally, I can’t wait until next year when, once again, we can go out playing with the boys. Kenny Logins provides the music, Tom and Val provide the muscle, the style is Deep Homo Erotic, but you knew that already didn’t you? Hasta la próxima!

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