The portero

One of the most interesting things about Spain is that whilst it is incredibly modern in some respects (hello, superfast trains!), it is quaintly old fashioned in other ways. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of porteros

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A portero or portera is a type of doorman or doorwoman, who sits at the entrance to a building, typically an apartment block. They are not a concierge, because they don’t do things like making reservations for the guests or helping them with their luggage. And they’re not a security guard, either, because whilst they watch the doorway to the apartment block, they don’t prevent people from gaining entry.

So, you’re probably thinking, what exactly does a portero do? Very good question, to which I don’t know the answer, although my observations suggest the best response is “Not a lot.”

Case in point. The apartment block where I live has a portero. From what I can gather, his daily tasks are:

  1. Taking out and bringing in the rubbish bins;
  2. Putting the mail in the correct letterboxes;
  3. Sweeping and mopping the floor if it’s dirty;
  4. Watering the two pot plants in the foyer;
  5. Letting visitors and any repairpeople into the building;
  6. Acting as an informal and unofficial supplier of privileged local intelligence (in other words, gossiping).

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How long do these tasks take him? About 30 minutes is my guess, except for the last one, which can go on ALL DAY if you’re not careful. And yet the portero sits at his little desk for (wait for it) 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, doing pretty much nothing, except reading his book and playing on his iPad.

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Talk about a good wicket (hello, Australian idiom! And hello, photo of Steve Waugh!).

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I’m not sure if the portero is paid a salary. I don’t think he is. But I know he is supplied with an apartment in the building. Said apartment has three bedrooms, and is exterior (so it’s nice and light), and would probably cost about 1,400 Euros a month to rent, so I guess this is a pretty good deal.

But I can’t help feeling that the days of porteros may very well be numbered. It simply doesn’t make economic sense to have a guy sitting in the building all day, doing virtually nothing.

And I’m still not certain if I feel incredibly jealous (Hey! I want to sit all day doing my own thing and being paid for it, complete with free apartment!) or incredibly sorry for him (Bloody hell, I would be bored out of my wits sitting in the apartment building all day, pretending to be busy, and I seriously don’t know how he lasts an hour, let alone a day!).

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But I’m glad I got to see this quaint spectacle, even if its days are well and truly numbered.

The Feria de Abril

Last weekend, I went to Seville to visit the Feria de Abril (April Fair). Yes, it was May. But that’s only a small detail…

The Feria started in 1847 as a livestock trading fair, and is one of the major events in Seville. But it’s morphed from a traditional farm fair into what could best be described as “the Easter Show on steroids” (to steal my friend Julie’s expression).

With this in mind, I decided to write about some of the more interesting aspects of the Feria, should you be tempted to visit next year (and I very much recommend a trip!).

1.The casetas

The Feria is held at a kind of showground, and the main streets are lined with hundreds of casetas. These are tents or marquees, decorated in traditional Andalusian style, and are either public or private.

The public casetas (there’s not very many of these) are open to anyone. In contrast, the private casetas are rented for the duration of the Feria by families, groups of friends, professional associations, unions, political parties, clubs, etc, and are strictly invitation only. The private casetas tend to be smaller and more relaxed, and it’s easier to talk and meet people there. The only issue is that if you don’t know anyone in Seville, it is very hard to gain entry into these tents.

It’s hard to describe exactly what happens in the casetas, except to say that they’re a kind of weird mixture of a restaurant crossed with a bar crossed with a nightclub. Here’s a few pictures:

2. The Sevillanas

In the photos above, you can see people dancing in a particular way. This style of dance is called the Sevillanas, and consists of four parts, each with slightly different steps (to ensure maximum confusion). Sevillanas are great if you know what to do. But if you don’t, it’s probably best to sit and watch, as, well, there’s a time and a place for improvisation.

And this isn’t it.

Interestingly, as the night wore on, the Sevillanas tended to be discarded, and Enrique Iglesias appeared, so I guess there’s something for everyone…

3. The dresses

The thing I loved most about the Feria was the amazing dresses. Although it’s perfectly fine to turn up in your jeans or casual clothes, many of the attendees opt for what’s called a traje de gitana. These dresses are absolutely gorgeous. They are long, with lots of ruffles, and are so tight, it’s a miracle that the ladies are able to get into them. They are also ridiculously expensive, particularly if you get one made-to-measure.

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I saw this dress in a fabric shop in Madrid, and I wanted it SO BADLY.  But when I went in and asked the price, the man told me that it was only held together by pins, and was just there for decoration. I was devastated. I think it’s beautiful.

But it’s not just the dress which is important- you also have to make sure you have the right accessories, and I couldn’t help but wonder at the amount of time it must have taken some of the people to find earrings and flowers in EXACTLY the right colours to match their dresses.

4. The Rebujito

Needless to say, with all this dancing and partying, people are bound to get thirsty, and feel like a drink. The Feria has a special beverage called a rebujito, which is a mixture of sherry, lemonade, and lots of ice.

It is sold in jugs in the casetas, and drunk from plastic shot glasses, as in the picture below.

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This is all well and good, but as you can probably imagine, although the rebujitos don’t taste very strong, after 10 hours of partying at the Feria (and this is pretty normal), people start to feel their impact. And the impact can be quite intense.

Overall, I loved the Feria, but it’s not for the faint-hearted, and you’ve really got to be prepared. But would I go again? Yes, in a second!

Why you should visit Lithuania…

Last week, I went to Lithuania. As I’ve detailed in my previous post, my reasons for visiting were primarily to uncover more about my paternal history. But, this being said, I would recommend Lithuania to any traveller for the following reasons:

1. The coffee

Perhaps an unexpected entry at Number One. But, as I’ve previously detailed, the coffee in Spain leaves, well, how do I put it, “a lot to be desired”? In Lithuania, the coffee game is (to use a euphemism I loathe) on point. OK, so the flat whites are not really flat whites. But that is a small concession to make for a coffee which is palatable and tastes GOOD!

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2. The quietness

Compared to Madrid or Sydney, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is positively quiet. And this is marvellous! The experience of going for a walk, without being shoved out of the way, was incredibly refreshing. And when I went to bed in my apartment at 8p.m., I was able to sleep the ENTIRE NIGHT without being disturbed. This was fantastic.

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3. The food

If, like me, you are a fan of potatoes in all forms, then Lithuania is for you! There were so many delicious potato dishes to try, from dumplings to potato bake. It was like a dream come true. And not only were the potato dishes delicious, they were also incredibly affordable.

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4. Not overrun by tourists

Sure, there were tourists in Lithuania. But the whole feeling was very different to Spain. For instance, last year, I went to Barcelona to see the Gaudi buildings. The whole place was FULL of tourists, climbing from one escalator to another. It made me feel incredibly depressed, as if the city was only a manufactured experience. But Lithuania didn’t feel like this. There was tourism, but it was more subtle. The city wasn’t a caricature of itself.

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5. English speakers welcome

Although my father is Lithuanian, my knowledge of the language is minimal. However, in Lithuania, almost everyone speak English. I would certainly recommend learning a few words to improve your experience, but in total, Lithuanaia is a very welcoming place for English-speaking travellers.

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6. Superfast internet

Now THIS was a bit of a surprise- the internet in Lithuania is incredibly good. There’s free wi-fi almost everywhere, and the broadband speed is one of the fastest in Europe, if not the world. I find it interesting that a country which is not generally thought of as one of the leaders in technology is able to have such fantastic internet speeds and coverage, whereas in Australia, the NBN is still a national joke.

I’m not going to deny that I may be a little bit biased… 😉 But in total, I would recommend Lithuania to any tourist who is interested in history, and who wants to have a holiday which is fun, relaxed, and not too difficult!

A visit to the fatherland…

For as long as I can remember, I have thought of myself as “half-Lithuanian”. My father came to Australia after WW2 as a “Displaced Person.” He was only 7 years old. When he arrived, there were no ESL classes, or modifications made to assist students who didn’t have English as their first language. Rather, my dad was thrown into a class of students who had spoken English all their lives, and expected to survive.

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That’s what happened then.

I have incredible admiration for my father. His parents worked extremely long hours, doing manual labour, to support the family, and he effectively had to bring himself up. He was an exceptional student, and won a scholarship to the University of Sydney to study to become an English teacher (note the irony).

It might sound weird, but I have always STRONGLY identified as being from a working class, migrant background. (Aside- one of my favourite Australian authors is Christos Tsiolkas, because I think he “gets” what it means to be a migrant, and how you kind of fit in, but kind of don’t). “Stasa” is not our real name. Rather, it is an Anglicised version of Stankevičius, which was too difficult to pronounce. As an unmarried daughter, my name should be Stankeviciute. But, well, it’s not…

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Sometimes, I feel incredibly angry about the whole situation. Why should my grandparents have changed their surname, because people were too lazy to pronounce something different? Why am I running around with what is effectively a “fake” name, which sounds like the East German secret police (the Stasi)? I don’t know. Perhaps for the same reason that  László Ürge, the football commentator of Hungarian background, calls himself Les Murray?

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My upbringing was not what you would call “distinctly Lithuanian.” Sure, my grandma spoke with an accent. There was Lithuanian memorabilia around the house. Every Christmas, we would go to the Lithuanian Club’s Christmas party. I know what kugalis and borscht are. But I can’t speak the language, apart from saying “hello” and the colours of the flag (to show I’m a true patriot- the irony, again).

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All the same, I do FEEL Lithuanian. Or at least partly. When a Lithuanian rider is in the Tour de France, I cheer for him. And, I am not ashamed to admit, sometimes, in the basketball, I support Lithuania over Australia, because they are such a small country, and winning a match means a lot more to them.

My father has never wanted to go back to Lithuania. He remembers the rotting horses on the road through Vilnius, and the terror of the war. When a knock on the door in the middle of the night could mean your salvation or your death.

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But I have always wanted to see what it’s like, because I feel that it’s a part of me. About 10 years ago, I visited Scotland, where my mother’s family is from, to see if I felt something for that country. Although I loved the landscape and the people, I didn’t feel anything particularly profound. Will the same happen in Lithuania? I honestly don’t know. It may leave me cold. I may end up feeling more Australian than ever.

Anyway, I am going on Friday to see what it’s like. It may be the best experience of my life, and leave me feeling like I know where I belong. Conversely, I may end up feeling more adrift than ever. Who knows? But I think it’s something that needs to be done.

Wish me luck!

(P.S. Did you know that Anthony Kiedis is also half-Lithuanian, on his father’s side? I guess it could be MUCH worse!).

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