“Oh, it’s only plonk”, I answered offhandedly, as I continued pouring the better half of a magnum bottle of red wine onto a brand new mop-head sitting in a large baking bowl. What I omitted to say was that I had already used twenty–odd teabags, a batch of organic coffee, plus a generous pinch of his specially imported turmeric and other precious spices – all sacrificed in the effort to get the right colour dye for Gonzales’ new hair.
No expense ought to be spared when one is doing the annual scarecrow spring makeover. Our Gonzales probably has the costliest and most time-consuming beauty regime of any espantapájaros in the entire region of Andalucía. Each year, our trustworthy allotment garden custodian goes through a complete physical makeover, adapting a brand new look (‘el look’) for the upcoming growing season. His style has to be classic enough to outlast the micro movements of mid-season fashion dips and peaks, because once he gets embedded in our plot, he is there for the duration and wont have a shave or change his outfit until early spring the following year. In other words, a scarecrow has to be built to last.
Other than the obvious, as what the name implies, what is a scarecrow anyhow? I believe these sweet and ghoulish figures somehow represent our universal need to recreate our likeness and to mark our territory. In all cultures and all epochs of history, figures shaped like humans or human-like deities, have been created out of stone, clay, precious metals, wood and even straw. These figures have varied in size, such as the enormous heads found on the Easter Islands, as well as the just over 10 cm tall figure of the voluptuous 30.000 years old Venus of Willendorf. Humans and other animal figures have been used to protect and guide us, as seen in North American totem poles. They were sacred figures placed towards the roaring sea, like the Inuksuk stone figures of the Inuit. Many were made to seek protection from the gods, such as the Greek god Priapus. In spite of being son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, Priapus was allegedly extremely ugly. In fact, he was so ugly that Greek farmers carved wooden scarecrow figures of him and placed them in their fields to protect their harvest and scare away birds and other undesirables. Since Egyptians and others used scarecrows even before the Greeks, Gonzales ancestry goes back at least 5000 years!
Now when it comes to the scary part, it gets real interesting. There are of course all the horror movies with a scarecrow villains, but scarecrows in the likeness of witches were believed to bring early spring in old Germany, presumably by scaring away the winters. Young boys and girls were dressed up as scarecrows in Medieval England, tasked with chasing away birds. Similar live scarecrow traditions were common amongst some Native Indians in North America. In some African cultures, farmers would net in their crops. The first birds caught inside the nets were killed and hung around the perimeters to scare away other birds, making them literally scare-crows. To further add to the international medley, the word ‘to scare’ comes from the Norse word skirra, meaning to frighten. You can always count on us Vikings to come up with those types of terms…
Here in Spain, espantapájaros (as in scarer of birds, not just crows) are less frequently seen. This could be because olives and grapes aren’t subjected to as many bird attacks as lets say a field of wheat. In our huerto or community garden, lizards are more frequent plunderers than birds, though they only affect the bug population. Since our town is located at about 800 meters above sea level, pretend-farmers like us have to grapple with a fairly extreme climate. Plants must be able to endure near 50 degree Centigrade summer heat, plus often no precipitation from May to December, as well as below freezing winters and floods and hailstorms in the spring. Only tough plants will thrive in such a climate, and equally tough guardians of said bounty.
We found Gonzales severely affected after this last winter. His handsome head was barely hanging on, attached by a single strand of skin and a couple of zap straps (bless those non-tear spice panty hoses…). Begging his forgiveness, I snipped off the remaining tendons and brought his head home, planning to deal with his bodily transformation later in situ. Like every year, I had to strip his cranium down to its individual parts, only keeping the sensory organs – eyes, nose and mouth, since he has never had any ears. His brain, which is always quite dense, didn’t need much new stuffing. It is amazing what industrial plastic wrapping can tolerate. I re-formed the head, leaving a hollow centre to allow a solid merging with his bone straight metal-rod spine. Come hell or high water, his head will not come off next winter!
There was no doubt that Gonzales needed a new ‘do’. His dried esparto grass wig had become a matted mass that even a Rastafarian scarecrow would have rejected. I bought a classic cotton thread mop-head, since the new microfiber ones won’t accept natural dye. I let it sit over night in the before-mentioned foul-smelling concoction, hoping to find a spectacular auburn wig the next morning. No such luck. It is ironic how an innocent spill of wine or coffee can leave permanent stains, yet when I deliberately tried to dye the mop with the same substances, it hardly had any effect. After rinsing it, what remained was a dirty mustardy coloured wig. Now, fake brash yellow hair is something that few of us wants to be associated with these days, but at least Gonzales will have the guts to admit that none of his hair is his own…
Once his head was covered in three layers of brand new granny-style skin-coloured nylon knee stockings, it was time to reshape and sew on his aristocratic nose. Due to my lack of needlework during the rest of the year, it got a bit of a north-eastern twist, but at least Gonzales can slide unnoticed onto any Alaskan Airline flight to Vegas, looking just like any of the other gamblers with a broken beaks. Next to be dealt with was Gonzales eyes. I tried different buttons, but felt that it would be unfaithful of me to change his old buttons and his deer-in-the- headlight stare. I decided to place the buttons close together to give him a slight myopia. This, combined with his Montreal designer eyeglass frames, gave him a new air of intellectual complexity. (Or perplexity, perhaps?)
When it was turn for his facial hair, I briefly considered then abandoned the idea of giving him sideburns. After last year’s bold-is-beautiful look, I wanted a younger style. I cut off his scruffy moustache, leaving a clean-shaven upper lip. To help disguise the fact that he doesn’t have much of a chin, I embroidered on a hipster style goatee. This new look was further augmented by a pair of bushy, un-tweezed eyebrows. After stitching on his yellow wig, I quickly and foolishly trimmed his bangs. It wasn’t a good look for Gonzales, and I couldn’t comfort him saying that it would grow out again soon, so I hid the unfortunate cut under a classic Andalucian straw hat. Then, to counterpoint his newfound masculinity, I gave him voluptuous pink lips. There was no question in my mind about one thing though – His signature look, his diastema, or his widely gapped discoloured front teeth had to stay.
Back at the huerto, it was time to clothe our scarecrow, which is always easier done when headless. I had managed to persuade my husband to donate one of his long sleeved gingham shirts. Though Timberland is not entirely Prêt a Porter, Gonzales 2018 style fits the part of our rural garden guardian. The new Gonzales is both outdoorsy and manly, vaguely resembling a music producer (I have too many film producer friends to compare him to them…). I doubt he scares away many birds and wouldn’t be surprised to find a nest in his straw hat next spring.
But lets be honest, Gonzales lives on our plot to bring a bit of fun and naughtiness between the tomato rows. His familiar face greets the hortelanos when we look up from our digging to stretch our aching backs. He is there for the hell of it, and because I once in my youth fell in love with a Hollywood silver screen legend. A favourite character in the techno-coloured Wizard of Oz has to be the clumsy, stuttering, lisping scarecrow. He remains close to our hearts, reminding us of our humanity.
How many of us haven’t on occasion lamented, “If I only had a brain…”
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Let me be completely clear. Though the central character of this story is something as commonplace as a Water Closet, I am not into toilet humour. This is my personal pondering on a basic human need and our right to have access to certain public facilities to alleviate said need. It all began with a trip to the bus station…
Our hometown Ronda has slightly less than 35.000 inhabitants, yet it receives several hundred thousand visitors each year. By far, the majority these come through organised tours, get dropped off at Ronda’s bus station, are given a brief walkabout and are fetched again at the same location an hour or two later. Therefore, essentially by default, the local bus station is the first and the last image most tourists will have of our town.
Unfortunately, most bus stations leave much to be desired in the style department, and Ronda is no exception. Often synonymous with bus depot, they tend to be unsightly places to store and shuffle fuming awkwardly large vehicles, which in their current incarnation look like behemoth insects. In contrast, the designs of train stations usually range from quaint or cool industrial. Ronda’s own train station is a typical Andalusian small town estación. It is clean and bright, has comfortable seating for waiting passengers, a decent café extending indoor and outdoors, free and clean public toilets and a manicured green area with huge umbrella pines (Pino piñonero) outside. It is a charming place to arrive and to leave from, worthy of the reputation of our stunning town.
On the other hand, Ronda’s much busier bus station is located in a building slapped together in the post-WW2 era. The only admirable features are some mosaic wall murals that were added later, featuring scenes from Ronda or what they call ciudad soñada – city of dreams. But the dream stops there. The bus station is a walled in, covered sidewalk with a dozen docks for incoming buses, all facing a rather featureless street of private homes, most of which are for sale, presumably due to the traffic. To be fair, there are a few benches outside where travellers can rest their wary legs, thought exhaust fumes and second hand smoke will likely discourage most from doing so. At one end of the station is a characterless café and at the opposing end, right inside the actual station building, there is a lonesome closet-sized shop with an overfilled magazine rack. The half a dozen ticket wickets, one for each bus company, are of the 1950 type, most seemingly without a clerk behind, at least last time I checked. Otherwise, the station is a dimly lit place with little to no seating. There isn’t a single visible electronic screen to announce arrivals and departures, neither inside nor outside (just an occasional crackling speaker). Other than a photocopied page taped onto a ticket window, one can find no information as to which aisle one’s bus will leave from. And, up to recently, there were no signs outside as to where one could find the public washrooms. So, there you have it, the Distinguished Ayuntamiento de Ronda bus station.
A visiting friend from Canada arrived at the before-mentioned train station, and after staying a few days, left for Sevilla from Ronda’s bus station. Before the two-hour trip, she wanted to use the facilities. She came hurrying back, telling us that she needed 60 cents. Not 50 cents, not a euro, but 60 cents, which was how much the pleasure of a visit to the bus station loo would cost her. In other words, it is a while since the expression ‘spend a penny’ was accurate, even here in Spain. My husband dug into his pocket for his trusted coin supply so our friend would be able to complete her errand. She came back incensed, saying that after paying for her bus ticket, as well as for the use of the ‘public’ toilet, the rather dingy facilities didn’t even have toilet paper. Having lived here long enough, this didn’t surprise me in the least. Some days you might have toilet paper, some days there would be soap in the dispenser, some days the hand dryer might work and some days the cubicle door might lock. It was all the luck of the draw. Understandably, we felt embarrassed on our town’s behalf. Was this, I thought to myself, what Ronda’s town hall, the proprietor of the station, wanted to offer the hundreds of visitors who travelled through there each and every day of the year?
Earlier this spring, we were positively surprised to notice that someone had renovated one of the unused buildings opposite the bus station and made it into a public washroom. That a private citizen and a rondeño family to boot had taken it upon themselves to invest and finally provide this much-needed service was to me nothing but commendable. This was one thing we have learned from living in rural Spain is that status quo is very hard to budge. It takes someone thinking out of the box to make changes, particularly for the better, even when it comes to something as basic as a public washroom. Yet this bold and welcome business idea was not well received by the people across the street, as in the folks running the bus station. To them, that someone had had the audacity to open a business to compete with their poor excuse of a public washroom was simply outrageous. I believe that what particularly irked them was that the newcomers ran a booming business, having multilingual signs, hence catering to the bus-tour crowds. It was time for counteraction, the bus station superiors must have though. Soon after, they put up three huge signs along the wall outside. WC WC WC, they read in bold print, with big arrows pointing to the interior of the bus station. (No subtleness there…) From the signs alone, one would be tempted to think that their WC’s were something completely out of the ordinary. Maybe a new kind of public facility with hypermodern spa like design? Maybe even with those dryers that actually dried ones hands?
I decided to pay a visit to both facilities, playing investigative journalist. Having piqued my curiosity, I went the bus station first. After all, their WCs had to be something unique and memorable to grant such oversized signs. In spite of that tourist numbers through Ronda’s bus station keep increasing, I could see no noticeable improvements made to the building itself. Likely forced by the circumstances, their WC had now lowered the price to 50 cents and had two female employees outside. One of these was gathering the fees, while the other was pointing people into the free cubicles. Since, as always, there was a long wait for the woman’s washroom, and since there were only a couple of measly stalls for each gender, the WC allocator urged an unsuspecting Asian lady into the Men’s Room. When she tried the same tactic on me, I refused, insisting to wait for my own gender’s facilities. After all, there are limits. Finally my turn, I observed that the cubicles still looked dated and worn, but were reasonably clean and at least they had TP and seats intact, which is not always the case in the other ‘public’ (‘pay as you pee’) washrooms operated by our honourable town hall.
Crossing by the bus docks (apparently illegal) I subsequently visited the new facilities across the street. Even from the outside, it looked clear and bright. A single employee was hurrying between cleaning the cubicles and providing change for those who didn’t have the right money for the coin slot at the entrance. Not only did the new business offer a row of at least half a dozen modern, pristine WCs for each gender and a properly sized and designed handicap facility, but they also sold refreshments, souvenirs, umbrellas, Kleenex and other ‘life essentials’. There was no competition and certainly no doubt which WCs visitors would prefer.
As I left, I glanced across the street at the station’s loud WC signs. While the bus station still lacks screens indicating departures or where to buy tickets, these WC signs are now the first vision you have when arriving in Ronda. They are almost as big and sadly more attention grabbing than the old mosaic art panels, indicating that our town has gone from ‘City of Dreams’ to hard sell.
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