*(Written several years ago, but particularly relevant on the eve of Brexit)
I’m at my bank in Alicante, wondering which queue to join. The one for the teller, or the one for the gestor, who sits at a desk and deals personally with customers’ accounts? I’m not sure, so I hover between them, waiting to see which moves faster.
Yesterday, in another part of town, a cash machine swallowed my card and I caused a bit of a scene. I’d already waited in one long queue, and when I was left card-less and cashless, I butted in to another and asked what to do. I must have raised my voice, because the rest of the customers, waiting patiently, spun round to look at me.
It turned out that my card had expired. Silly me. I was told to go to my own branch and collect the new one. In England it would have been sent by post, well before the old one expired. Determined to remain calm, I told myself that this was yet another of those mysterious norms about Spain which I hadn’t yet mastered.
So, here I am today, standing in the queue for the teller and trying not to get rattled while customers in front of me deal with their transactions – mostly payment of bills which surely they could arrange by direct debit – when the silence is broken by an angry outburst. We all look up. A young man is letting rip at the teller in a torrent of street-Spanish, the gist of which seems to be that he has waited for half an hour, first in the queue for the machine, then in this one, only for the teller to say he can’t help him with whatever it was the machine wouldn’t do.
The teller tries to explain the reasons for this, but the young man grows more and more upset, his voice louder, his gestures more expansive. All the other customers are quietly engrossed by the drama. I watch on, conscious that this could so easily have been me, exploding in front of an audience. I feel relieved, calmer, a bit smug. It’s as though this young man has taken all my frustration and expressed it for me. I have become a detached spectator, like everyone else.
But I’m also a little nervous. Because the young man is black, and everyone else is white. And judging by his Spanish, which is even worse than mine, he has learned most of it on the street. He addresses the teller with the familiar tu, he calls him tio (literally uncle, colloquially dude). I feel for the young man, knowing only too well how often my own language has faltered in frustrating bureaucratic situations. The occasional joder (f*ck) has been known to escape me. But I am a white woman, a pensioner, one of the tribe of ex-pats on whom much of Spain’s prosperity hangs. He is a young black man. Could this turn into one of those ugly racist incidents that I’ve read about in post-Brexit England, with insults and calls to ‘Go back where you came from!’?
I glance at the other customers, middle-aged, middle-class, white-skinned. So far all are calm, listening with interest but making no comment.
But the young man is not calm. He notches up the volume of his voice, and begins to accuse the teller of treating him differently because he is black and an immigrant.
He keeps repeating: ‘It’s because I’m black and an immigrant that you won’t help me.’
At this point a woman in the queue steps towards him, tentatively, respectfully. She is old – even older than me – well-dressed, well-groomed and no doubt well-off. Gently, politely, she speaks to the young man. She explains to him that he is not being treated differently, that the rules are the same for her and for everyone else. The teller is only following instructions. Yes, they, the Spanish think that the rules are ridiculous, too, but there are protocols and protocols have to be followed, and everyone has to put up with them, like them or not.
The young man is appeased. His anger begins to fade. Another employee appears, summoned by telephone, and takes him back to the machine to help him complete his transaction.
The old woman rejoins the queue and she and I begin a conversation about the illogicality of bureaucracy.
‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I think we Spanish are still like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills.’
I’m amused. It’s so true. But I can’t help wondering how this scene would have played out in post-Brexit England.