THREE PARTIES IN ONE DAY

Working in Spain was a new experience for me. In the 1970’s the country was governed by Francisco Franco, a dictator and survivor of the pre-second World War era. My generational time span over-lapped with his when European dictators were hoping to upturn the status quo and now, arriving here from Brazil which was governed by a post-Second World War dictatorship I hoped to pick up some comparisons.

Most dictators are delineated by their intensions for their country and dealings with their opponents. All are of a nature that one would not like to  be in opposition to, but some, after the opposition has been crushed or neutered, aim to govern  for what they perceive to be the good of the people with the aid of spies, informers and a hand-picked elite to ward off latent danger. Another type of dictator gets swept up in the coils of absolute power so that their poison burrows  deep into the social fabric when fear and danger becomes the daily  experience. The Brazilian army dictatorship had been ruthless enough – like many others before it – but its tenets had been simple enough, ‘go about your business, keep out of politics and ‘Power’ will not oppress you.’

I was to find that the Spanish dictatorship, after forty years, had  gone a lot deeper than this and a real sense of dysfunctionalism existed within the country which was still split in the peoples’ attitudes after the unresolved issues of the Civil war of the 1930’s that had brought Franco to power. Where I worked as a Manager in Madrid in the offices of a multi-national car producing company, this was all too apparent. On arriving and seeing the poor performance of the department I was responsible for, I called a meeting of my Spanish Supervisors to discuss measures that could be put in place to improve its performance. The meeting had not been a success and ended when I perceived that the supervisors were not capable of engaging in free and open discussion. All they had wanted to do was to engage in personal complaints.

After the shortened meeting one of the supervisors who had worked abroad in South America took me aside to tell me that Spaniards who had grown up under the Franco regime and had never experienced any outside influences simply had no idea of how to express themselves in an open way and simply could not be expected to engage in a ’cause and effect’ discussion, and to ask them to participate  in what I was wanting to achieve was not only pointless, as they had had always only been instructed and never consulted, could become dangerous if the talk ranged outside work related matters.

I took Carlos’s advice and never again sought a collective solution to overcoming the department’s problems, but did so, with some success by engaging with  the brighter members of my staff, not all of whom were supervisors. This approach, in itself, served to establish unexpected bonds with them because I had observed that on the whole, Spanish employees feared their Managers and, surprisingly, Managers feared and were suspicious of the employees. The cause of this seemed to me to be because the Dictator had framed Spanish labour Laws in such a way as to establish a balance between Capital (Management) and Labour (Employees) as to set one against the other in a Legal framework through which he could oversee and control either side with Arbitration Courts.

My first Christmas arrived after six months and I found three invitations on my desk to attend three parties, all on the same day. The first one was from the President in the morning. This was a discreet affair where manners were contrived and artificial, the food and drink of the highest quality and conversation stilted and wary. The Works party came second and I was driven to a remote area within the Factory grounds to where a vast Packing  Plant  shipped  engines and parts all around the world. This was within my domain although I had only visited it once before such was the diversity of my tenure.
The Supervisor of this Plant was Lopez, a stern faced veteran of the Civil War. Most Spaniards, both male and female, seemed to practice stern expressions with smiling seen as a family thing, not to be indulged in publicly. But Lopez’s face was granite-like. He had been sent to Russia to learn to fly planes for the losing Republican side and was fortunate to have been allowed to rise later as far as supervisory level. We got out of the car close to a burning brazier around which were grouped the workers of the Packing Plant, waiting in the cold, crisp air. There was a cursory introduction and acknowledgement then one of the men called out, ‘entao vamos.’ started the proceedings.

There was a slow clapping of hands; the tips of the fingers on one hand striking the lower palm of the other and an equally slow gyration of bodies in a circulatory, clockwise movement synchronised with the rhythm of the clapping. This went on for some time until a man stepped into the rotating circle and began singing in the Andalus Arab fashion, a high pitched, plaintive wail expressing sadness and loss. With his hands above his head and rotating in the opposite direction of the group the interplay between him and the circle was immediate and artistic.

Lopez and I were the only spectators of this performance of working men in their overalls and I was immediately drawn into it and turned to express my appreciation of it to him. But his immobile face did not respond to my invitation to share enthusiasm; perhaps he was unable to and felt, as he watched his charges, that he was just there to present his work force to their foreign Chefe. The show went on until each participant had their moment in the ring to demonstrate their skill and was rewarded at the exchange with huzzas of approbation. The whole spectacle was of an artistic form that was quite new to me and ended with a crescendo of rapid clapping with all joining in a final chorus.

In the silence that followed I found myself alone in clapping and this thin sound seemed poor appreciation.  But the groups attention was engaged elsewhere as one of them went to lift a great bulk that lay nearby which I saw was a large animal skin gourd containing wine. He hoisted the awkward container on to one shoulder in one movement and raising the aperture above his tilted face squirted a stream of wine into his open mouth to much applause. There seemed to be some quodos in how long this jet of wine could be taken in before a gulp ended it. When this occurred the gourd was passed to a neighbour and so on until all the participants had drunk amidst encouragement and laughter.

The skin was next proffered to Lopez who accepted it in his stiff manner and proved to be as adept at drinking as the others. Eventually, as I had expected and half feared, the now half full gourd was handed to me and I was able to direct the thin stream of wine into my mouth without mishap and earned my round of applause. The men were now in high spirits and wanted more dancing followed, no doubt, by more wine and Lopez was forebearing with their wishes but explained that he and his Chefe had to be elsewhere. As we made our exit  walking to the car amidst much good cheer I realised that the third party would be in an hours time.

The general office party proved to be somewhat more relaxed than the President’s one though still formal enough to begin with, compared to the one we had just left, but it soon became apparent to me that the majority there were mostly intent on getting drunk while eating as much as they could take in so, after an hour, I slipped away and headed for home. Of the three parties in my first year working in Spain one was quite memorable and the other two very forgettable.

DECEMBER 1974.

 

to be continued