by Lawrence Bohme

I have always shocked my Spanish friends with my total lack of interest in politics. It must be because, in spite of having taken up the Latin way of living long ago, I still have an Anglo-Saxon, mainly apolitical mentality. Although this story occurred before the so- called "death of the ideologies", in my adopted home-town it could easily happen again today. Things always take a long time to get to Montefrio.

When I re-did my farmhouse, in the summer of 1985, I got encouragement and help from everyone, perhaps because I am the only foreigner to have ever decided to live in Montefrio, and also one of the very few ones to have ever visited it more than superficially. In view of my considerable popularity and good name, therefore, I was surprised when the manager of my bank, a cordial person who had no particular reason to distrust me, embarrassedly refused to advance me the amount of an overdue foreign transfer, which I needed to pay my workers.

I mentioned the fact to a distinguished friend of mine, a person of some social consequence, who tried to explain to me why Juan had behaved in this rather unfriendly way. In the hands of a writer of the calibre of Guy de Maupassant, my friend's story would undoubtedly become a little jewel in the genre "vanite et misere humaines", but since I myself have no talent for dramatization I shall have to tell it as straightforwardly as possible.

Several years before, the bus from Malaga unloaded among its passengers - and this was a surprising occurrence in itself - a couple of elderly Germans, who took a room at La Fonda. The man spoke garbled Spanish with ease, but the woman never said a word. In the bar, the German explained that he had been driving home from the Costa del Sol when his Mercedes Benz broke down. They had to leave it at a garage on the highway until a special part was sent from Germany, and decided to take the bus to the nearest town, to wait for the mechanic to notify them.

They soon made friends with the regulars of La Fonda, which in those days was still the ritual meeting place for the town's two or three land-owning families, the administrators and bank personnel who made up the local elite - all of them, politically, members of what I would until recently still have called the suffering right. The German was a big talker and told how he had been a pilot in the Second World War, flying his Messerschmitt in the fateful Battle of Montecassino, when the Allied forces landed in Italy. The customers of La Fonda felt honoured to have among them a genuine representative of the glorious Reich - of which Spain had been an unofficial ally - and they did their best to give their unexpected visitor the best possible impression of their town, or at least of its ruling class, that they could.

There was another and typically Spanish reason why the old Germans immediately caught their fancy: the couple drank constantly without getting drunk. But no wines or sherries for them - they only imbibed a mixture of beer and brandy. Every time they were served a glass of beer from the tap, they tossed into it a glass of Fundador brandy to beef it up. When my friend asked them why they did this, the old man confided in his broken Spanish: "Spanish beer, beer-water - Cerveza espanola, cer-agua". Since I never thought to ask what the man's name was, I have always mentally called him by his own word, "Cer-agua".

They were invited to all of the bars, and all of the country villas and manors as well - the old man talking, the woman in silence, and both of them drinking everything that was put before them. But after a few days, a tiny cloud came to cast its shadow over this solidary honeymoon between the local bourgeoisie and the old warrior. One morning the German turned up at the bank asking his already affectionate buddy Juan for... a draft in German marks which he said he had requested to cover the unexpected costs of his stay and the repair of his Mercedes.

So astonished was the German to hear Juan's excuses for the slowness of the Spanish banking system, and concerned when he realized that in fact he no longer had a peseta to spend, that the serviceable Juan immediately advanced him, out of his own pocket, the not inconsiderable sum of 35,000 pesetas (about half a month's salary for him at the time), after which he rang up all of his circle of friends to have them get together a kitty which the German could return to them when his draft arrived. This way, the old fox got out of them what would now be equivalent to about 300,000 pesetas, or more.

Next comes the part of the story which I have never clearly understood - it is as if the German were not only a very clever confidence man but also a sadist, who took pleasure in humiliating his innocent victims after having swindled them. To show his gratitude for all the kindness he had been given (he said), he had Paco, the owner of La Fonda, roast two legs of lamb, and invited all of his new friends to lunch.

They all gathered at the table at the appointed time, except for the hosts. Knowing - and deeply admiring - the unswerving discipline and reliability of the Teutonic race, the Spaniards became alarmed that something might have happened to them, and sent Paco up to their room. After knocking repeatedly on the door, he looked through the key-hole and saw... a suitcase on the table, placed in front of the key-hole to cut off the view. They soon learned the truth: the Germans had taken the village taxi that morning to the bus station of the nearest town, leaving only the empty suitcase behind.

"What did you do with the legs of lamb?", I asked my friend. "We ate them", he replied, "since we had to pay for them...". Poor Juan (who in those days was not yet the manager) lost his 35,000 pesetas, as well as feeling responsible for the idea of the kitty. The Germans left bills in half of the bars of the town, and Montefrio has lots of bars (about 40, which, I once calculated, makes 1 for every 200 inhabitants).

My friend alone lost some 100,000 pesetas; noblesse oblige, he had to pay more than Juan. "But", he said to me, with scarcely a hint of bitterness, "I consider that it was worth it: I paid to see a real artist at work". It's always unpleasant to have to admit that you've been fooled, especially if you're a dignified Andalusian sen~orito - although there is also something quite admirable about this way of seeing one's bad luck.

At the end of the summer, one of the friends of La Fonda had to go to Madrid on business, and while he was there he personally presented a complaint to the German Embassy. When he told them what had happened, the Spanish employee at the desk immediately exclaimed, "Oh, that one! He's played that trick in every village of Spain." Between Montecassino and Montefrio, he must have found a lot of gullible men, and he may be finding them still.

"He had been ruined by liquor", my friend told me. "But I'll say one thing in his favour: EVERY DAY HE PUT ON A CLEAN SHIRT". That was a quality which I, as an Englishman, would have never noticed.

This article was published in The Entertainer of Almeria, in July 1995