Essays - Flying with the Commissioner

Flying with the Commissioner

By Lawrence Bohme

Like so many things nowadays, it all started with a phone call, shattering the peace of my cortijo in the hills above the village. It was from an agency in Seville: "You have to be here at nine o'clock tomorrow morning to interpret for a European Commissioner, so come wearing your best suit".

That was easy – I only have one suit, purchased five years ago for the World Energy Conference in Madrid and not worn since then (I usually work in a booth where no one can see me, so I go in jeans). As soon as the nervous lady hung up I dug it out to see if it still fitted, and to my great surprise it did. I was off to a good start.

The local mule-driver Yo-Yo stopped by before lunch for a beer and I told him he had to feed my dogs for three days because I was going to be away interpreting, as usual – but this time, I added, it was going to be inside a helicopter scheduled to fly all over Andalucia. The leathery-faced old rascal (we've been cronies since he found my house for me, over 12 years ago) suggestively rubbed his thumb and forefinger together mule-driver style and croaked, "Mucha pasta", which translates neatly into American slang as "plenty of dough". I didn't mind telling him that in fact I was going to be very well paid for my services.

By the time I went down to the Bar Marengo that evening all my friends knew about it – Yo-Yo is a mule-driver, but he gets around on a motorbike and had time to spread the word. "So", one of them said, "you're going to be accompanying that [expletive deleted] Commissioner who wants to pay us by the tree, are you?". I knew all about the row between the Italian and the Spanish olive oil producers: the Italians want the EU agricultural subsidies to be based on the number of trees, because their trees are tiny, bush-like things, while the Spanish, who have big trees, want to use the volume of oil actually produced. A Commissioner had recently been down from Brussels and, I am told (not having a TV set myself), revealed his abysmal ignorance of olives by picking one from a tree and biting into it, like any other stupid tourist, as if it were a cherry, with results which made the viewers howl. "Make sure you tell him that the Italians are full of...", the boys in the Marengo snorted, and I assured them that as the owner of seven medium-sized and totally unsubsidised olive trees myself, I would. But unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately for him – my Commissioner turned out to be the one in charge of Regional Policy, not Agriculture.

After three hours on the motorway that evening in my Indian-made land vehicle and six hours of sleep in a cheap hotel in Triana (this time we were being given expense money to spend as we saw fit, rather than being put up in the same hotel as the big-wigs) I was going through the security check with my colleague José Luis at the Palacio de San Telmo, home to the Andalucian Parliament. I looked rather impressive, I thought, in my grey alpaca suit (just a wee bit tight around the waist) and brown brogues. In fact I looked so classy that the boys in the Marengo might well fail to recognise me, when I appeared next to the Commissioner on the evening news shouting English-Spanish translations over the helicopter's roar.

We were ushered through the grand, if seedy corridors of the great palace to a large, cracked leather sofa into which we sank, until, an hour later, we were called to greet the Commissioner as she arrived from the airport. To our dismay we saw that this very business-like German lady was accompanied by an another serious-looking woman also from Germany, her personal interpreter - as a result of which she took not the slightest interest in our existence. It had been assumed that Frau Wulf was going to speak in English, but in fact she spoke in her own language throughout her stay, and since the rest of her delegation spoke Spanish to one degree or the other, this rendered us virtually useless.

I was asked to follow the delegation into the meeting room, just in case the Commissioner decided to express herself in English, although with the top-flight German-Spanish interpreter she had with her, I could see no reason for her wanting to do so. As I sat discreetly to one side, each of the regional government's ministers, or consejeros, made a 7-minute (that was the amount of time allowed) presentation of the region's educational system, transportation network, industrial and agricultural sectors and environment, pointing out all the things which were wrong but which were slowly but surely being put right, partly thanks to the Cohesion Funds of which the tough-looking Commissioner was in charge.

I was told that I had to be at the formal luncheon but would have to eat first, so as to have my mouth empty if called upon to interpret. After an insipid slice of meat and boiled vegetables hurriedly served to me on an office desk, I had the frustrating experience of watching one German and seven Spaniards eating my favourite dish, duck, with crackling skin and an orange sauce which the men in white gloves diligently ladled out of a silver gravy boat. I even had to work a bit, because someone got the conversation off to a start in English, and I was seated just behind the left shoulder of the President of the Andalucian Government, Manuel Chaves – who immediately explained to the Commissioner that he needed my services because when he was at school, in Franco's days, English was not taught due to the bad feeling about Gibraltar and la pérfida Albión.

The President was flanked by the region's main opposition party and trade union leaders, the so-called "social agents". The man from the left-wing Comisiones Obreras was particularly jolly, making entertaining comments on the dishes being served (which is the favourite Spanish way of "talking about the weather" when you can't think of anything else to say). When the Commissioner made a carefully phrased, but pointed remark, in excellent English, about "the large amounts of money which the Union spends in the countries of southern Europe", he cheerfully dodged the point by asking if she were not impressed that men of such different political persuasions as those present should always be able to find a way of working out their differences. Just like everything else said during the meal in Spanish, this was dutifully translated by my colleague into German, even though, to my ear, it lost most of its persuasive warmth along the way. In any case the Commissioner didn´t respond.

It was interesting to see Europe at work in the inner sanctum of power, with people from two such different cultures trustingly throwing up a bridge of communication, with our expert help of course. President Chaves endeared himself to me forever by insisting, at the end of the meal, that the interpreters be served a glass of Malaga wine – a Pedro Jimenez which was definitely the best I have ever tasted, even if it didn't make up for the duck. (I'm sorry to keep on about the duck but it isn't as if I can just go out and get one at the carnicería to bake myself – Spaniards don't normally eat or produce duck except in Catalonia and the four who gave their legs that day, so to speak, had to be flown in especially from Barcelona, according to the surprisingly knowledgeable man from the far-left wing Comisiones Obreras.)

After lunch we visited the Andalucian Women's Institute, where the difficulties of our women in entering the labour market and remaining there were discussed at length in a packed and unventilated room. There really is a great deal to be done in order to bring the state of things down here up to Belgian and German standards, and everyone agreed that the Cohesion Funds were the best available way of bringing this about.

There wasn't enough room in the official car for me for the next lap, so I was asked to walk to Seville's city hall for the meeting with the Mayor, given that José Luis was on hand in case the Commissioner lapsed into English again. On the way I stepped into the Cathedral to cool off from the unseasonable weather, and rest in a less temporal setting than that of the Instituto Andaluz de la Mujer. (Spanish feminists, I have found, are a well-meaning lot but unfortunately prone to having long conversations in tightly sealed rooms while chain-smoking.)

When I got to the Ayuntamiento, well ahead of the Commissioner's scheduled arrival, the entrance was swarming with excited, outlandishly dressed people who were about to get, or had just got married – five weddings were being held that day, I was told by the doorwoman, who ushered me into an exquisite Renaissance room, telling me wrongly that the Alcaldesa and the Comisaria would be meeting there. I sat in a reverie for almost half an hour gazing up at the busts of Sevillian conquistadores carved elegantly in the stone ceiling, when I suddenly realised that something was wrong and rushed out into the lobby to discover where they all were. Clearly things were happening without us - and no one seemed to even notice that I was missing. What was worse, when I finally found the room where the meeting was, I was told that it was over and the delegation had already proceeded to the heliport for the flight to Malaga. I jumped into a taxi and yelled "Isla de la Cartuja", followed by the Andalucian equivalent of "and step on the gas!".

But all of these indignities were soon to be forgotten – the rest of the ¨job¨ was a dream. In the heart of the Expo 92 site I found the two helicopters which were to carry the delegation that afternoon and the rest of next day around the region, with the Commissioner and her inseparable interpreter in the smaller one and the rest of us, including several high-ranking officials from the Commission, packed like Marines, rather than sardines, into the other. Soon we were floating through the azure looking at a new ring road and a sewage treatment plant, both generously financed by the Cohesion Funds, before swinging south across the Sierra de Grazalema to peer down at a new dam in the light of the setting sun, and then on to Malaga. The Commissioner's helicopter led the way among the dusky-purple mountain peaks, bobbing gracefully up and down like a buoy on the waves of some ethereal sea. Soon we were following the slopes down towards the Mediterranean and the high-rise buildings of Malaga. An hour later we were sitting around a table at a beachfront restaurant in Torremolinos eating baby clams, fried anchovies and dorada a la sal, a large fish baked in rock salt, so delicate and succulent that, temporarily at least, and with the help of the dry white Barbadillo, it made me forget the duck that flew away...

Next morning we were on the road at eight– arbeit, arbeit, immer arbeit! – for a visit to another beneficiary of European funding, Malaga's spanking new Science and Technology Park, an Andalucian mini-version of Silicone Valley aimed at promoting the creation of high-tech industries in the region. The bus rolled among the futuristic buildings and fake grassy hills and over the bridge spanning the artificial lake, to another meeting room full of journalists and gangly young men who looked as if they had just been dragged away from their computer screens in order to prove that they really existed.

The group was then ushered to an extraordinary building sheathed in gleaming chrome, down a narrow corridor and into a sort of science-fiction torture chamber, the walls and ceiling of which were entirely covered in long, pointed pyramid-shaped things, like the nails of a giant mace, all directed towards the centre of the dimly-lit room in which we stood, like mice awaiting some ghastly end. But when I touched these spikey protrusions I realised that they were in fact made of foam. A tall, scientific-looking German explained to the Commissioner, in English, that the room was used for testing electro-magnetic devices; the strange grey pyramids all around – each of which cost no less than $1,000 – were impregnated with a mineral which absorbed the energy produced by the devices, to prevent fire hazards created by the enormous amount of electricity being dischared in the experiments. The total cost of the room was over 3 million dollars, so the Commissioner seemed relieved to hear that it was in fact already turning a profit, operating round the clock to cover the overheads.

The helicopters were waiting outside, and were soon whisking us along the Costa del Sol, with the Mare Nostrum sparkling gloriously below, complete with a school of dolphins ploughing through the waves. It was truly an astonishing flight. I can think of no more eloquent illustration of man's quest for pleasure and gain than the massive facilities which line the shore between Malaga and Almeria: as far as Motril, row upon row of the towering apartment blocks which typify today's seaside resorts, and from there to Almeria a sea of plastic, the greenhouses which have made this south-eastern corner of Spain the most economically dynamic part of the entire country.

I had seen some of the greenhouse area from the ground and knew that it was enormous, but all of us, even the Spanish delegates, gasped when the helicopter sailed towards the surrealistic landscape of great, irregular slabs of leaden plastic gleaming in the sun, stretching on either side from the beach to the inland hills, and before us as far as the eye could see. Trucks could be seen crawling along the narrow slots between the sections of this giant jigsaw puzzle, this agro-industrial monument to the triumph of technique. When I hitch-hiked along this coast in 1960 it was the most desolate area of a largely desolate country, with the "lunar landscape" of its arid mountains, which had been stripped of all vegetation during the 19th century to feed the smelting ovens of the now-exhausted lead mines. The few inhabitants seemed to be all toothless crones in black who gaped at us as we trudged past their whitewashed cave-houses with our knapsacks.

But shortly after that things were to change dramatically. New pest-resistant vegetable strains, cheap plastic sheeting and the construction of the Mediterranean Motorway linking southeastern Spain to northern Europe made it economically possible to create greenhouses all along the coast, with its almost constant sunshine and the sea breezes needed to ventilate the immense covered fields, in which the temperatures are so high that the only people tough and poor enough to want to work in them are North African immigrants. The Spanish representative to the Commission shouted over the noise of the helicopter that the invernaderos produce up to three harvests a year, and a total DAILY weight of 2,000 tonnes of vegetables.

Speculation in this grow-by-night industry is rampant, just as in the days of the Californian Gold Rush, and in some towns along the coast there are, we were told, more banks than houses. Fortunes are made and lost over a single crop, with the highest rate of suicide in the country – there are lots of very deep wells to jump into, if you have signed away your net worth to finance ten truckloads of tomatoes which fail to reach the harvesting stage, for one unforeseen reason or the other. The representative of the Junta explained to me that there is a European spot market for vegetables just as there is a world spot market for oil – a truck full of green peppers might be sent from Spain to Denmark and before it has even crossed France be radioed to change its course to Germany, where someone has just bought it from the man in Copenhagen.

The big problem, of course, is water – the wells have been so over-pumped that they are being infiltrated from the sea. The roofs of the greenhouses are used to drain whatever rainwater there is into tanks, and from there it is drip-fed to each plant, but the sheer volume of the industry – we even saw huge greenhouses covering the few rare flattish areas among the inland hills, like slices of cheese draped over a hamburger – is such that an urgent remedy is needed. There are plans, we learned, to use the Cohesion Funds to build an inland pipeline system to transport water from rivers and springs in other parts of Andalucia, thus alleviating the area's irrigation problems.

We flew past Mojácar, a toy town shining whitely on its hill overlooking the sea, and landed up at the new Bajo Almanzora water supply plant, now servicing the towns of Mojácar, Garrucha and Turre, where the Commissioner was once more provided with stunning proof of the good use which our government has made of the Cohesion Funds. From there we rose up into the Sierra Nevada, touching down for lunch at a mountain lodge, the Venta del Serval, among the pine forests at over 5,000 feet. That's how high you have to fly - if you're an unsalaried cottage industry baron like me - to get the chance to drink ten year old Rioja, a bottle of which we polished off without difficulty between bites of baby lamb broiled on the coals... A final hop over the northern flank of the Sierra Nevada and we all parted ways, back to our more mundane pursuits.

Well, not as mundane as all that – Montefrio is too far off the beaten path for things to run quite as normally as called for in the EU directives – perhaps we need a mini-Cohesion Fund to bring our infrastructure up to standard. I was greeted at the Marengo by the disappointed faces of my friends, whom I had to assure, not very truthfully, that I didn't appear alongside the Comisaria on the news because I was busy translating for the Presidente. Worse still, my new dog Julio had run off and apparently been seen getting into a Toyota pick-up truck with Malaga license plates – cocker spaniels have a conspicuous commercial value, which is why I'll stick to mongrels from now on, like my dear Bolinha, who was waiting for me faithfully.

But worst of all, Yo-Yo had broken a leg just after my departure when his motorbike skidded coming around the corner of the Convento during a rainshower, and was – still is, a week later – laid up in the hospital in Granada. Perhaps Julio got tired of waiting for him and jumped the fence to find something to eat.

It might be a while before Yo-Yo is out of his plaster cast, since the leg broke in two places and he's over 70. But when he's back on his feet again, I'm going to have him appointed as manager of my local bank, instead of the current run-of-the-mill one, Juanpe, who's a dear friend of mine but really lacks imagination. The word is going around the Marengo that the inglé (that's me) is going to be paid 800,000 pesetas for going up in the helicopter with the Commissioner. With a 400% plusvalia like that, I could retire from the conference circuit altogether.

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