Squat Diddly

On the last night of the Aste Nagusia festival I was walking in and out of bars in Erandio looking for some grub. It was late and there weren’t any pinchos to be had; the crumbs on the counters and discarded napkins on the bar-room floor their only remnants. As I was about to give up and retire to my bed I bumped into a man I recognised. I took a breath and made the following declaration in Spanish.

‘You work in the bar where I eat yesterday.’

He smiled and nodded.

‘Where can I eat now?’

I braced myself for some Spanish directions but he gestured for me to follow him. He broke into English, a skill he had seemingly picked up over-night. He told me his name was Ander. Ander was a small, quick and friendly man with grey hair and ear-rings.

He took me to a Bolivian bar with a tiled floor and plastic furniture. I ate a leg of chicken and some potatoes. Afterwards I bought Ander a beer. We chatted. Somewhere along the way it was decided we would carry on drinking.  Ander led me to a back room where there was karaoke.

The Karaoke room’s only occupants were a couple sitting on the couch. The man had his arm slung over the woman’s shoulder while he poured his heart into the microphone. He sounded awful. Thankfully, the manager arrived and announced the karaoke was finished. We went back to the bar and had another beer.

When that bar closed Ander suggested we move to another Bolivian bar.

We made our way through the streets while barmen cleared furniture and pulled down shutters. It was a Sunday night.

Ander had a story. He wasn’t dying to tell it nor was he reluctant to. Over the course of the walk, many more beers and cigarette breaks I slipped questions that he patiently answered. It went something like this;

In his twenties Ander was dumped by his long term girlfriend. It was a difficult time for him and he was unemployed. He decided he would move to Amsterdam, despite not knowing anyone over there. He told his friends he was going to be gone for a couple of years. His friends said he’d be back in Basque country after a couple of months. Ander arrived in Amsterdam without a job or accommodation. He had a car, which he slept in. He also had his pet dog and the name of a Portuguese man who he was told could be of assistance.

The second Bolivian bar was much like the first in that the family that owned it treated it like a living room. The barman was a seventeen year old. His girlfriend played with their 18 month old kid on the counter. The bar man’s mother and her friend were drinking alongside Ander and I at the bar. At the back of the room two middle aged men were slumped in chairs by a table.

I offered to get the beers, seen as Ander was kindly acting as guide and sharing his cigarettes, but he insisted on paying. Generosity seems to be a Basque trait and Ander is a proud Basque man; he speaks Euskara and hopes for independence. He is also very open-minded; many locals are not keen on the Bolivians but he has no problems with them. Perhaps because he knows what its like to be a foreign person living abroad. That also explains why he was so friendly to me. Or maybe he just wanted another drink and an Irish man and some Bolivian folk were happy to oblige.

Eventually Ander met a woman in Amsterdam. She offered him a room. Thing was, she was not willing to welcome the dog into her home. I imagine hot water, a bed and a fridge were basic comforts that Ander must have dreamed about in the cramped confines of his car. Nevertheless, he wasn’t prepared to abandon his four legged friend and declined the offer.

The barman declared that he wanted to drink shots with us. We downed them. The barman’s mother was sidling up to me. Her name was June. She was maybe fifty and had a high pitched voice. She was talking to me in Spanish and kept topping up my beer with her bottle of Heineken. I didn’t know what she was saying. Ander said she fancied me and that I was a lucky bastard.

Luck also smiled on Ander in Amsterdam. After months of searching he met his Portuguese contact. What did the contact offer?  A  job? A nice room in an apartment for Ander and his dog? No – access to the squatting community; a motley assortment of punks, backpackers and hippies who occupied the unloved buildings of Amsterdam. Any building that was unoccupied and wasn’t about to be renovated was fair game for squatting- provided you had a table and a mattress. They moved from building to building but a six storey disused office block was the mainstay.

Eventually Ander got a job.

I wasn’t so sure I was getting lucky. Something about her son offering free shots, the disgruntled onlookers and June’s slack wrist topping up my endless beer made me feel like we were being set-up.I expressed my fears to Ander but he said I had nothing to worry about, which was good enough for me.

He stayed in Amsterdam for two years, just like he said he would. As for the dog; One day while at work a careless squatter let her out of the building. Ander never saw her again.

Ander started waltzing with the other lady in the bar. June kept looking at me like I was a big prize but I was too tired to entertain any notions of taking things further. The two men watched the whole scene through narrowed eyes.

When Ander broke free I told him I was leaving. He took the news in his stride. June however, wasn’t impressed. Ander placated her by writing her number on a cigarette packet and handing it to me. I made my exit.

On the way home, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other as sleep threatened to engulf me at any moment.

Since that night I have pondered on Ander’s braveness; arriving in a city with no job and no accommodation puts my leap of faith into perspective, seen as I have secured both.

I still have June’s number but have somehow lost Anders. I no longer reside in Erandio but I intend on paying his café a visit. Hopefully we can hit the town and trade stories. And if we bump into June, I hope that I won’t need Ander to act as translator, as she and I will be speaking the same language; and I don’t mean the language of love.

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