Which menu, sir? Chink or Dago?

 

I was meandering home on my bike this afternoon when I saw something that made me smile, in a sardonic sort of way. I’d been coming back from the centre of Valencia and had detoured through the back streets behind the gorgeously kitsch Estación del Norte, the central station, to visit a small Chinese deli that sells a particularly spicy sauce I like and can’t seem to find anywhere else in the city. I passed a sign that said ‘Restaurante Español’ – and that’s what I smiled about, although viewed from a distance, and with Valencia being the third biggest city in Spain, it might not seem all that strange to see a sign advertising a Spanish restaurant. But that’s not what he was doing. The sign wasn’t in fancy lettering painted on the window, or neatly written above the door; it was in capital letters as big as his printer could print them on pieces of A4 paper and stuck across the window. What he was saying was, ‘I’M A SPANISH CAFF, WITH SPANISH OWNERS AND SPANISH CUSTOMERS!’ although he might not have used those exact words.

Until as recently as five years ago, the criss-crossed streets that ran alongside the Central Station, Calles Bailén, Pelayo, Troya and Julio Antonio, with a smattering of others, were a barrio de barrio, streets full of ordinary working class people, many of whom have lived there for generations. Despite it being mere spitting distance from the posh centre of town, most of the shops would have been your little mum and dad grocers, a scattering of butchers and veg shops, the odd photographer (and that’s not meant in the prejudicial sense), the inevitable Mercadona supermarket, hairdressers by the dozen (there’s always hairdressers by the dozen in a vecinidad, a neighbourhood), pastry shops, knicker shops, and all the other types of shops that keep body and soul together. (And it was the last place I ever saw horse meat  for sale.) Over the last few years, though, there has been a steady flow of Chinese businesses opening in the city, until now it’s become a flood.

Now don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a diatribe against an Eastern Invasion. Far from it, my barrio is about as mixed as you could possibly get and I love it, but back to the Central Station.

Like most cities, Valencia has gradually divided itself into districts over time, mainly because certain areas would attract the immigrants of the same nationality who live in those areas, thus attracting more immigrants, etc. etc. New York has Little Italy as well as a dozen other Little ….’s; London has its Chinatown and Manchester its Indian Village in Rusholme. But there are divisions between the separate communities and their businesses, at least there are in Valencia.

It’s impossible to go to any one-horse-town in Spain – and probably anywhere  else in the world – and not find the Chinese equivalent of the Todo a Cien. This was the mainstay of basic life, where you could buy anything from a pan to a packet of needles for one hundred pesetas, about 60 centimos in today’s money. Many of these shops existed on the sales of ends of lines, slight seconds, bulk purchases of fire and flood damaged goods etc, and were a boon to those living on the borderline. My favourite shop when I came to Spain was Domti, and I’m still using three pans and two casseroles I bought there ten years ago. Unfortunately, when Spain and most of the rest of Europe succumbed to the Euro, the floodgates opened and thousands, literally thousands, of Chinese cheap-jack shops opened, flooding the markets with what are called here, ‘yellow goods’. I’m not knocking them, the one on the corner of my street is my first port of call for all my basics.

Go to almost any city around the world and if you want a cheap bed for the night look to the area around the station – and Valencia’s no different. Cheap hostels, cheap caffs, cheap food shops, cheap knick-knack shops, cheap everything – including cheap property rentals. So it’s not just the Chinese who’ve set up shop, there’s a whole assortment of Latino bars and clubs as well, but the Chinese are definitely the dominant population.

A few Spanish cafes, shops and restaurants are still open for business in the area, as well as one of the most famous bookshops in the city, Librería Paris Valencia, but even if a cafetería appears Spanish from the outside, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be eating with chopsticks if you go in. When I went to the Café Pedro a few weeks ago – a name as Spanish as Spanish can be – I was there because I friend of mine had told me that you could get a bowl of noodle soup ‘as big as your head’ for only four Euros, but I was the only occidental face in the place.

So I can understand the ‘Restaurante Español’ sign. I’m sure the owner wasn’t being racist, he was just letting everyone know that, if you wanted it, a Spanish option was on offer. Personally, after eleven years in Spain and enough paella, albondigas, and queso manchego to sink a battleship, I’d rather go next door and have a bowl of noodle soup the size of my head.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, www.derekworkman-journalist.com , and Spain Uncovered

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