The Thirty Days of Christmas 12

A report was recently out saying that up to 25% of all the money flowing around the country is under the table, dinero negro, as they say in Spanish, and even the biggest companies are culpable of such dastardly deeds. That’s right, 25% of Spain’s GNP is hidden somewhere out of reach from governmental hands. That’s about the same percentage that represents, according to official sources, the level of unemployment in this country. Of course, that figure is also under scrutiny, as anyone can tell you.  Just how it’s possible for a country to survive this crisis with 1 and every 4 out of a job, let alone have time to frequent tapas bars, is beyond belief. And it is. That’s why we shouldn’t be startled when we discover that as many as 1,000,000 of the reported 6,000,000 workers on the dole are actually receiving wages on a regular basis.  On the side.  This isn’t just the result of slyness on the part of the employee, though some may be collecting unemployment benefits and then tacking some on surreptitiously, but it is also a testament to the pitiful practices performed by companies where if you want social security and other basic labor rights coverage, you’ll just have to find a job elsewhere. I can personally attest to the fact that services will continually give you the option to pay with or without IVA (sales tax).

     One thing is for sure, if economic recessions trigger anything, it’s cunning behavior as people, fearful of their situation getting worse, try to horde as much cash as possible without anyone knowing.

       Regardless, the underground economy is nothing new to this country, and if anything, was probably even more rampant years ago. When I first started out, language schools habitually paid you on an official level for far fewer than you were ever making. I am writing this with the full knowledge that I am confessing to fiscal misconduct, but hoping that Spain’s statute of limitations does not extend beyond 20 years here.

     “I’ll pay you for ten hours a week.”

     “But I teach thirty. What about the rest?”

     “I said I’ll pay you for the ten hours a week, if you get me.”

     I got the message. “Won’t the Treasury find that suspicious?”

     “Nah! Don’t you worry them.”

     And no one did. Especially when Spain was just entering the digital age and it was a lot easier to make things just kind of disappear. Plus, when you were young and didn’t care about those things, the way you didn’t care about smoking, drinking, graying, aging, dying, etc. You didn’t care about pensions or unemployment benefits. Moreover, you were an English teacher in Spain, and English teachers are never out of a job.  They are like the professional antithesis of an actor.

     The school I work at now has its own language school which was a separate entity back then, and conditions were hazardously similar. As a young man, I didn’t fret about those matters, but it was a reckless way to live and irresponsible on everyone’s part. But one little perk entailed an invitation by the business officer to a Christmas dinner in the lunchroom. That may not have had an appealing ring to it, but bear in mind that drinking and smoking were still permitted on school property back then, so a full-fledged adult meal was allowed. In fact, and this will surprise more than a number of readers, wine was served at lunchtime. The staff table was in the same room as with the students and large 1-liter bottles of standard wine stood like mortar shells on the surface. And teachers were known to stroll through the halls during breaks with smoking a butt casually and telling kids to go out to the playground to get some fresh air, for the love of God. “It’s good for you!”

     So, that wasn’t an issue. Nor was the food itself. It was one thing what they slopped on your plate on a daily basis, and another thing what the school business officer was going to tolerate at Christmas. And I tell you he wasn’t going to foot for meatloaf. Normally there were huge platters piled with seafood, with a representative of nearly every major kind of shellfish: baby shrimp, shrimp, jumbo shrimp, Swedish lobster, clams, mussels, crabs, even the coveted goose-neck barnacles. Yes, these black rubbery species of what is scientifically known as a pollicipes has the appearance of what I imagine the toe of a three-toed sloth would look like, and is one of the most highly prized fruits of the sea. Part of this has to do, once again, with the scarcity of existence at the market, because this is not something you can scrape off your neighbor’s schooner at the marina, but rather an unusual delicacy which is harvested by brave if not temerarious fishermen who reach remote surf-battered rocks on the coast and scour them off the stone between crashing waves. The percebeiros, as they are known up in Galicia, risk life and limb to ensure your holiday is a little more festive. And they do it because they are paid handsomely for it. Which is also why a kilo can cost up to $100.

     At least that’s the way they used to be done. Now they are also cultivated in controlled conditions. But the real pricey ones, the ones they say taste the best and that, if you ask me, is seasoned by the perverse thought that some poor sod has nearly been killed in order to see to it your Christmas is complete.

     In any event, once that business officer retired, the seafood fests disappeared. At least as we knew them. Our salaries were finally made official, which meant we made less monthly but were contributing to social welfare and earning points towards our retirement down the road. The Christmas dinner moved off campus to a nearby restaurant, and was no longer compliments of the school. This new variety continued for a few more years until it finally fizzled out altogether. With a new boss at the helm of the language school, the custom was reinstituted, and with the added bonus that the meal was courtesy of the company. Life was good again.

     Life wasn’t lobster. But it was good again. We went to a nearby family Italian restaurant called Pinocho which featured tables with beer taps in the center so that the customers could serve themselves. Consumption was displayed in tenths of a liter on a TV screen above for all to see, and this playful addition is a source of plenty of jokes. We were also served freshly made pizzas, mussels cooked in sauce, chopitos (tiny fried squid), cheese, white asparagus, and some jumpo shrimp called langostinos. Pinocho, in addition to Italian food, is also known for its sliced beef which is heated on a hot stone, but we didn’t go that far. It was an informal, easy-going affair. I guess we were happy that we had jobs with salaries and full coverage. I guess we were happy to have jobs at all.

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