Madrid Diary: When a breach of the peace is the only way to get things done

THE Spanish siesta is sacrosanct, even in winter, so don't believe those who say it's to do with farmhands resting in the heat of the afternoon. Folk memory records a time a decade or so back when politicians tried unsuccessfully to line up the Spanish day with the rest of Europe, but they gave up.

Never was I so aware of the siesta's iron rule as when I recently took advantage of the peace and quiet to move to a bigger flat. My trusty friend Maurice helped me load boxes into the van of Norberto, the portero of my old flat.

Timing was crucial. We had to move between 3pm and 5pm when the crush around the market eased off. A parking place was out of the question so, as it was siesta time, I cajoled and peeled off banknotes to encourage Juan, the portero of the new flat, to keep a beady eye on Norberto's illegally parked van.

This part of town, the popular bit of the posh end, is slow to get started, but from 11am the bustle and noise mounts to a frenzy between 2pm and 3pm and then, silence. Nothing. Deserted pavements. Closed doors. We swung into action.

But there was traffic of a kind. Under Juan's watchful gaze, frail gentlemen with dark glasses and thin grey moustaches tiptoed forth, young girls with waxed jackets tossed their shiny hair, and stocky females sailed by in billowing mink. "Oh Juan, you're early this afternoon," one noted acidly, with a glare at the boxes cluttering the hallway. "It's your siesta time!"

At 5pm, we'd nearly finished, fortunately, because the area suddenly exploded into life. Children erupted from school, traffic jammed the streets, horns blared, people bounded from the bakery stuffing their faces with pastries held in little squares of tissue paper. Dusty now and scruffy, I received filthy looks from showered and cologned citizens dressed to the nines.

There's only one thing people ask about my new flat. "Has it got a good terrace?" Actually yes. Spacious, split-level, sun canopy, rose trees, evening shade. Next door's telephone conversations are shrilly audible, the neighbours could be veterans of Franco's army ... but a peach of a terrace.

Madrilenos love terraces because they spend so much time out of doors - not in the sun, you understand, but in the shade.

So now Spring is upon us, if only fleetingly, all we want to do is sip a beer at a pavement cafe.

But, creatures of habit, Madrid cafe owners don't bring their tables and chairs out for another month. There's probably a rule about it. Like the one that governs the sale of garden furniture. Not till the end of the month, I was told when seeking a table and chairs for my terrace. It'll be raining again by then.

Among the instructions I received from the outgoing tenant was the insistent warning to be careful with the gas. Always turn the pilot light off, and the tap to the boiler, she said. Gas explosions account for a scary number of accidents in Spain, mainly because of the widespread use of gas canisters, hauled up ancient staircases by a mafia of sturdy Poles.

But if Spaniards are respectful of gas, they are hair-raisingly casual about electrics.

The plug for my fridge is connected to a wandering cable that hovers over the gas ring. The terrace is lit by bare bulbs and in my future study, where I plan to entrust my computer and other electronic treasures, the plug vomits from the wall, trailing wires and sticky tape. "The electricals look a bit dodgy" I ventured. The response was a blank shrug.

I decided to take immediate action, after the siesta or, er, manana.

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