Buying fabric and craft materials has been difficult since we moved here. There might be a huge and thriving community of crafters in Andalucia, but it is not very easy to Google around or to ask pertinent questions in a foreign language. Most dictionaries avoid craft-specific vocabulary, much as they avoid vocabulary peculiar to technical, legal or theological matters.
I was, therefore, thrilled when I found a fabulous merceria down at Torre del Mar on the coast. Walking through the door and seeing the wall rack full of brightly coloured patchwork cotton fabrics was a joy that is hard to describe. Racks of threads and buttons and ribbons adorn every surface, fixings and trimmings, stencils for quilting, lace, sequins, braids, needles, embroidery silks and accessories fill every countertop, and somehow lead the eye toward the narrow doorway that hints at hidden realms of further delights.
All this is so different to the tiny merceria in our village. Actually, I should explain how one goes about acquiring craft supplies in our village, and you will understand better why I was so excited to find the magnificent Mar del Plata merceria.
A while ago, I decided that a Clanger would be just the very thing to give my daughter for her birthday. (What twenty five year old would not want a soft toy that comes from a children’s television programme aired years before they were born?) I found the original pattern sent out by the programme makers, and set about collecting the various materials required.
Knitting yarn was not difficult. The local Chinese shop had some candyfloss pink yarn in a suitable thickness, and I already had a stash of knitting needles to choose from. I had some wadding left from a quilt, which would serve as light and very squooshy stuffing. I did not, however, have any pipe cleaners or felt, both of which featured in the pattern. I set off confidently to find pipe cleaners first.
We have a tobacconist shop in the village, next to the farmacia and round the corner from the fereteria. We also have three little supermarkets, various bars, a swimming pool, internet café, bank, library, builders merchant, doctor’s surgery, post office – open for half an hour every week day – and various other services and facilities. Not bad for a village with under a thousand inhabitants. In the UK we would be lucky to have a bus stop. But I digress.
I walked in to the tobacconist shop and asked for pipe cleaners. Limpiar = to clean, pipa = pipe, so I was fairly happy that Google Translate told me I should ask for limpiapipas. The girl behind the counter looked mystified. Could I have got it wrong? In my poor Spanish, I tried to describe the bendy, furry, pipecleanery properties of limpiapipas. She fired a couple of rapid comments at an elderly man who was waiting to be served. He looked a prime candidate for pipe smoking, with his slightly bowlegs, dark worsted trousers, striped shirt, weather-beaten face and flat cap. All he needed to complete my mental picture of a typical elderly Andaluz was a pipe clamped between his toothless gums.
There followed a disturbing amount of discussion. My request was very simple, and I could not see how it needed deep analysis. The girl moved over to one of the glass cases and brought out a yellow tin of some kind of cleaning solution. There followed further attempts on my part to explain that I just wanted a packet of pipe cleaners, and further offers of tobacco-related ephemera. Eventually, the assistant and her elderly advisor suggested that I should go to the fereteria. I thanked them very much and left.
Why would I go to a hardware shop for pipe cleaners, when there is a tobacconist in the village? Although it seems a strange idea, it chimed with an earlier experience of trying to buy stamps at the Post Office, and being referred to the tobacconist. I put it down to being Spanish: they have their own way of doing things. When the village budget would not run to a police car and a policeman, they chose the car without the policeman, and then the locals used it for excursions and shopping trips. I cannot see that happening in the UK, but here it has a kind of unassailable logic.
The nice man in the fereteria suggested that the tobacconist would stock pipecleaners. Ho hum!
Down at the bottom of the village I had noticed that a little merceria had appeared. I thought a haberdashery would be the right place to go for the felt I needed for my clanger, and that I would ask for pipe cleaners as well, just in case she stocked them as a craft supply.
Allowing for the local custom of closing at two for the siesta, I went down at about one thirty. The door was open, but I could see nobody inside. I made a slightly noisy entrance to alert the owner to my presence, and waited. Nothing happened. I glanced around the room at the motley assortment of baby clothes and pinafores, and wondered if I was mistaken. Perhaps, in this part of the country, felt and pipe cleaners should be purchased from the greengrocer.
An elderly lady croaked at me from behind a plastic strip door blind. It appeared that she was having her lunch and was not happy at being interrupted. I would just have to wait. Eventually she waddled through and grunted at me. I took it to be her equivalent of “Good afternoon, madam. How may I help you?” and asked if she had any felt. I might as well have asked for a vulture or a scale model of the Taj Mahal. Her blank incomprehension had me reaching for the small dictionary I keep in my handbag.
“Si, fieltro,” I repeated, pointing out the word. She peered at it. Her next utterance was a clear “Dunno. What is it?” I explained that it is a fabric, used for sewing; that I was making a toy for my daughter. I thought it better not to cloud the issue by mentioning the age of the child concerned. She pointed at a small rack of sewing threads. It was gappy, like the smiles of most of the older people here, and held just a few faded reels of cotton. “That’s what I have for sewing,” she informed me. I decided that I was not going to be able to purchase felt at this particular emporium, and thanked her very much for her trouble.
She followed me the two paces to the door, waited for me to leave, and then locked it firmly behind me. I had never been expelled from a haberdashery before. Images of a shaming ceremony where my buttons were torn from my cardigan and my knitting needles were broken over the knee of a disapproving superior flashed before my eyes.
I made the clanger. Instead of pipe cleaners, I cut thin sections from a plastic drink bottle, and wrapped them carefully in the pink yarn, before stitching them to hold the ears at a suitably jaunty angle. Tightly crocheted pink fingers replaced the felt fingers in the pattern. The felt feet and clothing became feet and clothing made from pieces cut out of scraps of fleece fabric from a previous project. The feet were too floppy, so they were reinforced with pieces cut from a thin plastic place mat.
I had to embroider designs on the fleece scraps to disguise its pattern of frog faces, so the clanger looked rather like a long-snouted, candy pink warrior princess, dressed up for an awards ceremony. I decided that a bow made of a scrap of silver lamé ribbon would finish the ensemble. (Well, you would, wouldn’t you?)
The Clanger has been much loved, and in the process, her ear stiffenings have suffered. Had she been stood on a shelf, they might have stood the test of time, but her squishy little body with its fleecy armour plating demands to be cuddled. She now has loose strips of clear plastic poking out forlornly, and her ears droop. In short, she needs surgery.
I think a trip to see the lovely ladies at Mar del Plata is in order. I have no idea how I could possibly explain what a clanger is, or why I would wish to put pipe cleaners in its ears. They are friendly and helpful, but there are limits to what my schoolgirl Spanish can achieve. I shall just have to go armed with a photograph of a clanger and my dictionary, and hope that they do not refer me to the fish market!