Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Definition of a Gentleman: A Man Who Knows How to Play the Accordion - but doesn't

There’s an election in the offing, it’s a near annual event in Paraguay. Our last visit coincided with polling day and everybody had blue fingertips. This one is five months away, but the starting gun has been fired. One of the downsides of a fixed term presidency is that everybody knows when it’s coming. The freehand wall-painters are back in demand, the politically pertinent coloured paints spatter every bus shelter. Stickers adorn the front side of cars and the back side of road signs; the opposition’s are crumpled balls in the gutter. The prospective candidates’ faces have been scrubbed and polished, passed  through the ‘lavadero politico’ and decorate the billboards and banners, along with their vowel-less party initials. Their names are ethnic Germanic; Fiti Shultz is running for Gov’nor, his side kick is Walter Harms. The bronze statuary in the town plazas are of woodcutters and field-tillers rather than the usual liberators and saints. The beer is Kaiser, the script is Gothic. The architecture, the hotel titles, the town’s dual language ’Welcome’ board all point to their ethnic source. We’re on a well ordered Teutonic campground in the ‘United Colonies’, a prosperous German ex-pat enclave.

This was the direction that this piece was heading in, a collection of indicators that are part of the Paraguayan economic story. That is, until we ended up in a beer keller.

It’s autumn in the northern hemisphere, it’s harvest festival in Germany, it’s OctoberFest in Bavaria, it’s Choppfest ’12 in Obligado, Paraguay.

‘Club Alemani’ is a vast humid hall, decked out in the tricolours of two nations in a Gordian knot of patriotic flags, draped over a high stage perched at one end. A  league of local dance troupes are strutting their moves when we arrive, classes of lost, bemused toddlers being led by older sisters, dressed in pig-tails and black bodices, red skirts and white aprons.   

‘ticky-tacky, ticky-tacky, oi-oi-oi’ … is the refrain that keeps repeating with each performance, such, that I start to wonder if this evening has an element of competition, the set piece…..

‘ticky-tacky, ticky- tacky, oi-oi-oi’. It’s all good clean protestant decorum, with one small exceptional moment; when one young all-girl group that’s more Latino dark than Saxon blond, dressed in multi coloured pompoms and flounces of crinoline, show their ethnic credentials with a risqué nod to carnival and a butt waggle. They’ve even brought along their younger siblings to provide the groupie scream. Then it’s back to tradition. Part one of the evening closes with a student group in lederhosen and sage hunting hats sawing lumber, chopping timber and swilling beer. The woodman’s dance.
Part Two: The evening progresses as a four piece takes to the floor in braces, shorts and leg warmers. At least the three grey heads do, the drummer is the exception, just as they are the world over, this one’s Latino black locks and conventional. The accordionist crouches on his stool like a wood imp atop his toadstool and leads the quartet into a series of polkas as the beer starts to flow. It’s steins of cerveza, two brands of indistinguishable fizzy amber liquid served or promoted by their respective ‘lager lovelies’. Remember Tennant’s cans of the 70’s?  Well, they’ve been reincarnated in the flesh. At least the ’Bramah’ girls have more flesh than the ’Pilsen’ ones. The former are pastiches of the Bavarian buxom wench, in white lacy tights, short red skirts and bust enhancing bodices, who must take eyelid exercise classes to cope with the sparkly falsies and the trowelled mascara. The latter are of the size zero, boobless, long flaxen haired type, squeezed from a mould into the sponsor’s blue body tube, and then elevated on blocked up platform shoes. Too superior to serve ale, but happy to pose with the grinning, testosterone charged balding males, whilst their greying frauliens glower, unamused.

It’s difficult to know if this is a parody, a fake ethnic memory, like the Scots abroad who are more Scottish than the ones at home. The Highland games, the Caledonian Societies. But it’s all good fun. As our Germanic German neighbour said, ‘We’d never be caught like this at home, but here‘.... as he launches into another  beer drinking song. Then that prophetic wee ditty reappears yet again…..’ticky-tacky, ticky-tacky, oi-oi-oi’, as the assembled chant and stomp the refrain: ‘ticky-tacky, ticky-tacky………’
It’s now that you remember a good Lairig Club ceilidh, a hot sweaty night in the old Union’s dungeon, kilts and rugby shirts, beer and stovies. All culminating in an inebriated ‘Auld Lang Syne’. There’s not much difference to this. In place of the tatties n’ dripping comes, what sounded like ‘ice vine’, but was sweinn. Ham haughs, sauerkraut, boiled potatoes and the Paraguayan touch of two white buns. Good heavy winter fare, stolid food fit for a forester. The plates are cleared and I sit back, replete, when along comes the pudding. Boy, do they know how to put it away, but I’m proud of my heritage and nurturing, my plate’s licked clean.

The band plays on. We’ve had ‘Y Viva España’, ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’, when, and I can only suppose that the minstrels want to call time. That wee gnome, atop his perch, calls the next dance: ‘El Paperito’. I don’t need the intro bars to get the message, the bass’ clucking hands and his flapping elbows are enough. It’s the ‘Birdy Dance’. As a method for clearing a hall, it’s effective, yet again, there’s not a great deal of difference from a group of  part inebriated students forming a circle, offering trusty hands and singing the two solitary lines that they know from their national bard’s  most famous song.  Our hosts call ‘enough’, and we leave for our tent.