The Concierge: still going strong in Spain

In the same way I feel uncomfortable being addressed as “sir” (there’s something simperingly deferential — feudal even — in its use that offends my belief that all men are equal), living in a building with a concierge also sets the egalitarian in me squirming. For a myriad of reasons, I find the idea of the concierge a distasteful anachronism. Do I need someone to open the door for me so I can step out onto the street in the morning? Do I need someone keeping track of my comings and goings throughout the day? Do I feel better about life safe in the knowledge that there someone sitting behind a desk in the foyer of our building “taking care” of things? Does it make me feel good about myself that there’s someone in a uniform doffing the hat to me every time I pass, someone theoretically below me on the social ladder who is there to serve and obey?

In spite of technology rendering many of his (I have yet to come across a female concierge) traditional functions obsolete (the security camera, the intercom), the concierge is still a mainstay of Spanish city life and not just as a relic associated with pre-Transition (to democracy in 1975 following General Franco’s death) apartment blocks or “exclusive”, snobby developments. In the Spain of today, the concierge (portero or concerje in Spanish) can be as readily found in recently-constructed complexes as those from the 70s and with equal probability in humble, middle-class buildings as in the tower blocks of the rich. Why are the Spanish so fond of the concierge?

Firstly — security. The Spanish are, if not obsessed, then, at the very least, highly preoccupied with security. The average Spaniard seems to believe there are hoards of burglars stalking the streets waiting for the opportunity to slip into their homes and divest them of their most valued personal possessions. Excessive (in my humble opinion) measures are taken to deter robbers: ground and first floor windows have bars over them; most modern developments would be what we call “gated communities”; the average sleepy village, where the last crime logged was the non-payment of a dog license in 1987, is locked down like Fort Knox. In this context, there exists the notion that a building with a concierge is safer than one without.

Secondly — it is undoubtedly true that a building with a concierge runs smoother than one without. Instead of a property management company or an officer of the comunidad de vecinos (the representative body of the individual homeowners within an apartment complex) making sure the cleaning ladies are keeping the halls and stairs bright and shiny and staying on top of things like putting the rubbish out, if you have a concierge there on the ground, day-in day-out, everything tends to work significantly better. Many concierges are quite the handyman and, even though it may not officially be written into their job description, they are only too delighted to oil a squeaky door or fix a leaking pipe.

Thirdly — concierges have a huge social value. In an aging society (Spain has one or Europe’s greyest demographics) the concierge and the little services he can perform for a building’s aged residents is an agent of considerable good. Helping a widow carry her shopping, reading the water meter for an old man with arthritis or signing for a parcel while someone is out are some of the many small but significant acts of kindness a concierge might perform over the course of his working day. For some elderly residents who live on their own, the typical shooting-of-the-breeze conversation with the concierge may be the only contact they have with another human being that day.

Finally — there is a certain snob value in being able to drop into a conversation that you have a concierge. While not so much the case nowadays, in the past, saying you lived in a building with a concierge meant something. Thus, along with post codes and square meterage, having a concierge is one of those many badges used to denote social status.

So, regardless of whatever I might opine, it looks like the concierge will form part of the fabric of Spanish urban life for some time to come. There is no difficulty filling open concierge positions. It’s not a badly paid job on the scale of things and, apart from the long hours (our concierge, Rufino, puts in five ten-hour days and a half day Saturday), is viewed as a good, steady job, something of a cushy number. In most cases it’s a job for life — Rufino has been concierge in our building for thirty years, practically all his working life, and will probably continue “being our building” until he reaches retirement age. Concierge work suits a certain kind of person — someone who doesn’t mind having a lot of time on their hands, someone who can whittle away the long hours on side projects. (I know someone who studied for a degree in linguistics while night concierging and our Rufino plans his budgie breeding programme during down time.) I’ve often wondered how much writing one could get done as a concierge, that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing for me to don that uniform and . . .


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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