Two Spains, the Coast and the Rest
The Spanish real-estate brochures produced for unsuspecting foreigners like to sell “Gracious living in the South of Spain,” which conjures up visions of pseudo sophisticates drinking endless gin tonics on a bouganvilla-draped veranda. Most of the Brits fleeing to Spain to escape immigrants who can’t speak the Queen’s English properly become migrants themselves, who can’t speak any Spanish and are hemmed in by golf courses on narrow strips of land along the Mediterranean Coast.
Our experience of inland Spain was different. It was about learning and working, about forming a family and staying alive in a society where practically nobody spoke English. There was so much to learn, even beyond the language. We had to learn what to eat and how to cook it. We were put off by the taste of olive oil, we didn’t know what to do with a persimmon, a quince, or a calamar. We also learned to make two great Spanish cold soups which alleviate the summer heat: ajo blanco with almonds and garlic, and the tomato-based gazpacho.
We had to learn to relate to our neighbors, who are all Spanish. They did fine; they treated us like children. It was trickier for us; we had to learn their language. It looked impossible until I got involved in renovating a house we were about to rent. Suddenly I had to communicate seriously about bricks and beams and fireplaces. There was no other way out but to learn the language. That urgent necessity did wonders. In a couple of months, with the help of the workers on the building crew I was actually speaking basic Spanish fairly comfortably. That was the top of the learning curve. From there, with the help of a little book of Spanish verb conjugations, it was gently downhill. That said, I still have an American accent and a lot of spicy Spanish bricky vocabulary.
Spanish Customs Are Gentler
There were also new customs to learn. If you approach someone here when they’re eating they will always say, “¿Quiere usted comer?” “Would you like to eat?” In the beginning I would reply, “What have you got? Sure I’ll have a bite of that chorizo.” I soon found out this custom was formula politeness that the Moors brought with them when they invaded Spain in 711 a.d. to stay for 800 years Nobody expects you to say yes or actually eat anything. The proper response is to say, “Que aproveche…” “Bon appétit…” This is just one example of the exquisite manners of the Spanish, which are a bonus for anyone coming to live here. Luckily our neighbors were-and still are-tolerant of our ignorance and strange customs of our own.
You almost never see fistfights. I think in all the time I’ve been here I’ve only seen one and that was a case of road rage many years ago. As for bar fights, they must exist but I never saw one. Spanish people, in general, hold their liquor exceedingly well. I think that’s because alcohol was never prohibited nor considered a sin. So there’s no rebelliousness associated with drinking. The bars are not darkened dens of iniquity; they’re family affairs. Spanish almost never drink without something on their stomachs. That’s solved for them by the tapas custom. Traditionally, they bring you a little snack with your drink: some olives, a slice of potato omelet (tortilla española), some tidbits of fried fish, some mountain ham or cheese… These tapas used to be free all over the country, but with the onslaught of modernity, a lot of the more advanced regions charge for them today. Luckily, we live in the province of Granada, one of the more backward places where bar managements compete for the most creative, most abundant tapas.
The Bear Escapes from the Circus
At bottom, discovering Spain is like discovering anything else. If you’re lucky and perseverant you’ll find what you’re looking for. My wife, Maureen, arrived in Spain from a bourgeois life in northern England with two kids and her soon-to-become ex-husband. I arrived here from Detroit, after a stint in the U.S. Army with a backpack a clean pair of jeans and two used Nikons. I gave away all my worldly possessions before I left. You would not believe the sense of freedom that creates, like the dancing bear returning to the forest. Four months after meeting in one of those storybook fishing villages on the Mediterranean coast Maureen and I and her two children, six and eight, left town together to find a different Spain a hundred miles or so inland. It was the end of the sixties and we were both overdue to change our lives.
So we settled our newly-formed family in the Granada village where we still live today. Our rented house was originally a family residence but for at least the previous dozen years it had been a barn for sheep and goats, so it maintained a goatish air. Fair enough, we cleaned it and installed a bathroom. On the plus side, our sheep shed had running water from a spring up on the mountainside and a big fireplace and charming old flower-print cement tiles in the kitchen. We were, however, without electricity for the first two-and-a-half years. That’s not as complicated as it sounds. You just light your life with pretty kerosene lamps and you go to bed and rise early, taking advantage of the daylight. Our theme song was a poem by William Butler Yeats, “Beggar to Beggar Cried.”
The Luxury of Inventing a Life
Maureen had started painting before she left England and wanted to become a professional artist. She rented a studio in the coastal village and sold most of her early paintings. She thought the life of an artist would be smooth sailing. A couple of months after landing in that same fishing village I sold my first story to the New York Times. I had the feeling that freelancing articles from Europe would be fun and easy. How naive we were.
The second year in Granada a generous hotel owner invited us (Maureen was one of the models) to eat the king crab (centollo) I had just photographed for a brochure. A week later I showed up at the door of the village doctor. Without leaving his desk on the other side of the room he exclaimed, “Hepatitis aguda!” I was in bed for 30 days. A neighbor, who had been a medic in the Spanish Civil War climbed the hill to our house every day for a month to give me an injection. Others brought food and drink and one of them I hardly knew offered cash, something I shall never forget. Our neighbors from then until now, 50 years later, have always been cordial, respectful, generous and tolerant, even after the time I yelled at the priest in the door of the church for interrogating our kids one day after school.
Recreating A House of Our Own
When we later were able to buy a house–with both light and water–we maintained practically the same simple lifestyle. We were young, our blood circulated vigorously and we had no interest in a centrally-heated house. We loved our fireplaces and wood burning stoves. We even had the good luck to find an old cast-iron wood-burning kitchen range that heated water in a deposit on one side. Our house is a campesino cottage built in 1940 at the end of the Spanish Civil War. But, given its primitive construction of stone and mud (piedra y barro), poplar beams and Roman tiles, it’s no different from a house built in 1540.
We didn’t have much money for renovating the place so we kept it very basic. Today it’s virtually a museum of what houses used to be in this village. Those were the days when they were tearing down whole neighborhoods of old houses in Granada so I became an expert scrounger. I would cruise the demolition sites looking for old beams and tiles, wrought ironwork and old windows and doors. Often the foreman would say, “Just bring a truck and take away whatever you want.” On one occasion I discovered a great beam that would cross the house from wall to wall, to use over the fireplace. One beam didn’t merit calling a truck, so I hefted one end of it onto my shoulder and dragged it halfway across Granada to the plaza where the bus left for our village. The driver was a good sport and he not only helped me put it up on the roof of the bus but stopped at our house to help me unload it. That would be unthinkable today. It was almost unthinkable then. That was when our village had half a dozen cars and fifty mules.
Geology and Biology Take Revenge
We live on a 45-degree hillside, so not only do we have an unhindered view of the mountains opposite and the river below, where nightingales sing in summer, but our garden steps down the hill in a series of coquettish terraces that I used to be quite fond of. I say “used to be” because most of them no longer exist. Between the torrential winter rains and me leaving the irrigation water running overnight (mainly the latter), they’ve been washed away. Finally it occurred to me to install a drip irrigation system to limit the amount of water in the ground. That was quite a clever solution until I left it on for three days and three nights and it washed away another sizeable chunk of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
In this exuberant climate everything grows. We can still grow enough summer vegetables for our kitchen, and enough fruit that there’s usually something to pick in all seasons, from loquats, raspberries and figs in summer to pomegranates, persimmons, oranges, grapefruit and lemons in fall and winter. Our best crop, however, is morning glories which are vigorous and form a carpet of ground cover which shoots up the trunk of any tree it encounters eventually sprouting flowers out of the top of the tree. The neighbor who gave us the cuttings warned us that it was invasive, but he gave no hint that it was Atilla the Hun.
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