Remembering Spain 2/2


Time Flies

Then half a century slipped by. Maureen became a fine-art printmaker who gives master classes in her studio below the house and laments not having time to paint. I discovered you can’t really live from freelancing and wound up as European editor of a hotel guide. Ask me about any hotel in Europe. I can’t remember. Then I started up a couple of businesses. Don’t ask. Now I’m Maureen’s secretary, photographer, driver and publicist. Whether it’s artists coming for Maureen’s etching courses or friends, when visitors descend the stairs into our placeta we notice their blood pressure dropping as they are affected by the aroma of jazmine and the view across the valley.

We used to have two strapping lads–and a girl who was tougher than either of them–who helped with the garden and a lot of other things. Everybody loved the luxury of open fires and meals prepared on that woodstove–which we still have and still use in wintertime. But those helpful kids are long gone, stoking their own fires, so a couple of creaky grandparents now do it all. Maureen says it helps keep us young but my back hurts. That said, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a great excuse to go three times a week to the nearby spa with it’s high-pressure hot-water jets and boiling Turkish bath.

It’s Not About Sunny Spain

I didn’t come to Spain for the climate. Like most everything else in my life, I got here by accident. Nor is this the Caribbean. The weather here can get pretty stroppy if it wants to. If Andalusia is one of the hottest regions in Europe, how is it that thousands of people every year come skiing at a ski resort that is just 18 miles up the hill from our house, and why does the temperature in our bedroom drop as low as eight degrees centigrade (46ºF) in wintertime? (Don’t worry about us, we ordered a tog 14 duvet from England and they send us two by mistake. And on really cold nights we light the fireplace in the bedroom.) The climate here has to do with altitude. People from flatland places like Michigan–me for example–tend to think that climate is mainly determined by latitude: The farther north you go (at least in the northern hemisphere) the colder it gets. But in mountainous regions the climate is more-often determined by altitude. The higher you go the colder it gets and we’re in the mountains. Even so, even when the winter nights are below freezing, the days can be balmy.

Summer here is hot, with highs around 40ºC for several days each year, but with relatively cool nights (the altitude again). The secret of dealing with the heat is to go to bed late, get up early, and spend the hottest hours of the day in bed under a slow-rotating ceiling fan with a good book. This is the much maligned–by the barbarians–siesta. One of Maureen’s artists from Australia said, “It’s great, like an excuse for having a nap!”

(Click on photos to enlarge them.)

Another of her students, this one from Seattle, had actually gone to a sleep center to cure her insomnia. They had her spend a whole night there with her head wired up with sensors. But she still couldn’t sleep. She arrived here just past lunchtime after a long series of flights . Maureen settled her into the cabin we have for her students and suggested she lay down to rest a while before they went into the studio. “Oh no,” Michelle said, “I don’t take naps; I hardly sleep at night.”

“Well, you don’t have to sleep. Just lie down for a little rest.” Three hours later a sheepish American girl tapped on our door. “I don’t know what happened. I just lay down on the bed and went to sleep.” She slept that night, too, and all the rest of the two weeks she was here, siestas included. The day she left I said to her, “Michelle, you know what is the best medicine for sleeplessness? She wrinkled her brow inquisitively. “Happiness.”

“Ohhhhh yes,” she replied.

Michelle isn’t the only one to have had that sleep experience here. Maureen attributes it to the sound of the river rushing and the birdsong.


We live at the upper edge of our village and we both work at home so we don’t really have that much daily contact with the outside world. Occasionally we get a bit of cabin fever. I get snappy; Maureen gets mysterious. When I notice that it’s starting to happen–usually one snap too late–I know exactly what to do. I say to her, “Fancy some dead fish?” She gives me that knowing smile and we get in the car and drive ten minutes to our favorite tapas bar, where the fish is plenty fresh the dry white Rueda wine plenty cold, and Monica, the welcoming Gypsy waitress, greets us with kisses on both cheeks as if we were her parents. That makes our day.

Andalusia, the region comprised of Spain’s eight southernmost provinces, is a huggy-kissy place. A kiss on both cheeks establishes an immediate relation, a recognition that we are two human beings trapped on the same planet. Starting from there good things can start to happen. You know who else I get kisses from whenever we meet? My son, Bill, who will be 47 in February. Occasionally, when a member of a Spanish soccer team scores a great goal, one of his teammates will give him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Imagine that in an NFL game.

The Pueblo Photographs


When we first arrived here I found everything fascinating and I photographed it all: the old timers and the kids, the plaza, the river, the olive and almond groves, the fiestas and romerías, the harvests and the conversions of pigs into sausages. I did that for a few years and then got distracted doing other stuff. But I always promised myself that when I got old I would go through all those black-and-white negatives and print up some of the best pictures. A few years ago I finally got around to dealing with those old negs. But in the years since I had resolved to print them, photography had gone digital and I hadn’t made a print in years. So I decided it would make more sense to digitize them.

I started looking at high-quality negative scanners. It turns out they were slow, with not-so-hot image quality and hellish expensive–a few thousand euros for a good one.
Just at that point Tariq Dajani, an excellent photographer and friend, turned up to talk with Maureen about rendering some of his photos as photogravure prints. I mentioned my project to him and commented on the scanner problems. His reply was a lifesaver, “You may not believe this, Mike, but you don’t need a scanner. All you need is a copy stand, a light source, your digital camera, a negative holder and a good macro lens. It’s much cheaper and faster than a scanner and actually gives better quality.

Tariq was right. The process was quick and easy and the resulting image quality was excellent. There were a lot of negatives to copy but what kept me going were the historic black and white images of life in our village 40 and 50 years ago. There were treasures in those pictures, people and scenes, many of which I didn’t even remember shooting, including many old folks who were no longer with us. How my neighbors would enjoy seeing them. Maybe I could organize an exhibit in the town hall. Then it struck me: They’re digital, I can publish them on Internet.

That’s how my (We’re from Pinos) photo blog came about. And my neighbors, all 1,300 of them, did love it. On its fourth day it received 18,000 hits. I had created a lot of websites but none of them had ever done so well on their fourth day online. I was bowled over. After a few months of daily posts I ran out of photos. What then? I was so enchanted with the unexpected success of my project that I started casting about for some way of keeping it going. That’s what got me back into photography. I started shooting life in the plaza and in the bars, the village fiestas, the grandparents, the children and all the rest all over again, this time in color. And the formula still works. My posts of a village event, whether it’s the Christmas parade (La Cabalgata de Reyes) or Book Day (El Día del Libro), receive up to 25,000 hits. Now they include visitors from all over the world. There’s no money in it, but I am a local hero, with my own parking place in the town square beside the local police car.


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