Travel Tales: Errant in Iberia

Posted on August 18, 2006


by Ben Curtis

This month Shortcut takes a closer look at living in Spain by running three excerpts from Errant in Iberia, Ben Curtis’ take on packing up and leaving home – for good. Read the excerpts below and discover at least three reasons for moving to Spain…

About Ben:

One more winter in London was going to kill me, so in 1998 I made a run for Spain and sunnier climes. I have lived and worked in Madrid for the past 7 years and am married to a Spaniard, Marina. Like most expats in Spain I worked for many years in the English teaching trade, but have recently managed to escape into the realms of translation, web design and occasional guidebook editing. Writing, photography and podcasting are my real passions, and I hope to be focusing on these increasingly as time goes on. (You can read more about Ben in the citizen interview)


I. Travel…

A month later I was in Andalucia again, this time in Granada. I arrived one Friday night at half past four in the morning and was greeted by Al, who had got there the day before. Should we have one quick drink, or go to bed, to be fresh for the following day?

One quick drink. An hour later we were in a bar dug into a hill in the Sacremonte quarter. A guitar passed from hand to hand as local musicians took it in turns to strum out wild Flamenco beats, their gravelly voices wrestling with improvised tales of heart-break. Young couples danced, hands clapped in skipping triplets, jokes flew back and forth. When at last we emerged from the hillside we made our way through the narrow maze of flower-decked, tight white streets in the Albaicin until, as if by a miracle, we came out at the Mirador de San Nicolas.

Here, with the empty, leafy plaza, a small church and the sunrise at our backs, we sat on a wall high above Granada and watched the slow illumination of the Alhambra Palace, her ruddy walls steeped in mist from the cascading, olive-green vegetation that tumbles from the ramparts to the valley below. Beyond, the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada slowly rose from the haze, cutting a meek horizon into the morning sky.

Beware ‘one quick drink’ in Granada. We finally went to bed half an hour before midday. A few hours later we awoke, grabbed our cameras and rushed into the old town. It was Las Cruces festival, the reason we had come to Granada in the first place. Whilst we slept the town had been transformed. Plazas that had been empty in the small hours were now swarming with people, with most of the activity surrounding chiringuitos, makeshift market-stall bars. These mainly traded in a local drink known as calicasas, a lethal mixture of vermouth and various unidentified liquors. Laid out along the bar tops were plates of long, earthy broad beans, which one podded oneself and chewed between drinks.

Each plaza also contained a blaring sound system, belting out chart-topping Spanish pop and traditional Sevillanas, and, set up in each corner, a large cross made of flowers, the cruces after which the fiesta takes its name. In front of these, small children danced to the music on raised wooden platforms, dressed up like their parents – colourful polka-dot frocks for the girls and tight grey suits for the boys. At the edge of the plazas men in wide-rimmed black hats sat bolt upright on elegant horses, their wives sitting side-saddle, tucked up close behind.

‘That’s the posh lot that ride in from the villages outside town,’ said Al, ‘all the rich families in the country around here own horses.’ Al had lived in Granada for a year and constantly regretted having left. It was only the lack of regular work that had reluctantly driven him to move to Madrid. ‘Come on,’ he said ‘let’s go and get a drink.’

We spent what was left of the afternoon wandering around the cobbled streets and crowded plazas, drinking calicasas and taking photographs. I felt deliriously happy. For someone who grew up in an English village where the local fiesta was an afternoon flower show whose highlight was the largest vegetable competition, these contented dancing masses were a revelation. The only remote resemblance I could see between Las Cruces and my old village fete were the plates of broad beans.

As dusk fell we found ourselves by the fountain in the Plaza Nueva, dancing beneath the palm trees with two beautiful girls from the university.

‘Why are you here?’ shouted the first above the music.

‘We live in Madrid,’ I replied, ‘we’ve come for the weekend to see Las Cruces.’

‘Do you like it?’

‘It’s wonderful!’

‘Can you dance Sevillanas?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘but Al can.’

‘Come on then!’ she said, and when the music changed and the wild, flamenco-esque Sevillanas started up, she and Al twirled around in time to the four set parts of the dance.

‘Now you learn,’ she said when they had finished, ‘just copy me!’

And as the music began she stared into my eyes and stepped first back, then forward, then spun around, and I tried my best to follow her but was lost at every turn, and I didn’t care at all because all I could think was ‘here I am, dancing around with this gorgeous Andalucian medical student, in this unbelievable town in the south of Spain – sod England, and the Radley Flower show, I’m staying here forever!’ We danced with the girls and occasionally went to the bar and revelled in it all until of course we had one calicasas too many and the girls, who saw we were drunk, made polite excuses and quickly disappeared.

‘Pah! Who cares,’ said Al, ‘do you want to see the most beautiful street in the world?’

I followed him to the head of the square, where a simple church marked the start of a narrow cobbled street, the Carrera del Darro. Three storey stone buildings lined one side, interrupted occasionally by narrow alleyways that disappeared uphill into the labyrinth lanes of the Albaicin. On the other, a low wall ran above a gentle stream several metres below, from which vast quantities of vegetation rose to street level, palm fronds vying for space with extravagant grasses and small trees bearing curious fruits. Birds darted amongst the branches and a broken Roman bridge jutted out from between two houses on the opposite bank, its disrupted path suspended in mid air. We reached a narrow plaza, and above, high on a bluff, the flood-lit walls of the Alhambra glowed orange in the dark. Here the street ended, and just where the stream disappeared off into the fields beyond stood the largest fig tree I had ever seen, a luxuriant, burgeoning mass of deep green leaves and fruit, a giant guarding the city limits, fingers gently trailing in the water at its feet.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘this really is the most amazing street in the world.’

But neither this, nor any of the extraordinary Andalucian landscapes I had seen before, have stuck in my mind like that first view of the Alhambra Palace from the Mirador de St Nicolas at dawn. It is a view that you might stumble across on any day of the week, yet something, the quality of light at that moment, the simplicity of the elements – the misty, cascading vegetation, the auburn palace walls, the mountains rising behind – had made the scene quite magnificent. Perhaps it was Brenan’s ecstasy of travel, and the child in me seeking it out.

II. Inlaws…

My first trip up to the house in the hills, to ‘Colmi’, was not so idyllic. It was September again, when the summer pushes on through one last month, when a year feels like it might start afresh there and then. Back in Madrid after the Pyrenees, Marina had invited me up for a family lunch, a formal welcome. This would be a significant step. There are two types of boyfriend in Spain, those who know the parents and those who don’t. Knowing the parents is tantamount to engagement, not knowing them means you’ll either know them soon enough, or you won’t be around for long. Had I been aware of these implications, I would have been dreading the encounter even more as we joined the masses pouring out of Madrid for Sunday lunch.

It’s very common for the Madrileño who can afford it to have a second home in the Sierra just to the north of Madrid. Elevated above the plains, halfway between the city and the Guadarrama range’s mountainous peaks, lie a string of villages whose cool clean air proves irresistible in summer. Families will uproot and relocate entirely in July and August, commuting daily down to work in the city, and coming out at weekends during the rest of the year to eat.

The whole family had gathered for the occasion, and a couple of relations had been thrown in for good measure. In all we numbered ten: parents, sister, brother, his long term girlfriend (who had long since met the parents), an aunt, an uncle, their daughter and Marina and I, all stretched out along a narrow table below a towering Eucalyptus tree. Spanish table talk began with a vengeance, oscillating wildly between a turn-taking strategy, whereby one person at a time holds forth loudly to the whole table, and what can best be described as ‘total conversation’, where each member of the assembled company will choose a partner, preferably on the opposite side of the table, and proceed to talk to, and at the same time as, them and everybody else. As each pair strives to be heard across and above the rest, the volume rises, voices battle for supremacy, and the table reaches a fever pitch. It’s practically unbearable until, quite suddenly, just when I feel I’m about to explode into a scream of desperation, everyone shuts up and starts turn taking again.

Everyone that is, except me. Throughout the entire meal I was working so hard to understand what was being said, that by the time each subject had been processed they had moved on with lightning speed to the next. The whole experience was something akin to a two hour listening exam, conducted at a level way above my abilities. Failure now could mean complete humiliation. Without exception I would be asked for my views at the precise moment I had chosen momentarily to switch off and relax.

‘What do you think Ben?’ Marina’s mother would ask, out of the blue. All eyes would now turn in my direction. I would madly examine her kind face and brown eyes for a clue towards the anticipated answer, then hazard a guess:

‘Si? Si, si…’ or ‘well, maybe…,’ by which time it didn’t matter anyway as they were already talking about something else.

The main topic of conversation was food. I have since discovered this to be typical of all Spanish meal times. Great debates rage over which region is better for jamon, which restaurant for which fish, which bar for the juiciest pincho of tortilla. Favourite places and products are defended fiercely, as is the national cuisine. I have often tried convincing Spaniards to try Thai or Indonesian dishes. Impossible, it’s all Currrri, a word rolled off the tongue with all the contempt normally held back for their worst nightmare of all, English food. French cuisine is similarly dismissed, with a single word that evidently leaves a bitter taste in the mouth: ‘buttery’.

After lunch, my mind like putty, we adjourned to the pool to recline on towels and talk some more. All I could think of was escape with Marina, an after lunch walk to somewhere very far away. Then suddenly, at some imperceptible signal, everyone, Marina included, keeled over, closed their eyes, and went to sleep. The siesta.

This was a ploy for which I hadn’t been prepared. Being British and thus unaccustomed to falling asleep every time I have lunch, I felt extremely put out. I couldn’t go anywhere as I didn’t know where I was, and was terrified of waking them all if I attempted to stand up and wander off. I felt that by being the only one still awake, I was under even greater scrutiny than before. Here I was, lounging in blissful silence beside a pool I daren’t even get into, suffering my most awkward moment yet. Marina, I decided, was an absolute traitor for not having taken the opportunity to abscond with me in search of a moment’s privacy. An hour or two passed with me frozen to the spot until, at another secret signal, everyone woke up, declared it was time for coffee and the advanced listening exam started afresh.

Mother: I want to get a new mobile phone…

Brother’s girlfriend: I couldn’t believe it when I got another wedding invitation…

Aunt: I‘m sick of ironing…

Father: … The food in Galicia is marvellous, particularly the…

Uncle: … and baptisms, my God…

Sister: … yes but the chicken is terrible…

Marina: … where… tea towels… bills, I know

Mother: …phone bills, in… what?

Sister: You don’t know anything about driving too fast

Brother: … churches… and the gazpacho was dread-…

Me (aside): Ahhhhhhhhh!

I felt ridiculous for not speaking, paranoid of being ignored, and utterly terrified of being spoken to. That evening I returned to Madrid a mental wreck, swearing naively that this was an experience which I would never be repeating again. Ever. A few weeks and several family meals later, I had given up, comforting my bewildered brain with a new mantra: ‘at least it’s good for my Spanish’.

Within a few months I was managing to answer queries with near certainty as to what I had actually been asked. Nowadays I can hold forth in short bursts to the table, though the periods of total conversation still destroy me, their intensity and impracticality destined one day, I’m convinced, to drive me insane.

III. House Buying…

On the day of the sale Marina’s father had agreed to provide moral and lingual support. We had arranged to meet outside the Notario’s office at half past twelve, a Notario being the appropriate type of solicitor to oversee this sort of thing. There we were to meet Pilar and the hitherto unseen sellers, the Calvete Muñoz family.

It was February 14th, Valentines day. The weather was bitter and I had a terrible cold. I was still extremely nervous, feeling like my life had long since spiralled out of control. This would not be a step I could readily undo. In half an hour I would no longer be able to up sticks and leave the country, or for that matter the city, on a moment’s whim. Shouldn’t all this be happening to me in England, I thought, where perhaps I would know what I was really doing?

Marina’s father was nowhere to be seen. At twelve I gave up and went on in. A receptionist showed me down a grubby corridor leading to offices packed floor to ceiling with files, then waved me into a small, crowded room. The Calvete Muñoz family rose to greet me. Pilar, who had been concealed behind the door, leapt up, immaculate, and radiantly blonde. She introduced me to her charges, sealed the introduction with a round of kisses, mumbled something about previous arrangements and disappeared. I felt like a fugitive who had just fallen headlong into the trap, or a rare species handed proudly over to the zoo. Left alone with this edgy group of strangers, I felt my foreignness like a great sign around my neck, alight with buzzers and bells, asking in bold capital letters, ‘What right does this Englishman imagine he has to be here buying your house from you?’

With barely a look at my captors, I sat down. A junior solicitor hidden behind a large monitor began to read through what I guessed were the contracts of sale. Flushed with congestion and nerves, I became Spanish-deaf and couldn’t understand a thing. Like the convicted man in the dock, I spoke only when asked to confirm my name. Where was Marina’s dad? Where oh where oh where was he? The numbers were against me. Without his help I could never expect a fair trial.

Preliminary proceedings completed – whatever they were – we were guided back to reception, there to await the final, damning audience with the Notario. Now, with time on our hands, my opponents and I could size each other up. There were the three siblings, the inheritees. Valentin (appropriately named, given the date), was retired, a sprightly man in grey suit and tie, whose small features squashed up around a thin moustache. Next to him was Augustine, a younger, well built and wary looking man, who had me constantly pinned down in the corner of one eye. And then the sister, quiet, neat and kind-faced. She might have been a nun had it not been for the husband in tow, a swanky, arrogant man who was some other kind of lawyer, a stand-in legal man that they had brought along in case things got nasty. Valentin got up occasionally and paced about, covering the exits, while Augustine rocked his shoulders like a boxer squaring up for a fight. Neither the sister, or her husband, would look me in the eye.

At last, with my nerves at breaking point, just as we had been assembled by a receptionist and told that the Notario was ready, my star witness arrived. Marina’s father strolled in, apologised for the delay, politely greeted the enemy, and casually asked me if everything was going O.K. In we went.

We took sides across a large oval polished-oak table. Manicured legal volumes lined the walls. Whilst we waited for the Notario to come in Valentin told us about his walks:

‘I do fifteen kilometres every day you know, without fail,’ he said, either to lighten things up a little or let us know that he really was a pretty serious kind of a guy.

The Notario appeared through a grand old door at the other end of the room. Grey haired, with steel spectacles, he was part headmaster, part judge. I half expected him to reach into a leather box and bring out a curled legal wig, and half to wack a cane down on the table and send me out of the room. The secretary appeared with a pile of papers which he checked through then read aloud to us in an eternal mumble of more unintelligible Spanish.

‘Are you happy?’ The Notario had stopped and was addressing me. No, but it hardly seemed appropriate that I should say so. All eyes in the room were upon me. The Calvete Muñoz clan looked ready to leap to their feet if I made a bid for escape. In their eyes I was probably the only man in Madrid crazy enough to buy a flat in that condition, and at any moment they thought I might click, and flee. The stakes were high, this was their inheritance on the line. I turned to Marina’s father.

‘Am I happy?’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘everything seems to be fine.’

Papers were distributed and the Notario passed me his gold-leaf fountain pen. I thought a bible might appear, over which we would all raise our hands and swear an oath. One by one we signed, in triplicate. I passed each sibling their bank cheque for a third of the 15.5. The Notario asked us to stand while he delivered the verdict, handing down my sentence:

‘Congratulations,’ he said, ‘you are now the owner of a flat in Lavapies.’

Valentine stretched across the table and shook my hand with his powerful fifteen-kilometres-a-day grip. Augustin dropped his shoulders and gave me a ‘you better be more careful next time’ glare. The sister offered a conciliatory smile, as her legal husband slipped quietly out of the door.

That night Marina and I sat on the dusty floor of the larger room at the front. I felt as if I were recovering from a painful trip to the dentist, though in this case it had not been for an extraction, but a significant and agonising addition. We had arranged a pair of candles on the floor, the green patterned wallpaper shivered in their cool, silver light. A dog’s bark sprang up from the street. We ate blanched asparagus from a tin and swigged Cava from a bottle.

‘Happy Valentines day!’ she said, ‘you’ve got a lot of work ahead…’

Errant in Iberia is available here

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