Saturday, 11 September 2010

Os Da La Bienvenido: A Look Back

The knife plunged through the crispy top layer of pastry, but hung itself up in the gooey honey leaves deeper down. It wasn´t a good knife, but it had come with the house. The light was weak and yellow, even though the the chrome and mirrors behind the black-lacquer bar did their best to multiply the shine back into the salon.

This was our “company room,” the one part of the old barn-turned-dwelling that didn´t have straw or sticks or adobe showing somewhere. The owners had left here a vast boardroom table, twelve faux Louis XVI chairs upholstered in scarlet brocade, and a wall-sized glass-fronted cabinet loaded with schoolbooks, painted plaster geisha girls, and gift-shop souvenirs from a dozen Spanish vacation spots. But best of all, glistening in the near corner, was The Bar. It was shiny as a patent leather shoe, with black faux-leather pads along the edges, and gold-tone chrome trim, with two matching stools like check-marks you could perch on. All this, too, had been thrown in for the price of the house. When you sank the two bare wires into the matching little holes in the wall, the corner glowed with Light Fantastic.

It was real polished wood, Las Vegas Luxe. Someone paid a fortune for it. And somehow it ended up here, in a semi-abandoned farmhouse in Moratinos. It gave the best light in the place, perfect for hacking apart pastries. I wasn´t sure I had enough. I´d bought a dozen. I wasn´t expecting any more guests than that, but I wanted to be sure. So I halved them into 24. The leftovers we could eat ourselves, later on, instead of cooking dinner.

Cooking was a challenge still, in the little summer kitchen. The cooktop was in there, but the oven was in the pantry. We could not switch on the lights in the main house while the oven was turned on. It was kind of fun, discovering what worked, and how to work around what didn´t. It wouldn´t be too long before the place was overhauled, and our lives returned to a convenient kind of normal. Til then, it was an adventure. Like camping, but in your own place.

An adventure, like today. Two weeks after moving in, this was our first social event, our first stab at hosting anything at home. It was a house-warming.

I tried to go about it politely. I´d asked Julia, our first Moratinos friend, what we´d need to do to have the house blessed, and how many people we might expect to turn out. It was a strange question, evidently. Julia had to ponder it for a minute.

“I´ll tell Don Santiago, and he´ll stop by on a Sunday afternoon, after he´s done all his Masses, after he´s had his siesta. It takes maybe ten minutes. Just you, just your family. Private. And you don´t need to give him any money, you know.”

“But where I come from, a house blessing is a big event. Everyone in the neighborhood is invited,” I told her. “Moratinos isn´t very big. I´d like the whole town to come.”

“Everybody?” she said. “All those people, in your house, at one time?”

“It´s an American thing,” I said. She nodded. I could tell she wasn´t sure about this, but she also was enjoying herself.

And so Julia spread the word amongst the neighbors. It was a strange invitation. Julia warned me not to expect too much. Moratinos had never had an “English party” before, and innovations don´t happen too often around here, especially in October. Some people might want to wait and see first, she said.

Sunday came, and twelve people went to Mass. Don Santiago announced the 4 p.m. Event from the pulpit. We all went home. I made the 24 hojaldre bites, and set up some orujo and vermouth for the men. (Vermouth is THE Sunday after-Mass drink here, but only for males.) I put out some lemonade and fizzy water for the ladies. I put on the only nice outfit I could find. Paddy swept the brick pavers in the patio.

It started to rain. I poured myself an un-ladylike vermouth, to calm my nerves. What if only Milagros and Julia showed up? What if everyone decided to stick with tradition, and leave us to our “private family affair?” We´d look so foolish if no one showed up. What would I tell people, when they asked about the party?

And at 3:45 p.m., my nightmare came true. The bell tolled in the church tower, over and over. My heart dropped into my stomach. It wasn´t time for a Mass. When the bell rings outside the normal hours, something is wrong – someone has died, a house is on fire, help is needed right away. Paddy went down to the church to see what was going on. I grabbed some plastic wrap to cover up the cakes. Our party wasn´t going to happen after all. It didn´t much matter, I told myself as I slipped my shoes on and looked round for my jacket. What´s a housewarming, if someone´s died?

The tolling stopped. The rain let up. I scratched the dog´s head and let a few moments tick by in silence. Paddy didn´t come back. So I went to see for myself, down the sidewalk, out the front gate, down the driveway to Calle Ontanon, my ears cocked for shouts or sirens, my eyes open for smoke plumes on the horizon. All I could hear was someone singing.

“Vamos caminando,” they sang, “juntos una iglesia”... I turned the corner and looked down the street to the church. And coming toward me was Moratinos, in full religious procession. Up front was Paco, holding aloft the town crucifix. Behind him, robes flapping, came smiling Don Santiago. Following behind, singing in several keys, was just about everyone we knew, and some faces I´d never seen before. They were dressed in their Sunday clothes. They were coming to our house.

I held open the front gate, held back the dog as they streamed up the steps and into the patio, what seemed like a vast crowd. They circled round our cleaned-up patio, with Don Santiago in the place of honor under the ivy arch. Paco stood to one side with the cross. Modesto flanked him to the right, with the holy water in its ceremonial bucket.

This may have been a strange event, but the padre never missed a beat. He greeted us all, said the holy words written in his book, then took the wand from the water-bucket and sprinkled us all in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Thunder grumbled. Modesto, a poet of local note, pulled a folded sheet from his suit-jacket. He´d composed a few verses for the event, he said. And in the traditional Castilian rhymed couplets of the region, he read out a moving tribute to polite applause.

Milagros stepped up and filled my arms with long stems of iris. She kissed both my cheeks. “I´m Miss Spain!” I said, starting to cry a little. The tears made everyone smile and giggle.

Esteban then handed a gift-wrapped package to Patrick. “Open it now,” he said. “It´s from all of us.” Inside was a blue leather presentation box. And inside that, a splendid silver plaque, engraved with a formal greeting:

“Patri y Rebeca, Moratinos Os Da La Bienvenido. Octubre 2006.”
("Patrick and Rebekah, Moratinos Bids You Welcome. October 2006.")

The plaque is kept now in our living room, where everyone can see it. I think it may be my favorite possession.

Oct. 2006 House blessing: Photo from Modesto´s blog

The plumber we´d been waiting for since Thursday arrived just then, at last. Modesto handed him a camera and made him the Event Photographer.

With the formalities finished and the rain starting up again, everyone moved into the salon, the cakes, Cokes, vermouths. They climbed up the concrete steps and bumped their heads on the low upstairs ceilings, which showered them with dust. They lifted the lid and peered down the well. They told of the people who´d lived here last, the little girls grown and gone to live in Burgos, their beautiful mother whose heart was weak, their father´s skilful basket-weaving and rush-caning, the good mules he raised in the corral out back. (We brought out a basket and a woven mat we´d found in the barn. The admiration and acclaim at their durable beauty turned to clucked tongues and shaken heads – who could have left these treasures behind for strangers to find?)

None of the comments was overly harsh. The culprits, after all, were cousins, nieces, aunts of the commentators. "You forget what´s in your barn. You see it every day until you don´t see it any more,” Julia said. “And which of us has been inside these walls in the last 20 years?”

Everyone looked at one another. It dawned on me that some of them came out of sheer curiosity – an opportunity to look around a house that was closed to them since they were children. Castilian homes are jealously guarded preserves, after all. You can be intimate friends with someone for years, and never see the inside his house.

And this house hadn´t been inhabited year-round since 1982. The woman who sold it came here only one or two weekends per year, to harvest her husband´s fruit orchard and to dance at the town fiesta. The place needed maintaining, and she´d put things off too long. If she didn´t sell it quick, it was going to start costing real money.

The visitors gave us lots of advice: Cut down the trees, they said. Get rid of those rose bushes. Have the water in the well tested. Get some chicken-wire and concrete render on those outer walls, where the wind hits – winter is coming, and those walls are in bad shape. Run an electric line here, and plumbing there. Attach a hose to the well here, and run it through the hallway of the house and out the back window, and voila! You irrigate the little garden out back!

You can use my ladders, my cement mixer, my electrical circuit-tester, my shovel, they said.

You can plant oats out here, and use this part for grazing. The barn will hold 40 sheep, and two cows can live in that storage room there. Why is this bar in here? Did you bring it with you from America?

It all was overwhelming, exhausting. In less than an hour they´d drunk the vermouth and eaten the cakes, washed up the dishes, said their goodbyes, and put to rest all the warnings we´d heard about the stony, cold shoulder these Castilian people would turn to us, the outsiders.

Rain came down in earnest. We put the lid back on the well, and disconnected the glowing chromium bar-lights. We walked back up the sidewalk into the main house, up the stairs, and down the narrow hallway to our cavelike bedroom.

In the half light we grinned at one another. They liked us!


ksam said...

A lovely rememberance!

golden chersonnese said...

Lovely yarn, rebrites.

The procession from the church to your Peaceable Kingdom sounded like something from Don Camillo.

Just wondering can you give us a who's who in the photograph? Where is Don Santiago?

CaroleH said...

How good is that? Very special.

Any midnight manure hustlings down at the olde corral ??

Ryan said...

You've forgotten to tell people the best part about that room ... the stuffed guinea pig! I miss being there ... I'm sure you don't miss how it was now. Can't wait to see the place all remodeled. I'm sure it'll blow me away. Miss you!

Teri said...

Wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it so well!