Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Lumberjacks and Timberjanets

The annual wood-chopping party took most of Saturday to happen, with most of the male population of Moratinos chopping, lopping, picking up, binding, sweeping, raking, shouting, and backhoe-wrangling. After everyone got cleaned up we reconvened in the Ayuntamiento Bar/classroom/meeting room for La Merienda, "refreshements:"  Veal ribeyes, barbecued over the grapevine fire outside, superb Cerrato cheese, and quince jam, and the grapey new wine to try, as well as a lineup of hair-raising moonshine.  It was manly food, slabs of hot meat eaten out of hand, cheese carved off the round with a shared knife, wine poured from a re-used plastic liter bottle into beer-logo bar glasses. 

I write "we," even though the Plaza Tree-Trimming this year was overwhelmingly male. Right up to the end I was the only woman there. While the men rode backhoe buckets and rickety ladders into the treetops and weilded blades and roaring chainsaws on high, I stuck to the girly-girl tasks of chopping out dead wood with a sickle, pruning the rose-trees, and raking out a foot of fallen leaves in the little flower garden in the middle of the plaza. (The actual growing of flowers is up to more experienced ladies like Milagros and Flor, Leandra and Angeles. Me? I wait til winter. I deal with the dead. We all have our place in the Circle of Life that is our municipal flowerbed.) 

The outcome of all this is a shockingly clean Plaza Mayor, where the tortured plane trees look like chickens planted head-down in buckled concrete. In summer they will make a leafy canopy over the plaza, but for now? Well. It is something very stark and Castilian. The other outcome is tons of wood trimmings, split up among the locals for use in their wood-burning furnaces and fireplaces.

This year the lads with the chainsaws also trimmed the decorative trees in our woodlot, a little triangle of unusable land right at the western entrance to Moratinos. The trees belong to the town, but the land belongs to us -- and so the wood on it is ours. (Or so I assume. It could be nobody else wants to bother with scrappy wood  way over in el Barrio Arriba, our end of town.) The men helped us drag the biggest, thickest branches up into our back patio, but several trees´ worth of wood still lie on the ground down there. And this is how Patrick and I are occupying our days this week. We are lumber-jacking all that wood into fuel for next winter.

It is hard physical labor. The sun is supposed to shine all this week, however, and Paddy seemed keen to tackle the job. 

Paddy wakes up early and walks the dogs a good four miles each morning, no matter the weather. He does his share of cleaning and cooking around the house, he eats healthfully and he gets plenty of sleep. He is not in bad condition, considering all the abuse heaped on his body over his almost-71 years. But this morning, dragging a tree trunk up to our back gate, he looked like a victim of Elder Abuse. He muttered something about an article this weekend in El Pais, the 10 Signs of Heart Attack. He has all of them, he said.

"Stop this then, you daft bastard," I said. "We´ll leave the wood. I bet Fran will be glad to take it. He loves collecting firewood."
"No way am I paying someone to bring us firewood in a truck, while we have all that perfectly good stuff just lying out there for free," Paddy panted. His eyes rolled up into his head.
"So then. You hatchet the twigs and limbs off the trunks and chop it up. There´s a brand-new blade on the chainsaw. I´ll do the hauling," I told him. I hiked down to the woodlot. The two little piles of branches the men left there Saturday had multiplied into the crudely-hacked remains of at least six trees. But I was valiant.

For many hours I lifted and hauled, lurched and swore. I left a trail of twigs behind me as I dragged branches up the steep incline onto the N120, made the sharp right onto the shoulder, and shlepped along the guardrail 100 meters or so to our back gate. Murphy Cat watched, scornful, from the horsetail trees.  Fran, the neighbor who collects firewood, came by to offer advice and comfort. Paddy chopped and stacked.

It went on for hours. We still are not finished. 

All day we ate leftovers cadged from the fridge, and a loaf of bread made overnight in the bread machine, spread with fabulously fresh peanut butter Philip hauled over in his baggage. We have some Cerrato cheese of our own, and some Cecina de Leon (the world´s finest dried beef). We have a bottle of past-its-due-date  Vega Sauco Toro wine, watered-down. The fire dances bright in the stove, and Rostropovich on the stereo, making his cello cry over something Brahms.

The dogs and cat are curled into Cs and Os in their beds, and soon we will sign off on our own consciousnesses in our own comfy places. Wood and good chilly air, hard labor for future comfort, and an early sunset.

The novels are not finished, but the woodpile is growing.
We are not youthful, but we are fine.


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

New Bee in Marrakech

Sundown from the roof terrace: Marrakech
I lay naked on wet concrete in a chamber of hot fog. The murk was broken only by a tiny skylight, way up on the half-arch ceiling. A thin beam of winter sun knifed through the mist and illuminated fleshy  bodies lined up on the floor. This is the Hammam, the public bath for women at Sidi bin Slimane, a working-class neighborhood of Marrakech, Morocco. I wondered if we maybe should have booked ourselves a deluxe Hammam and Aromatherapy session at one of the tourist spas, but I´d left this particular detail to my son Philip to handle. He´d opted for "taking a chance, going native, and saving 60 bucks apiece."

I am a woman of the world, well-traveled, confident in strange places, and this pushed my boundaries. I have been to public baths before, old Jewish schvitzes, in New York City and Detroit and Baden-Baden. In Madrid I´d taken Philip before to the deluxe faux-Moorish Hammam, great pools of hot and cold water, mint tea in misty rooms, everyone modestly attired in swimsuits, speaking in languages we understood, following a carefully-timed routine.

This was another country. Here in Sidi Bin Slimane, big women whispered to one another in a  strange language, trying not to stare at the winter-white carcass old Fatima was handling, over by the entryway -- the carcass was me, a stranger in their weekly ladies-only. There were no limpid pools or hydrotherapy showers or rose-petals. There was concrete, worn smooth by years of water. There were great pipes and faucets, and dozens of plastic buckets. Fatima folded me down to the floor before a lineup of buckets, and poured the tingling hot water from several over my head and shoulders, back and legs.

The old woman worked naked, wet and bulbous and black-skinned. She squeezed oily black soap from a plastic baggie and spread it across a mitt of scratchy cloth, which she rasped across every square inch of my skin. She moved my body and limbs up and aside as if I was a doll, across her lap and much too near to her rolls of skin and hair. Flecks of dark waxy stuff appeared on my surfaces -- I thought the scratchy mitt was shedding lint, or the soap was curdling in the heat. I saw a woman sitting near, peppered the same way, rubbing and rubbing, and I realized the spots were skin, peeled off and rolled-up the same way it did when I was six, in summertime, out on the curb scratching mosquito bites. Fatima was removing my outer layer.

I let myself relax there, face-down on the floor, my body stretched across the old woman´s knees. The only sound was the scrape and scratch of many hands moving, washing skin, exfoliating arms or ankles or the back of the person adjacent. The splash of many gallons striking cement, a groan of shock or release or pain, the feel of those waxy speckles vanishing into the liquid heat. Fatima´s powerful fingers found a knot in my neck. She leaned into it, rolled it under her knuckles, I and felt the ache and the air-miles, the language barrier and a chest-cold flow from my body and roll away across the concrete.

Finished, Fatima patted my knee and smiled the beatific smile of a midwife. I sat sprawled on the concrete for a little while, glowing white in the darkness, feeling myself the newest-born bee in this misty, humming hive beneath the street of the Medina. I am sure I have never been so clean, not since I was first born.  
Phil in our courtyard


Morocco -- or Marrakech at least --  was delicious and awful. Philip and I stayed at a "Riad," a done-over old courtyard-style house in the old Medina. Riad Dar Zaman is owned by an Englishman with a House-And-Garden decorating style, and the servants, mint tea, babbling fountain, and roof terrace overlooking the neighborhood would usually be outside our price-range but for a very positive currency exchange rate. The city reminded me very much of my three years of childhood in Turkey, what with donkey-carts and caleche carriages, trundling vendors´ carts, a souk and spice markets, dancing monkeys and a spectacular chorus of muzzeins singing live from the city´s many minarets five times every day. The old part of the city is a living museum of architecture, with even the corner shops somehow adorned in plasterwork or tiles or lacquer. Children are treated with great affection. Mosques are well-attended, but you can get usually get a beer with your sandwich if you want one. I bought a splendid wool and over-embroidered carpet for a very fair price. (I brought one of the Riad boys with me to help with the haggling business. Philip now repeats to me, at suitable moments, "Madame! You bargain like a Berber!") (I know, they say that to all the tourists.)

I could not have stayed longer than about four days, however. I was shouted-at by men, until I began walking with a hand on Philip´s elbow. Many women go about fully covered, in veils all the way over the eyes. I kept wondering which of those phantoms might be my hammam-sisters. The tiny streets are overrun with venomously smoky motorbikes, a noise level approaching "jackhammer," and more hustlers and cons and come-ons than a Damon Runyon story.

It is a city, and cities are noisy and polluted. I am a villager. I like my quiet. I was glad to come home.
Philip went home, back to New Hampshire and law school.
Kim came back, and is moving into the little "guitar house" in Carrion de los Condes as the first Artist in Residence of 2012. She is already making movies. She made up a new lot of blog-headers for me!
The first full read of the Zaida novel got a rather glowing review. At least the second half of it did.
Rosie dog has a terrible cut on her behind, we know not from where. Six stitches, and the hood in the photo above to keep her from messing with the wound.
Paddy still has a cold/flu. It is becoming tiresome. He looks done-in.
And so goes the first half of January.

Friday, 6 January 2012

why dogs smile

walking in the cold sundown
January drags long around here, maybe because it is so foggy so much of the time, and there are so few pilgrims to spark things up. The upside is, the fields stay green all through the winter, and sunsets are often remarkable. If I can survive January, I can usually make it to (mercifully short) February, too. So far I have managed it almost 50 times.

I am getting things done, however. I applied for a new Residencia card at the Foreigners Office in Palencia, and sailed right through the first part of the process. Kim is coming back. Fred´s been here and left again, and this time we created a non-profit association to administer the artist-in-residence summer program in Carrion de los Condes. I am Founding Vice President, even though I warned them my responsibilities should not go much farther than "Vice." 

Philip is still here, too. We are leading a quiet life, walking, reading, writing, shopping, cooking. I fuss about him being bored, but he says I worry too much. He is fine. Next week we are off to Marrakech for a few days, and from there he heads home. I know it is the Way Of the World, but it still makes me sad, thinking of saying goodbye. 
gentlemen of leisure

Yesterday a box arrived in the mail, from my sister Beth. A few years ago I told my family in America to stop sending me gifts at Christmas, as the expense and trouble were simply too much. But Beth loves gift-giving. Now that she cannot send things to me and Paddy, she instead sends gifts to our animals.
And so we have millet for Bob the Canary, huge Brontosaurus bones for Tim, Lulu, and Harry, a bagful of little rawhide knots for little Rosie, and a squeaky toy mouse for Murph.

At the bottom of the box was a package from my mother: a seat-cushion cover in a Peaceable Kingdom fabric. Where do moms find these things? And Beth, incorrigible, sent me a pad of memo paper in a fancy red leather box. She had to send something!

I took pictures to send to them, of happy critters enjoying their booty. Here they are, you can enjoy them too. Because there´s not so much more than this to tell you about. Not in January! 

sorry, Blogger doesn´t like me messing about with photos...