Monday, 26 August 2013

Americans Abound

Americans came last week, they came in pairs and threes. It is refreshing, having people from the Real Outside World come here, people who are not hikers, not breathing the rarified, self-absorbed air of Planet Pilgrim.

You can tell American guests from everyone else. They always bring a gift, or some kind of food to share. They have good teeth, and sporty shoes, and nice hair. They usually offer to help cook, or clean up. They want to see the place, even the pepper plants out back, the woodpile, the shocking old sofa in the barn where the galgos sleep.

The first to arrive were Maddy and her two girls, from Massachusetts. All three were attractive in an apple-cheek, healthy, tanned way. They were polite and funny and vegetarian. Paddy made tortilla for them. (I made gazpacho, but we had to throw it away. The missing transparent plastic knob that fits on top the blender, a useless doodad, was found suspended in the soup, ground to pellets. Damn. Never store transparent things inside the blender jar, unless you want to eat them later.)

Maddy and I talked about the Massachusetts Bar examination, a test my son Philip will undergo within the next few months. Maddy is a lawyer. She knows all about lawyering in Massachusetts. She and Philip will Be In Touch.

The lasses brought us flowers – a great bouquet of lilies that lit up the room all week on the end of the kitchen table. They make us sneeze, but we do not care, they are beautiful.

In the evening I talked on the telephone to Khalida, the woman who will, as of December, become  my son’s mother in law. We have never met. She lives in Toledo Ohio, but was born and raised in Pakistan. She is planning a huge blowout Pakistani wedding for her daughter and my son – even as her daughter and my son are planning a small, simple ceremony. A clash of expectations looms on the horizon. I am happy I now live half a world away from Toledo.

(I have never before been Mother of the Groom, and I haven’t a thing to wear! I look at beautiful embroidered silk formal Pakistani dresses on internet sites. At first I thought I would represent the Western aspect of this marriage alliance by wearing something sensible, but it seems American Mothers of Grooms are expected to dress like Easter Eggs. Here is an opportunity to wear a beautiful, princess-worthy gown, the kind of dresses worn by women called Khalida. I almost never let my Inner Princess out of her jeans and t-shirt prison. Here is her opportunity.)

I took our Moorish fiesta costumes back to dear Lucia in Carrion. I was supposed to meet an American lady who lives in Extremadura and rescues riding horses from the butcher’s van, but she did not show up. I take that as a sign: it is still not time for me to get a horse. (It may never be time for me to get a horse.) Paddy and I went in the evening to Fromista, where a Dutch and Turkish guitar duo played a world premiere duet called “Recuerdos del Camino” to a packed house. Afterward, a deluxe dinner with the artists and Fred, the pride of Green Bay, Wisconsin. We ate gazpacho ice cream. No plastic pellets.

The following day we had church duty. California arrived on the 11:45 from Madrid. Grant Spangler, an old Camino head from Ojai, arrived with Rosalie, his lady friend from L.A. They brought us a fully-loaded, rebuilt and fab laptop computer (Grant’s hobby is rebuilding computers and writing code), as well as cheese and wine, bread and fruit, and assorted packets of organic vitamins and minerals. We visited for two days, they saw the Roman villa. We drove at sundown to Palencia for another guitar concert, this one in the patio of the bishop’s palace. Enno the Dutchman brought down the house again, there was a magnificent flyover by a dozen storks, and afterward we all repaired to Bar Javi for braised octopus and calimari.  In an overlit formica bar in the heart of Castile, we chattered into the night.

Summer nights are wonderful here, out on the perimeter.   

The same night Laurie, my friend and co-author from Illinois, sent the manuscript for the updated Camino San Salvador guide. I kicked it into shape and shipped it off to London to be published. (They will duly remove any American-isms.)

And on Sunday afternoon, two more Americans rolled up from Madrid in a tiny SmartCar. Gil is a reporter for Radio Nacional Espana, and head of Democrats Abroad Spain. She is a retired ABC news Spain correspondent. They both are hardcore expats, they’ve lived in Spain since the 1970s, so where they’re from in America doesn’t really count for much any more. They said they’d heard enough about us to want to see the Peaceable for themselves. They’ve never spent much time up here (nobody has!) but I think they liked it. 

There was money left over from last weekend’s fiesta, so the Neighborhood Association threw one last big feast at the bodega restaurant. Gil and Martha arrived just in time for the prawns. We toured the town, sat in the patio and took in the cool breeze, and spoke fluent Media.      

(In the middle of it all, Portuguese Antonio, the wheedling drifter, made his semi-annual appearance. He gave me a fridge magnet with “Rebeca” on it. We gave him a glass of wine and some cheese, and slices from tomatoes plucked from the flowerbed. While he caught us up on his adventures of the past months, Harry Dog stole two loaves of bread from his backpack.)

The American guests brought gifts, too: Everything needed to make a fine sangria punch. Shandy and beer.. and a beautiful antique inkwell for my desk!  It was great fun “talking shop” and politics, religion, news and architecture. No one misbehaved or over-indulged, and all the dishes were done-up before we went to bed. I gave them a copy of the novel, and a breakfast of eggs from our chicks. And so we have two new friends in Madrid! 

No Americans arrived today. Nobody came at all. Using American recipes, I pickled cucumbers and baked brown bread. The house smells wonderful. All is well.

We both got naps. Spanish naps. Siestas. 

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Hermits Prevail!

So we hauled ourselves once again down the street, and what did we see in the plaza?

 A gypsy caravan with dancing girls and dogs and babies, pulled by a tractor, driven by a spiv in a pinstripe suit (who is really Segundino the carpenter)

 A troupe of Sanfermines, the lunatics in white and red who run with bulls through the streets of Pamplona each summer. This bull was a lissom lady holding a pair of horns, and the Sanfermines were all members of the extended Milagros family

Assorted ninjas, rabbits, Moors, Templar Knights, and mermaids.
Templar Bruno

Family unity was upheld, dances were danced, drinks were drunk, and a good time was had by all.  

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Moorish hermits crash and burn

It´s hard being foreigners in a tight-knit town. No matter how friendly everyone is, we will always be outsiders. Add to that our location: we live at the top of the pueblo, the finca farthest from the plaza, and information doesn´t tend to flow uphill. This time of year, when everyone´s relatives are visiting for the  fiesta, we miss out sometimes.  

In a town totally centered on family, we are not related to anyone. We don´t have anything they need or want. We are no longer a novelty, so no one makes special efforts to include us. That´s normal, that is
Castilian, and that is OK by us. One thing we appreciate most about our village is their respect for privacy.

Because even though yes, we open the house to almost anyone who wants to come in, and yes, we host a lot of strangers and friends and acquaintances here, still, fundamentally, Paddy and I are both introvert. We are hermits.

When no one else is here, we spend our days in quiet, individual pursuits. We potter around the house, we paint pictures, we read and write and edit books and blogs. We do not talk to anyone. We hardly talk to one another. We are loners. To a lot of people, we are probably pretty boring. But we love our lives.

How & where I spend my summer
Still, for us the hours are long during the fiesta. At Vitoriana´s house on the plaza, 28 people are crammed into ten rooms, eating and drinking and catching up -- at least four other houses are similarly brimming. Children, dressed to the nines, chase balls and balloons through the flowerbeds. Cousins hold hands in church, and pass their cranky baby brothers hand to hand. Old ladies air-kiss one another´s cheeks outside the church. I see them, and I miss my cousins, aunts and uncles, I miss my big family back in Pittsburgh, its weenie-roasts and potato salad, lightning bugs and fireworks.  

So, maybe making up for that lack, at the Moratinos fiesta I throw myself into the community fun and drag Paddy along with me. I sing the songs and snap photos of the processions, we fill our pew at Mass, we sidle up to the makeshift bar on the church porch. And since they reintroduced the annual costume contest to the lineup, I figure a way to dress up for the big Saturday evening dance.

Last year we turned a couple of cardboard boxes into wearable dice. Paddy happily filled that role. But this year, Lucía my Spanish tutor lent us some exotic Moroccan robes and an headpieces. We can dress up like Mozarabs, the people who lived in Moratinos a thousand years back -- how cool is that?

So this evening, in time for the 8 p.m. costume judging (as listed on the church door) we donned our burnooses and pinned up Paddy´s hem, and headed up the street. Paddy groaned and mumbled that the other men in town don´t dress up. I reminded him of last year´s cave men and pirates and Che Guevarras, and told him "You don´t get old and stop playing. You stop playing and get old." 

We looked great, I thought. Good as two foreigners can look, dressed up like another kind of foreigner. Julia and a little group of relatives smiled and waved as we passed, and we saw they were wearing the clothes they´d worn to Mass earlier. But not everyone participates in the costume thing. We kept going.

I wondered. Last year, the costume contest happened after sundown, after the mobile disco music started up, after everyone had a glass of wine or a beer. Now, at 8, the sun was still high and white. Paddy´s sunglasses made him look like an OPEC oil sheik.

Gillen, a child I´ve pretty much watched grow up in the last seven years, spotted us from down the street. He pointed and laughed at us. We turned the corner into the plaza. The card tables were set up in the shade, the Brisca and Mus tournament in full swing. The games stopped, the faces turned to the two strange beings. Smiles. Incomprehension. Realization.

Victor, always a quick wit, bowed three times and said "salaam." 
A cousin stood up and touched his watch with his finger. "The contest is not til 11 o´clock," he said.
I´d got the schedule wrong.
Yes, we are foreigners, yes, we live up in the Barrio Arriba. And yes, we are morons: me for getting the time wrong, and Paddy for not even bothering to look. 

We came dressed up like Moors, but suddenly we were clowns instead.

"I have ruined my grand entrance!" I mumbled.
We foreigners scuttled home. The dogs snarled at us at first.

Eleven o´clock is two hours distant. The house is very quiet. I don´t know if we will make that long, long walk downtown again. I will have to re-do my makeup, and struggle back into that robe, and hear Paddy groan and grouse from inside his.

Next year Paddy says he will be out of town for the fiesta. If he lives that long. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Funeral for a Friend

We went to London to say goodbye to Paddy´s old friend Derek.

Derek and his wife Jean were with us here last summer, right when Bella Dog arrived. He was one of only two of Paddy´s old friends to ever visit the Peaceable, far as it is from civilization. He was the only one to ever come back twice! Paddy knew Derek since they both were 15 years old, for more than 50 years.

It was sad and interesting, attending a funeral at a London crematory. The service happened in a 1930´s-era chapel-like room, but everything was carefully engineered to avoid reference to Jesus, God, Allah, or Church. The attendants scuttling round in top hats and Edwardian morning coats made me wonder what all the formality was about. The attendees were advised in advance that this was an informal funeral, that Derek played pretty fast-and-loose, sartorially speaking, and we could too. But the women stuck with conventional black dresses. The men, black suit-coats, if not ties. The few who came in jeans and jerseys were dissed outside their hearing.

A humanist minister spoke. Paddy gave a short eulogy. They played Erik Satie´s Gymnopedies 1. At the end, an electric curtain closed around the coffin up front. It was no secret a belt carried the box into a flaming oven on the other side of the white-paneled wall, but that particular truth was discreetly hidden from view. A man in a morning jacket several times stopped and bowed gravely before the bier, the same way a Catholic bows before the holy Eucharist in the front of a church. I wondered if it was Derek he was honoring, or the altar-like bier and curtain, or the firey furnace beyond. In that setting it was vestigial behavior, truly meaningless ritual. 

At the end almost everyone repaired to a pub along the Thames riverbank, where drink was taken in quantities and Derek´s memory was toasted and roasted and recalled.

The people who came to Derek´s do are a fascinating and fruity lot. Except for his children and grandchildren, most of Derek´s friends -- like him -- are over 60 and white and suburban. Many went to school with him, or worked with him at the London daily tabloids where he was an artist and layout man. They are intelligent people, and after a glass of white wine or two, they are loud and fun and funny. They´ve all known one another for decades.

One lady wore a lavender blouse with matching handbag, shoes, and hair. She joined a sprightly, slim companion, the sight of whose amply cantilevered bosom even now brings joy to the hearts of men much too mature for that sort of thing. (I know because one of them said so, out in the driveway, after asking my pardon.) Paddy´s second wife was there, looking trim and healthy, as was Derek´s first. Another well-upholstered woman arrived, wielding a vast handbag, a sharp young man in tow. Her curly mane and Scotch whisky voice were unmistakeable -- We´ve met before. She´s one of Paddy´s old girlfriends, and she knew everyone in the most elaborate and dramatic way.

A clutch of ladies watched from a table nearby. They wore costly haircuts and pressed linen. Their nails were manicured, their eyes and smiles took us all in. They looked at each of us, then at one another, and glittered like gorgeously patterned reptiles.

Some were newspaper veterans, others wives of newspaper veterans, others were neighbors in Ealing, the pricey Peyton Place suburb where Derek lived most of his life. Paddy and Ray, Gloria, Jilly, Alisdair, Sue, Chedgey (in fabulous leopardskin sneakers), Brian and Molloy told stories of their art school days together, the nights in the newsroom and later at the pub -- Fisticuffs, love affairs, betrayals, shameful behavior and last-minute triumphs.

I kept to one side, out of the way. Paddy´s life has been very full, with lots of friends, heartbreak, booze,  laughter, and women. The people at that pub know more about those years than I ever will. Now that retirement has scattered them from Brighton to Norfolk, it´s funerals that bring them together again. With their future hanging heavy ahead, they smile and laugh and talk about the past, the years when the paper sold 3 million copies a day and they had nothing but time. 

They lived the best of times, and they know that very well. They have a healthy view of life and death. They go to a friend´s wake, and laugh afterward. They are characters -- still here, still very much alive. 
I am lucky to see even the last chapter of some of their stories.