By Chris Stewart
I WAS just 21 when I first arrived in Spain, hitchhiking over the Pyrenees into this strange, seemingly African land.
In the company of a washing-machine repairman, I took my first tentative steps in the language, as his little van bucketed down the narrow road to Lérida.
I had come to Spain to learn the guitar. As we crossed the river bridge into the town of Lérida, I looked down to where there were women washing clothes in the slow-moving water.
I had recently learnt a piece by Gaspar Sanz, the “Dance of the Washerwomen”, and there was a part of me that wondered if they might not stop what they were doing and dance, if I were to play that piece. Fortunately, I did not put this half-witted notion to the test.
It was autumn and the olives were hard green berries on the silvery trees. The next day, as I walked west through olive groves towards Tarragona, I picked one from the tree. It was bitter and dry and I wondered what on earth it was, and why anyone would want to cultivate such a thing. That night I stayed in a commercial hotel in Tárrega – 50 pesetas for supper and a bed in a room with three others.
Francisco Tárrega was a great composer and teacher of guitar. Among other things, he wrote Lágrimas, a pretty piece that I played in a fast and jolly fashion in the mistaken belief that lágrimas meant “happiness”. It doesn’t; it means “tears”. I searched the little town for signs of the master, but there were none, as he had never actually been there.
By the time I got to Valencia, the oranges were ripe and I found work on the harvest. It was not as easy as you’d think; it takes a particular twist of the wrist to free the orange from the tree.
At the end of a week it was made clear to me that I was not an asset in the orange fields. I remember the scent of oranges, and that the ground was carpeted, unaccountably, with spring onions, as if they were grass. I would pick handfuls to add to my lunchtime chorizo bocadillo.
Finally, I arrived in Sevilla, the self-proclaimed Queen of Andalucia, and the only place for a romantically inclined young man to learn the guitar. There, in Triana and the Barrio Santa Cruz, the spell was finally cast, and yet another Englishman was caught by the enchantment of Spain.
Twenty years later, I finally made it back, having bought a farm with its own olives and oranges, and now that my wife and I have lived here for 20 years and more, well, there’s no turning back.
Our daughter was born in the Clinica Inmaculada in Granada, and as she passed through the school system and lived and played with the families of her friends in the village, she brought us deeper into the world that surrounds us.
We were unmistakably different, though. One day she took us to task over this. “Why can’t you be like everybody else?” she asked. “Well, we do what we can…” we replied.
“But what about these clothes pegs? None of my friends’ families have clothes pegs like ours.”
It was true: whereas everybody else had colourful plastic clothes-pegs, we had wooden ones, one piece only and traditionally made by gipsies. The reason behind this was that we had a parrot, and the parrot would destroy plastic clothes-pegs in no time flat. But that was neither here nor there; the wooden pegs marked us as ineluctably different. We spoke good Spanish, though, but with funny accents, and our child, who was obviously fluent in the local dialect, felt humiliated yet more by our differentness.
Chloé has left home now, passed through the school system and on to university in Granada, where she’s studying languages. I cannot think of anywhere in the world where I would have rather seen her grow up than in this little Spanish town. It gave her, among other things, confidence, ease and social mobility.
George Borrow, the 19th-century author, wrote in The Bible in Spain: “I will say for the Spaniards, that in their social intercourse no people in the world exhibit a juster feeling of what is due to the dignity of human nature, or better understand the behaviour which it behoves a man to adopt towards his fellow human beings. It is one of the few countries in Europe where poverty is not treated with contempt, and, I may add, where the wealthy are not blindly idolised.”
Well that’s what our daughter got from the village school. It didn’t cost a lot, but we figured it was the right stuff. However, you may say, things are not what they might be in Spain at the moment… And you wouldn’t be far from the mark. “Nobody would want to be like Spain,” said Robert Boucher, the US ambassador to the EU, recently. “It’s good for nothing but flamenco and red wine.”
The king has just been caught red-handed killing elephants, and his son-in-law, the Duke of Palma, has allegedly been caught with his fingers in the public pot. He denies it. The judiciary has wrecked its credibility by imposing a witch-hunt against Baltasar Garzón, who inspired the admiration of the world by bringing to justice dictators, drug-runners and terrorists, and investigating, as well as the morass of corruption in the country, the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Civil War and dictatorship. And the jobless figures are by far the worst in Europe, not helped by a national debt to make your eyes water. The chips in Spain are good and down.
So, is it time to get out? Not likely. It’s just too good here, and after 20 years, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I still love my native Britain, but, as somebody remarked, it’s a nice place to get a letter from… you wouldn’t want to live there.
Here we have space, solitary wilderness to walk the dogs; we have our own oranges and olive oil; we pick lemons, almonds and apricots from our trees. To keep us warm in winter the rivers bring us driftwood, and there are prunings of olive and almond that burn hot as coal. The sunshine provides our electricity; we have spring water piped into the house.
True, we don’t have the benefits of rubbish collection, postal delivery or street-lighting… but you can’t have everything.
Admittedly, it’s country life that brings us all these delights. Other more urban expatriates might see things differently. It’s in the nature of the expat to grumble and criticise the host country, and lord knows there’s enough to moan about… as there is in whatever land you choose to make your stand. If you don’t like it, you can always leave… but I can’t imagine how bad things would have to be to get us to leave.
For even after all these years, I still have a crazy romantic illusion about Spain. As I speed home along the motorway, I cannot suppress a frisson of delight as I pass the sign that says Seville, Cordoba, Granada.
Everywhere there remain the traces of Spain’s richly textured history, the caliphate of Cordoba that, when the rest of Europe was still in the Dark Ages, was “the Ornament of the World”. The kingdom of Granada, with its incomparable palace, the Alhambra. Beautiful riverside Sevilla, where all the gold and silver stolen from the Americas was landed and swiftly squandered by Church, monarchy and nobility.
The magic of Spain is there in the language, with its copious admixture of Arabic, which for 800 years was spoken by everybody in the peninsula. It’s in the fruit and the trees – the pomegranate from Persia, the oranges from China, and almonds, saffron and aubergines.
The place is an inspiration, and had I not come to live in this Arcadian valley within this extraordinary country, I never would have found myself, nor the words to describe it.
Ay, Spain and your Spaniards… you’ve been through hard times before, but you’ve come through right side up in the end. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed and hope that the forces of reaction and stagnation – the Church and the fascism even now creeping out of the woodwork – will be confronted and subjugated, before things reach the pretty pass they got to last time.
Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart, and his El Valero titles are available on Kindle, and in bookshops. Visit www.drivingoverlemons.co.uk for more information.