Z is for Zen

“Put that hoe down immediately!”

I sigh without looking round. It’s villager F, Enraged Enrique’s mum. “How dare you work on the day of the lord! How dare you!” She shouts at my back. Just to make a point I continue shoveling the earth a bit longer before turning round. I smile at her. “I am not working.”  I point out. She’s opened the gate to the veggieplot and does a few steps towards where I am standing. “Don’t step there! I’ve sown there!” I warn her, while she looks at the earth, worried expression. “Over there, step over there.” I point to a patch covered with grass cuttings.

I have my control back. It’s pure manipulation from my part. I hate getting my zen disturbed. I’ve not really sown there, but it’s fun to see people jump and get all worried and make them stand where I want them to stand. “You shouldn’t work on a Sunday.” she continues scolding from the sideline.

“How can doing something you enjoy doing be considered work?” I ask her, leaning on my hoe. She cannot really answer me. I feel mean. I shouldn’t be mean to villager F. She is a friend. But she disturbed my zen, telling me I cannot be in my veggieplot on a Sunday. I scan her face. I remember seeing her the first time when she arrived on my doorstep with half a pig’s jaw as a present and we didn’t have a clue what to do with it. We ended up cutting the meat off it and cooking that, chucking the bone away. I know different now.

“Shouldn’t every day be a holy day? Isn’t every day a miracle really?” I half tease her.

It is one of the last conversations I will have with F. We’ve had them before. She has a radar for me working in the veggieplot on a Sunday.

A few months before this she accused me of having washed clothes in the fresh drinking water tank for the cows.  I’d never seen her so angry. I had been washing near the water tank but made sure the soap water didn’t get in there, but she screeched she’d send her son down to have a go at me too. You didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Enraged Enrique. I yelled back at her that I hadn’t done such thing and we both ended up in tears. It turned out a villager’s daughter having washed her muddy trainers, not knowing the cows drank there.

The last time I think I see her is when the ambulance arrives to take her away. She looks too small for the bathrobe they’ve swathed her in.  She is still walking, held up by two villagers. I go up to her and ask her jokingly where on earth she is going.  The fluid in her lungs prevents her from answering. She kisses me, we embrace each other and her eyes tell me this the last time. “Come back soon F. You better come back soon.”

“F won’t come back.” I tell the other villagers.

But against all odds she makes a recovery, and is allowed to return home. Her bed is too big.

“I thought the last time was the last time.” I say to her, smiling. “I did so too.” I hold her hand. It’s not often you can say goodbye to a person twice.


I burst out in tears at her wake. Villagers are a bit surprised. Villager F was old. She’d had her time. It was hard for me to explain I couldn’t stand seeing Enraged Enrique that fragile and now I had no one to come and disturb my zen on a Sunday.


Two Sundays ago I was sitting under a large oak tree with villager O and M on either side, me basking in the sun while they shielded their eyes with hats and handkerchiefs when we noticed an old frail lady at the top of the lane.

“That looks just like F.” Villager O commented, and in the silence that followed I allowed it to be her. “She always used to rant at me.” I said finally, when we had verified it really wasn’t a ghost but a visiting relative of someone else. “But not nastily though.”villager M said. “No. Not nastily. But always and forever telling me to put my hoe down. She turned up with this pig’s jaw when we’d only lived here a few days. Didn’t have a clue what to do with it.” we laugh. It’s odd. I am part of retelling history now.

I knew only little about her. Illiterate, someone had told me she had never learnt how to read or write. Devout catholic. Nosey. Intrinsically part of the village. Someone who had never met a foreigner in her life. Yet we clicked.

She who disturbed my Zen.

RIP Francisca


Y is for Yelling

In the beginning I used to think the entire village was at war with each other, or that disasters were taking place, considering the way everyone yelled. “Why talk when you can yell?” seems to be a village motto. Villagers yell for a myriad of reasons. They yell in enthusiasm; “Hey! how are you!” They yell in anger; “What the hell is your donkey doing in my cabbage patch!” and they yell in panic; “My donkey has escaped!”

Villager S, my direct neighbour, yells permanently, but the pitch varies ever so slightly. You have to have lived here for years though to be able to distinguish the yell indicating when there is something seriously wrong, from the yell indicating her upped dose of meds for her nerves is not working quite correctly.

From an evolutionary perspective it could be that villagers have developed stronger vocal chords for the pure reason their voices had to reach far, over the fields and through forests. It is mainly the women who do the yelling. All this Spain has a macho culture preconception goes straight out of the window here. It’s the men who are demure. The men who have to bear the Scorn of the Vocal Chords.

When you stand next to a village woman who yells you can witness how they put their entire being behind it, it is far more than just a bit of lung action air-through-vocal-chords. Village yelling doesn’t come from the diaphragm, it comes from the toes.

It didn’t take me long to get used to the yelling. It is kind of liberating. It is one of those things which I would have frowned upon in previous lives. But here, when I need someone, I just stand in front of their house and do the multiple syllable yell. I have perfected it over the years, I can even do it with names which have rolling r’s in them, which is really difficult. Villagers have longer names because they sound better when yelled. It doesn’t work with names like Sue or Dave. It has to be Manueeeel, Marrrrrina or Franciiiisca. My name lends itself brilliantly for it too. Baaaarbaraaa.

But one of the best yells which would be impossible to imagine in polite societies is QUE!.

“Que” means “what”, but when yelled it loses its automatic question mark. Yelled it turns into something else. It is that good, I’d consider patenting it, just to say I own QUE!.

In the beginning I made the mistake of politely answering with “Wait a moment!”‘ or “I am coming!” when I heard my name bellowed outside, but now I merely respond with a QUE! Think sheepish, but instead of Beeeeh you do gueeee and then really loud. There is no comparison in English with “what” because it doesn’t have that shotgun Q at the beginning.

QUE!, come to think of it, has that je ne sais quoi. But then in Spanish.


“Wow that life sounds so idyllic.”

I’m thinking of these words while I am looking at villager O’s face. She smiles at me. I remember the first time when I sat in her kitchen and told her about my dreams which had been shattered and what it was like having to start again, how hard I found it to even put seeds in the ground, because sowing seeds seemed too symbolic.

“That is nothing.”

And she told me about her shattered life, buried in the local cemetery. Not once, but three times.

Too young to have stories of their own, only able to form part of a bigger story, her story.



W is for wake

“We once smuggled half a pig worth of meat over the German border.” villager M says; “Chorizo, hams, the lot, under the kids’ feet.” The other villager laughs and nods. I’m sitting wedged between the two, I want her to tell me more, but someone walks in, stalling the conversation, he halts in front of the coffin.

I am not Catholic, I have no idea how to cross myself, but it impresses me seeing others do it, the casualness of it. A whispered “Who is that?”

The room is not unlike a waiting room, chairs against the walls, clean floor, white walls and at the far end, behind a glass wall is the coffin. I’ve been to several wakes, so now I know how it works. The first time I made the mistake to walk straight up to the family of the deceased after having thrown a brief glance at the coffin. What you have to do however is stand there in front of the coffin in a short moment of prayer, being scrutinised, because that is exactly what happens at that moment, hearing the hushed “Who is she?”

People chat at wakes, there is nothing much else to do. Chat about the people who walk in, chat about the weather and chat about the deceased. I found out that nothing but good about the dead does not apply here.

At some point a  priest will come in and everyone stands up and joins in prayer, sentences repeated over and over, it feels odd when you cannot join in. At the last wake I went to a priest’s nerves took over. He hadn’t been assigned to the area long, basketball player sized, extremely nervous in his mid twenties and lacking all the charisma of the previous young priest who everyone loved. I felt a bit sorry for him when the village women told me that he wasn’t very good at giving mass. I joked that perhaps the high turnover rate of priests here had something to do with them. His hands were shaking when he opened his bible and began to dedicate the prayer using the name of the husband of the deceased instead. There was this moment of awkwardness until someone dared to tap him on the shoulder and correct him. His already fragile confidence would have been heard shattering on the floor if he hadn’t managed to cushion it with profuse apologies.

Wake normally takes place over two days, after that is  the funeral mass  in church and the funeral itself.  Funerals are like village parties, if you’ve been to one, you’ve been to all. The amount of priests who turn up is  linked to the amount of money the family can afford for the mass.
Men sit in front of the church, women in the back, but even church has that bit of no mans land in the middle where men sit next to women.

Church has an unbelievably ugly statue of Santiago de Compostela on his white horse, staring down at the congregation. At the top of him is something which is meant to represent the sun, but it lacks symmetry, it should hang that tiny bit more to the left.

It always disturbs me.

More so than the cracks in the walls.

I like those cracks in the walls. I like them because they obviously shouldn’t be there, but no one bothered to cover them up.



V is for Vintage


“No, the tips! Spray the tips first!” From the way the Village Eldest was yelling at me in the vineyard, it seemed she was convinced I was the one with hearing problems.

The 20 liter tank of blue liquid I was carrying on my back had a leak, I could feel it dripping in between my shoulder blades down my spine. Although I didn’t like spraying copper sulphate on plants, I had offered helping out the village eldest. She was paying me to do it. I went from vine to vine, spraying them turquoise, trying to ignore the screeching behind me, ”the tips!” until I reached a point where I yelled at her to go home and leave me to it.

The vintage generation wasn’t always the easiest of generations.

“Son dura coma pedra!” I’m hard as rock! she yelled at whoever wanted to hear it before going out into her veggieplot armed with her hoe.

I painted Village Eldest, not exactly a portrait, but how I saw her.

“Why doesn’t she just take it easy.” Villager M said.

“She is 92, she ought to go and live with her daughters.” Villager C added.

“We’ll find her dead in a field one of these days.” Villager J concluded wryly.

There was one evening where I was indeed very worried, dusk was setting in thick and fast and I had not heard the clang of the shed door where she kept her tools, indicating she was back. I was just about to alert the other villagers of her missing when I spotted her at her house, climbing the steps, her voice as if she was talking in tongues, a monotone voice. I thought the Village Eldest had gone round the bend. She didn’t see me at first, but when she did she stopped. “I am praying.” she switched for a moment to her normal voice, and then continued in her monotone voice.

A few weeks later I found her on her back in her salad bed, thrashing around, unable to get up.

I thought of Kafka’s metamorphosis.

It was raining that day and it was during lunch hour, she was lucky I was alerted by her screams. The village decided if it wasn’t for me, she would have had to spend significantly longer in that field, drenched to her osteopathic bones until someone would have walked past her veggieplot.

She moved to an old people’s home after that, unwilling to move in with her two daughters.

Her nails are no longer black rimmed now, but varnished bright pink by the nurses.

I never showed her the portrait.

Upupa Epos

I don’t wake up because of the alarm clock, but because of a bird on my badly in need of repairs roof. The second day in a row now. It sounds remarkably so like a retro ringtone, four short notes, then a break, rhythmic. It sounds out of place.

An owl struggling with his identity. An entrepreneurial cuckoo.Villager J who is taken the piss out of me. That could also be a possibility.

I get up. The sound hasn’t stopped, but the direction it comes from has changes and I look out of the window. There it is, on the roof of the house opposite mine.

What is it, a woodpecker? But woodpeckers don’t sound like that. A mutated woodpecker?  Every time he emits his noise he bends his neck,  his head going up and down. A comical sight. Its beak is remarkably large and I can easily make out his colours, an unusual shade of light brown bodice, tail feathers black and white, beautiful pattern.

It fell out of the sky on the way to an exotic destination, I decide.

Carefully I open the window, risking him to be scared off by the sudden noise, but he stays put.  I switch on my laptop and google “‘birds in Galicia’’ , just in case it is actually a local bird I simply have never noticed before. lots of sites spring up. It doesn’t take me long to spot it.  Upupa Epos, the hoopoe bird.

A screeching noise, crow-like but more gentle, I look up from my laptop. Another one…but this one has its crest up, like a cockatoo. Just as quickly as it has appeared however, it disappears.

Hoopoe number one still sits in the same spot, motionless and silent.

I turn up the volume on my laptop and click on the “hoopoe sound” button. It sounds exactly the same as what I’ve just heard and to my surprise the hoopoe turns his head in my direction. There seems to be some confusion from his part but then he answers, moving his head op and down even more than before. Hupupupu

8.00 o’clock in the morning, communicating with a hoopoe bird. And I haven’t even had coffee yet.

I continue reading about the Hoopoe bird on the internet. They’re considered unclean birds, they make their nests using excrement and their offspring will also excrete a foul-smelling substance when threatened.The hoopoe has played an important part in many religions worldwide, and a rather mixed role. In Egypt they were considered sacred, in Persia a symbol of virtue, in Estonia they were thought to have links with the underworld, their call announcing death for many people, and in France they were considered stupid.

The French, I read furthermore, considered it so stupid, it even entered their language, and that is where the English word Dupe originate.

1675–85;  < French; Middle French duppe  for *( tête ) d’uppe  head of hoopoe, i.e., fool (compare tête de fou) < Vulgar Latin *uppa, Latin upupa  hoopoe, a bird thought to be especially stupid. 

When I look outside again the bird is gone, leaving inspiration behind.

A perfect title.


T is for Tea party Galician style

“We’ll have a party.”

The little kitsch statue of the village finally had a home and needed to be officially blessed and inaugurated. Its home didn’t look like a nice little chapel to me, but resembled a makeshift prison, a plastic box on stilts with two stone slabs to form a roof. The statue was even denied the magnificent views over the hills on the right, from behind its bars he looked straight over the road into villager O’s cabbage patch.

Although I hadn’t been involved in the decision-making process on any of this, the only non catholic in the village, I wasn’t going to miss out on a party.

The possibility hadn’t gone unnoticed to me that the village women were organising all this to show off their virtuous community village hood to the young priest. He hadn’t been assigned to the area for very long when I arrived but mass was certainly popular. He didn’t really look like a priest. He had the perfect son-in-law bookish look but I could also easily imagine him as part of a boy band, the token slightly shy one. The kind you would take home to mother. I liked him. He had mentioned how he’d never ever met a community so unified, villager C told me, full of pride. I commented he probably wasn’t aware what villager P said about villager S behind her back, but she told me he meant in general.

The priest had said he’d contribute to the inauguration party by paying for a few empanadas but that had caused outrage among the women. It was to be a thoroughly stressed about in advance occasion, with added indecisiveness about who’d bring what. But it would be small. It would not be a huge party like the ones I had attended in nearby villages. I liked the idea of small.

Normally, village parties are nothing like the kind you’d imagined to find in a small village. Forget village Fete. Village parties are insane. Huge trucks turn up the day before which transform into stages, singers and dancers with legs up to their armpits, skimpy outfits, salsa, merenque and waltz with the occasional modern hit, thousands of people. All ages turn up. Before the actual bands begin, people have huge meals in their houses, families and friends invited. After that everyone joins to watch the spectacle. If you’ve been to one, you’ve been to all of them. Except the more expensive bands have prettier girls and better voices.

This party would be without all that.

After a lot of stress the party was set up, the tables laid, village women arrived with trays of cakes and empanadas and wine. The priest turned up late and the women stood in front of the statue, reciting the holy Mary at breakneck speed, reminding me of those adverts where they are trying to cram in all the terms and conditions at the end.

It was nice. No, it wasn’t nice, it was awesome. Sitting there with all the villagers and a few outsiders, eating and drinking and laughing.

But it wasn’t until after the majority of nonvillagers had left that the party really started.

“Sing!” Someone said. “M…Sing!”

And they all looked at villager M.

Villager M is my direct neighbour, he lost his leg when younger. His wife either yells at her donkey or at him but I get on with both. He’s quite soft spoken apart from the odd rant back at his wife when she has gone too far.

He sang.

And I still get tears in my eyes just thinking about that. The power and emotion was so unexpected it blew me away. When he was younger he always sang during parties and weddings, I was told. Everyone in the end sang that evening, joining in with traditional Galego village songs and some made up songs with rude lyrics which caused roars of laughter.

I looked differently at that little prison of a chapel from that day on.

For me that village spirit which I witnessed that night is locked up in there, guarded forever.