U is for Understanding

616849_10150943341376837_2137883090_oWhen we moved here I didn’t speak the language. I’m a learning on the job type of person so that didn’t bother me too much; I jumped in with all the enthusiasm I could muster.

Learning a new language through immersion mainly involves not being scared of making a fool of one self. It’s quite amazing how with  limited vocabulary, gestures and plenty of pointing  you can achieve a lot.  And I’ve always had marvelous teachers. I had a wonderful neighbour when I lived in Portugal who taught me the basics of Portuguese for instance,  and here in the village villager C  took me under her wing.

Galician is a bit like an old style Portuguese,  but it’s still very different.  Villager C somehow understood everything I tried to say and often translated when other villagers didn’t get me in the beginning.

Within no time I had the hang of basic village speak.

I even learnt names of tools and plants and  pig slaughter related terminology in Galician without knowing what they’re called in English.

In a way I’m glad I didn’t learn Spanish before coming here. Although this is Spain, not all villagers, surprisingly so perhaps, don’t actually speak Spanish.

I’ve once witnessed Spanish relatives from another villager coming here who tried to chat to villager S but she kept shaking her head saying she didn’t understand, while I did.

In town people tend to speak more Spanish than Galician and I have picked up a decent level of Spanish too, however, I prefer speaking Galician. Town people are always astonished when they hear “a foreigner speaking better Galician than us.”

When I found my immersion level had reached saturation point, I decided upon doing a Galician course and retrieved books from a teacher from the local school. Faithfully I dedicated several hours a day to the task, learning new verbs and expressions.

One Sunday I (full of enthusiasm) joined the few villagers who, as always on Sunday, had gathered on the bench outside villager J`s house. I was determined  to show off my new-found skills.

However, I only got confused faces in reply when I spoke. Why was I speaking like that? Villager S asked me. I explained that this was the real Galician I  had learned from a book. He shook his head. “Stop doing that course.” he said. “Just speak like us. Otherwise we can’t understand you.”

Since then, I  found out there is actually 3 languages here, Spanish, official Galician and Village Galician. 4 if you take into account that there are regional differences as well.

I abandoned the course.

I’m now fluent in Village Galician. And even though the villagers don’t always entirely get me, at least they understand me.



T is For Tactless and Truth

“Hasn’t she put on weight, that one.” Villager O comments on Villager S’ granddaughter who’s just cycled past and definitely isn’t out of earshot. Villager O is certainly right, it is a bit of a who ate all the chorizo scenario, but I’m feeling dreadfully sorry for the girl.

Where in the UK people might mention something about someone’s weight loss (don’t you look great!), in the village all is fair game. When they’re fat they’re called fat and when they’re skinny they’re skinny. When your clothes are nice they are nice, and when they are not they’re not. Kids aren’t spared.

The first time I heard villager  O utter the f word to one of the village kids I was horrified and shocked,  worried about the terrible effects this might have on their self-esteem of the kids. But they seem ok in general.

Villagers  tend to be more worried though about skinny  kids and if he or she is eating well enough.

I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of tactlessness. Villager J as well as Villager M have told me I ought to stop dressing like a bag lady. Villager O tells me all the time that my potato planting skills suck.

The  most unnerving thing is the moment before tactlessness, when you know you’re being scrutinised (Villagers excel at this, they literary look you up and down) and then the comment.

Villager C’s daughter, who is my age, was a bit on the chubby side a while back and villager O told her in her face that she had put on a lot of weight and that she ought to lose a bit. When I berated villager O that  that wasn’t a very nice thing to say, villager C’s daughter actually said to me “but it is true, I have, and I need to lose weight!”

That made me think. Of course tactlessness isn’t exactly nice, and the truth hurts, but isn’t it preferable to hear the truth at times, rather than being handed a carefully knitted woolen lie? It might look nice but it actually bloody itches when you wear it.

Isn’t being overly polite often more rooted in a worry how people might perceive us if we tell them the truth, and the effects it would have on us if we’d upset them?

Tactlessness is in many ways so much easier. The beating around the bush all the time, being polite, being nice, sometimes just a clear “You really piss me off today” works miracles. Telling it like it is, is quite liberating.

Especially when afterwards you can still be friends. The way it is in this village.

S is for Sounds

IMG_0674I always wonder how the bird kingdom decides who gets to start the dawn chorus. Picking straws?

It’s like a feathered vocal flashmob outside every morning and it’s worth getting up early for.

Village sounds are season related, just like Village smells.

In the beginning of the year the village is relatively quiet.  Around the end of January, depending on the weather, there’s snapping sounds coming from the vineyards when villagers prune their vines. Around February/March the tractors come out of their sheds, filling the village with their whirring.  Villager O’s ancient tractor, which ought to belong in a museum, stands out, it creaks and rattles.

The sounds of birds dominate early Spring and I always sigh a breath of relief when hearing the first cuckoo. His call announces Spring, although sometimes he arrives wearing a winter coat and umbrella. The Hoopoe is next.

In March the first crickets begin to chirp,  but there is an extremely loud variety here which does so in the evening and it’s not exactly chirping. It’s near deafening hence probably made illegal in other European countries.

When it’s getting warmer and the villagers are in a good mood, there is humming and singing and when they have colds they make that typical guttural throat clearing noise which is awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time.

Villager often J sings, soprano voice. Butcher friend whistles the most entrancing tunes I’ve ever heard, accompanied by the creaking of his donkey cart. I always expect he’s being followed by other creatures just as entranced as I am, an alternative rat catcher of Hameln. Quite astonishing a man that ugly can produce that beautiful sounds.

The sound of little hooves always makes me go outside, just in case a donkey has  escaped.

On Sunday morning the village women replace their books and trainers for shiny polished church shoes,  and it’s clicking heels.

In Autumn it’s more tractors, donkey carts and wheelbarrows, when the harvesting is on the way.

During the rain season dripping noises indicate the roof still hasn’t been entirely fixed.

In December the squealing starts. It completely unnerved me the first time I heard it, sometimes it goes on far too long until you’d hear the bang of the gun, knowing it is over. I’m not religious but I tend to pray for it to be quick.

This year the noises indicating Spring arrived late.  The cuckoo was late, the crickets were late.

But I heard a fly beforehand.  I normally find those immensely irritating, their buzzing,  but in this case it felt, for just a few seconds, like summer already.

Sometimes hope arrives on the back of a single buzzing fly: the reassurance that no matter what, the seasons will change.

R is for Rage

AwgGoGzCMAMwn1b.jpg largeGalician Village life: Villagers roam lush fields, always a smile on their sun kissed faces, soft bleating of sheep in the background, complemented with chattering birds and chirping crickets. The epitome of Tranquility and Peace.



The village is full of rage.

It starts early in the morning with villager S, my neighbour. She will more often than not yell for her husband (Manueeeel) to either get out of the kitchen or come into the kitchen, go to the shed, or come out of the shed. Immediately.

The majority of the time you can hear pots or pans or buckets (or anything else that can clang  or bang) clanging from her courtyard, in echo of her voice which often goes into a near broken high pitch. They’ve changed her tablets again, she told me last week. Her nerves, you see, she whispered.

Villager S used to have a cow to take everything out on,  its skin a creamy milky white, hip bones jutting out like a bovine model. She had a holy air but was anything but. And running she could, with villager S ranting and raging behind her.  Because the stable wasn’t the place she wanted to be.

Villager J’s wife rages mainly at Villager J.  J is normally referred to as “useless” and her expression when talking about men in general makes it seem as if she’s genuinely flabbergasted about the fact that God created Adam, when Eve obviously could do it all better. Wherever something needs to be done, J will turn up too late or too wrong, or simply too J.

But the one who wins the rage race is Enraged Enrique.

Man of Epic Rants and Rage.  Imagine Basil Fawlty but then set in a Galician Village.

Enraged Enrique will always lend a helping hand where he can, will ask how things are and will agree the weather is terrible or lovely and he often smiles and brings me bags of apples if it’s the season.  He’s a highly skilled trumpet player, and in summer, doors and windows open, you can hear the sounds of trumpets drift along the heat haze of the village lane.

Just don’t get him to rage.

The vineyard next to the veggieplot I borrow, belongs to Enraged Enrique, and last summer I was digging up my potatoes while he raged against the vines. Their leaves were too leafy apparently.

His cows bear the biggest brunt. They walk too fast or they walk too slow, eat the wrong piece of grass or not enough grass.

And politics. Politics can get him into a near stutter rage, words laced with expletives spilling from his mouth.

”If it’s not our government fucking us over, then it’s the wild boar digging up our potatoes.” Epic words from Enraged Enrique.

He became ill a few years ago, and was in hospital for a while. There was talk he had to sell his cows. But he returned.  I told him to stop scaring us so much, with being ill and in hospital.

And that the village without him, just isn’t the village.

Q is for Quarry

View in the mist

Up in the hills, about a mile away, there is an old disused granite quarry. The area is quite  overgrown with shrubs and trees,  and to the untrained eye, when you venture up there, you’d think you’ve stumbled upon ancient mysterious settlements.

Some spots look as if they are giant raided tombs, or half hidden temples. In autumn they fill up with water, which gives it an eery atmosphere.

Since moving here, I have developed a great affinity with rock, granite in specific. I adore the silence of granite, its voluptuous solidity, shaped by erosion, the dappled grey patterns.

Our house is made of solid granite blocks, like all houses in this village. We bought it of villager C, it had belonged to her parents and her father built it, she told us. He cut and moved all the granite blocks from the quarry with his ox cart.

I was in awe of this. How did he do it? What kind of tools did they use to do that, to lift these blocks? She couldn’t tell me much about it , apart from saying that they just sort of chipped it to shape it.

How on earth they managed to drive the carts down the substantially steep slope, I have no idea. I’d like to find out more how it actually worked, the process of quarrying.

A few years ago, shortly after we moved here, there were rumours going round about a company wanting to mine gold. I’m truly glad that didn’t happen, because it would have meant the dirt track into the hills would have been turned into a road and we’d have trucks driving past our house on a regular basis.

The Roman’s have been quarrying the area too. and there’s evidence of even older ancient settlements nearby. I’ve always assumed there must have been a lot more petroglyphs in the area, like the big one I came across.

I’ve discovered a few more stone carvings within a km distance, but plenty of them must have been either overlooked or ignored, the need for stone blocks to build houses greater than the need to preserve their ancestor’s art, or graffiti.  (We always assume all these symbols might have a greater meaning, but for all we know we might be staring and trying to analyse some stone scratchings from a few iron age hoodlums.)

Recently  I asked Villager J what he knew about the quarries.  He didn’t know much about it either, but he said it was rubbish what villager C had said, it wasn’t her father at all who had built our house. Yes he was a stone mason, but he didn’t build the house we lived in. Villager C’s parents had bought the original building and extended it slightly. The previous owners,  Manuel and Josephina he mentioned, moved to Argentinia and never returned.

I could ask Villager C about this. But I must say I prefer the story of her father going into the hills with his ox cart and building this place by hand.

I think she prefers it too.

P is for Progress

There used to be a dirt track into the village, Villager J tells me. They didn’t need a road because no one had cars. It was just horses and ox carts. No running water, the water came from their wells. Women washed the clothes in the washing tanks. People took their grains to one of the mills near the river and baked bread in stone ovens.

Progress arrived here eventually, reluctantly, but I can imagine at a devastating pace, because the remnants of life before progress are visible everywhere still.

Walk around the village and venture in some of the old  houses and sheds, long abandoned properties, of owners who have gone of to Venezuela, Mexico or Argentina, never to return again, and you can see the ancient relics of the past.

The roof of the shed might have caved in, crumbling mattresses piled on, but pull  those mattresses away and there it is, the old ox cart, one wooden wheel fallen off.

A dusty lead rope hangs on a nail of part of a wall which is still standing, and behind some old wine barrels a rusty plough. The partitions of the stable have nearly rotten through but it’s pretty clear where the animals would have been, cows most likely. In the corner a stone drinking trough. These go for good money now, people like putting them as ornaments in their gardens.

One of the old properties no longer has doors. Someone has wrecked the cast iron top and front of the old cooker in the room upstairs, the walls blackened with sooth, a bed without a spring in another room.  The spring would have been used as an alternative fence.

The gypsies, people say, the gypsies go in and take it all. They see them as despicable scavenging hyenas, dragging things off with their hunched bodies, not to a cave, but into their not so sparkly white vans. But according to Villager L it’s often Villager J who goes scavenging. Don’t trust him, he  says.  I trust Village J regardless. Sometimes it’s better the devil you know.

I make my way through an overgrown courtyard and peek into another shed, I adjust my eyes to the dark, in the middle there is a massive weaving tool, I can’t quite make out what it is, but there’s even still some wool on it.

Where have all the people progressed to?

There doesn’t seem to be an in between generation as such. The donkeys and horses were hastily replaced with cars and credit, things were whitewashed over initially, kitchens suddenly white rather than blackened with sooth and women had washing machines.

Recently the younger generation, out of nostalgia perhaps, have decided to pay homage to what was in the past, by placing the old ploughs  and ox carts as ornaments in neatly mowed lawns , memorials to the slaving their parents used to do on the land, their callused hands.  That land. I used to grow potatoes there. And they want grass to sit on. I guess that is progress.

Villager M’s previously plastered walls have been sandblasted to reveal the granite blocks behind it, granite which was removed by hand from the quarries in the hills, moved by ox carts.  Her son has made a coffee table out of a cut in half barrel, a glass top.

Rustic is suddenly in again.

Perhaps it’s never been out as such. They might have their pressure cookers now, but the older generation is still clinging on to the old ways. They demand their offspring to come home in the weekends and help them with the vinyards, the potatoes, the haying.

Yes, maybe they have machines for that now, and instead of ploughing with oxes they have tractors, they still demand it gets done. Tarmac or no tarmac, credit or no credit.

The good thing about progress, is that women have it a lot better now, I discuss with Villager E.  Yes, that is the case, but there’s this other problem, she says. Now there’s so much more stress. People are getting ill with it. They might have their washing machines and cars, she says, but…it doesn’t seem to be as what she thought she signed up for.

And while everyone is progressing, digressing and regressing, I keep a look out for old and trying to learn, taking in those old skills wherever I can.

O is for Olfaction

Olfaction, noun

1. the sense of smell
2. the act of function of smelling

Smell can evoke long-lost memories, but certain smells in the village seem to go far beyond that, to a time I cannot possibly remember.

The smell of the first fires at the end of summer for instance, when temperatures drop in the evenings  and the villagers are lighting their cast iron wood burners.  Every year it stops me in my tracks, as if I’ve just arrived home, a strong sense of belonging.

In the heat of summer however, the smell of fire is a different story, it sets my adrenaline off.  Nothing brings out my inner Stone Age Woman more.  It’s possible for the smell of  forest fire smoke to descent from areas far away in the evenings,  causing me to run outside and scan my direct environment for signs of devastation.

Village smells which you only really notice strongly in the beginning are the Eucalyptus and pine trees.  After a while it blends into the landscape somehow, only getting a bit stronger again in Spring when the eucalyptus trees are flowering.

There are season related smells, the smell of mimosa being one of the most profound ones in late February, simply intoxicating, indicating Spring isn’t far off.

Summer has its own blend, hay being part of that, and in late summer the faint sweet smell of fruit which hasn’t been picked, rotting on the ground.

I shouldn’t forget the smell of the wine harvest. First the barrels which people roll outside and clean out,  the smell of old wet oak, followed by the  grapes themselves when they are being driven past in the carts, and in the end the smell of fermenting grapes.

Autumn is dominated by the smell of rot, I find it strange how essentially rotting  can smell so wonderful.  And the smell of mushrooms!  I went on a course once and we were encouraged to smell the different types, some smell of apple, others of creamy milk.

In winter, especially the beginning of December, there is the smell of burnt pig skin, which is part of slaughter and which actually clings to your nostrils so horrible, but it only lasts a short while. Later that month the entire village smells of chorizo. There is nothing like it.

In regards to foods, I used to hate the smell of boiled meat, especially the salted meat  variety which requires a substantial amount of boiling time, but now I love it, when it wafts through open windows I can already taste the comforting warm broth, the tender meat and can hear the crunch of freshly baked bread which I’d use to dip.

There’s only one  food smell I really don’t like. Boiled octopus. It is a depressing type of smell, especially when emitted from the stalls in the town market, worse during the rain season.

I have no problem whatsoever with the smell of innards, I can stand with my face above a steaming pile of pig guts and clean the lot. Even removing the contents of pig stomach before cleaning it leaves me relatively unfazed. My nose is always hyper alert during the precise job of separating the guts from membranes, you’d think  it smells of shit, but it actually doesn’t. The slightest whiff of shit means holes in the guts, holes in guts need prompt action, or it can spoil the lot if not fixed quickly.

All these smells…I’d like to bottle them, to somehow turn them into a library of village smells.

But for now, all I can do is write them down.