Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sheep, Granite and Thunderstorms

Sheep. More sheep. You´d think she would have gotten used to them by now, but still she perks up in the back seat and watches them as they go past, their shepherds and dogs in tow or in the lead. Perhaps, having lost her puppy coat, she’s just admiring the do. At least there aren’t any sheep in this picture, when we finally escaped Extremadura for the day, searching for another place to stay and ending up far further than we thought we would—at the edge of the western world, the Mediterranean, at sunset, just in time for a bottle of wine and a plethora of stick throwing, trying to convince her to stay out of the undertow. She was so happy that we didn’t leave for over an hour, and made it back near 1am, the fog drawing closer the further north we drove.

They both might as well have stayed at home. Here, in the land of extremes, there are thunderstorms, hail, rain, morning fog, wind (blew the neighbour’s terracotta tiles off this afternoon) and cold. Cold. Did I say cold? Puffy coats reign supreme. I’m wearing all my sweaters. The sheep are thick. The strangest thing, however, is that Juan Pablo, the owner of this house I’m renting, still asks, during our twice weekly Spanish/English exchanges, if it’s true how cold they say it is in Canada. “Better than here,” I think, and smile, and shake my head.

The people, however, do their best to make up for it. Last Saturday we were taken out by Juan Pablo, his wife Louisa, and their friends Marian and Ema. Tapas, bacalao, beer, wine, three different bars and a tour of the square. Spanish hospitality reigns supreme. They didn’t let me pay for a thing (other than a round of beer for 5€ at the end of the night) and entertained us thoroughly. I hope we were a tenth as charming. This Saturday, we’re invited for dinner. Every few days, they show up with sheep cheese, home-made chorizo, aged sheep cheese, dulces, or freshly washed linen. Thanks to conversations with Juan Pablo´s father at the local bar in Puerto Hurraco, an unmarked door next to the library where the men gather from 7-9:30 each night, my Spanish is improving. He told me all about the Javelines that they hunt here, and how one got away from him once, only to be killed by the neighbour the following week. “It was the strangest thing,” the neighbour apparently said, “the pig had an eye missing, as if he’d been shot before.” Juan Pablo’s father agreed that the neighbour should have offered up some of the pig, in thanks for making it easy prey.

We are staying in an old family home of Luisa’s, renovated by her, Juan Pablo and their friends. Across the inner patio is the barn which is now the kitchen, feeding trough still intact. There are beautiful tiles from the ‘50s in the main house. It took about four days to warm up, and now it’s very comfortable. Across the street is the Frenchman that Luke avoids, and Chico, the tiny man who buys bread at the same time as I buy eggs, from the egg and bread man, who shows up at 9am each morning, honking like a kamakaze. He used to bang on the door until we answered and bought. He finally gave up when we started getting our bread from town (his is terrible). Vegetable man comes every Wednesday, “¿Qué más, cosita?” he asks, over and over, until I walk away with bags bulging with tomatoes and zuccini.

After this Saturday´s dinner, we’re going to the tiny square of Castuera, the nearest town, to celebrate Carnaval. And then, next week, despite everyone’s absolute loveliness, we’re escaping to Andalucía.

The Almond in the Earth

Everyone becomes obsessed by something. For Elvira, the Russian/Estonian writer and translator, it was an apartment overlooking the sea at the far end of Mojácar Playa. She had decided, at the end of the first week of the residency, to move here. There was little work for her as a translator of Estonian literature after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She felt, living in her apartment in Tallin, that she had become unconnected from things, a stranger in her own country. “Estonians, they do not want me to translate. There is no more work,” she would say, her chin in the air, her beauty startling. From then on, she could talk of nothing other than housing options in Mojácar—an apartment in the English end, a flat in the centre of town, the marina that might be built on the west end of the beach. We were even coaxed into visiting one with her. (which we then tried to figure how to diplomatically talk her out of buying). It was like the ultimate intimacy to come out of a residency experience. People weren’t getting married—someone was actually going to continue living here! We lived vicariously, and fretfully, through her real estate adventures.

For others, quite a few of us, it was the mountain. Mojácar Vieja, which towered above the foundation. Reputedly the old site of the town, it is covered in pottery fragments from the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, the Spanish. They abandoned it when the town overgrew its site. Fragments of walls, terraced gardens and mortar still remain. The whole thing is an archaeological site. It can be reached from the almond tree fields at the back of the house, where, despite drought, the earth was always damp and soft. The trees began blooming in earnest a week before we left. Almond entering the windows.

Francis, who lives in Northern Nigeria, fantasized about climbing it, and to our knowledge, never did. His discomfort with heights. Even a road with small cliff on one side could make him swoon. Kåre used it as solace and mini-gym, climbing to the top to read for hours. Jill, though she only made it halfway up, used to jog around a field at its base. ‘Trotting’, she called it, which we loved.

Hephzibah and I became obsessed with the mountain itself, and specifically, the almond, carved, in the Roman era, into its peak. Divesting it of its peak. Turning peak into flat top, into cistern, lined with rocks, mortar and plaster, creating an almond shaped hollow at the top—peak turned inside out, peak become basin, cradle. The whole town, as it was, lived off the water that was saved in the cistern. Hephzibah photographed the entire mountain, from every angle that she could walk to, and then painted each view. Stones from the top became tracings, mirroring each view, until a virtual compass of portraits grew in her studio. I wrote about her process, wrote about the almond itself, wrote about the day she stretched string from one end of the peak to the other, and then again at the radius, until a horizonal cross was made, from which she hung stones, finding, in a way, the centre of the mountain. The stones and the string were still there when we left. Something about its strange openness found its way into almost every poem I wrote in January.

Francis said he was going to climb the mountain on the last day, when he would be the last one remaining at the Foundation until his 7pm bus to Madrid. He would have found small piles of pottery, a kind of compass of stone, a metronome made of string, and stone piled high at the edge of the almond, where one former resident climbed down inside to paint a picture of the inner walls and was caught up for hours.

Oh, and Elvira decided in the end to rent an apartment for six months before committing to a purchase. Though it is a beautiful place, we northerns/westerners all breathed collective sighs of relief.

Granada in Winter

I had a small panic attack the night before leaving, and didn´t sleep well. Came down the next morning intending to tell Hephzibah and Kåre that they would have to go on their own. “I really want you to come,” she said, and so I did. Silly me. I was fine as soon as I got on the bus.

Granada in winter is a quieter place. We found a 20€ hotel on the small street that winds up to the Alhambra, set our things down, and went out to explore for the day. Long, puffy coats are the fashion. The women hold their chins high, and no one scolds them for it. We wound our way along the river, where I once had the most amazing, outdoor concert experience of my life (flamenco) and headed up into the old Jewish and Arab district, the Albaicín. In a small square that overlooks the entire city, we stopped and sat for an hour, drawing, writing, talking, while behind us, a couple of flamenco guitarists busked, trading off with one another on the guitar, the free one hanging out with their friends. The sun shone down. It was warmish—-much warmer than the bus driver and his “Cuidado, cuidado, hace mucho frio en Granada. ¡Es minus 6 degrados!” had said when we boarded in Mojácar that morning. We descended when the sun fell, wandered some more. Almost found Kåre a coat (the temperature dropped at night and he eventually went around wearing my scarf and Hephzibah’s gloves), and then found the first of many tapas bars.

I have yet to figure out whether the price for the extremely cheap beer and Rioja wine includes a tapas, whether they add a few cents on to the top of the bill, or whether we were simply reaping the rewards of not coming in the tourist season, and so were able to sample life more as the locals live it. In any case, the small plates of shrimp, beef, jamon, potatoes fried in rosemary, paella, bread and cheese, olives and blood sausage were extraordinary. We didn’t buy a meal the entire time we were away, but stayed pleasantly tipsy, which made for even more delightful conversation.

The Alhambra, which we walked up to the next morning, is pure architecture in winter. Not just the buildings, but the bare vines, the rose bushes pruned down to stalks, the black earth with stubs of perennials, the arbours and cypress trees black against the sky. I took much longer than I should have going through, taking photos of the mosaics and carved plaster, and generally enjoying the quiet, the lack of people, the space that such beauty puts into your skin, making me feel my self as expanded and light with air.

In the afternoon we headed back down to the city for more tapas before our 5pm bus home. We sat in three separate seats on the way home, writing, watching the sun fall. Andalucía: white towns; scrub bush mountains which are full with herbs and pine; light.