Wherein the author conducts investigations in the countryside

I recently visited the village where part of my family comes from. It is a tiny, isolated place nestled in the mountains, and it is almost uninhabited during the winter, though people often return in the summer. Mother manages to convince me to go every now and then, and since I went, I may as well write about it.

Day 1: wherein the author arrives at his ancestral village

So how did I end up kneeling on a folded rug, my laptop sitting on a nightstand, and the sound of a swift flowing stream coming through my window?

The day before yesterday Mother was making noises on how early we were going to leave, and that she’d get up around 6:30 to have breakfast, take our things to the car, and so on. I thought we’d get here in very good time, and avoid the worst of the sun, conclusions which turned out to have been correct for entirely unrelated reasons, having made the mistake of taking her statements for truth, instead of some rhetorical device hitherto unclassified (future tense with value of nevver-gonna-happen?). To be honest, there is little I could have done differently, as I’ve been waking very early in the recent days. However, I should have known better than to be worried when I did rounds at 6:30, 7:00 and 7:30 and Mother was still not doing any of those things she said she would. I wondered if she had fallen asleep, turning off her alarm, and if I should wake her up myself. In the end, I opted against it, a decision which I expect to have much prolonged my life that I shall credit entirely to luck. It is conceivable, though unlikely, that had I known this I could have slept a bit longer, or at least given it a good try.

Mother did end up waking around 7:30. We had breakfast, verified all was in order, performed due morning ablutions and other rituals of civilised life, and… waited. In the end we set out around 8:30, which was still a reasonable time, though nothing like the expected time she had been talking about. We got on the car, and I remembered she had said we needed to get some produce from the shopping centre nearby. It turns out she decided to buy a certain amount of shellfish, and to make sure it was in the best state, she would collect it on the next day. That was the story as I knew it.

As we approached what I thought was aforesaid shopping centre (the day had, I am told, good visibility, but not for me), Mother commented on some cafe we sometimes frequent being open, and I wondered: what in all fucks are we doing by this cafe, when the shopping centre is in an entirely different area of town? This questions, which came out of my mouth with perhaps a less elegant turn of phrase, resulted in Mother explaining at last her scheme in full: it turns out that it wasn’t enough to bring half the production of shellfish in Galicia and so she had to try to bring the whole. The shopping centre didn’t have enough of what she wanted, or not of the right grade (my mind goes blank when people talk about shellfish). As a result we found ourselves in the centre of the town getting 5 kilograms of muscles (no exageration) from a shop which she specifically commissioned to keep them for her in storage. After that, it was time to go back to the shopping centre for the rest: 2 kilograms of razor shells, and another 2 kilograms of clams. This is in addition to a rather eclectic inventory. Item, tonic, lots of; item, beer of her preferred brand, several packs; item, spices for gin and tonic (I only recall cardamom is one of them); Padrón peppers, 300; paprica; octopuses, 2, boiled and cut by her in advance. I shall be honest and admit to my own part, and add my moorish tea to the count.

Anyway, at this point I was wondering why on earth we were moving from A to B to A (we live very close to the shopping centre) and it turned out that it was because the shopping centre only opens at 9. so all plans to leave around 7:30 or even 8:30 were, of necessity, void. More so, they must have been known to be void by her who expressed them at the time she did so. The marvels of communication, isn’t it grand?

I admit I manifested a certain amount of frustration about this. This was already a long trip as it was, and it didn’t seem expedient to add to it unnecessarily, to which my mother remarked that my dislike of shellfish makes me a biased judge on this matter. As it may be, we had to wait at the shopping centre for quite a while. Fortune arrayed herself against us in the form of a misfunctioning process for collecting the shellfish. The bill indicated it had been paid the day before, and the machine didn’t want to accept this as release for the shellfish held in storage. All difficulties were eventually overcome, however, and we did set out around 9:30 in the end.

There’s nothing much remarkable about the trip other than the fact it was very smooth. We made a quick stop about an hour after setting off for Mother to rest, and we took the opportunity to have a coffee (Mother had had hers, I had not, at home). We pondered toast and magdalenaas,1 but decided not to go for them. After that, we stopped almost on the point of arrival, perhaps 40 km away from the final destination, because my mother’s legs were tired from driving for so long. It should be pointed out that we caught a fair amount of rain, to the point it would perhaps not be amiss to call it a storm. This, which is not ideal driving conditions in some regards, did however save us from boiling alive, and therefore it probably falls on the positive side of the ledger, on careful thought.

We arrived at the village around 14:00, which was in good time to eat, and therefore my prophesy was fulfilled, even if for reasons entirely different from those I pronounced it (this is, that we’d arrive in good time and avoid the worst of the heat). In point of fact, it was raining as we got to the village. The Galicians were therefore blamed for bringing what we are told is the first rain in the entire August. However, one mustn’t complain, because the rain was quickly dispelled (can rain be dispeled? after all, there are spells of rain).

Here begins the stay at the village itself. Let it be said there is good 3G signal, which makes matters a lot more convenient for me.

There are different things one does at the village, and if one orders them by amount of time they take (ascending) one could come up with a worst guess than walking, hailing people, eating, drinking—or are these two maybe the other way around?—, and of course gossiping.

We’re staying at one of my mother’s cousin’s place, and not, this time, things being as they are, at the mill, even as this house is also by the river and an ancillary stream. When we got here there were only 2 of my mother’s cousins, a woman at whose part of the house we stay and one of her brothers. (For reference, L and JL respectively.) We got our things from the car, found places to keep the shellfish without destroying the balance of universal gravitation, and began to have wine, at a bar situated more or less opposite the house. We walked a little, had more wine in other places, and met lots of people (most of whom I don’t know). We also met this chaldean right wing Arab scholar I had met here before (interesting to talk to, clearly well read on his subject matter and some others, but completely obsessive about his hatred for Islam, which in his personal circumstances is perhaps understandable).

Around 15:00 we sat at meal, which consisted of beans (I pointed out this is international pulses year, did you know?) and of course some meat. Wine with the meal, and home made apple liqueur (recipe for the curious: get apples, add aguardiente,2 rest for 8 months, drink and hope you and your intestinal flora survive). After that people generally went for a nap, but I didn’t feel sleepy so I set up my computer. There’s not much of a place for me to sit, and since there was a folded rug by the bed, I laid it by the nightstand and I’m kneeling on it (which is rather easier to bear than the floor tiles). I’m using the mobile phone to tether and access the net, and it works if not superbly, at least adequately, which is in the end what matters.

After the nap, Mother and L asked me if I wanted to walk wih them, which I did, and so we went around the village, to the swimming pool area, and so on. A little later, we went back to the bar opposite and took our wine. This time it was extremely cold and not that good red wine, to be honest. JL came to join us, in time, and we had some more waiting for another of the siblings to arrive with their spousal unit (I forgot if the sibling is the man or the woman of this couple, which indicates I haven’t been manufactured with the seemingly infinite capacity some of my relatives have to track familial relationships (it doesn’t matter if by agnation, cognation or affinity) as well as ages). (For reference, she is EL and he is J.) They got here around 20:00 or thereabouts, after which, you guessed it, more wine.

We ended up sitting at meal around 21:00 and had some tomato, peppers (green, I think), asparragus, onion, cold cuts, followe dby (I thought this was going to be the entire thing, as I don’t typically eat large evening meals here in Spain) potato omelette (tortilla española) which I felt obliged to have some of, Galician cheese, and fruit for those who wanted it (not me). Of course all duly accompanied by wine. Even a not so careful reader may infer by now a certain amount of wine had been consumed throughout the day, with a definitive cumulative effect.

After the evening meal we had some more of that apple firewater. I had a little on a dual premise: first off, removing danger from the remaining drinkers; second, avoiding potential environmental hazards should it ever spill. This line of thought, which on careful consideration may have been influence by the total amount of ethanol consumed heretofore, seems not to have caused irreparable harm, which is to the good. After all this, we went out to watch the stars (this is a very small village, in a very high place, with not much light at all, and no clouds to speak of, so the sky is often very clearly visible). After that, there was a party at the swimmingpool, with music and all, and so it was our duty to inspect it, which we complied with uncomplainingly (this was, I remind the reader, Mother, her 3 cousins, a spouse and myself). There we had each their choice (whisky, neat, no ice, if you care to know mine) but soon we came to the conclusion it had been a rather long day, made our way back, and slept.

The bit which remains explaining is that all of this was done concurrently with constant gossiping. I’d like to call it intelligence operations, and certainly some of the people do have the knack for it. Mother’s cousin at whose place we stay is very conscious of when and how loud to say certain things and keeps reminding people of it. I suppose that is the real meat of a village: the social relations and the little (sometimes big, in this case) dramatic set pieces embodying some of the best and some of the worst people are capable of (kindness, gratitude, spite, revenge…).

And here I find myself. Today the plan involves some grilling for the main (afternoon) meal, and we’ll see what happens for evening meal. As you see, I acculturated quickly enough, and now measure the days in meals taken and drinks sampled. While gossip in this mode is not my particular strength (I don’t track social relations so very well and have, honestly, limited interest about that sort of thing) perhaps I will be joining even this last vital part of the village experience by the end of my stay. Who can tell?

Day 2: wherein the author finds himself singing the Galician anthem, with spirit.

After I finished my previous report and I fiddle a bit online, as time had passed and it had turned to 9:00, I thought it might be worth to take a look downstairs, where the kitchen/dining area occupies the whole floor (my room is on the 1st, and it has a window which expediently blocks the sound of the river (which otherwise might not be bothersome) and that of the church bells (which definitely would, I speak from experience in this matter)). Mother and L, the householder, were there making preparations for breakfast.

Breakfast here is a much more involved affair than it ordinarily is at home. I generally have tea, perhaps juice if I am up to it, and very seldom a piece of toast with butter. People here think breakfast is a meal, though, and treat it accordingly, having such things as fruit, yoghurt, toast with butter, honey, olive oil or jam, biscuits, and croissants, or similar available food. I conformed myself to having some more breakfast than I would normally, but not as much as they tried to push me into, so I ended up having my tea (in equal parts joy and comfort), 3 fairly large pieces of toast from yesterday’s bread with butter, making them a fairly substantial affair, and 2 small croissants. As it goes, perhaps not a bad way to start the day, although I would gauge that we have enough food as it is.

We had to wait for a while for everyone else to appear. The couple (EL and J) came by around 9:30 or thereabouts, another cousin showed up having driven there from the Basque country (E for reference), and it was perhaps 11 by the time the remaining one woke up. He likes walking and climbing in the mountains, which requires getting up quite early, and therefore when he has no such plans he indulges and sleeps in, which I can’t but find a sensible choice.

I think it was around 11:00 that we had our first wine of the day (though bear in mind it may well have been earlier). After breakfast we went out for a walk in the village, stopped at places, had wine and impugned the honour of numerous persons. The day was to articulate itself around a plan, though: we had guests, for a meal outside at the house’s yard. Though the initial idea seemed to be to grill, in the end there was very little grilling involved, as there was so much food already prepared that there wasn’t need.

The meal involved, I think, 17 people. Acquaintances, relatives, relatives of acquaintances, acquaintances of relativs, u.s.w… I cannot track them all. By what seemed to be fortuitous circumstance, the sitting arrangement split men and women. I suspect this was indeed not actually planned thus, but resulted from women sitting first, and choosing to sit by other people, while men were walking about. I ended up, again by what seemed chance, to be surrounded by women, which is not a fate unbearable to me. On my right, my mother; on my left, a woman from a village nearby whose relation to us I don’t know clearly; opposite me, a young woman (in her early 20s); on her right (which is to say, if we were pawns, I could have captured her moving diagonally left) another young woman of like age and vocation, related to the other one by friendship; last, on her left (that is my right pawn’s capture to the right) a woman in her middle age whose relation I’m also not clear about.

Lacking those attributes sought by society (beauty, station, means or address), what is left to one but to wager it all on one’s wit. this seemes to have worked out, inasmuch as my table mates seemed to be pleased to talk to me and enjoy my conversation. As the food was ready, and L and my mother were asking people to sit, for instance, being completely ignored by the men milling about, I exclaimed: “in the immortal words of Tejero, ‘¡se sienten, coño!’”.3 (Quick reminder: Tejero was an officer of the civil guard who carried out a coup attempt in 1981, entering the Congress of Deputies shooting at the ceiling and demanding MPs to sit, and whose trademark phrases shall forever remain “quieto todo el mundo”,4 and my own choice of “se sienten, coño”.)

The meal consisted of seafood in its entirety. Aside from some of the things my mother had brought (the razor shells, the muscles, and the octopus) the Basque contingent had brought squid, salad with tuna in it, and other things of completely no interest to me, as I do not partake. Fortunately I was accommodated in that regard, and had forcemeat and a boiled egg, as well as some of the bread, which was very good; and I assure you this food was absolutely sufficient to my needs. Of course there was abundant wine with the meal, and at the end someone made queimada,5 for which operation I was drafted as spellcaster. I didn’t remember the whole spell, but I seemed to have made a reasonably positive impression, also ending it with an unorthodox, but not uncommon formula: e por este esconxuro, qudades libres do meigallo; o que queira que beba, e o que non, que se vaia o carallo.6 (It got laughs.)

The young women opposite me were both teachers by training, and we spent some time contrasting and discussing the labour situation. they don’t yet have permanent positions, which is a justified source of annoyance to them. One of them, the one to my left, was born in Cataluña, although she read her degree in León, and was considering to sit civil service exams to teach there (teaching is subject to the same public competitive examination system I am going through, though the topic set is different). The advantage of Cataluña is that one must justify adequate knowledge of Catalan, which one may do through taking a qualifying exam during the process, or, if one has carried out one’s secondary studies there while Catalan was taught (which is to say, since the 80s), by obtaining the corresponding convalidating certificate. To these women, I hope the best; they were kind and pleasant, and didn’t seem to enjoy the local passtime of talking shit about everyone.

As to my table mate directly on my left, at some point people began to sing, which is pretty much obligatory in such affairs, and I found out she sings in a choir, and has, I must admit, a rather pleasant voice for it, although high (my preference generally being for lower). Since the Castilian and Basque contingents were not all that enthusiastic about singing, but singing was, it seems, indicated, the Galicians (this is Mother and I) were drafted to make up for the lack. After my choir singer rendered the anthem of León, accompanied by some of the others, it couldn’t be avoided that we should sing the Galician anthem, Mother and I, alone, as no-one else in there knew it, of course.

This is a song taken out of a poem from a 19th century author whose political views I can’t stand, and whose historical obsession with Celts I find verging on falsification. He was, however, to my mind at least, a superb poet. Being very conversant with this work (I have, after all, translated it before, which was a major challenge then and would still be one now, to do it well) and with the choral tradition of how it is sung, I know that it is not one of those anthems that are light and joyful and celebrate life or exalt virtues, but it was, as it was meant to be, a battle standard. I was asked to sing it “with feeling”, by my table mate, and so I tried to comply, which wasn’t difficult, being that one is easily driven by the power of the words. And thus it was that an internationalist, outright anti-nationalist communist found himself backing at full power the ending words, thrown like a challenge to the world: esperta do teu sono, fogar de Breogán!7

People liked it though, and we commented how odd it is that Spain is such an unarticulated place that we’re not very conversant with each other’s traditions (I had never heard the anthem of León myself, which is probably about as appallingly nationalist, with a bit less excuse). I was asked about Breogán, what it meant, and I managed not to go into a rage about the panceltist scool of historical falsification, but limited myself to explaining the founder of celtic galicia was said to have invaded and conquered Ireland, according to oral traditions and some written Irish and British sources. This was probably for the best.

The plan was this meal would end around 17:00, having begun at 15:00, but plans are fickle things and it was closer to 19:00 when everyone left. After that, we had to get ready because there was a mass in the honour of my mother’s uncle, who died towards the end of last year. Here my chosen role as a neutral observer and narrator of daily life surrenders to much stronger and difficult to avoid biases, and I think I shall elide the mass altogether, lest I get drawn into an entire polemic which would not suit this frame. I shall only say that the choice of reading (the Parable of the Talents) strikes me as a fuck you of such a colossal scope I can barely believe it, and leave it at that for form’s sake.

Fortunately, there is life after mass, and we ended up doing the usual: walking around, having some wine (in my case something else, this time), and so on. We were going to go to the place where the better wine is served, but alas, other people had had the same idea, and it was full. We had to sit elsewhere instead, and I chose a soft drink to try to decrease the impact of constantly drinking from morn to eve. If it is not clear, I shall now point out I find the amount of alcohol people take here absolutely appalling, and I have little doubt that were I compelled to live in this style for a while, it would do considerable harm to my health. Alas, I was punished for my virtue by having my drink filled with ice, in spite of asking for it to be room temperature, and for it to have been artificially sweetened. I am perhaps a bit particular about this, but I find artificial sweeteners rather disgusting, and prefer the real thing (if I am not to have sugar, I simply do not have sugar). thus, a not very satisfying alternative to yet more wine.

Around 23:00 or thereabouts we went home and had a cursory meal, mostly from leftover squid. For myself, I had bread slices with hummus, and this was entirely satisfactory. Wine, of course, and doubtless other drinks, but having had woken up around 7:00 the day before (unlike everyone else) and this being the tail of a period where I haven’t been sleeping very well or very long, I decided to do the reasonable thing and go to bed relatively early. And thus here I am.

  1. Magdalenas are a breakfast food similar to muffins. 

  2. Aguardiente (lit. burning water) is a highly alcoholic drink distilled from the pomace of the grapes. 

  3. Let everyone be seated, fuck!” 

  4. Everyone freeze!” 

  5. Queimada is a drink obtained by burning aguardiente (see note 2) together with coffee beans, fruit pulp, orange peel, sugar, and other items according to taste. It is somewhat less alcoholic than its mother making it actually possible to drink without risk to life and taste buds, and it is a traditional Galician thing to have. During its preparation, casting a spell against evil enchantments is customary. 

  6. In an approximate translation: and by this spell you are free from enchantment; those who wish let them drink, and those otherwise can go fuck themselves. 

  7. Awaken from your slumber, home of Breogán.