Seville, Andalucia: The FIrst Night

Somehow Memorial Day passed in the US without any ripple in the rest of the world. Spain. After living in Portugal for three weeks we are in Spain. The difference is immediate. Seville. The land of the mantilla, the bull fight and evidently Catholicism. This is where the Inquisition started and today, nuns walking the streets in a much more evident way than in the devout land of Portugal, we have arrived, unawares, for the region’s most important religious holiday.  Half the people of the city of Seville seemed to be ducking into one of the churches on every other street, churches that seem to hide behind walls and blossoming on the inside, to take some special communion of the Eucharist of something unknown to me.

As we sit in the late afternoon at a table on the sidewalk at one of the innumerable cafes, drinking a beer, the breeze blowing, cool. Two nuns walk by in habits, one very small, perhaps a dwarf, the other, tall and dark skinned. I see the small one only from the back, her shoes sturdy and brown just where her skirts end. She is surging ahead, almost dancing. The tall one strides to keep up and I see the side of her face, smiling as she turns up a street towards the opening of a church enclave. She is pleased to be with her friend. Somehow, I have no idea how, it brings back the memory of two horse-drawn carts full of gypsies we saw trotting at a fast pace up the hill past the Intermarche Hipermarket in Lagos one morning as we waited for the bus. Each cart carried five or six people, all adjusting themselves getting ready for what awaited them of the day, one or two faces with expressions of irritation, everyone somehow in motion, urging the horse or tying a skirt, adjusting their position next to their brother or sister or uncle or aunt. We waited a while longer for the bus. After some time, another cart came by up the hill at full tilt with a young man tossing the reins, late for wherever the others were going.

It is 10:30 and we are in bed in our hotel and since 8 pm, marching bands have been parading through the streets in some magnificent battle of the bands in honor of something, which I presume to be associated with a saint. It is a community. We don’t have this where I come from.

Since at least 7:30, the whole city has been alive, having nothing to do with this festival.  I have discovered it is the lead up to the day of Corpus Christi, practically the biggest holiday of the year.  We have stumbled on this huge festival in Seville, totally ignorant. The city is packed. Thursday it is the holiday itself, starting with a mass in the morning at the huge Cathedral of Seville,  Tonight, there are people out on the streets everywhere. Every other taverna and restaurant, of which there seem to be thousands, is packed with people drinking wine, sangria and beer and eating tapas but mainly talking and talking and talking…and laughing. And there is music from many places. Everyone who is not sitting with people in a cafe or talking with someone they’ve run into on the streets is walking down the street or stopped leaning against a wall talking to someone on their cellphone. Sometimes someone sings somewhere.

The bell in the nearby church just tolled eleven times. The street has gone quiet. It seems everyone has just gone in to bed. There will be stragglers, odd young couples having stayed late with friends, coming back across the cobbles, talking softly.

Otherwise, there will be garbage trucks during the night, a motorcycle here and there till early morning. Tomorrow summer may come to the Andalouse. There will be more parades in the street at odd times. More displays going up in unpredictable places on the streets, dark red velvet banners hung from balconies. The streets will be crowded, cars and motorcycles driving every which way, backing up, trying to negotiate corners never meant for cars, even tiny ones. 

Salema, The Algarve

The water of the Atlantic off the coast of the Algarve is an indescribable mixture of exquisite light greens, luminous, almost chartreuse, catching all aspects of the light, turquoise and darker hues of blue. Walking along the water on the sand of the beach, with the gentle waves wetting your feet as they churn with sand, the particular vibrations of these colors create a kind of ecstatic lightness of being, a sweetly, softly singing kind of joy.

As I look out over the huge, flat expanse of the water, somehow more quietly laying itself out to a line of the horizon than the vast, moving, wild waters of the Pacific, I can understand the longing to move out across them that inspired the navigators of these shores to launch themselves out in boats, ancestors of these fishermen still putting out into the sea, now pulled and pushed by a big tractor.

We walked out along the cliffs, past the luxury condos and modern townhouses that now cluster on the hillsides, to the rough tracks filled still in late May with wildflowers and the sweet and spicy fragrances of seaside foliage and the blooming rockroses and the sticky gum cistus, yellow and mauve straw-flower-like hottentot figs, purple wild gladioli and toadflax, pink catchfly, the vibrant red-tufted vetch and an occasional flowering jacaranda tree that catches us unaware with its sweetness. We step out towards the crumbly edges where my vertigo begins to take hold, just to peer down at the variations of color in the rocks and water below where the minerals in the stone make astonishing purples, greens, yellows and maroons against the light and dark greens and luminous blues of the gently spraying waves.

We climb back up through the lines and lines of luxury homes made to “blend in” with the indigenous architecture, up and up to the boundary of Salema to peer over towards the village of Figueira where tomorrow we may try to go to the beach of Furnas.

The Countryside of the Algarve

It’s been two weeks and a bit more since we closed the deal on the farm. We’re on the train in Evora, Portugal, waiting for it to leave the station. It will leave on time. We know that from experience now. The trains and buses run on time in Portugal. Two couples from Iowa have met each other in the station and are talking about their families at the front of the car. The flavor of home. The accents stand out for me as if the words were written in cartoon bubbles with caricatures of Americans speaking their lines.

Our two days in Evora gave us the flavor of the place, saturated with the sounds and smells of pouring thunder and lightning storms, purple jacaranda blossoms set delicately against both blue skies and grey, and an occasional orange tree still in bloom, the fragrance from just a few blossoms seeping secretly into our nostrils as we walked past, intoxicatingly sweet.

For us, it was not a place for sight-seeing. We stayed in a hostel tucked away in a courtyard near an old church, slept, ate and took walks to get acquainted with our surroundings. We found the ruins of the Roman temple in the middle of town and near it a lovely park with a view over the countryside where tourists and townspeople alike gravitated in the late afternoon during a wonderful interval of sunshine and clear air. Praca do Giraldo with its fountain, church, banks, cafes, pastry shop, and mysterious large lump of marble in the shape of some strange part of a human limb led into streets lined with luxury shops where people from the countryside come to do a little window shopping and be enticed to buy the things their small towns can’t provide. The tourists, too, help support this flow of cash into the regional hub.

One of the hosts at the hostel, Margarida, lives with her husband on a farm 30 kilometers from town. Just like back at home, it seems that farmers need to supplement their income with a job in town. She talked about the pigs, sheep, goats and horses and the grain they grow to help feed them. Yesterday the thunderstorms, evidently rare here, finally made it to her farm and “only my farm” where the all the dogs suddenly whined and barked to come into the house all at once. “Terrible!” she said. “Too much rain!” “The climate is changing!”

The conversation shifts from this pivot point to a discussion of the politics of our respective nations. I say that I am already forgetting Trump. She commiserates with my difficulty but says, “He is president because enough people voted for him. Here, we did not get the president the people would have voted for. We elect our assembly. Since some Communists got into the assembly the government had to make a coalition. The leader they selected isn’t one the people would have voted for directly. It doesn’t feel like a real democracy.”

I didn’t go into the reasons the government of the US doesn’t seem like a democracy either, but we agreed on the importance of government taking care of the most basic rights of human life—education of its young people and care for the health of all. She is clear that her country does these things well. I tell her that many Americans fear the nationalization of health care, scared that it will lead down the road to the nationalization of all services and therefore to Communism. She replies, “Maybe it’s just because I’m a European. I believe these things should be a function of the government. They are basic rights. People here believe that with me.”

Now we’re passing a small town where the oak trees of the rolling plains seem to congregate at the boundaries and a huge stork is perched on top of a palm tree next to the ruins of a stone house. Suddenly, I wonder how I could be doing this. How I can be free of jobs, home, possessions, stability, taking a train through a countryside I never thought I’d see. The first night in Evora when the rain streamed down outside our open french doors and the thunder crashed, I cried as if I were the emotion of the storm itself, streaming, exploding, subsiding again. I let it come. The second night I slept soundly until the early morning when the church bells rang five times in the dry, dark air before anything else seemed to be stirring. Margarida insists on driving us to the train station and won’t accept money for gas. We have a pastry and coffee while we wait and then climb aboard our first train of the day.

While we wait for our connecting train in Pinhal Novo, we start up a conversation with a retired couple from Wisconsin at the station cafe when we share a moment of delight watching an old man ride an electric tricycle up the marble ramp in the station, swerving playfully a bit from side to side as he went smoothly out of sight at the top.

They and another couple are also heading to Lagos. We carry our conversation to the platform where we all wait for the train, commenting on the concrete rails on the train track. Turns out the husband worked on the railroad In Colorado one summer during college, laying track. He notices these things now. After that, he was clearly a professional of some kind. We never talked about what we had done to make our livings.

He talks instead about the fifty acres of former farmland they bought when they moved out of town some years ago. It’s about 30 miles south of Madison WI.  I tell them that, coincidentally, this is not far from where I lived  out in the country in 1976, when I was starting graduate school at the Univesity of Wisconsin in Madison. They are intrigued.  We talk about how they’re trying to return their land to prairie and struggled for the first years with the brome grass the farmer had planted to counter erosion. I learned that this kind of grass creates a sterile environment where nothing nests or feeds. They burned it two years in a row and pulled it from everywhere that it mounted its invasions. Now they’re hiring someone to come in and plant a mixture of prairie remnant seeds, heavy on the milkweed to encourage the Monarch butterfly population. When they moved there they’d discovered that, to their surprise, the land around them was owned by people with similar interests. We talk about racoon, orchards, deer and sustainable agriculture until the train pulls up. Nice folks. We could know them. There are so many people we could know.

What kind of home will we have tonight in Lagos? Who will we meet? What will it look like around us in the town? Nothing is determined. A few small things are beginning to come into focus about the people and the country where we travel. What I am doing here is still one of the unknowns. To travel and then return to a familiar life is one thing. To travel in order to create a new pattern is another.

The sun was out in Pinhal Nouvo. Now from the train window the rolling hills, covered with tufts of low oaks and some taller pines, are shrouded with mist. There are no dwellings in sight anywhere. Even in this country, smaller than the state of Pennsylvania and much denser in the webs of its history, there is seemingly endless countryside.

The Mysteries of Porto and Coimbra, Portugal

The light reflected from the Ria Mondega is illuminating the front of the train station across from where I sit in the dining room of our old hotel, having a meia de liete , a roll with cheese and linguica and yogurt. It promises to be one of the first truly hot days of summer. The sky is totally blue, unlike yesterday’s cloudy start.

This is our fifth real day in Portugal, not counting the first which was spent in the blur of travel. We’d landed in Porto and made our way to the guest house where the owner and his son met us at the door. With tremendous gentility and sweetness, they had welcomed us and let us get settled. Underestimating the level of our jet lag, we’d gone to have a light dinner in the neighborhood restaurant, where, at four o’clock, a tall, gaunt waiter had met us upstairs and informed us sadly that it was too early for the fish. Exhausted, more drained than hungry, we ended up having his “friends downstairs” pack our order of pork ribs and grilled chicken as take away.

Back in a lovely room in the north end of Porto, we fell onto the beds and slept, I,  waking a few hours later to gorge on the grilled chicken and then sleeping again. It was not only the day of travel hitting us, but the three weeks of non-stop work to clear the farmhouse of practically everything. My intervening three-day trip to see my son receive his PhD two thousand miles away from our former home was now a blur, his face and the swirl of so many contradictory emotions coming to me in dreams.

Porto began to show itself to us the next day as we walked in the late morning down the hills toward the River Douro. Still cool at the beginning of May, the sun came and went from behind the clouds, the weather perfect for walking around a town full of workers tearing down and rebuilding the insides of countless buildings, old houses lining every street with faces mute and blank, concealing the noises and the depth and breadth of life inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grandfathers guided their toddler and preschool grandchildren through winding streets where the sidewalks were paved with thousands upon thousands of small rounded rocks in many patterns. Here too in Coimbra, all the sidewalks are the same—each street a different variety, color and pattern of stone. Some complain that these traditional streets collect garbage  between the stones and are therefore unhygienic. However, I have not seen as much dog shit here as in Paris or even as on any one of the urban trails back home in Bellingham, WA.

As I walk, I imagine the workers on hands and knees, placing stones, chatting non-stop and laughing to the accompaniment of the clang of their tools pounding the stones into the gravel, working their way along beside the hundreds of doors that lead into the caverns of lovely, unseen homes inside.

But there is a mystery in these cities of Portugal. It is now evening, and we have rested and gone up the hill in Coimbra to the famed Botanical Gardens. Originally started by the university in 1772 as a place to experiment with rare species and teach the medical students about medicinal plants. it is now run down an neglected, much of it closed to the public. Fountains that must have been lovely oases in the lush greenery do not flow. Ponds with goldfish are filled with algae where teenagers cavort and try to feed the fish Oreo cookies, perhaps with felonious intent. Everything is overgrown with weeds. The stones of stairs and tables are broken and lying in pieces. The blue tiles on the sides of the seating areas are cracked and falling from the wall. Exotic trees are dead and brown or dying. The greenhouse is closed to the public and looks as if very few professionals visit to care for the browning plants inside. The whole place has a miasma of neglect. Strangely, there is a modern bathroom near the greenhouse and a couple of workers using leaf blowers and a pick in a desultory effort to clear away a few small weeds and sparse fallen leaves on the verges around the greenhouse, as if in an attempt to deny the wild growth spreading everywhere.

 

 

In the overgrown bamboo forest, two workers are inexplicably in the process of constructing a traditional stone pathway through the bamboo, while the poles of bamboo encroach on the ancient buildings and choke the ponds and fountains. The hammer on the stones makes the same sound I imagined the workers had made while laying the stone sidewalks of Porto. Accompanying the ringing taps of the hammer, unfamiliar birds sing in this wildness while domestic apple and pear trees, somehow pruned during the winter, are suffering from lack of water and nutrients in the soils, weeds taking firm hold on the terraces where the fruit trees seem to be making their own lonely effort to survive.

 

 

 

Internet research on the reasons for this neglect seems useless. Everywhere in the two cities we’ve visited so far the stones of monuments and beautiful old buildings are blackened and full of moss. But there is construction everywhere, private renovation of ancient buildings for apartments, new stores going in on old streets, facelifts on crumbling buildings with wrought iron balustrades. But none of it seems to be municipal work. It is clear that the economy of Portugal suffered a heavy blow in 2010 and 2011 after the crash and with the European Union’s instigation of austerity measures here and in Greece, but all indications are that the recent trends are upwards.

Fundamentals appear to be fairly strong. The Centrist Left Wing government is stable and continues to have high approval ratings. In 2012 they began pushing back against austerity and seem to be managing well. The people are working and seem fairly upbeat, despite the perceptions of some other travellers I’ve read that the Portuguese are depressed and rude.

What is the source of all the neglect? I asked the night manager at our hotel if he could tell me why so much of the Botanical Gardens are closed. He replied that the gardens are owned and run by the university as a research area and those areas that are closed to the public are typically areas where experiments are underway and should not be disturbed by tourists. I thought to myself that the research, in this case, must be into the effects of benign neglect on non-native plants. I suppose there might be a Secret Garden grant from the government for such study.

The reason for the take over by weeds and the unchecked effects of water, wind and corrosion there and in the nearby municipal gardens still eludes me. Perhaps the priorities of this socialist government are rightly placed on the care of its people rather than on its municipal parks and monuments. There are also many wild preserves in the countryside and mountains of Portugal. Maybe these (and the cafes and bars) are the refuges of the populace.

Meanwhile, still puzzled, sitting here under an umbrella at a table of the Cafe Santa Cruz in the late afternoon sun, I will enjoy the Fado of Coimbra, which seems to be more chauvinistic and folkloric than the Fado of passionate longing sung in Lisbon. I will sit and feel the sun mixed with the breezes from the Rua Mondango while bats begin to fly overhead in the open plaza around the ancient church where the light is golden for a few more moments.

This way. Come!

An eagle came to perch on the upper branches of the cottonwood tree on the farm that would soon no longer be our home. It was a magnificent bird, mature, head strong and white as white. It was watching, head turned towards the house as we sat in our bare dining room on the only chairs left in the house, looking out on our penultimate evening to the barn where the setting sun had once again turned the fir planks a soft lavender. Our purple barn. As I went out across the yard to get one of the last boxes from the barn’s huge dim interior, the huge eagle, still in the cottonwood, called its screeching call, piercing notes echoing slightly in the cooling air.

We worked steadily from early the next morning till late that next night, emptying the last things from the house, and then the last things after that, hauling them to the small storage space or the dump. Then cleaning the house. The weeds in the garden wanted to be pulled, but I passed them by as I walked to the mailbox, ignoring their cries. The rose bushes wanted to be pruned of their winter damage and those that climbed, tied again against their supports, but I told them they would have to wait for someone else to guide them.

Exhausted, working till the last minute, we drove away down the road to our friends’ lavender farm a half mile away. We pulled up the drive behind the lavender fields to the little trailer the sister had parked next to her rescue cows and hauled our last boxes and bags into the tiny space to sort during the next twenty-four hours. Our friends down the road had invited us all for dinner and, after a quick rest in our little haven, we drove there to sit in the garden and watch the evening spread over the white volcano in the distance. On the way back to the trailer after dinner, we passed our usual turn to the farm—home. It hit me unexpectedly–right in the chest. “We’re never going home to our bed.” I tried to choke back the tears but they came of their own volition, hard, breathless. “I knew this was coming,” I said. “I knew it would hit me at some point. I just didn’t know when.”

In our bed in the little trailer after an exhausted short sleep, I awoke to swirling fears, a seemingly endless expanse of dark possibilities, ruin, homelessness. I pulled the thoughts in. I made them hush themselves in the darkness and I went deeply into my heart and the heart of that huge expanse. I went deeper and deeper, wider and wider into the silence.

By the time the first birds began to chirp, the ones that see the light with some inner eye before the sun’s rays begin to penetrate, I was ready to fall into sleep. “You’ve done the work. Now rest.” I slept and dreamed and woke up to the soft sounds of cows munching grass and geese calling as they flew towards the fields beyond, I calmly joyous, ready to laugh.

And here we are on a plane flying over Manitoba, lakes and square fields patterned on a tapestry rug below. I’m thinking how I woke this morning for the second time, after getting up in the night to attend to all the last minute things I hadn’t been able to do, to the chattering cries of another eagle, unseen, somewhere to the morning side of the little trailer. A joyous rousing. A call to come and take part in this marvellous moment. So I did. And made coffee. And smiled at Walter who was turning over to sleep just a little while longer.

And as our friend drove across the border to Canada and up the highway in British Columbia on our way to the airport, two more eagles, one soon, one later, flew across our path and north, their white heads shining. “Come,” they seemed to say, “This way. Come.”