Up to the top of the fells again today, this time with a pack and a little lunch. I’ve walked about eight miles a day the last few days, with slight variations in my route. Today it was down the A684 road past the renovated stone house, past the little Methodist Church build in 1878 for the railway workers, past the Moorcock Pub, through the gate to the Pennine Bridle Way, through the sheep fields, over the stone bridge across the infant river Eden and up the hills past the cleft in the hill with a stream and a waterfall and up to the big old ruined lime kiln at the base of a limestone outcropping.
Just above the kiln, I go through yet another cattle gate in the dry stone walls, turn right, as I have now for three days running, and start out along Lady Jane’s Highway toward Hell Gill. I keep trying to get all the way to Hell Gill and beyond but I only come close before it’s time to turn back for one reason or another. A few miles beyond Hell Gill is the enticing Pendragon Castle, which dubious legend says was where King Uther, King Arthur’s father, died. As with so many cultural ideas, there are many reasons why it cannot be so, but the idea is so appealing in its beauty that it persists.
The weather today is warming. The rain and cold had persisted ever since we arrived over two weeks ago. The atmosphere continues to settle into my bones like the soft, lilting speech I hear around me at the pub and on the train. The morning had dawned with the blowing misty rain we’d gotten used to, but by noon there were patches of blue sky
The other day I met a local man who was coming through the gate at the top of the hill just as I approached. His black and white border collie came toward me tentatively and circled back as the man closed the gate behind him. We exchanged pleasantries and, as often happens, my accent lead him to ask where I come from. As it turned out his wife is also American. We talked about the Dales and the similarity here to the weather I’ve known in the Pacific Northwest. I asked some stupid questions about the Lady Anne Highway. He answered with great forbearance. He told me that the first two ruins along the way had both been inns when the road was the only one in the area. The first, High Dyke, more tumbled down than the second, had been built in the early 17th century and the second, High Hall, about 100 years later. We went our ways, he with his dog for their second walk of the day up on Lady Anne’s Highway, me down towards the Moorcock Pub as an ending to my afternoon of walking.
Over the days that I’ve walked there, it has been this second ruin, High Hall, that’s come to capture my imagination. Perched there along the ridge above the fells, it had been built right on the high road where the drovers used to drive their sheep to market and everyone had used from time immemorial to travel from one town to another. Lady Anne Clifford (for whom it came to be named) used the road in Shakespeare’s time to travel from her castle in Skipton to her castle, Brougham, in Penrith. High Dyke, the older farm and inn, must have been there along the way. Perhaps she and her retinue stopped for refreshment there or even spent a night.
High Hall was built after Lady Anne’s day, sometime in the early 18th century when the road at the top of the ridge was still the only way to travel from one town to the next. Some of its walls have fallen in, huge stones lying in heaps among the rubble of the roof stones. Other walls remain almost intact.
On the south-west side of the ruin, where the buildings end and the hill falls away, two imposing dry stone pillars frame a spectacular view of the valley, the fells and the limestone cliffs stretching out below in their quiet, misty magnificence. A huge chunk of raw limestone rock perches on each of these high stone posts, their odd, strangely evocative forms the only remaining elements of the ruin that seem ornamental rather than structural. Their presence, so whimsical, is a link across the centuries.
Leaning over the wall on the opposite side of what now is a courtyard bounded by dry stone walls, I can look directly through the opening between the pillars. I stand for long moments lost in the sense of grandeur that huge frame creates. I can feel the life that circulated through these rooms, quiet talk and louder laughter, dogs barking, sheep bleating and people pausing to gaze in thought at this same view, lost in the expanse.
These visions enter my dreams. As I lie in bed waiting for sleep to capture me, I think of what it was like to sleep inside the walls of that house, rough woollen blankets pulled around your chin, the quiet dirt and limestone road just outside the door and the moors stretching down the hillside into the vast valleys, the strength of the stone surrounding you.
Dreaming is deeper here. The dreams go on in ways that can be followed forever through the vast rooms of the unconscious, just as you follow the pathways and climb over the stiles in the vast valleys and fell-sides of the dales, one view giving way to another as dream melts into dream.
I must say that the Yorkshire Dales is a very odd place to be. Everywhere else in the world there is heat and fire, smoke and lava, explosions and terrible winds. Here there is quiet. There is calm expanse. There is earth, stone and water.
On our way here we stopped for a couple of days in London near the huge buildings of Canary Wharf, sheltered in an old stone house near the old docks but surrounded by the intense buzz of the energy of thousands of men and women pursuing money. We walked by the temples of the gods and goddesses: Morgan Stanley, J.P Morgan, City Bank, Barclays, Credit Suisse, HSBC, National Bank of Abu Dhabi, and the other lesser deities. A priestess of Barclays even descended into the bowels of the earth with us, resplendent in her headdress of a thousand tiny blue-black cornrows, her bespoke fingernails each painted with different intricate designs and colors, her clothes like those of the male priests, subdued, beautifully tailored, dark bottom, white top, her designer shoes understated with slender tall heels. She sprinkled us liberally with her grace, connecting us to her heavens for a few moments then flowing off in a hum of energy, up the escalators to the heights.
Here in the Yorkshire Dales, in Cumbria, and, more precisely, in Garsdale not far from Hawes, there are miles and miles of rolling green and green-brown hills dotted with sheep, cows and grey stone buildings with rain and rain and rain, just warm enough to actually still be pleasant. The air is clear but often foggy. You can breathe long draughts of it, clean and damp.
Through the window in our temporary home in the Railway Cottages I can see the tiny Garsdale train station platform with its big red Victorian-style lamps.
A train pulls up quietly as I write, barely audible for all its proximity, and I watch a hiker or two come out, settling backpacks on their backs. Off they’ll go across the damp moors where just ten days ago the hot sun of a persistent, unheard of heat wave was still drying the grasses. After a few days of rain that often came down with some force, the streams are rushing high. The waterfalls that run over the shelves of layered limestone that make this scenery so distinctive are frothy and yellow with mud.
Yesterday we took the little white over-priced bus the six miles to Hawes, the village of Wensleydale Cheese and scenes from the old BBC series of All Creatures Great and Small. The nice man at the wheel drove us along the country roads lined with miles of dry stone fences and occasional groves of oak or pine. The countryside that rolled by with its large squares of undulating green went by at such a clip that I felt as if I were along with Toad on his wild ride, Rat waiting for us anxiously back at Toad Hall.
He dropped us off as a favor at the Wensleydale Cheese factory, though it wasn’t strictly on the route. Once there, I tried to get Walter to come into the cheese-making tour and museum, luring him with Wallace and Grommet quotes, but he didn’t make it much past the door. He knows all about cows and milk. He grew up with them.
Our neighbors in the Railway Cottages have a pub and guest house called the Board Inn on the main street of Hawes. We met up there as agreed when I had my fill of Wensleydale Cheese lore. By the time I came in, he was happily eating a toasty sandwich of cheese and onion near the windows and drinking a pint of their best bitter. I joined him, having learned all I could about how to make a somewhat fresh, salty cheese with gallons of raw milk.
The much anticipated Wallace and Grommet exhibit had taken about a minute to absorb. Even so, had I been a kid, I would have opted out of the rest and did what I could to plant myself in front of the screen with a loop of the Wallace and Grommet movies. As it was, I watched a nervous young blond woman demonstrate the steps of Wensleydale cheesemaking to a small room packed with tourists (being careful not to dump the whey all over the floor as she confessed she had once done), peeked into the cheesemaking room where people in white coats and white shoe wrappings worked in a stainless steel environment turning curds, breezed past the Czech tourists fresh off their tour bus, through the “interactive” museum exhibits and popped into the shop to buy some Wensleydale cheese, which like Wallace, I happen to like.
Fueled with cheese toasties and British beer, we walked the loop through the village and up and around the fields and river to the hamlet of Hardraw where we stopped for yet another pint at a lovely pub. Then back to Hawes across the fields and streams. We picked up fruits and vegetables at the greengrocers and other provisions at the Co-op Supermarket and hopped back on the Little White Bus back to the Railway Cottages in Garsdale, the driver not as chatty and driving more slowly at the end of his day.
Now, again, we’re puttering around the cottage with its small, cosy rooms, waiting out the rain. Today it’s evidently part of a tropical storm called Ernesto hanging over a large swath of the British Isles. It’s August and the wind is pushing the driving rain across the moors as it has for a portion of almost every day of the entire week we’ve been here. We could be living in a November in our old home in the Northwest corner of the US were it not for the lingering roses in the garden down the row and the daisies and red campions and rosebay willowherb (what I call fireweed) still blooming in the meadows and the actual warmth of the air most days.
I have adapted to walking on the footpaths and bridle trails across the beautiful moors–to the wet feet, to picking my way around cow patties, sheep dung, mounds of rabbit pellets, bog mud, overflowing streams and puddles. I have learned a lot about sheep from sheer observation. Curious, I am even learning the names of some of the many varieties that graze in the huge expanses of fields and meadows, wet and windblown.
There are the Swaledale with their black faces, white around their noses and eyes with their rams with curling horns like our Mountain Goats back in the Western US. As I walk up a track, I may look up to see a Swaledale ram standing there, looking at me, horns prominent. Matching the brief squirt of adrenaline in my veins, I catch a quick glint in the dark liquid of his cornea as if a neuron were sending out just a spark of an impulse to charge at this intruder. But no, as if the spark had fallen on the wet bog soil, he walks off quickly, out of my way. Only this season’s young males, still trying to follow their mother for a nip at the teat now and then, butt heads from time to time, practising the push for hierarchy in their DNA
Then there are the big Wensleydale sheep with their grey faces, now shorn but puffy with wool in the winter, never feisty, always eating. There are many more varieties in the Dales, but these two seem to be the ones I encounter most in my ramblings. There will be a sheep demonstration on a Sunday in the field behind the Moorcock Pub where we walk for a pint every few days. I’ll learn more about those sheep then. We may even go to a demonstration of dry stone wall construction in the nearby town of Hawes the next week. The dry stone walls around here are made of the local limestone as they have been since inhabitants built them as far back as the Bronze Age. They are built and maintained now for the same reasons they were then—to protect the livestock and to establish ownership of the valuable grasslands.
The walls and virtually all the buildings in the countryside of the Dales are made of the grey-brown stone cropping out of the hills everywhere. What humans have built here seems as much a part of the scenery as the outcrops themselves. Here where the sheep are vigorous and feisty enough to withstand the cold of winter, the walls are close to six feet tall and double walled with ruble in the middle. Where the sheep are more of a docile, low-land sort (as they are in the green lowland fields of Cumberland), the walls are lower. Around the world, dry stone walls have been used to build civilizations and support animal husbandry. For many uses, mortar was unnecessary. The art (as surely it is) of dry stone walling, lost now to our culture, could come in handy in the coming years.
As I walk the footpath that leads out from the Railway Cottages across the rolling moor, over the rushing stream with the waterfall churning with yellow-orange mud, along the path lined with wildflowers now in their last bloom, under a grand, grey stone arch of the Moorcock Viaduct, past the small herd of black and white cows who seem to know me now, I realize I have a different sensation in my body than I have ever really known. It comes from the moors, it’s certain. I’m sure it’s a known thing. It’s a feeling of brown-green calm, a settledness. Whatever I have known as me has combined itself with the rolling expanse of earth, grass and rock and has spread out like soft wet bog. Nothing can disturb it. It is itself and just itself. With this in my veins, maybe I can even return to the work of re-constructing and moving on with the book mostly eaten by my computer last March. I am stolid and accepting like the folks of Yorkshire. Implacable.
Today we got in the car and drove over the Pyrenees Orientals to Perpignan, just because we wanted to see where it was that all the people from our village in Aude want to retire. We thought we might also go to the beaches not far from this city of France which considers itself Catalan, but that was not to be. It was a beautiful drive, as all drives are in this part of France.
Over the last two months living in the department of Aude and travelling through the Ariege, our perspective has changed. Our big town has become the town of Quillan, with its population of less than four thousand. On this scale, Perpignan is a real city. There are several pharmacies, a suburbs, several Supermarches, many chic stores, and many, many, many restaurants. There’s a very pretty canal there of no apparent name. As we sat at a small cafe at a vantage point we watched while many women, young and old, of many nationalities, took selfies or posed for photos. There are several “Parkings” labelled as usual with big blue Ps, and a museum that boasts an exhibition of Hyacinthe Rigaud, a painter evidently born in Perpignan in 1659 who died in Paris in 1743. Poor guy missed the revolution and evidently painted many great portraits of nobles with fantastic wigs (or was it their hair, coiffed to perfection?). The brochure I picked up about the exhibition is written in Catalan. Even so, I pick out these facts and the estimation that he was one of the portraitists most esteemed in his time. I’d love to see the exhibition. Some other time.
We decide to pick up some things at the big pharmacy and head out of town, to return when we are settled and the weather a bit cooler. We went back the way we’d come, through the towns that used to be labelled as part of Roussillon and are now part of Pyrenees Orientals. There are beautiful views of mountains and granite cliffs. It’s a terrain full of apricot, peach and nectarine orchards and extensive vineyards that specialize in white wines, both flinty and sweet. After stopping to buy a kilo of fresh apricots at a truck stand (where an older couple was buying 84 euros worth of fruit for themselves and their neighbors and complained about the system of weighing and labeling your own produce at the local Carrefour), we were attracted, as we drove through the village, to a shop in Maury, where there is truly flinty soil.
The shop was called Les Vignes D’Elodie. We tasted a sweet wine like Muscat and a drier wine with mineral tastes and bought both. The woman in the shop, tanned, with a face delicately lined, looked both old and young and was the mother of the Elodie who makes the wine. We complimented her both on the wine and on the beauty of her daughter’s name and got back on the road.
There’s a wonder I recognize from time to time during the day—a wonder that I am actually here. When I say “here” I mean both in this place that is constantly new, constantly unfolding beauties, a place I dreamed of spending long days but never really thought could be, and then “here” in this body, looking out through these eyes, speaking words in a language unfamiliar yet not, hearing these people around me, tasting the air and the water and the wine, moving around, somehow a network of nerves and veins and cells propelled by something called a consciousness. It is here now, it was someplace else before. It contains all the information, all the sensory impressions, all the traces of emotions that have accumulated in its passage through all those other sets of molecules, many of which also seem to contain a similar ability to accumulate these experiences and to remember and retain, or lose and forget.
Believe it or not, the Fourth of July passes totally unremarked in France. We only remembered what day it was for the US when I got a FaceBook message from my daughter in Seattle during her early morning and our early evening.
We had spent the day driving through the Ariege region with our young French/British realtor to the area around the village of Massat, at an altitude of a little over 2000 feet.
The countryside of Ariege has many microclimates. On that day we had first skirted the Pyrannees, always a craggy presence, driving through the rolling foothills with their green fields and golden fields newly hayed, with their forests of mixed oak and pine. We had gone to see a house in the hills near Massat and one higher up perched on a hillside near a rocky river. Both had their own beauties. One had a stream and some decent land that would need a good deal of enriching. Both houses needed work and both had problems that couldn’t be easily modified. Neither was the one that made us say, “Okay. This is it.”
We drove back through the town of St. Girons, taking the winding road back to Lavelanet. Each time we’ve driven this gorgeous road through the mountains, it manages to catch my breath with wafts of vertigo as we drive along the knife edges of hills descending at ridiculous angles to streams below, stone huts perched on their small bits of level land before the fall. With the windows rolled down in the cooler air, the peaks of the Pyrenees white and craggy in the near distance, we heard the sound of countless cowbells from the beige Blonde d’Aquitaine cows grazing in the nooks and crannies of the green hills, occasionally wandering down to the road where they walk sedately, big bell clanging, long tails waving behind them.
Back in Lavelanet, the realtor dropped us at our car and as we drove back towards Fa, the village we call home at the moment, I thought of what it will be like to settle here in the south of France. Here where the rhythms of life flow more easily, where people have both more warmth and yet different ways of prejudging. Projects hover around me, needing the time to spread out. They pull at my sleeves and I quiet them, saying, “Look at where we are! Just look around you. Enough!” There are friendships to be settled into, friendships that will need cultivation and thought, decisions to be made about which area feels most like a home to us, which has the climate that is both clement enough in winter yet temperate enough in the height of summer, which place has the best land, the best soil, the nicest situation and a house good enough to move into and make our own gradually. All against the pull of family back in the US, nine hours back in time and six thousand miles of flight.
I think back over our trip through Portugal and Spain, places of such specificity that have already woven themselves into the repertoire of my dreams. Granada stands out in its own way and Salema in another. They have become the background to the new rhythms of life in France.
Salema. The transcendent color of the waters of the ocean, astonishingly clear, unlike anything I’d ever experienced in such a salty sea, always in motion. A transparent green that somehow lifted me with joy, with shades of light blue made even more etheric by the green. These things made their impression in the moment but, unlike the intense sensations of cities like Seville and Barcelona, they are stickier, their pathways hardened in my brain. The fragrances of the flowers in the town—the jasmine, the jacaranda, the roses, the honeysuckle—then the incredible, novel forms and colors of the unending varieties of wildflowers on the hills above the infinite expanse of the ocean. The clear delicious songs of birds with music every nerve in my body could taste. I stood for long moments listening, hoping the variations would go on forever. The wild beaches we hiked to through villages and along fields and woods. The warmth of the strengthening sun of the early summer. The delight in swimming on and on, back and forth through water cool and moving, playing with the waves. There were small disappointments, difficulties, but nothing that tarnishes the memories I visit whenever I like.
And then Granada. The Albeizin. There was something about the way the atmosphere itself seems to flow with a kind of airy fluidity. The sensation of the place seeped into the water of my cells, like the river that flows through the old town under the Alhambra, perching far above, un-ruined for me in memory by the ticket sales and the guards that chased us out like criminals before we had time to see the palace gardens and the haze over the surrounding mountains that seemed suspiciously like smog.
The evening we arrived in Granada, pulling our suitcases behind us, day packs on our backs, deciphering the directions to the hostel, hot and tired from the trip from Seville, a youngish woman on a bicycle, her hair short and uncovered, her arms lithe, her shirt a wonderful shade of green, her skin satisfyingly browned, swerved down the cobbles of the hill, past the stone bridge over the little river past us, grinning and calling out, “Smile! You’re on vacation!” I thought, no, we’re not really, but thanks. Vacation means a break from something to which you eventually return. We’re not on that kind of break. This is what we are doing. This is it.
Here we are, somehow settling into the village of Fa, near the small town of Esperaza in the Department of L’Aude in south-central France. As you make your way around the surrounding countryside, you can always tell which way is south by orienting yourself to the mountains or to the tallest hills, the beginnings of the Pyrannees.
We arrived on June 16th when there was still a cover of grey clouds, the days were cool and the locals were still complaining of the long, rainy spring. Our friend from three years ago (met through a connection to sustainable gardening on FaceBook, of all things, a woman originally from Malta who grew up between that island nation and another island nation–England–and moved here some twenty years ago) with a generosity only to be described as “genial (fr meaning fabulous, etc)”, put us up in the little stone cottage beside her pool. In the US, we would say it has two stories. Here, we have a room on the “premier etage” with windows that open out on a view of the garden and the 14th Century stone church that forms the heart of the village. From our bed, we can see what’s happening in the little plaza around the church and hear the goings on from the one cafe restaurant in the village, just on the other side of the bridge over the River Aude, which runs like a big stream through the village.
The sun came out a few days later and on this eastern side of the foothills the summer hit with with an uncommon sudden grinding of the gears. Where the River Aude widens, the cafes of the neighboring town of Esperaza filled. The petanque players came out in force on the graveled spots along the roads of the small towns and villages of the area, their silvery metal balls clanking and shining in the glinting sun of the late afternoon, murmurs of conversation and grunted exclamations of triumph or displeasure wafting by in puffs as we passed. Our work in our friend’s beautiful garden became almost impossible after noon, even in the relative shade. The mourning doves’ cooing and calling took on a new fever in the early morning and later afternoon. Life had shifted.
School was still grinding on. Our host, not only a sustainable gardener but a teacher in the local schools, continued her work despite the shift in the weather. Students were sitting for their Bacs, teachers bored in the afternoon heat, questioning and questioning. The roses, in their full flower in the village gardens, were beginning to wilt around the edges. The herbs of St. James Day, the St. John’s Wort, the Feverfew, the Pis en Lit (Dandelions) were in their full ripeness, ready to be gathered in the fields and forest edges.
On Thursday evening the 21st of June, the eve of Summer Solstice, festivals of music took place all over France. In countless cities, towns and villages, local people had been practicing and preparing for the event. In Fa, on the green common space by the river, a big tent was set up, beer and wine and food was served and almost everyone from the village and the two or three that make up the rest of the Commune were present for some part of the night. In addition to our hosts, we’d met several of the local people, some French, some ex-pats from England and Germany, at the Cafe de Fa in the village. It sits right at the turn off from the main road that runs through the village, right at the bridge over the river that divides the upper and lower village.
Old village houses line the main road, as they do in every village in this region, their wooden doors painted in various shades of blue and red and brown, their wooden shutters often closed to keep out noise and heat. There, right at the turn off to the bridge where large pots of flowers bloom, a young couple have fairly recently taken over the old restaurant. They moved into an old barn up the village road where they are making the most of their youth and energy to fix it up and create something of beauty and simplicity. They are using local food and herbs and cooking dishes of the region and dishes of their own creation. They are making a go of catering to both the expats and the locals while still attracting the flow of tourists that come in the summer. Both speak English fairly well. They work hard and know that the relationships they make with the village and their customers are just as important, if not more so, than the quality of food, wine and service.
They visit with us. They know most of the people coming and going. They know their predilections. They open in the mornings for coffee, some pastries and a few special items. Sometimes they close for a bit and then re-open around noon for lunch. They close around 2:30 and open for dinner again around 7:00. They are closed Mondays and Tuesdays. During the summer, they have live music on some Friday nights, heard by most of the village until midnight. On Bastille Day, there will host someone who will speak about the history of the village, a long one. There is no schedule of opening times on the door. You have to know.
We had already watched several World Cup games with some of the locals who still have an interest in football and a few of the ex-pats. The people of the area are fairly tepid about Le Foot. It is an area crazy for rugby. At the Restaurant de Fa they couldn’t show some of the games since the broadcast package that contains all the World Cup games was prohibitively expensive for a small village restaurant. But when there were games to be seen there was still a mixed gathering in the indoor seating, drinking Estrella beer from Spain, glasses of wine or Syrop with water, chatting during the boring parts and cheering and commenting when things got exciting. People came and went, kissing on both cheeks as they entered, greeting ‘Manu, the owner, Julia coming and going with orders for the customers outside by the river.
We saw them all down by the river that night, many dressed up incongruously in colorful clothes made of African materials. I’m still mystified by much of the symbolism of what I see, just as I am by a language whose delicacies (and indelicacies) of usage I’ll be deciphering for some time to come. As we walked down to the site of the festival in the common area in a shady spot by the river, past the big communal recycle bins, a group of men and women dressed in bright green homemade tunics were warming up in formation, faces theatrically serious and blank, with their hand drums, sticks and shakers, their conductor instructing them with her arcane hand signals. We bought our wine and beer at the stand under the big shelter, used for village parking on other days, paid deposits for the plastic cups, and watched as the troop in green started up, playing and dancing like some small, basic version of the Indian Bands at Mardi Gras.
They went on for what seemed an hour, people, men and women, some almost as old as we are, probable transplants to L’Aude, dancing wildly and beautifully to the endlessly shifting beat. The whole thing, performance and participation, was like something from another time, another space, some of it ancient, some the current reiteration of the ’60s, grown right from this tiny village, a mix of ex-pats, French from other parts and natives of Fa, an exotic stew, with sophisticated flavors and a rich broth. From time to time it seemed that one or two of the elders of the village, those who sit on the benches near the bridge in the evening, came to walk through or sit and watch. They know all about it. Their village is still here.
After what seemed an exhausting length of time, the band somehow still seemed fresh and ready to continue all night. And after other groups played in the tent, there they were again, ready for another round, the dancers from the village following right behind. The church bells had struck eleven times as we walked the short distance back to our little stone house beside our friend’s little swimming pool.
The night still had some good heat left in it as we passed the stone church, the three-quarter moon swaying in the dark blue sky above the bell tower, the planet Venus as bright as an approaching airplane as we walked towards the west where it gleamed in the vastness. We opened the big metal gates and made our way across the grass now wet with dew to our little cottage. Through our wide-open windows, we heard the music and the voices of the festive crowd well into the night. Our host’s teenage boys and their friends wandered through the garden and messed around on the trampoline well after we’d gone to bed, the whole village their playground.
I woke briefly as the bells stuck twice in the usual quiet of the sleeping village. Their sound, the first peal still startling to me, like a metal pipe clanging to the ground, connected me immediately to the place where I am, where I sleep and begin my days. I was not in our little apartment in Salema, Portugal, with a view of the ocean. I was not in Porto where we slept with a window facing the tiled roofs of houses, spread out to the river beyond. I was not in our tiny apartment in Lisbon where perhaps the man with the handcart might be coming down the street at that hour to collect the bags of garbage left out on the sides of the street. It could be Evora, with the church across from our room in the hostel, but there the peals of the bells were higher and more distant. I couldn’t be our room in Lagos where the streets were quiet until 6 am. It couldn’t be Faro, where it might have been the sound of some rowdy, cheering crowd, celebrating some victory as they made their way home at last that woke me. It couldn’t be our room in a hostel in the Albeizin in the magical city of Granada, where Italian students might have woken me with their late night operatic melodramas as we slept in the shadow of the Alhambra. It couldn’t have been Madrid, where our open window had a view of the walls of the surrounding buildings and the only noise was that of other guests coming back down the hallway. It couldn’t have been Barcelona, where there was silence until the early morning when the metro began to rumble from far down below us in its underground haunts.
Even as they’ve begun to recede into the background of my mind where, in the course of life’s preoccupations, they may no longer register in my consciousness, the peals of these bells have now begun to regulate the rhythm of my days. At two am they tell me, “Go back to sleep. There’s plenty of time.” At 7 am my body now responds with “Yes, okay, it’s time. Up now,” and if I hesitate, there’s the repetition at 7:05 or so, as with the peals at all the hours, in case I missed it. At noon, by the second repetition and certainly by the musical peal of the midi hour, my stomach has begun to signal that it’s time to stop for lunch.
Within this rhythm, the heat of the day seems to almost force me to lie down for a nap after lunch. Many mornings we leave the village by 10 am to drive around the neighboring department of Ariege where we hope to settle. Or, if we’re lucky, we drive to meet our agence d’immobilier so that he can show us some properties.
Then, once we’re far from our apartment in Fa, we have learned if we wait until 2:30 or so when we’re really hungry, every place that serves food of any substance is closed. If we stop for lunch between noon and two at a real restaurant, the ones with the fabulous food, we will be there for a couple of hours, drinking beer and wine, waiting for our food and then waiting for l’addition (unless we make a point to the servers or the maitre d’). So we’ve learned to take along a picnic and stop for a beer somewhere at a cafe. I’m getting better and better at taking my turn driving our rented standard shift Citroen through the narrow streets of the countless villages and the twisting turning mountain roads where cars don’t always stay in their lanes around the curves. When we stop to look around at a village or order a cafe au lait or watch one of the World Cup matches at a bar, I chat up the host and usually one or two of the customers, practicing my French or reverting to English when it turns out, as it often does, that they are ex-pats or have spent time in England or the US.
My French is improving, but slowly. It reminds me a bit of when I was 18 and travelling with my friend Alice, both of us in France for the first time after studying French in school for many years. It was as if my sense of who I am was veiled, my ability to communicate my experience of things passed through a thick filter that left people with only the gross residue of my being, rather than the subtleties that make me who I am. It took about a month of growing friendships and an increasing sense of what it sounded like to communicate in French, what it looked like, how it even tasted and smelled to use these words, this music, before more pieces of my sense of self began to return.
Since my sense of self is quite a bit more formed by this point in life, it’s not so dramatic this time ’round. Now the largest frustration is missing huge chunks of the conversations going on around me, missing out on all this stuff, the tissue and complexity of information and interaction that would give me a key to all these humans, to the way they see the same things I see in some different way. I am gliding over the surface, curious, but my interior sense is untouched.
And I’m surrounded by people whose own sense of self seems pretty established. It doesn’t seem to be a concern. And they like that they live here. They don’t seem restless. For the most part, although they see the imperfections clearly, they appreciate what they have, both by being French and by living in the part of the country where village life and country life is still real. They seem secure in a sense of what’s important—community, family, taking care of each other, living within certain means, maintaining a rhythm in life. This could all be an illusion they create for the daily stage of a small village but if so, they’re good at it.
I find I like it. I’m sure that as I get to know them better, their insecurities, their prejudices, their worries, the stresses of divorce, of relationships on the job, in the village, with their spouses and children, their frustration and anger with their government and the world situation, will emerge, just as it does with all humans. Here, they seem to know that all this is in fact, part of being a human, part of life everywhere on the planet and at every time. Although it is an outrage, it doesn’t seem to be surprising. Life goes on. Watch the game. As a man wrote on the chalkboard of the Cafe de Fa, “Cocorico, la France!” “The coq is crowing! Wake up France!” Yes, but they are already more awake to the extremity of our human situation than the Americans, where the urgency gets more extreme by the moment. Many French people believed that the results of our last election would cause a general uprising and a re-creation of our democracy. Yes, that was the possibility. Is it still? Cocorico Etats-Unis!
Barcelona. Yesterday we spent the much of our day in the beach area of the city, a neighborhood unto itself, Barcoloneta. There the sense of living by the sea infects even the inner neighborhood, removed from the flow of tourists and natives of the city making merry on the beaches. The residents seem to know they are breathing sea air, that the blue of the Mediterranean is just a few blocks on the other side of the high rises.
From the Metro station, we strolled down the wide, palm-lined avenue, with all its tempting restaurants offering fish, tapas and paella, down to the harbor we’d seen the evening before, to the wide, stone-paved parks with magnificent views of the ocean, the cable car up to the nearby hill and the luxury hotels. There next to the beaches people strolled along with us or sat in the shade where tall trees with ferny leaves were dropping their golden-orange flowers to lie like pools of light on the patterned stones.
Then onto one of the wide-spreading beaches, set off from one another by stone breakwaters. The water was astonishingly clear, closer to the color of the water of the Atlantic on the Algarve than to the waters of the posh beaches of the Costa del Sol. The water was so tempting and the atmosphere so free that I took off my shirt and pants and went in for a long and beautiful swim in the calmly lapping waves in my black bra and panties. No one even gave me a sideways glance. We sunned and slept for awhile and bought a watery Mojito and a beer from the beach hawkers in tribute to my son-in-law and daughter, who before they were married, spent a summer hawking coffee and pastries on the beaches of Montpellier.
Completely happy and relaxed, we wandered up into the neighborhood for lunch and found a little place in a small plaza next to a schoolyard. As we waited for our grilled salmon plate with roasted vegetables and salad with ficelles, we drank white wine and Estella Damm beer and watched the life of the neighborhood. A Muslim mother in headscarf sat with her twelve-year-old son in the shade, seeming to wait out the lunch hour during one of the final days of Ramadan while children played in the schoolyard on the other side of the wall.
As I watch this calm scene, loud voices suddenly erupt in the small street running alongside the plaza next to the doors of apartment buildings and small shops. A man on a small motorcycle, a woman with long blond hair on the seat behind him, seems to have run into the back of a small white delivery van. The van driver, young, tall and muscular has gotten out and is yelling at the man on the motorcycle, fist raised in the air. The woman has dismounted from the seat on the back of the bike and taken off her helmet, hair cascading down, uncertain what to do. A few men from the shops have come to try to calm the situation, but it continues to escalate, the man on the motorcycle evidently protesting his innocence in louder and louder voice. Since he is smaller than the van driver, the situation seems precarious. Two tall older men physically intervene and seem to suggest to the man that he calm himself, be reasonable and get insurance information from the motorcycle driver.
Walter walks calmly over to the street near them, making a wide circle on the periphery, to see if his assistance might be needed. As he sits there, watching, a man who seems to be an official appears, the situation seems to come to a very uneasy resolution and the van driver gets in and drives around the corner, in front of our restaurant. But he’s only waiting for the man on the motorcycle who foolishly comes around the corner in the same direction. The argument resumes and the men from the neighborhood have to intervene again. The people sitting with us in the cafe have tried to ignore the whole thing but now look in the direction of the dispute which has now moved to a closer stage. They laugh and comment to each other in Catalan. Eventually, both men drive off, perhaps to revenge themselves around some unseen corner.
Our lunch comes after some time on this beautiful day. We eat with relish and walk back towards the Metro station, past the park we love that stretches with its rows of majestic palms from the Arch de Triumphe at one end to the statue and zoological park at the other.
Today we have a long morning in our hostel and then take the 92 bus a few blocks away in the El Clot neighborhood not far from the Sagrada Familia (which we will not go to see this time) to Park Guell, another unfinished monument to Gaudi At the local bus stop, two older women help us figure out that we are in fact, in the right place, despite the lack of a label for the stop. I now can figure out enough of the Catalan speech (closer to French often than Spanish) to get the gist of their conversation, complaining to each other about the lack of information and the errors in the weather forecast for the day.
I watch the city go by through the windows of the bus, the beautiful Cathedral de San Juan unfolding its astonishing architecture in the moments of passing. I won’t be able to explore it this time. Perhaps if we return. We get out with two young Asian men at the stop for Park Guell and cross over the avenue with the rest of the crowd. All around us flows a soup of different languages—French, Spanish, English, Catalan, perhaps Persian–all probably questioning and responding in their isolated attempts to decipher the same system—the system that defends the entry into this famous place. The guards answer the same questions over and over, pointing again and again in the direction of one line or another.
The internal part of the park is the prize since it contains the only completed buildings of this intended community for the elite of Barcelona, started back when the twentieth century was new. Tickets weren’t available till the evening so we decided not to bother and, instead, climbed around the beautiful park outside the community, up the winding paths and stone stairs to the top where we stood, like the many tourists taking selfies, in awe of the view of the whole, enormous, complicated city, capital of Catalonia, stretched out to the blue Mediterranean there before us. There were the mud-dripped spires of Sagrada Familia Cathedral complete with towering cranes and scaffolding and there the “Barcelona Tower” phallically gleaming proudly nearby, there the jumble of apartment buildings, new and old, most with red tiled roofs, the huge old graceful government buildings, the old churches and cathedrals, the streets winding through—the whole diverse complexity of it.
All the way up there on the top of that small mountain was a neighborhood school, the kids noisily playing in the schoolyard perched here high in strange juxtaposition to all these people from foreign places admiring the view.
Barcelona is like this, life going on in every direction, just regular life, seemingly rather joyous life. We wound back down, me buying a bird whistle from one of the immigrant vendors hawking wares for a Euro or two, taking a video of the young Indian singer with sitar, Walter stopping to ask the attendants at the gate to the inner sanctum about the ongoing reconstruction of the arched entryway, and finally finding the source of the loud chattering in the tall palm trees lining the pathways—bright, iridescent green parrots, another exotic variety of life’s forms, fit for this city of mixtures.
Back down we went into the city in the district of Gracia, really a town in itself, a bit quieter in its old streets than other sections of town, but still alive, and on down to the Metro Station to find our way back to our temporary home.
Later in the night, after a rest and some food, I wonder out to get some groceries for the morning and decide to explore the neighborhood in its night dress. Many small restaurants and tavernas are still open, some with tables on the street or the plaza. An old couple walks by holding hands on one of the tiled streets where cars rarely venture. They stop for a moment, the woman turning to the man, looking up into his face and saying something earnestly—I make out only “Claro.” She seems satisfied. He smiles and they walk on. As at any time of the day or night, parents go by with children in strollers or walking alongside, now a bit more subdued than during the day, but still out and about. A young woman goes by on a skateboard, skillfully gliding and turning.
I walk to the little plaza a couple of blocks from the wide Avenida de Meridiana where people still fill the two cafes of outdoor tables and umbrellas. In the middle of the plaza, folding tables are set up and Arabic music plays on loudspeakers. It is the penultimate night of Ramadan and a local group of Muslims has set up an Iftar meal to share with the community.
Women in headscarves, young men and children are serving themselves and passersby from kettles of stew, plates of flatbread and urns of sweet mint tea. Night has truly fallen now and people are beginning slowly to disappear from the square. I stop and wish some of the young women in headscarves a good Eid tomorrow and take some delicious tea from the older man who stands ready to pour. They find one of the women who speaks English to translate my message and they all smile and say thanks. The food is almost gone. Some of the group begin to clean up and load things into a van parked nearby. Others dump the refuse of their evening’s work into the big nearby garbage and recycling receptacles that conceal deep holes underneath, a ubiquitous part of the modern overlay of this old city.
The plaza and the streets leading into it are dotted with benches in small groups, some facing into the street, some into the plaza, all still filled with people out in the cooling night air, talking together animatedly. Friends walk up to join them, some greeting each other with energy, kissing on both cheeks before sitting on a bench opposite to chatter. A gay couple walks by, arm in arm down a quiet part of the street, one carrying a bag of groceries dangling from his free hand. People stand in doorways smoking, some alone and gazing into the distance, some talking with a friend.
Tomorrow morning the real buzzing life of the city will resume. Just before dawn, sometime around five-thirty, the rumble of the metro will resume periodically like muted peals of underground thunder below the endless apartment buildings. Small cars and vans will whiz by on the wide avenues, knowing when to stop for pedestrians crossing at places with no traffic lights. Bikes will speed by with their varieties of riders, women in dresses, sports riders with helmets, young men going from one part of the city to another sweaty and smiling or determined and driven, some tourists on rented bikes. Motorcycles and motor scooters will zoom by in troops, some weaving gracefully in and out of the traffic, driver with one foot out, ready to stop at a moment’s notice. Motorized scooters will whiz smoothly around the turns from avenue into avenue, somehow keeping up with the rest of the traffic. Old women and men on motorized wheelchairs will occasionally drive with confidence ahead of flex buses, seemingly fragile yet somehow protected. Workmen will start their drilling and banging and pouring of concrete with clouds of dust that pedestrians flow around, accustomed to the practice.
And in the morning we will pack again, something we now know how to do now with efficiency, and take the Metro to Barcelona Sants train station to catch the TGV bound for Paris. We will get out at Narbonne, France and transfer to a train to Carcassonne. There we will start the adventure of settling in a new land. I am trying to start thinking in French.
The twistings and turnings of the road. Although I am in one of the most beautiful cities in the world where all the senses are pleased, my stomach has been in a knot with shame and regret for two days. The road is a great teacher. It keeps paring down the ego and then and paring it down some more, right to the essentials. It finds the places where the material is weak and chips away at it until we have learned how to make it whole and pure. It cleans us.
The Sufis say that first God whispers in our ear. If we don’t pay attention, the second message is louder and more intense. If we still don’t get it, then it becomes a blow to the head. It’s best to pay attention the first time, even if we are tired, even if it feels like something too difficult to accomplish. If it needs to be repeated, it will become much, much more painful to take care of the second time. It will have a much greater cost. The third time—maybe it kills us. Who knows?
I bought a new cell phone before I left the US. I debated not using it until I settled in France, but my old one was acting up a bit so I pulled out the new one. I wanted to take some good photos that first real day in Portugal, as we travelled up the Douro River from Porto, to the rolling countryside of the Port wine vineyards. I violated my rule of never putting a phone in my pants pocket, ever, not even if it were more convenient for takings photos. We had just had our nice lunch at a table with women from Brazil and couples from England when I dropped it in the toilet. It was quick. I fished it out instantaneously and dried it. That night, I put it in rice. It was all in vain. It was fried.
I was devastated by my own stupidity, my own carelessness. I had struggled with this inattention for as long as I could remember. I thought I had gained some wisdom from this teacher of mine. But still, it catches me. The cost becomes greater the further I venture in life. When I was very young, the cost was mostly my own. I covered it. I learned to compensate but not, evidently to become its master.
I let the shame come full force to greet me in private. The cost of such error needs to be kept as close as close, but it inevitably spills over to those who should not have to bear the price, to those we love most. I must have the grace to bear the brunt as quietly as I can, to continue to appreciate all that is given to me moment by moment. It would be churlish to become churlish about it.
I bought another phone, surrounded by the wonderful good graces and wisdom of my partner. I used it happily. I took photos and videos of Seville in the midst of the overwhelming celebrations of the holiday of Corpus Christi, the streets packed with people in their finery, their children in expensive dresses and suits, bands parading through the streets, priests processing in front of the beautifully decked statues of Jesus and Mary. I took a video of a white pigeon for my soon-to-be-five-year-old granddaughter. I was resolved to not make mistakes. I protected the phone. I made sure I was putting it in the correct place in my purse. I talked to myself about it continuously. Habits. Formation of habits. I made sure to turn on the GPS so I could track the phone should it get lost or stolen.
The next morning, we traveled through the crowded streets to get our train tickets for the next day, pushing through the crowds seeking the blessing of all the holy displays in the streets, I, taking videos as we went, gay with the spirit of the moment, my partner pushing ahead, eager to avoid what to him carries the poison that has created hatreds and meanness.
Once we arrived at the station, we waited and waited for our turn at the counter. We were tired out, so I took out my phone from its place of security to check the buses for a return to the center of the city. Our number was called and we went up to purchase our tickets. Tickets for Granada in hand, we caught the bus back to the area of the big Cathedral. We stopped at an information kiosk and as we were leaving, I checked my bag. The new phone was gone. I checked in every conceivable pocket of the bag. Nothing. I’m afraid I broke down and cried on my partner’s shoulder right there in the street, people streaming past laughing and talking.
Now in Granada, having left my sunglasses on the train when we suddenly had to disembark to a bus for the rest of the trip, I will go and buy another phone. I guess I need it. I want to take photos. It seems very difficult to take care of the daily needs of life without the connections a phone provides to the network around us. It is part of my connection back to my family and friends. The knot of fear and shame will need to continue to teach me.
Shame is not always something to reject as invalid. The impulse is to hide. I am doing the opposite. The critical moments will come when that knot begins to relax and my vigilance is lowered. I will have to develop a structure that will catch me when I am most vulnerable, when I am tired, distracted or surprised. I will make this the practice of remembrance, thinking always of where it is, where I am, where it is in relation to my breath—a spiritual practice.
Now I will go out into the beautiful sunshine of Granada. The streets of the Albaicin where we are staying wind in and out under stone arches, up stone stairs, along narrow sidewalks paved with black rounded stones set on end. Up to where the views of the Alhambra touch something inside you that unlocks and springs open, where the scents of jasmine, jacaranda and roses in this late spring make your head swirl with joy. Up to where magnificent views of the still snow-capped Sierra Nevadas unfold from small walled secret gardens inside the hidden villas, the Carmen of the city.
And then we can stroll over to the gardens named after Garcia Lorca, and maybe see the museum made in his old summer house here, down avenues with brass plaques on the sidewalks announcing the names of the streets we are crossing–Calle Colcha, Calle Joaquin Costa, Calle Puente del Carbon–down an avenue lined with red roses that look like abundant crimson geraniums over which arch the vibrant Ginkgo and Linden Trees. Past buildings with the most amazing decorations of tile, with rococo stone carvings and Moorish balustrades, with huge doors of wood and brass and leather. Where, in this week of the holiday of Corpus Christi you might see a little girl dressed in a beautiful flounced red dress with mantilla prancing along next to her parents and grandparents or a young woman dressed as if to go to the bullfight, dark or light, transformed, graceful, elegant in a spring-like dress with flowers and lace and swishing hems. Or suddenly a bevvy of elegant men, dressed in dark suits and white shirts, followed by a group of men singing, sporting their team’s bright yellow jerseys, each group stopping soon in their favorite taberna for cervecas, talk and laughter.
And maybe later I will be able to take photos of some of this. But they will never be the same as the vivid images, coated with emotions and with the impressions of my muscles, with the subtle scents I will be able to inhale, the sounds of birds I will hear inside that vast space of mind when I recall these days. My heart will search these files in my dreams.
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.
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.
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.