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.
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.
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.”
Now it’s a rush of wings, a flight towards an open door. The farm is sold, all but the signing on the dotted line. The airline tickets are bought and paid for. The objects that remain must be dealt with, each held in the hand and a decision made—in the trash, to a friend, in one of the few boxes for a small storage space, in the small suitcase. Overwhelming.
But soon everything will be done. The things designated or sold will have to be dispersed within days, the eyes looked into so many times looked into again, deeply for a moment, and the body that somehow contains that world held close and then released, the ache of longing coming to take up residence in my heart.
We will be homeless for now. All that we retain must be needed either for the journey of a few months or for the time when we will send a few boxes across a continent and an ocean to a place where we will settle again, perhaps grow some vegetables, plant some fruit trees and live for however many days we have.
Just as when we leave this body, we must discover what is important to retain, what is most precious. What we hold on to is not what we think we might possibly need someday, the insurance against some contingency, but what clings most adamantly to our essence. Over these past few weeks when things have come in a flood, wiping away every moment of space in the time of my days, it is my writing that I have yearned for from waking to sleeping. It has become an essential element of life, as necessary as the act of participation, the absorption of all that beauty in whatever combinations of elements await me in that time between the opening of my eyes from the world of dreaming and when they close at night.
One type of waiting may be over, but another more encompassing period of waiting remains. That waiting before the going out, that waiting each day for the closing of the eyes, the dreams, the deep quiet, the encompassing silence, the loss of all objects that cling, all thoughts that stick to the space of the mind, all emotions that swim in our waters. Gone. Gone. Letting it go.