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Pt. 5: A Meeting of Nations and a Step into the Unknown

Pigs play an extremely important role in Spain. In fact, my husband’s village was twelve kilometres from Guijuelo, an important town as far as the Spanish ham industry was concerned, full of huge ham factories in which thousands of pigs were slaughtered every day in order to provide Spaniards with the exquisite cured Iberian and “Serrano” ham that they so enjoy.

My first encounter with a pig was while I was in the flat my husband shared in Béjar with four other lads. They were all studying Engineering, like Paquita and Leo. I’d gone to the fridge for a cold drink and lo and behold, on opening the fridge door, there was a pig’s head, just sitting on one of the shelves, looking at me. Well, of course, I wasn’t expecting it. I moved a bit closer and saw, with horror, that it wasn’t missing anything, I mean, it was an entire head, even with hairs on its chin. I went off and found Juan and asked him if he knew there was a pig in his fridge and what on earth it was doing in there.

He just looked amused and said it belonged to one of the other lads and that he was going to eat it for his tea.

Juan and I had met during a rather alcoholic weekend, a couple of months after my arrival. One day, we went to his village for him to play in a local football match. I felt a little nervous because I knew it was possible I might meet his parents for the first time.

I had taken my English Ford Escort out to Spain, and driving out to this tiny village in the back of beyond, where the inhabitants’ attitude that any place further away than Salamanca (60 kilometres) was abroad, I may as well have driven a UFO there, such were the stares and dropped mouths on seeing my steering wheel on the right-hand side. While I sat in my parked car with a friend of Juan’s at the edge of the football pitch, trying to converse, a group of elderly women approached, led by one who was taller and more butch than the rest and with a rather intimidating attitude about her. They came close to the car window and peered in at me, muttering something among themselves. I stuttered “Hola,” but understood nothing of what they said, especially as they had a local dialect, nor knew who they were.

Some of the Spaniards I met didn’t appear to feel the need to introduce each other and I often had to talk to so-called friends or acquaintances of my husband and his family without having the slightest idea to whom I was talking. They all knew who I was so that was that, as far as they were concerned.

After close examination, they walked off and the friend in the car looked at me. “That was Juan’s mother!” he whispered fearfully.

If I’d known who she was, of course, I would have got out of the car to greet her properly, but since I had no idea who she was, I stayed in my car. I groaned inwardly, knowing I’d made a bad first impression.

When the time came to go to my boyfriend’s parents’ house, however, Juan didn’t want me to enter, and if he needed to pick anything up from his parents’ house, I had to stay in the car while he went in.

I asked him several times why he didn’t want me to go in but he just shrugged and insisted I stayed in the car. One day, when his parents were out, I got as far as the downstairs part of the house. I stared in wonder, the difference between my English home and this one so staggeringly different. I managed to sneak up the stairs without Juan realising − I was fascinated by what could possibly lurk up there − and found a large, open space containing old bricks and rubble and two bedrooms. How parents and three sons all lived and slept up there, I still do not know, but each room contained a double bed and an old wardrobe, full of woodworm. On the dusty, uneven concrete floor of one, I saw a huge pile of dry chickpeas and a metre away, another mound of marrows. How one slept with these mountains of food next to their bed, I shall never know.

Many years later, I still wonder how a person could live in such squalid conditions. The house itself was built in the sixties and was, in fact, the first house in the village to have taps and its own water deposit, just before the rest, in 1972. Until then, the villagers used the few wells dotted around the village and the women scrubbed the dirty laundry in communal stone washing fountains. Juan’s parents were never actually in favour of personal hygiene and if you got too close to them, which I generally tried to avoid, they emitted an unpleasant, unwashed smell, just the same way as the house did, with grime and years of dirt and body cells stuck permanently to the walls. When Juan’s brother once brushed his teeth in the bathroom that smelled like a cesspit − there was a septic tank underneath the bathroom floor with a leak − they stared at him, laughed at the strange object that was his toothbrush and asked him what on earth he was doing.

When a neighbour once complained to Juan’s mother that she was wasting water watering her plants during a drought (there’s always a drought in Spain), Faustina had no qualms whatsoever in retorting that she could water the flowers if she wanted to because she didn’t waste water on showers.

While indeed possessing a washing machine, you could always rely on Faustina to have some sort of stain on her clothes. My sister-in-law told me that Faustina once wore the same dress for two days running, the second day wearing it to a wedding. It’s not that she had bad eyesight or anything. It was as if she just didn’t care. Goodness knows how she lived when her parents were alive but they certainly didn’t teach her about personal hygiene for sure, just as she never taught her own sons about it.

I happen to be a very clean person, so you can imagine that I didn’t find this new discovery about my potential parents-in-law at all amusing. Good at heart they both were and generous too, but all this dirt and total lack of hygiene tended to override the good points, particularly when I actually plucked up the courage some time later to go and stay overnight.

I have a bad allergy to dust and since Juan’s mother had very rarely cleaned anything in her life, all the furniture in the house had a thick layer of dust over it. This meant that if I actually dared to sit down, which I obviously had to do after a while, on one of the chairs, even though their cushions often looked like they were about to jump up and bite me, all the dust would rise up and make me sneeze. After every single visit to that house over the years, I left with my nose streaming and once, I became so totally hoarse from sneezing that I completely lost my voice for over twenty-four hours. I had a dog called Tommy, who was my close, faithful companion for twelve years. When Faustina saw me sneezing, she would often repeat, “Oh, you’ve caught a cold,” to which I would reply, “It’s not a cold, it’s an allergy,” and she would insist that it was the dog I was allergic to. It never occurred to her, although I always pointed it out, that I never had an allergy when I wasn’t in her house, even though I was with Tommy all the time.

On the two tables in the house, you would always find unidentified, stinking objects, which wasn’t ideal when you had a baby and a young child, and you needed to feed them.

The most common objects to be found on the two eating surfaces were bread crumbs; the little pieces of skin that you have to peel off chorizo before you eat it; a dollop or two of raw meat; a crumpled shop receipt; and at least two dirty penknives, left courtesy of Manolo, Juan’s father, that may have been used for anything from digging up vegetables in the orchard, slitting an innocent pig’s throat, to using it to eat bread and chorizo with a glass of wine as a midmorning snack.

Understandably, I always went to the village armed with a powerful cleaning spray and a couple of scouring pads and the all-essential kitchen towel, whenever food was to be involved. Faustina had the almighty disgusting habit of going to the shops and returning with a couple of dead animals in her shopping bags, pulling them out of the bags and slapping the whole lot down on the table, even though you might be in the middle of breakfast, to show you what she’d bought.

Now, I am actually a bit squeamish when it comes to raw meat. I hate to touch it, especially in the knowledge that it is ripe with bacteria until cooked. However, I was forced to look at the recently murdered animal in detail, with its entrails and kidneys and scared, dead, bloodshot eyes staring up at me, and then Faustina picked it up, bit by bit, with her long, grey nails, and shoved it in my face.

“Look at this lovely piece, only a thousand pesetas a kilo. We’ll have this in a stew for lunch. And these fillets for tea. And these ribs for tomorrow, with chickpeas. The baby’ll eat that, won’t he?” (five months of age).

Talk about a protein overdose. No veg, just meat, cooked in half a bottle of olive oil, salt, garlic and a whole bunch of unwashed parsley fresh in from the garden, where the dog previously had a wee.

The olive oil is included in everything. Once, Faustina showed me the plate of fruit she had for breakfast, because she said she wanted to lose weight. (Her cholesterol was always sky-high too.) I approved of her breakfast, until she took the bottle of olive oil from the cupboard and poured a healthy quarter of a bottle’s worth over the fruit, which instantly made fifty calories into her day’s allowance. Olive oil is also put with sugar on bread, as a midmorning snack. Breakfast – coffee, hot chocolate or milk is drunk as soon as you get up, maybe with half a packet of biscuits for some (my husband used to drink a huge cup of coffee and throw about ten helpless biscuits into its depths to drown before downing it in two gulps) and then a few hours later, about ten or eleven o’ clock, a chorizo or ham sandwich, made from half a baguette or thick slices of bread with olive oil and sugar or tomato spread over it, are consumed, with coffee or even a glass of wine to wash it down. I’ll stick with my oats, soya, nuts, fruit and herbal tea, thank you.

Anyway, back to the raw meat. Before my children had arrived on the scene, Juan, Tommy and I went to the village.

“Why don’t you and Tommy go for a walk?” Juan suggested. “I’ve got to help my mother out.”

I shrugged and agreed and walked up the hill behind his house, to the hermitage and sat on the stone wall with my arm around Tommy, who sat next to me. We looked at the view, at the stone houses with their piece of land behind, a few innocent, unsuspecting pigs on them, eating and unknowingly fattening themselves up, poor fools, and I enjoyed the silence that can be found in these villages in the back-of-beyond, just the sound of birds, the chug of a distant tractor, and the far-off distinct clanging of cow bells.

Suddenly, I froze and Tommy jumped and stared in the direction of a horrible, loud squeal that floated in all directions and filled our heads with its pain. It suddenly stopped, but I never forgot that sound.

When I returned to the house, I found Juan with bloodstains on his trousers and a sheepish look appeared on his face when I asked him about the squeal. He discovered soon after we started going out together that I am a keen animal lover, as well as having a totally different background to his, so that all this was very new to me and that any suffering on an animal’s part would upset me badly. Well, it had to come out. My boyfriend had just murdered a pig. But not just any pig. The family pig. And what was worse, he didn’t seem to care. Actually, I could nearly see a thought bubble coming out of his head with a plate of fried pork, a piece of bread and a blob of tomato sauce inside it.

When I asked Faustina what the pig’s name had been, she looked at me as if I were mad and gruffly answered, “Pig.”

The following day, we went back to the village, for some reason. Big mistake. We walked into the kitchen and I stopped and stared in horror. The kitchen table was totally covered in pigs’ insides, there was blood splattered all over the place and Faustina and Manolo were sitting next to a machine, concentration on their faces, feeding guts into it and watching them come out of the other side, sausage-shaped. Then they wrapped the sausage in some disgusting-looking pale, stretchy stuff, which I learned was tripe skin. I was on the point of vomiting when Faustina asked if we wanted anything to eat. She leaned on the table with her hands covered in blobs of flesh and sinew and asked if we were staying for tea.

“No, no,” I replied hurriedly, “We’ll leave you to it. I can see you’re busy,” and nearly ran out of that house.

When I next plucked up the courage to return, there were chorizos hanging from every place imaginable, from the ceiling, doorways, chair backs, on tables, and that was just in the house. At the back of the house, there was a large barn, with a roof that looked ready to collapse at any minute, filled with all kinds of old objects, ancient milking stools, wooden pitchforks, bundles of dried saffron, boxes everywhere filled with all sorts of objects, but all covered in thick, white-grey cobwebs. There was a pig sty in the middle of it all where a sow would live for some part of the year while she gave birth to piglets and let them suckle briefly before they were snatched away from her, destined for the frying pan. When the pig was there, the whole house stank of pig sty, a bit of an appetite killer at lunchtime. When she wasn’t there, when a big shop was done, all the bags of food that didn’t fit in the kitchen cupboards were stored out on the unscrubbed floor of the pigsty, along with piles of onions and potatoes recently picked from the orchard.

In that particular part of Spain, piglets are called “cerditos”, while piglets destined for the table are known as “tostones”. When my little girl was about three years of age, Faustina took us out to the back to see the pig and her babies.

“Oh, look at the little piglets! Aren’t they beautiful?” I marvelled, as my daughter looked at them, a sweet smile on her face. Each one had different coloured spots on its back. They really were pretty little piglets.

Faustina pointed to one in particular. “Look at the pretty “tostón”, she said. “Mmm, so young, should be very tasty.”

The delighted smile on my face froze as I turned to look at my by-now mother-in-law in horror and total disbelief. I would have had them all as pets, no problem. “You’re not going to…to…eat these piglets, are you?”

“Of course, in a couple of days, when they’re a bit fatter. They’ll fetch a good price, too,” she muttered and walked back into the house, leaving us to say a sad farewell to the poor, beautiful, condemned animals.

Anyway, back to the chorizos. There were about thirty of them hanging out the back, just to add to all those hanging in the house. There were also a couple of huge pig’s legs – hams – dangling too, which Tommy tried his hardest to jump up and grab in his jaws, but failed miserably; and two hanging from the passage way inside the house.

I soon found out that I’d have to suffer this pig-killing and sausage-making every year. One year, my small daughter was going through a stage of blowing hanging mobiles. I had hung several up in her room in Salamanca and she liked me to hold her up so that she could blow on her mobiles and make them move and flutter and spin round and round. On seeing the ham legs hanging from hooks in the ceiling and despite weighing goodness-knows how many kilos each leg – the pig had been huge − she started blowing at them, trying to make them move.

“Whose leg was this, Faustina?” I asked, and this time, she knew I was joking with her.

“Pig’s,” she replied.

“And this leg?” I pointed to the second.

“That was his brother,” she replied.