Unlike Manolo, if you are “lucky” enough to get lunch in that house, then you had better eat it all up. You have to lay the dining table yourself first though, hunting for cutlery through the untidiest drawers you have ever seen in your life, of the heavy, dark, typical Spanish dresser that covers one whole wall of the lounge. They are crammed with a vast amount of rubbish, such as little plastic dolls and key rings, an ancient-looking, half-empty tin of cocoa powder, expiry date 1989, a brand new packet of pink, silk pyjamas, a bar of chocolate and a dirty old soft toy in the shape of a cow - the only toy in the house which the four grandchildren were forced to fight over when they were smaller. It was either the cow or a plate of chorizo as far as family entertainment was concerned, the TV’s antenna being problematic and only providing us with Channel One’s Mexican soap opera and the news. Playing cards from 100 peseta shops too, mixed in with table cloths and cutlery, hinder your search to try and find the only clean(ish) fork in the house.
Juan and his brother have always had the habit of blaming their father for the badly-laid table, which is always guaranteed to get him riled. This means that swear words and curses start flying left, right and centre, whether children are present or not. They start by asking him, “Padre, how many are we?” There are usually ten of us, two brothers and wives, with two children each, and the grandparents. So Manolo answers grumpily, “********* (explicit), nine, of course. ********, do you think I’m daft? No, eight.”
So, the meal always gets off to a bad start because the brothers roar with laughter because their father is so daft, and he gets irritable and actually, at the age of seventy-four, has a little tantrum and refuses to talk to anyone during the meal. As soon as he’s allowed, having eaten a tiny amount, probably because he’s full from eating half a baguette of bread and chorizo or yesterday’s left-over beef stew for elevenses, he’s up and out of the door and headed up the road, he says to feed the pig the leftovers from lunch, but he’s actually going back to the glass of wine he left in the bar before lunch.
So, once the meal has started, there is silence from the Spanish members of the family as they start bolting down the first and second courses like hungry dogs and then always have a slice of melon for dessert, cut with the knife Manolo has for his own personal use, which is wiped over with the communal, multi-use tea towel that moves of its own accord.
I, on the other hand, regard mealtimes as rather a social event, for chatting and catching up with other people’s news, and like to take my time, enjoy the food and sip wine. Faustina always eyes my glass distastefully since she regards wine as poison to be consumed only by those who don’t attend Mass and all Protestants, and who are on a sure route to the fires of hell.
So, even if we haven't seen them all for several months, which happens since we moved further south and should have lots to catch up on, there is still the same silence, which continues to astound me. The question: ”How are you all?” is never asked and absolutely nothing is asked about what we are doing with our lives or the children’s. If I ever try to start a conversation, I am bluntly told to “shut up and eat”. After all, that is what we are all there for, right? To eat.
And how my mother-in-law eats. She bends over her plate, her mouth only inches away from the food on it, and just shovels it in. As it goes in, crumbs, drips and foreign bodies fall out of that orifice that still, after all these years, makes me stop eating and gaze at it in horrified fascination. If she wishes to say something, normally, “Eat!” or to reprimand her husband, she does not wait until her mouth is empty, so that whatever the contents of her mouth at that particular moment, half of it will come flying straight out, either onto the tablecloth or, on a particularly unlucky day, the shared salad in the middle of the table. Therefore, I will, naturally, give the salad a complete miss and whatever is left of it will go back in the fridge, perched on top of a plate of raw meat for as many days as the salad takes to rot into compost for the orchard, or one of the younger generation throws it out in complete disgust when Faustina isn’t looking.
If soup is the order of the day, the noise as she sucks it off the spoon is horrendous, filling the whole room and making the dog whine. The head never moves from the eating position until the plate is empty. Only when she has finished does she lift her head and inspect our plates and shriek at us, “Why aren’t you eating?” We, my children and I (I need not speak for my husband, having been brought up to eat in this manner) normally are trying to eat, but take longer as we, quite simply, cannot eat so fast. We are also busy extracting hairs or foreign bodies from the food before we dare to start eating.
Furthermore, we like to talk as we eat instead of eating in silence and listening to slurping and crunching sounds and I also have to convince the children in fierce whispers that, really, I don’t think Abuela (Grandma) spat in the food and they won’t catch any strange diseases from the lunch. What’s more, we often take our time because we are feeding our food surreptitiously to the dog under the table.
All I know is that I am incapable of matching the chomping pace of my Spanish in-laws and that every time I have eaten in that house, I am just finishing my first course when the rest are finishing the second course and cutting the wedges off the old melon for a grand slurping finale. As I eat my melon, everyone has got up from the table, Manolo is down the bar, Faustina is washing up with the usual scum-covered, dark grey scouring pad that is only ever changed because my sister-in-law or I change it when she’s not looking, stacking the wet dishes downwards in a pile so that they never dry properly and still have various food particles stuck on them which are served up with the next meal, and Tommy my dog has had the leftovers and is making far fewer crunching and sucking noises than my mother-in-law. That is probably because he doesn’t get all that many bones. As far as my in-laws are concerned, bones are an important part of the meal. They are picked up and sucked and gnawed on and all the meat, fat, skin, gristle and yucky bits are actually consumed. Talk about “waste not want not”. It’s never impressed the dog, for sure.
I admit I am rather a coward when it comes to trying new foods and I really can’t stand anything like seafood, for example. I can’t bear to look down at my plate and see the sad, dead eyes of a prawn staring up at me; and just the thought of eating organs, like heart or liver, makes me want to retch on the spot. So, imagine, when we started to eat one day, how I felt when I stuck my fork into what looked like a fairly normal piece of meat, it exploded and dark, bloody juice squirted into my face. I cried out in disgust and wiped my face, my husband looked embarrassed and Faustina gave a sheepish laugh.
“Oh, I gave you the heart by mistake. That was for me.”
Unbelievably, once I’d handed over the heart to her for her starters, at the end of the second course, I actually caught her chewing on a chicken’s head. I couldn’t help but gasp out loud and gaze in horror, especially as the poor chicken’s eyeballs were still intact in their sockets. My husband looked even more embarrassed than before, but Faustina just looked at me and gave a small snort as she chewed, no doubt thinking how strange we foreigners were.
It is perfectly understandable why, when my children were very small and my mother-in-law wanted a kiss from them, they cowered in horror from her puckered-up lips and were extremely reluctant to go near her. She would then tell them how bad and naughty they were, how she didn’t love them anymore and only loved her other grandchildren, who were good. This, obviously, upset my children, confusion and hurt only too evident on their little faces. I can’t say I blamed them, though.
The first time my parents came over from England and met Faustina and Manolo at their house for lunch, I was, understandably, rather nervous.
Faustina did make an extra effort, moving the table around, hanging a tapestry on the wall and laying the table with a fairly clean tablecloth and enough knives and forks for everyone.
Once I’d translated “Hola. Qué tal?” (Hello, how are you?) for everyone, my mum needed to go to the toilet. My husband panicked and begged me not to leave the room because that meant talking in English to my dad and Juan couldn’t speak a word. (Unfortunately, sixteen years later, nothing has changed on that account.) I insisted on accompanying my mum who didn’t know where to go and needed some words of warning, i.e. to hold her nose as she entered the bathroom, not to touch any surfaces whatsoever and to crouch over, not sit on, the toilet seat, if she knew what was good for her.
During the meal, my father, always an orator, especially at mealtimes, thought that, since he was brought up on a farm when he was a small boy, my parents-in-law would find his childhood interesting. So, he began: how he caught his first rabbit, and how his grandfather gave him a shiny coin for it and went into far too much detail as far as I was concerned.
I became quite nervous as I had to translate every word, as well as eat my lunch, and after a few minutes, I realised that my parents-in-law weren’t listening to a word of what was being said. In the middle of one of my father’s sentences, Faustina raised her head from her plate and, still chewing, said, “Comed! (Eat!)”
My father continued, oblivious to what she had said, but I interpreted only half-heartedly, saying, “Dad, they’re not listening!”
He insisted. “Tell them how I tripped over a rabbit trap and fell into a cowpat.”
By this time, Faustina was actually talking to Manolo about how many eggs the hens had laid and had he collected them up this morning? She had finished eating, of course, and was totally oblivious to anything my father was saying. My dad started to look irate. He has always hated being interrupted and the disbelief on his face at not being listened to said it all.
I shrugged, looked at him helplessly, and repeated, “They’re not listening, I’m afraid.”
Faustina turned to him once more, and her voice beginning to shriek, said again, “Eat! Stop talking so much! The food’s going cold!”
I decided not to translate that part, but I believe my father started to realise what he was up against and finally fell silent. For at least two minutes. My mum had stayed silent throughout the meal, had not enjoyed the food at all, and fed the plate of strong cheese Faustina had given her to Tommy, who was under the table. On seeing the empty plate, Faustina remarked to me, “Your mother eats well and she certainly loves cheese. But why isn’t she wearing tights under her sandals?” and proceeded to give Mum another plate of cheese. Mum’s face was a picture. “Gracias, Faustina” she managed to stutter. Tommy was later sick from a cheese overdose.
Then profuse thanks were offered for the delicious meal and marvellous hospitality (??) by my dad. Faustina looked at him strangely, since the word “gracias” is not in her vocabulary, even when I have bought her gifts, and left the room with a pile of dirty plates while he was still talking, which made him huff impatiently and stare in wonder at this socially inept being.
Thank God that our parents live in different countries and these excruciatingly painful visits can be kept to a minimum.