Telephones appeared late in my parents-in-law’s village. Until fairly recently, they tended to cause a little confusion, especially among the older inhabitants.
One day, Juan rang his father from Salamanca.
“Padre?” he shouted into the phone, then looked puzzled as the phone went dead.
He rang his father back and this time got through to him.
“Padre? What happened?” he asked him, then went off into gales of laughter as his dad explained what had happened. When the phone rang, he had picked the receiver up the wrong way round so the mouthpiece was next to his ear. Despite the size of his ears, he couldn’t hear anyone, so put the receiver back in the cradle.
Another time, Manolo rang me at our house in Salamanca. When I picked the phone up and said, “Hello?”, he answered, “Hello? Who’s that?”
Recognising his voice, I said, “Why did you ring me if you don’t know who I am?” Silence.
“It’s me, Joanna,” I pronounced slowly and clearly, shaking my head in wonder. “What did you want, Manolo?”
“Is Juan there?” he managed to say.
“No, he’s at work,” I replied.
“Oh,” he grunted, and the phone went dead.
Neither he nor Faustina are particularly good at goodbyes. You’ll be in the middle of a sentence when the connection simply cuts off (and it’s not a problem with the telephone company) or Faustina will suddenly interrupt you with, “Very good, adiós,” and you find you’re actually talking to a dead phone line.
They do it with their own son, too. He’ll be chatting away and will suddenly stop, midsentence, and stare in amazement at the phone in his hand.
“He/She put the phone down on me!” he’ll say.
So, a little bit of practice needed in that department, I believe.
Another area which needs quite a lot of practice, even though it comes somewhat late in life, is toilet cleanliness.
Imagine what it’s like to walk into the toilet, especially with small children who haven’t learnt the essential crouching position that comes into good use throughout life if you’re female and haven’t got a clean toilet seat to sit on or you’re walking in the woods or some such place without a loo, only to find the whole seat covered in splashes and tiny puddles of yellow liquid. Totally revolting.
Don’t think it’s because Abuelo (Grandad) has been down the bar, come back after a few too many and missed his target. It’s exactly the same when he’s sober. Seventy-five years practising and he still can’t get it right. I ask you.
That is why, as I already mentioned, when I am in their house, I am constantly armed with a strong detergent and a roll of kitchen towel.
Juan once admitted to me that their only toilet was never used by themselves. It was kept clean in case the village priest or the local doctor paid a visit to the house and were caught short.
“Well, what did the rest of you use when you needed to go?” I asked him, a little baffled.
“Er, we just went outside,” Juan explained, looking a little bit awkward.
“What do you mean, “outside”?” I grilled him.
“You know, just outside. In the street.”
“What?!” I exploded. “You all just wee-ed in the street, like dogs?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“What if you needed, you know, something more than a wee?” I asked, not sure I really wanted to hear the answer.
Juan hesitated before replying, “Yeah, in the street, maybe behind a tree. There were particular streets where everyone went.”
The village must have stunk. How do you live in streets lined with human faeces? Imagine in the heat of summer. I have to say, this really took some getting used to. The difference between my childhood and my husband’s could not have been greater.
In my parents-in-law’s case, not only did it stink outside but inside too. On extremely rare occasions, I have seen my mother-in-law clean the floor.
There is a large cupboard / small room under the stairs which I have always called, “The Room”. I really try not to go in there, but sometimes I have to go in for a new carton of UHT milk. As you push the door open, stiff on its filthy hinges, a smell hits your nostrils. It is a disgusting stench of old dirt, mould, total filth. It is necessary to flick the light switch on, or there is total darkness. The main problem is that the light switch and the surrounding plastic are actually smothered in a thick, black film of pure grime.
Each time I enter, I pause at the door, take a deep breath, hold it and my nose at the same time, dive in, touching the switch with a tenth of a centimetre of my finger, grab what I need and dive out again, all in a matter of three seconds.
The bucket and mop for the floor are stored in there, along with an ancient chest freezer, old ceramic pots, an old jacket on a hook, belonging to Manolo - he wears it to church - hanging against the mouldy, grey wall, once painted white, a milking stool with a stray onion perched on top, a broken plastic bag on the uneven cement floor, with mouldy potatoes spewing out of it and a few cartons of juice, milk, packets of cereal and mini toasts. There are more objects that I always fail to recognise, nor do I pause to inspect them.
The mop only gets taken out when the floor is a total and utter disgrace, which is most of the time, really. Normally, Faustina waits for her other daughter-in-law to go round and clean the floor for her, but if she hasn’t been to visit and the floor is starting to look like a landfill site, she finally gets on with it. I know that if I ever studied the contents of the floor under a microscope, I would never enter the house again, leave alone with my children.
The last time she mopped the floor when we were there, a nasty pong quickly reached our nostrils and filled the whole house. I sniffed, then regretted it.
“Goodness, what is that smell?” I asked no one in particular. The kids sniffed the air and promptly clapped their hands to their noses.
I saw the bucket on the sitting room floor and peered inside. The water looked as if it had been taken from a swamp. It had a thick, grey texture and emitted a foul stench. It must have been used time and time again and left for months on end in The Room. She was mopping the floor with it! The floor couldn’t possibly have been any cleaner after that. We made a quick exit at that point.
Leaving dirt aside for a while, let’s turn to hens. Every day, Manolo goes and collects eggs from their hens that live in one of their outhouses. Half of the place is a very broken-down house, where Juan’s grandparents used to live, so the children and I never go in, under Juan’s advice, since the roof could cave in on us at any second.
Manolo used to take the children when they were toddlers to collect eggs and each would come back carefully carrying an egg in their two tiny hands. The last time we paid them a visit, both Faustina and Manolo were cross with the hens. One of them was pecking all the eggs that had been laid and making them inedible. So, Faustina told us, they took each hen and trapped it under a bucket. They didn’t let them out from under the bucket until each one had laid an egg. Then they looked to see if the hen trapped at that moment had pecked the egg, in order to find the culprit. What happened to the culprit, I don’t know and don’t want to know. A sort of Chicken Inquisition. Peck an egg and you will have your neck wrung at dawn.
Of course, when the chickens weren’t being naughty and when we still lived in Salamanca and visited on a regular basis, it meant we always had large, fresh eggs to take home with us. About three dozen every fortnight. Of course, in the end, they collect up. We could never eat that many eggs without becoming totally constipated for the rest of our lives. It got to the stage when we opened the fridge door and all these eggs would come tumbling out and smash on the floor. At least we got rid of them that way.
If it was marrow season, Manolo would go out to their orchard and bring back a bucketful of the blasted things. Back in the days when they had the shop, they would have sold them all because, to be fair, their fruit and veg have always been totally natural, with no chemicals sprayed over them, growing to huge proportions and with all the taste veg used to have in the old days.
But although they got rid of the shop years ago, they still grow the same amount of produce in their orchard and then give it all to us and Juan’s brother and his wife.
We’re talking piles of vegetables here, not just marrows, but courgettes, onions, leeks, spinach, potatoes (as I write, there is a huge, twenty-kilo sack of spuds in the cupboard that Juan brought back from his last visit to his parents) and strawberries, mounds of strawberries. We lick our lips when we get our first box of strawberries in May. In fact, we all go to the orchard and eagerly pick them ourselves. By the time we get the last box, two months later, the children never want to see another strawberry milkshake in their lives and look sick even when I suggest one. I mean, there’s a limit to what recipes you can make with so many strawberries. In the end, in despair, we leave them to go mouldy and then we say, “Oh, what a shame, the strawberries have gone off. Better throw them away.” It’s the only way to get rid of them.
What a palaver taking it all home, too. After every visit, it takes us an hour to load up the car. When Tommy was alive, bless him, he always travelled in the boot, looking out the back window, but with a huge sack of potatoes, three dozen eggs, four chorizos, always carefully wrapped in newspaper – for Juan, a huge bag of spinach, ten gigantic onions and three boxes of strawberries every time, the poor animal was only left with six square inches of space to sit in and travelled all the way back to Salamanca with his nose pressed up against the car window, showing the whites of his eyes a little.
Once he accidentally sat on a box of eggs and squashed them, but we didn’t mind, since we still had another twenty-four to get through and I don’t really eat eggs at all.
Bread is also eaten in bulk quantities. Nothing can be eaten without a large hunk of bread in the hand. Even in Chinese restaurants, with mounds of rice, noodles, whatever. No, sorry, there just aren’t enough carbohydrates, we need a basket of bread with it.
Quite simply, without bread, the Spanish wilt. They cannot survive. Every single meal has to have bread. Between meals – peckish? Have some bread. With a few slices of chorizo, of course. Spanish bakers must be wealthy indeed.
The other day, my neighbour brought me a huge bag of the sweetest, juiciest, seedless grapes from her grape harvest. It’s the beginning of September, the village is full of Romanians and Poles who come every year to pick grapes and earn about the same in three weeks as they do in nearly a year in their own countries, and annoyingly slow tractors.
“Try them with some bread,” she told me, as she rode off on her bike. “They’re delicious with bread!”
“Righty-o!” I waved, thinking, WHAT?? Grapes with bread? Interesting, to say the least.
Another thing about Juan’s family is that once the meal is on the table, even if Faustina has been cooking for a couple of hours, the rest of the family have no qualms at all about telling her that her cooking’s bad. O.K., it probably is, but that’s beside the point. I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone their food was lousy, especially when they’ve bothered to cook for you.
Not in this case, though. The gobbling, munching and slurping will begin. Like The Wacky Races, only eating instead of driving.
Then Manolo will put down his utensils and pull a face.
“Don’t like it.”
Juan’s brother agrees. “Hasn’t got enough salt,” but carries on shoving it down anyway and clears the plate.
“Not cooked enough,” mutters Juan, but also continues to eat. Both are strapping lads. They’ve never had any problem with their appetites, whether the food’s poor or not. So long as it’s meat, not vegetables. They don’t like vegetables.
When Juan’s brother was little, he refused to eat a plate of green beans. To punish him, his mother served up the same plate of green beans to him for tea that day. He still didn’t eat them, so he got them for breakfast the following day. I don’t know if he finally ate them or not, but ever since, he detests green beans and looks queasy if you so much as mention them, leave alone serve them up to him.
While they eat, they’ll stretch their arms across the table, over other people’s plates, to get what they want. There is no “Excuse me”; they just take what they want and shove it in their mouths. If you want some of the shared salad in the middle of the table, you’ll have to fight for it. Just dig in. This applies in bars too. Every man for himself, take what is rightfully yours. What you don’t want, throw it on the floor.
I remember one of the times my sister came to visit me in Béjar. We had “tapas” in a bar and she was very brave indeed (far more than I), trying pig’s testicles and ears – a bit too chewy, was her conclusion. What she couldn’t get over was how the Spanish threw everything to the ground, cigarette ends, toothpicks, serviettes, leftovers, hard bread crusts, whatever they no longer needed.
“It’s so messy!” she exclaimed, rather disgusted, “Look at the state of this place!”
I had to admit it was a little different from your traditional British pub with its cosy fireplace, comfortable chairs, carpeted floor and ashtrays for cigarette ends.
In Spanish bars, you will also find groups of men hunched around a small, square table, intently playing cards. Winning is taken extremely seriously, and while these men play ─ you rarely see women playing with them ─ the rest of the world ceases to exist.
This is when men start to swear. Each time they toss down a card, they emit a swear word at a very loud volume until someone wins. That winner is then accused of not doing something as he should have and told he’s lucky to have won and will be called something horrible by the rest, but that’s O.K. because they’re all really good friends even if they do insult each other.
You cannot imagine the number of hours I have spent sitting next to Juan while he plays cards with four other men, utterly bored, looking at my watch, examining the pictures on the wall of the bar, staring up at the ceiling. I can’t leave because I’m the one with the car. I’d been driving for fifteen years before Juan finally got around to passing his test. He was certainly in no hurry for that, a bit like finishing his engineering degree when his daughter was two.
If I suggest another drink, he says, “Good idea. Get me one while you’re at it,” and then the rest chime in, “Get me a beer, will you?” So, you become a barmaid for the evening. All drinks are on me.
Once, we went to Juan’s brother’s wife’s village, a tiny place, with few streets and a solitary bar surrounded by a bit of dried-up garden.
As I was driving, I couldn’t even enjoy a drink. The men sat down at a rickety old metal table outside the bar entrance and started playing cards.
The women looked after the children since the men were unaware even of their existence and there we stayed, sitting, chasing after the kids, nothing much to say to each other after so many hours, totally and utterly bored. Well, I was. Maybe the other women were used to such a boring way of life and being treated that way by men, but I wasn’t. I’d beat all of them in a game of pool for a start. I’ve upset many a man in my life, beating them at the game.
I told Juan I wanted to go and he answered, “Mmm, just one more game,” his eyes not leaving the pack of cards in front of him.
When that game finished, our young daughter tired and needing to go home, I told him we were going.
“Alright, just one more game,” he repeated.
Half an hour later, just as they were dealing new cards, I put the baby in the car, got in the driver’s seat and revved the engine. Juan glanced over, and threw a card on the pile.
So, I drove off. That made him move.
You see, it wasn’t the first time. After a huge family meal at a restaurant some time before, on finishing the meal, all the men adjourned to the bar. They lit cigars and pretended to be manly, even though half of them had never smoked a cigar in their lives, but as they were with Juan’s brother’s future father-in-law, they wanted to impress him.
They all ordered stiff drinks and talked and laughed loudly and discussed football and smoked themselves silly. What did the women do? Sit in a small group, huddled together talking about babies and burping and playgroups. No drinking, no smoking, no laughing. What the hell was there to laugh about? Even though the babies belonged to the men too, on that day, they were having nothing to do with them.
So, we sat and waited until the men were ready to go, never mind if it was past the babies’ bedtime, or they were starving hungry or one of them was throwing up.
Juan had started out as a modern man, but maybe that was just to impress me. As time went on, I began to see a different side to him, a side that started taking me for granted and expressed no gratitude for anything I did. He started taking far too much and giving back nothing. At the same time, I caught tiny glimpses of his real attitude towards women and their expected role in Spanish rural society. I can’t say I liked it.