Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Fierce creatures

Growing up in Brighton and then living in London for 25 years, I haven't the faintest concept of how large a hectare is. Or an acre. I've only a vague perception of what a furlong, also originally a rural measure, looks like because of horse racing. So I'm just going to describe the smallholding - the finca - that I visit fairly regularly here with my partner's uncle as 'big'. Very big.

Placed on one of the valley's steep slopes, there are, variously, beehives, an orchard, walnut trees, potatoes, cabbages, lettuces, enormous tomatoes, courgettes, peppers, asparagus, French beans, spring onions the size of your fist, etc. I've no doubt missed some of it.

It's only about a five-minute drive from our house, and I only go, of course, with my partner's uncle Cuqui ('Cookie', to anglicise it). Now usually, in these pages, I abbreviate people's names just to single letters or only refer to them obliquely; it's just a courtesy to them in case they'd prefer not to have their name placed here in full. The people who know them will know them. I don't need to do that with Cookie - he's so universally known as Cookie that I can only use his nickname here. I've probably been told his real name but genuinely can't remember it. Everybody knows him here. His deep voice and splendid moustache are as much features of this village as the fountain in the main square.

He's an amiable fellow, of blunt and freely expressed opinion - often that if it's not Galician it's no good - who, like everybody here, really knows his food and wine. He's been nothing but friendly and helpful to me since the first time I met him, when he tried to get me shit-faced with his home-brewed liqueurs.

So, arriving at the finca with him, you're greeted by a mastiff the size of a horse laying just inside the gate. Fortunately I know this dog already so his low-pitched growling, most effective to any would-be interloper I imagine, doesn't bother me too much. Nonetheless he did his job, giving me the 'abandon hope all ye who enter here' growl when I approached the gate first. He quickly shut up, though, when Cookie approached and greeted him with a cheery 'sod off', and once we were inside the finca's walls, his new tactic seemed to be to drool me to death. A soppier dog you could not meet, once he knows you're no threat.

Another dog, an English Setter, has to be kept inside one of the buildings when his owner's not there because if left to his own devices, unlike the mastiff, he simply fucks off. Released twice daily by Cookie, he charges around like a nutcase, trying to get the mastiff to join in his games and jumping up at any visitor to see if they fancy a run about. A guard dog he is not.

The half-dozen sheep are partly there to trim the grass, because the place is way beyond the size where any domestic mower, even those posh ones you sit on and drive about, could deal with, and much too steeply sloped in any case. Not knowing me, they keep their distance from me as they patrol the finca, eating anything green and trying to find a way in to the walled vegetable areas. They regard me with a cool suspicion, and if I didn't know better I'd say the one in the middle of the shot below is giving me the skunk eye.

Their other function, of course, is to provide lamb for the dinner plate. The one male who looks after the females for this task is distinctive because of his bloody great testicles. Christ, what a pair of nads. I mean, damn... they're like a couple of coconuts in a wet shopping bag.  

There are other animals working there too. The ones you really don't want to approach, which hang around looking like an LA street gang, are the cats. Feral, of course, they're all scarred and tough-looking beasts which scurry past you and look at you challengingly - "Don't touch me, man. I'll cut you. I'll cut you bad." Seriously, all that's missing are eye patches, tattoos and neck ties. One of them in particular, the boss-man, were he to appear on film, would be played by Robert Shaw. Bent-tailed, limping, scraggy and armed quite literally to the teeth, he was the feline embodiment of Quint from Jaws

These could hardly be described as belonging to Cookie. He's merely come to an arrangement with them, whereby he brings them food and they eliminate any rats and mice that may be foolish enough to venture into their postcode and don't savage him on sight. 

Cookie brings, to feed canine and feline alike, offal. An entire set, removed all too recently from a pig - tongue, lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, all still connected in one steaming string which he boils and cuts up for them. Not a meal, or a sight, for the faint of heart. In this, the cats do at least demonstrate characteristics which any domestic cat owner will recognise. While we were busy with something else, one of the cats stole a kidney from the bag and was busy gnawing on it when we came back. When prepared, cut up and served to them, she didn't want to know that same kidney. If it ain't robbed, it obviously tastes inferior. Cat gang culture, I suppose.

There was one other cat there, clearly not part of the gang, since they largely ignored her. This little lady;

Only a few weeks old, she at least was too small to prevent me petting her. Purely to accustom her to human contact, you understand, and not because I'm an absolute softy where kittens are concerned. When we got there, her eyes were fused together with sleep gunk, and her mother being nowhere to be found (she doesn't belong to the street gang), Cookie has to perform the job of her absent mother and wash them every morning to get them to open. She also, of course, gets fed. I hesitated to ask if there were others, but if there were, they've been taken by the eagle that can be seen every day hunting over the lake, or else by foxes. She's either the luckiest or the cleverest of however many of her siblings there were. 

I would, of course, with my English sentiment, take her home and make a pet of her, appalled at her chances. But this is another difference I've quickly got used to - between urban and rural attitudes as much as between Galician and British - such sentiments bemuse some of the locals. For all that Cookie cleans her eyes and feeds her, if she disappears, she disappears and that's how it is. It's certainly not for me to rock up and tell him to do differently. I don't need to learn how to be a local to know that.

(One important point of order in all this - if I get any of this wrong, if I say something here which simply isn't true, it's almost entirely certain that it's down to my language skills, which are sadly lacking. Much more likely than having been told a whopper is that I've simply not improved my Spanish sufficiently to properly understand what I'm being told. Therefore, to coin a phrase, any errors are entirely the fault of the author.)

Monday, 26 June 2017

One week in

While I don't want this to become a sort of public diary, it's worth noting how the first week's been, now it's passed. It still feels, of course, like I'm on holiday here. When that feeling dissipates, and whether I'll notice when it does, remains to be seen. I am going to have to moderate my intake of cerveza from holiday levels to everyday levels, either way.

Anyway. We live downhill - quite steeply downhill - from the centre of the village. As a consequence, the habit among people in our little neighbourhood is not to ask if you're going into town, but to ask simply if you're 'going up'. This morning, tasked with finding Parmesan from any one of the shops, I had to 'go up'. The forecast had been for rain, which if it's coming today certainly feels some way off, and for a considerable drop in temperature. So I left the house dressed, as was my standard attire in London, entirely in black.

There are two ways up. One, the more direct, is up the main road. The other takes longer and involves a twisting footpath which offers some terrific views across the valley. That's the route I prefer. By the time I got to the point where I took this photograph, not even halfway up, I realised I'd made two newbie mistakes.

The lake, created artificially for hydro-electric power generation, is very low, revealing
the medieval buildings and petrified trees which are usually hidden in its depths.

I'd set off at London walking pace. Bad idea. The locals know that, when it's hot, the pace of your walk has to match the pace of life here generally. I'll also have to eschew my usual all-black clothes because by the time I returned to the house I had to treat my T-shirt as a bio-hazard and get a specialist team in to dispose of it. I didn't find any Parmesan either.

Another thing, and bear with me on this, is 'Cowboys and Indians'. Remember that little riddle you were set as a kid, where you had a canoe and had to get a certain number of those enemies across a river but couldn't leave them unattended with each other? The solution involved shuttling back and forth, carrying one or more of them with you in both directions, going back on yourself to get everybody safely across without a fight. That's our current situation with plug adaptors. We've brought nowhere near enough. So we can't boil the kettle while the computers are charging. If we need to use the drill, which is happening a lot at the moment while we put up our pictures from home etc, then I can't make coffee - a catastrophe here. So we're continually switching them around, temporarily plugging something in and then moving the adaptor to wherever it's next required or back to where it's been borrowed from. Anybody who comes to visit us, please bring three-to-two-pin plug adaptors!

We've been welcomed with genuine warmth and happiness, to a village of around 2,800 people, where most people know most people. This can be a double-edged blade of course, and I've already seen a little of how political things can be in a small place like this. But that's surely the same everywhere and, overwhelmingly, it feels like the reasons we came here for will be borne out fully over the long term. When I 'went up' this morning, as a reminder of the courtesies which would be considered old-fashioned in Britain, but prevail here, the few people who passed me wished me buenas dias whether they recognised me or not. What should feel slightly awkward to a reserved Brit feels right here.

I've just seen a headline on the Beeb that the Tories have reached a deal with the DUP - don't get me started on them - and will form the next government in the UK. With that, and the appalling scenes of Grenfell and the recent attacks in London and Manchester, this place feels like a different planet; tomorrow morning I'm going with our neighbour - my partner's uncle - to his smallholding, to watch him let his sheep out(!) run around with his dogs for a bit and learn a bit about cultivating vegetables here. Oh and we found an adder on our patio last week.

We hope to share it - we have friends coming from Britain over the next few weeks, and I'll be going home to 'collect' my mother and accompany her out here for a few weeks next month. We can only reiterate the invitation we've extended to our friends - come and see us. Grab a bit of this tranquility for yourselves.

Two edits: I've been reliably informed that 2,800 is the entire population of our town and all 52 of the much smaller villages in the administrative zone in which we're located, and that the village itself is considerably fewer than that. Head hung in shame accordingly.

And my partner has pointed out, rightly, that the structure of the last two paragraphs makes it sound like we wish to share the adder, not the peace of the village. We don't - that adder's all ours, so hands off.