The price of tomatos

   
 Hell or purgatory. Choose! I suppose purgatory at least holds out some hope no matter how faint. 

These are the shacks of workers who tend vegetables in the plastic greenhouses close to where we are spending some time this winter on the south coast of Spain. Huge swaths of the province of Andalusia have been swallowed up by these enormous agricultural enterprises. How much? Well, you can see the development from space!

The workers are Morroccans, sub-Saharan Africans and  a sprinkling of Eastern Europeans. Many of them go to work on bicycles. Some live in apartments in the small communities around the growing areas and many live in shanty towns made of lathe and plastic weighted down with stones. We have been told:

” They steal electricity for their shacks. ” 

” They have cell phones. Some even have cars.”

” It’s better here than where they came from.”

” They send all their money back to their countries.” 

Last week, driving to town to  we were horrified to see that some of the shacks had been burned down. To my initial consternation, Joe suddenly stopped the car, jumped out and began to talk to a man who was dragging together a few sticks with a view to ” rebuilding” I supposed. He told Joe that someone had been cooking with bottled gas and due to the high winds that have been prevalent lately, a fire broke out and quickly spread. Of course, there was no water supply to control the fire. Miraculously no one was killed and those who sustained injuries were treated in hospital. It seems workers in the ” plasticos” are entitled to medical treatment in Spain. 

That benevolence reminded me of 19 th century coal companies that offered a ” dispensary” to workers, many of whom died of black lung or ” retired” with no pension after suffering mine accidents. 

Joe has an intense interest in others. Sometimes my legacy of British reserve calls it “being inquisitive” but in this case I admired him. The worker wanted to talk to Joe, to answer questions about what had happened. Joe recognized him not as “one of them” as ” the other” but as a person who had suffered a great misfortune and who had a right to tell his story. If I was cowardly and stayed sitting in the car, I owe it to that man at least to write this. 

Is this the price of cheap vegetables and fruit in Northern Europe? If the home countries of the workers are hell…..is this not purgatory? Today it very windy and there are many white-capped waves on the sea between Spain and North Africa. Stay a few days yet in hell. Purgatory will wait.

Hunting almonds, finding citrus

 

 

IMG_7558This is almond blossom time in Andalusia. How beautiful it is to see the pink or white blossoms appear on bare stems. Even before leaves appear the flowers burst forth in a calculated gamble to get fertilized. That’s what it’s all about in nature, after all! Since insects are starving for pollen and very little else is flowering, the almonds are mobbed by bees and wasps. The only drawback is that one really cold night can ruin the blossoms and destroy the harvest that year. There’s a Greek folksong that mirrors the gamble of declaring your love too soon and getting burned. It was the inspiration for a poem I wrote a long time ago.

We had tremendous wind for two days and I wondered if the almond blossoms had survived. Last year we found a beautiful village, Lucainena de las Torres, less than hour’s drive from the coast where we are staying.  There was a stunning orchard of almond blossoms outside the village. We decided to go back to see how showy the trees were this year. This year we approached the village by a reasonable road. In 2018 we persevered along 18 km of hairpin bends with two or three places to pass an oncoming vehicle. There were no guardrails in spite of spectacular gorges that yawned on the passenger (my) side. Of course we met no one on our way as all the locals studiously avoid the mountain road and take the “highway”. We had no way of knowing that until we tottered into a bar in the village seeking a shot of brandy to restore our shredded nerves. Some very nice English people told us about the alternative road but it was cold comfort after having inched along for what felt like an eternity expecting a truck to confront us at any moment.

Because we took a different road this week we did not see the massed almond trees but in the village we had a lovely surprise. Have you ever noticed how village dogs bark most viciously? As we were climbing the steep hill to one of the town sights, a “Lavatorio” or public wash-house complete with covered troughs of water and scrubbing boards, a couple of dogs set up a ferocious barking. We scuttled past one, snarling away behind a link fence and then to my alarm the owner of the other opened the gate and out came a fairly large dog who really did not seem “encantada” to see us. His mistress turned out to be a most charming English woman who kindly invited us in to see her garden. By this time doggie had settled down. Turns out she was a rescue dog. As always, fear and anxiety make us bark!

Joe, who is a great gardener didn’t need to be asked twice. One very beautiful and interesting old tree was the citrus shown in the picture. You can see that it is an orange that has had a lemon grafted onto it many years ago. This means that the tree produces both fruits. Winter is time for oranges, tangerines and lemons and the tree was quite laden down. We had a a chat about gardens and about living in Spain. Although Brexit looms like a dark cloud I  believe  the considerable number of Brits who live in this rather obscure village will manage to stay somehow. Successful grafts, thriving and producing good fruit

Check out my poetry book “Northern Compass” on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

(the Almond poem is in it)

The World is Round, so Brothers Let us Travel

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This is the motto of the guild of two young tradesmen we met today in San Jose. It is a very quiet town in winter but fate seems to put new and fascinating things in our path all the time.

img_7532Have you ever heard of the German tradition of craftsmen walking around the world for two years and a day after their apprenticeship? Well, today we met two young men embarked on just such a practice right here in this little town during the “dead” season.

As we were settling down for an afternoon coffee after a bracing walk along the promenade in gale force wind, two odd-looking fellows wandered across the square. Everyone in the café was wondering who on earth these young men dressed like old-fashioned chimney sweeps could be. Everyone wondered…but only Joe jumped up and went over to strike up a conversation with them.

In a few moments they were sitting down at our table “invited” for whatever they would like to drink. What a wonderful thing it is to learn something completely new – to talk to people living an experience totally novel and intriguing to me.

I had never heard of this practice which started in the Middle Ages requiring newly qualified tradespeople (ours were carpenters) to travel around for two or three years – – and a day— just like in the fairy tales. In the old days young tradesmen would go from town to town helping to build great cathedrals and learning new skills from other masters. The custom was banned by the Nazis – fascists always have to spoil things! – and it has only come back into favour since the 1980’s. Now it is a voluntary exercise but it is growing in popularity. As it is, there are only about 600 to 800 people doing this so really what were the chances we would meet these two?

The practice is called the “walz” and there is some evidence that the Australian song “Waltzing Matilda” is based on this practice. The “Matilda” is, in fact, the cloth-wrapped bundle the craftsmen carry.

The young men, who spoke pretty good English, soon made it clear that there were quite strict rules about “the walk”. They must register with the town authorities where they visit. They had little hard-cover books with stamps and comments from town halls in England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Spain. They must wear their distinctive dress so as not to be mistaken for hobos or tramps. They leave home with very little money and must return with the same amount. Our new friends, Simon and Paul, told us they avoid topics like religion and politics and that their behavior must always reflect well on their guild. They did not give me permission to put their pictures in my blog. I always ask! However, these pictures were stock photos in the public domain and I wanted you to see what they were wearing. They did give me permission to publish a picture of  one of their hand-carved staffs!

They told us tales of sleeping in the open, in empty castles and the homes of kind strangers. The principle of the walk is that craftsmen must pay for food and accommodation with their skilled work. They hitch-hike from place to place and only take busses or trains when they are really stuck. These days women journeymen (get it!) also go on the “Walz”. I was absolutely fascinated by this custom and so grateful to these youngsters who patiently answered our questions. Just when you think you’ve heard it all…… If you want to learn more, Buzzfeed has a great article as does wikipedia.

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My poetry book “Northern Compass” is available on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

 

It Was The Lizard’s Fault

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Friday was a brilliant day here in the South of Spain. It was warm and sunny and we were preparing to host dinner guests. Joe had many delicious dishes planned and preparations were well underway by mid afternoon. We both agreed that the smell of the fish stock  was a bit overpowering and I opened wide the big patio door. I was surprised to see a huge sort of “June bug” insect buzz by. It was a welcome sign that Spring really does come in January here on this blessed coast. I went out to hang up a couple of towels and noticed a little black and gold lizard sunning himself.

“Look Joe! There’s a lizard.” Joe, fresh from the shower and without a stitch of clothing on came out into the yard to have a look.  We exchanged smiles at the sight of this sweet little creature.  A resounding slam of the heavy door to our house wiped the happy expressions off our faces. A draught from the open window had caught us out! There we were marooned in the little courtyard without a phone, key or, in Joe’s case, a pair of pants. We simply stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. It was the stuff of nightmares or bad Hollywood comedies! I dashed around to the front of the house in hopes of climbing up to the second storey and going in by the open balcony door. It was a long way up and I was not sure of the wooden beams that might have afforded a safe support. Were they solid or ornamental?

By this time Joe had discovered a damp towel and was no longer scandalizing a flock of goats with their shepherd on the hill behind the house. No help there. I noticed the shepherd quickly taking refuge on a crag and calling his charges to follow!

I vaguely remembered the street number of the gentleman who owns the place we are renting and set off to see if I could find him and get him to open up for us. He and his wife were to be our dinner guests and this might be an unusual overture to the evening but I had no choice.  In the meantime my toga-clad Joe appeared to be doing a good imitation of McGyver by tearing up a plastic water bottle (for once plastic was not the villain). He intended to try to jimmy the lock with a poor imitation of a credit card. I had my doubts about this as in my experience European locks are as secure as medieval treasure chests. However, this certainly was not the time for debate with Joe. I discretely set off thanking my stars that I had listened to him and turned off the pressure cooker on top of the stove before our mishap.

The next door neighbor of the owner of our house opened the door to an agitated lady stammering out a request for a ladder. Our prospective guest was not at home and so I was canvassing the street. In a mangled mixture of Spanish and English we figured out that there was nothing of use there. “I am useless,” he smiled.

While I was away, Joe had yelled “Hey neighbor” at the top of his lungs until the lady in the flat adjoining us appeared. (no one seems to have doorbells on our street). Joe was finding tearing plastic with hands a bit tough.  The blunt request for a knife by a virtually naked strange man triggered a hasty retreat on her part. Her husband soon appeared and took an immediate interest in our plight. He initially proposed swinging from his balcony to ours but we thought if anyone was going to “make a Tarzan” it should be Joe.

Joe cut up bits of plastic and struggled with the lock for a while but then the neighbor remembered he had the phone number of the rental agent who wrote up the contracts. Perhaps she would have a key. She did and appeared in short order to let us in.

Thank God for many things. It was not cold. There was a towel on the rack. The neighbor was at home. He had the phone number we needed. The police were never called. No animals or lizards were hurt in the composition of this piece.

PS Dinner was delicious!

my poetry book “Northern Compass” is available on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com

 

Old and New

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Yesterday we traveled over a torturous road to a small mountain village, Huebro. We came to hang around in the big hill town of Nijar. We huffed and puffed our way up to the look-out tower that gives a view over the sea of plastic greenhouses that fill the plain. The real sea glitters beyond. Joe remembered that we had visited Huebro before. I had a vague memory of the terror that can only be experienced by a driver, helpless in the passenger seat when hair-pin bends are being negotiated on a narrow track with no guard rail. Joe could only remember the little taverna where delicious tapas and cheap but good wine was the staple. And so….we went. Is it better to close one’s eyes or one’s mouth in such circumstances? Choices, choices.

Thank the gods of travel that no one wanted to leave Huebro and go to Nijar on the way to…and we only met one brave soul on the way back.

What we found in the little taverna, next to an enormous church (is it ever full, I wondered) was a lively group of young families and this gentleman. He was preparing seed potatoes for planting. Of course, Joe got into a conversation with him and they discussed the virtues of various types of potatoes. He had an allotment somewhere close to the village and he was preparing to plant in hopes of a good crop in April. He had brought his sack of potatoes from home and was enjoying the company around him as he did his chore. The owner of the café certainly did not mind. I don’t think she minded much. She was a no-nonsense type. When Joe teased her by saying he hadn’t enjoyed his paella, she retorted, “Hombre, I don’t care. You cleaned the plate. Now pay me….and cash, we have no machines here.” Certainly the wine she served made me much more relaxed on the drive down.

The old man told us he was eighty years old. When is it that we start proudly telling people our age, I wonder. It never even crossed my mind to ask him but he seemed to think it was something I should know. I told him his potatoes probably kept him going and he laughed.

So, the old is centre stage here. Can you see the new?

My poetry book, “Northern Compass” available on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca

Only the Mountains do not Meet

That is an old Greek expression that means you can expect to meet people with whom you have some sort of connection as you travel around on your journey. That certainly was the case yesterday. We went for a long walk on the sandy beach of Capo de Gata and then settled down for a drink at a sea-side café. Joe went in to get the coffees and emerged triumphant with a compatriot of mine. Turns out this lovely Welsh girl could wave across the estuary to my cousins’ place in Llanelli. How lovely it was to hear her soft voice telling us her story! An intrepid cyclist (like my own daughter, Elizabeth) she was travelling over the mountains of Spain and had just finished three nights of camping in some abandoned houses in one of our favorite villages, Rodalquilar. I must say I admire people’s capacity for going on these adventures alone but as she explained in her quiet and modest way she was on an “interior journey”. No more was said about it and I thought how typical it was of her not to expand on what that meant – as so many would have. We were joined by a gentleman who obviously had some mental health problems – his desperation for us not to ignore him or leave made him talk non stop. Since the other two people at the table were the soul of kindness (Joe and our new friend Claire) I was free to throw out a few comments of a darker nature – sotto voce of course – about the need for “turn taking” in every conversation. Not to worry, all was carried away in the torrent of his fervent discourses on everything from philosophy to poetry and beyond. When he mentioned Mount Olympus I managed to convince him that I had, many years ago, climbed up to the refuge and spent a night there. He insisted on running home to get photographs of his own trip and in a few moments I was astounded to see him posed in a photo in front of the railings of the stone chalet where I once spent the night with my daughter, Helen. It was a mirror of the picture I have at home and as I looked around the table I thought how odd that the four of us should somehow have met that afternoon and woven strands of our time together.  “Only the Mountains do not Meet,” indeed.

As for the pictures of various local stones, they are proof that in some circumstances, even the mountains meet! Joe, a geophysicist by training, explained that millions of years ago volcanoes in the district spewed out lava that compressed various types of rock and melted them together forming a “melange” The melange at our table was interesting, beautiful and quirky. However, unlike the rocks of ages we were destined to part with many a promise to meet again.

This post today in honor of Mary Oliver who died yesterday. Explore this wonderful poet if you do not already know her. For humbler offerings see my poetry book, “Northern Compass” available on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca

I Plunge my Hands


Dylan Thomas wrote in ” A Child’s Christmas in Wales” ….”I plunge my hands into the snow and bring out what I can find.” And thus he began a memoir, magical and familiar that has been loved by many for long years.

Yesterday, I had my own childhood memory awoken by plunging my hands into a bin of grain much like those in my grandfather’s hay and corn shop. He made his fortune during the First World War selling supplies to the army. In a time when war ran on live horse power there was money to be made in keeping livestock well fed. He dabbled in futures without really knowing the term. He bought crops in the field betting that the notoriously bad Welsh weather would hold long enough for a good crop to yield him a profit. He was known in the district as ” Honest John” because good crop or bad, the farmers were paid in full and at the agreed time.

After the war horse power was quickly replaced by cars and trucks and John Wybron’s shop had to change. All sorts of animal feed, seeds, pigeon peas for local bird fanciers and pet supplies appeared in the front of the shop. Spot, the terrier, still ruled the big warehouse down a steep hill behind the business.  By the time I was old enough to remember visits my grandfather had died and my two uncles ran the shop, one keeping accounts and the other driving the lorry to pick up and deliver as far as Glouchester. A great distance in those days!

Yesterday, as I absentmindedly plunged my hand into a bin of grain in a shop here in Southern Spain,  I was transported back to those days when, as a little child, I would let grains or dried peas run through my fingers. I could smell the dusty mix and hear the crackle of a paper bag being filled. I could feel the rough wooden counter under my bare legs as I was lifted up to sit next to the old fashioned cash register. What is memory, after all, that it can be triggered by the simple touch of grain on a hand?