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A Lot Of Wind...

alotofwind.com is an award-winning blog that follows writer Robin Graham and his fiancee K as they tackle life together in Tarifa, Spain. The site publishes travel photography and articles as well as useful info on Spain. Well, it might be useful. Maybe also funny.

El Laberinto
28 June 2015

“We got a new doorbell,” says P.

“Did I tell you?”

My fork stops dead in the air, half way to my mouth. It’s the best opening line I’ve heard in a while.

“No, Mum,” I reply. “You didn’t.”

She embarks on an account of it, describing the melody (which I’ve forgotten) and telling me how nice it is to have a doorbell that plays a tune. It makes her smile, she says, whenever someone calls. I do wonder about the caller though. Are they smiling? There is no doubt in my mind that my brother, who pops in to see them every week, will be appalled. She doesn’t seem to have thought about my feelings either, about the difficult position this places me in – to be a person whose mother has a doorbell that plays a tune. This on top of the clock in their living room that plays a tune. I can’t remember that one either – I think I’ve blanked it out – but there’s no escaping it when, on the turning of the hour, the clock face splits in two and each half does a three sixty rotation, slipping back into place on the final note.

It’s all a bit much. What if someone were to call at a minute past one, and the clock was still going off as she answered the door? Have they thought about that? Aural mayhem. I can imagine any visitor taking a step backwards, my brother included – it’s the kind of thing that would make even family think twice about going in.

The word dotage springs to mind.

Still, it’s the best opening line I’ve heard in a while.

Four days earlier. We’ve ducked into a shop on the Batalla del Salado, out of the buffeting levante. It’s been a dry and very windy year in Tarifa and there’s something about prolonged levante that gets to a person. Between that and my increasingly long hair, I both look and feel like a madman. I’m aware that I probably sound like one too so I’m trying not to talk too much.

It’s nice and quiet in the shop. The folks want me here to help out with Spanish. M, for the time being, has his back to us, dealing with another customer. We do that thing where you walk around in individually decreasing circles and look at things that don’t interest you while we wait. Then we wait a little more as M is accosted by some kind of Health and Safety person with a dossier and plenty to say about toilets and steps and such. It’s a universal characteristic of the human eyebrow that, whenever its owner is required to wait for an indeterminate amount of time it travels northward as if being pulled there on a slow elastic, before pinging sharply southward into a permanent scowl. It’s as we arrive at this point that the Health and Safety person finally goes away and we perk up.

“Yes,” I say to M.

“My parents,” I indicate them, “would like tattoos.”

M looks at S, then at P and then at me. He successfully suppresses a shrug, I’m sure of it. But he doesn’t bat an eyelid.

“Ok.”

Two days later. We’re at the port. The folks have tattoos. K and I couldn’t be more impressed with the rock’n’rollery of it all. I think P would be the first to concede that it’s out of character, and no less so is the journey we’re about to take – across the Strait of Gibraltar and five hours by rail to the utterly astonishing city of Fes.

Fes is not my mother’s usual sort of destination. She likes Guildford, and the quiet spots that dot England’s south coast. There’s a place called Tilney Hall. Country pubs, that kind of thing. She’s not a person who can easily be persuaded outside of her comfort zone and if she feels she’s being bullied that way she becomes especially intransigent. All usual attempts to entice her into doing anything unexpected are doomed to failure, especially if the proposed adventure will involve missing Coronation Street.

Except…except, here we are. Once in a while, as a result of some alchemy invisible to the rest of us, she agrees to something. None of us ever sees it coming, and this time she’s done it in style. Fes el Bali, as the medina is properly called, is the world’s largest car-free urban area and the most extensive intact medieval city in the muslim world. Its nine thousand four hundred streets – not a single one of them wide enough for four wheels – teem with a population of over a hundred and fifty thousand people, many of whom make a living today from centuries old traditional crafts and yada, yada, yada.

It’s mental, is what I’m telling you.

It certainly isn’t Guildford. As I watch her potter down the Talaa Sghira, the gentler of two sloped souks that descend crookedly toward the mosques and shrines that are sunken into the heart of this holy city, as she ambles past pashmina stalls and perfume outlets, stepping aside for unruly scooters and heavily laden horses, the sight of her seems to me like something very clever that’s been done with photoshop. We’ve stopped because S finds himself embroiled in some hard negotiating over a child’s puzzle and K has spotted a jewellery shop she feels is worthy of her attention. P, unnoticing, walks on so I call out to her to wait for us.

“Mum!”

She takes no notice and keeps walking.

“Mum!”

Nothing. I raise my voice.

“Mum!”

No reaction. I’m anxious that I’ll lose my mother – who it isn’t clear knows how to use a mobile phone and probably isn’t carrying hers anyway – in the labyrinthine mess of the medina. She’s almost out of sight.

Mum!” I yell at her.

On this, one of the busiest thoroughfares in this, the most frenetic, disorientating and noisiest of cities, I find myself, for just a moment, the centre of attention. Every shopkeeper in sight has turned to look my way, the same question written on each of their faces.

“Why is the long-haired madman screaming at his mother?”

One or two of them appear to be on the point of intervening.

“Didn’t you hear me calling?” I ask her. I’ve run down the street to catch up with her and my hand is on her shoulder.

“I thought it was one of them,” she says. “They’re all shouting all the time.”

I hesitate for a moment. Having retrieved her, I’ve calmed down.

“You thought they were shouting Mum?”

Our last night in Fes. In the courtyard of a decidedly luxurious riad, we tuck into some upscale food, having just spent an hour on the roof taking a last look at the medina. The doorbell conversation has come to an end and the talk is of future trips. Adventures we might all undertake together or that S and P might. P is reacting with disdain to anything we put on the table and we find ourselves having what I call the Coronation Street conversation: three against one, trying to tug her out of her zone.

“Comfort is overrated,” I say, managing to patronise where I mean to encourage.

It occurs to me as we gang up on her that we might be missing the mark here, castigating this tattooed woman for being too staid, lamenting her conservatism when she’s just spent three days dodging donkeys and sits with us now in the ornate courtyard of an old palace in Africa as a thunderstorm rumbles overhead. It hasn’t been an easy time for her. She just lost her little brother. I think neither we nor indeed she sees at times what she is capable of.

Still we can’t stop ourselves. We’ll do this again. We’ll try to cajole her into this or that. I hope that, once in a while, she listens. Comfort is overrated – it has its place but is best appreciated from the vantage point of our adventures, when we miss it a little. What we call an adventure may change according to where we are on our journey but the principle applies – we must keep moving through the mazes, inside and out, looking for something to marvel at, searching for synapses to spark. I’ve enjoyed this adventure with my mother, and look forward to more.



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La Paloma Amarilla
17 November 2014

Like all drunks, we wake up laughing.

Then we lie there for a long time, not moving.

“I don’t want to move,” says K. “I’ll find out how drunk I still am.”

The day presents us with its first demand. It requires a decision of us – breakfast in or out. Out will mean more movement and negotiation of human affairs than can currently be imagined. In will involve twenty-four quid.

“It can’t possibly be twelve per person,” I say. “For bloody breakfast. Have you checked?”

We’re both looking at the ceiling. It isn’t interesting but it’s reassuringly plain and white and motionless. Anything else I look at has a tendency to slip and slide in an alarming way.

“Yes, I’ve checked,” says K. “It’s twelve per person.”

“Ridiculous. We’ll go out for a tostada.”

We don’t, of course. Preparing to haul myself out of bed, I lean over to kiss her but she turns away.

“It’s not you,” she says. “It’s my own stench. I can still taste the papas alioli.”

I laugh again, hard and for a long time. When it comes to words, stench has to be one of the all time greats.

There’s no such thing as a hotel breakfast worth twelve euros but it’s pretty decent and with the price at the forefront of my mind I more or less vandalise the buffet. We get eggs and bacon too, and good coffee and begin to feel better in the soft light of an Andalusian patio. I’m not suffering any memory loss this morning but even if I was I would be able to tell you exactly where the night ended.

It ended where it always does in this city – on a doorstep in Calle San Pablo with my greedy face in a large whisky. It’s what I always do after we’ve been to the tabanco there, known far and wide for dishing up southern Spain’s best tortilla and known in our house for never having any left. This is how the conversation goes every time:

“Do you have any tortilla left?”

“No.”

In fairness, we always leave it till after midnight to pitch up and there is always the consolation of the chicharrones. And the aforementioned patatas alioli. And a very decent amontillado. On this particular occasion we’d arrived from a cerveceria where I regularly give K the opportunity to watch as I savour (guzzle) a hideously overpriced craft beer.

Before that it was El Paisaje where the flamenco was in full swing and the wine was a distinctive semi sec called Amoroso, a very apt descriptor for the evening itself, or me, or K, or the city.

Before that it was queso bosqueño at the wonderful Guitarrón, an oloroso we hadn’t come across before and a new amontillado, and before that we danced in Damajuana. There’s nothing quite like starting a tapas crawl by throwing a few shapes to a very tight live rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. The cheese wasn’t bad either and neither was the wine; leaving, we were already well oiled.

I’d passed an hour or so before that in the quiet hotel bar while K was getting ready, with a glass of Alvaro Domecq’s Alburejo and in the company of the dueña, a cultured lady who had come here from Vienna some years previously. She knew what she was talking about and let me taste a VORS. We spoke about the city and its wines, the fragrance of them that wafts from a bodega window on every other street here, the bodegas themselves (Maestra Sierra, Tradición, Fernando de Castilla), the muy viejos, the palo cortados and so on.

Although it didn’t take me long to exhaust my knowledge I realised I may have picked up a thing or two along the way. I realised as well just how much of what I have come to love about Spain is epitomised here. We swapped notes on places to eat and when she needed to attend to another guest I rejoined K and we went out.

As always then, a litany of bars and sherry wines, live music and winsome handholding beneath the laden orange trees. Conversations that lilt and swell to fit the future in. Dreamy scheming. Easy breathing.

Business as usual.

Except that this place always seems to produce a surprise. Yesterday, not for the first time, the surprise had wings. We had begun the afternoon shopping and were sitting outside the Gallo Azul with a coffee. It’s a great place to watch people and I had momentarily allowed my eye to drift upwards to the unassuming but elegant balconies of the city centre.

And there it was.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Here he goes again, off on one of his flights of fancy. He’s seen an off-white pigeon and he thinks it’s the most amazing thing ever. How very lyrical and more than likely symbolic of something or other.

No.

Listen to me.

This thing was the same shade of yellow as the reflective strips on my running shorts. If you could catch it, you could sellotape it to the front of your bicycle and feel a lot safer cycling at night. It was ludicrous. It was just wrong. Neither K nor could quite process what we were seeing.

“You don’t think someone sprayed it, do you?” I asked. As it took off and flew over our heads, we got a good look at its underside.

“If they did, they really got it from every angle,” said K. “They’d have had to hold it down or something.”

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know. A subsequent google search hasn’t thrown up anything remotely like this fella.

That’s Jerez for you.

After breakfast we wander down to the rastro, held each Sunday outside the Alcazar. It too is routine for us now. In amongst all the tat we find a gitano selling incense and nazareno shaped incense burners. Incense is a bit of an obsession at Casa Alotofwind.

“Do you have anything that doesn’t smell like a church?” I ask him.

I get a lecture on how important incense has been to all the religions, but it turns out he does have something and we also take a nazareno and a very appropriate, tio pepe-shaped burner. As we turn away he calls us back and gifts us a little stick of palo santo – a resin-rich, fragrant wood to burn that has been revered since the Incas. Even without the blue blossom of the jacarandas, it is beautiful here as the dome and bell tower of the cathedral peek through the trees at their Moorish forebears.

Bags collected, we wheel them along Calle Porvenir on our way to the car. It’s a somewhat ordinary street but I love it. We almost always get a room somewhere around here so I don’t believe there’s a street in the city I’ve walked more often. It has the requisite bodega and orange trees but very little else of note except, for us, a hint of melancholy – bitter sweet because we always arrive by it, but also leave.

Porvenir means ‘the future’ and I wonder if there’s something in that as we pass a father pushing his little boy’s buggie. We seem to notice children more these days. Smile at them more. This one’s got a bubble gun and he’s just deployed it so when we’ve passed them by we walk into a cloud of crystal clear orbs that bob lazily in the air, backlit and sparkling in the low noon of November.



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Las Instantáneas
12 June 2014

“The man is out there again”.

She means the man who walks his dogs behind our house each day, in the morning or early afternoon. She has told me about him on a number of occasions but for whatever reason I only saw him myself for the first time a few days ago. I stand on the patio bench and peer through the grille of the upper wall. Two leads for two small dogs who trot along peaceably, pausing here and there, as dogs do, to sniff or mark a pole, and always, alongside them or just behind and keeping them company all the way with perfect, leash-free discipline, a tabby cat.

                                                                           *

A white horse in the long grass that backs the beach. It would take a master to paint the scene above it; the hazy veil of a dirt grey horizon thins low in the sky, revealing a creamy ripple of higher cloud that expands as it arches overhead – little tufts pulled apart like the fibres of a cotton wool roll, white as the animal grazing. When I pass by again, some minutes later, the scene is gone, the clouds stage left as if dragged there by jaded stage hands. The show is over. It rains heavily the following morning and afterwards the horse isn’t even a horse, but a white yacht gleaming in a spot of sunlight against a charcoal waterline.

                                                                           *

In the passenger seat on the Avenida José León de Carranza, that becomes Avenida Cayetano del Toro,that becomes Avenida Andalucia: a long, long boulevard that dissects the lego-like neatness of the handsome new city. On either side the apartment buildings – motley yet somehow uniform in their array of olive greens, powder blues, peaches and champagnes, the cleans lines and soft, sun-smeared curves, the hospital, the hotels, the old church – recede in a tree-lined symmetry toward a vanishing point which, when reached, is cobbled, fortified and old; we turn towards the water and drive along it on the Avenida Campo del Sur, dazzled by the golden sparkle of the cathedral dome, then park and it’s into the warren, the casco antiguo, unique in Spain and the world. A Salzburg with palm trees, a Prague where parrot-like tropicals flit from tree to tree in the teaming canopies that cover sultry hot squares.

                                                                           *

There’s a soft roar to the blue burn of the quemada, bright in a blacked-out room as it sweeps around the curved inside of a little cauldron, driven inward as it shoots out and upward – a closed tulip of gentian fire: electric, fluid and fast. And through the sapphire blaze a ladle swings and scoops in circles and figures of eight, unsettling almonds and orange peel and now and then lifted to pour blue fire from a height. The gallega that wields it sings some old gallego song, and if I listened hard enough I might understand the words. But I don’t; there is no effort – I am lulled and slow and easy, and there is just the melody and the flame.

                                                                            *

At the bus stop on the busy port road in Algeciras, waiting to go home, I see him emerge from an underpass on the other side. A face I’m familiar with from the bar behind me: one of the local boys – men of a certain age who gathered there for dominoes and banter when the old dueños still ran the place. He’s dressed for exercise – some tight sports shorts and running shoes – but he looks a little awkward with it, his grey socks pulled up on his legs in the way you don’t see much anymore, especially with trainers, and a body warmer on that calls into question his commitment to breaking a sweat on this fresh but fairly mild evening. His hair is long but he’s bald on top and looks self-conscious – I think I see him glance across a couple of times to check that I’m not looking, and I feel a little bad for him – unlikely in his gear and clearly feeling uncomfortable. After a few seconds of having my attention distracted by the traffic, my eyes rest on him once again now that he’s walked on a bit and up towards the coast on the pedestrian path that turns that way at the roundabout and, now that he’s away from prying eyes on the main road I see him break into his run, and there’s just something about it. Something uplifting. There he goes – fighting it off, not going gentle into that good night, and although I might claim to wear my socks with a little more aplomb, that makes him the same as me. I want to pat him on the back. Tell him “well done”.

                                                                             *

In the castle, a princess. Out on the water at the end of a causeway – a manmade isthmus that pokes out from a city built on a natural one, the end of it fortified, like most things on this coast. A novelty for us to be on the water and not battered by tarifeño winds. The city skyline low and pixelated with roof terraces and the towers the merchants put on top of their houses. Only the churches and some port paraphernalia poke upwards. The little girl in her brilliant white dress poses happily in an archway while her family photograph her and we stand to the side, waiting.

                                                                             *

E is madrileño. He’s only been in Tarifa for three months, but the work is coming in. He writes slowly and laboriously as I watch –  “But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence”. The moment, as each of a thousand dawns approached, when the vizier’s daughter faced her own end and escaped it. The rising sun a perfect expression of her power and powerlessness, a suspended moment of hope and resignation, the breath of the narrator, in and out. A punctuation of life and death in the telling of tales. No better story than this story of a storyteller, and so I watch happily as E gives the moment some permanency in fluid Thuluth script, writing it slowly and with great care in jet black ink with a needle, on my arm.



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El Tesoro
08 May 2014

Trundling toward Seville with a bootful of booty – a creamy blue cheese from Galicia, a jar of blue cheese cream from Asturias, a jar of apple jam, a jar of orange jelly, a jar of strawberry jam, a jar of quince and orange paste, a jar of quince and lemon paste, a jar of chilli chutney and a small bottle of nispero liqueur, the maker of which didn’t so much recommend to us as warn us about. Two bottles of hand-picked olives in deep brine and three bottles of Extremaduran wine, a fridge magnet, two porcelain beer mugs and, wrapped up carefully in a straw hat, the most delicate cargo of all: six eggs from the finca we’ve just left and the chickens we’ve just waved goodbye to. Now all we have to do is get them home, just over four hundred kilometres away.

The project does not have an auspicious beginning; after just a few minutes we drive through a small town so sleepy and rural that even the main street is cobbled. Mis huevos, I complain as the car rattles through. We stop afterwards, outside a mammoth industrial complex of some kind that caught my eye on the way here yesterday – four huge silos and more at the other end next to a concrete dome the size of a small moon. At least half a kilometre in length, the plant consists of enormous pipes and ramps, a thousand stairwells, chutes and chimneys in all sizes and the constant noise of process. I have no idea what they do here and from a distance it is certainly a carbuncle in an otherwise pastoral landscape, but give me a tripod and a couple of days and I could get some beautiful images from this. I could fill an exhibition space with them and make jewels of all this metalwork and cement that would sparkle in their new setting. Today though, the sun is too bright but the brief stop gives K a chance to rewrap the eggs individually, inside an old t-shirt which she puts back into the straw hat, which sits on top of the cheese, which sits on top of a bag of melting ice.

All a far cry from the finca. We were only there for one night but we had the place to ourselves (not even the owners hung around overnight) so we could sit in a state of fantasy on the covered terrace that overlooked a vegetable patch and a river – a scene from a receding Spain, from my childhood, from our daydreams of the future. We let the bats swoop around us and the lizards call from the wall behind, until there were too many bugs and we retreated indoors. Precious time doing nothing together.

In the day the owner’s son had given us a tour of the nearby pueblo, taking particular pride in the four great and highly ornate church towers and treating us to snippets of the town’s Templar past. On noticing my distraction and perhaps a lack of enthusiasm for what he considered the main attractions, he asked me what it was I was looking for.

“Mira, soy fotografó. Persigo la luz. No la iglesia, no la historia – solo la luz. Nada más. Me entiendes?”

I pointed at the nearest tower which from one side was bathed in the glow of the last hour before sunset. What he valued most was luminous in what I valued most and, understanding me at last, he helped me spend the next half hour digging for gold light before returning to the campo to play with a puppy we christened Patch, for obvious reasons.

The pueblo, called Jerez de los Caballeros, is supposed to be the big draw around here but we got more value from the quiet out in the country, the call of birds and frogs and the whisper of foliage, particularly since the town was swarmed with an infestation of communions that day and in any case, I have a deeply ingrained indifference to churches. I was much more interested in the coins that F, the aforementioned son, showed me in the car on the way back – a Roman one and one from the reign of the Reyes Catolicos but especially a Caliphate coin which was so shiny it might have been minted the previous day, and all this buried in the ground on their land, waiting with the patience of the inanimate to be found.

We’d come to the finca from Zafra, where there hadn’t been much to do, and that had suited us fine. It’s a handsome little town that didn’t make much of an impression on us initially, but where we sank into a soft, relaxed state, and where from a roof terrace on the main square we watched the palms sway and flutter in a rising breeze, one of them hoarding a football in its fronds, and I wondered if the child had forgotten about it, or came here still to see if the tree would give it back its prized possession. Zafra is where the fridge magnet came from – we hunt fridge magnets wherever we go – though we didn’t need to get as far as Galicia, on this occasion, for the cheese.

When our friend, S, told me about a fair held each year in Trujillo (a gorgeous old conquistador town already known to us) and devoted entirely to cheese, she had my attention – it just so happens I like cheese. Very much indeed. We arranged to be there and also to take S and P up on their kind offer of hospitality for the night; having parked at theirs, the four of us went together, enjoying a beautiful lunch before hitting the main square and the fair, which turned out to be a considerably more bacchanalian affair than I’d envisaged but where we did manage, amidst all the bustle and music (youngsters-in-aviator-shades-throwing-dance-moves-I-shit-you-not), to get hold of some cheese.

On the way back,  K slept in the back of the car beside me, her head nodding and her toes propped against my leg as though I were a piece of furniture. The wine “samples” we had at the festival will have helped, no doubt, but there was something more – she looked genuinely at ease in a way that doesn’t happen often enough for her, a joyful little smirk on her face as she dozed that I felt joyful looking at. A proud piece of furniture.

Back at S and P’s place, peace on the verandah. Olive groves and eucalyptus forests, a white Extremaduran village and islands on the lake, a castle on the hill, a setting sun and a rising moon and above all, the silence. We love coming here and, if truth be told, envy them a little. If there is one thing that gets in the way of our enjoying the patch of earth they have claimed for themselves and on which they grow their fruit, it is our desire to claim our own one day. We have to catch ourselves and pull ourselves back, allow ourselves to enjoy the now.

We left in the morning, laden with jams and olives and a couple of days later as we pull away from the industrial monster we pass a house at the side of the road that they had told us about. Some local character’s idea of Gaudi-like architecture applied to a semi-detached. Apparently he didn’t even have permission but there it is. It must have been a dream for him. It must have taken some drive to complete it, as well as nerve. The result is pretty horrible, but I’m still glad we have these people among us, and their follies. Looking at it, gleaming in the sun,  it’s that much easier to believe I’ll get to put my own up.

I wince at every pothole, speed bump and flaw in the road surface on the long drive home but when we pull up to the house at last the six eggs, miraculously, are intact. I will use them to make a tortilla with potatoes from Sanlucar de Barrameda and caramelised onions. The wine goes in the rack and the jams go in the fridge along with the cheese. The magnet goes on the fridge door and, having enjoyed a few days of internet-free living – a thing of inestimable value – I log on.  J’s face is popping up on Facebook today and, since I don’t do dates, I’m taken by surprise. Then I see that it’s been two years since we lost himand I’m reminded in the strongest possible terms that real treasure is never, ever the things we’re after but always, always the people we’ve got.



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Las Manchas
24 April 2014

In Tangier, a body in a blanket: borne through the souk at shoulder height, a brisk pace and accompanied by boisterous call and response. Later, from our room, the sound of women’s chant in some adjacent house and of their ululating – whether in mourning or in celebration of come unconnected event I do not know.

We eat in the courtyard of the women’s charity and amble afterwards around now familiar shops. I buy incense and K lamps, and a wet, grey day opens up into sunshine. They call it the white city but there’s a good deal of clutter in the colour and a good dose of yellow and brown, as if the city were an ageing photo of itself, sunk into a geriatric tint and turned sepia.

It’s good to be back; we’ve been down the coast a little, in Asilah, a resort town with Portuguese and Spanish history and a beautifully maintained medina, although I suppose it could be accused of being a little sanitised – certainly so in comparison with its crumbling counterpart in Tangier. We’ve spent a pleasant couple of days there in what is essentially a typical seaside town but with added Moroccan intrigue.

Sitting outside the old walls with two tall mint teas, for instance, at around eight in the evening, the quintessential seaside promenade; it seemed the whole place was out. A steady trickle of foreign visitors like ourselves, affluent young Moroccan couples in town for a getaway, women dressed in Muslim bling, families with their children – girls hanging on to their mothers’ arms and looking up adoringly while their sullen brothers walked a few steps behind in a sulk or with a little more cheer played leader out in front,fathers walking along looking either proprietorial or like a spare part, depending on how you chose to read their blank expressions.

The town’s popularity with the Spanish has made it cosmopolitan in some respects, and its regular art festivals leave their mark in the form of countless murals, but the locals looked like a conservative bunch – women covered up and men in djellabas or preppy slack and sweater combinations. There was a notice in the reception of our hotel, advising that Muslim couples who wanted to share a room would need to produce a marriage certificate. Another notice in the bathroom castigated the tourist, in comical English, for ruining the towels with their newly acquired henna tattoos, and ended with four words which could have been either an expression of utter contempt or one of undying love: “Your stain is permanent.”

Sitting in the medina’s central square one morning I noticed that workers had congregated to put up some barriers, set out some chairs and assemble a makeshift stage. I wondered out loud what it might be they were preparing for and K took a moment out from her pastry to look up.

“Perhaps it’s a stoning,” she observed, drily.

Her quip was no doubt a result of our shared frustration at the difficulty in getting hold of a beer in this Muslim town. It’s astonishing how important being told you can’t have a beer can make beer seem. We walked the length and breadth of that town looking for one without any luck. Don’t get me wrong – we saw a lot of beer. There are restaurants all along the front that sell it. But they wouldn’t serve it to us, because we weren’t eating there. We learned later that standard practice is to go to one of these places, order a saucer of fish or whatever, and proceed to get hammered.

But how were we to know? Eventually, we found a little shop and got some takeaways to drink in secretive seclusion, back in our room. A tiny little place without signage of any kind on the front or smiles of any kind on the faces if its staff.

“It’s like queueing up for your methadone,” was K’s verdict, and although we had our beer at last, and despite finding Asilah very beautiful, we were beginning to look forward to Tangier, and familiar territory.

Dean’s Bar doesn’t look a bit like Rick’s Café of Casablanca fame, although it may well have been the inspiration for it. The piano is gone and I sit in the windowless back room sipping Tangier’s most reasonably priced brew – you can pay six euros for a small bottle in some places – with K beside me and a couple of middle-aged, dour-looking men at other tables. Out front the bar is busy and there are tapas but no bohemian expats or spies in evidence. That Tangier has vanished with the piano but pilgrimages like this place remain, apparently indelible though I suppose they too will disappear eventually.

In the meantime they draw me here, thrilled to be downing a bottle of Flag inches from a mark on the table that Tennessee Williams might have made, or Francis Bacon, or Ian Fleming. A few feet from where William Burroughs was refused service because Joseph Dean, the probably Egyptian cross-dresser with the fake name, didn’t like the look of him.

Perversely, although Tangier is a much better bet for a beer than Asilah, we come unstuck when we try to combine a drink with something to eat. Our usual place in the medina is closed and obvious alternatives are either too expensive or too far away. It’s late and kitchens here close early, and a fraught half hour of debate culminates in the bustle of the Socco Grande with me screaming blue murder at a taxi driver, and getting back out of his moving car, and giving up on the idea of wine with dinner, and heading a couple of streets south for a fish restaurant I have heard about where we take a seat and try to calm down and are served the best John Dory I’ve ever eaten, entertained by the jocular owner till we find ourselves in a good mood again, in spite of our sobriety.

Strolling afterwards, the door to Dean’s is just a little too dark to be inviting. I suggest another pilgrimage: the Tanger Inn, where the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg took a drink, and which in subsequent years became a knocking shop frequented by middle aged men with a taste for Moroccan boys. They’ve gone now too but the bar remains a stop for the literary tourist in this wonderfully seedy city. Knowing I haven’t the faintest idea how to get there, K is sceptical.

“It’s a bit late,” she says, and she’s right. I would like to tick it off my list, though.

“Ok, but next time we go to the gay brothel, yes?”

“Yes, alright darling.”

In the morning, torrential rain. We’re lucky and avoid the worst of it, making our way downhill through the medina and to the port between two heavy downpours. The large windows of the domed port building frame Tangier. From here it is indeed a white city, from the heights of the kasbah on our right through the cascading old town and right along the corniche which crescents the bay to our left. They are building a marina here that will almost certainly transform the city, such is its scale. A new chapter, but I hope those marks of old Tangier, those traces, are not completely erased. The ferry pulls out and the water is jade green beneath a gun metal sky, smeared with rain showers out on the Strait.



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El Hammam
10 April 2014

The feathery touch of the late sun against worn sandstone blocks, almost physical, like a warm breath.

In a plazuela to the side of the Iglesia San Dionisio, overlooked by a virgen in ceramics, K’s glass of water casting a long shadow and splitting the light into a colour spectrum on the arm of her chair.

The wrought iron doorway of the meson, swung open, and the waitress’ white shirt that catches the sun as she stands there.

To the left of the door, a window covered in iron lattice and behind that, glass panes framed by dark wood.

All of it set into the heavy blocks and all of it softy brilliant in the slanted sun, dappled in the shadows of the orange trees as the last light shines like time itself, animating everything.

Our table, which I thought messy at first and almost avoided till I saw that the others were the same, in fact strewn with fragile white stamen, fallen from the orange blossom overhead. The air sweet and heady with its perfume.

Hello again, Jerez.

The little plazuela is three-sided, opening up onto the larger Plaza de la Asunción with its weather-beaten but wonderful old cabildo – the 16th century town hall that functions as a library and museum today. There are a few people around this late Saturday afternoon but, as always in Jerez, it is quiet and uncrowded – the city is dappled with its own population the same way our table is with spots of sunlight.

We are a little blissed-out, having spent the afternoon in the warm waters, and hot waters, and cold waters, of a hammam: low-lit luxury, dim spaces and illuminated, perfumed pools. Obligatory Arab music and Moroccan lamps. Mint tea. I’m usually reluctant but, also usually, enjoy myself. K is made for it. There must be some oriental blood in her somewhere – the moment she sets foot in a hammam she looks like she’s come home. She saunters, she lolls, she lounges and floats, a look on her face like she’s about to break a prince’s heart, or order someone’s head on a stick whilst helping herself to a complimentary pastry.

She’s lovely, in the water.

I, on the other hand, come into my own in the bar. It’s a little early – as I sit in the square and look up at a stork on one of the rooftops that seems impossibly still until I realise it’s a fake – to launch an attack on the city’s tabancos, but pretty soon that’s exactly what we’ll do. A meandering series of olorosos, amontillados and palo cortados in the barrel rooms of the city, ending with a hazy few in San Pablo, K sitting at a table and watching my back as I stand at the bar and tuck into some tapas, under the impression that she’s gone to the bathroom and oblivious to her presence behind me. When she finally calls my name and asks what I think I’m doing, I bring the leftovers to her. It’s that end of the evening.

In the morning, through the thin walls of our hostal, we hear a guest clear his throat. For ninety minutes. I say clear his throat – it sounds more like the suicide attempt of a man who, finding nothing sharp to hand and not being in possession of a viable quantity of narcotics, has embarked on a spirited attempt to cough himself to death. It soon becomes clear, to us at least, that he’s made a poor choice and will not succeed, but say what you like about this guy – he’s no quitter.

I say cough, but the word does no justice to the violence of the noise that cracks into our room like the thong of a phlegm-soaked whip. I feel as though I and the lower reaches of this man’s oesophagus are really getting to know each other. Although a light hangover keeps us horizontal for a little while, in the end it’s too much and we dress quickly, heading out for a tostada on the Arenal.

On the square the morning light is just as soft and the shadows just as long as they were the previous afternoon by the church, but the air is fresher and the shadows cooler. There is the lulling rush of the huge fountain, a deep blue sky that heralds the first summery day of the year, the palm trees perky, the orange trees well-groomed and the odd stroller dapper in Franco-era Sunday best: sharply creased slacks, handkerchiefs that peep out of blazer pockets, waxed hair, shiny shoes and the like.

Pigeons on the black iron lamps.

After breakfast we walk down to the Sunday market, held each week below the ramparts of the Alcazar, where we always come across something noteworthy. This time it’s pottery – amidst all the broken dolls, old vinyl, antique furniture and general tat, we come across a gypsy woman selling incense and little nazareno-shaped burners. I buy a packet of charcoal from her too and she adds it all up incorrectly, overcharging us by fifty cent. It’s an honest error – she’s done it all out loud and simply made a mistake, but we don’t point it out to her, either because we’re slow to notice or because she looks like she could snap me in two, absent-mindedly.

On the other side of the Moorish fortifications – it’s too early in the year for the intervening avenue of jacarandas to burst with their blue blossom – is an art market, usually attended by a jerezano artist we like and who has a very distinctive, child-like style. For a pauper who lives in a rental with limited wall space, I buy too many pictures, but I can’t help myself this morning; I want to take some of all this beauty away with me. I choose an uncharacteristically conventional sketch of the city of Cádiz and almost certainly pay less than it’s worth.

It might seem contrary to eschew the style that attracted us to him in the first place, and equally so to take a picture of Cádiz home from a visit to Jerez, but then that’s what we love so much about the place – we’ve made it our own each time we’ve come, done our own thing. The bodegas, the horses, the feria – those things are emblematic of a city that is too rich to be defined by them. The real attraction here is more difficult to pin down. Tiene algo más. Tiene alma. I find myself resorting to contradictions in an effort to describe what draws us here – soporific but stimulating, shabby but elegant, full of music and boom-voiced cantadores, but quiet.

Dusty and dry but soaked in wine, and always cleansing.



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Las Rutas
04 April 2014

Until the Arabs came, this was the end of the world. Everything to the west was monsters and mystery; everything to the south was sultry, secretive and uncivilised. To the Syrians and their Berber hordes it became a new frontier, and a potential route to the domination of Europe, but until that moment, for the people they were about to conquer, it was the edge of the known. For some it still is of course – Europeans are in plentiful supply who would willingly go no further.

Sitting on a bus and looking at the back of someone’s head can be a bracing business; we never see the back of our own heads and it’s probably just as well – this evening’s guy has hair cropped short with salt and pepper flecks and a line of imperfections along the rim of his ear (spots or old wounds of some sort) that he continually rubs and picks at. He has a way of sneezing that makes me wince even though he’s doing it in the opposite direction: a series of near silent convulsions after which he checks his hands, his jacket and the window for mucous. My hand’s been resting on the miserly ledge at the bottom of my window and just behind his seat; I pull it back a little and breath as shallowly as I can, impatient to get off and suddenly conscious that a blemish at the back of my own ear may be disgusting someone at this very moment, grey hairs involuntarily counted, greasy collar disapproved of.

But it isn’t a journey I would willingly cut short. For one thing, it’s the way home and I’d like to get there. For another, the daily drive gives me time to look and think. I’ve written about the circuits I take on foot around Tarifa and how they have become externalised thought processes for me. This is the wheeled version – the spectacular bus ride from home to work and work to home which I’ve taken so many times now it has to be hard-wired in me – a permanent impression, retinal and synaptic, that formats my thought.

And what a format. Although the N340 from Algeciras to Tarifa begins by winding close to the Mediterranean coast – the Rock of Gibraltar and its African counterpart, Jebel Musa, in full view – the country here is distinctly Atlantic.  “Looks like Wicklow” is a running and presumably, for K, rather tiresome joke of mine. I say it whenever we lay eyes on some wild wonder. I said it in the Cares Gorge and, believe me, the Cares Gorge looks nothing like Wicklow. We’ve never visited the Grand Canyon but I’m pretty sure that if we did, I would turn to her and observe that it looked like Wicklow.

This place really does look like Wicklow though. Not even the high summer of southern Spain can bleach the green out of it. We never see the parched browns and charred, near black burn of Extremadura to the north or more easterly parts of Andalucia. It is wet and verdant and, particularly as the road rises through the village of Pelayo, misty. The continent tapers to an end in a series of streams and rivulets and the valleys they have carved out like ripples on the earth, tectonic folds in a ruffled green sheet.

At this time of year in particular the Wicklow comparison is apt – the slopes above and below the road are ablaze with swathes of the same yellow flowering gorse that lines the country roads of that county. It looks like some benevolent bushfire sweeping across the hills and valleys. Like coast roads everywhere, this one curves and dips, as does the land around it – up to the wind turbines that turn on the ridge and down to the wild shore, a good distance away from the elevated highway.

On the other side of the gleaming water the craggier outcrops and mountains of Morocco, almost black save for the wrinkles of Jebel Musa, which blush in the soft light of the setting sun. Cargo ships like bootless skates as they slip and slide along the Strait; some of them will turn left when they hit the open water, some right. The little old fincas that predate the road they can be seen from, snug in their long occupied spots like crumbs that have rolled and come to a stop where the fabric folds. The horned red cattle on the hillsides and the odd meadow speckled with snowy white wild flowers. The well-maintained little tracks that curl and thread their way on the seaward side, connecting the compounds and homesteads like draped ribbons.

As if I needed further reminder of my origins, the weather the following day, on my way back in the opposite direction is thoroughly Gaelic – which is to say mixed, and wet. Every fifty metres, in every direction, the light changes. I can see rain falling from nearby clouds in vertical shafts of dirty grey, curtains of water under a veiled sun. The clouds above me are a study in difference – difference in colour, in altitude, in shape and in speed.

The yellow gorse, the spots of rain and light, the windy bluster – a study in similarity, and in evoking the place where I started out in life, it underlines the circuitous route by which I have ended up here. As the road nears Tarifa in the evening, it gently descends and reveals the open Atlantic, the sun pinkening above it and the vast water gleaming. I have likened the view here (of two seas and two continents) before to a page in the atlas and, if I say so myself, it’s a good analogy. Quite apart from any journeys I may have undertaken, this little town at the end of the world has been on its own: gateway of the Arab empire, the key to Spain, Muslim outpost, Christian stronghold, backwater, fishing village, kitesurf resort. It has come a long way.

At the entrance to the town the bus passes a down-at-heel barrio of drab, shabby apartment blocks that have just this week been partial transformed. The first three blocks now sport spectacularly ornate artwork on their sidewalls. The four story spaces are filled with ornate Arab calligraphy and portraits of Muslim women. Cranes were brought in to assist the artists to complete their work. It is shocking and delightful, especially in such a hard-up neighbourhood, and was funded by something called the Foundation of the Three Cultures which is based in Cordoba and is dedicated to Spain’s Christian, Jewish and Muslim past.

Even now, more than thirteen hundred years since Tarif Ibn Malik landed here with his advance party, the culture he brought with him has the vitality left in it to contribute to the town’s culture. To the community. To brighten up a neighbourhood. Tarifa has indeed come a long way, but the ties remain. And so do mine. Life isn’t made of departures, or arrivals. It’s made of the ways that wind and turn (and twist and surprise) between them. And there is no point in subscribing to “always look ahead” or “stay true to your roots” simplifications – the traffic flows both ways.



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La Intervención
14 March 2014

Very few of you, I imagine, will have enjoyed the depth of understanding, clarity of judgement or richness of insight that K and I have been enjoying recently with regard to the questions and quandaries of global geopolitics.  Perhaps as few as none of you will have been able to appreciate, as we have, the fine balances and convolutions, the real dilemmas and delicate considerations that George W Bush, for example, along with his now legendary team of peace enthusiasts – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell – will have had to grapple with in their relentless pursuit of justice in the Middle East.

The precision that will have had to accompany Bill Clinton’s more famous compassion as he weighed up the countless (and often contradictory) criteria for going into, or not going into, or going into and then pulling out of, a Kosovo descending into deadly chaos. The teetering structures and the slip-slide systems that threaten constantly to tumble on the turn of a card.

A card in a house of cards. The often split-second timing with which the great players must make their calls and live with the consequences: Franklin D Roosevelt, the Federal Reserve and the war in Europe, Saddam Hussein and his attempted liberation of Kuwait, Margaret Thatcher’s critical response to the Falkland crisis, without which the world would be so very different today – what all of these leaders had in common of course was an unwavering regard for the well-being of the people their decisions affected.

But how to make those decisions? How to make sense of it all, to weigh it all up, to navigate one’s way through the ethnic rivalries, religious conflicts and political machinations of a culture we may well struggle to understand? The malevolent undercurrents of historical resentments, the quick sands of long held grudges and hatreds held close to the bosom, the thin misleading refractions of propriety on the surface while the murk of corruption muddies the waters below – these are the swamps that our leaders must wade through in their never ending search for what they prize above all else – a morally correct course of action. The right thing to do.

No, it isn’t for you – simple, ordinary people – to appreciate, as K and I do, the heaviness of history’s hand as it rests upon those estimable shoulders, the gravity with which the awful responsibility of leadership presses down on those troubled heads. For our part, we understand all too well, and it is a profound understanding  – one that has matured, like an elegant, ageing wine, out of our efforts, over the last couple of weeks, to adopt a cat.

That’s right – this is a story about a cat.

Tommy doesn’t know his name is Tommy, but it is now. The exercise of control so often begins with language, of course, but while it might be a little imperialist of us, we had to call him something. Or rather, K did. We’ve known the friendly little fellow for a while – acallejero of the barrio, he’s been living a street away from our house, spending much of his time on a little plazuela we often pass. She has been unable to do so without saying hello to him, and he always reciprocates cordially. Apparently his name derives from the fact that he’s a tomcat although, for the record, he does indeed look just like Jerry’s nemesis.

A little over a fortnight ago I noticed one evening, not being able to see very well in the gloom, that one of Tommy’s ears was either gone or significantly reduced. The following morning I could see that it was still there but crumpled and bleeding from where he’d been scratching himself mercilessly. I dutifully reported my observation to K, who decided that we should get him to a vet and, since she was travelling at the time, delegated the project to me. With a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for the trust she’d put in me – which I expressed to myself with the softly mumbled words ‘fuck sake’ – I set about the task, abducting the itchy and unsuspecting creature by bundling it into a transporter and hauling it off to the vet.

This was the beginning. As is so often the case with good intentions, I hadn’t really thought it through; the vet confirmed the presence of a parasite (let’s call it an insurrection) in Tommy’s ears. He would need drops twice daily for a week and we, therefore, would need the help of the local group of animalistas (let’s call them NATO) who run a shelter for strays. Into a cage he went, which I tried to make as comfortable as possible for him but which no doubt was a horrifying personal Guantanamo for Tommy. Over the next week or so his condition improved and he would perk up each time I came with the drops and some treats. I was bonding and he appeared to have succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome – we were already in deeper than I’d ever intended.

The upshot was that, having created this dependency (I’m looking at you, Egypt), it didn’t feel right to throw him back on the street. I convinced K that we should adopt him and we took him back to the vet this last Monday to have him castrated (let’s call it de-baathification) and tested for any illnesses. It turns out he has FIV, which is an immune deficiency that cats get, apparently. It makes them susceptible to things like ear insurrections and other bodily rebellions, so in that respect I suppose it’s a bit like fundamentalism.  A situation, then, which I for one thought was pretty complicated to begin with – given that we already have two cats – turns out to be even more so. Bit of a quagmire, in fact.

Intimations of Mesopotamia, anyone?

Life since Monday has been interesting. If I might be permitted to describe that day as 3/10, you could say that K and I are living in a post 3/10 world. As friendly as the little chap is, it turns out he has absolutely no intention of behaving like a lap cat, now or at any point in the foreseeable future; think of him then as our personal Afghanistan. Although the de-baathification went according to plan, he continues to display tomcat behaviour, and since this includes spraying everything in sight with his urine, we have been unable to reach any kind of indoor agreement with him.

Furthermore he has launched a number of attacks on our home soil, even making incursions over the back wall that our own two cats find impossible to scale. Whether there or in the front, he makes himself loudly known several times daily until such time as we capitulate and offer food. The noise that cat can make. The neighbours (former Soviet Union on one side, China on the other) must really hate us. Suddenly our own sovereignty is compromised, our borders breached. Whether we can adopt him or not would now appear to be very much his choice, and not ours.

A foreign adventure has come home to roost; a much longer battle than we had ever envisaged will be fought now on our own doorstep. And back patio. It is humbling and has rather taken the sheen off our sense of noblesse oblige. Either one of us could tell you for a fact that, in his darker moments, Barack Obama will have seriously considered bundling Iraq up into a box, driving out into the middle of nowhere, and leaving it there. On the other hand the experience does place us in a position to understand, only too well, the intricacies at stake and the fraught decision-making at play as the eyes of the world turn towards Putin, and his speculations in Ukraine and the Crimea.



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La Magia
04 March 2014

I have written about Benarrabá before and about the spell it holds over us. Even by pueblo blanco standards, it is tiny, hidden from view at the end of a series of hairpin turns, a kilometre or so from the road that threads along the eastern side the Genal Valley and ends up in Ronda. A series of larger pueblos, with names from the days when this was Berber high ground, adorn the road like a string of gleaming worry beads.

Unlike them, it is hard to imagine Benarrabá expanding or modernising. Expansion, in fact, is impossible – the town is draped across a narrow ridge that offers no more space – and any modernisation going on around here is going on in Gaucín, a few kilometres down the road, so this little pueblo of six hundred souls sparkles alone in the green velvet of the valley, isolated on its summit but connected by sight – and the ineffables of culture and history – with other tiny towns, visible in the distance on the other side of the river.

We come in February every time, the Andalucian winter just beginning to lift and the skies wet with heavy raincloud. The topography always seems to punch a few holes in the grey blanket, though, and vertical shafts of sunlight play across the slopes as if painted there by a master; the brilliant sun shines through the murk like a miracle, even as mist envelops the hills above the slanted little settlement that has never failed to enchant.

When we first came here it embodied the sense of adventure and discovery that we were experiencing more or less continually as newcomers to Spain. Dizzy and intoxicated, barely a week could go by in those days without our taking off in the car to explore some fantastically foreign new place: some city to dazzle us or a corner of wilderness to wonder at. It is no exaggeration to say that the country was casting a charm over us.

That first February visit was unseasonably warm and sunny, in fact, the square full of people young and old, enjoying tapas of mushrooms picked in these hills, drinking good, cheap wine made in the valley and soaking up the welcome warmth and glaring light. It was magical; it made us feel that we were weaving magic with this, our new life.

The intervening years have seen us make the journey from that early amazement to a deepening sense of respect and, yes, love for the places we have seen and continue to see. Some alchemy takes place; the thrill of discovery gives way to the deeper satisfaction of rediscovery. The pleasures of novelty mature and blossom into the joys of familiarity, of el conocer – though foreigners here we can nowadays conjure a feeling of some kind of belonging, some kind of bond: as well as infiltrating the place we can feel that it has infiltrated us, that we are somewhat seasoned with its spiced flavours and fruity oils.

The buzz of first sight becomes the rush of return – to a tabanco in Jerez, an apartment in the Albayzin, a fish restaurant in El Puerto, a gorge in Asturias, a bar just off the square in Salamanca, a pueblo blanco; our trajectory through Spain is no longer a series of one night stands – it’s a real love affair now, a complete seduction.

Benarrabá, perhaps more than anywhere else, exemplifies that journey; by the time we make it through the rain and descend into the pueblo that reveals itself suddenly as if by sleight of hand, we feel we have history here. We love it and continue to come but the truth is we haven’t always been optimistic about it – I suppose you could say we have felt protective of it. Last year’s Feria was a worrying experience for anyone who cares about the place. The weather was bad and attendance was very poor. The stall holders in the square were idle and anxious, the bars on the ruta de tapas more or less empty.

It almost seemed as if the town was cursed as we huddled round the fire and chatted with the subdued landlady. With the cold and the wet and the relative silence the contrast with that first year could not have been greater. Unconsciously perhaps, we came to think of Benarrabá as Benarrabá The Unfortunate. A place in decline, afflicted with plain bad luck, a pueblo blanco trying to execute the same reinvention trick as the other pueblos blancos, but failing.

So it is not entirely without trepidation that we return this year. We know that the one, twelve room hotel is full – we have had to book a room in a casa rural on trust over the phone, with a number we got from reception – but the weather is truly awful and we can’t imagine many people braving it, despite the fact that there will be Guinness record attempt on Sunday. Something about the largest plate of ham and an enterprising idea on the part of some local bright spark, no doubt, but surely not enough to make a success of the Feria in these appalling conditions.

I call the number to get directions. The casa rural has no name, no web page – we know nothing about it, and have visions of staring at some elderly couple in their own living room. While on the phone I notice a dead cat in an unused water trough. As omens go it is not auspicious.

More hopefully, it turns out we don’t have a room in the house for the night. We have the house. Forty quid. And as we while away the rest of the day there do seem to be more people in town.  Our night ends with very good flamenco in a horrible, but adorable, little bar.

The following morning there is definitely something in the air – cars are being guided onto the school playground, and in the tent on the main square it looks like Benarrabá means business this time. One hundred and sixty-one cortadores have turned up with sharp knives and iberico hams and the central fountain has had a fifty square metre platter built around it. By noon the gathering has become a full blown media event. We are stunned by the scale of it and by the crowd that has materialised; the little town has really pulled one out of the hat.

The record attempt proceeds amidst loud cheering and the stop start bureaucracy of the digital clock. It is successful, as it happens, but that doesn’t really matter. Ham has drawn these people here but they’re not here for the ham. After all, nobody needs a fountainful of ham. It’s all a folly, on one level: a decidedly random event.

No, they don’t need ham, but they do need bread. They need life and today is a sign of life. Money will pour into the pueblo and its name will be heard far afield. More people will come. This is regenerative. The town has gathered in a show of unity, of what the Spanish call la convivencia. Despite the one-off nature of the day, it shares something with countless others. It is a ritual of sorts – something powerful has pulled people together. The same power that made them dance around the fire, gather in the arena, the same power that made them build those ancient places our archaeologists struggle to decipher. Benarrabá is blessed: it hums with a magnetism, and today isn’t the day to explain it. Now is not the time to figure it out.

It just happens.



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El Soborno
19 February 2014

“If you annoy me in Ikea today,” says K – we are on Calle Luna, a long pedestrian shopping street in El Puerto de Santa Maria that begins near the water where the tapas bars cluster along Calle Misericordia and ends in the Plaza de Juan Gavala, a little square of flower sellers – “I swear, I will leave you.”

It is K’s contention that I make a poor companion when it comes to enjoying the many delights that Ikea has to offer; I don’t like admitting to my faults any more than the next person but in this case I would have to concede the point – in Ikea one actually ascendsinto hell and the second my foot leaves the top of the infernal escalator the crankiness kicks in like clockwork.

Where are the pencils? Where are the bloody pencils? What is this thing anyway? Is that the number for the red or the white? White brilliant or white matt? What are we doing in the kitchen section? We don’t need anything in the kitchen section…

I invariably find myself admonishing K to ‘focus’. Never mind that teams of psychologists and designers have been brought in to create an environment that would prevent anybody from focussing. Never mind that K simply doesn’t want to focus, that she has never shown the slightest interest in focussing. Never mind that I’m not her headmaster. No, I acknowledge none of it – I just hop around after her barking the word ‘focus’, like a broken monkey.

It isn’t easy, in fact, to persuade me to come, and today’s proposed visit has been preceded by a complex process of mind game and negotiation, culminating in a very particular payoff for myself, which is why we find ourselves on Calle Luna, and then passing the flower sellers and turning right onto Calle Zarza.

Obregón is heaving. They only serve food on Saturdays and they don’t need to advertise: every little corner of this old sherry bar – the two comedores at the back and all the little nooks in the barrel room out front – is full to bursting point. We find a narrow, crooked ledge that our plates will continually slide off and wait (and wait) for one of the family to notice us.

When one does we get a plate of berza, some patatas aliñadas and half an hour or so in one of Andalucia’s most enchanting spaces – floor to ceiling barrels, wall to wall bullfighting memorabilia and a Saturday crowd as old world as the place itself. The wines here are proprietary and when we leave we take a litre of the oloroso with us along with two bottles of what is undoubtedly (because I say so) the finest fino in the world.

We leave the elder Obregón doddering about and the two tall boys doing their best to keep up with orders. The flower stalls have gone for the day and the little square is empty as we pass through it and K points up ant to the right at the Mayor Prioral church, a 15th century building with a roof of many half arches and architectural outcrops. It isn’t the church K is pointing at though, but the large stork that my eyes manage to catch before it alights on its huge nest, gliding in and pulling up mid-air before placing its feet delicately on the circular mess of twigs.

There is nothing strange about seeing a stork in the province of Cádiz; there must be more of them here than anywhere else in Europe. The church though, while grand in style, is low, so the bird and its nest seem closer than usual, as do the dozens of other birds, and other nests, that cover the building. It is some sight, this beautiful blend of gothic and baroque, topped with storks nests wherever they’ll fit, but it isn’t the sight that has my attention as I stand still in the street and crane my neck; it’s the sound.

I’ve never heard it before – perhaps because I’m used to seeing these birds in silent flight, high overhead, or on top of pylons from the sound-insulated isolation of the car – but it entrances me now. Anyone familiar with any Andalucian town at around four in the afternoon will know that it is deathly quiet and the silence provides the bird song with a velvety acoustic backdrop. An odd call, it reminds me of the swing of a hangman’s noose, yet somehow manages to evoke a sense of life. It’s a sound you might expect to hear in a zoo, or as you gaze upwards through the banana leaves of a botanical garden’s hothouse, the ock ock ock of the birds like tickless clocks tocking their tocks out irregularly, in falling cadence, like drops of water over rock.

The soporific effect of the storks and the amontillado prove sufficient to ease me back into the passenger seat, toward Jerez, into the big blue-and-yellow box and up the escalators to storage solution central in a comparatively good mood. It was never going to last, however,  and by the time we have navigated the various zones and returned to the lower level warehouse I am, of course, livid.

“Oh for heaven’s sake! What a bloody mess! Does it have to be like this every time?”

K sidles up behind me and asks what the matter is in tones of alprazolam. I am seething.

“Look!” I bleat, indicating the numbers displayed on the shelving. “So we’re looking for 221-404-117, right? And the ticket says 221-404-117 can be found in Section 38 on Row 15, and here we are on Row 15, and correct me if I’m wrong but I’m looking right at Section 38. And guess what? No 221-404-117. It’s always the bloody same!”

She looks at the little slip of paper my clammy fist has crumpled to near pulp.

“But honey,” she croons. “This doesn’t say Row 15, Section 38 – it says Row 38, Section 15, you silly.”

And with that she’s off, pushing her trolly and, when she’s got a little momentum, lifting her feet and riding it like a child at the supermarket.

“My God,” I think to myself, scowling as she recedes down the warehouse aisle like some demented oompa loompa.

“You’re actually enjoying this…”



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