Thursday, August 23, 2001

Chatting in Español

Journeying as a Traveller rather than a tourist always presents it's own challenges as well as joys. Some are shared of course, such as laundering, whilst others are unique to the time when one steps outside the comfort zone and permits the sorrow of life to be confronted along with the museum images.

This morning as I sat at the breakfast table while Rob wandered through the hillsides of western Cantabria, I talked about the weather with the couple of fellow women at the table who were staying here longer term like us. As the bar’s owner Antonio called the elder, ill one for her massage, her daughter and I talked about the nature and cause of her condition. After a week and a half, I had thought that it was likely that she had something very much like MS, her difficulty in walking and movement, the paralysed state of one side of her face, and shaking movements were all too familiar to me. However, the true story was even sadder.

I had perhaps surmised that the two might have been mother and daughter, although this was far from necessarily obvious. Seven years ago in November (1994), a car accident had killed the woman's husband and two children. The resulting injury to her mother had meant months in a coma, and 3 years in hospital. The need to live for today, and enjoy life now was important to us all, and too rarely realised. Further details of insurance payments and so on were comprehended sufficiently, if not to the letter. Enough time was spent together over a shared table, bathroom and hallway to understand part of these people's life, and be let into something below the surface of the images of painted figures at a decaying Spa Resort of another era, taking the waters each morning and returning to eat carefully, rest and watch television. Tourists may speak the language more fluently in ordering their meals, and entering the guidebook venues of churches, galleries and museums. Yet in melding into the scenery enough to become an unobtrusive force in the landscape, you can do more than shares the joys of a children’s' birthday party in the tiny plaza next to the bar & general store on the roadway half a kilometre away. In ordering a cafe solo and Anis, I am more than complemented on my 'native' accent by the comments of the woman and instant recognition of my order, by our acceptance by the locals who sit outside on steps, or hold up the counter and discuss the sensationalist current affairs reports on TV.

Wednesday, August 22, 2001

The Rain in Spain . . . .

Sheer cliff faces; rock walls; goat track terrain; or very hilly. It is now about four weeks since Bob & I left Australia. The first few days or so in Southern France seem such a blur and so very distant, both in culture and in time. As we shift a little further west and south each week, following the warmth and the sun, we have stayed in a progression of vastly different places, run in entirely differing manners. After leaving Paulette & John in Southern France, our one night in an elaborate hotel over the Pyrenees border was followed by the 4 spent in a pensione attached to a Euro campground at a Basque seaside resort, and then the wanna-be, gonna-to Fawltyesque rural pensione in eternal construction on the hillside of a dot on the map called Concha, nearing the next dot of San Estaban. The unbelievably intrusive and macho owner, Ignacio, made an enormous show of everything, singing, sweeping and opening every door to each room, yet did no work, kept his wife locked up whilst invading others dinner, and had the place quite dirty and run down. Luckily, as this was the only available accommodation for enormous distances during this holiday period in Spain, it was made bearable by the other guests, a group of five Italians travelling together, with whom we shall visit in Ferrara near Bologna when at the world championships, and another delightful family of four from Rome. This ensured our sanity, and made the pensione a good base to explore the surrounding countryside, however we were unable to warn them on the morning of our departure of how the owner was exploiting his good fortune in the capacity of other places and sought to charge extras for every conceivable little thing. Bob and I were too tired and anxious to get on our way to argue over matters of principle then. However he shall neither see the return of guests, nor ever near the finalisation of stages 1, 2 or 3 of his dream in progress.
Two desperate nights were spent in a very pleasant place, a new bar, supermarket and accommodation, near the old town square and church of what appeared to be a tiny old town in the middle of nowhere. However, here in the middle of nowhere was full-scale production of a new town of casa's and villas in sympathy with the old style around them. The day of our arrival also saw the funeral of a local woman in her 40's from the hospital, and the bells chimed solemnly and the place was packed with people for miles around. The mornings' construction began early, and the run we shared the first day up a steep hill & then over to the busy National Route and the edges of a large city was not promising or fun. The next day Rob was unwell to run, and I wound my way the other direction on a secondary local road to another village, looking down on the 2-dimensional bell towers which centred every settlement for many miles and feeling strong and the last week has been entirely different once more. Booked sight unseen on the 27th attempt, it was always a risk, however the price was right. It looks and feels in many ways like an old Australian country pub, there may be an ancient table soccer table in the corner under the television, and another dining area instead of a ladies saloon, however it feels much the same. The rooms at the top of the stairs wind their way along a corridor that curves in line the building as it hugs the narrow street, dipping down two steps 2/3rds of the way as it nears the spot where rooms cross the road to the other building that sits on the side that gives the pub its name ~ 'El Parque'. The rooms are simply furnished, with pieces that indicate that they have been here close to the time of photos that are here and in the other Grand Hotel that forms the basis of the place, a (healing water) spa for those born before the (Spanish Civil) war. In a setting from a 1,000 anonymous movies, eighty-somethings, principally women, dress for dinner and shuffle around with an air, which would indicate their status. Waitresses in starched white pinafores over black dresses serve with discretion and down cast eyes, always aware of wayward walking canes and Zimmer frames. In the series of ante rooms that lead to the dining room, card tables set with thick green baize for dominoes or card games are ever ready, and etchings of a whimsical golden age of nymphs (and the healing water urns) lie beside the odd photo of the burning of these same buildings by Franco's troops at the end of the civil war in 1939, taken by a foreign photographer and released only recently, or more grandiose pictures of the same Spa Resort in a time when the trees in the garden of El Parque are so much smaller, and it looks like a wonderland with the streets and hillsides covered in snow.
In the pub, rather than the 2 Star Spa Hotel, where chimes indicate along with an announcement that a phone call is to be received, the furniture is good solid stuff, mottled by wood worm, however some fine pieces are amongst them, including an enormously long sideboard in the main dining room. The owners here are fine people, as different to Ignacio and his horrendous treatment of his pleasant wife as could be imagined. Antonio is the omnipresent barman, server of breakfast whenever we emerge, and one to lock up at the end of a long night. He is always available to give advice, takes an enormous interest in our cycling, and has photos of one of the local cycling heroes decorating the bar. A closer inspection reveals more differences here than merely the beer on tap, a huge leg of ham (jamon) lies on an electric slicer behind the bar, as in every other place in the area for bar snacks or tapas. From early afternoon, a tortilla, and small regional raciones of food appear behind the bar, alongside a limited selection of wines, sherry and local spirits such as Anis.