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Notes from a Catalan Village: The Mushroom Season

23 Nov


Autumn is the mushroom season, and at weekends, if you take a walk outside the village, you will encounter the mushroom hunter, a basket slung underarm, scanning the ground with an expert eye. King of the mushrooms is the rovelló, (Lactarius deliciosus) – pictured above, large and fleshy funghi that appear around the roots of pines, which grow abundantly along the tracks through the Alberas leading north and into France.

The picture includes one of the largest specimens I have ever encountered (or eaten). I’d recommend them cooked in olive oil or butter with some garlic and parsley, and spread over toast, or with spaghetti or linguine, if you have any.

Another – perhaps the other – defining feature of autumn is the Tramuntana – a wind that heads down off the Pyrenees and sweeps all before it. It makes its way to the coast of Menorca (200 miles due south from here), and who knows how far beyond . . . It is a wind invested with powerful psychological or emotional qualities.

This wind, the mountain wind, infiltrates every corner like a spinning incubus, growing inside each perception, every mundane act, taking them over utterly. Eventually you become aware only of the immediate and hallucinatory impact of whatever stands before you: the silent apparition of the dog waiting expectantly in the doorway; a dead sheep lying beside a roadside elm. The wind sucks out everything from you, leaving you exhausted and chastened. People have been known to commit murder on account of the mountain wind, or else go slowly insane over several seasons. (Colour of a Dog Running Away)

The wind needn’t affect everyone in quite this way; but the dogs, they notice, and flocks of starlings appear as you drive along the road to Garriguella and swerve and dive and bank away in a thick black cloud over the recently ploughed fields.

I have noticed, in myself and others, particularly after a full week of the wind – a tendency towards dreaminess or abstraction, a withdrawal into a state in which the structures of the phenomenal world have a tendency to dissolve. When this happens, conversations about the village take a strange turn, and the person with whom one thinks one has been speaking turns out to have been dead for a hundred years (the teenage girl who disappeared into the mountains with her illegitimate and stillborn child in 1912), and the postman mistakes you for Andreu the beetle-crusher, and the Butane delivery driver’s assistant refuses to let you take in the heavy gas cylinder that you use for cooking and hot water, mistaking you for the old man you must appear to him to be, and tells you to take care now, to wrap up warm, it’s cold.

Rabos January 2012


pre sunset



Notes from a Catalan Village: The Grape Harvest

28 Sep

Vendimia 1

Late September: the tourists have abandoned the beaches, and only a few resolute locals and French day-trippers can be found on a Sunday at Colera’s platja dels morts, where we spend a delightful couple of hours reading and swimming. The temperature has dropped to a comfortable mid-20s and there are occasional overcast days, even rain. The vendimia draws to a close, country roads still dotted with tractors pulling trailers overladen with purple grapes (mostly garnatxa, although more farmers are experimenting with different varieties now, including the ever-popular cabernet sauvignon and merlot).

Vendimia 3

vendimia 4

Mrs Blanco lends a hand.

vendimia 5

vendimia emptying cubo

In the midst of all this activity, we have elections, purportedly to declare an independent Catalan state.

The plastic hoarding that Bruno the dog is so fond of urinating against – Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a coalition of parties promoting a vote for independence at the elections held yesterday – was installed at the top of the village around a month ago. The result of yesterday’s election – with all the votes not yet counted – is that while the pro-independence parties have gained a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, they did not receive 50% of the actual vote. Which means that if this were to be treated as a de facto referendum – and the Independentistas claimed it was – then they have failed (even though they are, of course, claiming otherwise).

junts pel si

I have three main concerns about Catalan independence. The first is whether Catalunya will remain a member of, or be automatically admitted to, the EU. From the threats offered by both Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish president and – on a recent visit to Madrid – David Cameron, the same attitude is being taken by the larger states as was taken over Scottish independence: that there is no automatic entry and Catalunya will have to join the queue for EU membership.

Secondly it’s disappointing, although not surprising, that all of the faces of the candidates – 135 of them – are white. There are a lot of non-white people in Catalunya, especially in Barcelona, with its large Asian, Maghrebi and Latino population. In the country areas there are many sub-Saharan Africans, working almost exclusively in agriculture. Many of them do not have papers. They are politically invisible. And frankly there doesn’t seem to be much hope of the new Catalan state, if or when it exists, embracing pluralism to any significant degree. ‘Race’ is likely to take on major significance in the Iberian countries over the next 20 years. Which is all a bit worrying within the context of the independence movement: do we really need more nationalism at a crucial time like this, when European countries should be embracing a more internationalist and pluralistic identity? Does regional and linguistic identity really need to be framed as ‘nationalism’?

Thirdly and perhaps of greater concern to most Spaniards of all denominations: what would happen to Barça football club in an independent Catalan state? It would not be able to stay in the Spanish Liga, as it would not be in Spain. Would a new ‘Iberian league’ come into being, to include teams from Portugal, perhaps? Or would the great Barça be reduced to weekend features with the likes of Vilanant, Vilafant, and Vilajuïga?

How long is a piece of string?

13 Sep

cafe parisOr how long should a piece of writing be? Reflecting on this, in relation to a piece I am working on, I haphazardly check into an article in The New Yorker and am reminded by John McPhee that “ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more”. He is talking about non-fiction, but of course the same applies to poetry or to fiction: some might say it is even more crucial that fiction writers learn how to discern what length can be reasonably sustained by the selected material so as to avoid rendering the reader senselessly bored. Why, as Borges asked – and I often ask myself – succumb to the laborious and impoverishing madness . . . “of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.”?

And while on the subject of contraction, here’s a lesson to learn about how to save time in storytelling by presenting several ideas at once. In Mavis Gallant’s short story ‘Grippes and Poche’, her protagonist, the solitary and sardonic writer, Grippes, witnesses a quartet of plain-clothes police beating up a couple of pickpockets, and escapes into a café. He has been out to collect some offal from the butcher’s to feed his cats. Rather than have Grippes ‘find’ his idea about realism – or ‘writing about real life’ – while seated at the café reading a newspaper; or even allowing the thought to present itself to him through internal monologue, reverie, or conversation with a literary adversary, Gallant allows her character to discover it on the newspaper in which the butcher has wrapped a sheep’s lung.

                    Returning on a winter’s evening after a long walk, carrying a parcel of sheep’s lung wrapped in a newspaper, he crossed Boulevard de Montparnasse just as the lights went on – the urban moonrise . . . Grippes shuffled into a café. He put his parcel of lights on the zinc-topped bar and started to read an article on the wrapping. Someone unknown to him, a new name, pursued an old grievance: Why don’t they write about real life any more?

                    Because to depict life is to attract its ill-fortune, Grippes replied.

And that ‘attracting of ill-fortune’, uttered to no one in particular by a man reading from a newspaper in which rests a sheep’s lung, while outside – in the ‘real’ world – the police exercise some casual violence on a couple of petty criminals, achieves a marvellous contraction of idea and imagery, without spoiling the effect by any explanation or commentary.

More notes on being a foreigner (III)

20 Jan
Valparaíso skyline

Valparaíso skyline

More translation – literary and the other, everyday kind – and more thoughts on being a foreigner: “Foreigners are, if you like, curable romantics” writes Alastair Reid. “The illusion they retain, perhaps left over from their mysterious childhood epiphanies, is that there might be a place – and a self – instantly recognisable, into which they will be able to sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh. In the curious region between that illusion and the faint terror of being utterly nowhere and anonymous, foreigners live. From there, if they are lucky, they smuggle back occasional undaunted notes, like messages in a bottle, or glimmers from the other side of the mirror.”

He wonders whether Valaparaíso might be that place into which he could “sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh”. He suspects it might be. And yet.

The foreigner walks for an hour in the vicinity of the bus station looking for a comfortable place to sit and scribble: something like a café, or a clean well-lighted place that might offer up a drink and a sandwich, one of those sandwiches that contain a variety of colourful food: a completo or an italiano.

He does not much care for his current state of mind. He has returned to Valparaíso, after a brief visit to the capital. In Santiago the temperature was 35 degrees centigrade; here it has dropped to around 19, and is overcast. He came dressed for the sun, and looks ridiculous. To make matters worse, he has a suitcase, albeit a small one, which he does not wish to lug around. He wonders if he should check into a hotel, but it is a weekend in high summer, and the two he has called are full (and expensive). He has killed the first hour in pointless perambulation, so leaves his case at the left luggage office of the bus station and tries again to orient himself, calmly. He sets off towards a covered market, often useful places for one in search of food, but the stalls are shutting up and the little shacks selling food also, and the place has the forlorn aspect of closing time, and the street outside smells of fish, urine and rotting fruit.

He continues further out of his way before finding a more promising street and following it. Something about the open-fronted shops selling herbs and fruit and meat reminds him of Greece, specifically the smell of Chania market. He tries to identify precisely what the smell is, and fails to name it, the ingredient tantalisingly out of memory’s reach. It is a smell that combines thyme, coffee and something else, something that will not be recalled. He begins to feel nostalgia for people and places he will never recover, but that too fades. Eventually he spots a likely café and crosses the road. He takes a table half way down the room. When he orders, the waitress turns her head to one side, as some people do when confronted by a foreigner, as though the presumption of their foreignness will necessarily involve not understanding them. When she realises that there are no imminent communication issues, she smiles. Despite his command of the language, he is still a foreigner, and perhaps she feels a degree of pity, or something approximating it to it. He has seen the other waitress carrying a plate with the kind of sandwich he requires: meat, tomato, avocado, mayonnaise. He requests the same. It doesn’t take long to clock the fact that not only is he the only non-Chilean in the place; he seems also to be the only person not personally known to the staff. The sandwich arrives. It is pretty much what it sets out to be, and settles threateningly in his stomach.

The following night, by which time he has shed the tourist garb of shorts and brightly coloured shirt and put on a disguise of tracksuit trousers, black tee shirt and cardigan, he goes downtown with his friend, Enrique, who remarks afterwards that to any onlooker they might just have appeared to be father and son, taking a turn out to the bar together. His foreigner identity has briefly been supplanted – to the outside world, at least – by another. He wonders how much longer it would take for his identity to be usurped forever. He thinks, probably, never. But he suspects there is always another, his other, or his other’s other, in waiting, biding its time.

But that thing about the place into which he could sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh? That has receded again; that, he fears, will always be an illusion.

day4 view from terrace

Cerro Alegre, with sea

The writer Enrique Winter

Chilean writer Enrique Winter

More notes on being a foreigner (II)

16 Jan

“Anonymity is peculiarly appealing to a foreigner: he is always trying to live in a nowhere, in the complex of his present.” With this thought in mind I come to the end of re-reading Alastair Reid’s essay, and start on the next one,  called ‘Other People’s Houses.’ Despite the fact that to the outside world, my foreigner-status remains intact, with friends in Chile, my confused identity is – peculiarly – tolerated with extreme goodwill.

It is with particular interest that I read the opening of ‘Other People’s Houses’, the next essay in Reid’s excellent collection. It is worth citing the first paragraph is full:

“Having been, for many years, an itinerant, living in an alarming number of countries and places, I am no stranger to other people’s houses. I am aware of a certain disreputable cast to this admission; I can almost feel my wizened little ancestors shaking their heads and wringing their hands, for in Scotland, people tend to go from the stark stone house where they first see the light to another such fortress, where they sink roots and prepare dutifully for death, their possessions encrusted around them like barnacles. Anyone who did not seem to be following the stone script was looked on as somewhat raffish, rather like the tinkers and traveling people who sometimes passed through the village where I grew up. I would watch them leave, on foot, over the horizon, pulling their worldly belongings behind them in a handcart; and one of my earliest fantasies was to run away with them, for I felt oppressed by permanence and rootedness, and my childhood eyes strayed always to the horizon, which promised other ways of being, a life less stony and predictable.”

Alastair Reid, then, prepared himself for his life as a foreigner, by aspiring to the strange life of the transients who passed through his village. This rings a bell for me, also.

Sometimes a person’s foreignness is something that can be put on or removed, like a second skin. Sometimes, too, the façade of foreignness can be a convenience. Take as a hypothetical example my friend, K. He has resided in Chile for thirty years, enjoys citizenship, and takes a keen interest in the culture and politics of his adopted country, but as a true foreigner he would not be so facile as to believe that his identity has somehow been re-calibrated as Chilean. Negotiating the fragmentary landscape of foreignness, only an idiot would claim a national identity on such spurious grounds.

For a certain class of foreigner, foreignness is something that can be deployed strategically. One can even turn it into a kind of game, or make oneself the  butt of jokes on account of one’s own foreignness. One can intentionally mislead, intentionally mispronounce, intentionally misunderstand. But these are beginners’ tricks, at the amateur end of Being a Foreigner. People like K. are adepts, and have decades of practice, sidestepping their interlocutor by playing the foreigner card to their own advantage. It doesn’t always work of course, especially with policemen and parking attendants, but it is a strategy to which I have at times reverted myself.

So, my stay in Valdivia is coming to an end: pleasant days of working on translation of Chilean poets; a weekend spent walking in the coastal reserve at Chaihuín, and yesterday a long hike through the spectacular Huerquehue park to the north, where we climbed, sweating, through temperate rainforest until we reached the zone of the Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle trees) – which only grow above 1,000 metres – amid bursts of outlandish birdsong from the chucao and the huet-huet (or hued hued).

I will miss this place, but, as a foreigner, I will not dwell on the insubstantiality of belonging here, even if, as places go, there are few I would rather stay. I will haul my big blue suitcase – laden with books of poetry that I need for the journey but would rather carry in my head – and move on to the next place.


Araucaria araucana

Araucaria araucana


day3 villarica

Volcano of Villaricca with Lake Tinquilco







More notes on being a foreigner (I)

15 Jan


Staying for any extended period of time in a country where one is obliged to speak a language other than one’s own inevitably results in reflection about core identity. Core identity, if there is such a thing, presumes that there is an ideal and comfortable state of mind, in which one is most fully at home, inside his or her own in-group, probably speaking an idiomatic form of the mother tongue among fellow-speakers, who follow the contours and references of conversation in a more or less fluent fashion, and with whom one shares beliefs, principles and occasionally political beliefs.

The foreigner, as Alastair Reid so succinctly observed, does not share this happy resource – the true foreigner, it could be argued, will feel as much a foreigner at home as anywhere else, but that is a discussion for another day – and today I returned to Reid’s essay with renewed insights. Living almost entirely within another language for most of the day, the foreigner begins to notice how language carries with it such a quantity of associative and historical luggage that merely understanding the words only accounts for a part of the fascinating, and at times frustrating problem of making oneself understood. Some of this can be accounted for by the fact that every word of a language has a personal history of association that a native speaker can trace back to childhood. Every phrase or idiom has a personal history, is laden with a particular taste or smell or music for the native speaker, and though the learner – even the fluent speaker – may acquire a series of associations of their own with the individual words of a language, it will never contain an entire universe, as does the memory of a native speaker. Moreover, the problem does not end there: as Reid wrote, “I am . . . aware of having, in Spanish . . . a personality entirely different from my English-speaking one – nor is it simply me-in-translation . . . I have often listened to simultaneous translation between two languages I know well. The meaning? Oh yes, the meaning is there; but it is just not the same experience.”

In the end, we have to arm ourselves with the anonymity of the foreigner, to prepare for disappointments and misunderstandings, and to accept that very rarely are these simply linguistic. To allow the late lamented Mr Reid the final word: “To travel far and often tends to make us experts in anonymity – but never quite, for we always carry too much, prepare for too many eventualities. One bag could have been left behind. We are too afraid of unknowns to ignore them.”

Caca de Duende

13 Jan

day2 estuary Chiuhain

On Sunday we visit Los Colmillos de Chaihuín, which contain, among other trees, canelo, alerce (larch) and eucalyptus. The first two are indigenous, the last a moisture-hogging outsider, the villain of the piece in the local ecology, imported from Australia and now being slowly replaced by the older indigenous varieties. The eucalyptus grows very quickly and apparently self-regenerates once it has been chopped down. It can do this five times, and, given the chance, will grow to full height between each growth. South America’s only marsupial, the monito del monte (little mountain monkey) may be found here but we are unlikely to see one as they are very shy, as is the pudú, a squat deer-like creature with a cute face.

Monito del monte

Monito del monte

day2 pudu

A pudú, looking a little surprised.

day2 alerce

The big larch in the photo is 3,500 years old. They calculate this by the girth and of the tree, which is three and half metres in diameter (and 45 metres tall). The oldest recorded alerce was four and a half thousand years old, according to our guide, although Wikipedia establishes the age as 3,622 years. This is some achievement when we consider that the Minoan civilization was still intact when the tree was young. The forests hereabout were once filled with these trees, but the wood is good for making boats and houses, and when the Spanish came they cut a whole lot down to furnish their navy. Now the trees are protected by law, but they grow so slowly that it will be a long time before they ever repopulate the forests of Valdivia.

caca de duende

caca de duende

Walking through the forest I notice a bright yellow fungus, the size of a tennis ball, growing at the base of a tree, almost luminous in the dark of the woods. It is known, I am told, as caca de duende. Of course there is some difficulty in rendering ‘duende’ into English, as translators of Lorca have discovered over the years: it can mean ‘spirit’, or ‘creative force’ as well as referring to a sprite, fairy or elf. Elf shit sounds the most evocative, so I’ll go along with that.

day2 candelo w guide better

day2 candelo

day2 web

day2 copihue

day2 lizard

day2 dog


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