On one of the trips that Betsy and I had taken to visit our son, he told us that we would have to experience vacationing in Extremadura in order for us to really understand his life in Spain, so in December we traded all of our airline miles for two tickets to Madrid in August of 2009. After spending Wednesday night, August 5th, in Madrid, we grabbed a taxi to the bus station that serves the southern part of the country, and took a four hour bus ride to Don Benito. We arrived at 8:35 pm, and were promptly met by Erik and Marga, Marga’s parents Juan and Marce, and Nora, our four and a half months old granddaughter. I was surprised that they had all made the 45-minute trip from their home in Higuera de la Serena, but I really shouldn’t have been. To Spaniards, family is very important, and we were family.
It had been only three months since we had seen Nora, but she had grown a great deal, and was prettier than ever. After taking turns holding her, we got into Erik’s car, while Marga and most of our luggage rode with her parents. Marga’s grandfather Ramón, who owns the house in Higuera de la Serena where the family vacations every August, would be arriving on Saturday, along with Belén, Marga’s sister.
When we arrived, we toted our bags through the front part of the house, through the open-air corral, to the back part of the house. Although burros were kept there 50 years ago, when Marga’s mother lived there, now it was two fine guestrooms with another large room above them. I was especially delighted to see the large electric fan in our bedroom, as I knew it could get very hot there in the summer. Within minutes of our arrival, dinner was served. We enjoyed gazpacho, a Spanish tortilla (potato and egg concoction), and thin slices of pork, served with bread and wine. Soon it was time for a walk through the small town of Higuera de la Serena.
Today, it seems, was the first day of the annual festival. A stage had been set up in the square by the church, and dancers, mostly children in full costumes, were showing off their skill at traditional Spanish dancing to the enjoyment of hundreds of onlookers. When we left, Erik suggested that I pay attention on the short walk from the church back to Ramón’s house, since I could probably easily find the church in the center of town if I was ever lost. We returned home about midnight, and I slept soundly until 9:30 in the morning.
I woke up to a sleeping household, put on the sandals I had bought the day before in Madrid, and took an exploratory walk through the small town. Except for the bread delivery truck, which was leaving fresh bread hanging in bags outside doors, there was practically nobody around. The streets are very narrow and curving, and nothing is parallel. The temperature was in the 60s, and I enjoyed absorbing the feel of the town, although I saw fewer than a dozen people on my walk.
My objective of becoming totally lost was easier than I thought, and I accomplished it quickly. I kept walking, and eventually found the church in the center of town. From there I had no trouble finding Ramón’s home. I arrived shortly before 10:00 am, in time for breakfast. That morning, and every morning, breakfast consisted of a large mug filled half with coffee and half with hot milk, and fresh churros bought only minutes ago from the town’s churro man.
After breakfast Betsy and I accompanied Juan and Erik on their mission to purchase wine. We drove to a Malpartida, nearby town only slightly larger than tiny Higuera, and Juan followed up on a rumor he had heard. We stopped and spoke through the car window with a woman who was walking down a street, and Juan asked her “Where is the man who makes good wine whose son works in Caceres?” She told Juan that she didn’t know, but good wine could be bought from a man who lives on the edge of town. Juan assumed that the man on the edge of town was probably her cousin, and instead of following her directions, he parked the car and we continued our search on foot.
We passed an old man standing in front of his house, and asked him. Having learned from Juan that we were Americans, he was mightily amused. Three times he turned to us to check and make sure he hadn’t misunderstood. “Americans?”, he asked. “Sí,” we answered. Each time he laughed at the idea of Americans visiting his town. He tried to tell us where we could purchase wine, but in the end he decided it would be easier to show us, so we set off following him through town. He led us to a tiny storefront where the proprietor told us he was out of wine. After confirming again that we really were Americans, we parted company with the pleasant old man, and returned to Juan’s car.
Juan then drove us to Esparragosa de la Serena (all these small towns are about 10 miles apart), where he had bought wine last year. Despite not remembering the address, and despite the fact that all the doors to the connected homes looked the same to me, Juan unerringly, but with caution, approached a doorway where we inquired about buying wine. We had found the right place, and while Juan pulled the car around to the back of the block near the home’s garage, Betsy, Erik and I followed the man through his home and out the back to his wine-making operation. Our vendor twisted the tap on one of the large vats, and handed Juan a glass of the wine, which he passed around to the rest of us after sipping. It was light red in color; darker than a rosé. It was not at all sweet, and tasted good to me. While we sampled a second glass, Juan haggled with the man over the price. We finally ended up paying the man the full €7 he wanted for each five liter bottle, with the man throwing in an extra normal-sized bottle at no charge.
On our way home we stopped to pick up some tomatoes and lettuce, and then we stopped again at a bar Juan knew of which served delicious fried squid as its appetizer. Bars in Spain are often quite similar to each other, but are much different from bars in the United States. Part of the Spanish culture involves walking with your family, usually twice a day, before lunch and before dinner. Three or four times during your walk, you stop and sit at tables placed in front of small bars. While the women (typically) wait in the shade of the table’s umbrella or overhanging tarp, the men go inside to place the drinks order. One man pays for all the drinks, and the bar owner also dishes up a small plate of food for the group, with the amount of food depending upon the number of drinks. When the food and drinks are gone, the group gets up and walks to the next bar. The pattern is repeated, usually with a different person paying each time. With everyone in town doing the same thing at the same times (1 to 3 pm, and 8 to 10 pm), you tend to constantly run into and spend time talking with friends and neighbors. With small beers costing about €.50, and a glass of wine costing about €.40, it is easy to buy your friends a drink, and for them to return the favor to you. With beer and wine being basically the same everywhere, the bars compete with each other in the tapas they offer. I have found that Juan has many strengths, among them he knows where all the best tapas are served. The fried squid was excellent.
Shortly after we returned home, one of Marce’s cousins came by to meet Nora and to visit. This caused a plate of sausage to appear, and we all had a glass of wine. After he left, we put Nora in her stroller and took our pre-lunch walk. While we were sitting outside the first place we stopped at, Marga’s face lit up as she saw her friend Emilia, along with Emi’s 3 ½-month-old daughter Carla, and Mario, Carla’s father. Marga and Emi have played together in Higuera de la Serena every August for 30 years, and are very close friends. When Marga called Emi to tell her she was pregnant, she was ecstatic to find that Emi was also pregnant, and that she would have a life-long friend with whom she could enter the maze of parenting. They placed Carla’s stroller next to Nora’s, pulled up chairs, and we sat and talked. Although a month younger than Nora, Carla was much bigger, and while Nora had only wispy blondish-red hairs on her head, Carla’s hair was as dark and as thick as her father’s.
We walked back home, arriving just before 4 pm, and a lunch appeared almost instantly. By 4:30 I was sprawled on my bed, enjoying the powerful fan. By 4:32 I was asleep.
I woke up to the sounds of splashing and giggling. Nora was receiving her daily bath in her small inflatable pool. I joined the other people sitting around watching her smiling, kicking and splashing while Erik washed her from head to foot. Nora loves the water, and I couldn’t keep myself from grinning as I watched her.
After Nora was dressed in one of her many outfits, with Betsy pushing Nora’s stroller, we all went for a long walk in the countryside. Juan and Erik pointed out the fig trees, the almond trees, the prickly pear cacti, the olive trees, and a couple of earth-colored pigs, and eventually we stopped at a bar for a drink in the twilight. When we returned home, Marce served us a dinner of skate wings, and potatoes with a delicious onion and red pepper sauce, along with bread and wine. We were finished by 10:30, and soon after that we walked to the square by the church. The area was packed, but to my surprise we managed to find a table and chairs. I nursed a gin and tonic for about an hour while enjoying more traditional Spanish dancing on the stage. We walked back home shortly after midnight, and I went right to bed.
I got up at 9 on Saturday morning, and Juan asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with him. I had heard about his morning walks in Extremadura, and I was eager to sample one first hand. Both Erik and Betsy appeared in the corral before we began, and asked to join us. Juan led us directly away from town, down dirt roads and narrow paths. He moved steadily at a four miles-per-hour clip, and the temperature quickly rose from the high 60s to the high 70s. After about 40 minutes of walking almost straight away from town, I got a little worried, but soon after that we began angling back toward home and I felt a little better. Fortunately for the rest of us, Juan would sometimes leave the path and trudge into the brush, then return with a fig or an almond for us to eat. I found these brief rests to be very welcome each time they occurred.
At one point we passed a couple of men talking by the side of the road. One of them had a fistful of parsley. Juan spoke with them, was given a large bunch of parsley, and soon we returned to our walk. As we walked away, Erik explained to me that one man was chiding the other man, saying “Can you believe this man? He thought he could make a garden without water, but all he could grow is parsley”. When asked why he had been given parsley, Juan responded with some Spanish saying which Erik translated to “If a baby doesn’t cry, he doesn’t get any milk”.
When we were close to town, Juan gave Betsy the parsley and pointed towards the path to home, and Juan, Erik and I set off in a different direction to buy the morning’s churros from the churro man. When we arrived at the garage where he makes his churros, it was almost 10:40, and all the churros were gone. The churro man told us that if we wanted to sit down and wait for 10 minutes, he would make some more. I watched him mix two bags of flour, some salt and some boiling water into a big bowl. He stirred it with a huge spatula, and then loaded the dough into a large caulking gun. He squirted the dough into a spiral in a big vat of hot oil, let it cook for a minute, then used large tongs to pick up the spiral and turn it over, where it cooked for another 30 seconds before he removed it. He then used scissors to cut it into dozens of 8 inch pieces which he wrapped in paper and placed in two bags for us. Erik paid the four Euros.
After breakfast, Betsy and I played with Nora. We have been given the job of helping her to learn English, and we were eager to begin her training. We cooed vowel sounds to her, and listened closely as she cooed back at us. Betsy sang to her, and I did too, but I concentrated mostly on teaching her the English alphabet. She did better than I expected, coming very close to imitating some of the vowels. Then Betsy fed her bottle to her, and dressed her for the day.
Betsy, Marga and Marce went on a brief grocery shopping trip, and when they returned, we all went out for our pre-lunch walk. We stopped at four different bars, where I had five drinks, thanks to Mario who bought a round for everyone after Emi, Carla and he met up with us. Our tapas included olives, meatballs (at two different places), and hot ham and cheese croquettes. We returned home to a light lunch of macaroni, bread and wine, after which I decided to lie down and take a nap. About a half hour later, I was awakened by a commotion in the corral. Marga’s grandfather (Marce’s father) Ramón, the 89 year-old family patriarch and owner of the home had arrived, accompanied by Marga’s sister Belén, Marga’s Uncle Ramón and Aunt Inés, Ramón and Inés’ son Rubén, and Rubén’s girlfriend, Patricia. In two cars they had made the seven hour trip from Mondragon in northern Spain. I received handshakes from the men, almost kisses on both cheeks from the women, and a big bear hug from the family patriarch. “Su casa es
mi casa”, I joked to him, to his delight. Soon, however, the younger Ramón drove his wife Inés, his son Rubén, and Patricia the remaining 15 miles to their home in Quintana, and I returned to my siesta.
About 9 pm we all walked around the town to the lagoon on the far edge, where we watched men setting up fireworks for the evening festivities, and enjoyed a drink. Later we walked home, and enjoyed a light dinner of pisto (fried potatoes, peppers, onions, eggplant and zucchini), fried pork, bread and wine. Betsy and I decided we would stay home after dinner, and we offered to babysit Nora. Erik and Marga were glad to take us up on it, and along with Belén, they got dressed up and went out dancing shortly after 12:30 am. Like nervous parents, Betsy and I checked on Nora every half-hour or so, and were relieved when Erik and Marga returned around 4:30.
At 7:30 Sunday morning Juan knocked on our bedroom door to inquire if we wanted to go out walking with him again. “No!” we yelled in unison. I got up at 9:30, and shortly after that Juan returned from his walk, with the morning’s churros. This morning each of the men and Betsy were given a shot of locally-made Anisette to dunk our churros in, as well as coffee.
Shortly after noon we drove in two cars to Quintana to visit Ramón and Inés. Their Extremadura home is very large, with multiple stories. The top floor is unfinished, and may eventually serve as a home for their son Rubén. It is currently serving as a place for storing huge cured Iberian ham legs. In their living room they served us beer and wine, deer chorizo, and two kinds of cheese made from milk from their own goats. We walked to a nearby bar connected to the local swimming pool, where I enjoyed another beer and the complimentary calamari tapas. The temperature was close to 100 degrees. Nora was very good for about an hour, but then got a little fussy, despite being fanned alternately by Erik and Marga. After a while we left and drove back home. At 4 we sat down to a lunch of blood sausage, tomato salad, garbanzo soup, fried pork, yellow watermelon, bread and wine. At 4:30, I took a siesta.
My siesta lasted until 7:30. I played with Nora for an hour or so, sang her a few songs, and played the harmonica for her until a reed broke. A little after 9 o’clock people began polishing shoes and generally spiffing themselves up for dinner, so I put on a new pair of pants and a new shirt I had bought for just such an occasion. At 9:45 we piled into two cars and headed out to Hotel Trajano, a nice restaurant at a crossroads about 5 miles from town. I had Salmon a la Roquefort, and my share of the asparagus with cheese sauce and cod salad appetizers, and the three bottles of Crianza. For dessert I shared Pijamas with Betsy, and had a Bailey’s Irish Crème on ice.
I was aware of the Spanish method of paying a group’s dinner bill. A member of each family unit (usually a male member) gives a little more than his family’s share to a designated bill-payer and money-holder. After leaving the restaurant, the money-holder pays for all drinks until the pool has dried up. Betsy and I, however, had decided that we wanted to pay for dinner for everyone, if we could do that without offending anybody. We had clued Erik in on this, and he was dubious of our success, but at the end of the meal, he helped us make our appeal to Marga, and she said she would take care of it. When the check came, my grab for it was temporarily thwarted, but Marga spoke calmly to her family, and I watched their faces fall. Later I asked Erik what Marga had said. “Just what you told her”, he said. “Paul and Betsy are very appreciative of how you have taken them into your home and shared your food and drinks with them. You know you will never go over to America and let them extend their hospitality to you, so you should let them pay for this meal, so they can feel better.”
On our way home at 12:45 am, everyone got out at the Festival area, and Erik and Belén drove the cars home, parked them, and walked back. The rest of us walked slowly down the Festival street, stopping now and then to watch the children driving the bumper cars, the children playing in the huge blow-up play house, the children jumping on the inflatable trampoline, and the children shooting guns at targets in an attempt to win stuffed toys. We made our way to the tables and chairs in front of the stage just as the musicians were ending their first set. Erik and Belén soon found us, and Erik bought me a gin and tonic which I nursed along for the next hour and a half. When the band started playing again, the dance floor filled with old adults and children, but it was not really the sort of music the crowd was waiting for. The crowd, I was informed by Erik, wanted to dance the traditional dances, and was patiently waiting through the pop music. At 2:30 the rest of us walked home, and Erik and Marga danced and visited with their friends Emi and Mario. The two grandmothers changed Nora and put her in her pajamas and to bed, and enjoyed every minute of it.
I got up at 9:45 Monday morning for the normal 10:00 breakfast of hot churros and coffee, again served with a shot glass of Anisette. At 10 we piled into two cars and drove ten miles to go shopping in a neighboring town. Two days earlier I had asked Marga for her help. I wanted either her or her sister to help me choose a gift I had in mind for Betsy – a gold acorn charm hung on a gold necklace – and I would need her assistance in order to get separated from Betsy when the time came. So, while Juan, Betsy, Marga, Nora and Marce went grocery shopping, Ramón, Belén, Erik and I walked to a jewelry store, ostensibly to get the jeweler to untangle a necklace, but actually to try to buy a present for Betsy. The acorn is a symbol of the Extremadura region. The area is best known for making the finest tasting ham in the world. The pigs there are said to graze on the acorns that fall from the small oak trees that can be found everywhere in Extremadura.
Erik explained to the jeweler what I wanted, and soon Belén and I were evaluating our options. We settled easily on the best acorn charm, and had soon selected a nice gold necklace to hang it on, but when Belén put it on, I thought the acorn hung too far from the face. The jeweler said that he could easily cut some off the chain, and after deciding how much, he set about his task, using a tiny torch. Ramón shopped for a watchband, and eventually selected and bought one, and in short order we completed our mission, with Betsy none the wiser.
Our next stop was at a hardware store which reputedly sold fine knives. Betsy and I picked out three nice kitchen knives, since all of our knives are over 30 years old and as dull as dishwater, and Erik said he would like to buy them for us. Soon, however, he reported that Ramón, who had been examining the fine wooden blocks holding six or seven knives, would like to buy us the nicest set there. After a brief meeting where we discussed the possible ramifications of turning down his offer, Betsy and I decided to go along with the idea. Later I asked Erik to explain the discussion I had heard between Ramón and the store owner as Ramón paid for our knives. “The owner wanted 72 euros, and Ramón asked him if he would take €70. The store owner said no, he would need €72. Ramón complained a little more, and the owner said OK, he would take €70, at which time Ramón told the owner that no, the owner clearly wanted the money more than Ramón did, so he would pay €72. The owner then said, no, you keep the €2”.
On our way home we stopped at a bar for a beer and some cuttlefish, then again for a beer and some sausage, then again at a bar 25 feet away for a beer and some fried chicken stomach, and then we walked a little further for a beer and some shrimp. We attempted one final stop, but it was almost 4 o’clock, and the bar was closing. Three minutes later we were home, where we enjoyed a light lunch of calf meat in vegetable sauce, tomatoes, watermelon, bread and wine.
I was awakened from my two hour siesta by the sound of Nora laughing and splashing. Her Aunt Belén was giving her a bath in the swimming pool. Nora loves the water, and Belén is simply crazy about her infant niece. I sat and watched my granddaughter contentedly as she splashed and smiled her way to total cleanliness.
At 7:30, Juan drove Erik and me to the slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant about 15 miles away, and for €62, we picked up some sausage and half a lamb that had been ordered earlier in the day. We returned at 8:15 to find that all the others had walked to the cemetery a half-mile from town to visit Ramón’s wife’s grave. Juan set up the grill, and we began our preparations for the barbeque dinner we would have in the corral that evening. As the time approached 10, and the others had not yet arrived, Juan got restless and began putting meat on the grill. He started with bacon, in order to get the hot grill greasy so the lamb wouldn’t stick to it. Ramón and the ladies returned before we had eaten all the bacon, and soon the lamb chops were cooking and the tomato salad was served. The food was delicious, the wine was fine, and the company was superlative. At some point a bottle of locally produced acorn liquor appeared – Licor de Bellota, it said on the bottle, and it proved to be the finest tasting liquor I have ever had. It disappeared with about 3 fingers left in the bottom, but reappeared less than a half hour later, to my great pleasure. The time passed quickly as we all lingered after dinner, and I laughed a lot. Erik, Marga and Belén all helped with translations, and a great deal of our communication didn’t require translation.
Sometime after midnight, as the table was cleaned and the dishes done, Erik attached his telescope to his tripod, and set it up at the top of the stairs leading up from the corral. Betsy, Belén and I took turns looking at Jupiter, and at the moon. The moon is always a mutual friend to loved ones who are separated, especially when separated by thousands of miles. With my son spending practically all of this decade living in Europe, I have derived much comfort from the reflected light which occasionally shines simultaneously over us both, and I certainly enjoyed looking at its huge craters through the open air of the corral in my house in Higuera de la Serena.
At breakfast Tuesday, everyone seemed a little sad that Betsy and I would be leaving. Time with Nora became even more precious, and before long it was time to drive us to the bus station in Don Benito. We loaded our luggage into the trunk of Juan’s car. Ramón, Belén and Marce rode with Juan, and Erik drove Betsy, Marga, Nora and me to Don Benito. It was nearing noon when we started, the car was hot, and Nora fussed a little bit. Marga explained to Nora that she would have to stay in her car seat for 45 minutes whether she fussed or whether she was good, so she might as well stop fussing and make the trip easier on herself. Nora, like the perfect baby she is pretending to be, never fussed again.
At the bus station we hugged and kissed goodbye in front of the impatient bus driver for just a minute too long, and he left to get himself a cup of coffee. We waited for another five minutes, chatting amicably with our fine son before boarding the bus and waving goodbye.
During the four hour bus ride back to Madrid, I thought about the people my age that had grown up in Extremadura. Both Juan, from a neighboring town, and Marce, from Higuera de la Serena, stopped going to school when they were eleven so they could work full-time in the fields. During the hard times in the 50s and 60s, an almost total lack of employment opportunities required a mass migration from the small towns in southern Spain to the cities in the north. Generations of ancestors buried in southern Spain meant at least an annual trip back to the home town. In August, the traditional Spanish vacation month, many factories in the north close and require their employees to take their vacation time. This practice offered people the opportunity to maintain their property in the south, to continue home town ties, and to feed and sustain life-long friendships.
I was pleased that I had adapted to the life-style. At home I rarely stay up after 9 pm, and I am always up before 6. While vacationing in Spain I had progressed to where I could fairly easily stay up until 2 or 3 am, as long as I managed to take a long nap after our late lunch. At home, I regularly enjoy a 5 pm martini, usually by myself, usually watching TV. While vacationing in Higuera de la Serena, I never noticed when five o’clock came and went, and I had no inclination to turn on Ramón’s television set. I had eaten more than usual, but also walked more than usual, and I had not gained weight. I had never been bored, and had spent large amounts of time each day simply enjoying my family. For the first time in many years, I had gone more than 48 hours without thinking about checking my e-mail. It was a life-style I could get used to.
While we were relaxing that evening in our Madrid hotel room, Betsy asked for my iPhone so she could send an email to Erik. When she was done, I asked her what she had said to him. “I asked him if he would try to pick me up a gold acorn charm that I can wear on a chain to remember Extremadura” she said.