I was only fourth in line that Saturday morning. Two female butchers, head to toe in white, were serving ladies one and two. Lady three was chatting at a hundred miles an hour with ladies five and six and also with ladies one and two. Ladies seven and eight were just entering and picked up the gossip as if they’d been there all along. I just smiled in a friendly manner and looked (probably) foreign or at least, not local. They smiled back, said hello and returned to the latest news.
The place was spotless. Clear laminated diagrams of dissected beasts decorated the walls, should you not know the cut you were after; or in my case, what they were called in Spanish. Local eggs and honey decorated the top of the deli chiller, where cured meats and sausages were lined up like fat pencils alongside boulders of cheese.
I had been there a few days earlier and bought a chicken which had been deftly cut into twelve pieces, but today I wanted a whole one. Husband and children had left me to do some window shopping in the street outside. “I won’t be long,” I told them.
The only thing was… ladies one and two seemed to have both asked for half a pig’s side cut into wafer-thin chops. This involved the slender, feminine butchers bringing down a cleaver at one centimetre intervals (an alarming thing to watch but very impressive) to make twenty or so potential chops and then the rather slower (and judging by the glowing foreheads, quite strenuous) activity of sawing through bone. Husband and children reappeared to find out what had happened to me. The mercantile part of the town was very small, and they’d run out of shops to look into without actually buying anything. It was already 30°C (86°F) in the narrow streets even in the shade of the ancient white buildings and it was only 9:30am. I sent them back out as they were getting in the way of ladies nine and ten.
Lady one having been served, satisfactorily rounded off her bit of the conversation and departed. Lady three approached the counter and asked for… well it was all a bit fast to understand, but the butcher was reaching for another side of pork and flexing her muscles. I longed to be able to speak Spanish properly and to ask whether it was a Spanish thing to eat wafer-thin chops on Sunday or just a local tradition and how they’d be cooking them, but the few words I knew got tangled in my head and I was too shy. I just kept smiling brightly and wondering if I’d get served before lunch time.
Eventually it was my turn. I asked for a chicken. I could tell everyone was a little baffled, although, the butcher wore an air of one to whom a brief respite has been given. She asked me how many pieces I wanted it chopped into. “No gracias. Entero por favor,” I answered. There was a lull in the general hubbub of conversation. She doesn’t want pork? I could hear them thinking. She wants a chicken and she wants it whole? The butcher looked as if I was doubting her skills. How to explain in my extremely inadequate Spanish that I wanted to roast it for Sunday dinner but to a Spanish recipe with garlic and almonds and raisins and sherry? I just smiled. I left with my chicken and dignity and imagined them thinking: is she mad? Why would you want a whole chicken? She can’t want to cook a whole chicken in this heat? The following day, roasting it while the temperature outside our holiday let was 43°C (109°F) and the temperature in the kitchen was probably high enough to fire clay, I did wish I had bought some wafer thin pork chops and made my husband barbecue them.
This happened two years ago. The town has a supermarket, in fact it has at least three. There is the small Eroski on the outskirts and there are a few low scale franchises in the winding white streets, where you could buy everything you need. We used the Eroski mostly and it sold meat of course, but it was good to go to a butcher and buy exactly what I wanted. The villa had a very poor internet connection, so we didn’t use it. This took us back to how our holidays were years ago. Out of connection with social media and news, a little more connection to the area we were in and each other. We did have an excellent mobile signal so we were able to keep in touch when we needed to and any cafe with free wifi resulted in heads down for two teenagers who had forgotten how bereft they were while they were jumping in and out of the pool and reading and actually talking to people in the same vicinity, apparently having fun.
I count myself very fortunate to have been able to visit France or Spain every year for the last twenty-three.
In the beginning, my husband and I were touring and camping, travelling from place to place with a French Michelin guide to campsites. Using a mobile abroad was so expensive, we used them for emergencies only. Using the world wide web… well it didn’t even exist to start with. My husband’s linguistic skills are useful in a restaurant and that’s about it. I can speak French (rusty but adequate) and can manage Spanish at a very basic level. I learnt it for one year at school and then had to choose my O’ Levels. With no advice provided whatsoever, I assumed future employers would want me to have a science. Physics was the only one in which I had any hope of passing but was in the same option group as Spanish. If it had been in the same option group as Geography, or if I’d realised that no-one was ever, ever going to ask me what I knew about Newton’s Laws (not much) or Brownian Motion (nothing), I would have chosen differently.
Since both of us like being in obscure, back-of-beyond sorts of places, we just had to manage as best we could in shops and restaurants (and pharmacies/surgeries when that year’s medical incident occurred), making atrocious linguistic mistakes but getting by: cooking and eating delicious local food: cleaning mussels in the shade of the tent; making ratatouille on a two ring stove. We ate in out-of-the-way restaurants and cafés, finding (usually by chance) places the locals frequented, not always knowing what we’d been served but always finding it delicious and excellent value. We once hired a small villa in Andalusia, all on its own on a mountainside up a winding, precipitous stony track flanked by prickly pear. I bought a whole chicken then too, but didn’t realise, when they said whole, they meant guts and all. I would have handled this better if the hot water supply hadn’t just broken down.
We didn’t really notice or care that we couldn’t get in touch with the outside world. If we were desperate for news, we could check out yesterday’s British newspapers in the shops or pick up the Herald Tribune or seek out the publications for ex-pats. Pretty much the only time when we were worried was when we went touring with a trailer-tent to the South of France in 2000. We had a son, just over a year in age, who had been walking since he was nine months old and I was six weeks pregnant and suffering dreadful morning sickness. As we travelled south, we noticed people queuing at petrol stations and wondered what was going on. Or rather my husband did, I was mostly trying to control the nausea and feeling distressed by the fact that surrounded with lovely cuisine, all I wanted was toast or fast-food burgers (which I usually loathe). Arriving at our final destination, we discovered there was a fuel crisis and we had no way of being certain what was happening. Desperate notices were posted up around the campsite: “we have to catch a ferry from Dunkirk on Friday, can anyone siphon some diesel for us from their own tank? We’ll pay good money.” Ringing home at extortionate rates elicited little sense from either sets of our parents, the newspapers were a day behind. Would we be able to get home? We only had enough petrol to get us half way up France. Fortunately for us, the crisis lifted before we had to drive north.
Other than that, it was nice to be away from the media and to be in our own little world, dabbling our toes in another culture. We tended to shop in the smaller shops and supermarkets, which in the main sold food for the national cuisine and if you were desperate for a taste of home (which in our case meant British strength tea, fresh hot chillies and curry paste) you had to hunt for the shelf which sold foreign food and hope for the best. Thus UK branded tea and biscuits rubbed shoulders with sauerkraut, American mustard, soy sauce and tacos. In France, you might find a section for Vietnamese style cuisine but not Indian or Mexican. Cheese was unquestionably French. It was not always easy to find fresh milk. In Spain, you might not find lamb and instead of beef there might be veal. In both countries however, there would be an array of vegetables like a work of art, fresh, varied and vibrant and a fish counter of gleaming scales and live crabs, many of which were from British waters, since the British won’t always eat them. We loved this. We both cook well and, since in the early days the exchange rate was very favourable to sterling, having such a choice meant that we had to restrain ourselves from buying more than we could cook.
So much has changed in the last few years, an evolution we barely noticed, as the children grew older. We started going on holiday with my in-laws whose generosity is overwhelming both in terms of financial input and helping with the children so that we had a break. But as time went on, even before the exchange rate dropped, eating out for six became expensive and trailing six people round looking for obscure places is much more difficult than when there are just two of you.
Over time, menus of the day have crept up in price as economies struggle across Europe. The local speciality, aimed at the tourist, is now likely to cost more than something generic. Meanwhile, in the supermarket, UK, Irish, American and German brands nestle in amongst French and Spanish, even in the cheese section. If I want to, I could pretty much buy exactly the same things in France or Spain as I do at home, in the same anonymity. Even on the high street, the same clothes shops appear everywhere with the same prices. Walking around the shopping district in Malaga, you might as well be in Southampton (albeit you need shelter from the sun rather than the rain). It’s not so easy to guess where someone is from by their clothes anymore.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t got wifi, you’ve got 3G. You can access the whole world and your social media contacts twenty-four hours a day if you want to. Without making a deliberate choice to do so, you can’t get a break from the political machinations, the desperation of refugees, injustice, celebrity gossip, the online arguments: all of which you can do nothing about.
What’s the point of all this?
It’s nice to be able to get in touch when you want to and know everything is all right at home when you need to. All the same, I miss those days when we didn’t know what was going on, when we just sat and watched the view, sipping local wine, eating local food. I miss going into a shop and having the challenge of working out what to cook for dinner with what I can get hold of.
I wish more people realised the joy of being part of a Europe which is rapidly disappearing and dividing. What really seems tragic to me, is that while everything appears homogenised (food, brands, clothes, behaviours), people seem further apart. Heads down at devices, taking photos of ourselves rather than everything else, eating our own food rather than trying someone else’s, worrying about what’s happening elsewhere rather than enjoying the here and now. People no longer have to make the effort to communicate if they don’t want to. So they don’t.
I wish I had hadn’t been too shy to ask about the pork chops. I wish I hadn’t been too shy to explain about the chicken. Very likely, no-one would have understood my terrible Spanish, but I like to think they’d have got the gist. I hope I get the chance to find those out-of-the-way places again and next time, work up the courage to do more than smile.
Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission