Returning to the Scene of our Times #2

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Over the intervening 25 years, I’d been back, alone, several times, for short periods, never longer than a week. And leaving was always a wrench. But this time, and late last year, De and I returned to the valley and stayed for ten days.

We stayed, not in Fornalutx (and upon reflection were relieved we hadn’t) but in a comfortable apartment in the heart of Soller, with views down to the torrente – which runs through the town, fed by the melting snow off the Tramuntana. In times past, the torrente ran thick with garbage and discarded household goods. I once rode an old mattress with a friend down to the Port one winter when it was raging. But today’s Soller has acquired civic pride, and the torrente outside our window was alive with noisy ducks of many varieties, which we fed daily with stale bread.

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The craggy peaks of the Tramuntana, with dark green vegetation scrambling up their sides above the olive groves, were also visible from the window of our apartment, as they are from practically every building in town, a reassuring reminder of the human scale of the town.

We were there in early November, which means, in a small town with a large tourist population in season, that many restaurants were closed. But this suited us. We had a well-stocked kitchen and we knew where to go to stock the larder. To the deli in Calle Luna, still run by Pep, who taught me about Jamón so many years ago. It’s the gastronomic centre of town, selling the best sobrasada, a raw pork sausage cured with pimentón, which holds a similar status on the island to Vegemite in Australia, except that it is an artisanal and not an industrial product: the finest cheeses from the island and further afield; a wonderful selection of local wines and much more to please the palates of two Australian gastronauts.

I recall years ago when I first noticed the scungy looking legs of jamón on the carving rack. Pep offered me a slice. I’d never tasted anything like it. He told me the price, even then something like $150 a kilogram. I blanched. He said, ‘Señor, who eats a kilogram of ham?” I bought 100 grams. This time, we visited daily for wine and other delicacies.

I loved that Pep was still there, his shop was still there. Coming from a city where food is dictated by fashion and fad, I love that I can return here in 5,10 years time and know that I will always be able to get the dishes I love and remember. In a Spain currently obsessed with what the author and journalist Xavier Domingo called ‘the scourge of creative cuisine’ on the island of Mallorca the time-honoured dominates.

We also renewed our acquaintance with the butcher in the market, another Pep who still made wonderful sausages and sells scrawny, flavoursome chickens. It was winter, and although the vegetable stalls were limited, wild mushrooms were abundant. We ate well at home.

I have always had a thing about the little pies they call empanadas de guisantes or sometimes empanadas de xixols, a local word for peas. Having tried them from several bakers in Soller, I’ve chosen this one from a a little baker behind the cathedral, Forn de Can Frau, as the best. Moist, crusty pastry. Now you know.

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We had come to the island after 15 days on the mainland, mainly in Andalusia, and had eaten there both well and very badly ­–­ the worst meal the most expensive. But the very best meal we had was in Palma at Celler Sa Premsa which has been there since 1958. I first ate there in the early 1970s. This time I had as a main what I would have had then. How do I know? I have it every time. Lechona, baked suckling pig, with perfect crackling and moist, sweet meat. To start, plump preserved white asparagus on a large plate with a large handful of pimientos de pardon, and a dollop of allioli.

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Another memorable meal was the pamboli at S’Hostal in Montiuri. What’s pamboli? Literally bread (pa) and (amb) oil (oli). Another Mallorquin culinary cultural touchstone. When first we lived in Fornalutx, a young girl from the village took to visiting us, ostensibly to practice her English, but always at lunch time. Lunches were a feast of leftovers from the fridge, cheese, olives, left over meat, left over dishes, fruit…everything. After a few meals like this she said to us “you eat something different every day for lunch,” We replied “yes, what do you eat?” “Pamboli” she replied.

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We had our pamboli at S’Hostal with a friend from those days, Tomás Graves and his wife Carmen. Tomás’ book Bread and Oil examines every principal ingredient, and all the ways that pamboli can be embellished: with seasonal vegetables, cheese, jamón and other embutidos (cured meats). Tomás, along with his late brother Juan and others, had a rock and roll band, the Pamboli Band. We couldn’t have had better companions for this meal in this small town in the centre of the island, known everywhere for its – pamboli.

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During our first stay on the island, a plan was announced to build a tunnel through the Tramuntana to open up the Soller Valley to Palma. This plan was vehemently opposed by many in the valley, including me

At the time, to get to the valley was not easy. You could come by boat to the port, or drive the coast road through Deía, a precarious journey skirting precipitous drops to the sea, or drive over the mountain, an equally precarious and difficult road involving some sixty switchbacks. Or you could catch the small and very slow train from Palma.

These natural barriers meant that you really had to want to go to Soller and the villages of the northwest, as you really had to want to go to Shangri La. And while it was not the mysterious place described in Lost Horizon, Soller was a haven, a bubble cocooned from the outside world.

In August of1 990, the second year of our migration to Mallorca, the talk of war with Iraq was on every front page.

I recorded in my diary a conversation at that time.

“They say the war will start tomorrow.”

“Oh really? (pause) I wonder if you can buy soy sauce in Soller?”

The inaccessibility of the valley added to the unreality of such a thing as the invasion of Iraq although, in reality, Iraq was not that far (and the war didn’t start until January 1991). We worried, those of us against the tunnel, el tunel, that when finished it would burst that bubble.

The tunnel was built, but the bubble remains intact. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I’ll leave to one side. But it does go some way to explaining the way we immediately sank back into life in Soller. It took only two days. We wanted to stay. It was as if we had never left.

Yes, the streets and the villages were filled with the ghosts of dead friends. And yes sometimes the changes were overwhelming ­ – there was yet another tunnel on what had been the old road to the Port – but in essence it was the place that we had grown to love 25 years ago. Let me leave you with one story.

We were walking through Soller one day, past the railway station. ­There’s a lovely old train to Soller which is priced out of reach unless you’re a resident or a wealthy tourist, it used to be much cheaper. The extra money earned has been spent on upgrading the station and adding an art gallery. That day, there was an exhibition of Miró graphics and Picasso ceramics. In a railway station.

To go back to that question, can you go back? In our case, most definitely yes. But would we want to live there again? Alas, no. You can only migrate once. But we will most certainly go back as often as we can. It is still in our hearts.

 

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Returning to the Scene of our Times 1

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(The clearest map I could find is, not surprisingly, in German. They’re taking over)

The question is, can you go back? If you’ve had a sublime experience somewhere, what happens when you return? This is how it was for us.

In 1989, my wife of three years, our daughter of eighteen months and I migrated to the island of Mallorca. Migrated. That’s how we saw it. We weren’t running away, we were deliberately turning our backs on what we saw as a dull and bland country.

There were other reasons, but I won’t go into them here. Enough to say that we were over the country of our birth, and I persuaded De (my wife) that a fresh start in the country with which I’d conducted a long term love affair (and many short term love affairs) was our best bet for a future. She didn’t need much persuading. She too had fallen in love with Spain, the island of Mallorca and the house I’d bought there long before we were married when I took her there for our honeymoon.

The island of Mallorca is much maligned. In England it is a joke. Somewhere to go to take a holiday from the bad English weather, to lie on the beach and drink too much every night. To arrive home sunburnt and not quite knowing where you’ve been. I’m pretty sure that many English tourists don’t even know that it’s a part of Spain.

But to damn the entire island for that would be like damning Queensland because of the Gold Coast. There is much more. Take our little corner, the northwest, the largest town there, Soller (pronounced Sol-yeah).

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‘We’ll go to Soller — Papa always says it is the finest place on earth,’ said a child character in Loup Durand’s novel Daddy. Those who know it well wouldn’t argue.

The little city of Soller could have been used to illustrate the assertion by historian Fernand Braudel that ‘the Mediterranean is a …sea ringed by mountains.’ Those mountains certainly shaped Soller and the Soller Valley by guaranteeing insulation from the rest of the world. Soller and its port, before the advent of buses and trucks, before the tunnel, offered the easiest access to the markets of southern France for the produce of the Soller Valley, mainly oranges, olives and olive oil. Little ships would cross from the port to Marseilles, and with them generations of Sollerenses (as the natives are called) with two results. One, there were and are many families from the valley in Southern France, many in the produce trade, and two, French is the second language — after Mallorquin — of many Sollerenses.

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And above Soller, the village where once we owned a house, Fornalutx, a village of some 400 inhabitants which swells to at least twice that in the summer. A cosy blanket of a village with its mix of nationalities, still predominantly Mallorquin, but with an increasing number of Germans and a small handful, when we lived there, of Australians, English, Swedes and Spaniards from the mainland: a very different lot from the locals.

The honey–coloured stone cottages of Fornalutx – some of them, like the one I bought, 700 years old – tumble down the hillside which leads eventually to the Tramuntana, the mountain range that forms the north western spine of the Island whose peaks are covered in snow in Winter. So hilly is it that there is still work for a man with a donkey to lug building materials up the steep paths no mechanical workhorse can handle.

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Two crops still dominate the valley, oranges and olives. The orange groves lower down on the valley floor, the olives growing up and down the hillsides, planted on dry stone terraces, a feat of man-made engineering (they encircle the island) often compared to the pyramids. Their construction points to them having been built by Arab and Berber settlers in the tenth century.

So there we were, fresh from the cutthroat world of advertising (literally in my case, cutthroat I mean) and the ‘open all hours everything on tap’ life of a big city plonked, after considerable difficulty with customs, in my funny old house in a tiny village on a mountainside, with a wife who didn’t speak the language and an infant daughter who had been ripped from her home. What could possibly go wrong? Well, over time, everything. ‘ I Pity the poor immigrant’, wrote Dylan, ‘Who wishes he would’ve stayed home’ he added. Eventually, we didn’t.

It took six months to adjust. Six months during which there were tears, fights, and a real danger of the marriage breaking down. I don’t know about the experiences of other migrants, but I would assume not much different. And we had it a lot easier. We weren’t entirely stranded. I had friends I had made over the years. There were other English speakers, and I had some Spanish. Gradually, we settled into what we (De and I) agree were the best three and a half years of our lives. Curiously, our daughter Laura who was four and a half when we left, and who was fluent in Spanish and Mallorquin by then, remembers virtually nothing of that time.

Even my own memories are vague and selective. I remember people, I remember incidents, but as I read through my old diaries, I am surprised by how much of what were obviously important events and people with whom I was close I have completely forgotten. Entries like ‘Gerald to dinner. Religious waffle.’ Who was Gerald? What religious waffle?

But also, reading through those diaries, I’m reminded of the intensity, richness and variety of our lives. There, as here, the life of a writer is essentially sitting all day in front of a machine, and squeezing words and sentences and chapters and stories from the brain. But there, surrounding the hours spent at the machine we fostered deep and abiding friendships with people we could never have met in Australia (the poet Paul Roche, the illustrator Paul Hogarth, the painter George Sheridan among many), were intertwined with our community in ways in which I certainly never had been in Sydney. When it was all over I realised that we had spent a good twenty per cent of our time working for that community in various ways.

But in spite of that, and tending to our almond trees and planting a flourishing garden, I finished (and sold) my first novel and began and almost finished a second (also later sold). We left, not because we wanted to but because we had to. With heavy hearts.

 

A short festival on Spain

 

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This was written for an occasional series in The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘A short festival on…’ and I chose Spain. I’m posting it because we’re going to Spain in a couple of weeks, my first trip in some years. 

The Spanish would rather a fiesta than a festival any day, it’s a party and a lot more fun. We will hold ours on St Anthony’s Day, January 17th, a day on which a bonfire is lit (St Anthony’s fire?) in every village square, and neighbours gather to eat and drink.

What better to eat than a paella, ours prepared by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, whose detective character, Pepe Carvalho, eats far more than he detects, and is pedantic about paella, asserting (in South Seas): “I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and – nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.” The wine, the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, will flow like water.

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) is also a novel by last century’s most prominent Hispanophile, Ernest Hemingway, a tale which introduces the intertwining themes of our fiesta, the bullfight, the matador, and sex: eros and thanatos. In Fiesta, the matador, Pedro Romero, makes love to the bold and beautiful Lady Brett Ashley because the narrator, Jake Barnes, can’t: a war wound left him impotent. Hemingway does Lorca.

Because we can, we have invited Hemingway, and you can see him, glass of wine in one hand, cigar in the other, talking to his friend the matador Antonio Ordoñez, who will be demonstrating the art of killing bulls, showing classic passes, the pase natural, and his own derechazo de rodillas among them.

Our fiesta is being held in a bull ring, the roaring bonfire throwing glints and sparkles off Ordoñez’s suit of lights. Just the place to ponder the nature of a culture whose heroes are killers – matador from matar, to kill – and whose national sport, also an art, sacrifices animals and men in public. There is a darkness in the Spanish soul.

That darkness has a name: duende, the elusive spirit that poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca called “the hidden heart of disconsolate Spain.” It is to be found in Spanish art, literature and music. “All that has black sounds has duende” murmured Gypsy canto jonde (deep song) singer Manuel Torre upon hearing composer Manuel de Falla’s Nocturno del Generalife.

It certainly informs the paintings on show here. There are three in the art tent, the first and greatest, once defined as “the theology of painting”, in front of which the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier stood and cried “where is the picture?” It is Diego Velásquez’ profound, enigmatic and beautiful Las meninas, the maids of honour, a painting which transforms its every viewer into the King and Queen of Spain. All Spanish art stands on the shoulders of this man who, artist Anton Raphael Mengs said “paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be.”

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Our second painting is by one whose duende drips from his brushes, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. We have chosen the baffling El perro semihundido, the half buried dog, from the series known as the black paintings. An abstract field of light with a curved horizon, bare but for the tiny head of a terrified spaniel. It has mystified viewers and critics for almost 200 years, moving many to tears. This is only detail from the larger painting which is way more mysterious – and  moving.

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Finally, one work from the creator/destroyer, the protean Picasso, the painting that ushered in the 20th Century, of the most famous whores in history, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, equal parts eros and thanatos, with its cryptic reference to the promiscuous Picasso’s fear of syphilis.

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But where are the killer heroes? Elsewhere in Goya and Picasso of course, on television all day during summer, and in the cinema regularly. In Carlos Saura’s 1983 adaptation of Carmen, his most successful collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades. And most sardonically in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 Matador, in which the sumptuous Assumpta Serna murders her victims in coitus, and, ‘al momento de verdad’ (at the moment of truth), using a long hair pin in much the same way as her ultimate victim, ex-matador Nacho Martinez, despatched bulls with his sword.

The matador (or matadora) returns in Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her, a film already heralded as the first classic of the 21st Century, in which Rosario Flores plays a famed female bullfighter, gored, left in a coma, and cared for tenderly by her lover, Adrio Grandinetti.

We leave the films being projected onto a suspended muleta (bullfighter’s cape), and stroll to the fire for a plate of Montalban’s precise paella and to take a glass with Javier Marias, whose 1997 novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, opens with a man whose first night with a lover is interrupted by her death, in his arms. We note with pleasure we have been given a small scraping of socorrat, the burnt crust of rice from the bottom of the pan. And then the arena falls silent, but for the crackling of the fire.

We look up. The gate has burst open. A magnificent fighting bull runs onto the arena and skids to a halt in the sand, black hide glistening. He looks wildly to right and left, snorting steam. We are frozen with fear, but for Ordoñez, who reaches for his sword. The bull lowers his huge head, and charges the bonfire, crashing into it, scattering embers, ashes and flaming branches. The burning bull stands in the centre of the conflagration, bellowing.

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