Saturday, 8 June 2002
I might as well be in Wales.
Everywhere is damp.
It rains every day.
The hills and mountainsides are covered in sheep and mist.
The sheep are all nervous.
Everyone speaks some obscure language that no one else understands.
They’re suspicious of foreigners.
They are inordinately proud of their culture and heritage and sing all the time.
All their ceremonies seem to involve witches and druids.
They’re all about 5 ft tall and 5 ft round and gnarled and wizened and stunted, even the older ones.
In the bar last night, of the eight men there, I counted 5 who had serious physical impediments. Leg callipers, limbs missing, squints, crutches.
Worse than being in Lourdes.
Finally, I grew up with a nursery rhyme which began:
“Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef…”
They play this card game called mus, which is basically institutionalised cheating.
Mus is played with what look like 40 Tarot cards which is what all playing cards used to look like.
Did you know, there’s a museum in Vitoria devoted entirely to playing cards?
No, anyway, mus.
There’s a little pile of 22 white beans in the middle of the table, lots of shouting and drinking and betting as in poker, but what’s going on is completely unintelligible to outsiders like me.
I found out it’s played in pairs like bridge and partners tip each other the wink about what they have in their hand. Not just the wink, but biting the lower lip or the upper lip, touching the ear or nose and so on whilst trying to avoid being seen by the opponents. Each action means something specific, though God knows what. But it’s cheating.
So far I’ve not been able to make head nor tail of it but I suppose in forty or fifty years time when I’m short and old and gnarled and wizened I’ll be a dab hand at mus.
I’m already a dab hand at the drinking bit.
I went to Ezkurra yesterday to try out the hostal that Don Juan, my landlord told me about. Ezkurra is about a mile away down the valley. The hostal has rooms, a restaurant and a bar. That’s where I sent yesterday’s email from and where today’s will come from. I got there at 5 and chatted to the owner, telling him that I was a new neighbour and would be here for 6 months at least. He nearly ripped my hand off so business must be a bit slow.
I asked him about opening hours and it seems he opens around 8 in the morning and shuts about 5 in the morning or when the last customer hobbles out. Told me to come back at about nine for dinner. Either I chose the wrong things or the food is terrible. I’ll give it another go today and see if it is any better. The cooking is done by his ancient mother-in-law who looks as if she can’t feed herself, never mind me.
I am astonished by the hardiness of these people.
Every day, whatever the weather, I see old men wearing those flat, black berets and carrying long staffs walking beside the road, miles from any house or village. Similarly, old women sometimes in groups of two or three, but often alone, are out for a walk in the rain on the narrow country lanes. I made the mistake of stopping and asking one old girl, carrying an umbrella in the pouring rain, if she wanted a lift and she eyed me with the deepest suspicion before telling me she was just paseando, going for a stroll. I swear we were 5 kms from the nearest house.
I make a point of waving to everyone as I pass by. The Beast is so conspicuous I will soon be known everywhere so might as well seem warm and friendly and harmless. The eccentric foreigner. The hostal owner knew exactly where I live, who my landlord was, as soon as I stepped into his bar. Told me Don Juan was a very fine man and a regular customer. At least he’s not a thief!
Don Juan is coming round this afternoon to tend his plot of potatoes and cut the grass in the orchard so I’ll be able to ask all the questions that have been piling up.
Like do I have to paint the swimming pool before I fill it? And how am I going to get my sofa in through the kitchen window? Where do I get a supply of logs for the winter? What to do about the light in the bathroom which is a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling? How does the wood burning oven work as it doesn’t seem to have a stove pipe?
Despite his diminished stature, he is going to give me a hand lifting this huge, heavy round wooden table from the garage to the kitchen. There’s an even bigger refectory table which would seat ten but whilst there is room at the moment, when my sofas finally arrive, it would have to go downstairs again. The round table is made from rough hewn logs and planks and varnished with marine varnish. Same as the window frames, the doors and the shutters.
A good friend and neighbour from Qatar days has put me in contact with someone in UK who is looking into transporting the contents of Ted’s garage in Sheppey to my garage here. Fingers crossed I should get a quote next week. Then, at least I’ll have a bed and somewhere comfortable to sit.
Just had to pause as the deaf scrap merchant tuned up with his cousin to collect the oven, motorbike and other rubbish from the garage. I asked if the cousin spoke English and was told he can’t even speak proper Spanish.
“That makes two of us”, I said which went down rather well, I thought.
They managed to squeeze everything into the back of their tiny van by putting the two sacks of cat shit and cement on the passenger seat which the cousin then sat on. Drove off waving wildly having agreed to meet up in the hostal in Ezkurra later on.
Looks like it’s going to be a long day.