Monday, July 19, 2004

Picnic in the Countryside

To the Island

We walk along roads fringed by low orange-tinged mortar-less stone walls, away from the sea, towards the sierra, past hunting reserves, past fincas--some manicured with oleander and bouganvillea hedges, some wild terrains where goats pasture, the occasional bell or car rupturing the silence, past groves of olive trees with silvery green leaves, fig trees, past stalks of queen anne's lace and yarrow encrusted with snails. My daughter wants to take home some snails. "Remember the three shrimp you caught with your net in the rocks off the jetty yesterday? We took them home. They jumped out and the ants ate them and you cried." The argument fails to persuade a five year old in a fit of biological acquisitiveness. We settle on dislodging two snails that she places in her pocket. We continue to the stream, to look for the nest with duck eggs. Dragon flies and butterflies hover, and then, out of nowhere, bees. My daughter is stung. The antihistimine syrup I give her is far less poetic and works slower than the country remedy described later that day at the picnic at the finca.

At the Finca

The woman seated next to me at the table tells me the following story: "When my daughter was your daughter's age, she came across a nest of bees and wound up with eight or nine stings. The farm workers told me not to worry. They brought a jar of oil and rubbed it on her arm. Within seconds the pain disappeared."
"There must of been something in the oil, right?"
"Oh yes, there was. The trick was to drop a scorpion in boiling oil. Upon contact with the oil, it releases anti-venom into the oil. Venom, anti-venom, most antidotes are made from the poison, you know. Of course they didn't know why it worked, they just knew that it did."

The hosts and most the guests are Mallorquin. The house is not some retro-modern Iberian country chic fantasy built-to-measure by English, German, occasionally French, proprietors. It is a modest agricultural structure, half of which is a terrace shaded by a vine-laden ceiling trellis. There is an outdoor oven and plywood table covered in paper cloth. The food is divine. The meal starts at two-thirty with a caldo de mariscos, shellfish soup with saffron rice. I clumsily try to pry open the lobster and crab legs, bits of juice flying everywhere, the stinging in my fingers compounded by the irritant in the shells. No one seems to notice. The main course is lechona suckling pig, served with potatoes sauteed in olive oil and garlic, followed by salad, fragrant local melons and then pastries, ensaimadas and fluffy almond medrichos and finally coffee. It takes me the better part of the meal to determine the relationships of kinship and friendship of the twenty or so people gathered at the table. I am seated next to the Patriarch, who looks to be in his late seventies.

"Do you still work?" I ask him.
"Naturally, I'm the only one who works around here. Who do you think subsidizes all this," he points to the dinner table.
The woman on my left turns towards me. "Don't take him seriously. All of the rest of us were here this morning, cleaning up the spider webs and setting the table. At one o'clock, Papi arrived, sat down and opened up his newspaper."

All the food preparation is handled by three older women, one of whom, the excellent cook, is the Patriarch's wife. She and her two companions barely sit down for the greater part of the meal which commences at two thirty and ends at quarter of six. I am surprised to see these three women, two generations older than I, do all the work while the rest of us remain seated.

"Your wife works very hard."
The Patriarch responds. "For that reason, I keep her."
"I got married at fifty. Do you know why? One day, I was sitting at the Brisas bar by the port and the waitresses asked me 'What'll you have, grandfather.' So I got married. Of course, I regret it. Now here am with this old woman. Not that I'm not so young myself. No, I'm old as the hills. How it pains me to sit here with this broken down body." He looks towards the young girls at the teenage end of the table. "I want to be seventeen again."

Some time passes. The Patriarch leans towards my father-in-law indicating the rest of the table. "How it amuses me to listen to the foolishness these people recount. All of them, except me. I am the only normal one here. Foolishness, yes, especially the women. He looks towards me--I have said little due to my rusty Spanish--and generously offers "Don't worry, I'm sure you can't help it."

He continues. "My daughter occasionally calls me the Dictator. All because I asked her to set the table. Can you imagine. I, who've never so much as broken a plate in my life. She's in Barcelona now, working as an architect. She's twenty-six. What I really want is a grandchild. She's had two boyfriends that she bothered to present to us. Supposedly there's another one now. One of those movie actors."

The Patriarch's godson interrupts: "Theater. He's a theater actor." Non-plussed, the Patriarch responds. "Exactly. Un canta-mananas."

Later that evening, I ask my in-laws about the exact nuance of "canta mananas," literally "sings in the morning," promises much, but delivers nothing. The English equivalent of "good for nothing" doesn't seem to quite fit.

"Yes, well "canta mananas" does convey more happiness than "pela gatos," my father-in-law reflects.
"Pela gatos? You mean cat-peeler? How does one peel a cat?"
"Ridiculous, but colorful. That also means one who does nothing, but with a nuance of low social standing."
My mother-in-law adds. Yes, it's not like "Un Viva La Virgen."
"One who shouts 'Long Live the Virgen?'"
"Yes, you know in those religious processions. There are those who carry the cross. And those on the sidelines who shout "Long Live the Virgen." Someone who lives life as a tourist."
My husband remarks. "Supposedly the Eskimos have twenty different words for snow. Well, they've got a lot of snow. You've got to wonder about a language that has so many expressions for doing nothing."

Back to lunch and the Patriarch.
Someone asks him about the extent of his property.
"A couple thousand meters squared. Several years ago a man came and offered me twenty thousand pesetas for this land."
Another person interjects "It's probably worth ten times that today."
The Patriarch reflects: "Perhaps. The point is that at that time I had a police dog on the property. I told the would-be buyer. Yes, well there's only one problem. If I sold you my land, where would I put my dog?"

At quarter of six, the Patriarch graciously rises. "Delighted to meet you my dear, but I must go now. Lovely to have so many people here and all, but it's quite tired me out." He swats away a fly. "Quite exhausting. Yes, it's time to tuck in for a little nap."

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