As I cycle slowly back into our home village of Alange I pass, as I would in many an Extremeñan pueblo, a row of elderly men sitting on a shady bench. Same men, same seats, every day that the weather permits. Due to the order-arms drill of their walking sticks and the judgemental gaze with which they greet every passing vehicle, Sue and I have come to refer to them as the Firing Squad. I wouldn’t call them that in public. Some of these old boys have already seen enough of such things.
Clouds have built steadily through this September afternoon, but the pavements and buildings radiate the heat they’ve been collecting all through the day. It’s still unmistakably summer weather, though the equinox has come and gone. My few companions on the road have been ancient, asthmatic tractors moving barely faster than I do, their battered trailers packed with melons or the last of the grapes. I decide to stop for a moment and take an unrewarding slurp from the water bottle, the contents now warm as bathwater. A nod is offered to the assembled company with a self-evident “hace calor, no?”
There’s an uncomfortable moment as they all take stock of the sweating foreigner under the comedy helmet. At first I think they’re not going to respond at all. Have I broken an unwritten rule in not asking for permission to speak? Do they not understand my accent?
No, it seems they are simply waiting for their spokesman, perhaps the senior member of the panel, to deliver his considered verdict. With chin parked firmly on the hands that clasp his walking stick:
“Por el veranillo de San Miguel…”
which is the cue for one or two of the group to intone the response:
“… están los frutos como la miel.”
The assembly nod sagely, weighing up the depth and wisdom of this, as if hearing it for the first time.
Gazes return to the middle distance. I have clearly been dismissed with this benediction, and with an “adios” I cycle away.
* * *
The delivery of a suitable refrán for any situation is staple conversational fare for the older Spaniard. From the bustle of shoppers in the market to the intimacy of the family home, you’ll frequently hear the call-and-response as some oft-repeated nugget of rustic insight illuminates a situation. Such sayings appear regularly in advertising and news articles. Our local channel’s nightly TV weather forecast finishes with an example.
And there are hundreds of the things.
Mostly about aspects of everyday rural life, they relate all manner of truth and myth about the human condition, the only common factors seeming to be their brevity and simplicity. The example uttered by the old fellow is quite sophisticated for the genre:
“Por el veranillo de San Miguel están los frutos como la miel.”
“In the little summer of San Miguel (the last days of summer heat around late September – San Miguel is celebrated on September 29th) the fruit is like honey (sweet, ready for harvest)”.
It even rhymes in its native Spanish. Many more fall into the simpler “rain in September, you mule will be wet” category of folksy enlightenment.
These axioms originated in past times when rural life was simple but tough and illiteracy was commonplace, especially in rural areas. While they may not all be in rhyming verse, each has a certain rhythm that makes it easy to remember. They deal with the key subjects around which country life was lived – the harvests, the weather, work, the saints’ days, animals, food, wine and courtship. Continuity from one generation to the next, when writing it all down wasn’t an option.
I often speak to people who say they are seeking ‘old Spain’ or ‘the real Spain’. Well, here’s a good place to start. There’s a lot of folk history to be learnt from these quirky little adages. “A buen entendedor pocas palabras bastan.” To those who cotton on quickly, a few words are enough.
* * *
It was explained to me when I started to work here in Spain that I’d have to contribute for 15 years to get any sort of state pension. I’m sure it takes a lot more years of effort and dedication to earn a seat on one of those shady benches – if such places are available at all. Are seats passed down from generation to generation through the male lineage? Or do they, when the inevitable happens, all move up one seat, leaving room for the new ‘youngster’ on the end? I have no idea.
But if I’m to have a chance of securing my place in years to come, I’d better knuckle down. I’ve a lot of sayings to learn. “Más vale aprender de viejo que morir necio.”
Better to learn late in life than to die in ignorance.