It’s quite a while since I last came to Villafranca De Los Barros, even though the little town is quite close by. But here I am today, sitting on a bench in one of the many plazas, trying to read the instructions on the packaging of a newly-bought gadget while vaguely distracted by the conversation of two women next to me about their plans for the upcoming Las Candelas celebrations. Although it’s pleasant enough here in the sunshine the winter wind is sharp, so the late-morning shoppers and early-finishing workers are scurrying by on their daily schedules wrapped up in scarves and gloves.
The strike of the church clock brings back a happy memory of previous trips to the town; of this same clock that made us laugh, always chiming at 11 minutes past the hour or 23 minutes to the next. Who knows how many years it’s been summoning people to be just a little late for mass? Looking up, I’m rather disappointed to see that its quirky clockwork has finally been suitably spannered and it currently displays a submissive one-thirty, agreeing with my wristwatch.
Why fix it now? I’m certain the local populace had become more than accustomed to this cute eccentricity. Surely what they rely on is consistency, rather than truth, to underpin their daily timetables? Maybe somebody at the Ayuntamiento had to comply with some new European law about Accuracy of Public Timepieces or some such nonsense, concocted at huge expense just to further remind us who’s really in charge. Or perhaps, after all these years, the clock repairer finally got to it in his schedule.
Every town square needs a clock; people here in rural Spain find huge comfort in the rhythms and routines that guide them on their journey, despite never actually being on time for any of them. The daily program of work, family and leisure slots neatly into the bigger picture with its saints’ days, fiestas, harvests and seasons, themselves a part of the cycle of life, and beyond into the folklore and traditions of the pueblo, the region and the country itself. Wheels within wheels. The assurance offered by system that has gradually developed to be this way over millions of years (or maybe just a few thousand, for those who like a little more ignorance with their bliss).
Extremadura has always been a relatively poor region, but the current difficult times are biting hard. Not just for the lack of income – many families around here have long been used to that – but for the uncertainty that it brings. Maybe this time what goes around will not, eventually, come around. Maybe this time this delicately interwoven clockwork is going to break down, and instead of the chime being fashionably but predictably late, there’ll be no chime at all.
Such a reliance on familiar habits and routines is something I didn’t really foresee before moving to Spain. Like many an emigrant seeking una vida más tranquila, I expected to shed my dogged adherence to working times, weekly shopping trips, and attention to the other periodic checks and balances required by a busy life in the UK, instead drifting forwards through life, eating, drinking, working or playing as each moment dictated. Well, that didn’t really work out. The lure of the local agenda was just too great.
Looking back at former friends and colleagues, they each seemed to fall into one of two groups whenever the guiding hand of protocol and custom was temporarily removed. One type would settle into an orderly and controlled world of tidy desks and empty in-trays, paid-off credit cards and polished cars, while the other would lurch wild-eyed and chortling from one disaster to the next, like the self-proclaimed ‘good driver’ who’s never had an accident but seen hundreds.
I was never sure which group I fell into, but it’s becoming clear. The spanners now hang in size order on the wall of my workshop, market day is Tuesday, Alan is walked twice daily, and the new device I’ve just bought is a plug-in power consumption meter. This change of lifestyle may have largely removed the restraining hand of order and control, but a phantom limb still twitches and aches in its place.
The two señoras are dissolving their meeting with smiles and kissed cheeks. One has to collect her child from school, the other to meet up with her husband as he finishes work. Time for me to get moving, too. Perhaps the expat vision of Bohemian ease and exotic adventure is still out there, somewhere ahead of me. But it’ll have to wait a while, because the next time that the church clock chimes it will be two o’clock.
And two o’clock is, of course, lunchtime.