“What time does the bus go to Mérida?” I ask a middle aged lady standing in what I hope is the bus queue.
It’s an easy enough phrase to get right, even with my less than perfect Spanish. Still, she looks at me as though I’ve just asked her to reupholster my tortoise.
“Well … it’ll be … the same as always … ” she stammers.
Clearly she has never heard the question asked outright. This common knowledge is as deeply engraved into the local world-view as though, sometime on the sixth day, the almighty stopped fooling about with Adam’s ribs for long enough to create the morning service from Guareña to Mérida, calling at La Zarza and Alange.
As I worry about how we might move the conversation on from here, another bystander kindly steps in to help:
“The bus is at ten o’clock. If you want to come back, there are buses from Mérida at twelve thirty and two. Just look for the Guareña bus. It’s at the same times every day.”
Someone else has already chipped in before I have chance to thank her:
“Not on Saturdays.”
Now it’s a free-for-all. My presence is forgotten, and the conversation has a momentum all its own.
“It’s exactly the same on Saturdays – twelve thirty and two o’clock.”
“But it doesn’t go on to Guareña. It turns around here. You can’t get to Guareña on a Saturday.”
“Why do you want to go to Guareña? There’s nothing there.”
“There is a good place for buying animal feed.”
“I first met my husband in Guareña.”
“It can’t have been a Saturday, then.”
“Was he buying feed?”
It’s been quite a few years since I last travelled by bus, and when it arrives a few minutes later, it’s quite a surprise. I suppose I was expecting diesel smoke, ripped seats and a stony-faced conductor. This is a sleek, modern coach, more appropriate for a trans-continental blast than for popping down to the shops.
Doors and cargo bay open with a pneumatic hiss. Everybody else knows the driver by name (Paco, apparently) and they greet him like an old friend as wheelie carts are stowed underneath and we all file up into the bus, each handing over our one euro fifty three.
The conversation that began in the queue is not only still alive, but has already evolved and divided into intertwined threads; among the cacophony I pick out snippets about a recent birth, a new job, an imminent silver wedding, and the accidental change from blond to bright red of either a hairdo or a horse. (The words cabello and caballo are pretty similar when delivered in full-tilt extremeño. I really hope it’s the horse, though.)
These themes don’t, alas, coincide with the seats that people have chosen; some comments can be practically whispered while others are yelled around the coach with laughs and teases. Nobody else seems concerned – or even aware – that Paco is clearly intent on killing us all, as we career at breakneck speed along the narrow and twisty two-way road toward the Extremeñan capital.
Arriving twenty minutes later and miraculously unscathed, we file out into the ultra-modern concourse in Mérida. Digital displays list arrivals and departures airport-style, along with platform numbers and status updates: on time, arrived, delayed 10 minutes or now boarding. In addition to the many local services there are coaches to Madrid, Seville, Alicante and Barcelona, The conversation has died down. This isn’t the time or place for chatter. This is the big, scary, modern city.
There on the departures board is the return service, exactly as described: Guareña, twelve thirty, platform seven, on schedule. Amazing. No wonder the conversation has faded away. It’s hard to believe we’re still in Extremadura.
* * *
Twelve twenty, my watch informs me, as I re-enter the bus station and scan the displays. Guareña, twelve thirty, platform seven, arrived. Great stuff.
As I queue for the ticket window. I’ve mentally rehearsed what I want to ask for, but I didn’t need to; none other than Paco himself is behind the window, and he has my return ticket printed before I’ve had chance to utter a word. The departures board now offers Guareña, twelve thirty, platform seven, now boarding. I’m impressed. This is almost like the civilised world.
I must be the last of his charges as, once I have my ticket, Paco is locking the office and heading back out to the concourse, where amid laughter and mickey-taking he officiously checks the tickets he’s just sold us all while loading us back on to the same coach, which once again he’ll drive like a man possessed.
And, at precisely twelve thirty one, the conversation is back up to full volume and we roll out of the bus station (but from platform nine; so much for the hi-tech displays, this is the real Extremadura after all). Let’s see how much more of the world can be put to rights in the twenty minutes the return trip will take.
* * *
The Spanish love nothing more than a good chat. Its importance is evident just from the number of words and phrases they have for the activity: charlar, parlotear, cotillear, chasmorrear, estar de cháchara, pegar la hebra, darle al palique and no doubt many more I haven’t heard yet.
For generations, many a happy hour has been spent – around the fireside in winter, or in the shade of a tree or grapevine in the summer months – telling and retelling stories, theorising conspiracies, cracking jokes and expounding opinions, each backed up by the appropriate refrán. Modern life, though, is gnawing away at such traditions. Many, especially of the younger generations, now work, shop, chat and court online. The gossip and laughter of the public wash-house (still open in Alange, but now deserted) has given way to the quiet privacy of the domestic washing machine. Mains water supply has dispersed the gathering at the village pump. Those large families that gathered by the fireside no longer live all under one roof, and often not even in one province.
But when I feel the need to pegar la hebra I now know that I can always rely on Paco and his Guareña to Mérida service.
Except on Saturdays, obviously.