Through the Looking Glass

There’s an edge to the air this morning, and a blueness to the light, as though someone turned down the colour control a little. I’m paying little attention as I scan the newspaper headlines on the way to my usual breakfast haunt.

As I turn the corner, though, something isn’t right. The tables from the terrace are stacked, the awning rolled away, and the glazed doors closed. The phony colours of a television flicker through the misted window, and the only customer in sight stays outside for no longer than it takes to finish a morning cigarette.

Inside, the bar is unchanged, but not the ambiance. Fresh air and birdsong have given way to the steamy hiss and staccato chink and clatter of coffee being served, the mumble of television news anchors and still-waking patrons, the barked airing of some or other minor grievance in the kitchen, and whiffs of garlic, frying peppers and toast.

Seen through glass, the village square looks somehow transformed, too; the same, yet different. The shabby pickup trucks and trailers that just a couple of weeks ago lugged the melon harvest now rattle by laden with logs of encinaolivo or, for the more impoverished, eucalypto, to feed hearths or wood stoves. The firing squad is absent, no doubt arguing over cards or dominoes in the hogar del pensionista.

By the time I leave, the bar is busy. Placing a few coins on the counter to the nodded acknowledgement of the owner, I bid those in earshot a quick hasta luego and make my way outside into the swelling stream of shoppers straggling toward the weekly market.

Dressing for the weather at this time of year is more art than science. In a sunny spot away from the autumn wind, shorts and bare arms are still the order of the day. Move into the shade and the breeze gives a crisp reminder of what’s to come. Among my fellow villagers I see many a victim of the deranged wardrobe mistress; tee shirt and winter boots here, duffle coat and sandals there. The market’s clothing stalls share the confusion, and try to cater to all seasons. There are apprehensive looks at the sky, and plastic sheeting at the ready, just in case.

The ever-friendly locals smile readily with a cheery “buenos dias“, but their guaranteed follow-up of “hace frio, no?” – isn’t it cold? – is not really a question, even though framed as one. It’s delivered with knowing resignation; neighbourly code for ‘brace yourself, here we go again’.

* * *

Sangria, castanets, raffia donkeys, paella and sandy beaches bathed by an always-blazing yellow sun. For forty years or so coastal Spain has fashioned the myth and then made sure that, May to September, it’s delivered in all its authentic falsehood to the hordes that arrive pale but excited and depart, seven or so hangovers later, livid pink and broke.

Out here in the wilds of Extremadura, the summer visitors are of a different stamp. Nature lovers, history buffs, peregrinos and other intrepid explorers from northern Europe or Scandinavia tote maps and telescopic canes, rubbing shoulders with refugees from Barcelona or Madrid whose well-appointed German saloons have wafted them away from the humidity, traffic and crowds of their home cities.

But whatever the audience, following the summer’s last encore – the Veranillo de San Miguel – the footlights go dark, the costumes are packed in the trunk and makeup is removed as Spain’s summer turismo spectacular comes to a close.

The autumn in Extremadura is short and confused. Just a few days, usually in late October or early November, separate the balmy late summer from the slate-gray bleakness of winter. Temperatures can fall by anywhere up to ten degrees celsius during this metamorphosis, while the weather seems to check that every weapon in its armoury is still in working order; sunshine, rain, hail, wind and fog can arrive with little warning and depart just as quickly. The weather forecasters fight valiantly, but for these few days they’re outmanoeuvred and outgunned.

Overall-clad workers battle to clear culverts and drainage ditches of leaves and other detritus; it doesn’t rain often here, but when it does, it can fall in biblical quantities. More often, winter unfolds with rolling, sodden fogs that cling in the throat and sap the spirit, sometimes not disappearing for days on end.

And so, suddenly, we’ve stepped through the looking glass, into a country transformed – a wintrier world of lap blankets and braseros where the gloom is alleviated, for those who know where to look, by a few hidden gems and silver linings.

Because winter may be the season of short, dull days and long, cold nights, but it has its compensations; oranges and olives, families gathering for their annual matanzas, wood stoves and red wine, replenished reservoirs, a beige world turned green again, and spring to look forward to.

“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly; “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Brace yourselves, here we go again.

10 thoughts on “Through the Looking Glass

  1. Beautifully written and very relatable. I like it when the cafes close their doors and steam up inside, and we’ve just had our big temperature drop down here this week. I hate the damp down here but I love the fresh mornings.

  2. I’m still pretending it’s not happening, but I’ll have to start lighting the woodburner down here in Malaga… Hace frio!

    • It’s still touch and go each evening for us, whether we should light it or suffer! But I think we all know where the bus is going … Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I love this accurate description of la vida en el ‘far west’. We are further south than you, in the Sierra de Aracena, but now chestnut leaves are falling, morning mist swirls around the house, and we have only a week or so to gather the last forest mushrooms before the first frosts strike.
    Carne de membrillo has been made this week, and we are harvesting nuts and taking them in to the co-op.
    I look forward to further posts.

    • Hi Sam, and thanks for your kind words. Our quinces are still waiting to be picked, but that’ll be happening anytime now. Then the other winter tasks begin – pruning fruit trees, mending irrigation systems and all the rest. Never ends, does it?

  4. Fantastically written Phil. And so, so true! Autumn is an illusion in Spain, a smokescreen of the real baddy that’s just around the corner. Yet as much as I can’t stand the cold, the winter does bring its redeeming qualities: snow and mulled wine.

    • Thanks, Josh. I think those redeeming qualities are real. Maybe I just convince myself in an attempt to stay sane! Thanks for visiting.

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