Two weeks ago I saw the first martins wheeling about over the bus station. Last week the first swallows began to arrive and the lonely stork on the chimney of the old factory was joined by his mate. This weekend the chiffchaffs have finally joined in on the dawn chorus and, whilst it’s hardly been what you’d call wintry around these parts, today suddenly feels decidedly spring-y. The sun is blazing away in a sky of cloudless blue and everybody is out in the town square, soaking up the good weather and generally having a good Sunday of it.
The truth of the matter is, quite honestly, that winter has simply not come this year.
Maybe I’ve been in the north of England for too long, but it stills feels like I’ve been cheated of a season out here. Extremadura is, as its name suggests, a land of extremes: of fiercely hot summers and bitterly cold winters. There are people in Villafranca who remember whole years when it never rained at all. It has rained here, but not often; about four or five times since I arrived, all in all. And whilst the presence of the cranes is a sure sign that it’s winter somewhere, it looks a great deal more like spring right now. The cherry blossom is already in bloom, over a month early, which is more than can be said for the unseasonably early arrival of the migrants. I think I’ll head on down to Tarifa next weekend to check on how things are going in the Strait. If spring has come early anywhere, it’ll be there for sure.
Which reminds me, I really must go looking for the cranes before they leave.
To celebrate the gloriously early return of spring (alright, so that wasn’t really the reason), a local friend and our would-be guide, Jesús, threw a barbecue gathering in his casa de campo out in the vineyards of the Tierra de Barros. A casa de campo is a real Spanish boon that I’m still struggling to translate. Country house might work, but that conveys a sense of grandeur that most such buildings – merely glorified sheds where your average town-dwelling Spaniard stores his produce, spare furniture and ‘all the shit that doesn’t go anywhere else’ – simply do not have. Ask a Spaniard to show you their casa de campo and you’ll quickly see why Spanish houses are so ludicrously tidy.
A common mistake that foreigners make is that these are dwellings in their own right. Far from it. They’re almost all two-room bungalows, equipped with sofas, plenty of chairs and a kitchenette, purely for the purposes of hosting summer gatherings like the one Jesús held yesterday. The locals will pay regular visits to their campo, especially during harvest season when they’re more practical than pleasurable, but most of them would never stay in one. It’s simply not done. Would you sleep in the tool-shed?
Jesús had invited a fair crowd, with an equal balance of Spaniards and guiris, the latter representing England, Wales and three American states. The Almendralejo crew, in all but name. I had the audacity to avoid them almost entirely last term, stopping by only twice, for fear of being sucked into an English-speaking failure of a year abroad (I speak enough English for my job). That was poorly done indeed. Quite unlike the infamous all-English compounds in many a Spanish town, the Almen lot are very much half and half. As the most fluent of the guiris (a title the Spaniards themselves have given me and which I cherish above all other compliments), I get more than enough practice in my grandfather’s language as the ultimate go-between and little could make me happier.
Although, that said, the copious offerings of grilled chorizo, crackling and manchego cheese on offer yesterday did a damned good job of it.
No campo gathering would be complete without una vueltecita, or stroll. Jesús’ casa de campo is just off the Vía de la Plata, the lesser known northbound Camino de Santiago and the old road from Seville to the silver mines in the Asturias. We didn’t stroll particularly far, but then, you don’t have to; the Tierra de Barros is so vast and flat that you can see for miles in all directions. It’s hard to imagine when you compare it, but the village of Hornachos, sat astride the high Sierra which shares its name, is as far from Villafranca as Walmer is from Canterbury. Twenty seven kilometers, or fifteen miles, there or thereabouts. And you can see one from the other. It’s that flat.
We didn’t find any unicorns (don’t ask) but we did find two very excitable dogs and an emu. And a characteristically gorgeous sunset over the olive trees.
Andalucía, that dusky southern beauty, might have stolen my heart years ago, but honest Extremadura is doing her hardest to win me over and very nearly succeeding. If I end up returning to this land of endless steppe, of Kings and buses named after Zeus’ lovers and home of quite possibly the hardiest of all of Spain’s assistants (I maintain that you have to be at least a few screws loose to choose Extremadura as your home for a year), it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
Carnaval is coming, but it’s not here yet, and before that yawns our second five-day weekend; the best we get by way of a ‘holiday’ besides Christmas and Easter compared to the French assistants (a necessary sacrifice, I suppose, for being in a superior country). I’ll sign off before the Spanish blood in me goes to my head. BB x