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The Iberian Horseshoe — A Journey

Part II. South West

The Great Peapod Escape

Steve Porter
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Inspired by the carnival, Mary invented an imaginary friend. She wrote a story about a boy called Alex, who dresses up in a peapod costume. Alex takes a lot of stick from other boys and his father for entering a girlie fancy dress competition. He is ridiculed when the peapod costume splits open down the middle during the contest and a few large peas fall to the floor. Alex has the last laugh as he takes first prize.

Meanwhile, I was reading not only Raymond Carver, who I already admired a lot but also other American realists like Richard Ford and Tobias Wolf. And I liked to read the original Spanish texts of South American masters such as García Márquez, Cortázar and Borges. I also became interested in ultra-short stories. Why spend a month on a novel when you knew what was likely to happen after the first twenty pages? If you can say what you want to say in five hundred words like Mario Benedetti can, then why write more? The added advantage of reading Benedetti’s stories was that, thanks to their brevity, I could try and translate some of them into English. If the teaching thing was not to be, then maybe translation was an area I could move into.

Now and then, I read something from closer to home, though the familiarity only increased my desire to return. The story that stays in my mind more than any other from this period was “A Report to the Trustees of the Bellahouston Travelling Scholarship” by Alasdair Gray. Here is a brief summary of the plot:

The protagonist wins a painting scholarship and must use his grant to travel abroad. He plans to sail to Spain via Gibraltar, find cheap accommodation and then travel back to Glasgow passing through cities of major architectural and artistic interest. He falls ill on his way to Gibraltar and spends much of the time in a naval hospital. After just two days on the Spanish mainland he disgraces himself and is forced to return home.

Okay, this was only a character but I found the story extremely comforting. Had something similar actually happened to Gray himself? Anyway, it’s a story that says more about living abroad than a thousand travel books. Nobody in their right mind wants to read about the truth of an author’s mundane existence, and I am not going to relate my day by day routine either, but sometimes I got up in the afternoon, went to the supermarket, saw nothing of interest and met nobody before going back to bed in the evening.

When I read travel writing, it often appears that the writer has dropped their negative emotions in the English Channel, like false teeth into a glass at bedtime. They can pick them up on the way back to gloomy Britain. We are led to believe that escaping from the British weather will be the solution to all our problems. “You live in Spain? Oh, that must be difficult for you!”

In fact it frequently was. Okay, I had a suntan and less chance of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder but there were things I really missed, such as communicating without having to think hard about it. I wasn’t living on the Costa del Sol or Costa Blanca and couldn’t call on English-speaking friends every time there was a problem. Actually, I would’ve been glad to know a few ex-pats in Cádiz, even of the type who are criticised for not living in the ‘real Spain’, whatever that is. After all, the Costa del Sol is one of the most concrete places in the country.

I had studied Spanish for three years at university and everyone supposed I was fluent. But even then, that didn’t turn me into a walking Spanish dictionary. When I wanted to call a plumber, read about different types of bank account, go to the doctor or optician, I did not have the technical vocabulary at my disposal to explain the problem. I had read Lorca and Márquez in Spanish but didn’t know the words for screwdriver, ball cock, bank balance, interest rate, palpitations, or short-sightedness. These were things I would have to learn if I wanted to live in the country long-term.

As the weeks turn into months, some aspects of life are very difficult to detach from and small things help. I found a shop on calle Estrecha where I could buy a Scottish newspaper to read up on the football. I continued to meet up with friends who no longer drank and on my way back to Amílcar Barca, while passing the brass band who regularly practised on the old prison ground opposite the cathedral, I caught up on the football reports. Up in the sky the moon was telling the time in instalments. When it reached full again, I would only have to wait another month before going home.

A few hours from here, the moon was looking down on a remote village of the Alpujarra Mountains. In this village, there is a Buddhist monastery, built in honour of a Spanish incarnation of a Tibetan Lama, born in Granada in 1985. I used to dream of living in such a place, shut off from the outside world. As I took pleasure and pain from distant events in my newspaper, I realised I could no more live without reports and images from the football fields of Britain than I could cut off my own head.

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Copyright ©Steve Porter, 2004
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Date of publicationSeptember 2006
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