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La Matanza

In Practice, Presentation on December 20, 2012 at 7:22 pm

La Matanza

It’s Saturday afternoon and I get a text from L, our friend and language intercambio, to arrange some coffee and cake the following afternoon. I will meet him at the mudejar arch that leads to the old town and we’ll pick up some pastries before coming back to our place and “gowering into them”, as they say in my neck of the woods. I can’t vouch for the spelling.

A little while later though I get another text. L has just heard that there will be a traditional matanza down at the alameda earlier in the day. The reader may need some help with terms. Alameda translates as mall or avenue and just about every Spanish town has one – Tarifa’s (and I may be biased) is particularly handsome as it hugs the city walls, lined with stately palms and comparatively high-end restaurants. Parents take their young children there to stop off at the tiny playground on their Sunday paseo and little markets are often set up. There’s a book stall and a kiosk for the whale-watching excursions.

I’m still on a learning curve about the country we live in so whenever anyone slips the word ‘traditional’ in, I’m interested. I text L that, of course, we’ll meet him at the top of the alameda at one, and then, having absolutely no idea what a matanza is, I look it up. Google translate is no stranger to linguistic mix-ups and I can’t help chuckling to myself when it renders the word in English as ‘slaughter’.

Unphased, and experienced with the translator, I click on the word to have a look at the dropdown menu of alternatives. Understandably, the software often struggles with words when they’re used in a metaphorical or colloquial way. The people at Google, however, have been very industrious in their provision of possible interpretations.

But no.

There are no alternatives, unless you count ‘killing’ and ‘massacre’. Matanza means slaughter, and that’s that. My inner eye returns to the alameda momentarily, with its bird-filled palm trees and the laughter of little children in their Sunday best, the balloon vendors and the sweet shop.

“So?” asks K, and I tell her. There’s a brief silence.

“We’re invited down to the alameda in the morning ,” her eyes scan the pages of the latest In Style magazine, “to cheer the townsfolk on,” she continues, deftly turning a page with a flick of her wrist and a lifting of the tip of her thumb, “ while they stab a pig.”

“This is what you’re suggesting, is it?” she asks without looking up, “to your vegetarian girlfriend?”

I text L – Are we talking about a pig, L? You are remembering that K is vegetarian?

“I’m sure they would do her a salad,” he replies, betraying that trademark Spanish empathy for the vegetarian perspective, “but I suppose it might be a bit hard on her, yes.”

So that’s that then. It’s a slaughter.

“How terrible!”

“Shocking,” I confirm.

“It’s absolutely awful! Never heard of such a thing!”

“Terrible,” I assure her, still clutching my phone in my restless texting fingers. “I think I’ll go though.”

Her sigh, in the depth of its dreary disappointment, echoes across the ages.

“Yes,” she says.

She hasn’t lifted her eyes from the pages of the magazine at any point.

“I thought you might.”

And so it is that I find myself trundling down to the Alameda early on a Sunday afternoon. Even L has backed out at this stage, so it’s just me and my camera. Rain has put a stop to anything taking place out in the open but the locals are not the kind of people to let a bit of bad weather get in the way of pig murder, it would seem. They’ve moved the whole thing down the lane and into the covered market.

This is where I usually get cheese and ham and such but none of the shops are open today. They’ve set up a bar at one end and spread sawdust around – no doubt, I conclude sagely, to soak up the blood. There’s a little stage set up and a PA system but only a few people have trickled in and cluster around the bar.

Over the next hour the place fills up. By two o’clock it’s positively rowdy. I lean against a pillar towards the back with a beer and watch the crowd grow, camera at the ready. Flamenco comes from the PA. No sign of the pig. No shortage of entertainment though; it’s a very particular clientele.

It doesn’t help, I suppose, that I’ve been on a Dickens kick, but everybody here looks like they could have stepped out of one of his books. It’s all very country fair – flat caps are heavily over-represented, as are protruding ears and wellington boots. It would be difficult to count the wax coats, or the shabbier moochers who linger in the galleries at the edge.

Ruddy complexions abound, attached to incomprehensible accents and honest-to-god whiskers – sideburns that belong the other side of the Great War, one pair of which belongs to Tarifa’s anachronistic and patriarchal mayor, who I can see at the head of the room, sporting a huge carving knife and wearing a butchers apron.

There is some diversity; all ages are represented and for every ten men who look like poor farmers there are one or two who look like rich ones. On the stage a little pijo boy is throwing shapes to the music in quite an accomplished looking way. He certainly seems to have grasped the duende of flamenco. His mother watches him adoringly. She’s probably imagining the gentleman farmer he will be but, observing his skill and his obvious sense of drama, it seems to me just as likely he’ll mature into an aficionado of musical theatre, with a keen eye for interior décor. I do hope she takes it all in good spirits.

Something’s wrong – none of these people has murdered a pig. I find my way through the crowd to a little space to the rear of the bar and the reality of the situation reveals itself. A cauldron, half as high as a man and twice as broad, is bubbling away and a pork and chickpea stew is served from it. At its side a rack from which morcillas hang. The pig is dead. Long live the pig. I think it must have arrived in its present condition.

I’m relieved, and not so much for the children’s sake as for my own. Taking my leave of this decidedly local event, for decidedly local people, I make my way towards the bakery.

It’s a day for pastry, not for pork.

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  1. Robin, I’m so glad you chose to attend unlike no-show L. However, I have to say I’m as relieved, regarding the ending of your beautifully-wrought tale, as K no doubt was. Have pity on us poor veggies struggling to feed ourselves in bloodthirsty Spain.

  2. [...] Because small towns are full of surprises. As I write, R has left the house to witness a “pig stabbing” – his words, not mine. Apparently there is a traditional slaughter festival going on [...]

  3. This carnivore thoroughly enjoyed your story. But perhaps I’ll stick to pastries today, too.

    • Thanks Cathy – always good to hear from you and to know you’re reading along – hope you’ve had a great Christmas and all the best to you and yours for the New Year.

  4. Our next door neighbours carried out their matanza as I was coming back from walking the dogs. They did indeed kill their pig… and I’ve never heard an animal scream like it! Got me a touch upset at the time… but by the end of that day, I’d got used to the idea… and am now wangling an invite to next year’s. They pretty much celebrated for two days… with family travelling up to join in, and the ladies all dealing with the animal after the event.
    Yours sounds more my cup of tea though!

  5. I have witnessed one Matanza and been involved in the aftermath of another. The killing was unpleasant and not easy to watch. I am an meat eater so it is good to face up to reality. I dont think this is any worse than eating meat off a supermarket shelf, probably more honest. My wife’s family used to kill a pig annually and she remembers it a kid as a very natural, fun, family activity but most of all a good way of ensuring all your meat products were safe(reared,fed with good food and slaughtered by your own hand).

    • As a vegetarian, I agree with you, Paddy. One of my oldest friends told me of his visit to see cousins in Jamica. They were on a farm where goats were running around. The cousins asked my friend what he fancied for dinner. He replied with a whatever, not being particulary fussed. They then said: “OK, we’ll have goat then”. Before macheting one to death right in front of him. Since his return to the UK, he’s been a vegetarian. And, Robin, us veggies have to be careful with caldos too.

  6. Absolutely loved this, and I laughed out loud at “Terrible . . . I think I’ll go though.”

  7. Poor pig. I often think that Spain is just about the worst place in the world for the squealing swines. They are tasty though. Great story mate- wonderfully told!

    • Thanks Josh – good to have you reading along. At least in Spain it’s straightforward enough to identify Iberico products and bypass the whole factory farming thing, if that’s your preference. It is mine, even though I end up paying more for my pork.

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