This week’s story is a straight-up destination piece.
Destination pieces are often considered passé in travel writing circles, but that’s a failure of the imagination. They are the most essential form that travel writing has because they are the work of a person focusing on a place and together, place and person comprise travel’s most fundamental relationship. It’s all there: person and place. Everything else is fluff.
The current obsession with novelty applies as much to this as to anything else. Our very thinking, it seems, is to be novel if it is to satisfy the demands of our chocolately-chinned, app-building age. “Why We Travel”, “How We Travel”, the titles, or variations thereof, of any number of more recent travel-related essays and articles, have become the questions to be asked since “where” , apparently, became so yesterday.
For me it’s just the opposite. While “how” has thrown up some reasonably interesting, if frequently delusional, reflections on the ethics of travel, the problem with “why” questions is that no matter how fascinating or thorough our contemplations of them may be, they can usually be replaced in an instant, and convincingly, with another well-known and very simple question: why not?
In other words, they’re dull. I’m not in the slightest bit interested in what motivates the middle-class, gap year forward slash arrested development, branded clothing, meticulously messy-haired naval gazers who rampage across the world, critiquing foreign cultures from behind their Oakley shades, referring at each (awesome) step to some mythical travel “community” and bending over backwards all the way to imbue each and every moment with some kind of “meaning”.
Seriously, I couldn’t give a fuck.
I am, however, absolutely fascinated by many of the places they trample through in their Berghaus boots and North Face jackets. The people and things that remain once our friends have moved on, having made sure to exploit their two days in a hostel and a quick mosey round the market to extrapolate life’s larger truths.
So this week’s story is a story about a place.
Tarifa juts out into the Strait of Gibraltar where Spain’s south eastern Mediterranean coast meets its south western Atlantic one. The town has only one tiny Mediterranean beach in fact: the main act is Los Lances, a wild, six-kilometre swathe of fine sand and marsh scrub that starts at the very southern tip of mainland Europe and curves westward, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and by Tarifa’s newer neighborhoods and beach bars on the other.
Looking south one is presented with that rarest of things – an intercontinental view. The dark outline of North Africa’s Rif mountain range looms very close. At night the lights of Tangier twinkle. Up the coast a little, at its port, the eye can make out moving trucks.
Along its northern, landward edge, the beach is backed with a sprinkling of chiringuitos, a no-fuss promenade and behind that some apartment blocks, a couple of schools, a fish processing plant, a football ground and a sports centre. Tarifa slopes steeply to meet the sea; behind one of the schools a set of steps climbs past the tiny bullring and leads into the commercial part of town.
Crossing the high street, which is lined with surf shops and trendy boutiques as well as the usual takeaways, tobacconists and corner shops, the gradient continues – a number of streets point inland and uphill towards the barrios, the residential neighborhoods that have been built outside the old town walls to accommodate Tarifa’s growth over the last thirty years or so.
These range in style from rows of distinctly soviet-looking flats, to high-walled villas, to rows of the kind of house you find pretty much anywhere, although here in Spanish style and colour (white). One of these last is where we live – a newer barrio by the name of Las Gaviotas, or The Seagulls.
I haven’t written about it before in the way I wrote about the old town. We rented a house here because the other one was small and damp, but I was a little sullen to move outside the Napoleonic city walls. We had a roof terrace in the old place where I could look across the ramshackle roofline of antique Tarifa, towards the castle and the sea.
I loved it. I’m an aesthete. It might drive K to distraction but I couldn’t care less, generally speaking, whether there’s a draft or how much storage space we have. I just want views and such. Give me drama, eye candy. What a property person would probably call “character”. I want to smile involuntarily when I pull the curtains back in the morning.
So, I’ve neglected the new place. There are no views here. It’s quite an ordinary house in quite an ordinary neighborhood. What we do have now is space. A private little patio out the back – no good to anyone on this dark, stormy morning but a beautiful spot in drier, warmer weather.
A lemon tree out front, bursting with fruit just now, and a laurel tree for fresh bay leaves. Around the trunks I’ve planted thyme and parsley, sage, rosemary and oregano. Not all bad, then.
And storage space. Places for shoes and a less stressed K. Bookshelves. Two toilets. That’s a toilet each! Because it’s a three bedroom we get an office each too, and we have a large open plan living room so we can sprawl without being on top of each other. We don’t always like to be on top of each other. Not that we use the space appropriately, or even that space means the same thing, these internet days. Last Saturday I wanted her to take a quick look at a paragraph I’d written and she asked me to email it over to her. She was sitting on the sofa, three feet away.
It’s quieter around here – the tourists make the old town a bit of a theme park in the summer. And darker at night, fewer lights. There’s an unnamed little shop that’s just about on the doorstep where the lovely woman is always very nice to me, and a bakery across the street where the strange man isn’t.
For all the beauty of the old town, something good happened when we moved out here. The turning of another page – a deepening of our experience of Spain without its make-up on. A further embedding. When I walk through the barrio these days, on my way to or from the bus, and think about where we’ve come from, I don’t find it ordinary at all.
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