El Invierno

In Plenary, Practice on January 27, 2014 at 10:02 am

El Invierno

The sky has cleared after more than a week of rain and relative darkness: a wet cold that drenches the bones and dampens the socks in their drawers, a lack of light that dulls the wit, relieving everything of the fine lines and sharp edges that the play of brightness and shadow make to define and clarify the world – the contrasts that make comparison possible, the perception of difference, of change, or whatever you want to call it. The variations. The variegations. The building blocks of thought and speech, of language itself.

With Morocco’s black coast cloaked in mizzle and the cloud-capped hills hidden from view, the mind’s eye – bored and restless – turns toward that other landscape, the interior, only to be disappointed. The grey soup has seeped through the skull – it’s as murky, sodden and slow in there as it is everywhere else. There’s a kind of sensory deprivation, a shutting down broken only by fitful fragments – undirected flashes of memory that slither and trouble.

Two nights ago, though, on the coast road, the details of the dark night gleamed. The windows and streetlamps of Ceuta were crisp on the horizon, the pinpoints of Tangier port twinkling close and crystal clear. The red lights of the turbines that turn on African soil were a winking reflection of their counterparts on this side of the Strait, blades reinvigorated and rotating wildly.

There was a brightness to the high visibility and a lightness to the eye that beheld it – less weight on the chest and less resistance to the breath, a cleansed mind mirroring the rise and fall of the rib cage with easier thinking, expanding and contracting in the freedom of a freshly opened space, a new terrain devoid of rain and gloom. The descent into Tarifa felt like relief – an expiration into the vast Atlantic vista, the barrios an orange shimmer, the lamp of the lighthouse revolving.

The next day the town looked good again, looked as it should look: whitewash and azujelo given high definition by the blue void that frames everything and the sun that throws the shadows back where they’ve been missed, throws the odd smile back on faces raised upwards again. Iwento for an aimless walk; still muggy and slow on the inside, it will take me a while longer to clear up than it has the weather, but it felt good to reacquaint myself with the visual language of renewal. Light and a little warmth, a few more people wending their way, here and there.

This place, more than anywhere I’ve known, is seasonal. One deep breath per year, taken as the autumn closes, and not released till Easter. Between the holy week and September’s feria the town opens out in a display of noise and colour that contrasts sharply with the mute stillness that lies beneath the blanket of winter. In the evening we went down to the only chiringuito open at this time of year, for a glass of wine.

It’s mostly window where it faces the water and we could see the old medina of Tangier, as well as the island and the moving lights of the cargo ships. The crowd was expat – the huddle of hip young things that remain when the tourists clear out. Woolly hats and piercings, they’ll be out on the water or lost in the crowds in another few months. There was a flamenco act on; the music was staid and demure, stylish and aloof and therefore, of course, not flamenco.

We bored quickly and left. On the way back to the house the town was January quiet till K heard a noise – or rather a flock of noises – overhead. The chorus came from a palm that sprouts from the pavement. With my hand on the trunk and looking up, the tree was a flower, fanned out against the night’s black backdrop and bustling with the business of birds.

“What are they?” asked K.

I’d lowered my gaze and looked down the hill to the ornamental gate of the port. Depending on my mood, it looks either Roman or Soviet in style. Tonight it looked beautiful; the town offers few more iconic views – the sweep of the street as it descends on a slight gradient to the very end of Europe, the port and harbour beyond, and beyond that the Strait, and Africa. Sloped like a slide into other worlds, a gentle and daunting motion into the unknown that encapsulates our move from our old world to our new life here. The jump, the letting go, the leap of faith.

“No idea,” I said, and we went home.

Heading back to the house again today, with a bagful of shopping at the end of each arm (swordfish and beef liver, baby green peppers from Padron and a bottle of Valencian wine, deep-fried ears of corn, bottles of beer and bags of salad – consolations for the absence of K, who has gone away for a week), I’m nearly home and as I turn a corner I see, down a side street and illuminated in the last of the afternoon sun, a crew of costaleros lined up beneath their practice paso, watched in silence by a fretting capatace.

It’s a sight that, three years ago, or two, or maybe even one, would have stopped me in my tracks, or sent me running home for the camera. Today I just walk by. But if the outward signs of amazement are gone, the lift I get is, if anything, deeper than ever, my grin more instinctive and involuntary.

The clearest sign yet that a year is unfurling, and a part of the town’s most basic routines that remains deliciously foreign to me: the adventure – at times almost unbearably bright, at others almost entirely obscured in the quotidian – continues. This particular year will bring our family and friends to Tarifa – I will see many of them framed by the old town for the first time, emptying its wine barrels and depleting its fish stocks. I’ll have to wait till the summer winds down for that, but I’m reminded today, standing on the garden wall and dodging spiders as I lean into the limonero and fill a basket on the ground below me, that even this darkest, coldest, barest branch of the year bears fruit.

  1. Terrific account. Spain really is on a different planet in the winter, isn’t it? Maybe it’s the bright summer sun that gets us addicted and brings on the S.A.D. when it goes away.

    • Yes, it seems to have got under my skin more than usual this year. I always try to see the beauty in whatever time or place I happen to be. Want what you have rather than get what you want, type of thing, but it’s a stretch at times…

  2. That was a brilliant depiction….I remember the dull, drizzly winters in France which would eventually get to me.
    Somehow the downpours of the rainy season here don’t do that…too dramatic, perhaps.

  3. I wonder if they were parakeets in the palm trees. Were they REALLY noisy?

    Totally get that “less outward” sense of amazement, that feels deeper and familiar, like this place is also within me. Haven’t seen any practicing costaleros yet. I think the first real sign that spring is coming to Sevilla is when I see the massive collecting bags full of oranges under the trees.

    • It did seem very early for the paso – maybe they’re doing something before Easter. They’re always at it, round here.

      It wasn’t quite the screech of parakeets and I think the birds were dark in colour, so it was very difficult to tell at night. We could see all the movement but couldn’t really make out individual birds. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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