Saturday, 21 April 2012

Tales from Elsewhere - The Spanish Villa - (1 of 3)

My parents retired to Spain from Argentina in the late 1980s and lived in a garden suburb near Chiva, a village ten miles from Valencia on the Mediterranean, towards Madrid, until my father died some fifteen years later.  Eighteen months after that my mother moved to England and died in early 2007.  

It brought to an end what had been for the most part a very pleasant sojourn in Spain and I retain pleasant memories of visiting them twice a year with my partner John – for my birthday in mid June and at Christmas.  I therefore regularly saw that region of Spain during the tourist season and in the cooler winter when the citrus trees, heavy with fruit, awaited harvest in the brilliant winter sunshine...  

 ...and Spaniards would return to their families for the most important religious festival of the year.

As a bilingual family we were fortunate to communicate easily with neighbours, friends and shopkeepers; we all made many friends there, and seven years later we are still in close contact with the Noble family, my parents’ kindly former next door neighbours.  Noli and Nico Noble are in their fifties now and their daughter Blanca in her early thirties.
They were a young couple when my parents first went to live there.   One evening Mum and Dad were having dinner with my visiting sister, brother-in-law and niece, and they heard screaming coming from next door.  One of them immediately got up and went to see what was the matter, and found a little girl of six or seven hanging onto the bars of the locked gates which led through the front garden to the darkened house.  She was crying in distress. 
When they were able to make sense of what she was saying between hiccoughs they learned that her name was Blanca, that her parents were at the club and she had been at a friend’s house nearby.  When she decided she wanted to go home by herself she had expected them to be home when she got there but when she saw the house with no lights and locked, didn’t recognise her way back to her friend’s in the dark and didn’t know what to do.   She knew my parents by sight, so let herself be persuaded to go next door to await the return of the Nobles.  My niece was two years older and took her under her wing, chatting to her to calm her down, until twenty minutes later they heard Noli and Nico’s car pull into the drive.  The child had been told to await collection at her friend’s, which Blanca had forgotten, and all was resolved.
This was the start of a firm friendship with the Nobles, and they were to become essential in my parents’ lives as they aged. 

Despite the small age difference the girls naturally gravitated towards each other when my niece visited from London.  There was a memorable occasion when the club was hosting a fancy dress competition for the younger members, and they both presented themselves done up to the nines with as much makeup on as they could get away with.
Noli and Nico referred to their house as the ‘chalet’, or weekend home, for they had a flat – and jobs - in the city of Valencia.  It was in typical modern Spanish style with pretty red roof tiles and wooden shutters, a large garage on the ground floor, terracotta steps lined with ornamental tiles which led up to a large cool and airy verandah where we enjoyed many an al fresco meal.  There was a carved wooden front door which opened into a large house with gleaming tiled floors, ample rooms and a light, minimalist décor. 
At the front the garden had been mainly laid to gravel, with some hardy shrubs which could withstand the intense summer heat, helped along by a more modest version of the irrigation system used in the citrus plantations – half-buried, black hoses with minute holes in them which ‘leaked’ drops of water.  This was switched on during the week when the property was empty.  At the back they had the paellero, an ornamental tiled shelter with a fireplace large enough to accommodate Noli’s paella dish measuring almost a metre in diameter, next to a tiled table and benches protected by an awning – another superb setting for balmy evening meals soaked in sangría.

By contrast, my parents’ bungalow was an uninviting square, concrete structure, (picture above) whose stolid appearance was relieved slightly by the swimming pool at the end. 
(Photo by Shane)

From the pool you could climb onto the flat roof via a large, ugly metal fire escape.  Once up there, you would have been surprised to notice that it had lamps on metal stems positioned at regular intervals round the perimeter, crowned as they were with football shaped glass globes because, we were told, the previous owners had used the area for parties.  They looked odd when you were looking up at them from street level, and the social use they had once enabled did no good at all to the roof, which always had to be patched up so it wouldn’t cause leaks below.
Some of the globes had been removed by the time this picture
was taken.  John in the foreground looking, as he would call it
"fonzed and brit".  (He loves spoonerisms...)

The garden area was a testament to my father’s determination to recreate his childhood memories of humid Buenos Aires, in the dry desert conditions of Valencia.  Blue hydrangeas turned pink despite the acid soil mulches, then withered and died anyway; thanks to the use of the Nobles’ watering method of hoses with small holes partly buried under the soil, the rose bushes survived, producing small blooms with little scent and small leaves.  At Dad’s request I brought over plenty of daffodil bulbs one winter, and carefully dug them in around the mud patch outside their kitchen, where they would see them and remember to water them regularly, but the hot sun was too much for them, and I only saw them once, the flowers hanging limply on their stems. 
Worse still were the sweet peas, which made me wince with foreboding even as I carefully planted them and put up sticks, held together with string.  He longed for the delicate petals and the sweet perfume to remind him of his mother’s garden, but no amount of watering could do it – they shrivelled as soon as the hot air swept past them in the summer months... as did even the sticks.

But the fig, orange, tangerine and lemon trees thrived, as did the succulents in the heavy shade, and the bougainvillea rioted all over the fence.  In the evenings the sprinkler would pick up the aromatic scent of the geraniums – but Dad was always disappointed that he couldn’t bring back the bygone days.

Further afield the citrus groves surrounded the cluster of garden suburbs or urbanizaciones, as they are called.  The owners had long since yielded to the inevitable in establishing the rule that if you wanted to walk through his groves you were allowed to carry away with you any fruit that you could fit in your pockets, but bags were not permitted.  Noli would laugh at this, and evening walks with her usually involved a shopping trolley, as I would glance nervously around, imagining armies of angry fruit growers bearing down upon us wielding big sticks.

Back at the urbanizaciones, the (mostly) pretty houses still do not have mains gas or sewerage today, as residents fear the expense of such major installations.  The very heavy gas cylinders – bombonas  - were delivered by the bombonero on certain days of the week, and he would leave them at the front gate, with 12 steps still to climb to the front door.  While he could, my father valiantly struggled with them unless we were around, but in the end they had to depend on neighbours or the goodwill of the delivery man.  The cooking was done using these cylinders, and there were many times when the preparation of meals – a Christmas lunch once – was brought to an abrupt halt, and recriminations liberally sprinkled with dramatic exclamation marks would follow –
“The bombona’s finished! The turkey isn’t ready!”
“Well put another bombona in then!”
“There isn’t one!”
“Well you order them, don’t you?”
“Why is it always my fault?”
“When is the next delivery?”
“After new year!”
“Oh my God!”
(Later, after Dad had gone next door...) “Noli says we can finish it off on the paellero – we can’t use their oven because they’re cooking stuff for their family party tonight!”
“The paellero?  Are you MAD?  How can we cook a turkey on a paellero?”
“I don’t know!  It’s your fault anyway, if you had ordered a new bombona...”
...and so on.
(To be continued.  Next time - the cesspit...)


Photo Finish
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive



Joyful said...

I enjoyed your recollections of your parent's retirement home.

I can only imagine how dearly your father wanted to replicate his Argentinian garden. At least I bet he was happy for the abundance of lemons and oranges.

I'll bet you enjoyed swimming in the pool when you paid a visit. I'd love to have one myself though it would have to be indoors. That is just a fantasy, lol.

Sandy said...

Very nice story. Got me thinking that I need to document some of my earlier memories. There is so little I know of my parents and grandparents before they had us and now that they are gone those stories will never be told.

Looking forward to the next installment.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Penny - poor Dad, he was always asking me to go to local garden centres and get him a 'whisky rose', sort of pale orange, because it would remind him of his parents' garden. I never did find one. Yes I adored the pool, and as we would fly home from Valencia airport just 15 minutes away, I would inevitably be carrying a damp bathing suit in my hand luggage!

Lonicera said...

Thanks Sandy - I was reading someone else's blog where they were talking about the cesspit system in Spain (!) and I remembered my father's great preocupation with the subject, and wondered whether I could write a post about it... and then realised that their whole retirement in Spain had it's amusing and sad aspects, and would be worth telling about if nothing else as a record. I've been spending hours trying to find old photos to scan in.

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