November in Rural Andalusia

While A Hoopoe on the Nispero Tree, book two of our Andalusian adventures, is being edited, I thought I’d share a chapter from The Crinkle Crankle Wall, which describes the first November in our new home among the olives groves outside Montefrio.

The Crinkle Crankle wall is available as an e-book and paperback in all Amazon marketplaces, and it’s free for Kindle Unlimited readers.

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Chapter 13: Meeting of the Light

Saffron flowers

The first autumn, when we started renovating the house, our dear neighbour Rafa took us under his wing. Like a mother duck preparing her young ones for departure, he made sure that we learned some of the ways of the campo. He never commented on the trailer fiasco, even though he could clearly see its embarrassing silhouette planted at the top of our driveway. I wonder whether his pity on us had been sparked by seeing what we had done to the spanking-new trailer. Or perhaps it was seeing us live without the roof over our heads that made him want to help us.  

On one November day, he appeared with flower bulbs wrapped in a newspaper. These were saffron bulbs that he had dug up from his own garden. Not trusting that I would do right by them, he took a pico, or a small pickaxe, from his car, and we walked around the land for him to find the best spots where we could plant the saffron bulbs. When he was satisfied with a spot, he would dig a small hole and I would plant the magic bulb. Saffron is a pretty little flower that one might confuse with a crocus. If planted in the right spot, it does not need much attention. It multiplies easily and does not require any care throughout the year. It’s one of these plants that thrives when left alone. And every year, you forget about your saffron bulbs until November, when their dainty purple flowers start popping up around the land.

The difference between a crocus flower and a saffron flower is that the crocus is a beacon of spring and summer. In Andalusia, saffron flowers indicate that winter is near. They appear in plentiful abundance, but only for a short time. You also need to find the best time to harvest them just before the heavy rains and winds arrive since they will destroy the precious spice. The saffron spice comes from the orange strands that you pull from each flower. The easiest way to harvest saffron is to remove all the flowers from their stems, en masse, and place the delicate strands in a clear and dry container. A few weeks after I planted my bulbs for the next year, Rafa brought me a basket of saffron flowers ready to dissect. I spread the beautiful consignment on the patio table, prepared a small plate for the spice, and started plucking the thin strands from the flowers.

I felt sorry for the pretty flowers that were being discarded and placed them carefully to the side. I put some water in a shallow bowl and hoped to keep the flower heads fresh for a few more days so that we could continue to enjoy them. Saffron plucking is a thankless task. While you go through the flowers, you realize that the amount of debris is significantly larger than the gain. While the pile of discarded flowers was getting higher and higher, the amount of saffron on my little plate was barely noticeable.

I had to be careful not to touch the sides of the precious strands since most of the saffron dust would be transferred to my hand. As it began to get windy that afternoon, I moved my work inside to the living room to protect the specks of dust from being blown away. When I was done, I had a mountain of flower heads and a few millimetres of saffron in a small glass jar. I placed the jar in the kitchen cupboard and had to be careful not to throw it away by mistake.

Since collecting it took so much mindless work, I was reluctant to use it in any old dish. As a result, I would often forget that we had it. A couple of times that winter, I would spot what I thought was an empty glass jar on the shelf and stare at it, wondering why I had put an empty jar in the spice cupboard. Only then would I remember the orange film at the bottom of the jar.

Tired of falling for the same trick every week, I eventually threw the precious spice into a paella dish. The experience was somewhat disappointing. I expected an outburst of flavour like I have never tasted before, but the result was mediocre at best. The next year, I let the attractive saffron flowers that Rafa had helped me plant live and enjoy the sunshine until the last autumn day. I did not think that a micro dash of a somewhat underwhelming spice warranted another saffron flower massacre.

One day in early December, Rafa brought us a piece of paper that read: Estimados vecinos hay reunión de luz miércoles 17.00. He clearly did not trust our listening skills in Spanish and decided that putting this important information on paper would give us time to translate and comprehend the message. He was, of course, quite correct in his assessment. Robert took the note and read aloud the only part that was clear to him:

‘Miércoles cinco.’ He stated these two words as if they explained everything.

He then passed the note to me, but I could also only understand Wednesday at five. Reunión was obviously a false friend because we’d only been in Spain for a few months, and there was no one here to reunite us with. But we both nodded and pretended to understand.

Rafa took it that we agreed to show up and left us with the note. As soon as we saw the back of his car, we activated the internet and went straight to our old friend Google Translate. We found out that the first two words showed appreciation of us as neighbours. We suspected that it was a regular salutation. Once we got esteemed neighbours, the rest still did not make sense, however. According to Google, there was ‘a meeting of the light on Wednesday at 5 p.m.’ Since this did not make any sense to us, we then checked the meaning of the individual words and all possible semantic fields related to these words, but we kept ending with ‘a gathering of light’. I left the translation for a couple of days to approach it with an unbiased mind.

In the meantime, we looked for clues in our neighbours’ behaviour. One clue came early on one December morning. We were still in deep sleep (as the workers only showed up at eight am) when we heard a horrible screaming outside. The screaming might not have been that loud, but let’s not forget that we had no roof and several gaping holes in our house; hence, it was not the most soundproof of dwellings. As we sat up in the bed, perplexed, the terrifying squeal erupted again.

‘They’re killing a pig,’ Robert announced as if it was something that happened every day.

While I tried to go about my morning, ignoring the horrifying wake-up call that I had been subject to, Robert got dressed and went up to José’s house to see the event. José’ house is on top of the hill behind ours — it was his son, Pepe, who pulverised our grass the year before. He’s also the cousin of Mercedes and Old Gabi and also grew up in the valley.  

Robert came back a few hours later and told me that the family had killed two pigs. While the men drank brandy and sweet anis, the women of the house worked around giant cauldrons with boiling hot water. The whole event took place in their open courtyard, and the meat was being processed with speed and proficiency. The blood was collected for the local speciality called morcilla, or blood sausage, with fried onion. Every part of the animals was being utilized.

The women would spend another few weeks preparing sausages and preserving meat for the whole year. Since José regularly gifts us with a few packets of his homemade salchichón and morcilla for Christmas, I can attest to their superior quality. As we later found out from a shopkeeper in Montefrio, the matanza, or pig slaughter, takes place in the late fall every year. On the way to the shop that afternoon, we saw a pig’s carcass hanging on a patio of one of the houses by the road. Now, we thought, the clues about the mystical reunión de luz were falling into place.

Armed with this new information, we went over Rafa’s note again and agreed that reunión de luz must be some kind of a post-pig-killing party. I imagined the chummy farmers gathered by a giant bonfire while women prepared pork chops to be slow-roasted over an open fire; people eating and drinking in an evening celebration of the horrible slaughter committed earlier in the week. All this in my mind was happening at twilight as part of some long-forgotten pagan ritual — hence: reunión de luz, ‘meeting of the light’. Now we got really excited, especially for the large haunches of pork that I imagined would be cooked over an open fire. I’d only ever seen it done on cooking shows, and I thought of this mode of cooking as some kind of a fairy tale. To contribute to the festivities, I made a huge bowl of potato salad. I thought that it would complement succulent pulled pork quite well. On Wednesday afternoon, we packed the giant bowl of cold potato salad and a six-pack of one-litre bottles of San Miguel beer and drove in the direction of Rafa’s house. When we parked outside his house, we noticed that his car was not there. Since we assumed that the party would take place in his house, we were somewhat confused. We expected to see at least some guests and some party preparations. But as we looked through the car window, we noted the patio was empty and the doors and windows were shut.

We must have been parked outside his house for some time because his wife, Loli, came out after a few minutes. She figured that we were looking for the party’s location and directed us to a house further down the valley. We asked her why she was not going, and she said that she had to look after Rafa’s dying father.

It made sense, so we waved goodbye and moved off in the direction of the party. As we came close to the house Loli sent us to, we saw many cars parked outside. This looked more like a party scene. We parked next to the other cars and looked through the windshield at the gathered crowd. We knew some of the neighbours — Rafa, José, and Jaime were all there, but there were also many new faces. As my Spanish was still a bit wobbly, I took deep breaths and left the car, bracing myself for the avalanche of quick and loud talk. The scene in front of us still did not look right. Yes, there were about ten people. But there was no food, no drinks, no rustic tables set out on the driveway — and definitely, no party atmosphere. As we were still new to this country and only lived here permanently for four months, most of which were spent renovating our house and not socializing — I kept an open mind. Perhaps this was a Spanish party. I had no idea. But we did decide to leave the potato salad and the beers in the car, for the time being.  

‘Let’s see what’s going on here first,’ I suggested.

Robert agreed. We got out of the car and waved at Rafa and José, who were listening to the other men talking all at once. The men stood in one circle and were talking about something quite fervently. There were only two women present, and they were not included in the circle of men. They were in the background, collecting saffron flowers. A thought flashed through my mind that they were collecting the saffron to season the succulent pig that was still on my mind.

‘Go and talk to them,’ said Robert, who was always eager to send me out to talk to complete strangers.

As I’m not too crazy about talking to people, even on the best of occasions, the prospect of talking to two total strangers in a language that I wasn’t fluent in was not very appealing. But since I was on their property (I assumed one of them was the owner of the house that I was standing in front of), I decided to make some effort and be polite. I also hoped they may be roasting that pig later on, so it was best to be in their good graces.

Having a witty and engaging conversation in a foreign language is a skill that takes years to develop. I still don’t possess it in Spanish, so my usual trick is to point to things around me, name them, and use simple adjectives to describe them. As Spaniards are generally eager to talk, I usually get a good response, and an innocent bystander might think that my interlocutor and I are having a meaningful chat. Unfortunately, most of the time, I’m engaging in a discussion about the woodiness of a wooden chair and the strength of a strong concrete slab.

This time was no different. As soon as I saw the saffron flowers, I had my topic laid out for me. After I introduced myself to the ladies, I got straight to the point. 

Azafrán,’ I stated, pointing at the flowers.  

They confirmed in loud and cheerful Spanish and went on talking about the flowers for a bit. Worried that they may ask me questions I wouldn’t understand, I took the conversation into my own hands and added, ‘Muy bonito.’

The ladies were overjoyed. They cheered and saluted my judgement and confirmed my exquisite assessment of this particular species of flora. On this good note, I decided to end the conversation and pointed to the group of men, suggesting that I had to go talk to them now. The women nodded and went back to picking the flower heads. Since I had absolutely no intention of taking part in whatever the men were talking about, I stood on the fringe of their group and pretended to be listening. I nodded occasionally and looked at the grass.

‘What are they talking about?’ I heard Robert whisper behind me.

‘I have no idea.’ I smiled and pretended that I was interpreting for my husband.

‘I think the party is in La Viñuela,’ Robert said, his hopes still up. ‘They have a car with a table over there. I think they’re ready to go to roast the pig.’

As I looked in the direction Robert pointed, there was indeed a pickup with a big folded table tied to the back.

‘Maybe we will indeed go to another place for this party,’ I thought to myself. ‘Maybe this is just a meeting point before we go there.’

I imagined the twilight party among the olive groves. It sounded enchanting. While I’d hoped to lie low, our talking got the crowd’s attention.

Now Rafa was retelling me everything that the men had discussed so far. While he talked in his thick Andalusian accent, he kept pointing over the hills in the directions of a hamlet called La Viñuela and repeating the word luz

‘I think you’re right,’ I told Robert. ‘I think the party is going to be in La Viñuela, but they are waiting for the sun to go down.’ I loosely interpreted the two words that I understood. 

But things were not adding up completely. A few other words that I managed to gather from Rafa’s rapid flow of campo Spanish had something to do with line and voltage. As others joined in explaining the electricity problem to us, it became clear that the meeting was about electricity.

While luz means ‘light’, it’s also commonly used to refer to electricity. The several houses in our valley are connected by very old (and very thin) electric cables. The poles are made of wood, and in strong winds, the antique cables are often ripped away from the glass isolators at the top of the poles, leaving us all without electricity for hours. In addition, the cables that we have can only carry a low voltage. Consequently, when I turn on a modern water kettle, all the lightbulbs in the house dim and flicker. When we want to start the air pressure pump, we need to switch off all the house’s electronic devices. It’s also virtually impossible to run a swimming pool pump and a water pump at the same time. One of them always switches itself off.

Needless to say, we don’t have a microwave oven or a toaster, as these modern luxuries would definitely suck all the electricity from the whole valley. As my neighbour Maria told me, there are times when she can’t even start her washing machine. This made me feel very bad because our house is the first in the valley, and so it felt like she was accusing me of hogging the electricity. The problem of weak voltage and archaic electricity poles was why all our neighbours had gathered for the reunion de luz. Since neither Robert nor I had any idea of what could be done to fix it, we were happy to leave this issue with our esteemed neighbours.

As I listened to my neighbours exchange complaints about the electricity supply, I nodded in agreement and interjected with a sombre Claro! now and again. Since we were all in agreement that something had to be done about the poor electricity supply, the members of the assembly started to peter out. No one indicated that they were going to a pig-roasting party. And so, Robert and I went back to the car and drove back home, where we ate copious amounts of potato salad and drank cold beer that was nicely chilled in the car.

Even though my imaginary pig roasting party was a fiasco, I felt content that evening. I was happy that we left the food and drink in the car as it spared us some embarrassment. But more important was the feeling you get when you know that you are part of a community. There is no word in English or Polish that describes it. It’s somewhere between the German word heimlig and the English word safe. It’s a feeling of peace and tranquillity because you know you can rely on the people around you. They are hardy people, hard-working and down-to-earth. They welcomed us without any prejudice and accepted our broken Spanish and lack of farming experience. They were willing to help us solve problems and eager too. I felt that I was part of something that I hadn’t been since I left my hometown almost twenty years earlier. I was home. 

If you’ve enjoyed this chapter, The Crinkle Crankle wall is available as an e-book and paperback in all Amazon marketplaces, and it’s free for Kindle Unlimited readers.   

Amazon UK:

Amazon Spain:

Amazon US:

Amazon universal link:

To hear about new releases and more free content. Follow my Facebook page or subscribe to this website by typing your email below.

Quince fruit

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