I was still honing my skills of starting and stopping on inclines in the manual four-by-four and usually planned my escapades carefully. That is, I made sure no steep hills were involved in them or, if there were, that there was no audience to watch me stall the car. While Trish helped me with the longer journeys to Mercadona or on other errands in and about Alcalá, I did a weekly drive to Montefrio’s post office to enquire about my Polish driving licence. As my International Driver’s Licence was due to expire in a few months, I was desperate to get the EU licence which I could then convert to a Spanish one.
I was staring down a steep hill which appeared to take a sharp turn into a river. Had I known how steep the hills in and out of Sarah’s little valley were, I might have reconsidered my visit. She was a new acquaintance whom I had met through Trish, another local English woman who agreed to drive me to the shops and to the health centre when I needed. I had instantly taken to Sarah, and her pleasant nature and so decided to pay her a visit, even though my broken arm was still hurting and using the manual gearbox was particularly difficult.
I had been jumping bureaucratic hoops to get the EU licence since I had returned from visiting Robert in Oman and decided that I did not possess the patience enough to deal with any more workaways who might drive me around. After a few fruitless visits to tráfico, the Spanish traffic police, where a young recruit looked at my Emirati document, which was in Arabic and English, with a great deal of bewilderment and a degree of bemusement (as if I had handed him a scrap of toilet paper with my name written on it), I took matters into my own hands. I dedicated several evenings to studying the issue online by reading up on various European Union treaties and agreements with foreign countries, including the United Arab Emirates where my licence was issued. Once I had become a legal scholar on the topic of converting driving licences from a non-European Union country to a European Union country, I was confident that I could skip a whole lot of Spanish paperwork — probably saving a small forest in the process — by simply converting my Emirati licence into a Polish one. This EU licence could then be readily converted into a Spanish one.
Being aware of the fact that the red tape at any embassy can entangle the simplest of applications and that documents take months to get looked at and signed by his or her highness the ambassador, I asked my mum, who lives in Poland and who is an expert at nagging, to give the embassy’s secretary a call once a week just to check how my case was progressing. This had the desired effect in that it only took a month or so for the ambassador’s assistant to have a look at my paperwork and give my application his seal of approval. But from there, things had slowed down. My new Polish licence had been sent to my mum’s house, who then forwarded it by express mail to Montefrio.
As the weeks passed, I regularly checked my post-box for an aviso to collect the licence from the post office, but nothing had arrived. I started to suspect that my mother, who is legendarily cheap, wasn’t telling me the whole truth and had, in fact, sent the licence by regular mail instead of using the more expensive registered mail service, as I had requested.
After a few heated arguments over Skype, where harsh words of criticism were exchanged, and I accused her of penny-pinching and, in return, was reminded of what an ungrateful daughter I was, I decided to investigate the case of the missing letter at the correos, the local post office. This was easier said than done because Montefrio’s correos lies at the heart of the medieval maze of narrow precipitous streets that constitute the village centre. Instead of traditional Roman city planning, where streets are conveniently organised in a logical grid pattern, an Escher sketch of a nightmare, never-ending staircase was used as a model for the streets of Montefrio.
They make no sense — they start and end in randomly selected places, some loop back on themselves, and others take such sharp turns that no modern vehicle can navigate from one street to the next. The village streets are also located at various levels on the two main hills of Montefrio, with startling degrees of incline and decline. In summary, not a single straight line was used to plan our little village.
In addition to the somewhat surreal and chaotic street layout of Montefrio, I was also put off visiting the correos by car because it is situated right next to a panadería, the bread shop and a frutería, a greengrocer, both of which are extremely popular with the locals. Thus, expectant customers often queue outside on the pavement or just linger around for social reasons. Were I to stall the car there, I was sure to have a critical audience eager to impart advice and shout encouragement. The local housewives would talk about the incident of the repeatedly stalled car for weeks to come and gasp at the foreigner’s inability to navigate through the village.
‘I don’t know who gave this woman a licence,’ a heavyset middle-aged mum leaning against the baker’s counter would whisper to the other women while I would be trying for the tenth time to inch the car uphill in an attempt to park outside the post office.
‘I have news for you ladies,’ I imagined myself saying something sassy as I managed to park the giant 4×4 on the tiny one-way medieval street, but even in my wildest imagination, I had no clue what I could have said to counter the humiliation. In reality, I found the group of women gossiping in the bread shop rather intimidating.
Standing at a corner shop and chatting to one’s neighbours is a popular Andalusian pastime that people engage in after breakfast and before lunch. During that period, time stretches in Andalusian villages to Proustian dimensions. Whenever a visitor or a tourist stops by a small village shop in the morning, they soon become antsy. You can see them fidgeting, exploring their fingers, and swearing under their nose.
‘Just get your bread and go home. What the hell! Why is it taking so long? What is there to talk about?’ they mutter under their breath and kill with their eyes.
The time required to buy basic victuals in a shop varies around the world. Being a Central European, I assume that the amount of time we take to complete a transaction is the most accurate and the only acceptable one. To put it into perspective, if I were to travel to New York, I might find the speed that customers are dealt with a tad fast. I’d say three to four times faster than what I’m used to. Andalusia, on the other hand, lies on the other end of the spectrum. Here things slow down two or three times to what I am used to. As you can imagine, a New Yorker visiting Andalusia might think that nothing is really happening. He or she would call us all country bumpkins and tell us to move on. All they’d see would be some middle-aged, corpulent women leaning on the baker’s counter and making comments about a foreign woman trying to park her oversized car outside the post office.
To avoid the drama and inevitable derision, I parked the car outside the supermarket on the outskirts of Montefrio and walked all the way up to the post office. It’s a steady climb. Even though I was moving briskly, I was being overtaken by ladies twice my age with heavy shopping bags in both hands. Once I got to the post office, I stood outside for a minute to catch my breath. I looked towards the panaderia and the fruiteria. The regular bevy of matrons and young mums in their leggings occupied all of the pavement and was spilling out onto the road.
Inside the post office, I started to interrogate the postman, a slightly balding young man who was always keen to practice his English with foreign residents. I tried both in English and Spanish, but he seemed adamant that no registered mail had arrived for Cortijo Berruguilla. I gave him a stern look even though it was not his fault.
‘Maybe next week,’ he suggested, and so I added a futile trip to the post office to my weekly errands.
Going to the post office to check whether my licence had arrived wasn’t my only caper. Tired of solitude, I embarked on a couple of cheeky trips to Keith and Delia’s house in Venta Valero, and to Lucas and Eduardo’s house a few kilometres away from my house. I usually arrived giddy with adrenaline and giggled hysterically until the time when I had to fire up the engine again and drive down to my valley.
‘I can drive,’ I assured sceptical Lucas on my first visit to his house after he observed my amateurish parking manoeuvres outside his cottage. ‘I just hate driving manual cars. I get very stressed changing gears on these hills.’
‘I drive a semi-automatic,’ he told me sympathetically, while rolling himself a cigarette.
‘Semi-automatic? What’s that?’ I thought that this was another type of vehicle that I had never heard of.
‘I put my car in third gear and never change it,’ he grinned, pleased with his little joke, but little did he know that I thought it was great advice.
‘I don’t mind making a fool of myself,’ I lied a little. ‘It’s better than driving one of those licence-less cars.’
I had learned about ‘licence-less cars’ from my neighbour Rafa after I had explained to him that the tráfico did not want to convert my licence. At first, I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly.
‘Coche sin carnet?’ I repeated his Spanish words, a car without a licence. It seemed too good to be true. Why don’t I get one of those? I wondered why Robert, who is a petrolhead, had never mentioned this option to me.
But soon my enthusiasm for the concept of a ‘licence-less car’ faded when I realised that I had indeed seen them on the road, many times before. They are tiny automobiles, ugly in shape and design, and often brightly coloured. But most importantly, they were driven predominantly by two types of drivers: a) oblivious-to-the-world-around-them-nonagenarians-with-Coke-bottle-spectacles (and ear trumpets), or b) raging alcoholics who had long lost their right to be on the road. Since the cars are two-seaters and can only reach a top speed of forty-five kilometres per hour, or twenty-eight miles per hour, the harm that they pose to other drivers is relatively small.
This must have been the excuse given by whatever authority had authorised their presence on the road. As if the option of being taken for a chronically drunk grandma wasn’t enough of a deterrent to buying a licence-less car, the other obstacle was their price. In my initial excitement for the vehicle, I looked up its value online and quickly closed the window. The five-figure price tag was exorbitant for what, in reality, is a moped with a plastic tent around it. I decided to wait for my shiny new Polish licence to arrive.
A special thank you to Sally Campbell for the permission to reproduce some of her husband’s work. All the paintings in this post are by John Lachlan Campbell (1936-2014). They capture everyday life in Andalusia, the people and their relations. The stories are told through the body language and gestures. I particularly like the light and the brutal honesty of these depictions.