Leaonard Cohen’s death was announced via Facebook on the 11th of November 2016 so we played his Greatest Hits CD a number of times, saddened, yet comforted by the fact that there are many more Cohen songs out there that we have still to hear: songs like ‘Goodbye Marianne’ and ‘Everybody Knows’ will gradually imprint themselves on our receptive brains as he touches our imperfect bodies with his mind.
Darkness had fallen in our Spanish village of La Fresneda as we listened to the songs we loved and, as Allelujah, the last track on the album, played we heard monastic chanting in the background. Margaret threw open the window despite the chilly evening and the sad and moving strains of the monks blended with the rising crescendo of Cohen’s most famous song.
“I want to see if we know who’s died,” she said leaning out into night.
This, of course, was nothing to do with Leonard – the whole world knew that his free spirit had slipped away. No, this was to be a local announcement from the town hall of our village. La Fresneda, like almost all Spanish villages, is laced with loudspeakers all linked to a microphone at the village’s control centre: the system is called the pregon and the chanting monks preface news of a death dolefully delivered announcement as their voices fade away. But Margaret, I noted without surprise, did not recognise the name of the dead person. Interestingly, this is the fourth death since we arrived six weeks ago. So what’s going on? It’s quite simple, the villagers are dying of old age. I can only guess at the average age here, but sufficient to say that it must be in excess of fifty and the replacement rate, given Spain’s low fertility and continuing drift to the cities, is well below that needed to sustain the population.
La Fresneda has a street called Calle Fantasma, Ghost Street, and it is gradually becoming a village of ghosts. This morning I completed a little survey of our own street, Santa Agueda. It has thirty-one houses in total arraigned in two terraces on each side of the road. The houses are tall and thin and the street is short and narrow. Of those thirty-five, five are wrecks supported mainly by their neighbours. One of the wrecks is occupied by a fierce dog. Two of the houses I know to be rented, though the one next to us, we are glad to say, is currently empty. One house is currently being renovated, just four are permanently occupied, and the remaining nineteen are occasionally occupied, mostly at fiesta times only and mostly by people from Barcelona who have inherited their houses from family. We currently live in our house for nearly half the year and are therefore more permanent that most.
In a way this is a sorry tale. My neighbours and friends in the street above us are in a sorrier state. They tell me that only two of the houses in their street are occupied - the other by Vicente, the current proprietor of the old bar in the main square. But everything is relative. Relative to England this is an incredible tale. Relative to rural Spain our village is quite lively. There are children and there is a school. There are two bars, two restaurants, two grocery shops, two butchers, a bread shop and many visitors – it is a beautiful place.
Is La Fresneda dying? In a way it certainly is. Looking back on our years here we realise that most, though by no means all, of the people we know are from the older generation. Many of them were touched either directly or indirectly by the civil war in Spain. They remember well the heavy hand of Franco and the sudden transition to a liberal democratic state. We like them. They talk to us, they are interested in us and we in them. They are country folk, they give us gifts of tomatoes and more. The younger generation are more metropolitan. With a few exceptions they do not see their future as olive growers or olive growers’ wives. They have been exposed to a wider world and want to be part of it.
It is often said that a Spaniard’s thoughts and action are ruled by family and then village. Affairs of state are secondary and relatively unimportant. For many that is changing, for many it has already changed. The old boys in the bar had neither the opportunity, nor the inclination to go to university and to the big city: the village was there world, and their ambitions lay in growing olives, almonds and vegetables for the table. Similarly the girls aspired to marry a good provider rather than following a career. When we first came to the village just sixteen years ago there were a few mules and horses working the fields, and men carrying firewood on their backs. Now there are machines that shake the olives from the trees and one of the villagers owns a JCB, a tractor, a number of motorbikes and, I think, a modern vibrating road roller!
So, once again, is our village dying? Well we all are bit by bit, aren’t we? To actually die a village must lose all of its inhabitants, and in Spain that does happen. However, it is not likely to occur in La Fresneda. Instead of dying, it is changing. More tourist come to absorb the beauty and history of the place, the number of events are on the increase; not just fiestas but fairs on various themes like the antiques fair which gets bigger each year. The number of bars has doubled (now two) and with that the amount of outside seating in the main plaza is much greater. There is now a very successful camp site nearby, a swish hotel and cheaper inn.
So, like Leonard Cohen’s music, La Fresneda will go on and on. But the village will never again be the place we were so delighted to discover just sixteen years ago.