We bought our house in Aragon at the end of 1999 and celebrated the millennium there. We knew little about the area, its history, flora, fauna and culture beyond what our daughter (and personal search agent) had shown us. However, we did sense that this was an area that had been somehow insulated from the modern world for much of the century and yet was on the cusp of change.
Not completely insulated of course: our village had electricity and all that comes with it. There were motor cars and tractors and refrigerators and so forth. Yet there will still people climbing the extreme slopes to their homes laden with huge bundles of firewood, donkeys occasionally tramped the streets bearing even huger bundles, and shepherds often blocked the roads as they led their vast flocks of sheep and goats to pastures new. Not for nothing did the Spanish speak of Teruel, our province, as the place that no one goes to and no one come from despite the fact that some locals displayed defiant signs saying “Teruel existe” in the back windows of their cars.
I have just read Lorna Done for the first time. We read it as the inaugural book of our newly formed, and now defunct, family book club: I was the only one to have finished the tome in time for our discussion meeting! I enjoyed the novel and had the delight of becoming obsessed with it. I can recall thinking as we sat in the plaza of our village at two in the morning and just part the way through a long fiesta night, “I wish I was at home reading Lorna”.
For those who have read the classic you may recall that “John Ridd” should have been the title. John is the narrator and the book is mostly about his life as a farmer. Of course the Doones and his Lorna have a key role in the plot, but John’s life and times is the soil upon which the story grows. (As an aside I doubt very much that R D Blackmore would ever have achieved fame had he chosen my alternative title: there is something beseechingly attractive about the name Lorna Doone.)
John’s life, when he is not yearning for Lorna, is almost exclusively focussed on food: planting, tending, harvesting, collecting, breeding, butchering, eating, sharing – these were the verbs that define much of John’s life, and much of the lives of the people in whose time the book portrays.
And so too with the people of my village of La Fresneda where the conversation used to be redolent with much the same verbs, though in the local tongue. However, these were the old brigade. In the last ten years or so they have mostly retired (at least formally, people who have worked the land never entirely retire) and the village has become different. Incomers have arrived (ourselves included), the road system has been improved, many of the houses have been renovated, and agriculture, though still important, is no longer number one. The incomers are local youngsters who set their sights on the big cities for their future; other incomers are retirees or evacuees following some dream and bringing their own culture; there are also foreign workers who specialise in building houses and building their own version of the country that they have left.
Naturally food is important to the incomers, even though it is not their focus. They produce little or nothing, obtaining their food from the supermarket and having little knowledge, or interest, in its origin. Farms and huertos (smallholdings) are increasingly disused and those that remain are often managed by one man and his machines.
Traditions still abound and will take a long time to die or adapt, but already I can see this happening. A friend in Oxford recently told me that the Spanish did not dance. I was amazed to hear such a thing about this, the country of flamenco and fiestas. Yet on the last night of our own fiesta the people did not dance! Local groups were playing pop music and the crowd simply stood around and listened. There was the occasional, uncontrolled outburst of dancing by individuals, but this was soon suppressed by peer (not beer) pressure. I was nonplussed and had to return to the scene a number of times during the night simply to check my earlier observation. This is so sad. The Spanish without their dancing would be like the English without their pubs.
Fortunately all is not yet lost. The previous five nights of the fiesta were accompanied by dancing and a fiery bull. And a week or so after the main fiesta we had another one: this time based on food, wine, rum, figs, and lots and lots of dancing.