Essays - Marriage in Mallorca

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This is why, over recent years, I have seen much more of his mother, Custodia, than Franci himself - which is more than enough for me, since I am always welcomed in her home here in the village like a member of the family. In fact I have come to feel more her friend than his, since the stubby little woman's conversation is far more entertaining and, let us say, ethnically enriching than Franci's, who is very much the "man of few words" who only expresses his feelings when he is hunched over his instrument. I will never forget Custodia's reaction when I brought Nina from Brazil: she gazed down on my brown baby and cried, "¡Está hecha del mismo barro que nosotros! - She's made of the same clay as we gypsies!". Several years later, when Nina's mother and I discovered, without excessive bitterness, that (as Casilda succinctly put it) we lived in different worlds, Custodia expressed her disbelief that a man and woman who had parted ways could fail to hate one another's guts by saying, "¡Cucha! Tu santo ha estado en su iglesia, y sois amigos", which literally translates as "Listen to that! Your saint has been in her church, and yet, now you can be friends". Without missing a beat, I assured her that my santo had been paraded back and forth to many iglesias before docking at Casilda's, sending her and the other crones huddled around the mesa de camilla into gales of laughter. In conversation with the andaluces, you have to be quick on the draw, and especially if they're gypsies.

Last year Franci shocked the locals by appearing with his novia, a vivacious, fashionable and lissomely lovely young woman (standing half a head above him) who is a native of Mallorca, and not a gypsy. Her father owns a restaurant there in which Franci had given a show, and young Juana's passion for the music at once blossomed into a passion for the musician with the smouldering black eyes... Not least horrified of all was his mother, Custodia, who first refused to let them stay in her house. They were already living together on the island and she clung to the dream that her son would one day have a gypsy bride whose virginity - or honra - could be ritually examined on the wedding night. But after a few nights of exile in the village pensión, she gave in and they were allowed to sleep together under her roof.

"What can I do", the physically tiny but somehow imposing creature (whose nickname is La Nana, or The Dwarf) cried, holding up her arms in resignation, when I asked her what she thought of all this, "if he prefers a whiter fanny?". There are, in fact, a number of mixed couples in Montefrio, but they all involve payos of very humble extraction for whom marriage to a gypsy does not represent a significant social demotion. Franci, however, had netted a well turned-out creature who, were she a Montefrieña, would have set her sights on an employee of the Ayuntamiento or the Caja de Ahorros, not a penniless, albeit cuddly, gitano. "What must her parents think of him?", the villagers asked me incredulously, and I coolly replied that in fact he helped out in their restaurant in his off-stage hours and was very well accepted by them, "because they're not racists like you are". (This was not as harsh as it sounds, because in Spain the word racista is often - too often - bandied about in a milder register than "racist" in English, more like our "prejudiced").

I had long been curious to see how my gypsy friends lived in Mallorca, so as soon as we had settled in at the rather grand hotel in Palma (complements of my generous Dad), we drove to the village where they had their lodgings, on the eastern shore of the island. Cala d'Or seemed like a typical Mediterranean beach resort with bright stores festooned with sun umbrellas and plastic floats, except that on the sidewalk where we pulled up stood a small group of Montefrio gitanos with their sideburns and jackets and little trilby hats, looking distinctly out of date. Franci appeared and awkwardly said that we should sit at the sidewalk café because his mother was coming "up" - from a narrow staircase which led down between two apartment blocks - to see us. "Coming up?", I said, guessing that Custodia felt that their basement quarters were not presentable enough for such distinguished visitors, "why come up? We're going down!"

With a shrug of the shoulders he led us down what resembled a staircase in a ship leading to the hold, at the bottom of which we saw, once our eyes had adjusted to the relative gloom, a long rectangular patio - in fact the bottom of a slot between two buildings - where a number of gypsy children (most of whom Nina immediately recognized as her friends from El Coro) were playing; the rectangular space was surrounded with square-shaped rooms crowded with sofa-beds and a kitchenette in the corner, in each of which one of my vecinas from Montefrio seemed to be busy working over a gas burner.

Custodia received us with her usual scabrous humour. "Look how we live here!", she squawked, pointing at the cots cramped against one another, one with two big heaps of freshly ironed laundry on it, "in that one sleeps mi Gonzalo (in other words, my son Gonzalo) with his wife, in that one mi Paco with his - and we're so close together that the poor things can't even echar un chispillo (literally, make a little spark); when they want to, they have to go off into the fields...".

We sat down among the stacks of laundry and drank the beer which Franci went up to the café to bring us, while Custodia dished out several brimming bowls of yellowish stew from the pot on the fire, which were carried off by a girl to one of the other cubicles - their extended family included almost all the gypsies in Montefrio, and most of them seemed to be here.

On the way out one of Custodia's daughters-in-law, recognizing me, leaned out of her bedroom-kitchen, like a particularly attractive mare looking out of a stable, and laughed, "You see Lorenzo, what a bad life we gypsies lead here in Mallorca!". I shot back, "Yes, but you are all together and love one another, and that's worth more than the biggest house in the world!". But she seemed to think that it would be good to have the togetherness and the big house as well...

The next afternoon we drove to the north of the island, the place of the bride's home and where the wedding was to be held, in the village of Artá. As soon as we reached the top of the cliff on which the church stands, I was struck by the resemblance to Montefrio, except that from our monumental church the view is of the olive groves rather than the Mediterranean. Also, our iglesia is only an empty shell, built in the 16th century and abandoned in the 18th, whereas the church of Artá is gaily stuccoed and painted in the baroque style, full of colour and warmth.

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