Flamenco Summer

Flamenco Summer

By Lawrence Bohme

Poet and translator Lawrence Bohme reminisces in five essays on the summer of 1960 and his discovery of the Montefrio which became his home. In the last three essays Laurence returns to Montefrio in 1985, this time to live in the idealic 'Cortijo de los Siete Olivos'.

IV Flamenco Summer


When I call the summer of 1961 flamenco, it isn't only because it was filled with the wonderful music itself - in the corner of a tavern, at the barber shop of Rafael (our only guitarist), or in the Moorish tower which stood atop the ancient house in which we lived - but, rather, because the spirit of flamenco seemed to be present in everything. The word is sometimes used in Spanish as an adjective meaning "fiery, passionate", and it is in this sense which I use it here.

In the morning Lilo would go down to buy milk from the goatherd who drove his flock through the streets - you gave him your saucepan and he milked a goat while you waited. But when we had been up all night with our moonlit juergas in the ático, we would rise late and then head for the back porch of the Café Español, where there was a fig tree which seemed to be loaded with ripe fruit all summer long - brevas in July and higos in September. As we took our café con leche, the gypsy bootblack known to all as Culebra ("snake", perhaps because he looked like a rattlesnake) would climb up the tree and pick a few handfuls of night-cool, purple-black figs for us to eat with our churros. In the days before everyone had fridges, no Spaniard would have dreamt of picking a fig at any time but breakfast.

Tapas time began several hours later, when the streets became redolent of deep-fried squid and roasting chorizo. Los amigos could usually be found in the Fonda or any of the many taverns tucked away in unlikely, and even unimaginable places, on the winding alleys and staircases of the village. And if you couldn't find the person you wanted, you just had to ask Maria Platillo Volante and she either told you immediately, or made it her business to inform the interested party where you were, so that one way or the other you were with him in less time than it takes, in our times, to send and receive a fax or, even, an e-mail.

Maria was the town peanut-vendor. In her black dress and slippers she roamed the bars with a broad basket over her arm, supplying the drinkers with avellanas, as the villagers wrongly called them, confusing peanuts with hazelnuts. She got her strange nickname ("Mary the Flying Saucer", by which she is known until today, even though the reason has been largely forgotten) because she was constantly "orbiting" around the town, like the UFO's and sputniks which were then all the rage. Maria's life had been "ruined" by a scoundrel who left her with 5 illegitimate children to marry someone else, and she lived with her scrawny, anaemic brood in a tiny room which opened onto the Calle de Marquesas, sustaining them all on her peanut sales, which literally amounted to what we would call "peanuts".

Lilo immediately made her our friend, for Maria was, like Lilo, a lady with great spiritual qualities, as one could see from her lovely, soulful dark eyes. We would sometimes give her a few hours of work making our lunch, and I can see her in my mind's eye now, smiling sadly as she stirs her delicious revuelto of aubergines and potatoes in garlic and olive oil, in the long-handled iron pan sizzling on the coals in the primitive kitchen.

Sometimes I would get up early and walk out of the village with Cristobal, while he delivered the bread to the cortijos. He wore a grey cotton waistcoat and cap and broad canvas trousers, and led a mule laden with hemp-woven cerrones, or saddle bags, full of big loaves of bread. On the way he would sing the chants we all loved, the caña, which was the wagoneer's song, and the serrana, the "mountain girl's" song. He did not have Manolo's magical subtlety, but it was wonderful to hear, along the white roads in the fresh mountain air. When "breakfast" time came (they only drank coffee or anisette upon rising, and had their real breakfast in mid-morning) we would stop in the shade of an almond tree to share his canto de pan y aceite. He would take out his curved jack-knife and cut a big piece from the side of one of the round loaves. Then he carved a wedge of dough from the interior and filled the hole with thick, green olive oil from a small bottle he carried in his pouch, with the cork attached to the neck by a string. He replaced the wedge, and when the oil had been properly absorbed, broke it in two. This was eaten with a cucumber which we peeled and held in one hand like a banana, and washed down with water from his clay pipote, a jug with a thin spout like a tea-pot, which he filled at a nearby fountain and then held in the air so that the water poured in a stream into his open mouth.

Although we seemed very strange to them - una alemana with a crew-cut and un inglés with hair which for the period was very long - it never occurred to anyone to ask if, for example, we were married. We came from a different world, where their laws did not apply; all they knew was that we were in their village - the first foreigners they had ever seen - and that we liked it and came back often, and because of this we were welcome in every home, from the poorest hovel to our señorito Don Curro's manor, the Torre del Sol, west of town.

That was where I got the sunburn, sitting by his swimming pool, the only one in Montefrio, which he had built for the tourist girls he picked up in Torremolinos. He never bathed in it himself, since in his traditional way of thinking, the proper place for a man of quality was the sombra, the shade - direct exposure to the sun and elements was a curse inflicted on field labourers and fishermen only. And the painful memory I have of his pool would seem to confirm his position. Bathing in it with Lilo one afternoon, I became absorbed in the reading of Don Quijote, and had covered my back with a shirt but forgotten about my legs, which were hanging in the water. By the time we got home that evening I was howling with pain, and spent the next two weeks in bed, with my skin bright red from the knees up. This caused some wonderment in the town, since it was the first case of sunburn they had ever witnessed - as I have said, only the cortijeros exposed themselves to the sun, and they were like well-tanned leather. The pain became so unbearable that Lilo had to call in the local practicante, Don Juan, who back then wore a black, Franco-style moustache, to inject me with a sleeping potion. She was out when he arrived, and I remember seeing him down after the shot and then barely making it back up the stairs to the bed before being struck completely unconscious. In those days the médico was a proud figure who rarely left his office and charged dearly for his services, so these para-physicians or male nurses, served as the de facto physicians for most of the community.

But the one I wanted to be with all the time was Manolo, Manolo the artist - perhaps the only one I ever met who really deserved the name. In fact he was a poet, a singing poet - because like all real poets, he was incapable of uttering a word which was not poetry, even though he in his case never wrote a line. The flamenco singers do not speak of singing a particular verse, but of "saying" it, because, in the medieval tradition, they are singing poets, who declaim their tales, their philosophical maxims, and Manolo was a poet in the medieval tradition. Together we wandered, we talked, and whenever the urge seized him, he sang. I heard him sing among his olive trees and in the ruins of the great 16th century church on the cliff, before the hole in the roof - caused by the celebrated lightning bolt of 1767 - was repaired; I heard him sing among the stalactites of the prehistoric caves called Las Peñas de los Gitanos; and I heard him sing on the Calvary Hill overlooking the village, where I took an eerie photograph of him with his arms raised and the great vein standing out on his forehead, a photograph which I had forgotten until it re-appeared 20 years later in a trunk I had left in Yves' cellar in Paris.

In September there was a livestock fair which brought hundreds of farmers, each with his waistcoat and boots and callao (walking stick), to buy and sell horses, mules and donkeys. The two gypsy brothers, Melchor and José, who were horse dealers by trade, invited me to get up on a mare they had, which promptly began to run across the field, with me hanging on to the mane, until someone got hold of its dangling bridle; it was my first ride bareback. Their father was an imposing fellow with great moustaches called Guillermo, whom I always thought of as the King of the Gypsies. Like all gypsy patriarchs, he had total authority over his children, even when they were grown men themselves. Once, while conversing in the plaza, Melchor - who then was about 25 and had several children of his own - said something which apparently displeased him, and without saying a word he sharply slapped his face. To my amazement, Melchor acquiesced, hanging his head in shame.

But that did not mean that they were not proud - when Melchor admired a bright yellow knitted tie I had from New York, and which I was rather tired of (we were all very dapper then), I said that I would give it to him. The next time we met, in the plaza among a group of other gypsies, I took it out of my jacket pocket and offered it to him, but he frowned and hurriedly motioned me to put it back. "Later", he whispered, "when we're alone".

As for my life with Lilo, it was too soon for the troubles to begin, but there was an advance signal, in the rather comic form of a tossed flower pot. My dear friend Anthony came from New York to spend a few weeks with us, and one night, after he and I had been up late talking in the kitchen, thoughtlessly leaving Lilo upstairs as young people will do, we decided to go out for a walk. But as soon as we closed the door behind us and stepped into the silent, moonlit street, there was a great explosion, with earth and leaves flying everywhere. We looked up at the balcony of the bedroom. Lilo was no longer there, nor was the large flowerpot of geraniums... The problem was that Lilo had always had me to herself, and I had adjusted my outpourings to her serious, German way of reasoning. When she heard me chattering away freely in my naturally irreverent Anglo-Saxon vein, she didn't like it. Later on, when she met my mother, she bitterly denounced it as "decadent and devilish".

But Anthony went away, and for a short while more, all was harmony and understanding. Such are the perils of being a cultural chameleon - one's diversity can be misconstrued as duplicity. But before we left for decadent, devilish Paris, at the end of the summer, we did something which was right up her Wagnerian alley (and Lilo's surname was in fact Wagner): we spent three nights sleeping in a tomb.

Several miles east of Montefrio lies the vast archaeological site known as Las Peñas de los Gitanos - The Cliffs of the Gypsies. We decided to get closer to the mysteries of this lovely spot by sleeping in one of the Copper Age "dolmens", or megalithic tombs, which litter the floor of the great canyon. Thus one fine day in August we set out from Montefrio, with the hired help of El Gordo and his donkey, laden with our groceries and a few of Manolo's sheepskins to sleep on. When the villagers learned where we were going they murmured in awe, "¡Van a dormir con los muertos!".

We were comfortable enough, just fitting into the floor of the tomb, with our branches and leaves and the fluffy zaleas; and Cristobal came out with his mule to bring us fresh bread every day. We saw no Copper Age spirits, or any Bronze Age ones either, but we did get a portentous glimpse of the shape of things to come. The first space satellites had just been launched by the Russians and then the Americans, and it was lying out one night under the summer sky on the great slab of rock which covered the tomb that we saw one for the first time. We could only tell it apart from the stars because it was moving, on an even but uncharted course, towards the future - like us.

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