The Englishman goes Away

V. The Englishman Goes Away

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'.

V. The Englishman goes away

I would be straying from my subject if I were to describe that first school year in Paris' Latin Quarter which came between our two summers in Montefrio. Suffice it to say that the time between September 1961 and July 1962 was full of exciting new things, and people, which had the effect of driving a wedge between me and my strong-willed companion. The recurrent presence of my vivacious young mother, herself very much "on the road", didn't help matters, either.

Just before we left for Spain, at the end of the school year, a girl Lilo had studied painting with in Munich turned up at the servant's room under the rooftop of the massive Parisian apartment building in which we lived. She seemed alienated (as they said then) and lonely, was very pretty in the wholesome German way, and my reaction (remember, readers, I was only 20!) was that of any bored rooster upon finding a comely new hen in his nest. I went out of my way to be amusing and accomodating, Lilo was pleased to lecture Elke about art and what-not, and the girl almost naturally decided to come along with us to Spain for the summer.

These fortuitious romances went very fast back then, and the Puerta del Sol had not even pulled out of Austerlitz Station before Elke and I were getting discreetly entwined in the crowded, murky compartments. The combination of the summer heat and our extreme youth had us inflamed, and by the time we got to Madrid, Lilo was having a hard time ignoring it (memorably, we managed to get lost in the Forest of Aranjuez for several hours, leaving her with a Spanish friend of mine to search for us along the paths). Almost as soon as we got to Montefrio, things reached a literally violent crisis.

We stayed the first night in the Fonda (Montefrio's only pension) until the house was readied for us, and after dinner I took Elke for a walk in the olive groves (in case you didn't know, the expression "to go for a walk in the olive groves" has a special significance in these parts). When I got back to the room in the early hours, Lilo expressed her feelings (quite appropriately, when I think of it) by falling to her knees and beating her head on the tile floor, several times over and without saying a word. Of course, I was horrified, but, in my pragmatic Anglo-Saxon way, couldn't help feeling relieved that it was her head and not mine...

In spite of this dramatic, but useless gesture, an external propriety was maintained and Lilo seemed to decide to let things run their course; after all, back in Schwabing, Munich's bohemian quarter, such situations were quite common. A month followed in which we did the same things we had done the summer before, except that when night came I waited for Lilo to pretend to fall asleep before joining Elke on her straw-filled mattress down the corridor. I would be back before dawn, and the two women spent the day amiably, or at least politely, painting and cooking together. Since they spoke in German I don't know exactly what they were saying, but was relieved to take note that it did not seem to be about me!

The only other memory I distinctly have of that time was the flamenco party in the cortijo. Manolo and I arranged with the gypsies to have a juerga in a farmhouse on the outskirts of the village, and we all set off in the night with a big straw-covered jug of wine and a basket of tapas. The fiesta was going full swing, with this author and the Munich milk-maid doing a joyous number in the light of the oil lamp, when suddenly, as if by magic, all the gypsies disappeared into the darkness. When we went out on the porch to see what had happened, we saw the silhouettes of two Civil Guardsmen approaching in the moonlight, with their gleaming winged hats and rifles slung over their shoulders. Although the traditional enemies of the gypsies ruined our party (because we had failed to obtain the written authorization which was necessary, under Franco, to hold an assembly of over 20 persons), I was always thrilled when the images of Lorca's poetry seemed to step, as they often did then, out of the pages of the Romancero Gitano.

Then one morning, I returned to our bedroom and found Lilo gone, with a note under the alarm clock which had been set in time to catch the seven o'clock correo to Granada. She said she was going to Ibiza to find a house for her parents and sister to spend the summer holidays, and that if I wanted to follow...

I was hardly shocked, but it all seemed suddenly dull and uninteresting with just me and Elke - who, you will appreciate, was no ersatz for Fraulein Wagner - alone in the big house, and a few days later I decided to send her back to Germany. There was a tearful parting at the Granada railway station, as she went north and I took the train to Valencia. Lilo was waiting for me as the boat drew up to the pier in Ibiza, marching back and forth with a defiant expression on her face. But we were soon like fingers of the same hand again...

We had been in Ibiza the year before, to visit another Munich friend of Lilo's, a large, restless creature who looked like Cleopatra just after getting out of bed, and who, by the time we got there, had consumed half the men on the island and moved out to Formentera, where we found her living, in temporary monogamy with a Dane, in a tiny cement box on a stony field in the middle of nowhere. The two islands were already the meeting place for all the misfits of Europe, and Formentera was the last frontier.

This year, though, we stayed put under the auspices of Mutti and Fatti in their beach cottage in Santa Eulalia. Across the inlet the surveyors were marking out the site for the island's first modern hotel; the foreigners stayed in makeshift cement houses thrown together along the shore. In the one in front of us, the Spanish caretaker spent much of the day hoisting buckets of water onto the roof to fill the holding tank which enabled his guests to have showers when they came from the beach. I never shared the idyllic feelings which some people profess to have about Ibiza, and many years later - as you will see several chapters on - my indifference turned into downright aversion. So I will describe the most memorable thing which happened to us there, and move ahead with my story.

This, however, requires me to move backwards first. When we got to Paris the previous autumn, we stayed in a walk-up student's hotel on the Carrefour de l'Odeon, administered by two old concierges, unmarried sisters; like many such Frenchwomen in those Gaullist times, they were unnecessarily nasty and constantly complained about "Mademoiselle Wagner's" loud boots clattering on the wooden staircase, and my own attempts to play Fandangillos de Huelva on the guitar. When we left the Nouvel Hotel we put these two shrews out of our minds forever, as you can imagine.

Now, in Ibiza - 10 months later - we were riding our rental bikes one morning down one of the island's inland roads, crossing a long stretch of arid fields, divided by stone walls and the occasional gnarled almond tree - when, under the blazing sun, we saw, shimmering in the distance, two stooped female silhouettes heading towards us. As we drew closer, we saw that they were not native ibicencas, and were both staring at us as if we were a divine apparition. When they began to babble excitedly in French, "Mademoiselle Wagner! Monsieur Bohme!" we realized, with amazement, that they were the two concierges from Paris. It seemed they had a cousin who stayed in Ibiza during the summer, in those days before mass tourism; but what was most extraordinary was that, due to the highly unlikely circumstances and (in their minds) distance from civilization, they now saw us as their long-lost daughter and son. It was hardly the moment to remind them of how horrible they had been to us when we were their tenants, so, feeling rather sorry for the old fools, we pretended to be pleased...

But our last month together in Spain - and, in fact, the second from last of all of our months together - was truly idyllic, in a setting of perfect, undefiled beauty. We had heard the year before of a cluster of mountain villages on the southern flanks of the Sierra Nevada, called the Alpujarra, and decided to spend a month there before returning to France. It was in Capileira's only, primitive pensión that Lilo cut my long hair, so that the next day the villagers who saw us thought that the little man had exchanged his large female companion for a large male one with a haircut just like his.

We rented the top floor of an ancient house overhanging the deep river valley, from two old farmers, for the price of 25 pesetas per day. The houses of the Alpujarra were originally built by the Moors in the style native to the Altas Mountains: heavy horizontal beams covered with large sheets of natural slate and sealed with a fine waterproof clay, making each roof a terrace where the family can sit among the rows of drying tomatoes and lumpy white chimneys, overlooking all the other flat roofs which cling, like an undulating staircase, to the mountainside. We brought water up in a jug from the fountain, cooked on a fire of sticks, and used a chamber pot the contents of which could be thrown off the edge of the terrace into the trees. Like the villagers, we lived on a stew made of garbanzos, dried peppers and tomatoes, with whatever greens old Antonio brought back from his huerta, except each Friday when a tiny donkey came up from the city of Orgija, at the foot of the mountain, loaded with fresh fish. Everyone came out with saucepans to buy half a kilo as the donkey passed, and soon the whole village smelled deliciously of frying boquerones; it was the weekly gastronomical treat.

We spent the days as usual, me typing out a novel on my portable typewriter, and Lilo painting t portraits of the neighbours; in the afternoons we roamed the paths among the terraced orchards, always green with the waters of the melting snows. When a storm blew up from below, it would engulf one tiny white village after the other in its course, until Capileira seemed to be alone at the top of the world. In fact, that is what the Arabized Roman name means: the capillary or "hairy" top of the head. On very clear days, we could see ships steaming towards Gibraltar, far below on a strip of pastel blue sea.

As long as Lilo and I remained in this monastic environment, everything seemed like it might go on forever. But a few weeks later we were back in the belly of the beast, pre-1968 Paris, among others of our own mind and generation, surrounded by agitation, newness and an endless range of fascinating options - and fellow travellers - to choose from. There followed a breathless school year in Paris without Lilo (or, rather, fleeing from Lilo), a fascinating summer very much on the loose, and then, at the end of 1963, I packed my duffle bags to return to America, or rather, the Americas, seemingly forever. By the time a conjuncture of coincidence, curiosity and world-weariness brought me to Montefrio again, I was a man of 41 years.

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