driving over lemons: an optimist in andalucía

Sunday, June 9:  This morning, I finish reading the hilarious Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucía by Chris Stewart.  I love reading books set in a locale where I’m planning to visit, and as I have scheduled over a week in Andalucía, Spain, this book was a great immersion into a world I MIGHT encounter, but probably only from a distance.  The story is a British man’s account of his purchase of a working farm and his permanent move to the area.

The old farm Chris Stewart and his wife Ana buy is called El Valero.  They have to wade across a river to get to the farm, which is dotted with terraces of flowers and eucalyptus, lemon, orange and olive trees.  It consists of a couple of houses with “some stables and goat-pens, chicken runs and store-rooms.” The farm has no running water, a solar panel that provides scant electricity, and a vulnerability to high winds and flooding rivers.

In one particularly funny scene, Pedro, the previous owner of El Valero, takes Chris on horseback to have lunch at a new restaurant in town.  Since Chris doesn’t know how to ride a horse, Pedro assures him he’ll lead him.  As they pass through villages in this state, Chris writes:  “Now a mounted rider tends to feel a certain arrogance which the horse, or some horses at any rate, bestow upon their rider.  If, however, you are a fully grown man and you are being led on a horse, the effect is considerably diminished.  You feel in fact like a prisoner of war, the scurvy dreg of some vanquished foe.”

He goes on to describe how he attempts to assume a dignified position: he folds his arms, puts his hands on his hips, “then with one hand on my hip and the other wiping sweat from my brow in the way that I imagined a proper horseman would.”

Finally, after being led through many villages and getting critical or sympathetic looks from the villagers, he says, “It simply cannot be done, the maintaining of the merest speck of self-esteem while being led on a mangy pack-horse along a road lined with one’s future neighbors, every one of them a natural horseman.”

This scene has me laughing so hard I’m in tears.

In one chapter, “Walking with the Water,” Chris describes the ancient irrigation channels that are still used by farmers in the Alpujarras today.  These remind me of the extensive falaj system used in Oman to this day. He notes: “Debate smolders as to whether it was the Romans two thousand years ago, or the Moors some eight hundred years later, who first built these channels.”

He describes the same systems I have seen in the wadis of Oman: “Lower down, where the acequias have their mouths in the valleys and gorges of the rivers, are dramatic stretches where the channels are cut into the rock of sheer cliff faces hundreds of feet high.  These stretches were cut long ago with hammers and chisels by men suspended on ropes from the cliffs above.”  Because of the description of these irrigation channels, I feel it must be the Moors who brought these channels to Spain, as the Arabs, at least in Oman, seem to have perfected the system.

In yet another scene, Chris has me screaming with laughter.  When he decides to buy some sheep for the farm through the “exalted Asociacion Nacional de los Criadores de la Oveja Segurrena – ANCOS – the Segurena sheep society,” he doesn’t know quite where to find the office in the town.  The streets are deserted, so he stops in a bar to ask directions.  He finds a man, Antonio, who knows where the office is; first, Antonio invites him to have a few drinks with him.

He writes of his encounter:   “Anyway, of all the many local drunks I’ve had the misfortune to attract, Antonio was the dregs of the barrel.  One drink followed another and another until I despaired of completing my mission and resigned myself to remaining a drinking hostage for the rest of the night.”

Finally, Antonio lurches out of the office to lead Chris to the ANCOS office, “howling obscenities” as he goes.

“Where are you from, my friend?  I can see you are not one of us?”

“I’m English actually.”

“And from where would that be?”

“England.”

“Ah England, yes… I am well-known in that land… perhaps you know Fernando Jimenez…?”  He shot me a quizzical look.

“No…I don’t think so.  I couldn’t be sure.  Where in England would Fernando Jimenez live now?”

“Barcelona.”

“Ah, now there you are mistaken, my friend, for Barcelona is not in England, it is in the north of Spain…”

“No, Fernando lives in England – Barcelona, England.”

Thus we progressed toward the offices and waiting worthies of ANCOS.  I wanted to cut short this conversation about the location of Barcelona – it wasn’t getting us anywhere – but introducing another topic seemed somehow reckless.

The scene goes on in more hilarious fashion.  I’m sure if any of my neighbors were awake during the night hours I was reading this book, they would have wondered what all the howling was about at such a late hour.

In the last chapter of the book, the whole south of Spain experiences a drought.  The descriptions sound much like the perpetual state of affairs in Oman: “…the paths of the valley were ankle-deep in hot dust.  The grass in the fields at El Valero withered to brown and crackled beneath our feet, and the leaves of the trees shriveled and curled… The silence of the river was made more sinister by the insane screaming of the cicadas.”

Though I doubt seriously I will experience life in Andalucía as Chris and Ana do, at least when I see the shepherds and farmers of Andalucía, I can imagine their private trials and tribulations from this enjoyable book.

7 thoughts on “driving over lemons: an optimist in andalucía

  1. You’re quite right to assume that the Moors introduced irrigation to this part of the world – and in such a dry and dusty place in summer, how would be manage without it?!

    I can’t promise you such delights as in “Driving over Lemons” when you are visiting me, but we might see mules walking through the village carrying their wares, goats being herded on the road – oh and the irrigation channels!

    Not long now, Cathy.

    1. Marianne, I figured it was the Moors, but I guess it could have also been the Romans, with their aqueducts. All of these dry places really need these irrigation systems to survive!

      As far as the “delights” of “Driving Over Lemons,” I’m not sure I’d actually want to experience some of those delights. It sure was fun to read about them though! I would love to see the mules walking through the villages carrying their wares and the goats being herded (ours in Oman usually wander about unattended!). The mountains of Andalucia look fabulous. I really can’t wait!! I’m a little overwhelmed right now with trying to tie up loose ends here in Oman. I haven’t even begun to think about Portugal. 🙂

  2. Chris sounds like a hoot! Have you met blogger, Ralph? He one of my personal favorites. He’s very British, somewhat naughty, VERY funny, living in a little town in Spain near Rhonda, Spain. I emailed him your website so at least he could follow your travels.

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