In the shrewd, comical spirit of Peter Mayle and Bill Bryson, Derek Lambert discovers the charms and idiosyncrasies of Spain as he experiences the rewards and frustrations of beginning a new life there. [set as a headline]
As Lambert and his wife set about restoring their moldering casita on Spain's Mediterranean Costa Blanca and learning to live the life of Spanish villagers, he introduces us to a nation far removed from the matadors, tapas bars, and sangria swillers. He uncovers the "real" Spain-a nation of passionate, eccentric, often contradictory, but always enchanting people. Unpredictable, often hilarious, and animated by colorful characters, Spanish Lessons presents an intimate and delightful portrait of off-the-tourist-track Spain.
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July 24, 2000
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Excerpt from Spanish Lessons by Derek Lambert
ONE A Taste of Oranges The two civil guards wore black tricorn hats, capes, and olive-green uniforms. And although mounted on angular bicycles, they looked as sinister as their predecessors had in the civil war that tore Spain apart in the 1930s. It was late December, and the citrus trees that covered most of the plain separating the Mediterranean from the mountains on the Costa Blanca of Spain were heavy with oranges, lemons, and grapefruit. The trees looked so beguiling that Diane and I stole a couple of oranges. We were eating them, juice trickling down our chins, in our venerable, chocolate-brown Jaguar, when the two Guardia Civil stopped beside us. Maybe pinching oranges was a heinous crime in Spain. Tales were still rife after the death of the dictator General Francisco Franco of foreigners being imprisoned for years without trial for unspecified offenses. I imagined us lying on straw mattresses in fetid cells miles apart, while rats snatched food from our eating bowls. Or perhaps we would be deported and declared persona non grata, a preferable scenario but nonetheless depressing, because it would mean that the vision we had shared when we first met in Africa would be aborted before it even got off the ground. Diane, a Canadian airline stewardess with blond hair and eyes the color of the sea before a storm, had told me on our first date in Nairobi that having experienced a couple of scary landings, she wanted to quit flying and start a new life. So did I. I was a journalist in my forties, a foreign correspondent, and I wanted to become a novelist: our meeting was convened by the gods. But supposing the gods had now turned against us, snitched on us to the Guardia . . . Diane offered the two of them a brilliant, please-fasten-your-seatbelt smile while I stuffed incriminating orange peel into a plastic bag. "What can we do for you?" she asked. She had been brought up in Paris and Rome, had studied Spanish, and in any case picked up languages as easily as children catch measles. One of the Guardia, young with a downy mustache, dis-mounted. "Are you lost?" he asked in English, peering into the aristocratic but doddery old Jaguar as I tried to back-heel the plastic bag under the driver's seat. "No," Diane said, "we're just admiring the view." It was worth admiring. Lizard-gray mountains on one side of the citrus plantations, the sea beckoning in the cold sunlight on the other. Here and there a field of leafless grapevines; almond and olive trees and carobs with trunks like fairytale witches. The Guardia, who seemed to have exhausted his English, produced a creased booklet from beneath his cape and read from it: "I am so pleased you are admiring our territory." Diane tried a few phrases in Valenciano, the regional language that confuses tourists who have studied orthodox Spanish, but he held up one hand and again consulted his phrase book. "Please, I do not understand, I am from the north." His colleague, a sad-looking cabo, a corporal, who looked like a long-ago Hollywood actor, Adolph Menjou, joined him. "Do you have any papers?" he asked—"papers," a disturbingly general term that could embrace anything from a visa to a last will and testament. Diane told him in English: "We might settle in the area." True enough—we were looking for a village so ordinary that it would bring us into contact with people remote from the clichŽs of Spain—flamenco, sangria, and bullfights—and would define the changes that had taken place since Franco's death in 1975, so that I could write about them one day. Her statement perturbed the cabo. He spoke with one hand, flapping and clenching it. Endless complications, his hand said. Bureaucracy, papers . . . Diane searched for some sort of