The Peasants Are Evolving

It’s a romantic idea for many people who decide to move to the Alpujarras: buy a plot of land, perhaps fix up a ruin, maybe even get some livestock, put in some solar panels, and grow your own veg.

If you take a walk around the countryside here, especially in spring, you’ll be astonished at how abundant the wild or semi-wild sources of food are here: almonds, olives, oranges, mandarins, lemons, figs, mulberries, quinces, pomegranates, grapes, persimmons, loquats (so quickly bruised you rarely see them anywhere outside of the places they are cultivated); higher up in the mountains there are apples, pears, peaches, cherries; closer to the coast there are bananas, mangoes, custard apples…

There are hippies who almost – almost – survive on, say, the almonds or ruby-red pomegranates that ripen in the mostly unattended fincas, or the figs that drop by the wayside from enormous shady trees that spread out their coral-like arms over garden walls, or the grapes dangling from vines that creep over dusty orange stone ruins.

But the reality of trying to live self-sufficiently, even in such a fertile place as this, is very hard. Taking on this housesit – or rather, sheep-sit – is proving to me just how difficult the peasant life is. Last night we were rushing between farmacies and vets looking for a cure for one of our ewe’s mastitis. Unlike the mastitis I had dozens of times while breastfeeding, it is apparently much more serious for sheep, and potentially reason to cull an animal.

Time for a bit of Home Economics. These sheep are East Fresian milk sheep, which are renowned for being good milkers; on a good day each one will yield 1 1/2 to 2 litres of good quality, delicious milk. But if you were to sell that milk, you’d only get 1 euro a litre, or the equivalent for cheese (once the whey is drawn off, you lose a good quantity of each litre, probably two thirds).

So once you’ve factored in buying oats and straw, watering the land to keep it green enough for the sheep to graze it, then vet’s bills, and the work of milking, feeding, housing, shearing and finding a ram of the right breed to cover the ewes, you find that really, you aren’t keeping the animals as a business; it’s a hobby.

What the land looks like when you haven’t watered

Or rather, it’s a labour of love. I have to admit to having a bit of a special moment with my sick sheep today as I was trying to get rid of some of the milk in her engorged, sore udder. Usually they’re pretty mercenary, kind of “Gimme the oats!” while you get on with milking. But this time she kept lifting her head, seeming to ask to be stroked on her nose and talked to softly.

I don’t know much about sheep psychology (if that isn’t actually an oxymoron) but it was one of those moments that make me realise how deeply feeling animals are. Then I saw she’d wiped snot on my trousers. But it was a special moment nonetheless.

“Who ewe calling snotbag?”

After finishing with milking, I went inside and started ‘work’, translating an instruction manual for an industrial gas cooker. Some friends dropped by to talk about making a film. The flickering light of the intellectual world seems at once distant enough to be alluring and mind-numbingly boring enough to be meaningless.

I can’t give you a clever economical illustration of why it no longer makes financial sense to run a farm. But something has very clearly shifted in the century since Europe began its relentless drag into the Money Machine; now, if you want to live ‘the good life’, have solar panels, keep chickens or goats and grow your own food, you still need to have internet connected and work online to earn the money doing something technological or commercial in order to bankroll your ‘peasant’ existence.

But where have the peasants gone? Even the old toothless goatherds are driving dazzling Suzuki 4x4s – and I haven’t a clue how they can afford to keep up the monthly payments on them. Even the most economically aware twenty-something starting him own eco-farm in order to escape the much-loathed ‘system’ is wired up to facebook and YouTube, where he can observe the banks crashing around him and feel somewhat insulated from the stress associated with bank-dependence – but he’ll never be entirely free from its clutches.

Alright, no need for mass wisteria, it was only a bad pun…

Decided to aim for self-sufficiency is a moral decision rather than a financial one. Whatever you gain by cutting your costs you’ve already spent on installing expensive solar panels, or just by buying land. The point of it is not to break even financially; it’s to reclaim the responsibility for your life, your expenditures, you consumption, to become aware of how much effort and time and know-how is necessary to produce ANYTHING, even one tomato or a lump of cheese.

That consciousness is an exponential one; with each new discovery and shock comes another, and it opens out your horizons to every aspect of our daily consumption: water, firewood, FOOD. It takes the norm of taking such things for granted and dramatically inverts it.

If you haven’t cut wood and let it dry the year before, you have nothing to burn to keep you warm in winter. If you haven’t thought ahead and planted the right seeds, in the right places, with the right fertiliser, you won’t have tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, potatoes…If you leave your chicken coop exposed to dogs or foxes, you’ll lose your chickens and therefore your egg supply. If you don’t notice when the 1-year-old lambs of your ewe are still suckling roughly and have thereby caused their mother to get mastitis, you have a vet bill and possibly a dead animal on your hands.

On paper, this lifestyle is not one that would attract many people. It is hard, physical work; there are all sorts of unforeseeable factors that could wreck your productions (severe storms, packs of wild dogs, solar panel thieves, poison leaking in from neighbouring farms, plagues of insects devouring your fruit and veg); and it stimulates your University-educated intellect about as much as the adverts between soap operas.

But back-to-the-landers are devout believers of this path, not only as an antidote to the resource-guzzling lifestyles that are so inescapable in cities and towns but as a spiritual path, a way of regaining a connection with nature – both outwardly and inwardly. There’s nothing like the joy and satisfaction of putting hands to earth and nurturing a seedling to fruition. You gain a deep respect for the earth and its rhythms, its harmony – its music – in closing the theory books and going out and experiencing it.

So we are a peculiar cross-breed of peasant and techno-geek. One foot in the realm of mass commerce and e-technology, one foot in the bucolic bliss of fruit trees and gardens.

The peasants are not revolting – they’re evolving. (Well, OK, we are a little bit revolting. But only when we get sheep snot on our trousers.)

The Cure for War: Sheep

Synchronised Sheep Judging. Not to be confused with synchronised swimming.

My new man (what shall I call him? Cavepainter?) and I were recently offered a housesit, with a small piece of land, three German milking ewes and five lambs to look after. The prospect of milking sheep every morning brought visions of pigtails, clogs and frilly aprons to my mind, so of course, like any sane person, I jumped at the idea. Who wouldn’t want to make their own yogurt?

Little did it matter that nobody in my family can tolerate dairy products. Hey, so what? We’ll adapt! Like cows whose milk changes flavour when they switch to hay in winter, we would likewise develop new, more resilient, farm-type moral fibre! These campesinos are made of tough stuff! And isn’t there meant to be all sorts of goodness in raw milk?

There was a small catch to this equation, which I didn’t think through very well. The principle issue here is that sheep are notoriously difficult to milk – and these ewes in particular are known for being quite feisty.

The trick to milking, so they all said, was to open your thumb and forefinger over the top of the teat, then – once the udder is massaged and the milk is dropping – close your thumb and forefinger, then each successive finger, a little like a slow flamenco hand movement. There is, however, another, rather peculiar aspect to the technique , which I shall detail below.

First: Offer the sheep some oat grains in a bucket to keep her occupied.

Second: Straddle the ewe, back to front.

Third: Tie one of her back legs firmly to a post.

Fourth: Place bucket under udders.

Fifth: Still straddling the sheep, lie down on her, head to tail. Yes, that’s right. You lie on top of a moving animal (which is thankfully padded with about four inches of wool) whilst blindly squirting the milk into a bucket hidden out of sight beneath. It would be quite hilarious were it not for the fact that your face is effectively buried in a raggedy sheep’s bottom. (Stop laughing!)

Sixth: Remove small bits of straw, flies, and occasional bits of poo from the milk using a strainer. Repeat frequently as your sheep will begin to buck when oats run out and may knock over all your hard-squirted milk.

It sounds pretty yucky, and I have to say that the smell of a sheep shed (or, more specifically, a sheep’s bum) is not especially alluring, and perhaps might even be described as, in the language of today’s youth, ‘gross’, but you know what? I’m down with the peasants. They might be bow-legged and dwarfish and lacking in numerous very useful teeth but good Golly, they work harder than any city slicker I’ve ever known, and those perpetually brown faces are just as wrinkled from the sun as from smiling.

What do they get out of it? The work is repetitive. The hours are long. It’s not glamorous, or well-paid. There are numerous shepherds and goatherds living in my neck of the woods; apparently, to supplement the little they earn selling milk (1 euro a litre), they actually earn a wage from the government (Note to self: check facts before publishing online).

Drivers in the Alpujarras are eternally at the mercy of the herds of goats and sheep that routinely plug up the one-lane tracks, slowly scrambling up either side of the path, nibbling at grass as you inch through their hordes until it seems as if you are forging a very goaty-smelling, hairy river.

However, when Cavepainter (no, still not quite there…let’s just call him Love-Man) and I first went to this house to learn how to milk the sheep, we found ourselves almost stupefied with a sense of peace. Later, my mother told me that when a person is on a farm a hormone is supposedly excreted in their brain that makes them feel peaceful.

Well, there you have it, folks. That is why the shepherds are so happy. They smell of lanolin and manure, they are eternally scruffy, they are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but they know what peace is. Even if it does mean having to lie head to tail on a vigorously oat-snuffling beast for an hour every morning.

Ah, the countryside. At least we’ll have plenty of cheese…

The Cure for War: Sheep

Synchronised Sheep Judging. Not to be confused with synchronised swimming.

My new man (what shall I call him? Cavepainter?) and I were recently offered a housesit, with a small piece of land, three German milking ewes and five lambs to look after. The prospect of milking sheep every morning brought visions of pigtails, clogs and frilly aprons to my mind, so of course, like any sane person, I jumped at the idea. Who wouldn’t want to make their own yogurt?

Little did it matter that nobody in my family can tolerate dairy products. Hey, so what? We’ll adapt! Like cows whose milk changes flavour when they switch to hay in winter, we would likewise develop new, more resilient, farm-type moral fibre! These campesinos are made of tough stuff! And isn’t there meant to be all sorts of goodness in raw milk?

There was a small catch to this equation, which I didn’t think through very well. The principle issue here is that sheep are notoriously difficult to milk – and these ewes in particular are known for being quite feisty.

The trick to milking, so they all said, was to open your thumb and forefinger over the top of the teat, then – once the udder is massaged and the milk is dropping – close your thumb and forefinger, then each successive finger, a little like a slow flamenco hand movement. There is, however, another, rather peculiar aspect to the technique , which I shall detail below.

First: Offer the sheep some oat grains in a bucket to keep her occupied.

Second: Straddle the ewe, back to front.

Third: Tie one of her back legs firmly to a post.

Fourth: Place bucket under udders.

Fifth: Still straddling the sheep, lie down on her, head to tail. Yes, that’s right. You lie on top of a moving animal (which is thankfully padded with about four inches of wool) whilst blindly squirting the milk into a bucket hidden out of sight beneath. It would be quite hilarious were it not for the fact that your face is effectively buried in a raggedy sheep’s bottom. (Stop laughing!)

Sixth: Remove small bits of straw, flies, and occasional bits of poo from the milk using a strainer. Repeat frequently as your sheep will begin to buck when oats run out and may knock over all your hard-squirted milk.

It sounds pretty yucky, and I have to say that the smell of a sheep shed (or, more specifically, a sheep’s bum) is not especially alluring, and perhaps might even be described as, in the language of today’s youth, ‘gross’, but you know what? I’m down with the peasants. They might be bow-legged and dwarfish and lacking in numerous very useful teeth but good Golly, they work harder than any city slicker I’ve ever known, and those perpetually brown faces are just as wrinkled from the sun as from smiling.

What do they get out of it? The work is repetitive. The hours are long. It’s not glamorous, or well-paid. There are numerous shepherds and goatherds living in my neck of the woods; apparently, to supplement the little they earn selling milk (1 euro a litre), they actually earn a wage from the government (Note to self: check facts before publishing online).

Drivers in the Alpujarras are eternally at the mercy of the herds of goats and sheep that routinely plug up the one-lane tracks, slowly scrambling up either side of the path, nibbling at grass as you inch through their hordes until it seems as if you are forging a very goaty-smelling, hairy river.

However, when Cavepainter (no, still not quite there…let’s just call him Love-Man) and I first went to this house to learn how to milk the sheep, we found ourselves almost stupefied with a sense of peace. Later, my mother told me that when a person is on a farm a hormone is supposedly excreted in their brain that makes them feel peaceful.

Well, there you have it, folks. That is why the shepherds are so happy. They smell of lanolin and manure, they are eternally scruffy, they are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but they know what peace is. Even if it does mean having to lie head to tail on a vigorously oat-snuffling beast for an hour every morning.

Ah, the countryside. At least we’ll have plenty of cheese…

The Cure for War: Sheep

Synchronised Sheep Judging. Not to be confused with synchronised swimming.

My new man (what shall I call him? Cavepainter?) and I were recently offered a housesit, with a small piece of land, three German milking ewes and five lambs to look after. The prospect of milking sheep every morning brought visions of pigtails, clogs and frilly aprons to my mind, so of course, like any sane person, I jumped at the idea. Who wouldn’t want to make their own yogurt?

Little did it matter that nobody in my family can tolerate dairy products. Hey, so what? We’ll adapt! Like cows whose milk changes flavour when they switch to hay in winter, we would likewise develop new, more resilient, farm-type moral fibre! These campesinos are made of tough stuff! And isn’t there meant to be all sorts of goodness in raw milk?

There was a small catch to this equation, which I didn’t think through very well. The principle issue here is that sheep are notoriously difficult to milk – and these ewes in particular are known for being quite feisty.

The trick to milking, so they all said, was to open your thumb and forefinger over the top of the teat, then – once the udder is massaged and the milk is dropping – close your thumb and forefinger, then each successive finger, a little like a slow flamenco hand movement. There is, however, another, rather peculiar aspect to the technique , which I shall detail below.

First: Offer the sheep some oat grains in a bucket to keep her occupied.

Second: Straddle the ewe, back to front.

Third: Tie one of her back legs firmly to a post.

Fourth: Place bucket under udders.

Fifth: Still straddling the sheep, lie down on her, head to tail. Yes, that’s right. You lie on top of a moving animal (which is thankfully padded with about four inches of wool) whilst blindly squirting the milk into a bucket hidden out of sight beneath. It would be quite hilarious were it not for the fact that your face is effectively buried in a raggedy sheep’s bottom. (Stop laughing!)

Sixth: Remove small bits of straw, flies, and occasional bits of poo from the milk using a strainer. Repeat frequently as your sheep will begin to buck when oats run out and may knock over all your hard-squirted milk.

It sounds pretty yucky, and I have to say that the smell of a sheep shed (or, more specifically, a sheep’s bum) is not especially alluring, and perhaps might even be described as, in the language of today’s youth, ‘gross’, but you know what? I’m down with the peasants. They might be bow-legged and dwarfish and lacking in numerous very useful teeth but good Golly, they work harder than any city slicker I’ve ever known, and those perpetually brown faces are just as wrinkled from the sun as from smiling.

What do they get out of it? The work is repetitive. The hours are long. It’s not glamorous, or well-paid. There are numerous shepherds and goatherds living in my neck of the woods; apparently, to supplement the little they earn selling milk (1 euro a litre), they actually earn a wage from the government (Note to self: check facts before publishing online).

Drivers in the Alpujarras are eternally at the mercy of the herds of goats and sheep that routinely plug up the one-lane tracks, slowly scrambling up either side of the path, nibbling at grass as you inch through their hordes until it seems as if you are forging a very goaty-smelling, hairy river.

However, when Cavepainter (no, still not quite there…let’s just call him Love-Man) and I first went to this house to learn how to milk the sheep, we found ourselves almost stupefied with a sense of peace. Later, my mother told me that when a person is on a farm a hormone is supposedly excreted in their brain that makes them feel peaceful.

Well, there you have it, folks. That is why the shepherds are so happy. They smell of lanolin and manure, they are eternally scruffy, they are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but they know what peace is. Even if it does mean having to lie head to tail on a vigorously oat-snuffling beast for an hour every morning.

Ah, the countryside. At least we’ll have plenty of cheese…

The Glass Half-Awesome

Wherever you go in Spain, you will hear a steady stream of compliments. ‘Guapo!’ old ladies coo adoringly at passing children – ‘gorgeous!’. ‘Hasta luego, guapa!’ girls call out to their friends as they say goodbye. So many Spanish people have this trait that it makes me think it must be genetic. I shall christen it the ‘Guapo Gene’.

What is so wonderful about the Guapo Gene is that it doesn’t matter if you are obese, bald, have a patch over one eye or spinach between your teeth; someone, somewhere, will call you guapo.

The more cynical among the ex-pats here would have you believe that it is down to a fundamental duplicity in the Spanish character, sown during the religous persecution of the Second Republic when tens of thousands of Catholic monks and nuns were massacred and their chapels looted by communist-minded Republicans, and watered throughout the highly conservative Franco years, when Republicans were in turn forced to take their beliefs underground for fear of being taken into the woods and shot.

It might well be true that people’s opinions here are hard to decode. On an average market day in Órgiva it is not uncommon to see German sadhus in full orange regalia, French monks in Tibetan Buddhist gear, Algerian Sufis in white robes and wildly coloured turbans, and even, on occasion, an elderly gentleman in a fine suit wearing a green moustache. Not once have I seen a Huevero* bat an eyelid.

However, I prefer the theory of the Guapo gene. In the same way that smiling actually increased the levels of seratonin in the brain, thus making you feel happy, and that laughing falsely as is practised in Laughter Yoga leads almost immediately to riotous real laughter, I have come to believe that telling the world it is beautiful actually makes it seem more beautiful.

Furthermore, being told you are gorgeous on a regular basis – as anyone who reads those hallowed institutions of scientific knowledge, women’s magazines, already knows – makes you feel gorgeous. The belief is implanted, watered, and in time it takes root. Real flowers blossom out of plastic ones.

It might sound fake, but on that everyday level of waking up in the morning without a terminal sense of dread about the impending awfulness of the day and the utter pointlessness of life, I will choose to think of the glass as half-awesome. And the glints of light in the water will be made brilliant through its half-awesome lens.

* Hueveros/as are people from Órgiva, from the word huevo, or egg. A huevera, incidentally, is an egg-carton. The name supposedly dates back to a time when the church’s twin steeples were painted egg-yellow.

Las Acequias: Veins of the Alpujarras

Autumn is in full swing here in Spain; the grapevine at the bottom of our land has turned a heavenly pumpkin orange, crunching brown at the edges; bougainvillia is shedding its three-fold paper lanterns to the high winds, each one a different shade of fuchsia, violet, ochre, or something in between, and each leaf carrying a tiny twisted seed. Jasmine is still exploding into ecstatic white windmills.

The Bougainvillia's last gasp

Though the oranges on the trees are still green, this house saluted those gorgeous round baubles that dangle juicily like little scattered planets:

Orange on the edge

The eucalyptus wood we talked through this afternoon was lush with greenery, the last few whisperings of the acequia gushing along the path on its way to meet the river. We were trying to cut across the countryside to the little place my mother-in-law had rented on the other side of town, Shamsie on Caveman’s shoulders, baby Rosa in a rucksack on my back, dozing off.

Caveman and boy

We got stuck at a reedy marsh, wood spears blocking the path: None shall pass. The road was tantalisingly visible above, but we had to turn back and tramp up another hill. I thought of the Sherpas I’d been watching on a Michael Palin documentary the day before, hauling twice that weight at more than 6,000 metres. Tried not to complain, told my inner whingebag to shut its trap, and was rewarded by a cunning little short-cut that led along another acequia to the main road. Acequias, from the Arabic as-saqiyya (saqaa is to quench one’s thirst), are the canals that slope along the sides of the mountains carrying snowmelt to the smallholdings. Originally cut by the Romans but massively extended by the Moors, they are what turned this valley from the wild, semi-barren string of crags into the lush hills we see today. As such they are (almost)* universally respected, and one can always walk along them; they cannot be bought and are common property.

Acequia hard at work

Water rules all here. Three solid months of torrential rain last winter made the ordinarily dry Rio Chico burst its banks, ripping metres of earth away from people’s bankside gardens, undermining house foundations and carrying hippie vans off into the river. Yet without it there would be no greenery, no fruit on the trees, no almonds or pomegranates or olives or oranges, no reason for tourists to come and rent houses and bask beside swimming pools, gazing up at fountains of bougainvillia and jasmine spilling over walls. There would be no colour. What can destroy us also makes alive.

Pommes de Granada

* The exceptions (surprise surprise) are big businesses. Lanjarón, the waters sourced above the town of the same name, from the Arabic al-‘Aynu Harun or Aaron’s Spring, are bottled by the company that sells it nationally, owned by Danone. Elsewhere in the Alpujarras (from al-Bushra, Joyous News), acequias have been hijacked by the ravenous thirst of the greenhouses, lying like vat rippling plastic lakes on the warm slopes by the sea. The acequias high above the towns away, from public view, have too often being cemented, preventing the vegetation of the high slopes receiving any water as it passes by. These slopes are now brown and dry, trees dead, olive and almonds groves begun five centuries ago rendered barren. A great film about the Alpujarras and the water systems here is El Canto del Agua, in Spanish and English, by Lilian Simonsson, Kirian Scheuplein and Isabel Wolfes (www.liliansimonsson.tv).

Excuse Me (prod, prod), Am I Annoying You?

Insomnia ball, chilling in the moss

Not long ago, awake at midnight having conked out putting Caveboy to bed, and trying to use up my mistimed wakefulness with the self-hypnotic powers of crochet (see pic), I found myself churning over thoughts in my head, not unlike that machine most beloved to Shamsie, the humble concrete mixer.

What sprang out of the rumbling mortar mix of my subconscious was something Caveman and I had been talking about that evening; he thought he’d accidentally offended a mutual friend when he jumped into a misheard conversation with what was meant to be a witty comment, but which clearly left her stung.

I started thinking, as I added stitches to my lurid pink woolly pentagon: had I also offended her? That morning, leaving Shamsie at his kindergarten, all of the mothers had seemed a little off with me. Was I barging about like I owned the place, without realising the revoltingness of my behaviour? Was I making insensitive comments to sweet, stingable souls? Was I being (triple ugh) smug?

I was reminded of a story Caveman once told me about a man he’d met in India. Meditating peacefully under a tree one day, out of nowhere a slightly over-exuberant Indian man came up, prodded him in the shoulder, and said loudly, “Excuse me, sir! You like meditation?”

How do we know what effect we really has on other people? Short of them uniting in one voice and booing you out of the room, there is an infinity of possible reactions people might conceal beneath the veneer of common decency, cordiality, convivial spirit. Was I one of those people who others cringed at in secret? The idea made my crochet hook turn faster and, I fear, more haphazardly. Eventually I went back to sleep, but not without a sickening sense that I might be taking the world’s approval for granted.

Morning comes, and the other parents seem their usual chirpy selves once more. The friend Caveman thought he’d offended did not even recall the incident, let alone bear a grudge over it. Smiles once more felt genuine; perhaps they had all just had a better night’s sleep.

Annoyance, however, lingered on as a recurring theme for a number of days. The cave witnessed much aggro between cavespouses, largely due to my low-lying invisible tantrum rearing its head. I remembered that post on this blog a few weeks back, and reminded myself that when the toddler is throwing jars of peanut butter onto the floor it’s generally because he’s in need of some positive attention. That toddler in me has clearly not grown up, but needs the same wise treatment as I (sometimes) remember to give Caveboy.

But it is a far broader theme, annoyance. Spain is brimming with it. Whether it’s the rowdy drivers yelling abuse at roadhogs or poor parkers, or the fiery, passionate romances that drench the Mexican soap operas – and, by extension, the ordinary folk absorbing the melodrama – Spanish people seem to be quite happy to vent a bit of steam. It almost seems to be a national pastime. Petanque in France, yodelling in Austria, getting up each other’s noses in Spain.

The good thing is that the steam, once vented, quickly dissipates. Nobody stays ruffled for long. And for the things which really nettle us ex-pats, locals appear to have an immense elasticity and boundless patience.

So this morning, having dodged the herds of goats and sheep that so often block the rough tracks we live down, I found myself hunting for a parking space in the notoriously windy, steeply-sloped roads of the town, jammed to the hilt with traffic because the funfair has settled its vast, gaudily-lit wings on the main parking lot, and what do you know? The road is unexpectedly blocked by a cheery funeral cortege.

The grumpy man on the motorbike in front gives me a gesture indicating I hang back and be patient. The world slows to a dream pace for some minutes. Even the man on the motorbike putt-putts respectfully along behind the colourful, chatting mourners. Some things aren’t worth getting ruffled about, he is saying; don’t give the annoyance a home.

Madre de Cueva, part 1

We looked at the lobsters, bobbing silently in their strip-lit tank, awaiting a quick boiling while their future eaters sat comfortably at neatly-linened tables, red carnations standing in elegant little vases. There are two kinds, I point out to him, noticing it for the first time myself; one has claws, the other is just like a big shrimp. Langostas y langostinos.

He was a little too grubby for such a chi-chi restaurant, I realised, my little 2-year-old boy with the grey gritty sand of Salobreña’s beach in his hair, dusted over his clothes, caked onto his sandals. Tom was holding Rosa Nour for a minute, watching the football – Brasil v. Argentina – ignoring the crashing waves on the rocks outside the window behind him. He exchanged knowing remarks with the manager, sitting at the till beside him, about this and that player’s season, who might win the World Cup.

The sun was beginning to set over the water. Waiters flitted about offering things to drink, the evening’s special, ever more complicated and expensive. The English couple at the next table cooed admiringly at our baby – 2 months old today, I say proudly – while Tom races about after Shamsie.

It is about now that I realise how peculiar and wonderful it is to be out at a fancy restaurant (something we do extremely rarely) with a rambunctious toddler and a tiny baby. Nobody bats an eyelid, even when Rosa starts crying and I end up squashed into a corner not designed for breastfeeding in, getting her to sleep before snuggling her up in the sling.

I wonder what the scene would look like if this were happening in England. Frosty waiters kindly requesting that we strap the child into a high chair while he eats the kiddie menu of chicken wings, peas and chips. Diners bristling at the sound of the baby’s tired mew. Quiet comments being made about my responsibility as a mother to have her kids in bed before 9 pm.

Imagined. Not real. I wouldn’t even try this scene if I were back home, if England is indeed home any more. People would be nice, cordial, polite. Maybe even relish the sight of parents so haphazard in their lifestyle.

But part of me is certain that I would be creeping about, apologising at every squeak, ordering little hands out of shelves and cupboards right now, lonely in my task – whether or not the world offered me such a cool reception.

So the flip side of that invasive Spanish bolshiness is the way in which they ruffle a cute kid’s hair, or warn him about running into the road, or berate him for knocking over a chair before giving him a lollipop and telling his mother how their own sons had had so much energy when they were that age. The weight is distributed over other people’s shoulders, most of whom you have never met.

They are a fabric of hands holding wrists, interlocking, making a mesh to catch the wild and the wayward, keep in touch with the touch organ of their neighbours, sometimes without ever saying a word to them directly. Not because it is a principle of theirs, a high-minded theory they found in a book, a movement growing online.

It is just the way we are held together, holding each other up.