The Strength of Blood

Seat eighty-six, coach two. A sky full of flat-bottomed clouds. The immensity of La Mancha racing by in a haze of olive green, dirty white and wine red, with scarlet carpets of poppies laid out in the tall grass of the wheat-fields. Ruined farmhouses crumbling amongst the endless vineyards, men and women bent double as they work the fields, and a lonely oak tree standing tall. Woodpigeons scattering in the wake of the train; a single kestrel perched high upon a telegraph pole; a pair of harriers wheeling overhead on slender wings, the female a living shadow of the earth below, the male a silver spirit of the sky above. I cannot see the bustards I saw on the way here, nor the rabbits or hares or even the magpies. But far off to the south the land rises, and I can see the blue hills of La Solana and Infantes, the vanguard of the sierras of Andalusia. Andalusia: where all of this began.

It seems strange, now, to imagine this whole Spanish adventure without my family at the heart of it. All those years spent wandering in the shade of the stone pines of Doñana, hiking in the scrubby mountains around Grazalema and anchoring myself in one way or another to an ancient, characterful little corner (literally) of the province of Cádiz… I question why, a cup of café con leche in hand, we did not simply come straight here to La Mancha, where the family is, was and always had been, rather than go chasing the same Andalusian dream that ruined so many British families before us. It would have made a lot more sense, certainly. But such is the way of things, and if we had, would I have half the story to tell? Would I even be where I am today? I think not.

The high sierras of Ronda. The stone pine forests of Huelva. The scent of snow in the Alpujarras, the Arabic lettering on the walls of the Alhambra and the pillared forest of the Great Mosque of Córdoba. And of course, the unspoilt wilds of Extremadura, from the plains of Cáceres to the paradise hills of La Vera. That is the Spain I know. The Spain I have come to love with all of my heart. Just as an athlete needs to warm up before a race, so too did I need to wander before finding my way. My mother chose the destination; I chose the road.

As I continue my wandering in the streets of Alcázar de San Juan, waiting for the connecting train to Madrid, I pass a small and modern church. Families pour out onto the street, shaking hands, exchanging kisses, the children playing chase in the street. I say to myself, aloud, “así habría sido mi vida, quizás…”. I walk in the direction of the windmills, knowing full well I will not make it there and back in the forty minutes at my disposal. I find a small park on the way and stop to eat a semicurado sandwich in a concrete ring decorated with painted tiles telling the story of Don Quijote. I must read that book, I really must. It’s nothing short of a crime to have come this far with my Spanish and not to have read the book.

An hour passes. The train sails through the lush greenery of Aranjuez. My mind races back to an August afternoon, many years ago, when my parents decided to break up the long drive south to our new home with a visit to the royal palace there. Twelve year-old me, with little to no idea what I was getting myself in for, crouched down over a pond staring at pumpkinseed fish. Leaving England behind meant nothing to me, then. I was going to live in a country with pumpkinseed fish, and eagles, and hoopoes, and vultures, and Cola Cao. I knew my priorities. These days I’m not so sure. I know what they are – that much I have learned – but which are the most pressing priorities, the ones I truly cannot live without… that is hard to say.

Without England, I would not have my music. My gospel choir. My a cappella group. My funk band and the chance to pour all my heart and soul into the most powerful necessity on the planet. But without Spain, I would not have my greatest love. I would not have my family, my ever-changing, ever-constant paradise, and the happiness machine that is the Spanish language itself (forgive the overuse of the word “my” – it is so very easy to feel possessive about the things you care the most about). For the last three years I have been forced to choose between the two, and it has done its level best to tear me apart.

Seat forty-eight, coach one. Getafe rises up and out of the fields, heralded by an advance guard of red tower blocks on the horizon. The wilderness is behind us now; the metropolis ahead. Last night I dreamed I was climbing a steep forested hill, when out of nowhere a stag, huge and thunderous with broad antlers, bolted out of the bushes, cleared the fence to my left in a single leap and came to a halt on the other side of the path, looking back at me as though to challenge me. Google says to dream of a stag is an augur of caution against making hasty decisions, and that a running stag foretells a great deal of luck in family life. It sounds like superstitious stuff and nonsense to me, but in truth, I have not had a dream so vivid in a long time. And I have been known to avoid walking under scaffolding.

By eight thirty tonight I will be back at work. With exam season in full swing I could hardly ask for more than I already have. But I return home full of light. Spending the weekend with my family has been everything I wanted it to be and more besides, just like it was this time last year, and the Easter before that. I have never known a happiness quite like it. Seeing the shock, the joy and the tears on my little cousin’s face when he saw me in the church of San Blas… it is a memory I will never forget. Last year it was the novelty of discovery that shook me. Now it is the strength of love and blood, the strongest of all ties. And it will keep me strong until we meet again. That much I know. BB x

Family Reunion: Part One

10:52

It begins in Salamanca. It’s not exactly where I thought it was going to begin, but it’s a more auspicious starting point than Villafranca, I guess. The other passengers around me are reshuffling their seats on the bus. The lady on the seat next to me scrolls blindly through her Instagram feed. Flighty pigeons patrol the bus station roof and a few fluffy clouds pepper the sky. Suitcases roll in, buses roll out and people chat about what they’ll be having for lunch. It’s just another day in Salamanca – but not for me. Today’s the day I find my family.

It’s hard to say exactly how I’m feeling right now. Three days ago, when Rafael called, I was nervous. So nervous I waited until the call went through to my answerphone so I could deal with the matter calmly and indirectly. I’d already gone through the business of psyching myself up a couple of weeks ago, when I first made plans to visit. Spurred on by Coco, and some of Bella’s heartbreaking family stories, I decided I could wait no longer. Then Rafael’s sudden hospitalisation put our reunion on hold and I had to wait.

Now I’m racing across the sunny fields of old Castile with the cathedral of Salamanca shrinking into the distance, and my new quest – perhaps the greatest quest of my life so far – has begun.

12:58

The snows on the highest peaks of the Guadarrama seem as smooth as flour. San Rafael, the quiet town that harboured me once when I came down tired and hungry from a sixty kilometre trek across the mountains, looked warm and unfamiliar in the sunlight. I only remember it in the dark of the night. I have left the granite boulders and high sierras of old Castile behind me. Madrid stretches out across the plain with queer mountains of tower blocks and skyscrapers. The Buddenbrooks film they have playing on the monitor is drawing to its sad and depressing finale, a world away from the hopeful sunshine outside. Nineteenth-century Germany and sunlit Madrid could hardly be further apart.

I see a magpie. I count to ten. A second appears. I breathe again.

14:43

Every quest has a dragon to be slain, and today’s is Atocha Station. On the bus I briefly entertained the idea of a small paseo in the Retiro, should I find my way through the station easily. It’s as well that I didn’t. It took me several bewildered attempts to navigate the terminus. Atocha makes London King’s Cross seem like the Dunkeld and Birnam railway station. Stairs criss-crossing each other in all directions. Media distancia here, larga distancia there, high-speed AVE lines elsewhere. The icing on the cake: the platform is not revealed until minutes before the train arrives, or, in this case, withheld until the thing is just pulling in. I was a bag of nerves back there and I’m not proud of it. I love travel, but I don’t like cities. I never have. And it’ll only be harder on the way back when I have half the time to get from Atocha to Estación Sur. But the dragon is slain, and I’m headed south into New Castile and the immense emptiness of La Mancha.

15:08

Where do I begin? What questions do I ask the only man on Earth who knew my grandfather when he was still alive? It’s hard to know where to start. Rafael may be my first cousin twice removed, and his descendants more distant still, but they’re all that’s left of my family and I have to find them. I have to know. It’s what’s been driving this whole Spanish adventure from the very beginning. My grandfather José… When was he born? What was he like? Is there anything left of him in his hometown, or has he passed, like the Moorish kings, into memory? I can only hope for some small detail, a shred of the faintest of proofs. In truth I do not really know what awaits me in Villarrobledo, but I can wait no longer.

15:40

Some etymologists believe the Roman word “Hispania”, from which we derive the modern name of Spain, came via an old Punic-Hebrew cognate “i-shfania”, meaning “Island of Rabbits”. The rabbits are dying out by degrees – I haven’t seen one in months – so perhaps “Island of Magpies” might be a better term today. The kites and the swallows come and go, but I see magpies wherever I go in this country. I used to associate them with the oak tree that grew on the verge by my house when I was growing up. Nowadays I think of Spain when I see them. I’m not sure where we get the word “magpie” from, but the Spanish urraca is supposedly onomatopoeic, like the Arabic ‘āqāq. There was even a Spanish queen called Urraca once. I wonder why they called her that?

The earth is red. We’re rolling into Alcázar de San Juan. Three stops remain. Just to spite me, a pair of rabbits watched our train pass by from the sleepers on the opposite line. Hispania lives on.

17:29

The first words I heard on entering Villarrobledo were not in Spanish at all, but in American English. I’m not sure whether that marred my first experience or not. Villarrobledo looks like a lot like Villafranca, picked up and dropped in the middle of La Mancha. And I thought Extremadura was flat… I’ve never seen such horizons.

The hotel Rafael arranged for me has everything I need, except the little zing of extra courage I could do with right now. To be fair, there’s probably plenty of courage in the couple of Dueros I brought as presents for my family, but if I can soldier through twenty-two years of teetotal trials, I can manage this one sober. I’ve had a shower, freshened up and put today’s date in my journal. There’s nothing left to do but to step out of the hotel room and finish my quest. Some food wouldn’t go amiss, but as it’s Jueves Santo, I doubt anywhere will be open. Besides, needs must: there’s a greater cause at stake. Grandfather, this is for you. It always has been.

Ps. I’ve forward-dated this post, so by the time you read this, I’ll have met my family already. I’ll keep you posted.