That was then, this is now.

Thirty years ago this summer, we went to visit our family in Spain for the first time.

My sister and I were already a globe-trotting pair, having followed our dad on many assignments for Big Accounting Firm* but we had never gone to visit what we now call the ancestral estate.

For reasons beyond the scope of this post, this was also the last summer my sister and I were something of an inseparable unit. After this summer, we'd wind up evolving into rather different people and things'd never be the same since. But anyway.

Franco had just died, so things were a bit looser but Spain was still rather sleepy. Well, if by sleepy you mean lunch at 3pm, snacks at 7pm and dinner at 11pm. Oh, and kids drank wine. (True story; we never saw ONE child drink milk or juice...it was wine or thirst for these people.) But I jump ahead.

I remember for the very first time, jet lag. When one flies from Detroit down to, say, Buenos Aires, sure, it's a grueling flight, but when you arrrive your body clock is still on, more-or-less the same time. We landed in Spain and we were all discombobulated. Day was night, up was down and to top it all off the people in the Madrid office insisted on taking us out for dinner which, if I remember it correctly, felt like it kicked off at 3am.

Beyond the perceived starting time, the thing sticking to my memory was my dad struggling with some truly Mutant Of The Deep sort of crustacean and, after much wrestling with the plateful of it, having eaten the part you throw away and vice versa. How my sister and I held it together to not laugh like a thuderhead, I'll never know. I think Divine Providence was at play, aided by all the sherry and Rioja and abetted by the fact our bodies felt as if we had just completed the Speed Course of the Bataan Death March in record time.

We slept a lot.

Two days later, we took our rented Ford Fiesta XR2 and schlepped to the region of Asturias, to see my great-aunt. She was one of those old-school toughies whose views on children would have made Dickens nod in recognition. Immediately we were put to work, something we didn't mind the first day because things such as milking cows and tilling and tractoring and so forth were new, grand adventures to us, having emerged from suburbia. At 4am, we were roused out of bed, fed a breakfast of fried eggs, home-cured bacon, espresso** with milk and something that looked like a croissant that had been successfully treated by a chiropractor. We were then sent off with Diego, who was in charge of all the other men who worked in the farm, to milk the cows.

What I'll never forget was the milk. OMG. I didn't even mind that the nearest chocolate--let alone Hershey's Syrup--was over 25 miles away. This was glorious. Unpasteurized, rich, creamy and wonderful. My sister took a sip and got sick, just like you see in the cartoons, only hers was a slightly different shade of green. It was at that point, precisely, when I believe her vacation experience turned sour. So I had her share. But after that, we still had a whole mess of cows to milk, and after that, we had apples to pick.

Yes, the apples were delicious (very similar to a Northern Spy, but not exactly) but after 3 hours of picking them, the delight one takes in the flavor fades. It was now 9am. My arms were aching and the sounds of my sister whining were driving me mental. Fortunately, our great-aunt showed up in her...well..I'm not sure what you'd call it, but it looked like a scooter with a pickup bed...with some pastries and hard cider. We were done picking apples.

All we had to do is press them. That part was okay, because one of the old donkeys was tethered to the staff that turned the center shaft of the press and juice would slosh down into a small tank. All we had to do was drop apples in the hopper, make the donkey walk around a bit, repeat until the tank was full and replace the tank and start over. One of the guys would take the tank, drop the juice into a barrel, and 3 others would take a full barrel to where it fermented.

This took us through to lunch time, which was a delicious but ankle-widening stew of white beans and all manner of porcine cuts and sausages. We were starving. Hell, my sister was so hungry she ate all her food even though she said she hated it. After that there was a nap, because only a lunatic would go out in THAT heat (110F/45C). After sleeping the sleep of the just, we were awaked again and instructed to feed the pigs. The pigs ate corn and spent apple bits, and the pods whence the white beans came. They also drank any leftover milk or whey.

Dinner was roast pork and my sister, again, was so famished she even ate seconds, even though I'm sure she was wondering which of the pigs (Porky? Petunia? Babe? The one who built his house of twigs?) had to make the ultimate sacrifice.

This, people, went on for A WEEK.

After this, we schlepped out to the coast to meet one of my dad's cousins who had a beach house. So, we departed from the upper midwest of Spain to the extreme northeast. After the 6th hour in the back of a Ford Fiesta with no a/c, my sister and I got punchy. We started swaying back and forth, causing the little car to yaw noticeably and angering Dad...which only made us laugh, which only made him angrier. Eventually we pulled into the town we were supposed to, but we couldn't quite make sense of the address we had, so my dad pulled up and asked one of the locals. What my dad (who is NOT "Mr. Stick Shift") failed to realize is that cars with a manual transmission tend to freewheel, and our car started rolling backwards ever-so-slowly.

Needless to say, this made us laugh hysterically, especially since Dad hadn't noticed. But Mr. Local Spaniard had, and he now had to walk to keep up with our rolling car so as to give Dad directions. Dad, for his part was angered we were laughing and was scolding us and telling us to shut up and not noticing the car was rolling, still. He also didn't notice the guy who was helping us walking at a pretty good clip to keep up. All dad did was get madder and madder which only made us laugh harder and harder. (Can you see where this is going?) Until he eventually rolled over someone bicycle--at which point we laughed ourselves into a hernia and asphyxia, respectively--and he had to step out and get bawled out by some old guy and pay him, like, $20 in pesetas.

At least he was able to get directions and we proceeded onward, him saying it was all our fault for "making him lose concentration." Mom just smiled benevolently, because she had a headache and laughing would have made it worse.

The rest of the vacation went fine. We spent that weekend at the beach, drove to Barcelona, and Madrid and did all those cultural things and ate at decent (well, decent-ish) hours. Finally we came home...our last"real" family vacation ever, over.

-J.

* Dad was one of very few native Spanish speakers, and thus was called upon to schlep to, say, Ecuador, Argentina, etc., as conditions warranted.

** Oh yeah, in Spain kids drink coffee also.

Comments

Jess said…
Have you had your family back to Spain?

My father grew up on an apple farm in Pennsylvania and we used to visit during harvest time - the smell of the apples was everywhere - I think it came out of our pores after awhile and all the animals on the farm would stand impatiently at the fences, waiting for someone to throw them pressings.
What a great memory, J!
Caro said…
Oh my, the car rolling backwards and you laughing, made me laugh. That is a funny story.
Poppy Buxom said…
Holy shit, that's the kind of crap they made Oscar Wilde do while he was in jail for buggery. It's called "hard labor" for a reason. No wonder your people got the hell out.

And no, I have no immediate plans to go to England to hang out with my grandfather's people, who, if I remember correctly, worked the canals or were bootblacks or some such.
Joke said…
P., My people got the Hell out when the king abdicated. It wasn't that sort of labor they minded so much as socialism. We got it for free without having to put up with Bosie Douglas' craven advances.

DGB, We've been meaning to do it since our kids were born. The family ovah theah has been ACHING to see the boys. I think we maight make it over the next couple of years. My great-aunt has Not Been With Us since 1988 and so I think the coast is clear, labor wise.

C., I was laughing as I was typing it. I SO regret there were no camcorders back then. That was utterly priceless. Especially the old toothless guy complaining how my dad ran over his bike and my dad handing over a squajillion peseta notes to get him to pipe down.

-J.
Bec said…
Apologies in advance if I've missed something very obvious about the Joke backstory, but is your sister a twin? I'm sticky beaking on this one because my two youngest are boy/girl twins and, at three, are great friends - your comment about this trip with your sister got me wondering...

(ps - great story, forgive the twin obsession)
(pps - on other great obsessions, some kitchen pics up in the Ladies Lounge, more to come tonight).
Joke said…
Not twins, but just over a year apart...so, close!

-J.
Major Bedhead said…
Heh. I have similar Trips To Spain stories. Although that car rolling backwards thing is funnier than anything that every happened to us. Funny stuff there, joke.

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