It’s Christmas Eve in a sunny Córdovan square and locals bustle across the plaza with purpose, clutching white plastic bags.
Others relax, shopping complete, spreading out on café terraces to drink hot coffee or a well-chilled beer. A mother scolds her child with a crescendo of anger that thrums off the elegant buildings all around.
This copycat Castilian-style square once saw bloody bullfights, witnessed the terror of the Inquisition, and the searing fire of executions.
Today the Plaza de la Corredera is an apparently untroubled locale. But there’s a real feel – one that the grace of Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor soars above. Litter spews out of a few scattered rubbish bins, ash flicks onto stone, and the used look of market day tells a hundred small stories.
The Mercado (market) inhabits a building on one side of the Plaza. Inside it sparkles: red tinsel encircles a fishmonger’s weighing scales, shrimps lie prettily pink in death on ice. It’s late morning and the few fish that still slicken the stalls are waiting patiently to be picked. Perhaps they will make it to a family’s Christmas feast later.
The stallholders are wearily anticipating their own relaxation. A bargain is offered for last minute purchases, euros are carefully counted, and a drop of Montilla-Moriles (the local fino) is poured by a vendor for his buying friend.
Spicy slices of paprika-red chorizo and a freakily tiny pig’s head adorn a butcher’s stall. One of my sons reminds me that he’s hungry.
We find a stand-up bar right at the back of the Mercado, where women are taking a break to bang their tambourines, the white plaits on their Santa hats swinging in merry time. A jingle of laughter, then one woman stops with a smile. My husband orders what we know how to say, “Dos cafés con leche y tostada por favor.”
A friendly babble back prompts my husband’s customary apologetic shrug and the learned by rote words that fade away, “No hablo español … ”
This is when we meet Miguel. Smoking a cigarette, he’s leaning languidly on the bar. But his ears tune into our foreignness and he turns.
“You speak English?”
“Would you like olive oil and tomato on the toast?”
Olive oil for sure – we are new converts to the lazy liquid green of hereabouts – it leaves a hefty punch in your throat.
Miguel gives the woman our answer. She nods, taps her tambourine, and we are glad we all understand each other.
Miguel introduces himself, and asks where we are from. We tell him we are Londoners (sometimes it’s easier to convey than the suburban reality). He explains that he lives and works in Germany, and he apologises for his poor English.
So German becomes our lingua franca – his and mine. Miguel’s syntax and verb conjugation are all over the place, but impact not a jot on his unbridled desire to communicate.
I wonder why he moved to Germany? He says that he’s lived there for many years because there is no work for him here in Spain. Unemployment is sky high and Córdoba is losing its young people. Miguel reels off a string of possibilities for a better life: Germany, the UK, France, USA, some travel as far away as to Australia. He sighs.
I translate Miguel’s words into English for my family. Miguel stresses the dire economic situation in imperfect German to my husband, who responds with a Spanish “Sí, sí.” He understands Miguel’s meaning, if not the language – we have already noted the graffiti-painted but well-equipped park on the southern side of the Roman bridge. Cross the River Guadalquivir from the historic tourist haven, and it’s a different sort of city.
The tostada arrives, richly sweet. We sip strong coffee, and I thank Miguel for his help.
He says it’s his pleasure, and that we must look out for his good friend Carlos in London. Carlos runs a restaurant and if we go there and say we are friends of Miguel from Córdoba, he might give us a free beer or two.
We promise to do just that and say, “Adiós, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye.”
The women wave their tambourines as we go, and Miguel leans back on the bar. It’s been an interesting exchange, and not just because of the grammatical lack of clarity. We return to the sunshine of the square, and wander further on into tourist territory, enjoying the beauty we see and the music we hear underneath the orange trees next to La Mezquita. But with Miguel’s words still fresh in our ears, the scene looks a little different now.
Incidentally, I wish I could remember the name of Miguel’s friend’s restaurant – London is a big old place.
For more on the reality of life in the pretty pueblos blancos of Andalucía, click here.
And for an up to date report on Andalucía’s unemployment situation, click here.