It’s our last breakfast in Algodonales, Spain, Summer 2018. We sit on red plastic chairs at a small pavement café and find that our table has a mind of its own. We wedge napkins under its thin metal legs to correct the wobble, and enjoy brief seconds of success before someone rests an elbow and the table tilts again. More napkins are deployed and an argument brews between the children as to which table leg needs attention.
I can’t pretend that these kids are not mine, as we all look quite similar and we arrived here together. But I can pretend that a scrap amongst the siblings is not occurring. So I hum a taut tune and ignore their pleas for intervention as I seek distraction elsewhere.
This is a family run café – a husband and wife team and their teenage daughters. The husband has taken our order and now scans the scene from a step that leads to the interior. His wife comes up behind him and pushes him off his perch, as if to say, “Get on with your work.” No words or looks of annoyance are exchanged. The husband falls off the step with the agility of a dancer and moves around tables to attend to new customers. His wife takes his place on the step and scans the scene. After a few minutes she returns inside, her position affirmed.
I wonder if the husband is practising the same policy as me. Pretend nothing is happening, and it might turn out to be true.
One of the owners’ daughters brings us our drinks. Her arrival quietens my kids just as I’m ready to forsake my composure with a hissed public scolding.
“Gracias!” I say with a smile. “Say ‘gracias’, kids.” (the hiss seep in).
“Gracias.” they say with scowls.
And we sip coffee and ColaCao and read today’s sugar quote. We eat generous portions of tostada con tomate y aceite and our photos of that day tell us it was perfect.
If I hadn’t kept a diary that summer in Spain, I might think it had been the perfect day. However, I might not have recalled the dance of power between the husband and wife. Or that I witnessed (from afar) four funerals and one wedding in one town over the course of one month – as odd to me then as it is now.
I keep another diary currently – for the duration of the pandemic. Each day it feels like I’m maintaining a rising record of groundhog days, and today’s entry could pass for yesterday’s .. and probably tomorrow’s, too.
Yet as I leaf through my pencilled pages, no two days are actually the same. Moods nuance entries with highs and lows; there are bitter-sweet moments along with domestic ennui and an awful lot of cooking.
I see stats that stack up; #BlackLivesMatters; lockdown pancakes; and how pilchards sold out. Seasons have come and gone, DIY hair-dos have grown out, and my husband’s Hamilton obsession lives on … and on (we have our very own
‘dance’ grab of the remote control for that).
In the absence of any real travel, my diary allows room for reflection, and rereading my journal from 2018 gives me distance and perspective. Sometimes the old and new worlds collide.
Yesterday I was taken back to an artisan ice cream parlour in Seville (Rick Stein favours the orange blossom flavour). The innovative owner, Joaquín Liría, once designed an ice cream to mark Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Spain in 2011. Named “Cream Vaticana” it was intended to “feed the body and the spirit” and its ingredients included blueberries and “crunchy incense“. Apparently, it was so good that the Vatican ordered more.
When we squeezed into Joaquín Liría’s ice cream shop in 2018, a film crew was already there. We edged our way out of shot and watched as we waited our turn to be served. Liría was perfecting a confection before letting the camera roll, and invited me to photograph his glacial creation. It was graced with iced olives. Liría was very pleased with my photo and thanked me for taking it. I’m sure it should have been the other way around.
Today there are no frozen visions at Heladería La Fiorentina and the story is quite different. The shop opened for Spring the same weekend that Spain went into lockdown, so Liría sent all his freshly made ice creams to soup kitchens. In June, he took the decision to not reopen the Heladería this year. He said, “The entire season is lost. We are artisans and we do not have enough economic cushion to support [us].”
Obviously, it’s not always possible to pretend things are okay – or forget how hard some things once were.
I rediscovered the sugar sachet that I first read on that ‘perfect’ morning in Algodonales, tucked into the back of my 2018 diary. Granules were escaping from a weakened corner, texturing the paper like sand. With care I picked it up and read its quote again.
A sachet chosen at random (or not) by the waitress that day. I wonder what she knew that I didn’t.
I’ve transcribed the words and its translation into my present diary. One day it’s likely I’ll want to read them again. And I trust that while the doors of his ice cream parlour remain closed, Joaquín Liría is spending this season conceiving a new sweet concoction to feed the body and spirit. I wish him luck.