Franck and Joanna – near La Llacuna, Spain.

Last time I wrote (a while ago- sorry- I’ve been experimenting with powerful drugs, chasing girls, and farming with hippies that have no internet), I left you in suspense about this jerk wine business fellow I was working for in northern Spain – would I kill him quietly in the night and leave? Would he get his incredibly yellow teeth cleaned?- anyway, in the afternoon of my fourth day near La Llacuna (lie-yah-coon’-ah) and Barcelona in northern Spain, a couple shows up to help Anthony. I’ve been doing data entry for him, and a bit of labor here and there, for variety. I am deeply grateful for any other human of any type showing up, even if only for contrast- Anthony is cold and distant, an amphibian, with conversation seemingly a chore. Joanna says hello enthusiastically as she’s dragging bits in, and she is stunning- tall, a model’s lithe body, cheekbones, beautifully expressive light blue eyes – and all these aesthetics packaged with a very cheery disposition, and an energetic zest about everything she turns her attention to. Her ‘husband’ Franck (they’re technically actually not married, but they may as well be) is clearly French, and he fearlessly and rapidly swats at English all day long: has that schooled-French combination of gigantic English vocabulary and house-of-cards grammar, with everything converted into ‘zees’ and ‘zat’, and stunning syllabic emphases- perfectly literally French versions of all things English, so that listening to him requires a high state of concentration. But it’s worth it: he turns out to be very funny, not particularly subtle but invariably in good humor, with an enthusiastic naivete about nearly everything. ‘Zees Kuhn-TREE is a so booteefool so zat I run without of ze cloze in ze field tomorROW, no, today, no, NOW, YES! Well, zees ees I am French and must be naiKED if I am making happy, you will watch?, non non non, ees yust for yoanna, my buDEE, well okay zen, you can watch zees, mais you are not zee gay, no?, bon bon, zen we can make zees run of zee naiKED togeZURH!,’ And so on.
They set out pleasing their host right away by cleaning, wiping and shining within 10 minutes of arriving. I want to tell them ‘hey, 1) it’s Saturday, 2) Anthony is a jerk, he needs some kind of 3) opposite, 4) you need to establish the precedent of relaxing today and tomorrow or you’ll end up feeling 5) exploited and 6) under-appreciated’. In retrospect, I should’ve blurted and whispered urgently and sweat and plotted for them. But I could only express polite surprise at their enthusiastic work ethic to them- which wasn’t nearly the same thing- well, I didn’t want to infect their opinions about Anthony, in case it was just a personal opinion. He did seem much nicer to them than he had been with me (I later developed the opinion that this was due to them being twice the potential labor force).

When they were done cleaning, I was able to spend a bit of time getting to know them during dinner and the subsequent cleanup. They met in Belgium, and live together there. I learned a lot from them about their little divided country, about which I had known nothing (half very French culturally, half very Dutch, split down the middle geographically). I could tell from looking at Joanna that she was not from France- her cheekbones are so high and wide one feels tempted to announce the follow-on species to homo sapiens. Sure enough, she had been born to Polish parents. When she was young, her family had moved to Germany to escape oppression; then she had done a year of student exchange in West Virginia. At 21, she emigrated to France, meeting Frank a year or so later. Each of these languages she speaks fluently: in fact, this is a hallmark of Joanna, that she has the ability to express herself naturally in four languages, as well as intuit her way through aspects of Spanish and Slavic languages other than Polish. There were times when she just seemed like a linguistic machine, and as we engaged with others she had occasion to transfer effortlessly between 3 of her 4 languages, as well as fearlessly plunge in with Spanish as warranted. She was a lesson in how one learns languages, as she just plows in with whatever she’s got- fearless and cheery.
Frank was an erstwhile social network entrepreneur, and he bubbled on enthusiastically and generally incomprehensibly about what he wanted to do, which he seemed to have quite clear in his mind. Seven days later when they left, I still had no idea exactly what he meant, after several long conversations. That first night set the pattern of our subsequent conversations about his ideas: I was left politely nodding and clueless, interrupting his burbling with a question here or there, in a sincere and hopeless effort to catch up. At one point, Joanna interjected that it was basically an online press agency for social networks: I have hung onto that idea as at least a rational effort, and I do wish him all the best.

Sunday, the only day the jerk considered our actual day off, was to be a day of touring on mountain bikes, and Anthony seemed enthused about guiding us around. He assured us that the hills would not be tough, that we’d ‘never have to go to the lower gears’. To which I responded that he could dictate a fair amount of items as host, but he was not to decide what gear my cycling would occur in. He chose to take this as a joke. We set off innocently enough on the uphill road towards the near village of La Llacuna. 2 miles of uphill later, we veered off onto a trail, and were treated to some truly spectacular landscapes as we climbed higher and higher. Higher as in Steep. Steep as in anyone would be huffing and puffing at the lowest gear offered on the most gear-friendly bike in the world. 2 miles from the house and the jerk was already proven either a liar or an idiot, probably both, as first girl and then host tumbled off their bike to climb on foot. And there was me, repeating like a mantra from the first few meters out of the driveway, that no one is to trouble themselves by going fast or struggling to stay up, that the lowest common denominator person is the ruler of the pace on an enjoyable venture. Although I love endurance sports, I find very irritating the effort some make to combine such with a tourist outing, especially when I know that the participants are not particularly athletic. Always feel protective of those sensible, balanced, mildly fat people I come across.

The day turned out to be a repeat every 15 minutes or so of this pattern, on and off the bike as we climbed and climbed to take advantage of seeing caves, castles, an abandoned monastery, a thousand year old oak (with a pond in a giant hollow at the top of the trunk), the grounds of Belgium royalty’s farm, and a high mountain spring. Once an hour the jerk would pull out his camera, often interviewing/exploiting us, asking us how we liked it, and we did the blah blah for him. It became apparent that the trip was primarily an opportunity for him to advertise his tours and his company. The interviews are available via U-tube, and I’d tell you how to find them if I didn’t have to tell you the name of his company to do so. I’d prefer the count of viewers to stay below 10, and his firm to remain anonymous. He instinctively stopped the interviews just as I’d decided to ruin them all for him (he’s incapable of editing his videos)…yes, Anthony is a gifted capitalist.

But as you can imagine, we’re on vacation, these Belgians and I- we could give a shit what Anthonys’ motives are- the ride was spectacular. When I got bored with the pace I forged ahead and came back- they all had long since lost their early enthusiasm for bolting along- and we moved from item to item, inspired by the age, the scope, and the untrammeled innocence of the wheat- and forest-ridden countryside. All these noteworthy sites, and we were nearly alone crawling about on them, despite the fact that it was a gorgeous weekend day in northern Spain.
The 12th century monastery was especially remarkable- in a fabulous location on a col between two minor mountains, labarinthine, tall, many stone outbuildings, with many thousands of hours of drywall (stone with no mortar) construction. Out in the middle of nowhere, and almost no visitors, as was apparent from the growth all around. Apparently abandoned in the seventeenth century due to drought problems: it seemed hard to believe that anyone could create such a vast thing and just leave it to start their monastery up elsewhere as they apparently did, even five hundred years later. And indeed, other groups had tried to move into pieces of the complex through the years, as you could tell from the prop-up construction in several corners of the grounds. We snuck illegally into the main building (dangerous) and looked around, getting a much better sense of life there. Teeny rooms; alcoves for shrines; the stunning views from every window.

Thankfully, the jerk pedaled home early, presumably to exploit others online the rest of the day. We were near La Llacuna, and I knew the way home from training rides, so we went into town and poked around a bit. We went to the tourist office and met the representative, who was very nice. After talking, I realized she was the mother of a young boy who had come over and built a scarecrow at the house with Anthony’s son and me earlier. Katarina turned out to be a delight. Born in Germany, raised and married in Ecuador to an American, she and Joanne nattered on happily in German and English, and we ended up getting invited to dinner Tuesday night. We then went to a nearby restaurant Katarina had recommended, and we irritated the proprietor (lots of latin sighs and looking upward) by wanting to eat, but only having 27 dollars or so and generally unable to communicate this limitation- we ended up with beer and some bread and olives, which we were quite happy with, and we promised ourselves that we’d have more money next time we came. Somehow, the rude proprietor only made me embarrassed, not mad at all, and we all resolved to come back with more money to enjoy her food. I felt very Euro in that moment, because I think if someone had treated me that badly in America they’d have gotten dirty looks and no tip. My moral center is changing, or at least my perceptual engine.
The 3 miles more or less straight up to home (about 2000 feet) was too much for the Belgians, so we walked all but the flatter parts, for a fine and conversational end to a beautiful, inspiring day. The jerk lives in a wonderful place. Many jerks do.

Since Joanna and Frank were done with their cleansing tasks on Saturday, on Monday Anthony set them on a data entry task that I had done half of, so that I could be freed up to paint. Frank, who has a computer-related master’s degree, proceeded to leverage his education with a vengeance, making a major project out of the effort- instead of cutting and pasting email addresses from a list of them on a web site into a spreadsheet, I noticed after a few hours of design that there was suddenly inserted some form of data conversion, as well as creation of an interim database, with a conversion to Excel at the end. The steps seemed ridiculous- I think it took him 4 hours or so to devise them- and Frank seemed to have no desire for any input from me, so I let them have at. Hey, we’re on vacation- what do I care how long something will take? Anyway, when money’s not a factor, inefficiencies are fun to watch. In fact, as is instinctive with me, I had taken the time to devise a rather involved series of clicks and mouse movements that was 90 to 100% efficient to complete the process: I’m a workflow efficiency expert in my business life, fa krissakes. They had only to ask me how and it would’ve been leisurely completed in about 5 hours or so, between the two of them.
That is not what happened. Monday came and went with the two of them slaving away- furrowed brows, sighs; yea verily, the mountainous task before them. After awhile, I took about 90 minutes and completed about a third the remainder doing it my way, and they were grateful- and kept doing it the same way they had been. Our day was to end at 5:30, and they continued on. Frank went to bed exhausted at 10, and Joanna kept right up until 2, fretting as she went to sleep about how there was at least 10 more hours remaining, and Anthony was being so unreasonable expecting completion. But it was just nice for me to be out of capitalist-efficiency mode and not worrying about their plight. Made me feel even more Euro.

Thankfully, the Belgians completed the task by noon or so on Tuesday. Joanna was set on doing some rototilling for the first time, and I got to watch this tall woman curl up like a spider as she coaxed the low machine up and down the gentleman farmer almond orchard, a terrifically fun sight- all that determination, framed in bad ergonomics and lot of herky-jerky rock wrestling. For the next few days she was quite sore, but she had performed admirably, and was retired to painter’s assistant.

At some point, the jerk insulted Frank’s manhood somehow: Franck chose to retaliate by doing a massive amount of physical labor for the duration, taking over the rototilling and all the other outside labor. Wouldn’t have been my form of payback of course, but then I’m not a Frenchman, maybe there it’s how it’s done, maybe they’re closer to the rap artists who throw money at their enemies as the ultimate insult. I’m not sure about much when it comes to the French. But this happy cultural burp of his left me hours and hours over days to have long aimless talks with Joanna while we painted, for which I will always be grateful to Franck. She proved to have an inquiring and open mind, as well as a lot of well-formed opinions about many parts of existence I know nearly nothing about. After talking to Joanna for days, I am more convinced than ever now that knowing a second and third language is a doubling and tripling of one’s sphere somehow. We talked about West Virginia, where I had last vacationed and she had lived rather miserably with a villainous family during her student exchange year, I think with the same muggle family Harry Potter lived with; talked about Polish, French and European politics, as she had worked for the European Commission and had memories of her family’s anguish over the state of their Poland home in the ‘70’s; about Anthony and his hopelessly British and capitalist weaknesses; and about our personal histories, which yielded lots of questions and issues for both of us, as we were an unusual pairing of backgrounds, as odd as I can remember encountering.

Little things about her were funny. Joanna is argumentative, but, as is rarely true, she’s argumentative in a good way. She is not afraid to confront an unfair thought or incomplete assessment- there is no female deference to a vehement male opinion- and she will struggle mightily to get her point across, yet she maintains enough equanimity to not be troubled about your take on the subject. There were probably a half a dozen times that I started a discussion with her about something with a firm opinion, and a day later felt either different or much less sure about it. As Frank explained to me while Joanna nodded her agreement, the Poles are the Latins of eastern Europe, which was meant to explain why she argued so vociferously and so often with him, and why their arguments invariably yielded to lovey-dovey talk and snuggling.

She really didn’t have a dietary or drug addiction of any kind: she talked up a storm about wanting chocolate, but then resisted the stuff consistently and easily. Frank grabbing a second beer or a first cigarette was always good for a 3 minute tongue-lashing in French from her, him mostly silent as a child. She resisted any perceived hint that her sex was any less, or even different- in fact, that was a major button of hers- and yet she would don rubber gloves as any meal was winding down and do all the cleanup work in the kitchen, unless you talked her down like a shooter in a tower. She is pathologically, philosophically opposed to the existence of germs, with multiple daily showers, daily gloved bathroom attacks, and wardrobe changes (and subsequent laundry loads) more appropriate to working various shades of high society than a working vacation. They came with backpacks, but I still cannot imagine her camping, as in horizontal on a surface near the ground: indeed, it turns out that their camping is always with toilet and shower at the ready. Can’t imagine even that, though. When she does some great work in Euro politics and they make her statue, she will be depicted in dishwashing gloves, her hands in the air like a surgeon’s, the struggle against bacilli never complete.

I have few woman friends, to my disappointment, or at least less than I want- women have such different and often effortlessly delightful perspectives on so much that is vital. Joanna has found her way to friendship with me quickly and easily. She machine-guns me emails regularly now, and is currently embroiled in a new job and arranging her wedding with the Franck. Eet weel not to be zee walking in zees park for you, my Franck, zees Pole. She ees to have you on zee toes, yes? Oh yes. Well- alors- eet ees because you are een ze luck, my dear frog.

On Tuesday, we went to dinner at Katarina’s, complete with her boyfriend and 3 children, and it was a blast. She had inherited her grandmother’s 200 year-old home, and the hand-carved beams (mostly gnarled branches) were a delight, as was her collection of priceless pre-colombian pottery the family had picked up in South America, and the view to a courtyard invaded by hundreds of circling, chasing, screaming thrushes, socializing at sunset as they do here. The family chain-smoked and drank their way through a dish of chile sin carne, which they had thoughtfully planned around my vegetarianism, and I enjoyed the two women carrying along in German, their native tongues, with the boyfriend intermittently grabbing Katarina’s arm plaintively (he was jealous of the attention, in a classically latin way), and she gave him condensed catch-up Spanish versions of the gist of it. Frank snuck cigarettes and marijuana and beer outside, and Joanna let him get away with it (though later in the week he tried to smoke another one and got in a terrible row with her after she declared him, officially, A Smoker. I was actually in the line of fire on an early part of that volley. I ended up ok. Just a glancing blow. Whew.)

So the last week passed happily for me- mindless but somewhat exacting painting labors, daily fantastic mountain bike rides or runs, excellent meals (the Belgians started cooking), really superb Spanish wines, and long unhurried conversations with a smarty. We all decided to extend our time together by leaving Anthony’s at the same time and going to a seaside town south of Barcelona named Tarragona, Rome’s western capital around the time of the birth of Christ. We walked around the town and up to the Roman aqueduct ruins, which were impressive and substantial to me, though Frank was not impressed- ‘will, en Lyons dees ees not a beeg eggsemple of dees aQUAdooct’. Whatever. Any freaking aquaduct is amazing, I mean they transported small amounts of water wholly by gravity on these things for sometimes hundreds of miles, carefully keeping the angle of declination small and almost consistent, so the flow was optimal; they’re usually two thousand years old or more and they’re still there, looking like they’ll last another two thousand years. I couldn’t believe the engineering, stone and labor logistics, and standardization involved. Eighty or more generations of man later, and they look fine.

When we parted ways I agreed to visit them in Belgium in the late summer. I had not planned on going there, but it makes good sense to do so, as I can couple it with a visit to Holland. Brian Hurst had been encouraging me to go to Belgium, and I don’t think I would’ve lived it down if I hadn’t gone.

I took a train to Salou, to catch my train that is going all the way to the bottom of Spain, to Malaga, the center of La Costa del Sol, the most famous beach and warmest part of Europe. There were no hostels I could find on the internet in Salou, and I can’t stand paying over $50 for a room, so I did some urban camping, which I like the challenge of accomplishing. I found a park in the center of town and a dark area I could put my well-camouflaged gear (green travel bag, black sleeping bag, camo’d sleeping bag cover, or bivy). In the morning I would’ve been painfully visible, but that is often the case when doing this sort of thing: the trick is to find somewhere dark (typically in a deeply shaded area near a bright light, actually), relatively unpopulated, stay quiet, and be gone in the morning.

As I waited for the park to clear out so I could set up camp- it was a Saturday night, and Spaniards are notoriously late living people- lovers came walking through, all night long. After Barcelona and Salou, I think I can say categorically my lifelong notion of Latin love has been inaccurately focused on sex. Lovers of all ages walked through the park that night, typically in keen conversation, holding hands or arms wrapped around each other. It dawned on me over time that this was not guys seducing girls or couples seducing each other, or anything besides couples of every age in love, having good conversation, appreciating and sharing one anothers’ lives. The propensity for this kind of thing was way beyond anything I’ve seen in, say, New York, or San Francisco. After awhile, it was really inspiring, and I ended up waiting around to enjoy the next couple. Latin love has become for me more the notion of these people having a better sense than we do of the joys of sharing life, rather than the sensuality of the tango and the salsa, or tight pants and teeny bikinis and the topless girls on the beaches. Toward the end, a couple came with their boxer, and they played on an arrangement of small teeter-totter logs that emitted whistles of various pitches, which sent their dog into battle stances and leaps of confusion. They went away, and I went to play on it, fascinated by the sounds. The man came back and wordlessly played dueling teeter-totter with me, counterpointing all my notes to the delight of his girlfriend and dog. They laughed as he jumped off, and they walked homeward, arm in arm.

I got a decent night’s sleep, was up at dawn, give or take, and wandered around to get breakfast, but the Spaniards don’t do breakfast until much later- one must settle early for coffee and, if you’re lucky, simple pastries. I discovered that, in Spain, people wake up, start smoking, go to a café or bar and smoke some more, get a coffee and a brandy and/or beer, have quite animated arguments with friends about who-knows-what, and then go to work: very common, it turns out. I sat around drinking my decaf espresso, trying various teensy pastries, and watched these guys come in and chew the fat a little, get a little morning buzz, and go to work. Seemed reasonable, watching them do it, but it does kind of call into question what’s to look forward to at night if you’ve already had your buzz for the day…maybe another buzz? Well, not very American,not very PC, but it seemed reasonable watching them do it so matter-of-factly. Like having a couple of mimosas before going to fix those phone lines, you know? Yikes.

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