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Life In Old Spain - Part 5

LIFE IN OLD SPAIN - PART 5Cave Houses. I am in the middle of translating Lorca's Romancero Gitano, or Gypsy Ballads, and I can't understand what the heck he is writing about. I translate the words, but that doesn't seem to help.

"A sky of white sheep covers quick-silver eyes." Oh yes, surrealism. No problem. Only it isn't surrealism. Maybe Lorca was a mate of Salvador Dali, but he was never a surrealist.

A friend of mine, Al Lloyd, that great collector of folk songs, and still dearly missed, told me Lorca was just describing, albeit somewhat violently and vividly, the world of nature.

I am sitting on the roof of a cave house in Guadix looking up at the night sky. That's when I see those white sheep covering quick-silver eyes. I'm sure you've seen those bunched-up, slow-moving clouds that look like the backs of sheep. They roll gradually over the stars (those quick silver eyes), extinguishing them.

I have my back to a chimney stack. I begin quoting lines from the Ballad of the Sleepwalker. They suddenly make sense. The father of the dead girl and the smuggler go up to the balconies of the moon at the top of the house, and sadly they realise that everything they ever wanted will never materialise and they are stuck in some frozen reality. It's frozen because it never changes. Day after day things go on the same, and one's dreams are just as far away as they ever were.

We have wonderful descriptions of the moonlight like an icicle suspended in the cistern. I quote the lines out loud, and then go on to the chorus line:

verde, que te quiero verde

Green, lo i love you green;

green wind, green branches;

the ship on the sea

and the horse on the mountain.

I stop, looking across the little square between the rock houses below me. Behind me a deep voice continues on with the next stanza of the poem. Then he stops. I carry on with the following stanza, and we both declaim the chorus together.

There is a moment's silence. I turn, and we smile. The moon comes out from behind the clouds. Below us in the square everything is quiet. The scene is magical. The horizon of dogs bark endlessly. There is a glow from the cave bar at the end of the street. Everywhere I look I can see images straight out of Lorca's poems. "Thank god the civil guard aren't banging on the door," I say, and laugh.

My new friend laughs as well, and we walk down to the street, and across to that small cave bar where, over the course of the evening, it seems I manage to get to know half the population.

Later that evening I am taken back to my new friend's home. He explains how it came about. The rock is initially hard, as expected, but if you cut into it you find it is very soft. Once you have started digging, continuing is easy, but after being exposed to the air the rock quickly hardens.

You must choose your spot carefully. You need to be on a ridge. You don't want to build in a gully. You also need room around you so you can dig in any direction. Ideally you want to be on the side of a hill with the top of the hill as your roof, and one side as the front of your new home.

You dig into the hillside creating as many rooms as you need. You then build a wall in front with a door and a couple of windows. That front room will be your living room. Behind will be a kitchen and bedrooms. You cut square panels into the wall as pretend-windows. You place things on the cill and put up a curtain, which of course, is always pulled across the space. The doorways are usually arched. The walls are dressed, and then painted white, using that special mixture they use in southern Spain.

Distemper is mixed with a little lime, a little cement, and some water, and the resultant muck is stirred around and then painted on the walls. The colour turns out a brilliant white, becomes quite hard, and has antiseptic qualities.

If you are a growing family you can always dig further into the hillside when you need another bedroom.

My new friend's house has three bedrooms, all quite tiny, but large enough for a bed, a dressing table, a little niche for a crucifix, and a chair.

The kitchen has a doorway into two more rooms which are used for the animals. There are chickens and even a couple of donkeys. These rooms then lead into an enclosed yard where the folks keep their farm implements and a cart. The whole is perfectly set out with everything close to hand.

I sit and chat with the family. The little man boasts that his chimney is twenty-five feet in length, and has been hacked out with a pickaxe.

As you reach the outskirts of the village you have to wend your way around the chimney pipes that stick out of the ground. There is usually a mule track which descends between houses into the main square.

The home is warm in winter and cool in summer. Cooking is done on a stove, but combustible materials are not abundant in this area of Spain. When I was there it was almost a capital offence to steal someone's wood supply. I don't remember a single tree anywhere in the village.

"We are married nine years," the man says. "We have eight children. Every year a child. Next year we have nine children." He is very small, about five feet two inches tall, and his wife is smaller. They look to be in their fifties, but life here is hard.

They talk about the local boy made good, the famous bullfighter El Cordobes.

He is an illiterate gypsy, and at the time is the only Spaniard with long hair. Our new friend tells us he earns two or three million pesetas in one afternoon, and flies everywhere in his own helicopter.

At night men sit on their roofs, which are those high balconies. Most nights you can see three or four of them, silent, with small red lights blazing and then fading as they draw on their cigarettes.

Today these cave houses are either meticulously kept up, or totally abandoned. There are many such houses out in the fields away from the villages which are now used to grow mushrooms. Closer to the main population areas are many that could be brought back into use. You are effectively just buying the land, so they are cheap. Building costs are negligible. You just need a pick-axe and a shovel, and some muscle power. Your biggest expenditure will be on bathroom and kitchen gear, paint, and a front door.

's the ecological way to live. You don't need heating in the winter. You don't need air conditioning in the summer. The resources needed to construct the house are minimal, and you certainly fit into your environment. I guess you can even park your car in an underground garage.

However, if you ever move here, do buy a copy of Lorca's Gypsy Ballads, and occasionally sit on the roof in the moonlight and read a page or two while you listen to the dogs barking around the long horizon.

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