Las aventuras de un guiri en Extremadura
In the late summer of 2004 I left the United Kingdom and went to live in Extremadura. I had lived there previously from 1993 to 1994 and somehow or other the place had got under my skin. It was never going to be an easy move: my wife, Cheryl stayed behind while I looked for somewhere to live. At least I had work, though. A decade earlier I had worked at a small language academy in Mérida, the capital of the autonomous region of Extremadura. I must have done a good job, because with just this they agreed to take me on anew. So despite being well past forty, I found myself doing that decidedly student thing of looking for cheap accommodation: scouring the want ads and looking at the cards advertising digs on the façade of the town hall. I eventually found a flat and this turned out to be a stroke of luck as it was right next door to one of the most famous bars in the city; the Bar Bocanegra.
This stroke of good fortune must have inspired me, because once I had been settled in for a few days, I made a rather optimistic phone call. I rang the headquarters of the region’s largest and most prestigious newspaper and asked them – completely out of the blue – if they fancied having an English columnist. To my surprise, they readily agreed. Naturally, as I had contacted them, I was, effectively, a volunteer and so there would be no financial reward for my efforts. I agreed to this unusual caveat: at the time I was writing for many of the Spanish-themed magazines that were available on the high street back home. My new status as Spanish newspaper columnist could be used as leverage to get more work.
One thing I never imagined when I made that phone call, was the fuss that the paper was going to make over its new signing. A photographer and fellow hack were dispatched to the office of the language academy, to interview and photograph me. A double page spread was the result. I would write a column of 600 words or thereabouts, which would appear in the opinion section of the newspaper every Monday. My by-line was to be “El Guiri”. When translated into English the word guiri usually morphs into the word tourist, but if you have ever lived in a town besieged by tourists for three or four months of the year, then whatever disparaging word you use to describe those tourists – in my case the word, grockle – would be the better translation. A photograph accompanied each and every article, which led to the somewhat unusual situation of my being besieged by adoring fans every time I ventured out on to the main street. (That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not that much.)
I can still remember that first article. I took me three hours to churn out the 600 words. It might have been hard work, but I think it was worth it. I don’t think I ever wrote a better article, despite the fact that my Spanish was rusty at the time. Eventually, I got the time down to such an extent that it was taking me about forty-five minutes to write most of my articles.
After a few weeks I got a surprise email from my editor. My articles had been so well received that the newspaper felt morally obliged to pay me. It wasn’t exactly a fortune: 16 Euros per article, but at the end of the month it all added up and helped to pay a few bills. In the September of 2004 the sun was shining and I was going out on a daily basis and being assailed by new experiences. I got to the point that I felt bad when I rang Cheryl at weekends, as she was swamped with her work as a teacher at an independent school and it must have seemed to her that my new life was one long succession of amazing experiences. This must have shown up in my writing, which was invariably highly positive, effectively painting Extremadura as some kind of Shangri La. The more positive I was, the more invitations flooded in. I even got fan mail. I was invited to a ranch where they bred the special black and white oxen (given the testicular status of an ox, I was never sure how that worked), I was invited to a spectacular vineyard/winery complex and I spent my evenings in the Bar Bocanegra, where I was treated like a king.
Whilst doing a bit of casual translating work for a local estate agent (something else that came from the writing) I saw a large house in a tiny village about 10 miles from Mérida. The prospective client declared it to be too small for his needs, but it was perfect for our needs. This place was colossal and the price tag was a laughable 42,000 Euros. When I heard the price, I made an offer on the spot. It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t paradise. It had a few issues: we never really had a back door that closed properly. It needed a new roof. It was on a slope. The walls were made of mud. But: when you opened the back door and stepped out onto the back patio there was a view of a typical dehesa: the characteristic holm oak groves of Extremadura. These oak groves are fabulously rich in wildlife and did I mention that both Cheryl and I are wildlife fanatics? Every little event in the process of buying the house and doing it up made its way into my columns. The villagers were thrilled to have me there, which may have had something to do with the barbecue we hosted once we moved in permanently. We put a big sign outside the house which made it abundantly clear that everyone was invited. And pretty much everyone came.
Cheryl and I lived in the village of Aljucén for two years and we had a pretty good time. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Things are rarely that simple in my experience. I was dogged by health problems the entire time I was there and eventually we made the difficult decision to come home. But before we returned somehow or other a selection of my articles was published in book form, by a local bank. It is this collection of stories – all of them in Spanish – that I have now re-launched as an e-book on the Amazon Kindle book store. Its new title is “las aventuras de un guiri en Extremadura.” If you speak Spanish and you might be interested, the link is here: