My old friend, the painter, poet and novelist, Héctor Rojas Herazo – whom I hadn’t seen for a long time – must have felt a tremor of compassion when he saw me in Madrid in a crush of photographers and journalists, for he came up to me and whispered: ‘Remember that from time to time you should be nice to yourself.’ In fact, it had been months – perhaps years – since I had given myself a well-deserved present. So I decided to give myself what was, in reality, one of my dreams: a visit to Galicia.
No one who enjoys eating can think of Galicia without first thinking of the pleasures of its cuisine. ‘Homesickness starts with food,’ said Che Guevara, pining perhaps for the vast roasts of his native Argentina while they, men alone in the night in Sierra Maestra, spoke of war. For me, too, homesickness for Galicia had started with food even before I had been there. The fact is that my grandmother, in the big house at Aracataca, where I got to know my first ghosts, had the delightful role of baker and she carried on even when she was already old and nearly blind, until the river flooded, ruined the oven and no one in the house felt like rebuilding it. But my grandmother’s vocation was so strong that when she could no longer make bread, she made hams. Delicious hams, though we children did not like them – children never like the novelties of adults – even though the flavour of that first taste has remained recorded for ever on the memory of my palate. I never found it again in any of the many and various hams I ate later in any of my good or my bad years until, by chance, I tasted – forty years later, in Barcelona – an innocent slice of shoulder of pork. All the joy, all the uncertainties, and all the solitude of childhood suddenly came back to me with that, the unmistakable flavour of the hams my grandmother made.
From that experience grew my interest in tracing the ancestry of this flavour, and, in looking for it, I found my own among the frenetic greens of May, the sea and the fertile rains and eternal winds of the Galician countryside. Only then did I understand where my grandmother had got that credulity which allowed her to live in a supernatural world in which everything was possible and where rational explanations were totally lacking in validity. And I understood from where her passion for preparing food for hypothetical visitors came and her habit of singing all day. ‘You have to make a meat and a fish dish because you never know what people will want when they come to lunch,’ she would say, when she heard the train whistle. She died very old and blind and with her sense of reality completely unhinged, to the point where she would talk about her oldest memories as if they were happening at that moment, and she held conversations with the dead she had known alive in her remote youth. I was telling a Galician friend about this last week in Santiago de Compostela and he said: ‘Then your grandmother must have been Galician, no doubt about it, because she was crazy.’ In fact all the Galicians I know, and those whom I met without having time to get to know them, seem to have been born under the sign of Pisces.
I don’t know where the shame of being a tourist comes from. I’ve heard many friends in full touristic swing say that they don’t want to mix with tourists, not realizing that even though they don’t mix with them, they are just as much tourists as the others. When I visit a place and haven’t enough time to get to know it more than superficially, I unashamedly assume my role as tourist. I like to join those lightning tours in which the guides explain everything you see out of the window – ‘On your right and left, ladies and gentlemen . . . ‘ – one of the reasons being that then I know once and for all everything I needn’t bother to see when I go out later to explore the place on my own.
Anyway, Santiago de Compostela doesn’t leave time for such details: the city imposes itself immediately, complete and timeless, as if one had been born there. I had always believed, and continue to believe, really, that there is no more beautiful square in the world than the one in Siena. The only place that made me doubt its authority as the most beautiful square is the one in Santiago de Compostela. Its poise and its youthful air prohibit you from even thinking about its venerable age; instead, it looks as if it had been built the day before by someone who had lost their sense of time. Perhaps this impression does not come from the square itself but from its being – like every corner of the city – steeped to its soul in everyday life. It is a lively city, swept along by a crowd of happy, boisterous students who don’t give it a chance to grow old. On the walls that remain intact, plant life makes its way through the cracks in an implacable struggle to outlive oblivion, and at every step, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, one is confronted by the miracle of stones in full bloom.
It rained for three days, not inclemently, but with unseasonable spells of radiant sun. Nevertheless, my Galician friends did not seem to see these golden intervals and apologized for the rain all the time. Perhaps not even they were aware that Galicia without rain would have been a disappointment, because theirs is a mythical country – far more than the Galicians themselves realize – and in mythical lands the sun never comes out. ‘If you’d come last week you’d have had lovely weather,’ they told us, shamefaced. ‘It’s very unusual weather for the time of year,’ they insisted, forgetting about Valle-Inclán, Rosalia de Castro and every Galician poet who ever lived, in whose books it rains from the beginning of creation, and through which an interminable wind blows, perhaps the very same that sows the lunatic seed which makes so many Galicians delightfully different.
It rained in the city, it rained in the vivid fields, it rained in the lacustrine paradise of the Arosa and the Vigo estuaries; and, over the bridge, it rained in the undaunted and almost unreal Plaza de Cambados; and it even rained on the island of La Toja, where there’s a hotel from another world and time, which seems to be waiting for the rain to stop, the wind to cease and the sun to shine in order to start living. We walked through this rain as if through a state of grace, eating shellfish galore, the only live shellfish left in this devastated world; eating fish which, on the plate, still looked like fish; and salads that continued to grow on the table. And we knew that all this was by virtue of the rain which never stops falling.
It’s now many years since, in a Barcelona restaurant, I heard the writer, Álvaro Cunqueiros, talk about Galician food and his descriptions were so dazzling that I took them for the ravings of a Galician. As far back as I can remember I’ve heard Galician emigrants talk of Galicia and I always thought their memories were coloured by nostalgic illusions. Today I recall my seventy-two hours in Galicia and I wonder if they were all true or if I myself have begun to fall victim to the same delirium as my grandmother. Among Galicians – as we all know – you never can tell.