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Apple cider idyll 2017/10/10 Euskadi/Basque

The fields opposite are so steep, the scene is like a picture on a wall, with miniature figures rimmed with sunlight, dripping long shadows down a green canvas. A slender, sparkling stream lined with small trees snakes through valley floor. In the distance, the people move through gardens and fields, harvesting veggies, silage and apples. Far below my balcony, a man is cutting emerald green grass with a hand plough, trailed by his canine companion. In a big field, a donkey brays forlornly, his own long shadow his only company. Three children run laughing through the patchwork of lush pasture and apple orchards.

In this beautiful season on this beautiful day Errezil looks like a perfect rural dream. But conditions change quickly in this mountain place... this crystal clear panorama emerged from a cold morning blanket of opaque, grey fog. Like the village people, my woolly brethren the sheep stare unabashedly at me as I walk by on my first day.

Last night I had the good luck to attend the annual cider festival of the village. I was hoping to see local song and dance performances, but the atmosphere was more like a sausage sizzle in a schoolyard with cheesy rock music in the background. All ages were there from 8pm.

You receive a glass on your way in and your goal is to taste 11 local ciders and give them a score. For €10, the glass, cider and bbq snacks are included. People crowd around the row of tables, where 11 cider producers stand chatting and pouring small serves of cider from identical anonymous green bottles. There's a rinse bucket and a leftover cider bucket at each table. I tasted about seven. The first was unremarkable, the next few were sour, with a strangely sheep cheese aftertaste... maybe the farmers were re-using their cheese-making containers for apples? I was about to give up, but number 6 was amazing... it had a delicious nose, and tasted tangy appley and cherry all at once. I drank every last drop and savoured it. 7 was pretty good too. I went to ask if I could buy a bottle, only to learn that some of these ciders are not even for sale... just a farm product for the family's own enjoyment. It's a blind test anyway, so the cider/family farm names are not revealed until the competition winners are announced.


I had wondered if this Airbnb was going to be a 'farmer wants a wife' type of host ... and so it is. R. very kindly picked me up from the nearest big town, as the bus connections were poor. There was a lot of flirting from the get go, and he keeps telling me that we are going to be "great friends...friends for life." I meet this claim with a nod, trying not to look too skeptical. I'm grateful for the presence of another female guest ...she has spent a few weeks here and is good at deflecting the flirtations. About her he says, "She's a good girl, my friend. My friend for life." She laughs easily, and they get on well, but she spends very little time with R.

I was unpacking when I turned to find my host standing in profile in the doorway. "I'm going to make fish for lunch and I want to show you how I prepare it," he said. There was a pause... I did not understand at first because of his strong accent and the distraction caused by his trousers hanging around his knees, revealing red budgie smugglers.

"Maybe" I said, flatly, "when you have trousers on."
He disappeared and showed up a few seconds later with trousers on.
He apologised, "Don't mind me, I am natural" he said. "And I am ... different," I said coldly.
R. reassured me that I would be safe in his house and I could sleep at night without any worries. I would have my own bathroom, only sharing it with his daughter. Still he contrived to show me his underpants again before the day was over. It was just a quick flash, throwing off the duvet after his siesta on the sofa. I turned my back and walked away. I think he got the message. Pants were on when I turned around again.

The man is a generous host and a good cook, so it's easy to forgive him for his overly familiar ways. He knows this, talks about the seductive power of food. R. tries to make me eat from his hand every chance he gets. The fish was mighty good, and the lettuce soup most excellent. And the bread, yoghurt and the caramel-custard desserts (natida)... Stupid mistakes get forgiven.

Today R. drove me to a pretty little market town about a half hour away. We met his very lovely sister and she treated me to tapas (pinxtos) and wine. I stocked up on fruit, snacks and sweets for the week. After, in the car, R. told me how his wife had cheated on him and they had separated three years ago. He showed me a picture of the woman he has his eye on now. Good, I thought. Hopefully I'm safely in the friend zone now.

R. was born not far from here and has lived here all his life. The furthest he has been is Bordeaux in France. He used to work in a factory and now he's raising his kids with produce from his back garden and Airbnb. It's a simple life, enviable in lots of ways. But as you might expect, he has a parochial and rather superstitious view of the world. He tells me that I should listen to what he says, that he only speaks when he has something important to say. I wish it were true but no, he just talks a lot. I humour him, as he is not comfortable with silence and seems very eager to please. He constantly describes himself, and exaggerates. Always, never, for life. He tells me how he has a 'great eye' and can tell if a person is good or bad at a glance. "I have the gift," he says.

There's a lot of mansplaining. He is very proud of a pomade he has developed to ease his joint pain. Nonetheless, he complains constantly that he is in pain. When rubbed into the skin, the potion is supposed to protect his bones against the humidity of this region, frequently shrouded in cloud. He and shows me with great theatrics how the pomade repels water. When I don't look excited enough, he lectures me that this is important news. I say slowly, "Yes. It is a very important law of the physical world that oil and water do not mix." I think he can see some humour in my reply.

One night he served me dinner about 10 PM: steak, eggs and vegetables, all fried. Not his most exciting offering.
"I'll eat the egg in the morning," I said, "it's too late to eat so much food."
"No, it has to be eaten now," said R.
I recalled his son sneakily flushing his dinner down the loo, after his wishes were ignored.
"Why can't I eat it in the morning?" I asked. Okay, said R. -- but I had earned myself a lecture. "These are great eggs. Eggs are very good for you. Some may say different, but eggs have the best protein in the world..."

Today, walking the dog, more mansplaining. I noticed that R. or his daughter would hold the dog any time the car passed. So if the dog was closer to me I just grabbed him by the collar. The third time I held the dog R. came over and explained that I should hold the collar with tension so the dog would not escape. By the pedantic tone alone I knew that I was being mansplained again. He could tell by my face that I was annoyed. "What I'm teaching you is very important, he said. "It's gold."

I lost my temper... "I don't understand" I said angrily, "why you are telling how to hold a dog.. there are things I already know!"
-- I won't teach you anything more, so." he said.
-- When I want an explanation, I'll ask,
I thought, after I calmed down.

And as I'm a curious soul, soon I gave R. a chance to tell me something I don't know. I asked the meaning of the local Basque placenames. Errezil means "kill easily." The story goes that the Romans came to the village and that the local people killed them easily. "Truly? No kidding?" I said, disbelieving. The Romans aren't famous for being easy to defeat. R. protested at my skepticism and his daughter corroborated his tale.

Later, on a village square poster, I got the official story... facing defeat by the Romans, the Errezil women killed their children on a nearby mountain, rather than see them fall into Roman hands. Quite the opposite kind of 'easy killing'.

R. pointed out a few local mountain peaks, giving their Basque names. One was just called 'Blood'. Others had names relating to vigilance. "So much war!" said I, "And I thought this was a place of peace and tranquillity." They laughed. It's certainly idyllic and peaceful today.

Our walk took us to a neighbour's house across the valley, where we were offered a paella for lunch in exchange for picking apples for cider. I can't think of a better way to spend a sunny morning. I was delighted to join the local harvest with a three-year-old and two 12-year-olds and the neighbour who lectures in sociology. My host went home to pick up his 17yo son and a loaf of home-made sourdough. When he came back, we all sat together and washed down the veggie-chicken paella with home made cider from last years apple harvest.

Afterwards I lay on the on a picnic rug doing yoga, and then sang songs with the teenage boy. He fetched a squeezebox and played Basque folk music. By the late afternoon most of the kids had left with my host, and I stayed, swinging in the hammock chatting the the sociologists wife, Suzanna. I walked home alone in the setting sun with a big smile. Pure gratitude for such an amazing day.


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