Christmas at the Cortijo

El Pan de la Sierra

By Lawrence Bohme

Not being a Christian, and not having even been baptised - a detail I only mention because my neighbours find it much more shocking than my actual lack of faith - I don't celebrate Christmas, any more than I would Ramadam or Yom Kippur. However, I recognise that while not being religious, I am a product of what is known as the "Judaeo-Hellenic-Christian tradition", simply because I was brought up in a European way. That is why the ideals of charity, humility, truthfulness and forgiveness appeal to me, although I don't apply them very rigorously - which, I suppose, is something else I have in common with many Christians.

By this I mean that I am also pleasure-loving, self-centred and obsessed with my own survival - predominance, even. Crudely put, I am an egotist, although I don't feel particularly ashamed of it. My feelings about this much-reviled but universal human defect were perfectly expressed by the novelist Andre Gide (a devout Christian who, ironically, wrote a book about himself called "The Immoralist") when he joked with mock indignation: "An egotist is someone who never thinks about... ME!". In other words, we all want to be first, and we want others to want it too.

However, now that it's Christmas, I feel moved to announce in the pages of this newspaper that I do not wish (and, I hope you will agree after hearing me out, do not deserve) to be lumped together with the rank-and-file of mindlessly happy egotists. In fact, I think of myself as being a "sensitive egotist", that is, I suffer from occasional bouts of altruism, in the same way that Mother Teresa must (I imagine) now and then have an attack of egotism and gobble up a chocolate bar all on her own, rather than share it with the poor people of Calcutta.

All this means that first of all, I take care of my own needs and Nina's (who is an extension of myself - what in French is known as "egoisme a deux"), and then - and only then - once my 8-year old daughter and I have everything we need to be comfortable and amused, I worry about the rest of my fellow mortals, all five thousand million of them.

Since I do not have to go as far as India to find people who need me, I begin with my "significant others": my lovely Dad, one member of the opposite sex and a few dear friends, followed by a much larger group of less intimate acquaintances, all of whom are sprinkled around Spain and the world. Then come the people who by sheer geographical coincidence I run into when I leave my cortijo among the olive trees. These are the "vecinos" of Montefrio, a town in the hills northwest of Granada, which, with its 5,000 native-born "andaluces", is (it suddenly occurs to me in writing this) home to a neat millionth of the globe's suffering, sinning population.

The "montefrienos" are a merry bunch in spite of this, starting all the way up on the social ladder with Don Curro, our local olive oil baron, right down to the poorest gypsy, who is in fact the subject of my story. Of course, all the folk I have so far mentioned, except the gypsy, need me for emotional rather than material comfort. Curro, for example, loves to reminisce on the summer 35 years ago when we gadded about with two pink-skinned young "alemanas"; but with his hundreds of fanegas of land and town houses in Granada and Torremolinos, there is obviously not much else I can do to help our sexagenarian "senorito"...

What I am getting to here is La Sierra - not the Sierra de Parapanda, which overlooks our village from its altitude of 5,300 feet, or even the Sierra Nevada, which you can see from some points of the region. Our "Sierra" is a woman whose full name is Maria de la Sierra, the "madonna of the mountain". She is well known in the village because she constantly goes up and down discreetly begging (we all know what she wants so she never asks) for something to help her feed her five fatherless children.

Being aware both of the injustices of our Social Security system, which puts people on sickness and unemployment benefits who are in perfect health and have steady incomes, but lets others like La Sierra starve, as well as the gypsy people's implacable sexual code, which virtually relegates to whoredom any girl who does not arrive at her wedding entera, I have always tried to give the wretched woman a little help. Apart from being a truly needy case, she is also extremely "simpatica", always with a friendly grin on her ugly brown mug, which makes me - gratefully - realise that I should not feel as sorry for myself as I sometimes do.

My help was for years limited to the occasional bundle of old clothes or 10-litre carton of milk for the latest baby, until, two years ago when I ran into her in the plaza on a cold and drizzly day, I realised from her distraught expression that things were going very badly, even by La Sierra's modest standards. Since it was about then that my own economic situation in Spain was improving, having finally succeeded in breaking into the fiercely competitive profession of simultaneous interpreter, I decided that I could afford to put our "relationship" on a footing which would be less dependent on whimsy and fortuitous encounters. So I went to the village bakery and arranged for Sierra to receive a large loaf of bread (500 grams) every day, chargeable to my monthly account, ad infinitum. I think that if you are very poor, you would rather be able to count on something small than live in hope of larger windfalls God knows when. From my own perspective, her bread costs me less than 1% of my current net earnings, which is not much to pay to help a friend.

Of course, the windfalls continue. One advantage of giving charity through OXFAM or UNICEF is that you never see those you help, except in fetching photographs of smiling Guatemalans and Cambodians - you just sign a cheque and get that "nice warm feeling", which is a fair reward for having unconditionally transferred part of your wealth to someone else. But when you practice direct aid, you see them every day, and realise that their bellies may be fuller but they are still just as poor; while they see you as a bright star of hope in a gloomy firmament of indifferent and even hostile faces.

This is where my long experience in the so-called Third World comes in handy - I know when to shrug my shoulders and turn away from Sierra's pressing problems, of which she never fails to give me a vivid report. For example, she burned her hand quite badly cooking on an old stove she fished from the town dump; when this came to my attention (her hand was bandaged) and after duly checking with our Oficina de Asistencia Social and learning that no more help would be forthcoming for her until next year (it was then March), I bought her a new one. When she thanked me, I joked, "Next time you fry an egg, think of Lorenzo!", and without batting an eyelash she wailed back, "!Pero mire uste, que no tengo ni un huevo pa' freir! - But how can I, if I don't even have an egg to fry!". I firmly explained that I had provided the stove and that now she could bloody well find herself the egg.

At that time I was getting a cottage I own in the village ready for holiday rental, and Sierra and her children helped me unload the beds which I had purchased. As we carried a large "matrimonio" model up the Calle del Coro, she commented that she would like to have one that size for herself. "Why", I teased her, "would you want a cama de matrimonio if you don't have a husband?", since I had no intention of buying her one... until she answered softly, "Ya se que no tengo mario - I know I don't have a husband", and explained that her three smallest " children liked to sleep with her but that her mattress was too small.

Bread, stove, double bed, sporadic handouts - it all adds up, and there's the Christmas "basket" too, which I got started last year. Since I don't spend a duro on myself for Christmas - in fact, I invariably spend the holidays with dog and cat by the fire (Nina ritually stays with her mother) - and imagining how unpleasant it must be to see so much money changing hands without, at least, being able to have a decent meal, I deposited a sum with the local supermarket to Sierra's account, for that purpose. Of course, early this December she pointedly, albeit indirectly, reminded me of last year's "canasta", just in case I had forgotten...

But I drew the line at her water bill, for two reasons: one, it was much too high for me to pay, and, two, I felt that I could get support in the matter from our recently-elected "alcalde", who with all the defects which human beings are heir to, is undeniably a full-fledged human being, unlike his immediate predecessor. Anyway, I was instrumental, not to say decisive, in getting the old one out, so I felt I deserved a little consideration.

What happened is that at about this time last year, presumably after having consumed her Christmas "canasta", La Sierra disappeared from the town and we didn't see her for 3 or 4 months. Apparently she had gone to her father's house some 50 miles away in a place called Cuevas de San Marcos, to help with the olive harvest; and when she returned, she found they had cut off her water supply. Reason: there was a leak inside her tiny house and in her absence her bills had piled up to nearly 100,000 pesetas (almost $1,000).

I first of all went to the water company (a private firm under contract to the town government) and offered a guarantee of 10,000 pesetas so that her water would be turned back on until the matter could be solved. This was reluctantly done; the attitude was that being a "gitana" she was dishonest, irresponsible and deserved to have been cut off; in any case, the manager said, the public fountain was only 500 meters away...

Next I went to the Mayor, who promised to pay the bill. In fact, others later voiced their opposition and, a few months later, her water was cut off once more. I went back to the Mayor again, and a compromise was struck: he would stand guarantee for the amount and, when some work could be found for her (such as sweeping the street or whitewashing walls) it would be withheld from her salary. That was 6 months ago, and Sierra still has no work and the bill remains unpaid, but she does have water to bathe her children.

La Sierra, you might say, has done quite well by me; but when she disappeared last Christmas, and I began to notice her absence when I went to town, I was surprised how worried I became. It was then that I realised that she now plays a role in my life too - that the need, in fact, is mutual.
[More Spanish Stories]