The Last Farmer Standing: An Interview from ‘Empty Spain’ (Part 1).
During our off-grid road trip through empty Spain, we were able to interview a local olive farmer to find out a bit more about why these ancient lands are slowly being emptied of people. What started out as a casual chat turned into a history lesson come story-telling session that covered all grounds- from Spanish history and politics to life lessons about integrity and the need to stand up for what you believe in.
So far in telling the story of our off-grid investigations this summer, I have introduced characters from all different walks of life.
From Max and Nic with their story of survival in the mountains to Paul and Hermine with their newfound freedom away from corporate life, they were all uniquely different in their experiences and perspectives.
However, they all had one thing in common- they are all foreigners to these Spanish soils.
An International Affair
I had arrived in ‘empty Spain‘ expecting to see lands being tended to by the last generation of farmers: old men walking up country lanes, wise women curing the olives in the shade…the last vestiges of a time gone by.
Maybe too many Hollywood films mixed with the typical romanticism of a city dweller are to blame for this erroneous expectation. Because the reality was a lot more surprising- ’empty Spain’ was actually full of foreigners!
Dutch people, French people, British people, South Africans, Latinos…people from all over the world have come here to start a new life in the Spanish countryside.
Maybe if I had travelled to Southern Spain or to the coast, it wouldn’t have been such a surprise. But here, in Teruel of all places, this supposedly abandoned and neglected part of Spain? I hadn’t expected that!
In fact, when we were staying with Max and Nick they even commented that there, in their isolated finca in the valley, they actually had more friends and more sense of community than they had had when they lived an urban life in the UK!
And Paul and Hermine also had some international neighbours that had a house not so far from theirs.
But why so many foreigners and so few local people? Where had they all gone?
Spanish people being the proud, family-oriented people that they are, what had driven them to sell their ancestral lands? Or to simply abandon them?
A Chance Encounter
During our stay with Paul and Hermine I was able to get answers to some of these questions and they came in the form of a tall, well-built man called Miguel.
We became aware of him one morning over breakfast when we could hear the sounds of someone working down the hill near the river.
‘That’s Miguel’, Paul explained, ‘that’s his land there at the bottom and he comes every now again to tend to his oliveos. Lovely guy!’.
Never one to miss a chance to meet a new person and spotting an opportunity to have some of my lingering questions answered, I went down to meet him. But how open will he be about talking about his village and rural life to a foreigner?
As soon as I met him, I knew that I needn’t have worried. He was friendly and sociable and more than happy to talk to a curious guiri. In fact, he welcomed the opportunity to talk about his life and the realities of the rural population in Spain. And he was just as curious about our perspectives as city-dwelling foreigners as we were about him!
And as it turned out, he had a lot to say.
And so taking my cue, I asked him if he would be open to being interviewed for my blog. After I had explained to him the concept of what a blog is (“I don’t know anything about these modern technologies!”) and tempted him with the promise of coffee, he happily agreed.
A Morning with Miguel
And so the next morning, we met around the table on the patio table with a few cups of café con leche and some biscuits. Attempting to be a professional, this time I was armed with my smart phone to record the conversation.
My first question related to the fact that sometimes I had noticed that there were words that he wasn’t sure about in Spanish.
“En Castellano no sé” , he sometimes said. In Spanish, I don’t know. Then he would check the correct Spanish word with Sergio.
Being close to the border of Cataluña I wondered whether his first language was in fact Catalán.
But no. Miguel’s first language is neither Spanish nor Catalán but a mixture of the two: Calaceitano, a dialect spoken only by the people of the village of Calaceite.
It speaks of the history of a place, that a small rural village can develop its own dialect that is still spoken in 2020. Although it isn’t officially recognised as a language, it is what Miguel speaks at home and in the village.
In reference to this, Miguel says: “No estamos en ningún lado”. Literally, we are nowhere. Meaning: We are not recognised anywhere.
“We are in Teruel, in a forgotten corner of Spain”, he adds, as if trying to remind me of this fact.
Reading between the lines, it was as if he was trying to say ‘Of course our dialect isn’t recognised, we are in Teruel, durr´. In these parts, with evidence of empty Spain all around us, this seems to be taken as a given, something obvious.
Has it always been like this I ask?
“I’ve always known it to be this way (…) We are trying to maintain what we have, hoping for a miracle to transform all of this, a solution’.
Then, as if reading my mind, he asks me: “Do you believe in miracles?”
My mind flits to some of the things I have mentioned about miracles in previous places in this blog.
“Yes I do, but I think you have to participate in their creation”.
“Hay que buscarlos, hay que buscarlos”, he affirms. You have to seek them out. “Hay que moverse”. You have to move, to take action.
“Here the people have got too comfortable. Here we say ‘gandul‘, to be lazy. Many people have their lives sorted because their parents had money and they have always had things given to them. Their families had money, now they have money. It makes them lazy”.
Or in other words, with privilege comes the comfort that waters down one’s sense of fight. Or maybe better said, one’s need to fight- why rock the boat when it’s comfortable as it is?
Miguel gives me the impression that he has had to work hard for what he has.
“What age did you start working in the fields?”, I ask.
“I started when I was 12 or 13 in the huerto, with the tomatoes, the wheat. We had loads of things- pumpkin, beans, sweet corn, un montón de cosas.”
He recalls that his Dad had made some of the paths and the gates in the area and how they would walk from the village to their land. He tells me that there had been around 30 neighbours that tended to the neighbouring fields, but 40 years ago they started to leave for the cities.
Now all that remains are some overgrown paths and abandoned olive groves and small run-down houses where people would spend the night before returning to the village. It’s hard to imagine that this was at one time a thriving and bustling, area once filled with veggie patches, lots of food growing and communities of people.
“I suppose it was a gradual thing’, Sergio says, ‘I’m guessing that they came back at weekends to tend to their land?”.
“No te creas”, says Miguel. Not at all.
“Cuando se fueron, se fueron’, he says. When they went, they went. ‘They never came back”.
“They are slaves to their jobs in other places and they have abandoned what they had here, para toda la vida, what they have always had”.
Then it was left to the older generation to look after the land, which many of them did until their age prevented them from doing so, leaving them no other option but to abandon what they have spent their whole lives cultivating.
He says that when those who previously left the village retire, some of them decide to come back and think to themselves ‘I’m going to cultivate my land, my huerto‘.
“But for what?”, he asks, “now it’s an uphill battle because it has been left abandoned for so long”.
Having visited a few of these villages during my trip, I could see what he meant. Many of the buildings were so deteriorated that it would cost a fortune to restore them and the olive groves have become wild once again.
“All for leaving everything to go to discover America, as they say”, he says.
And even then, there is not much left over for caprices. Miguel points to his packet of cigarettes and says “these are the only luxury that I can allow myself”. He never goes on holiday and often works 7 days a week. And never mind eating out: “I always eat at home”, he says”.
However, not all has been left to the ruins of time. Some people have seen an opportunity where others have seen worthlessness or hopelessness.
“Half of the houses in the village are not owned by the people of Calaceite. Many of them are owned by foreigners- French, Germans, Swiss”, Miguel explains.
Ah ha. Now I understood why there seemed to be so many more restored houses here, compared to the village of Maella that we had visited with Max and Nick. In the last post, I mentioned how Calaceite seemed to have more money. Now I understood why- it has come from other countries or from the big cities.
Miguel tells me that his wife works in one of the hotels that has opened in the village. Being one of few employees, one might think that the hotel owners would make an effort to get to know their employees, being such a small village and small casa rural type hotel.
However, sadly that isn’t the case.
“They have never asked my wife about her family or invited us to meet them as a family”, Miguel says, with a certain disdain.
Miguel explains that the owners are not from Calaceite, they are from Barcelona. They aren’t interested in restoring the village or getting to know the village people who work for them. They just saw an opportunity to invest and increase their wealth and they took it- it’s a moneymaker, not a gesture towards the slowly dwindling population of rural Spain.
From the modern perspective maybe it could be argued that the owners are doing a great thing for the village by creating employment and bringing in tourists.
But Miguel has traditional values. He was born and raised in the village and knows everyone. It can’t be said that everyone in the village gets on but there are at least connections, human links that form the basis of the community.
The modern hotel and its owners stand apart from that. And as much as they have brought some positives- admittedly, they are helping to put food on the table for Miguel and his family- it seems to leave a bad taste in Miguel’s mouth.
Whilst employment has been created, where is the majority of the money made going? With the owners living in some distant city with no connection to the village, I think it is safe to say that it isn’t going to Calaceite.
Miguel’s perspective also points to a set of values that we can see are lacking in today’s world. For me and maybe for you reading this, the idea of our employer being interested in meeting our partners and family may seem a little absurd. Why would my boss be interested in my family? Work is work, separate from the rest of our lives.
But having seen life in Calaceite and having seen the new casa rurales that have been restored for the use of wealthy tourists coming from afar, I must say that it felt a little bit like the heart of the village had been replaced by the soulless photo-snapping tourist and anonymous hotel owners.
Miguel’s innocent disdain speaks of a set of values based on community and sense of togetherness. A sense of social responsibility and human connection and the importance of simple gestures such as showing an interest in your employee as a whole person and not just a number on an HR spreadsheet.
Maybe in the big city it is the norm- I am sure that the owners are good people who are just trying to make a living like the majority of us. But here in Calaceite, it feels ugly and rude even to have a stake in the village and not show an interest it’s people.
It’s fair to say that Miguel is fiercely proud of his roots and his origin. And this shows by the fact that he has barely travelled outside of Teruel. With the exception of his honeymoon in the Balearic Islands and summers spent with his family camping along the Eastern coast, he hasn’t even left Spain.
One might think that living in such a rural place and without having seen anything else of the world, that Miguel could fall into the stereotypical category of a closed-minded country bumpkin. But actually, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
As Miguel went on to tell me, this rural village of Calaceite used to be home to quite a bohemian scene of artists and students from all over Europe and Latin America.
He tells us about an association that was created 30 years ago by the new foreign inhabitants of the village. One wealthy man bought a big house and there they studied together, did cultural exchanges and shared skills and knowledge.
A strange mixture of people began to meet regularly. The artists, writers and students were soon joined by some of the working people of the village, builders and the like. Even some famous people came to visit and get involved in the action.
“Where is this place? Can we go?!” I said, already enthusiastic about visiting these people.
However, Miguel says that, unfortunately, the association itself no longer exists, although he couldn’t tell us why. But he did say that the house on top of the hill still stands and people can go and see it.
So later on we did just that. I wondered if we would be able to find someone who could explain a bit more- surely there will be someone with a story to tell us?
Sure enough we came across one man, who was working in the gardens of one of the plazas. He saw that we were curious about the area and was happy to engage in conversation.
The story went that the owner of the house, a Belgium man, the original founder of the association who had lived in the village for over 15 years, suddenly got notice that there was a problem with his residency papers and he had to leave.
Things seemed a little bit suspicious and it is thought that some foul play was involved. Either way, this spelt the end of the association and the man went to live in another country.
It all seemed very vague and peculiar. Why would the powers that be make it difficult for him to continue his work if it brought much-needed culture and life to the village and repopulateded the rapidly emptying rural Spain?
Noesis- Artist Residence
And it turns out that the association was much more than a few students and low key artists mixed with a few curious locals.
The original founder was Didier Coste, a writer, literary translator and academic. He founded the association- called Noesis- in 1983 and with a group of intellectuals and writers including Bernardo Sciavetta, Pierre Silvain, Jan Baetens, and Ángel Crespo, he organized exhibitions and conferences and published around thirty volumes of literary and artistic creation and criticism.
As described by wikipedia:
For fourteen years, Noesis was a space for meeting and cooperation for researchers and artists mainly French, Spanish, Belgian and Latin American. The association offered grants to finance research-creation stays as well as a residency that it made available to artists and researchers.
Wow, it sounded like this was a serious space of creation, much more than Miguel had led me to believe. It is hard to imagine so much culture taking place there. Maybe this is what led Claudia from my previous post to chose the area to create art. She had a lot of nearby inspiration!
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much information available as to why the association closed, other than it happened in 1997. One newspaper says it was due to ‘economic problems’, which sounds plausible. Some simply said that Didier Coste went to live elsewhere.
What would you believe to be true, what is said in the news or the village stories passed on by word or mouth?
I’m not sure if it is possible to get to the truth now, but artists getting on the wrong side of the government and forced to stop their activities is much more of an interesting ending in my opinion so I’m going with that one!
Interestingly enough, it would seem that the local council of Calaceite is trying to reopen the centre and once again commence the artistic and collaborative work that was started in 1983.
Let’s hope that they get the support and funding they need to pick up where the first group of artists and intellectuals left off.
Our conversation with Miguel lasted over an hour and a half and in the end, spanned not just one morning but two! In that time I got to hear more stories about life in Calaciete and in the end, there were too many interesting details for one blog post! So as to not leave anything out and to make it more digestible for the reader, I’ve split it into two. You can read the next instalment for Miguel’s story here.
But one thing I can tell you: there is more to life in Calaciete than meets the eye.
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