Posted by: puebloman | April 6, 2009

the kindness of strangers

Visitors to the villages sometimes sentimentalise the helpfulness and neighbourliness of their Spanish hosts. If you ask your neighbour for advice, they will often do something or give you something saying “You’d do the same for me”. Well, would I? Its not the custom where I come from. Presents are also very common. Produce from the countryside that doesn’t have much commercial value is often given away or exchanged so it is not unusual to be left bags of almonds, avocados, mangoes and so on. Incomers even go so far as to complain to each other that they are overwhelmed by gifts – “What am I going to do with all these lemons?” they wail.

If, on the other hand, you try to do something for your neighbour, your action is likely to be matched or betterd by a favour from them. I remember the same sort of thing happening on holiday once on one of the Greek Islands. Judy and I went to meet an old farmer. He wasn’t where we expected him and there was a sack of beans in his doorway that he was obviously shelling. Being young and stupid we thought it appropriate to finish the job for him. When he arrived he was appalled. We were his guests and we had been working for him. He immediately slaughtered a chicken and made us a large meal to remove what he apparently felt was an obligation to us.  In the same way, here in the villages it is possible to find yourself caught up in a sort of virtuous vendetta of increasingly large favours, and the only way of breaking it is to give in and accept that you owe a debt.

When you live in the village rather than visit it, you quickly come to understand that this behavour is not the action of people who are more virtuous than the equivalent English communities. On the contrary, it is an economy based on exchange, and usual to communities that are very poor and do not function by exchanging money but by exchanging skills. The villages are now relatively prosperous and money has flooded in via prosperous foreigners, so this instinct for barter and exchange is mostly evident in villagers who remember back to poorer times. Of course it only works if people are not mobile and are therefore around for the chips to be called in perhaps now, perhaps later, perhaps much, much later. An English friend who has integrated quickly and well, and is a person of influence in the village, has her chips called in regularly by people who begin their request with ” Do you remember when I. . .?”

Our skills are not yet evident to the villagers. We shall feel more at home when our neighbours feel able to call on us somewhat. Then we shall have got beyond what at present is the kindnes of strangers

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