By Mary Mann
Alicia’s family has lived on Mallorca since 1450, “or around then” she said with a shrug of her leather-clad shoulders, as casually as if talking about when she’d arrived at the party rather than an origin of incomprehensible vintage. In 2007 Alicia was twenty-four and living with her parents. “I like it,” she said, “anyway that’s normal here, not like in American movies.” Her family occupied the same land on which those fifteenth-century ancestors had settled, back when pirates regularly besieged the island. Mallorca wasn’t officially part of Spain yet, and the pirates came from the Barbary Coast, which was also not yet Libya.
In fact, when Alicia’s ancestors made Mallorca home, cartographers were still drawing serpents in the blank spots on world maps because they didn’t know what else to put there. Istanbul was Constantinople, and the Incas and Aztecs were thriving. Gravity existed, but Isaac Newton hadn’t been born to tell people about it yet. Alchemy was an accepted science, leeching a common medical practice, and belief in astrology was peaking. The roundness of the earth was still up in the air. Columbus had not yet sailed to what he hoped was India, and the Americas were just another blank spot on the map, filled in with waves, serpents, and the occasional mermaid.
Sara and I met Alicia on a farm, at a party that seemed more family reunion than party. Everyone was Tia or Tio, and we got the sense that all Mallorca parties were like that. 800,000 people live on Mallorca, half of them in the capital city of Palma. The rest are sprinkled across the island, clumping most heavily in small coastal towns, with only a few old families holding down the inland estates and farms—far away from the British and American expatriates, and farthest away from tourists.
Sara and I were tourists of the worst sort: broke. In the beginning, it had seemed like a good idea to quit our jobs—neither lucrative, both in restaurants—and go to Spain. Just…go there. Both our parents had recently moved, both our families had always been scattered, and after graduation our college friends had scattered, too. Nobody we cared about was rooted anywhere, so why stay put? After buying round-trip plane tickets for a two-month trip we each had only $500 left in savings. “We’ll get jobs there,” I said, feigning confidence. “Temporary jobs. It’ll be a good way to meet people, get better at Spanish.”
I looked forward to leaving a country that had been getting weirder and angrier every year since the War on Terror began; it had been a long time—this was 2007.
“Or learn any Spanish. Oh-lay,” Sara said, enunciating the only Spanish word she knew in her flat northeastern accent. She laughed and her cheeks rose, exaggerating the neotony of her face. At twenty-three she looked about twelve.
“I know some Spanish,” I said, though truthfully I’d only ever learned the present tense, giving my sentences what I hoped was perceived as a Zen, be-in-the-now quality. “And I’ll get us jobs.” I was riding on the high of quitting a restaurant job I’d never liked, believing myself above it by virtue of my degree. Unfortunately I lacked the surety to pursue anything else, but planning a trip would lend purpose to my days. I looked forward to leaving a country that had been getting weirder and angrier every year since the War on Terror began; it had been a long time—this was 2007.
The airport’s terror alert level was holding steady at orange when we boarded the plane for Madrid, but I felt calm and sure. I’d figured everything out. We were going to be farmers.
A week before we left, I’d come across an abundance of Spanish farms listed on helpx.net, a Craigslist-like website on which broke travelers could match themselves with farmers seeking labor in exchange for room and board. All of the farms looked beautiful, and each experience promised to be more edifying than the last: riding horses in the south of France, building barns in Costa Rica, shearing sheep in New Zealand. Sara and I were like medieval kings who got to choose their perfect brides from among a thousand subjects. My oft long-distance boyfriend provided guidance in making our selection over the phone. “You might strike out a few times,” he’d counseled. “There are some weirdos out there. But you know, it’s the same as looking for an apartment: ‘cozy’ is tiny, ‘seeking quiet roommate’ means control freak. You’ll figure it out.”
Our first farm was that of a “fun-loving” English couple, Archie and Libby, who lived on a “farm-in-progress” a few hours outside Granada in southern Spain. It took less than a day to do the math: fun-loving = hard drinking; farm-in-progress = “we have no farm, just a cottage, and really just want you to cook and clean for us,” which we did in the company of another volunteer, a solemn, pale Romanian who, when asked why he traveled, pushed up his glasses and answered: “Whether I travel or work, I will someday die. I prefer to travel.”
The Romanian had an edge on us in that Archie and Libby didn’t know anything about Romania—neither did I—but the more they drank, the more the Brits criticized American politics. I agreed with them, but felt a perverse need to defend my flawed home now that I’d fled it. “I know how it must look from the outside,” I’d say, trying to appease while arguing my point. “But really, tons of people didn’t vote for Bush. Tons of people protested the war.”
“Well, I never heard that anyone said much when that wanker got us into a war,” Libby would say—sportingly, as if arguing for the benefit of an audience (and seemingly completely absolving Tony Blair). “You Yanks and your freedom fries.”
“Well…if England’s so great, why didn’t you stay there?” I’d asked after a few days of such arguments, earning an elbow in the side from Sara—we were staying with Archie and Libby for two weeks, and antagonizing our hosts so early in the game was certainly not wise.
“Oh love,” Libby smiled down at her tan hands and turquoise rings. “The weather.”
That our first farm was a bit disappointing I put down to the fact that we were living with expatriates, fellow foreigners in a foreign land, rather than locals. We thought we could do better. So Sara and I walked three miles to the nearest Internet café. We were far from anything noteworthy, but there were a couple other travelers there, one of whom had Canadian maple leaf patches on his ubiquitous lumpy backpacks, which didn’t mean he was necessarily Canadian; often people with maple leaf patches were just Americans who didn’t want to get hassled about the war. We nodded hello before sitting down to work, scrolling for hours down the helpx listings, only to find that everyone willing to let strangers into their homes were expats.
“But…it’s not that way everywhere,” I said, leaning back in my seat helplessly. “I mean, I guess I don’t really know. It can’t be, can it?”
“Maybe it’s the season; not much to harvest in February. What about this one?” asked Sara, taking control of the mouse. “The farmer’s German, but says he runs the farm for a local. It’s an actual farm, too. Like, cows, chickens—a real Old MacDonald situation.”
Which was how we ended up on a farm in the middle of Mallorca, where we would meet Alicia. But not before Erich put us to work.
Erich was lean and tanned from years of farming in a country sunnier than his own. His age could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty, grey hairs blending into a blonde shag that slightly resembled a surfer’s cut. He did not laugh, and his rare smile was a ghastly fake, as if he was trying to teach himself happiness. His craggy physicality would have been attractive in a movie, but in person he was so serious and stoic as to seem asexual. His home was as economical as his conversation: he owned no spices beyond salt and pepper, his glasses were the same design as Teddy Roosevelt’s, his very basic furniture seemed almost of the Amish—and it wasn’t even his furniture.
Erich’s only baggage seemed to be one pair of worn green corduroys and five interchangeable flannels. He was the perfect person for the job. He ran the farm exactly as Jordi’s father had, and his father before him, and so on.
“Why would I buy that?” he said, when I asked—for want of conversation—where he got his antique hutch. “It’s Jordi’s. Everything is Jordi’s.”
Everything meant everything: from the hutch—empty—to the chickens to the farmyard dirt they pecked in. While Archie and Libby had saved up and haggled for their own place in Spain, and were now encouraging their friends to move to the same area—“cheap as chips!”—Erich had quietly slotted himself into the emptied shell of another man’s life. Jordi, the scion of an old Mallorcan family, had left the family farm for a finance career in Palma but wanted the house maintained and the land worked for “sentimental reasons.” Erich’s only baggage seemed to be one pair of worn green corduroys and five interchangeable flannels. He was the perfect person for the job. He ran the farm exactly as Jordi’s father had, and his father before him, and so on. “Ah, just like I remember it!” said Jordi fondly when he came to visit on Saturday afternoons, swinging his cane like Mr. Peanut. “Even the smell is the same as when I was a child.” Wild fennel bushes, salty sea breezes, and cow manure.
The latter was the primary reason Erich needed help in what we had come to understand was the farming off-season. Sara and I shoveled cow pies from eight in the morning until lunchtime, and as the days went on we developed biceps along with technique. “If you get the tines all the way under it, the cow pie won’t break in half, see?” I advised Sara on her form. In turn she criticized my time management: “You’re wasting your time with these fresh pies, they’ll just crumble. Get the dry ones first.” Waiting wheelbarrows were filled then emptied on what we called Manure Mountain, then wheeled over to another poo-sullied patch of grass. Once Manure Mountain was high enough, Erich would invite his neighbors over to collect as much as they wanted for fertilizer. In exchange they would give him heaps of grass mown from fallow fields for his cows to snack on. It was all very Tolstoyian, this peaceful bartering amongst men of the field. I was surprised farming still worked this way.
“Not in Germany it doesn’t,” said Erich when I mentioned it one afternoon. “Too much—what do you call it?—some kind of tape.”
“Red tape!” I supplied quickly, hoping he’d go on. Erich never criticized America but he also never talked about Germany—or really anything unrelated to the small Mallorcan farm—so over the last two weeks Sara and I had often wondered why he left home. Erich just nodded, twisted tight the last bit of wire on the fence he was mending, and stood up, knees cracking. “Time to herd the cows.”
In addition to their fenced-in enclosure close to Erich’s house, with its sheltered barn in case of rain, his two-dozen cows had three other pastures in which to graze, hence the wide proliferation of cow pies that provided room and board for Sara and me. Every day the cows were herded home mid-afternoon. It put us over our required five work hours per day, but it was also a three-person job, so we dutifully trotted after Erich to shout and prod at the incorrigible cows.
Erich spoke perfect Spanish and Catalan when required, but his Spanish cows heard only German.
“You go to the back of the field,” said Erich to Sara, and then pointed at me, “and you to the left, yes? I’ll be by the gate. Do not forget, the cows go for the bull. Get the bull.”
Cows follow the bull, just as we did pretty much whatever Erich told us to, which included shouting at the cows in German—“that is all they understand,” he’d said, eyebrows drawn together to ward off questions. Erich spoke perfect Spanish and Catalan when required, but his Spanish cows heard only German.
At the far end of the field, Sara waved her arms, her tiny form intended to thwart the cows from wandering in her direction. I waved my arms too, and, as the taller of the two of us, ran towards the bull—a young guy, grazing placidly—shouting what sounded like “vita, vita, vita!” but was really weiter, German for “go on!” an irritable phrase, more suited for yelling at someone who’s been refusing to move for a long while than a call to action. But it was understood on Mallorca that cows never wanted to go home. So I yelled and chased the amused bull, and Sara yelled and shooed the cows away, until finally, forty minutes or so later, when we were both sweaty and irritable and Sara had stepped firmly and squashily into a fresh cow pie, the bull ambled over to Erich, who grabbed him by the head and heaved him into the lane, and the cows, ever-obedient, followed suit.
One afternoon, as we returned from herding, begrimed as usual, we found Jordi waiting for us in the farmyard. He was dressed in a tweed suit and was throwing bread to the chickens as his chauffeur looked on from the driver seat of his BMW, engine idling. “Ah Erich, you forget!” Jordi cried when he saw us, taking in sweaty hairlines and dirty jeans. “We have a party today, my cousin’s. Restaurateurs I want you to meet—new places, buying local. You remember?”
Erich muttered something unintelligible, possibly German, probably a curse word.
“Go go, you must change. We’re late! The young ladies too. They must be very bored with just you and cows for company. Vamanos,” he said, the Spanish word for “let’s go,” then added, mischievously: “Weiter.”
Erich flushed; was he embarrassed that Jordi knew about this small deviation from the habits of a born and raised Mallorcan farmer? He stomped into the house without argument, waving us off to our room above the garage to get ready. “Ten minutes!” shouted Jordi as he lowered himself—gold-tipped cane, beach-ball belly and all—into the Beemer’s backseat.
It wasn’t clear to us whether the cousin was Jordi’s first cousin or second cousin or third once removed or perhaps not a cousin at all but a nephew or maybe even a grandson. Everyone was family and it had been that way for so long that they didn’t seem to care exactly how they were related anymore. Older men were uniformly Tio, regardless of who addressed them, and this was what Alicia called Jordi as she hugged him hello, though we’d later learn that he was actually her cousin to some degree, and godfather. Before leading Erich away to talk to some men near the house, which was really more of a small castle, Jordi handed us off to her.
“You are all young,” he said. “You should get along.”
“Come with me,” Alicia said, putting an arm around each of our waists as if we’d all been friends as girls. “I’ll introduce you to everyone.”
What followed was a flurry of Tios and Tias and wine and cousins, leather jackets and lipstick and smoking like an advert from French Vogue. I’d been to a few family reunions, in the panhandle of Florida where my mom grew up or southern Georgia where most of my dad’s kin were. It was usually about two dozen people sitting around the tchotchke-littered living rooms: half elderly mustachioed women and hairy-eared men; the other half kids too young to get out of it, picking at Aunt Jackie’s rubbery mac and cheese and waiting to be excused. I hadn’t been to one since age twelve. The idea that being with family could be desirable, the cool thing to do on a Saturday night, had never crossed my mind.
The sun was setting as Alicia led us past tables of sliced Iberian ham, olives, dishes of seafood and rice and lots of wine. We passed a gaggle of toddlers supervised by Penelope Cruz’s doppelganger and a group of men that included a glowering Erich and ended up at a bonfire, around which a full Abercrombie ad’s worth of muscled and glossy-haired twenty-somethings were lounging and chatting in Catalan. “My cousins,” said Alicia with an introductory sweep of her arm. “We all grew up together, from babies.”
“Shit,” Sara whispered to me, as we both unconsciously tugged at our hoodies and swiped at our jeans for stray hay. “If my cousins looked like that, I’d have kids with tails.”
Alicia—in heels despite having to walk through a field, the dying sun catching her shadow-dark hair just so and her hands resting comfortably at her side, not fiddling with wine glasses or jammed in pockets like ours—fit right in. More completely comfortable and sure than I’d ever been anywhere, probably even by myself, she lightly shoved a young Brad Pitt further down a log to make room for us.
“So, you are from America,” she began. “That must be very exciting. I’ve been to LA one time, very fun. Where are your families?”
“Well…” Sara’s parents had recently moved from Connecticut to Florida, mine from Indiana to Missouri—both the result of new jobs—and neither of us had extended family where we’d grown up or where our parents lived now. It seemed difficult to explain and also sort of lackluster, even bleak, in the midst of Alicia’s massive family.
“I’m in the Midwest, she’s on the east coast,” I finally said. “We met in college. What about you? Have you always lived here?”
It was a stupid question. “Of course,” she said. “We’ve always been here, since 1450 or around then—is that right, Luis? Yes, 1450. We were Mallorcan before we were Spanish.”
“Man, I wish it was like that back home,” said Sara. “Everybody moves. My friends didn’t stay in my hometown either, and when I moved back after school it was kind of sad.”
“You never wanted to move somewhere else?” I pressed Alicia. “Just to see?”
“No. I mean, I travel,” she answered. “I love to travel, my parents are flight attendants so it’s easy. But why would I move? This is the best place.” Then a cousin shouted something, and Alicia answered in laughing Catalan.
Erich had been clutching a wine glass and frowning at a group of boisterous men. Finally he stomped over, looming above us. “It’s time to leave,” Erich said. Sara and I stood as one, cows obeying the will of the bull. He didn’t even have to say weiter.
“Oh no! But we’ve only just met,” Alicia clucked. “You should call me, here, take my number. We can get a coffee; I can show you around a bit. I bet this one hasn’t taken you anywhere.” She nodded playfully towards Erich, who surprised us by smiling ever-so-slightly, a movement that creased his cheeks in a way that seemed painful. He was out of practice.
Nobody said what was obvious, which was that apparently you couldn’t ever leave your home fully behind.
Jordi’s driver took us home. On the drive, emboldened by a few glasses of wine and the appearance of Erich’s half-smile, I asked him why he left Germany.
“Too cold,” he said. “In every way.”
We were silent for the rest of the ride. Nobody said what was obvious, which was that apparently you couldn’t ever leave your home fully behind. Erich hadn’t been transformed by his big move. Even Mallorca couldn’t get him in the habit of smiling.
Over the next few days, Sara and I avoided calling Alicia, though her number sat on top of our shared bureau in the dim garage apartment. She seemed like a different breed of human, almost, so well-groomed and self-assured. I couldn’t imagine she’d want to schlep us around, two frizzy-haired American girls who couldn’t shake the smell of manure. But fate intervened in the form of our depleted bank balances.
“How is this possible?” I asked, staring uncomprehending at the computer screen in the Internet café. Next to me, Sara shook her head slowly: “Fuck if I know. Here’s drinks, some buses, lots of Internet cafes. Oh, and Sitges.” She sucked her breath in through her teeth, recalling the one night we’d spent not at a farm, celebrating Carnevale in the coastal town of Sitges. “Damn that exchange rate,” she continued. “Should we…try to go home?”
Now it was my turn to suck my breath in through my teeth, an anxious sound. It did seem to be the only option—my parents were too deep in their own debt for me to comfortably ask them for help, and Sara’s parents wanted her to come home anyway and get a job, so asking them wouldn’t help. But to go home…I hadn’t thought of going home yet, and as she said the word—with its ominous hollow “oh” sound that required some meaning to fill it—I realized I didn’t know where that was. Not Indiana, certainly: my parents and my high school friends had left, and I wasn’t particularly attached to our industrial town. College friends had scattered, no significant cluster having settled anyplace, and I had no jobs lined up, or even any idea of what I wanted to do. My boyfriend was in Arizona, but he’d be graduating soon and then would be untethered too. Instead of being freeing these options were paralyzing.
Such is the predicament of the ambitionless graduate in America. We are your transients, your month-to-month renters, your tour guides and waitresses (though we’re not all the tour guides and waitresses, just the whiniest ones), your hostess reading Tolstoy by the door. (When she says “can I take your coat, sir?” she’s really grasping Oblonsky’s furs.) Saving up tips only to quit and get the same job in another town, sighing a few months later: “I thought it all would be different.” I could see it all ahead of me, a squirm-inducing flash of self-recognition. It had already begun.
“Maybe we should call Alicia first,” I said quickly. “Maybe she could help.”
Two days later we sat across from Alicia over coffee in the plaza of Capdepera, an old walled town about half an hour’s walk from Erich’s farm. We’d gotten the morning off on the promise of working late that afternoon; and of course, being back in plenty of time for cow-herding.
Alicia leaned back and sipped her coffee, a teeny-tiny cappuccino, absolutely at ease in this town that hadn’t stood here much longer than her family had. Before she’d arrived Sara and I had been snapping photos, posing in front of the 700-year-old wall or in the sunny square, tourist behavior we immediately quashed as soon as Alicia showed up.
“So, you’re in trouble?” she began, and I immediately thought of The Godfather.
“Well, sort of. See…” and I explained our conundrum: nearly out of money, a little over two weeks left before our flight out of Madrid, and Erich had new volunteers coming in a few days. We’d planned to get our bearings in Barcelona, get a room at a hostel and have some fun while figuring out the next farm we wanted to go to, but that was obviously impossible now. “I guess we just…” I blanked on what we were asking for. Alicia had just seemed so capable, so grounded, that I figured her presence alone would compensate for all the mistakes we’d made.
“We need a place to stay for a night or two,” finished Sara. “The nearest decent-looking farm that can take us for two weeks is outside Barcelona, and the transportation is complicated, a bunch of buses and stuff. We don’t have the money for a hostel and a bus.”
“That’s all?” said Alicia. “Well don’t worry. Hold on.” She plucked a cell phone from her tiny handbag and, five minutes later, we had the promise of a room in the Barcelona apartment of some college students. “My cousins,” said Alicia. “Good guys, of course. They’re Mallorcan. Now, should I show you Capdepera?”
Just like that, she’d fixed it. Unbelievable.
All morning we walked around with Alicia, stopping in shops and cafes, meeting cousins by the dozens. Around noon we walked into the crumbling castle, grass springing through the cracks in the stone floor, the sky a perfect blue frame for the walls that had been here, and would be here, for more years than I could fathom. My fears seemed silly in the weathered stone rooms. In the 1300s, Alicia explained, it was a fortress used to establish control of the islands, and now it was a tourist attraction. “But not many people visit,” said Alicia, somewhat obviously, since we were the only people there. “Only if they need a break from the beach, you know, if they get too red. In the summer, not now.”
I looked up at the sun, distant in February but still warm. It wasn’t as high as it had been. In fact…
“Oh shit,” I said, grabbing Sara’s sleeve. “The cows.”
Alicia drove us back, her little black Citroen jigging atop the dirt road as we sped toward Erich’s. He was waiting in the farmyard, crouched over a bin of potatoes we’d hoed up the day before, tossing good ones in a red bucket and rotten potatoes in a black bucket. When he looked up at us, there was no doubt which bucket he would’ve thrown us in.
We got in position, feet firm in the damp earth, shouting and running at the cows with shouts of weiter, weiter, weiter.
Alicia grinned and waved at him. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t stand up. Sara and I tumbled out of the car quickly; I caught my hoodie in the door and tripped. Erich raised an eyebrow, then stalked off in the direction of the fields, us scurrying after him, Alicia leaning out her window as she drove away, winking and mouthing, “Good luck!”
We got in position, feet firm in the damp earth, shouting and running at the cows with shouts of weiter, weiter, weiter. They twitched their tails and bent their necks for more grass. It took over an hour to herd them. Everything was quiet but for Sara and I shouting the only German word we knew into the cool Mallorcan air.
Once the cows were back where they belonged, we grabbed our pitchforks, ready to elevate Manure Mountain until sunset, but Erich stopped us. “No need,” he said. “I’d rather work alone today. You do not…” he took a deep breath, clenched his fists, looked away. “You do not take this seriously, that is clear. This is my livelihood. It is not a vacation.”
And with that he stalked away, pitchfork in hand, leaving us staring after him. He was right: we were just travelers, just passing through, playing at belonging, while he’d done the difficult thing by remaking his life in a new place. Mallorca might be better than his home of origin in a hundred different ways, but there would always be an awkward vagueness around his status there—neither traveler nor local—that was exacerbated around people like Alicia, who could say with nonchalance that she’d been there since 1450, or “around then,” because she didn’t have to stand on ceremony: she was home.
“I guess we could sort the potatoes,” said Sara.
And that’s what we did until the sun dipped beneath the horizon and Erich returned. He didn’t apologize overtly, but he made potatoes au gratin, knowing Sara’s love for cheese, and after dinner even deigned to turn on the TV—a miniature black-and-white model, belonging to Jordi’s dad—though of course he put on the news. Newscasters cycled through the same weary talk of Iraq, the endless American occupation, and Erich glanced at us. Sara blushed. “It’s embarrassing,” I said quickly. “We didn’t want this.”
“You don’t need to explain to me,” he said quietly. “Don’t forget where I’m from.”
We sat in silence and watched the tanks crawl down the streets of Baghdad, two Americans and a German on an ancient Mallorcan farm, each wishing for the impossible: to change our origins, as if being reborn in a warmer climate, under a less militaristic government, or with a stronger sense of tradition would make us better people.
Two weeks later, as we prepared to leave Spain, we emailed Alicia to let her know that her cousins had been very kind (typical college students, they got us drunk and high and fed us ramen) and we’d been able to find a nearby farm at which to weather out those last weeks. We thanked her once again. “Say hi to Erich for us if you see him,” wrote Sara in the postscript. Alicia wrote back with surprising news—she’d seen Erich quite often. He’d come to a few more of her family’s parties, loosening up by degrees under the effect of wine, and they’d even had a coffee together. He was still, she wrote, “cranky, a bit sour, you know, but after all, he is from a very cold country, and there’s one very good thing about that—I know he’s not my cousin.”
Mary Mann’s writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, The Believer, The Hairpin, Salon, Matter and New York Magazine.