MEETING THE AUTHOR OF DRIVING OVER LEMONS
Since just-in-time surgery last year for a giant brain aneurysm (August 2016, The Ides of March), I've had the chutzpah to do things I might not have dared before.
After 14 years of renting gîtes in Languedoc and a stressful two years as a deputy mayor of our village, I convinced Tim to spend a couple of winter months in Iberia with our two mad terriers, Ratty and Badger. In 2003, I’d read and loved Driving over Lemons, then A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, The Last Days of the Bus Club and, right now, The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society, all by Chris Stewart. Knowing we would be staying not far from the Alpujarras where he and Ana live and hoping that just perhaps we might be able to meet them, I packed Driving over Lemons and a bottle of our village’s Château d’Oupia Les Barons in the limited space of our camper van and, in late December 2016, we headed for southern Spain.
When I contacted Chris Stewart (also known as one of the founders of Genesis) and asked if it might be possible to meet him and Ana, I hoped but didn’t expect to be welcomed, though, from getting to know Chris through his books, I was sure that he would let me down gently. Not only was the answer yes, but we were invited for lunch and given directions that included a harrowing drive on a narrow, twisting dirt road cut into the mountains, with a perilous drop into the void and only the occasional haphazardly placed stone at the edge. Some of you have already seen this 45-second video clip of our drive:When the road ended, we left the camper and the outraged terriers and headed down to the river, where we knew from his books that there was a footbridge spanning the river and, from Last Days of the Bus Club, that it had recently been re-built by Chris and his friend and neighbour, Domingo, after being destroyed by heavy flooding.
Bridge is a rather loose term for the plank that perched above the stream, with a thin mesh fence on one side – an illusion of safety - but there was no time to hesitate.
Shortly after the bridge we crossed a rill on a tottering board and followed the track, dwarfed by towering mountains, ignored by sheep in the pasture beside us, passing fruit orchards and olive groves and the occasional outbuilding, then climbed a steep laneway, where a lovely, lazy old dog barely lifted his head and tail to greet us as we continued upwards.
There was Chris’s old Land Rover, then the stone steps to the house he and Ana had built, then Chris with his hand outstretched. Although we were half an hour late by then, we were greeted warmly and graciously by Chris and Ana, who said it's not unusual for first-time visitors to have difficulty finding their home (reminding me of a non-signposted campsite where we stayed a couple of years ago, whose owner said that's how he weeded out undesirables). We chatted easily and comfortably on their sunny, plant-draped terrace, eating the delicious, creamy wild nettle soup and the amazing salad that Chris had made.Chris talks as he writes, with humour, humility, sincerity, enthusiasm and just the right amount of irony. You'll know how hard they work if you’ve read his books. They have a large flock of hardy local sheep (unlike the Suffolk/Hampshire crosses Tim and I had in Canada, where I was often up to my armpit inside a ewe in mid-January, trying to separate twins or tug out a wide-shouldered lamb), they grow and sell organic lemons, process their own olives and, with the challenges of a dry climate, grow their own vegetables and a profusion of flowers.
An 8-minute YouTube video of Chris doing a public sheep-shearing of Chuleta:
The breathtaking view from their terrace and the tranquility made it easy to understand why they had chosen to live for 30 years on this isolated farm in the Alpujarras, a quiet, mountainous region in sharp contrast with the overdeveloped, overcrowded coast of the Spanish Mediterranean.
We found a lot of common ground, including books and music (Michael Ondaatje and Leonard Cohen). When I mentioned having met Leonard Cohen many years ago (November posting), Chris told me I was the 3rd woman in the past month to have said she’d met him….
Having well over-stayed our promised one-hour visit and nervously eyeing the dropping sun,we hurried back to the camper and the relieved dogs (who always think we've left them forever) and on to the campsite in Órgiva. Admittedly, the video looks more frightening than the drive itself and I’ve found no mention of Chris or Ana, who regularly take this route, having qualms about the drive.
Everyone I know who has read any of Chris’s books has loved them. They’re funny (very often at Chris’s own expense), touching, surprising, at times ribald and completely enjoyable from beginning to end, with not the slightest arrogance or condescension. If you haven’t yet discovered Chris Stewart as a writer, start with Driving over Lemons, which I’ve recently re-read and enjoyed even more than the first time. Here’s a list of his books, all still easily available:
- Driving over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain
- A Parrot in the Pepper Tree
- The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society
- Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat
- Last Days of the Bus Club
Please share this posting if you know anyone you think might be interested in Chris, his story and his books - and I can't imagine who wouldn't be!