Although I loved Spanish Andalucia when we drove from Madrid to the Costa del Sol, up to Granada, down to Seville and the white villages of Malaga, Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain has been sitting on a shelf in my travel library for a long time. I knew it was about an Englishman settling in Spain.
I thought, “I really have my fill of Englishmen and Americans going through the exercise in Italy or France (or Spain) of building/remodeling, mispronouncing words so that they became obscenities, blaming their lack of progress on a manana attitude, and then falling in love with the romance of it all.” ” Spare me,” I thought. To comment and
(Since 1998 when the first book came out, Chris Stewart has written two more, so I’m even further behind than I thought.) Driving over Lemons (1998) is kind of that sort of book, and kind of not that sort of book. Chris Stewart already spoke very good Spanish when he decided to buy a property in Spain. And he has experience as a farmer, so he understands what it takes to really work the land. These two factors help with the third essential–he melds into the neighborhood. And as anyone who has ever moved into a small town anywhere knows, that is no small feat.
Stewart neither romanticizes nor patronizes the peasants. He is one of them. He gives credit to a couple of good neighbors who give him tips about who to trust and who not to trust, although he goes on for far too long blindly trusting the man who sells him the land and then continues to live on it for months and months afterward. Finally, to his patient tutors’ relief, the Englishman admits that he might not have been such a good judge of character.
I liked the book because of its down to earth approach, and lack of romanticism. Whenever Chris gets overly optimistic, his wife is there to pull him down to earth.
I also liked the book, because while Peter Mayles book singlehandly meant the overtouristing of Province and Frances Mayes can be held responsible for the cloud of diesel fuel from tour buses that hangs over Tuscany, there is less chance that tourist mobs have followed Chris Stewart up dirt roads in mountain gorges somewhere south of Granada. This is no quaint village, no Earthly Eden. It is a little pocket of hardscrabble farmers.
Thanks, Chris, for picking a place so resistant to tourists infiltration. And my blessings on those who want to hoof it in without spoiling what brought Chris to the place to begin with and to those who read such a book only to dream. More credit to Chris for showing would-be urban back-to-the-land-ers that having your own farm in a far-off land isn’t a piece of cake. He’s funny, but about that, he isn’t kidding.
And despite my curmudgeonly title, I will say that if you learn from these books about the natural beauty of Spain and the character of the Spanish people and some of the Moorish and Roman history, please do go to Spain. Just don’t trudge into these good farmer’s corner.
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