April is my birthday month and therefore the cruellest month but not in Andalusia. I was in Southern Spain for two weeks, staying in a small white stone-walled farmhouse on the edge of a mesa overlooking the Jorox River valley. There were lemon trees and olive groves all around and in the middle distance the blue-grey Sierra de las Nieves, the ‘mountains of the snows’. If there is a better place to spend a birthday, I want you to tell me about it.
When you are younger you think a lot on your birthday about growing older, but when you’re older you think about growing old. I drove down to the sea to Málaga and walked up the steep hill to the Moorish fortress, telling myself, ‘See? You can still walk up a hill. You aren’t old yet.’
I walked through the narrow streets of the old town, lingering in patches of pale sunlight, enjoying the apricity. Apricity is a word we should use more often. It means the warmth of the winter sun, and although April isn’t winter, it’s not far away. I visited the house where Picasso was born, around the corner from the grand cathedral, with the orange trees planted outside. In a backstreet near the Roman amphitheatre I sat at a wine barrel and sipped vermouth and fino and thought about Picasso and how productive he stayed, how much energy he had, like a bull, even when he was old. I wondered what I would be like, if I would be a bull and still bare my chest to the sun or whether I would shrink and grow timid and stay indoors.
I thought about the birthdays I’ve had, and whether it’s better to be at home or away on your birthday, alone or in company. Then I wondered whether Picasso ever grew morose and sentimental on his birthdays. I started to worry that I’m unlikely to age like Picasso.
I drove back through the mountains. The roads are very narrow and twisty once you turn off the autoway. They are roads only in the sense that they are made of tar; really, they’re just ancient donkey tracks from which the donkeys have been banned. On the corners, should a car happen to pass from the other direction, there is just enough space for you both to be on the road at the same time, but only if you both inhale and hold your breath. There’s no hard shoulder so even though you’re tempted at times to stop and look at the scenery and get your nerve back, you can’t – you just have to keep on going and hope that whatever’s around the bend won’t kill you before you get where you’re going.
At last I came down from the mountains and stopped at the small village of Alozaina to put in petrol, and as I leaned against the car I noticed a spreading tree with a small group of men gathered underneath it, standing or sitting according to their temperament. They were very old men and they wore jackets and cloth caps and they all seemed to know each other very well. They were pouring each other glasses from a bottle and then the bottle was finished but they had another one. The guy at the petrol station told me they meet every day at lunchtime under the tree, to catch up and tell jokes and drink wine, and then they go home to their lives.
As I looked at the men under the tree, one of them finished telling a story and the other men all laughed. I feel very happy to have seen them. I hope my own road through the mountains brings me one day to a place like Alozaina, with some shady trees and some old friends, and some wine every day and a good laugh.
Getaway, 5 April 2018