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I Remember Ibiza
by Harold Liebow

Part Nine
The People


I Remember Ibiza

Our taxi-driver had been urgently unwilling to embark his cab and its suspension onto the hazards of the access road. But now that it had delivered its passengers and all their baggage to their proper destination, he seemed equally unwilling to start it on its return trip. He decently helped us as we began to hassle the luggage into the house. And after we had finished that chore he stood quite still, looking out to sea. He was a short, rather round Ibicencan, very sparse of words, but withal, self composed and quite alive to his surroundings. As we said our good-byes and made as if to leave him, he remained silent and frozen in position…and a protracted pause developed when he failed to respond. Then he slowly spread his arms expansively to include the whole beautiful prospect in front of us, nodding his head and smiling to himself.

“This,” he said in Ibicenco, “never have I seen it before.”

It was quite evident that he was deeply moved and we looked at each other with quick understanding. Madame immediately took charge and, to my astonishment, replied in the same language.

“It is always like this here,” she said.

“You are very lucky people,” he said, “to live always with such nature around you. It is magic.”

With quickening empathy, Jacques said quietly in French, “Come in with us, we’ll all have some tea now.” Madame promptly translated this into Ibicenco.

And so it was; we all trooped in, taxi-driver included. The windows and doors were opened to air the rooms, Madame and stunning daughter Catherine started on the tea. With Alberto, Catherine’s husband, I broke out the oil lamps and soon the house was alight in their warm glow. Meanwhile Jacques had a young fire going in the bedroom fire-place and the sense of an empty and deserted house was dispersed. By common and unspoken consent, we all then gathered together in front of the fire and welcomed its gentle heat. For the temperature had fallen sharply as night fell, and the house had been closed to the sun all day. The baby, Sandra, had settled down on a cushion on the floor, just in front of me, and Flipper had fallen asleep in her lap. When the tea was served out, it seemed that nothing could be more wonderful than the peaceful mood of that time and that place. And, as the shadows grew around us, the sun, now a gigantic hemisphere of fierce orange, sat flat on the horizon. It grew colossal arms that filled the western sky, huge limbs of vermillion, gold, and rosy red. It sent them groping heavenwards, searching for purchase on the unseen stars to save it from the sea. But soon it was dark. The sea had swallowed the sun. We drank our tea. Sandra joined Flipper in sleep. The hours flew by. The talk ran out. The cold increased despite the fire’s heat. It was bedtime.

Our taxi-driver rose to go. His presence had become so natural that his departure came as a surprise. Madame spoke as if he had not stood up.

"In the morning,” she said, “Juanito will bring fresh fish for lunch. Breakfast is when you like.”

Catherine said in her delightfully accented English, “You will eat ze most zelicious fishes of your lives!” And this with a big smile, showing gleaming white teeth.

Then Madame reeled off our bedroom assignments, including one for our taxi friend. But everybody realized this might be optimistic. He was a family man. He had obligations on the other side of the island.

“I am much more now,” he said philosophically, “than I was. And I thank you for that. But now I must go to Ibiza town, to my family. It is a long way and the dark of night is on me.” That is the translation which I was given, though it sounds a bit inflated. But who knows? Poets and philosophers are found in the most out of the way places. After all, Mohammed was a camel driver.

Bedtime found me stiff with cold; and the bed itself was colder still, despite I had been given the warmest sleeping place in the house. The balcony, high above the main floor, should have collected the warmest air in the house, if it is true that warm air rises and cold air falls. But notwithstanding all of that, it was cold. Very cold. And it was there that Flipper and I bedded down for the night. Through the window, just above us, we could see a half moon, obscured from moment to moment by slowly moving clouds. On top of the blanket we had been given, I piled my coat, my jacket, my trousers and my towels, but still Flipper and I shivered in separated spasms so that sleep was slow in coming. I marvelled at the adaptability and the toughness of the French, for from down below us there came the reassuring sounds of deep sleep. Someone was happily snoring away. In time, after counting dozens of cold sheep jumping over a low fence festooned with icicles, I was, too.

As Madame had foretold, the morning brought with it not only a reborn sun, splendid in its dominion of sea and sky, but also the charismatic appearance of Juanito, a long time neighbour and family retainer. He was a taciturn, middle aged Ibicenco of middle height and slender build. The detail of his face was always partially obscured by a heavy growth of short-hair beard. It was clear; however, that behind the grey stubble was a strong face, one with the powerful suggestion of a unique personality. With a perpetual dead cigarette drooping out of one side of his mouth, and with a speculative look always playing about his features, Juanito was an arresting character by any standard. But the single most unusual feature about him was his missing hand. Juanito had lost it in a dynamite fishing accident many years ago. He had adapted to this disability with an intenseness of purpose which had restored his independence completely. He sternly rejected any effort to help him, however the delicacy of the task involved, and he continued to support his large family and himself by professional fishing, as if the accident had never happened.

Whenever the French family was in residence, Juanito’s routine would change somewhat to accommodate their presence. Instead of spending the whole day at sea, he would make a small off-shore, early morning catch in a row boat, and bring it immediately to the house. There, notwithstanding he had only the one hand, he would skilfully and quite rapidly, clean and gut the fish, and later prepare them for the family lunch, using the two charcoal-burning foc a terras. Their absolute freshness and his skill with traditional Ibicenco recipes produced, in Catherine’s words, “ze most zelicious fishes of your lives!”

There was a warm family atmosphere that morning when Flipper and I came down from our balcony bedroom. We were made to feel as if we, too, were part of it. There was singing and laughter and there was washing and shaving, though Juanito would have no part of that. And as the sun rose higher and higher, there was also warmth once again in the house. I went out and stood on the main terrace and looked out to sea, to the west. To the west, the water was deep purple and was very beautiful. So clear was the air that one could even make out the dim outlines of the mainland…to the west. That morning, with Flipper, my last contact with America, cavorting about my feet, the west captured not only my mind but my feelings as well. To the west far across the waters of the Mediterranean, lying just below me, and far across the mainland Peninsula of Spain, then far, far across the Atlantic, to the west, beyond all of those huge parts of our immense globe, lay America, lay my country, lay my life. All, to the west. This, it seemed, was what homesickness was all about. One began to think and feel in geographical terms. I thought I had settled the matter of my future, of my permanency on the island. But had I? Would I be feeling the strong pull of the west, if I had? Surely, this family whose generous hospitality I was enjoying, whose way of life had seemed so attractive to me, surely they were not responsible for this sudden uncertainty which had invaded me on this, Oh! So lovely morning? But if not they, who or what was responsible?

I stepped back inside and looked around me in that lovely living room of that lovely house. There they all were, busy with their morning things, busy with preparing for a long walk later that day, a walk designed to bring me more into the picture with respect to Juanito’s house and family. And I realized that I was at home, that my nostalgia was only natural, inevitable, probably repetitive, but that my reality was now with this place, these people and this island. If I was not at home in the sense of having been born here, then I was at home in the sense of having chosen to be here. And surely that self-chosen, independently elected option was the more valid one, as against the accident of birth. Free will is the defining attribute of mankind, I suppose. And suddenly I felt all man.

Harold Liebow