For 15 years now, we’ve had a vacation bolt in Andalucía–southern Spain. Our pied a terre is in a town named Olvera, which is found precisely at the point where the provinces of Málaga, Sevilla, and Cadiz intersect and collide. Except for its majestic appearance from the roadway, Olvera is a typical Spanish town, albeit one with a good share of expats and immigrants–mainly from the UK, but increasing numbers from elsewhere.
Since moving to Portugal in 2017, we’ve made the four-hour trek from our Portuguese home (in Elvas) at the Spanish border by Badajoz two or three times each year. And with each trip, we’re reminded of my good doctor’s prescription for old age (mine) and assorted aches and pains, including a broken leg and ankle from 20+ years ago: “Stop climbing up and down all those steps.¨(At the time, we lived in a house with 37 steps between the three floors.) The doctor went on to warn me how dangerous it was to be pulled down the village’s cobble stone streets — especially when wet and slippery — by our three Miniature Schnauzers.
“You need a single story home, a bungalow, with a small, enclosed backyard for the dogs,” she stressed. “You will feel much better and enjoy life that much more.”
The doctor was right.
Except for Olvera.
We loved our three-story 55m2 house that had “Challenging!” written all over it. It was challenging to decorate according to our taste when the small space dictated absolute minimalism. It was challenging to go up and down all those steps, which twisted and turned and had less surface area to support us. It was challenging to walk the dogs up the steepening street, avoiding poopstacles along the way.
Heck, it was challenging even to get to the place!
A tiny alley way sliced through the retail shops on Calle Llana, the main street in town. Blink and you’ll miss it. Try to make a 90 degree right turn from Calle Llana onto Calle Cantillos (yes, the alley has a name!) and you’d better pull in both of the car’s side mirrors. And pray.
It’s there that you first become aware of it …
In abandoned, decrepit, former manor homes now falling apart, you’ll hear the constant coo-coo-coo-ing of pigeons. Whether love calls or sirens crying for times past, the pigeons are loud. They’re also dirty, their droppings plastering the street.
Continuing about 20 meters, the road widens somewhat … enough for cars to park, clinging to houses on one side of the street. Normal size cars can pass through … with about half a meter to spare. A harrowing experience driving down the street, it’s no wonder that every car exhibits what is affectionately known around town as “Olvera kisses.”
Not far down the street is a “park” which resulted from tearing down the former post office building and erecting a site to sit on facing concrete benches atop a cement slab injected with three precisely placed trees and two trash baskets on stands. Approaching this oasis set in the midst of too much crammed tightly together, one becomes aware of clucking sounds, somewhat like a brood of hens. Especially around dusk. It’s a group of about 10 senior citizens, men facing women on opposite sides, gathering to socialize.
Immediately thereafter, the road lurches left, into another alley-like connection. That’s where our house is located–directly opposite a so-called “street” branching off to the left. Though it has a name (C/Arcos), only two-wheel vehicles — bicycles, scooters, and motos — can pass through, as there’s a low-hanging archway just a few meters ahead.
In effect, we live in the middle of a man-made echo chamber exaggerating simple sounds into raucous roars.
Maybe it’s me who’s exaggerating?
Here’s what we hear:
• Despite the “no parking” sign and curb painted yellow on this leg of C/Arcos, someone parks there late at night and leaves early in the morning. Maybe s/he thinks that nobody will need to pass that way or be inconvenienced at such times. Nor would the possibility of police patrolling and ticketing the car be that great. We know that the car is old and its engine is diesel. From the series of 30-second motor cranking to the belching and burping of the engine engaged, there’s no mistaking those sounds at six in the morning.
• Not much later, a tractor shakes, rattles, and rolls, trudging its way into the vacated spot, creeping its way up the incline until it can go no farther. Stopping beside what’s left of a row house, the man driving yells something to a colleague and the demolition continues. Bang! Boom! Snap, Crackle, and Pop!
It’s just before 7:00 am.
• One by one, up and down the street, “persianas” — those built-in blinds comprising wood and other weather-resistant materials — are cranked up to let in a new day. At the same hour that evening, they will be cranked down again.
• Next door, our neighbor is having repairs and renovations done. Industrial-size bags of concrete (cement?) are parked in front of her house. Promptly each morning at 8h,the men come to begin work. There’s the steady banging of a hand-held hammer. The high-pitched whine of electric drills. And the ear-jarring rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat of a jack-hammer jamming. The men stop their work when the lady of the house begins arguing with whoever is in charge. I don’t know what the problem is, but their voices are raised and, despite bickering for 15 minutes, she is determined to have the last word. Their voices rising to crescendo, a door is slammed and we become aware of the infrequent sounds of silence on our street.
• The same next door neighbor and two others get together in front of our house — which, for whatever reason is convenient — mid-morning and mid-evening to chat. Their pitch is that of loud, overpowering shrillness that scares the sh*t out of our dogs. I wish! Instead, they are petrified, tail between their legs, refusing to eat or do their business, fearing they’ll come across what they perceive as perils.
(Fifty or so years ago, while I was attending the University of Madrid, my very proper Spanish grandmother would wag her finger at me, stating unequivocally, “No te quedes en la calle.” In other words, don’t hang out on the street. Streets had their purpose, she believed — to take you somewhere and bring you back — but were not the place for respectable people to spend time gossiping.)
• Motorcycles scream by, going the wrong way on our one direction (only) street. You can tell their manufacturers, makes, and models by the whine and howl of their motors as those driving demons rev, rev, rev their motors to make a point as they pass. Evidently, since the pandemic lockdowns, more people have discovered the convenience of restaurant food delivered to their doors, thereby increasing the number of motos (and noise) on the street.
It’s now nine in the morning.
• Rather than beeping politely, the bread truck bullies its way down the street, driver leaning heavily on his horn every 10-meters for what seems like eternities. The bread truck is followed by the gas truck, delivering full canisters of propane and fetching the empty ones. It, too, follows the same ear-piercing etiquette. Every so often, the fish monger comes along, making a trio of the cacophony.
• Meanwhile, the masters and mistresses of dogs on our street have opened their doors to let the canines out to do their business in the street. From the soprano voices of the women to the gravely, baritone tones of the men — and, sometimes, whistling in between — it can take 15 minutes for the dogs to return home from their jaunts around the neighborhood.
• Later, cats who’ve taken residence in the ruina facing us howl and screech in nighttime hissy fits. Either they’re fighting for mastery or having great sex.
Any one of these matters — two, three, or even four — could be accepted and adapted to, considering the friendships and food we enjoy here in Olvera. But put all of them together, continuously, day after day, and it’s a lifestyle … regardless of how we describe it.
Of course, there are other nondescript sounds that get muffled by all the racket: people walking and talking to each other in sotto voices or listening to their mobiles. Cars passing carefully at a sensible pace. Children playing in the street. Ladies back from their grocery shopping, dragging the carts behind them. Elderly gentlemen gingerly tapping their canes. Birds chirping. Flies buzzing. Bicycle riders gliding silently down the street. Emergency vehicle sirens off in the distance.
Maybe it’s only our street where expats and immigrants must learn to fish or cut bait. Perhaps people in other towns and villages across Iberia are comfortable living where such happenstance is routine and acceptable behavior.
Then, too, others are probably more tolerant than we.
When asked about the differences between Spain and Portugal or why we chose to live in the latter instead of the former, we tell them that there are many similarities between the two countries and cultures.
But we do believe that Spain is louder.
P.S. We cut short our “vacation” and returned to Portugal a week earlier than anticipated. We missed the relative peace and quiet of our new homeland.
Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the thoughtful magazine for people everywhere with Portugal on their minds. Read current and past issues — and subscribe free of charge — at https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/