Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The dark swallows will return

On a good day, with a following wind, I can tell an ash from a rowan, a beech from a hornbeam. Chestnuts, sycamores or oaks are easy. The black and white job is a magpie, that brown and blue is a jay but they are all corvidae. Wagtails and blackbirds, spuggies and starlings, robins and reindeer - I can tell them apart. I don't know a lot of bird names in Spanish but I know a few - if I know the bird in English I usually know it in Spanish though those little finch jobs keep slipping my mind - pinzones and jilgueros I think.

Sometimes I know the name but I wouldn't recognise the bird if it were to gather in large numbers on my porch or peck holes in the top of my soft-top Aston Martin. Kites spring to mind as an example. They were pointed out to us as we cruised the Duero in Salamanca but I have no real idea what they look like. I'm not really much good at natural stuff. Our garden is full of colour. Maggie despairs of my lack of plant knowledge. It was only because she mentioned it yesterday that I noticed we have lilac in bloom. As we drove through Almansa the other day I confused cherry blossom with jacaranda - purple trees are purple trees.

I was knocking back weeds the other day when I heard a cuckoo. This is one of the main things I do in the garden, take out weeds. Some Spanish person told us that keeping the soil weed free was a Mediterranean tradition. Apparently rigorous weed control means that your garden will not burst into flame so easily in July or August. Weeds are green. Occasionally I realise that I have hoed out something that Maggie planted. In my opinion she should have bought something with a bit of colour. If it's coloured it may be a flower. If it's green it's obviously a weed.

The cuckoos have been on the go for a little while now. I mentioned this to a Spaniard who looked blank at the news. I suppose the Spanish do not have a history of letters to the editor of The Times. Maybe they don't have Gilbert White either but I presume they have something similar?

Anyway, so I'm talking to my English class about collective nouns. We've done team and flock and herd and I say we have more which are less common - a gaggle of geese -  no need to write that down I say, it's not an important or useful word. Although I think the word goose, in Spanish, is a dead normal word, an everyweek if not an everyday word, most of the students don't. We're getting silly now so I mention a murmuration of starlings but it takes me much longer to explain what a starling is than it does to explain the term murmuration. By the time we're onto a venue of vultures - surely they know vultures? - I am really in a hole.

I have a pal. On the rare occasions twenty or thirty years ago, when she persuaded me that walking in the countryside had any value, she would hop around woodland lanes pointing out coltsfoot, stinking jenny or celandines. It was a bit like Ivor Cutler's dad - "Loook! A thistle," and then, "Looook! another thistle." We soon knew the thistle. She told me her mum had told her about plants and animals because she was a country lass.

I think we Brits know a bit about birds and trees and plants. Some know more than others of course. For many of us I suspect it's a bit superficial - if it's got the wings at the front instead of in the centre it's a hawk - kestrel? If it's at the seaside it's a seagull. Long legs? heron? crane? egret at a push? And if it's on a pond and likes bread it's a duck.

We live in the countryside in Culebrón and in Pinoso. I am consistently surprised when my mention, in Spanish, of nightingales, swallows, sparrows, robins, voles, shrews, hares, badgers, hedgehogs, nettles or thistles leads to bewilderment amongst my students. I would have thought that all country folk would have known their way around the local fauna and flora but apparently not.


The blog title is from a poem by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
en tu balcón sus nidos a colgar,
y, otra vez, con el ala a sus cristales
 jugando llamarán;

The dark swallows will return
To your balcony to hang their nests
And again with their wings at your window
They will call as they play.

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